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The Morning After: Are the New England Patriots... good?
They got their swag back in an ugly road win. As Matthew Judon says, "Let’s win the dirty games!" But is Mac Jones trending up? Can the Patriots really catch up to Buffalo? We asked the players...
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The next scene is almost always ignored completely. When a draft pick is so universally mocked, the general public doesn’t care what happens next.
Everyone sure got their laughs in the night of April 28. The New England Patriots were declared a laughingstock for drafting an offensive guard named “Cole Strange” with the 29th overall pick. Because how is a Chattanooga Moc going to close the gap between the Patriots and the new bully in the AFC East that just pounded them 33-21 and 47-17? This was Grade-A proof that Bill Belichick was losing it. Raise your hand if you even knew what in the hell a Moc was.
The decision essentially turned skeptics into doubters. New England was finished.
So, there Strange stood inside the visitor’s locker room on Sept. 18 after his second pro game. Honestly, this 24-year-old looks like a man plucked straight from the mountains of Tennessee. He’s rocking a mustache and a badass Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt and I couldn’t believe he also listens to the best country singer alive: Colter Wall.
The Patriots eked out a 17-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers that was not particularly enjoyable to watch. Neither offense appears ready to spar with the heavy hitters in the AFC. But alert your vision to the trenches — play-in and play-out — and you would’ve seen an ultra, uh, strange sight: this rookie guard absolutely stonewalling one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. One on one, Strange neutralized Steelers’ All-Pro Cam Heyward.
As his teammates clear the locker room, Strange is reminded all about draft weekend. Does any of that ire, that mockery, that total freakout bother him? “No!” he shouts. “I don’t give a shit.”
Surely, it did back then, right? When the Patriots took him? His voice is louder this time.
“No! F--k no! I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ I didn’t give a shit.”
Because this felt like a perfect fit. Immediately.
“The coaches, the guys on the team, it’s all about culture and winning and just playing ball and working your ass off. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I love it.”
That’s been a way of life in New England for two decades. No team has won more.
But with Tom Brady departing in 2020, Belichick officially handpicking his successor (Mac Jones) in 2021 and an uninspiring season opener to this 2022 season, it was fair for all of us to ask one simple question: Are the Patriots finished? The ink was justifiably being put to paper on the obituary of this franchise. Especially with the Buffalo Bills’ hype exploding to an unprecedented level and especially with the Dolphins loading up. Not only is Brady off winning Super Bowls with another franchise, but Belichick was showing far too many signs of football senility. The only person who seemed to draw any logic, any shred of normalcy at all from the decision to hand power to two disastrous head coaches (Joe Judge and Matt Patricia) was seemingly Belichick himself. These two — really? Just give them the orange and baby blue tuxedos already.
Nor did New England add any weaponry of note.
Let’s tap the brakes on re-announcing this team as a contender. Sunday’s win was not pretty. But are they good? The longest-tenured Patriot, special teams ace Matthew Slater, laughs. “Time will tell,” he says. The Patriots did win with a formula they plan to stick to and they’re making zero apologies. Sunday’s win clearly resuscitated life into their season. From the 70-year-old coach to the 24-year-old QB and everyone in-between, there was a distinct confidence permeating through the team afterward.
Maybe a sign of hope in September is what the Patriots needed.
“We have a lot of belief in ourselves but we don’t need to talk about it,” Slater says. “People ask questions like that — and I understand why they ask them — but we’re going to keep staying true to our process. Keep grinding. The thing about this league is that it always sorts itself. … Obituaries have been written a lot about this team. Look, when you have the type of success that we had, people can’t wait to see you fall. That’s the reality.”
Their goal is to win exactly as Strange described.
Slater, who has played 233 games and counting here, believes the bones of this franchise are strong. A win like this serves as a source of calcium for those bones, too.
“You can talk about different statistics,” Slater says. “You can talk about the modern football data. I always say, ‘It comes down to people.’ It’s about relationships. It’s about people. The thing that has held this place down for the last 20-plus years is the men in this locker room. We just find a way to keep bringing good people in here. Guys who’ll be selfless, play for each other and commit to the process. If you don’t have that, it’s hard to do anything as a whole. It’s a credit to the men who’ve been here the last couple of decades.”
Nobody in Foxborough should start scheduling Super Bowl hotel rooms in Arizona. Mostly because the Steelers are in a world of hurt right now.
The absence of T.J. Watt (pec) left a volcanic crater in their defense. Not only did Jones have time for three… four… five Mississippi counts in a clean pocket, but the entire defense was gassed by the end of the game. Watt has made a living turning games upside down in the fourth quarter when others are hyperventilating. This game was ripe for a Watt takeover that never came. His value to this team was on painful display. Again. A year ago, the Steelers were 0-2 when he did not play, 0-2-1 when he played less than half the snaps and lost again when he was obviously hurt in Green Bay. Meanwhile, they’ll also need to conduct a full MRI on their offense. Be it the quarterback (Mitchell Trubisky), the offensive coordinator (Matt Canada), the leaky offensive line or a brew of all three toxins, this was about as rough as NFL offense gets in 2022.
Not that the Patriots give a damn about any of this.
And before these players could start achieving anything of substance, they needed to get their collective minds right. There aren’t many players remaining from the team’s last Super Bowl run in 2018. With Brady 1,330 miles away and mainstays like Gronk and Edelman retired, it’s harder for everything Belichick preaches to hit home. His accountability drumbeat only works if the team sees results. That’s why so many of his disciples crash and burn elsewhere. It’s impossible to implement any semblance of “do your job” militarism without tangible proof that it works.
Players tune you out. An 0-2 start could’ve started that process. However grimy, a win in Pittsburgh was massively important.
So, before the game, Slater spoke to the team. The longtime Patriot said it’s up to the players to “choose” how they respond.
Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne believes the 36-year-old’s words resonated and says himself that this team “grew tremendously” this game.
“Choices,” Bourne explains. “What we do. How we respond. Last week, we lost. How do we respond? I think we responded well. We went to practice, had a good week and really applied the things we needed to fix. A lot of the guys chose to get better. After losing, you can be down on yourself. You can choose to complain. A lot of us chose to get better.”
Adds Slater: “It’s one thing to be accountable to coaches. It’s another thing to be accountable to each other.”
The success stories here won’t stand out like anything on the Dolphins’ bonkers highlight reel of a comeback in Baltimore. Tyreek Hill happens to be a much more captivating addition than Cole Strange, and yet Strange? He might’ve been the team’s best player against the Steelers. Last week, Heyward hit Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow three times. This week, he was a total nonfactor. The key, Strange eloquently puts with a smile, is to “block your ass off.” Yes, Strange loves it here. He’s already sounding like so many Patriot players before him.
“The accountability,” Strange says. “Everybody expects you to do your job. It’s just hard work. There’s not much glamor to it. It’s nothing fancy. It’s come in, work your ass off, every single day. And keep doing it. That’s all there is to it.”
Over on the defense, the team’s $54.5M keynote signing one year ago made the plays an injured Watt could not. Matthew Judon sacked Trubisky, had another TFL and his best play of the game came with 6:41 remaining on third and 2. This play could’ve flipped the script. The Steelers got the matchup they wanted, sailing Najee Harris up the sideline on Judon… and Judon stuck with him stride for stride to break up the pass.
Judon implores us all to declare the Patriots finished. He doesn’t care.
He began our chat by — why not? — channeling his inner-Geno Smith.
“I think somebody said — it was a great quote — ‘they write us off, we don’t have to write back,’” Judon says. “We didn’t write back. Y’all can write whatever you want. We’re not going to get mad. Honestly, we’re not even going to read the shit. That’s up to y’all.”
Harris’ longest gain on 20 touches? Eight yards. Trubisky’s yards per attempt? Five. Judon is all for ugly wins like this one. The Patriots’ defensive gameplan was to keep everything in front of them and dare the quarterback to risk deeper throws into muddy coverage. When the Patriots’ offense had to close out the win, it did. Pittsburgh never got the ball back after Judon’s Gilmoresque tip. Running backs Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris slammed the door shut with a slow bleed of a 13-play drive those remaining six-plus minutes.
This is how New England won seven in a row last season.
Judon sees no reason why they can’t do it again.
“Let’s win the dirty games!” Judon says. “And then when we get the blowouts, or the lopsided games, we’re going to enjoy that.”
Of course, this is a tough way of doing business in the modern NFL. For the Patriots to elevate into contention, they’ll need Mac Jones to elevate. Unlike Tua Tagovailoa in Miami, he was not flanked by world-class speed demons at wide receiver. The New York Jets even have a better supporting cast. And did we mention the architect behind this third-and-9 quarterback sneak is now whispering in his ear? Gone is the coordinator, Josh McDaniels, who helped him grow so quickly as a rookie. All ingredients for disaster were put into place ahead of his second season because — on top of it all — Jones lacks an elite physical trait. Big arm. Speed. Magical improvisation. He’s not blessed with a specific gift that can render everything around him obsolete.
Meanwhile, Kyler Murray’s spontaneity made any deficiencies to Arizona’s roster disappear in Vegas on Sunday. If you were to channel surf all 32 starting quarterbacks in rapid-fire succession, nothing about Jones’ game would stand out from the others.
The choice to hand the franchise over to the Alabama QB was typical Belichick. As the league chases one trend, he zagged the other direction. The Patriots are betting that Jones is advanced mentally and that his ability to dissect coverages differentiates him from everyone else over the long haul. (Yes, like Brady.)
To his credit, Slater is bursting with optimism.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any 20-something year old who’s as professional as him,” Slater says. “Just his commitment to his craft. His process. The hours we spend in the building. His attention to relationships with the guys. It’s very, very impressive. I can’t remember being around a player who’s had that type of professionalism. I think that’s his edge. There’s a lot of things that give him an edge. His personality. His character. But he’s really committed to this football team and we’re really committed to him.
“In first. Last to leave. His locker is always open. I come there any day of the week, and he’s there. Any time of day, he’s there. It’s unbelievable. He’s always looking for an edge, looking for a way to get better, looking for a way to improve himself. He’s like a sponge. He has learned since he’s been here. He has taken that and applied it and gotten himself better. It really says a lot about what this means to him.”
It appeared Jones was fooled by a late-rotating, Cover 2 look by Pittsburgh on his interception. And it’s also true that he gift-wrapped another pick to Cam Sutton that was dropped. But there were also some glimpses of hope. His 44-yard touchdown to Nelson Agholor was more great catch than great throw — but this is also 100 percent what New England needed more of in Year 2. Jones needs to take shots down the field. Maybe the most indelible images from this game were the looks of joy on the faces of the Patriots receivers in the locker room vs. the hushed, tongue-biting tone of the Steelers receivers. They’d probably love it if Trubisky took these same chances.
For the Patriots to have any chance at closing the gap with the Bills, Jones needs to find a long ball.
Back in Western New York, Steelers-Patriots was broadcast on CBS and… no. I cannot imagine these Bills were trembling in fear watching this one. With MVP contender Josh Allen at quarterback, they’ll gladly bait any Mac- or Trubisky-piloted club into a shootout. When told that the Bills are likely telling themselves that there’s no way this New England team as constructed can touch them after seeing a game like this, Judon doesn’t hesitate.
“However you want to play, we can play. If you want to go and spread it out and throw the ball 50 times or if you want to play in a phone booth, we’ve got guys who can do both. So, shit, we’re going to match the energy of the opponent. We’re not going to complain. We’re not going to cry.”
The team’s conscience, Slater, won’t go that far. He thinks the Patriots are still trying to find their identity and is correct to note how minuscule the margin for error is in the NFL. It’s no cliché to harp on “attention to detail” — as he does here — when so many games are won and lost with one or two plays. The only problem is Buffalo smacked them by about a dozen plays. Twice.
“We understand who we’re chasing,” Slater says. “But we just have to worry about ourselves.”
New England and Buffalo don’t play each other until December again. Belichick’s teams tend to find their identity as the calendar flips through the course of a season. They were peaking yet again last season until Buffalo KO’ed them at Foxborough, then again at home in the playoffs. Without question, Belichick is wondering how in the hell he’ll slow down Allen in the back of his mind. First, his Patriots have a sneaky tough stretch ahead: Ravens, Packers, Lions.
If the future Hall of Fame head coach is proceeding with a heightened sense of urgency, Slater doesn’t see it. Slater hasn’t seen Belichick change — period — since arriving himself in 2008.
That’s what stands out to him most. Despite those six Super Bowl titles, Belichick still brings a “razor-sharp edge” to work each day.
“That’s rare,” he adds. “Because human nature says, ‘I’ve been successful. I can coast.’ He’s the opposite: ‘I’ve been successful. I’ve got to do more.’ We feel that as a football team.”
The proof can be found on the line of scrimmage where a rookie from Chattanooga completely eliminates one of the best players in the sport. Strange loves how demanding everyone is in this organization. “Hell yeah,” he says. And, with that, the mustached guard packs up his bag and heads off.
Perhaps he’ll even treat himself to some Skynyrd after this one.
Well, my Super Bowl pick is 0-2. The Cincinnati Bengals’ offense is currently a mess. In the team’s stunning 20-17 loss at Dallas, Joe Burrow looked like a spooked quarterback. His offensive line wasn’t good and the broadcast caught him yelling “No empty set!” to his coach but so many of these sacks are on him, too. He wasn’t seeing the field well. It’s a long season, and he’s too talented to stay in this funk. The thinking here: Cincy will figure it out.
As for the other Super Bowl pick, this is how the Green Bay Packers must win in 2022. The Bears are the Bears, but what an encouraging 27-10 win after last week’s malaise. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combined for 193 rushing yards on 33 attempts, Sammy Watkins supplied a 55-yarder in the pass game and the defense held Justin Fields to seven completed passes. Yes, seven.
My goodness. Tua Tagovailoa went full NBA Jam on the Baltimore Ravens. Miami outscored Baltimore, 28-3, in the fourth quarter with Tagovailoa throwing six touchdowns in all. This is the perfect storm we’ve talked about in this space: brilliant playcalling, track speed at wide receiver and an accurate quarterback who’ll hit everyone in stride. Miami probably won’t be able to stop Josh Allen next week, but Tagovailoa proved Sunday he just may be able to keep up in a shootout.
What a demoralizing loss for the Colts. Matt Ryan somehow looked worse in Jacksonville than Carson Wentz did one year ago. Where does Indy go from here with the 37-year-old? I’m not sure. Their best hope is to feed Jonathan Taylor all game long. (Also: Jacksonville is for real. We’ll have some Jags content at Go Long soon.)
I think my podcast co-host, Jim Monos, is right to point out that the reason Sean Payton stepped down as the Saints coach was the quarterback play. Jameis Winston reverted back to all of his bad habits in a 20-10 loss to Tampa Bay.
Can’t remember a more anticlimactic first win for a new head coach. Denver won. Denver has Russell Wilson. By no means will I write this team off yet, but what was up with the tight end reverse on third and 2? And after this bizarre call failed, a delay of game took the Broncos out of field-goal range. As discussed last week, it’s hard to be a smart game manager and a player-friendly coach and an offensive innovator. Winning at least helps soothe the growing pains.
That’s why a team pays Kyler Murray a five-year, $230.5 million contract. Everything was going wrong for both the quarterback and the team in Las Vegas, and Murray flipped a switch. He turned it on in the fourth quarter to stun the Raiders and remind us all why he’s different. This is a talent worth every penny:
Go Long Podcast
Live in Western NY? Come on out to Fattey Beer Company Tuesday night for our recording. We’re planning on starting up around 8 p.m. (EST). As always, you can download the show on Apple and Spotify. We wrapped up all of the Week 2 action late Sunday night.