Patriots vs. Dolphins: Reality Check

Arthur LuhnCorrespondent ISeptember 21, 2008

Lao Tzu: "every battle is won before it is ever fought."



For two weeks in a row, the Patriots have played conservatively, engaging Cassel in only running and short-range plays, and dragging their feet when it come to taking the training wheels off of Cassel. When the question of conservation was put to Belichick, he denied that it was a symptom of playing not to lose. The ugly truth, today, was that it was, indeed playing not to lose.


It finally caught up with the Patriots. Miami knew that the Patriots would once again come in with that conservative mentality, and they prepared accordingly, all week long. They came in with a big gamble on defense by putting everything into stopping the run and the short-gain. In short, they won the battle in correctly preparing for today.


There are however, two sides to a ballgame, and on the other side, Miami won big time. Lest we forget, let's remember that Sparano is a graduate of the Bill Parcells school of spooks, black arts, and coaching witchcraftery; indeed, the same BIll Parcells who coined the term "jap plays" for the surprises he had his offense play on his defense and vice versa. And while the name was very wrong and downright derogatory, the philosophy is quite effective. For today, they plucked a page out of the college playbook and went with a two set in the backfield, lining up Ronnie Brown in the shotgun to either fake play action and run up the middle, or throwing, in this case, a rolling throw-out to Fasano for the touchdown. This was nothing the Patriots prepared for. In fact, no other team could have prepared for this.


But not only did they run this surprise play, they ran it  four times and scored on each and every one.


In the Patriots locker room, the term "humiliation" is taking on new meaning, right now. But that would not have happened without Chad Pennington bringing his A game, and the devastating tandem of Ricky Williams and Brown working off the left side behind the stellar work of Offensive Tackle, Jake Long.


This brings back the ghost of the superbowl, with the Patriots once again experiencing an unexplainable lapse in adjusting on the fly or even making halftime adjustments, whether to the Miami Defense or recognizing the unusual shotgun formation and reacting accordingly. They also didn't adjust for Miami's consistently throwing over the top. Today was an ugly breakdown of the Patriots defense strategy, and now they have two weeks to ponder what went wrong.


Not that anything went any better on the Patriots offense. Frankly, as I have written elsewhere, I have never been a fan of Matt Cassel. While he is a very keen student of the game, he just doesn't have the field vision and the poise that is required of a successful NFL quarterback.


One of the most underrated skills of Tom Brady was his ability to instantly decipher the defense and adjust accordingly on the line of scrimmage. 90% of the time he knows what is coming before the snap, and after the snap, that number goes up to 99.9%  Cassel simply doesn't have that ability to diagnose. The mainstay argument is that he is new, but so is Kevin O'Connell who has made adjustments at the line of scrimmage consistently in the preseason.


The troubling sign for Cassel and company is as I have written before, their inability to finish drives. Despite working on red-zone offense all week in practice, this previous week, their only red zone touchdown today came courtesy of an Ellis Hobbs 81 yard kick-return which left them a very short field to work with.


The Patriots face an urgent situation. Cassel's inability to finish drives seems to be affecting the morale of the offense. Welker took issue with a telegraphed lateral throw, and another sign was the unspeakable happening: Randy Moss taking off a big play, on a crucial third and eight on the first drive of the second half. Cassel's throw was on the money for once, but Moss did not reach.


Fortunately for them, they now have two weeks to think things over. One thing is for certain, the training wheels have to come off now. They can no longer play conservative. Either the coaches will have to put their faith in Cassel and allow him the long bomb, or they go with O'Connell. 


Of course the loss of Tom Brady can be interpreted as letting the Patriots off the hook big time in terms of expectations for this season, but that team is a very proud team. They take their accomplishments seriously. They are professionals. In that regard, something has to happen to keep everything in order.


I would not be surprised if O'Connell starts at some point during this season, and I hope it is not courtesy of an injury. But, as I have written in my other articles, I am a fan of his ability to read, and his great field vision and poise. For right now, however, the Patriots' last  loss came against the Dolphins, 21 games ago, and so does their first loss, a set of bookends nobody would have predicted; quite the bitter pill to swallow, and quite the reality check.