Report Card time and it's going to get ugly after last week's written lap dance.
First, a question: What what you be thinking if you watched a Wade Phillips coached team blow another second-half lead while A) abandoning what worked in the first half on offense B) refusing to change defensive personnel or scheme and C) committing a trio of inexcusable penalties. I know what I'd be thinking -- "That team is never going to win a Super Bowl with that head coach."
Obviously we know different with Belichick, but it was another shaky big-game performance to add to a growing list that has seen the head coach go from the kind of guy people like David Halberstam writes books about to the kind of the guy that people like David Halberstam used to write books about. It's been a slow downhill descent since 18-1, but it's more than fair to enter a Five Star game and wonder if it's still a lock that the better coach is on your sideline. I'd still take him over any other coach in the NFL today, but the idea that he's still capable of playing mind games with an opposing QB is pushing it. How many times do we need to see a Mark Sanchez or Chad Henne or Kyle Orton handle the Pats defense before we halt the genius talk? Mark Sanchez literally cannot operate a headset on the sideline without four IT guys and Fireman Ed helping him and he breezed through anything tossed his way by the Pats coaching staff.
The truth is probably a lot closer to this: Belichick is really smart when he has Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks and Ty Law and Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi. You need the tools to be a genius, I suppose. And a lot of other coaches have had those players and not won Super Bowls. But that doesn't mean a whole lot in 2010. Bill Belichick the GM has failed Bill Belichick the coach the last few years. I don't think Belichick woke up on a Tuesday in May of 2005 and suddenly knew less about defense.
But it's been a long time since The Genius was on the sideline. He's been replaced by a guy trying to get Darius Butler to play like an NFL cornerback.
And there's the problem.
To the grades we go (and feel free to send any and all thoughts -- about anything, really -- to firstname.lastname@example.org ) ...
QUARTERBACK -- D+
Brady said the Patriots "sucked" on Sunday, and he deserves high marks for candor (are you listening, John Lackey? This is how you handle it when things go wrong. No blaming the weather or the Pesky Pole or bad luck. Just man up and take the blame). But we aren't grading on stepping up in postgame press conferences. The truth is that Brady played a key role in the Sunday suckage, completing just 7-of-16 passes in the second half for 69 yards and three turnovers (two picks, one fumble). And Hall of Famers aren't given a bump for having nice first-half numbers before an epic meltdown. This isn't Sam Bradford. We are, of course, WAY past the point of moral victories and searches for progress.
I'm almost OK with writing this off as a guy facing the best defense in the league except for this: Other than the Jason Taylor strip of Brady in the fourth quarter there was almost no pressure on the quarterback and the Jets best player -- and one of the three or four best defensive players in the NFL -- was in the locker room for that entire half. Brady seemed intent on getting the ball to Moss (targeted him six times in the second half -- no catches) and lost interest in Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, who were the two key reasons for his first-half success (13-of-20, 168 yards, two TDs). The Catch being excused, Brady and Moss just don't seem to be concert so far in 2010. The deep balls have been both overthrown and underthrown (take the first INT on Sunday: I'm with Brady that it was worth a shot on a 3rd-and-12 -- same as a punt -- but the throw was terrible. No pressure from the Jets and he overthrew Moss by at least three yards and hit Cromartie in stride), and the timing of the short stuff is just off.
RUNNING BACKS -- D+
Kevin Faulk was the only back to show up in a big game (stunner), carrying the ball five times for 22 yards and catching another two balls for 15 yards. I have no idea how serious Faulk's knee injury is (could be you'll know by the time this is posted) but he was awfully emotional in the locker room postgame, hugging a member of the training staff and sharing a few quiet words with Welker before putting a towel over his head and shuffling out of the locker room. If this is a Level Red Injury there is no way to overstate how much this alters the Pats offense. Potentially devastating.
Fred Taylor pulled an amazing trick, aging 10 years in seven days. He just couldn't find a hole against this Jets defense after having his early 36-yard run wiped out by a Brandon Tate penalty. He finished with 11 yards on five carries and did nothing after the first quarter.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis put together a really classy tribute to Laurence Maroney, carrying the ball 10 times for 19 yards. All that was missing was the killer goal-line fumble, but it's possible that Maroney trademarked that play and didn't release the rights. Sammy Morris made a late-game cameo, catching a pass for 19 yards. I'd guess his role would increase should Faulk be out for an extended period (or it could be The Dawn of Woodhead).
RECEIVERS -- C
Getting it out of the way: The TD catch by Randy Moss was as good as you'll ever see. I can't think of another guy that makes that play. It was one of the best wide receivers in history with what will be on every 30-second highlight reel played when Moss retires. And when you see that catch 15 years from now you might even forget that it was made during one of Moss' worst games as a member of the Patriots.
I've been on board for giving Moss a contract extension and just figured it was a matter of time before the Pats got the deal done. But now I wonder if Belichick has seen a decline in Moss and is not ready to hand over three years and some serious guaranteed money. Until the TD catch Sunday (and let's be fair -- as great as it was, Revis did blow out his hamstring on the play) Moss had been silenced by Revis. And after the catch Moss was silenced by Cromartie, who will never be confused with a vintage Ty Law. The Patriots spent the great majority of the first half attacking Cromartie (who was awful in San Diego last year and had a rough Week 1 vs. the Ravens) with Hernandez and Welker with success, but Moss was unable to do anything one-on-one with the cornerback. Moss was targeted 10 times Sunday and finished with two catches. And he didn't exactly risk life and limb going over the middle to help Brady out on a couple of occasions in the second half.
Wes Welker (six catches, 38 yards) had an 11-yard grab on the first play from scrimmage for the Pats. That turned out to be his longest catch of the game. Welker did have his third TD of the season (one fewer than all of last year and equaling his 2008 total) but was in and out of the game after taking a that first-half hit to the head from safety Eric Smith. But for Welker not to be thrown a single pass attempt in the final 23 minutes of the game is lunacy and whoever is running this offense should be calling plays for Saugus High if they don't realize that.
One catch each for Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman. The most notable moment from any of the three was probably the sight of Edleman lining up as the lone running back on a second-down play in the game's opening drive.
Aaron Hernandez was the best player on the field for the Patriots on Sunday, finishing with six catches for 101 yards. His 46-yard catch on the play preceding the Moss TD grab was another example of the "WR in TE clothing" that we keep seeing with Hernandez. He also made both Revis and Cromartie miss on an 18-yard catch in the first half. This is the early story of the season for the Patriots so far (half-full edition).
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B-
Again, overall they did a nice job protecting Brady. Watch the two INTs and you'll see Brady had plenty of time. Sure, Shaun Ellis was able to beat Sebastian Vollmer on one occasion and Stephen Neal on another to force a couple of incomplete passes from Brady. And Jason Taylor continued to be Gary's Old Towne Tavern to Matt Light's Cheers, fooling him on a spin move to get to Brady and force a fumble. But that was the totality of the blame I'd put on the O-Line for this one. And when you are facing the best defense (or top two or three) in the NFL while missing an All-Pro guard that's not a bad effort. The most consistent unit in the first two weeks.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B-
The Patriots actually produced a better pass rush than the Jets on Sunday, with Gerard Warren moving to right end and picking up a pair of sacks, the second of which nearly knocked Mark Sanchez out of the game early in the third quarter. Mike Wright and Vince Wilfork also were able to get hits on Sanchez, who really impressed with his ability to avoid several other potential sacks and turn it into big plays (the second-quarter flip pass to Tomlinson was made after Sanchez got away from Wilfork).
But the Jets were able to run the ball at will in the second half, and finished the game with 136 yards on 32 carries. Wilfork signed a $40 million contract in the offseason ($18 mil guaranteed), is advertised as an elite run-stopper and was invisible as the Jets pounded out first down after first down in the third and fourth quarters. If Brady is The Man on offense Wilfork is the title-holder on defense. Both wilted in the first real test of 2010.
LINEBACKERS -- C
Can anyone cover a tight end? And did I miss the briefing when it was explained that Dustin Keller is the next Ben Coates? It didn't matter which LB was on Keller Sunday, he was able to find hole after hole in the Cover 2 defense. Brandon Spikes really had trouble with Keller, giving up a couple of big catches. He finished with five tackles, but someone had to tackle Keller (seven catches, 115 yards) after he hauled in another first-down grab.
Jerod Mayo made a nice open-field play to knock down a pass attempt for Tomlinson in the Jets first series, but that was it. After a strong Week 1 vs. the Bengals, Mayo reverted back to his 2009 form, which meant that we all forgot that he was even on the field for the final 52 minutes of the game.
LaDainian Tomlinson's 31-yard third-quarter run -- which set up the go-ahead TD catch by Cotchery -- could have been a two or three yard loss had Rob Ninkovich been able to make a play in the Jets backfield. Five tackles but very little impact for Ninkovich, who made his first career start.
Tully Banta-Cain was outstanding in run coverage last week but did nothing to stop the attack of the Jets in the second half on Sunday. He did force Sanchez out of the pocket in a second-quarter play and later picked up a sack in the same series. He also submitted one for the Moron File in the second quarter, getting correctly flagged for a late-hit penalty after coming in on Jerricho Cotchery. That 15-yard penalty gave the Jets a first down at the Patriots 28-yard line and the drive would end in a TD.
I'm still intrigued by Jermaine Cunningham, who played better in his second game. He was in the Jets backfield to stop Cotchery on an end-around (Jets used Brad Smith at QB on the play) and seems to find his way to the ball when he's on the field. I think his role is going to increase as the year progresses.
SECONDARY -- D-
Darius Butler is not a starting NFL cornerback. Not today, anyhow. Maybe he'll turn out to be Champ Bailey, but right now he's a massive weakness for this team when he's on the field. Carson Palmer made a point of going after Butler in Week 1, and Ochocinco finished with 12 catches. Mark Sanchez didn't move from the script, making sure Braylon Edwards -- no factor in Week 1 -- got plenty of chances against Butler, who just doesn't seem to be able to match up physically with big receivers. He gave up the TD to Edwards as well as the two-point conversion, which was a telling play. The Jets felt their best chance to covert the two-point play was to simply have Edwards try and beat Butler on a jump ball. Turned out to be an easy call.
The final Jets TD drive saw Butler (again, correctly) flagged for a pair of pass interference calls (23 and 16 yards) against Edwards. Butler was benched for Kyle Arrington after that, and it's fair to wonder if he'll see significantly reduced time vs. the Bills on Sunday.
(I'll say this, though: Butler is really, really good at arguing obvious PI calls and barking back at a WR after giving up a TD and two-point conversion. Oh, and did I forget to mention he Tweets like a madman? I smell a keeper.)
When a rookie CB just two games into his career gives up a pair of TD catches and is the least of your problems at the position you might not need to worry about who is going to go where on the "Secondary of Defense" poster. Devin McCourty was beat by Cotchery and Keller for scores, but he acquitted himself OK in the game, holding Cotchery to just four catches and 26 yards.
Patrick Chung -- all over the field last week (16 tackles) -- also had trouble when faced with covering Keller and didn't have nearly the impact of his Week 1 breakout game. Taking down LT or Keller after big gains was his beat on Sunday.
The mystery of Brandon Meriweather continues, as he didn't start on Sunday. That's a Pro Bowl safety in 2009 -- healthy and just entering his prime -- falling behind James Sanders on the depth chart.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C
The good: Zoltan Mesko averaged 48.3 yards in his three punts on Sunday, including a 56-yarder. Throw in that the Jets only had 11 punt return yards and you've got a winner. The bad: Making sure the ball is snapped before the play clock runs out on a field goal is the responsibility of the holder, so Mesko has to take the hit for the delay of game penalty in the first quarter that turned a successful 32-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal into a 37-yard attempt that would miss.
That penalty doesn't equal a pass for Gostkowski, who is paid and regarded as one of the best kickers in the league. A 37-yard field goal in perfect conditions is a must-make. Gostkowski is now 1-of-4 on field goal attempts for the season. Too early to get worried, but something to keep an eye on.
Brandon Tate didn't rip off another 96-yarder but had a 24.6 average on five kick returns and the Patriots held the Jets to just 15.0 yards on two kickoff returns.
But Kyle Arrington knocks the special teams down a grade with his second-quarter penalty for running into Jim Leonhard after the Jets punt returner signaled for a fair catch. Another mental breakdown that in this case didn't result in points but still demonstrated (at best) a lack of focus in what was only the marquee NFL game of the week. Absolute amateur hour.
COACHING -- D
We pretty much covered this at the top of the report card, but one painful truth before we call it a day.
For all the bluster and schtick and "Hard Knocks" and fat jokes and "let's get a snack" soundbites there is also this:
Rex Ryan is 2-1 against Bill Belichick.
And putting a 48-10 whipping on Chan Gailey and the Bills Sunday isn't going to change that.