No Aaron Hernandez, no excuse for Patriots
If you were watching the New England Patriots game Sunday you were repeatedly told by FOX announcer Dick Stockton that the only reason New England was out of sync offensively was due to the loss of tight end Aaron Hernandez. From the moment Hernandez went down after Julian Edelman rolled on his ankle while being tackled on an early first quarter pass play the long time play-by-play pro claimed the incident as a crushing loss for the Patriots. From the way it sounded you would have thought it was Tom Brady versus Kansas City in 2008 all over again. I’ve been a Dick Stockton fan since the 80’s when he was calling the now classic NBA post-season games, but this sports broadcasting icon was flat-out wrong all afternoon in Foxboro.
Yes, the injury to Aaron Hernandez was a tough blow for New England but should it have been a nail in the coffin? No way, not when it happened so early in the game to a team so loaded on offense. Offensively the Patriots looked like they were unsure of the game plan all day. The pre-season question marks that were tucked away after last week’s dominance of Tennessee resurfaced in this historic home-opening loss.
What didn’t look right with this powerful offense? Take your pick.
One of the glaring issues from the pre-season was the stability of the offensive line. New England knew there’d be no more Matt Light but hoped there’d be a Brian Waters. Well, Waters is still at home in Texas and man did they need him against Arizona. Not only was Tom Brady sacked four times but he was constantly under pressure in the pocket. If Brady wasn’t Brady the game would’ve been long over before Stephen Gostowski’s missed field goal. Running Back Stephen Ridley made the offensive line look good early in the game by using his talents on some impressive runs but the out-of-sorts blocking prevented any established running game in the second half. I recall a point in the third quarter seeing back-up lineman Donald Thomas sucking some serious wind on one of the stalled out drives. This image defined the line play for the day, they got flat-out beat by Cardinal defenders.
Tom Brady and new toy Brandon Lloyd are still a work in progress. A handful of passes that will surely be caught 5 or 6 games from now resulted in missed opportunities against Arizona. A few times Lloyd turned his body one way and the pass was to the other shoulder for an incompletion. The most glaring of these mix-ups was a potential deep ball strike early in the first half that is a touchdown for quarterback-receiver tandems with games under their belts together. Lloyd did make a few nice catches but he was brought in to do much more than that. There were also some times where Brady seemed to be forcing the issue throwing to either Lloyd or Tight End Rob Gronkowski when they were clearly covered.
Josh McDaniels’ overall game plan for Sunday has to come under fire. Unlike a lot of Patriots fans I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with Wes Welker not being on the field for the first offensive snap of the day but why was he absent from the game plan until late in the first half? Sure Stevan Ridley had a strong season opener and it’s important to establish the run, but with a passing attack like the one New England possess the running game has to play second fiddle at the start of the game. For some reason the Patriots game plan did not call for a full throttle no-huddle attack to get the opponent down early forcing them to play catch up to you. The harsh icing on Josh McDaniels’ strategic cake was the Danny Woodhead up the middle on third down runs. This play has haunted Patriots fans for years. With such an explosive and often reliable passing game New England for some reason likes to send the smallest guy right up the middle on 3rd down. The choice of play is bad enough but if you’re going to run that play either let Ridley do it or bring in rookie bruiser Brandon Bolden. Bolden, like most players, dwarf Woodhead and at least has a better chance of moving the pile and falling forward.
The loss of Aaron Hernandez happened so early in the game that it gave the Patriots more than enough time to alter their offensive strategy. It’s hard to believe that a Bill Belichick team goes into a game without several back-up strategies in the event of an injury or lack of production early on. The offense just wasn’t right in this game, which happens to the best of them but not after an impressive Week 1 and not with a loaded team like New England in the home opener. Sure the Hernandez injury is a blow, but it’s no excuse for a bad loss like that even if a long time pro in the booth tells you so.
Chris Timoney is an NFL writer for TPF and can be contacted at CTimoney@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com.