|Dear Coach Belichick:
Far be it for me to tell you how to run your football team, Bill. But apparently, I’m the only one armed with enough data, evidence and Cold, Hard Football Facts to look you straight in the eye and say you effed it all up over the past couple years.
It’s all so clear now, too, in the wake of Pittsburgh’s win over Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII. It’s the second straight year that a team with a meat-and-potatoes offense and a group of studs on the defensive front shut down one of the league’s best and most star-studded attacks in the biggest game of the year.
In fact, it sounds a lot like a certain team I remember back in 2001. Hell, “meat-and-potatoes offense and strong defense” could be used to describe your Super Bowl-winning teams in 2003 and 2004, too.
This little re-confirmation of conventional football wisdom tells me that it’s time for you and the rest of New England management to remove your head from your rectum and revert to the old, boring ways of winning Super Bowls.
Here’s the problem, Bill: Somewhere along the way you and Patriots management sold your souls to the devil — you were apparently tired of the “boring” tag that plagued the organization during its Super Bowl years. So you shed that formula of strong fundamentals and strong defense in favor of an explosive offense, big ratings, all kinds of passing records and the “oohs” and “ahhs” of football fans and pigskin “pundits.”
The new strategy has rewarded you with nothing: No Super Bowl victory in 2007. No playoffs in 2008. No return to “dynasty” status without a change in philosophy.
In fact, I know when your pact with the pigskin Prince of Darkness was forged: in the wake of the 2006 AFC title game, following your 38-34 loss to the Colts.
This was the basic reaction from that game: “Tom Brady could no longer compete with the likes of the star-studded Indy offense when he was handicapped by a lineup in which the featured wide receiver that day was Reche Caldwell (4 catches, 46 yards).”
Fans, “pundits” and apparently even your own jet-setting magazine cover-boy quarterback wanted — no, they demanded! — a few toys to play with on offense.
So you went out and made huge moves on the offensive side of the ball. You acquired not one, but three wide receivers — Donte Stallworth, Wes Welker and Randy Moss — along with tight end Kyle Brady and running back Sammy Morris. The lone pick-up in trade or free agency on the defensive side of the ball that year was Adalius Thomas, a potential impact player on defense, but one player just the same.
Sure, Bill, you tried to address defense in the draft in 2007. But it didn’t help when you guys whiffed badly on almost every single pick that year. Hell, Jason Varitek could have made better contact.
Here’s the problem, coach: the reaction to the 2006 AFC title game defeat was absolutely the wrong reaction. The Reche Caldwell offense was not the problem. Hell, that handicapped offense marched up and down the field all day in a hostile arena.
The problem, instead, was a defense that melted like cheesy football fondue before our very eyes in the AFC title game. In fact, your defense did the impossible that day: it made Peyton Manning look like a clutch playoff quarterback. Congratulations.
So the entire 2006-07 off-season should have been spent rebuilding the defense.
Instead, you caved in to popular demand. You let the inmates run the asylum.
And what happened? The offense set all kinds of records and the ratings were great. But your neglected defense melted right before your very eyes again the following year, in Super Bowl XLII.
Your defense nobly held the pedestrian Giants offense to just three points through three quarters that day. But then with the game on the line, your wheezing collection of gas bags literally could not get off the field, surrendering not one but two long fourth-quarter touchdown drives to Eli Mediocre Manning that cost you a Super Bowl victory and a chance for immortality. Your defense simply needed to make just one play in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
It made zero.
The hangover was evident here in the 2008 season. The offense continued to hum along, even in the hands of an unknown quarterback. But the defense collapsed like Enron in pivotal games, namely the November losses to the Jets and Steelers — a win in either of which would have dramatically altered the outcome of the season.
For the year, your club gave up 309 points — not terrible, but not championship football, either.
You like football history, Bill. So consider the lesson of the dynastic 49ers. Everybody talks about their great offenses. But their offenses were merely window dressing. The secret to San Francisco’s unprecedented run of success was an unprecedented run of defensive success: from 1981 to 1997, the 49ers defense surrendered fewer than 300 points every single season. They won five Super Bowls during this period, and they won 10 or more games every year but the strike season of 1982.
The defense paved the way. The defense gave Joe Montana a chance to win Super Bowls even with offenses that averaged a humble 22 or 23 points per game, as they did in both 1981 and 1988.
Montana beat the Bengals in 1981 when his defense came up with the biggest goal line stand in Super Bowl history; he won the Super Bowl in 1984 when his defense frustrated Dan Marino and the most prolific passing attack in league history; he was able to pull off one of the great drives in history in Super Bowl XXIII because his defense held the league’s No. 1 scoring offense to just 16 points that day; and the following year his defense embarrassed the great John Elway in Super Bowl XXIV.
Montana was a great quarterback, yes. Maybe the best ever. But he was a great quarterback who consistently played with one of the league’s best defenses.
Your Patriots, Bill, have hardly enjoyed that kind of consistency, despite your reputation for defensive excellence: the 2002 Patriots gave 346 points and missed the playoffs; the 2005 Patriots gave up 338 points and were bounced in the divisional round; and this year’s Patriots gave up 309 points and missed the playoffs.
Notice a trend here?
The trend reaches out and grabs you with both hands around the throat when you look at the past two Super Bowls, when superior defensive fronts overran superior offenses.
We have something at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com, Bill, called the Defensive Hog Index. It measures how each team’s defensive front performs in key areas.
The Giants led the league in this indicator in 2007. They won the Super Bowl. In fact, they won it because your high-powered offense was helpless in the face of their Defensive Hogs. They beat down Brady like he was a Whack-A-Mole at the Topsfield Fair.
The Steelers, meanwhile, led the league in this indicator here in 2008. They won the Super Bowl, too. In fact, they won it by shutting down Arizona’s ground game (12 carries, 33 yards) and because they had a game-breaking linebacker who pulled off the single biggest play of the season in the biggest game of the year: James Harrison’s interception at his own goal line and his 100-yard rumble for a touchdown.
Forcing teams into negative pass plays (sacks and interceptions) is a key component of our Defensive Hog Index, Bill. And your defenses no longer forces opponents into these critical, game-changing mistakes like they once did. And as a result, your teams no longer win Super Bowls like they once did.
These two recent Super Bowl games are not isolated incidents, either: the Defensive Hog Index went a stunning 20-2 picking playoff games since we introduced the indicator last year.
You just don’t have those kinds of studs up front, Bill.
In fact, your Defensive Hogs finished just 16th in this indicator in 2008. That’s a pretty poor showing. Your guys were not particularly stout against the run. They were not particularly good on third downs. And they were not particularly good at forcing opponents into critical mistakes in the passing game.
An inability to put pressure on the quarterback had a dramatic impact on your ability to stop the pass, too: the Patriots finished 23rd in the all-important Defensive Passer Rating category. Your average opponents produced an 89.8 passer rating this year. That’s bad, Bill. Any quarterback with that type of passer rating for his career is in the Hall of Fame or headed for the Hall of Fame.
The worst part now is wondering what might have been: had your defense made just one stop in the second half of the AFC title game, the Patriots probably would have won Super Bowl XLI; had your defense made just one stop in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots would have won that game, too; had the defense been a little more formidable here in 2008, maybe the Patriots could have made some noise here in a postseason in which Pittsburgh lucked into games against the 8-8 Chargers, 11-5 Ravens with a rookie quarterback, and 9-7 Cardinals.
Instead, it’s time to rebuild the dynasty, Bill. And you rebuild it with defense. Brady has proven he can win Super Bowls throwing the ball to tackling dummies, as long as he’s supported by a good defense. That’s his genius, really.
So trade Moss. Trade Welker. Get every last ounce of flesh out of somebody for Matt Cassel. Dig up defensive gems in the draft like you used to do so regularly.
Do whatever you have to do, Bill.
But do it with boring, old defense, and the Super Bowl victories will follow.
Kerry J. Byrne is the publisher of ColdHardFootballFacts.com. His self-congratulatory column will appear here each Wednesday during football season. Send fawning praise or pictures of your 19-year-old sister to firstname.lastname@example.org.