"I'm not apologizing to anyone for being aggressive and trying to win. That's what we are here for. … You can say a lot of things about me as a coach. One thing I'm NOT is scared. I'm not afraid to go for it."
-- Bill Belichick
Report Card time and I'm thinking the approach from Jason Garrett on Sunday isn't one that leads to documentaries (would "Jason Garrett: A Gutless Life" be must-DVR?), books by guys like David Halberstam (I know, when he was alive) and a bust in Canton.
In the final minutes of the game on Sunday, Jason Garrett coached scared. Plain and simple. Two short passes to Tashard Choice at the Patriots' 5-yard line with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten on the field? Coaching for a field goal.
And when the Cowboys had a chance to put this game away -- up 16-13 with 3:26 left in the fourth quarter and the ball at their own 28-yard line -- Garrett called three straight running plays, two for losses and one for eight yards (on third-and-18 following a false start). A first down and this game is almost over -- 10 lousy yards, with a guy we always hear is a franchise quarterback and some pretty serious skill players. Nope, instead we get Conservative 101. A grand total of 54 seconds were used up, the Cowboys punted, Tom Brady marched 80 yards and Garrett goes home a loser.
Belichick isn't perfect, of course, but at least be comforted with this: While he's around, the Patriots will never lose a game the way you saw Garrett choke one away on Sunday. Sure, there will be spectacular meltdowns, there will be devastating playoff losses at home, there will be head-scratching personnel decisions, but the HC of the NEP will never pull a Jason Garrett.
To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- B
Look, if this was a report card based only on the first 57:29 of Sunday's game, Brady would be looking at a C- kind of grade. He was OK in spots -- very sharp, for example, in the second-quarter drive that ended with the reversed TD catch for Welker -- but far from vintage. And he matched his home-interception total from 2010 and 2011 with his two picks on Sunday, the second all on Brady -- trying to force a ball to Aaron Hernandez (in double coverage), the kind of INT a career backup would be hammered for.
But when it absolutely mattered most Brady was Brady. My vote for the best throw on the 10-play, 80-yard TD drive was his sideline throw to Rob Gronkowski for 11 yards (second play of drive), made despite heavy pressure from Anthony Spencer (who manhandled Logan Mankins on the play). Runner-up? Probably the throw before the Hernandez TD catch, an over-the-middle grab at the 8-yard line that was put in the only spot Welker could make a play. Just an absolute clinic on how to run a game-winning drive operated by one of the best in history, which only makes Garrett's grapefruit-free play-calling on the previous drive more pathetic.
RUNNING BACKS -- C+
Relatively productive (21 carries, 84 yards) but quiet afternoon for the Green-Ellis/Ridley/Woodhead trio. Ridley had the longest run of the game, a 16-yard rush on the opening drive, but only had two more carries the rest of the game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a game-time decision but played and resumed his role as lead back, picking up 58 yards on 14 carries. Danny Woodhead (four carries, seven yards) returned and was a non-factor in the rushing game. But Woodhead was on the field for the entire game-winning drive, catching a pair of passes for 22 yards, including a 13-yard gain to the Dallas 14 with 44 seconds remaining, a play that seemed to eliminate any lingering thought that a game-tying field goal was still an acceptable conclusion to the drive for the Patriots.
RECEIVERS -- B-
The tight ends were the story, as Aaron Hernandez (who did fumble -- a problem last year and something to watch) and Rob Gronkowski combined for 15 catches, 142 yards and the game-winning TD. We're always told Gronkowski is supposed to be the next Jason Witten. He's better right now. You watched that game, right? Forget the next decade, who are you taking for the rest of the season? Gronkowski is as good a blocking tight end as there is in the NFL (we'll get to that in a minute) and is going to be an annual 70-catch, 10-TD guy. He finished with seven catches for 74 yards on Sunday, highlighted by a 20-yard reception on the first play of the second quarter. And it was the safety help on Gronkowski (he saw plenty of double-teams Sunday) that allowed Hernandez to take advantage of one-on-one coverage on the TD. Hernandez caught two passes for 24 yards on the drive, with the receptions coming on the opening and final plays.
I promise this'll be the last "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" reference (at least until the next one). Remember the meeting with the coaches when he basically admitted they had no shot to win a game if the opposing team could figure out a way to take out Moss and Welker? Well, he was right in 2009. But Gronkowski and Hernandez have wiped out any questions of option depth. Wes Welker and Deion Branch caught a combined nine passes for 114 yards on Sunday. Not awful, but nowhere near the production we've seen this season (those combined numbers are below Welker's weekly pace through the first five five weeks). But the tight ends are game-changers for the first time in Brady's career and can actually win him a game. Welker was quiet (for him -- six catches, 45 yards and a TD catch that was initially ruled downed at the one-yard line but correctly overturned by Class of 2014 Patriots Hall of Famer Walt Coleman) for the second straight week -- plenty of credit to Orlando Scandrick, who at least held Welker to a draw -- but did make three catches on the game-winning drive.
I wrote Chad Ochocinco's Patriots obit on Sunday night. Probably a reach, I guess. His salary (guaranteed money, I mean) and lack of other options equals a full season in Foxboro. But it's been six weeks and he's done nothing to demonstrate that he's as good as Julian Edelman or Taylor Price, much less anywhere near the class of a Welker or Branch.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- C-
Anyone remember Logan Mankins ever playing as lousy as he did on Sunday? He was beaten by Marcus Spears for a sack on the final play of the first quarter, allowed Victor Butler to get a hit on Brady on the INT to Sean Lee and had the aforementioned failure to block Spencer on the 11-yard completion to Gronkowski. I don't think Mankins made that many mistakes in his entire nine-game 2011 season. There was consistent pressure all afternoon from the Cowboys, as Brady was hit eight times and sacked on three occasions. Matt Light simply couldn't handle DeMarcus Ware (two sacks) and also whiffed on a chance to slow down Butler on the second Brady INT. Nate Solder struggled plenty in his battles with Spencer.
The good? Gronkowski continues to block at an Alge Crumpler 2010 level, including taking out Ware on Ridley's 16-yard rush. And you know who has been the most consistent performer on this O-Line through six weeks? Brian Waters, easily. Two standouts from him on Sunday: Getting downfield (with Dan Connolly) to help out Gronkowski on the 20-yard screen catch and a great blitz pickup of Scandrick on the final drive. Scandrick would have had a clean shot on Brady, who instead was able to move away and dump off to Woodhead for a nine-yard gain. Waters was one of those off-season additions who doesn't generate .000000000000000001 of the attention of an Ochocinco or Haynesworth, but the reality is that he has contributed far more than the two combined.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Andre Carter delivered the first two-sack game of the season for the Patriots, and both were significant plays. The first sack of Tony Romo came on third down to stop the Cowboys' second drive (nice second effort on the play from Carter, who did not quit when it looked like Romo might be out of reach) and the second takedown turned a second-and-goal from the 7 into a third-and-goal from the 18. The third-quarter drive ended with a FG. Carter also supplied pressure on Romo on several other plays, forcing a pair of incompletions to Dez Bryant. Vince Wilfork almost had INT No. 3 of the season, actually forcing Romo out of the pocket on what would eventually be a 17-yard run for the QB and broke through the line and disrupted the third-and-goal fourth-quarter shovel pass to Tashard Choice, allowing Brandon Spikes to come in and make the tackle. Wilfork also forced a fumble from Choice at the Patriots' 21 in the second quarter, bailing out Matthew Slater, who fumbled on a kickoff return juts four plays earlier. Kyle Love had a solo tackle for a loss on Felix Jones (just 14 yards on eight carries -- pretty sure the Patriots would've signed for Brady out-rushing Jones) and Albert Haynesworth (quiet otherwise) had a hit on Romo.
LINEBACKERS -- B-
Brandon Spikes was the story, delivering what may have been the breakout game many have expected. He pressured Romo and helped force the first-quarter Kyle Arrington INT, the tackle on Choice on the shovel pass and another tackle for a loss on DeMarco Murray on the first play of the Cowboys' final drive. Spikes was very active throughout, pressuring Romo on two first-half throws and hitting the QB on a fourth-quarter blitz. The dancing makes you want to vomit, but the Patriots will hold their noses and deal with it if it means efforts like the one authored on Sunday.
Gary Guyton continues his woeful season, falling down on a 33-yard gain by Bryant and missing in coverage on Witten on a pair of second-half catches (and missed a chance to tackle Witten for a no-gain on the first play of fourth quarter). Rob Ninkovich (seven tackles and a tipped pass) submitted his usual solid effort. Hard to tell even after watching the play several times, but it looked like Dane Fletcher (one tackle) was to blame for a wide-open Witten on the second-quarter one-yard TD pass. Fletcher bought the play-action from Romo and appeared to lose Witten in coverage.
SECONDARY -- B-
Devin McCourty was bailed out by a first-quarter holding call on Kyle Koiser. Without that call his pass interference against Bryant would have resulted in a first-and-goal at the one-yard line. McCourty did not turn his head on the play, a problem that has been recurring all season. McCourty also missed on a chance to tackle Laurent Robinson on a fourth-quarter play, turning what would have been a five-yard gain into a 34-yard play, keying a drive that culminated with a field goal to put the Cowboys up 16-13. The failure of McCourty to continue that progression into an elite cornerback -- not Ochocinco, not Haynesworth -- is the biggest disappointment of the still-young season for this team.
Kyle Arrington picked off Romo on the Cowboys’ first drive, his team-leading fourth INT of the season. Arrington also had a key pass defensed in the fourth quarter, breaking up a third-down pass intended for Miles Austin (with help from James Ihedigbo, who teamed with Pat Chung to limit the damage from Witten).
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C
Sloppy stuff from Matthew Slater, fumbling a second-quarter kickoff return. John Phillips stripped the ball from Slater, halting what looked to be a promising return. Dane Fletcher was flagged for a special-teams penalty for the second straight week, a block in the back on Wes Welker's first-quarter punt return. Excellent work from the coverage teams (just an average of 1.5 yards on two punt returns from Dwayne Harris) and Zoltan Mesko had a solid game, averaging 48 yards on his two punts. Stephen Gostkowski had three touchbacks and made both his field-goal attempts (and still hasn't missed since the first half of Week 1).
COACHING -- B
Again, see the comments at the top. One guy coached to win, one guy coached with the idea that overtime wouldn't be the end of the world.