Monday, September 08, 2014

Moan Over Miami

Bill Belichick wore his NFL Hall of Fame frowny face and went into his renowned post-loss press conference mumble. Name, rank, serial number and about five phrases for "we sucked" repeated until the torturing inquisitors go away.

Belichick's chagrin at the Patriots' loss to the Dolphins yesterday could be measured by his willingness to take the same questions over and over at a ritual he despises win or lose. Usually, the coach is so disgusted/distressed/astounded by defeat he breaks off the conference after about four questions. Prolonging the press conference agony must've been a self-punishment drill, Belichick's equivalent of making himself run the stadium steps.

Amid his customary "we all have to do better" statements, Belichick went out of his way to stress one specific point. "We played everybody," he said, as well as "everybody played in this game."

This was a euphemism. What Belichick meant, and what Tom Brady more or less did say later, was "We tried everything, and nothing worked."

Just so. New England's disappearance in the second half was a total team effort. Being outscored 23-0 in 30 minutes cannot be anything else. Pick a Patriot, and he was getting whipped out there. Efforts to select one particular reason for such a loss are futile, the result of the journalistic convention that every story must have one angle and one alone. Such is the strength of that tradition that fans fall into the error as readily as journalists.

Did the absence of Logan Mankins contribute to the inability of the offensive line to prevent Brady from suffering grievous bodily harm? Somewhat, no doubt. Offensive line play is all about cohesion, and making a major personnel change less than two weeks before Opening Day can't help that.

But there's no reason why the loss of a guard would make a tackle unable to block his guy. Miami was able to rush Brady from the edge, the middle, and maybe from behind. If all the offensive linemen played, and they did, that meant none were working out too well. Mankins wouldn't have changed that much. He didn't last year when New England lost in Miami.

Nor does Mankins play defense. The Patriot front seven was worse than the offensive line in the second half, continuing its dedicated campaign to send Knowshon Moreno (358 yards rushing in his last two games against New England) to Canton. The allegedly discombobulated Dolphins O-line kicked ass with ferocious verve.

So are the Pats just not as good as everybody thought? Unlikely. But if they had to play Miami in Sun Life Stadium every week, they'd never make the playoffs.

My own likely faulty meta-analysis of the Patriots miseries is based on latitude. For reasons that defy explanation other than Just One of Those Things, when the Dolphins play New England in South Florida, they're about two touchdowns better than when they meet in Foxboro.

This was true at the Orange Bowl, and it's true at Sun Life Stadium. It was true when the Dolphins were very good and the Pats very bad, true when both teams were roughly equal, and true in the Belichick-Brady era when the Pats have been perennial title contenders and the Dolphins mediocre at their best. Yesterday's game left New England with a 15-35 record overall in Miami. It made Brady's personal record 7-6.

It is one of the glories of sports that there are phenomena which cannot explained yet remain very real. New England's woes on the road against the Dolphins are one of 'em. Had yesterday's game NOT been the opener, we'd have heard more about an ineffable jinx and less about Mankins. Nothing on earth gets more partially learned overanalysis than NFL Week One.

The latitude in Minneapolis is a much higher number than that for the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale border. So it's reasonable to expect a higher level of Patriots performance, too. The alternative explanation for New England's first opening game defeat in a decade offers a vision of a dark and grim autumn indeed.

It sucks for a team to have a jinx, but a jinx is only a weird problem. Consistent inability to block and tackle is doom.


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