The beauty of civilian football fan life is the ability to overreact without a sufficient sample size if desired (I do it sometimes and it feels glorious, especially on opening weekend). There is a certain segment of the population that will connect the following dots on Sunday with vigor: Bill Belichick won with a recently-recovered-from-surgery Cam Newton and the same apparently uninspiring cast of weapons that Tom Brady apologists complained about for the better part of a decade. Tom Brady lost with two of the best 10 receivers in football, a rebuilt offensive line and more brand-name cast-away talent than a production of Damn Yankees.
And man, it’s hard not to blame them. So we won’t.
We’re facing one of two possibilities: The first is that we were alerted to Brady’s statistical decline a year ago and that Sunday’s game against the Saints was a continuation of what we saw in New England (and the reason the Patriots did not call in the National Guard to keep Brady in the Northeast). The second is that this was an unprecedented offseason, and that Brady’s greatest strength has always been out-preparing and out-studying his opponents. That was difficult to do with limits on offseason availability and absolutely no preseason, not to mention the challenge of blending drastically new offensive ideas for the first time in his career. One of his two interceptions (the one that did not end in a Saints touchdown) was the result of a miscommunication that would have likely been cleared up with a preseason.
They were also playing the best team in football. The Patriots, on the other hand, were playing the Miami Dolphins.
On Sunday, Bruce Arians’s offense certainly felt like New England’s old offense. Brady was in the bottom half of the league in Intended Air Yards. It was bottom third in Aggressive Throw %. Aside from Brady’s fourth quarter completion to Scott Miller, there didn’t seem to be a ton of promise in fulfilling the most dangerously vertical portions of Arians’s offense. Can Mike Evans, who caught one goal line pass for two yards on Sunday and received four total targets, thrive in an offense like this? Questions like that will linger for at least another few weeks. (To be fair to Evans, he could have been limited by a hamstring injury that put his participation in doubt.)
In that time, the Buccaneers will face two defenses (Denver and Carolina) that are much less complete than the one they lost to Sunday. The Panthers, like the Bucs, are starting over without the benefit of a normal offseason. Maybe that game will give us a more accurate depiction of what the Buccaneers are capable of once they accrue more time together. One would like to think that Tampa Bay is not nearly as bad as the team appeared on Sunday and will be able to scheme a blend of Brady’s most comfortable throws to elevate the talent around him.
But maybe the overreactors are right. What if we knew the limitations of Brady at 43 going into this experiment, and simply chose not to believe they would apply in this situation? What happens then?
Other new faces in new places ...
Tom Brady’s aptitude for converting third- and fourth-and-inches situations via quarterback sneak was something of a badge of honor during his days in New England. Here was this largely immobile, (theoretically) fragile 40-plus-year-old man (at the end there) ramming himself into a patchwork offensive line to pick up a first down that, in the grand scheme of things given that the Patriots were probably ahead by three touchdowns, was not all that meaningful.
It fit that familiar narrative of selflessness and grittiness. It was, minus the occasional trick play that was accompanied by a laugh track, the extent of designed quarterback running in New England.
It’s hard to imagine how much of a complete sensory shock Sunday’s win over the Dolphins was to people who were accustomed to one brand of football for their entire lives. There are 20-year-old kids in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who may have never seen their favorite team’s quarterback pull the ball from a running back and keep it himself.
Cam Newton ran in the first two scores of the day on bootleg power plays. On essentially every play in which the Dolphins stacked fewer than six defenders in the box, the 2015 MVP and former No. 1 overall pick, was breaking contain and chugging his way into the end zone. He whipped passes with such velocity that they seemed destined to knock Julian Edelman out of the stadium like a T-shirt shot from a promotional cannon.
But the beauty of this all—something that might take fans in New England some time to realize, no matter how foreign it all feels—is that Newton is a quintessential Patriot.
This is going to work out better than we expected.
Under Belichick, perhaps the greatest week-to-week matchup coach in NFL history, Newton becomes one of the most puzzling week-to-week matchups for opponents. Largely smothered by stagnant offensive ideals in Carolina, Newton is paired with one of the league’s best offensive play designers in the league. On Sunday he showed that he can operate comfortably in the short passing game that was a staple of the Patriots’ system for years, but, like the rest of the team tended to do around Brady during the course of each year, Newton can become a chameleon.
The Patriots may look like the Patriots one week. Then they may look like the Ravens the next. Then they may look like the Titans or Chiefs the week after that. Then they might resemble one of the better Naval Academy units from the 1940s the week after that. It is safe to assume that the greatest coach in NFL history is going to exploit the advantage of having a mobile quarterback better than many other coaches in NFL history. New England had, for a few years, declined in efficacy as a core power running team, perhaps because, as a few NFL teams have shown us over the past few seasons, power running is made better when the defense has to factor the quarterback into their equation.
What New England might lose in Brady—that concrete sense of ball security, the greatest feel for a single offense in NFL history, the dangerous efficiency—they gain in inspiration to become more of what they set out to be at the beginning of their dynasty in the first place: Unpredictable and ever changing.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but Philip Rivers, hobbling, frantic and pissed-off looking, took the field with less than two minutes to go, down by a touchdown, whipping frantic sidearm fastballs.
Some quarterbacks are going to look more different than others in new places. For Rivers, the entire milieu the Chargers crafted with him at the helm in recent years seems to have followed him to the American Midwest (and on Sunday, North Florida). The Colts were shell-shocked by a young, somewhat anonymous Jaguars team while managing to look like a team that was running a vanilla, preseason game plan.
Rivers threw the ball 46 times and was picked off twice in the 27-20 loss. The team abandoned the running game after nine carries from Jonathan Taylor and a Marlon Mack injury that looks serious.
While I am not ready to call this a harbinger of things to come (for the Colts anyway), it does appear too simplistic to say that one mid-sized upgrade was enough to transform a 2019 third-place unit to a 2020 Super Bowl contender.
The advantage with Rivers was obvious, in that the Colts were able to diversify their target usage and get some of the dynamic young receivers they’ve been cultivating more opportunities. Parris Campbell led the team in targets and was able to contribute in the running game. Taylor was tied for the most receptions on the team, which, for better or worse, seems like a direct result of Rivers being in the lineup.
The biggest disappointment, depending on how you look at it, was Rivers’s inability to capitalize on the Jaguars’ rookie cornerback, CJ Henderson. Henderson may very well get a game ball Sunday and played incredibly well. The Colts tried to make him a centerpiece of their game plan by testing him consistently while he was guarding T.Y. Hilton. In both Henderson’s interception and on the final Colts play of the game—a pair of outs to the sideline that looked suspiciously similar—Rivers seemed to lack enough gas on the ball to make the play work.
The Panthers’ stacked new offensive coaching staff managed to take both Teddy Bridgewater and Christian McCaffrey out of the most important play of their young season, stuffing a fullback up the gut on a critical fourth-and-inches that sputtered an inspired comeback attempt.
Luckily for the Panthers, Bridgewater seems to have evolved into something far beyond the timid game-manager who started to emerge in Minnesota before his horrifying knee injury in 2016. In a 34-30 loss to the Raiders, Bridgewater went 22-for-34 for 270 yards and a touchdown—a 75-yarder to deep threat Robby Anderson.
The dependence on Christian McCaffrey as a checkdown target or mid-level receiver was far less evident than we’ve come to expect from him, as the running back was only targeted four times while Anderson, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel all received at least eight targets. Replacing the need for constant dump downs seemed to be a smart, almost Alex Smith-ian command of mobility from Bridgewater, who escaped the pocket four times and logged another 26 yards on the ground.