Sunday, December 25, 2011
Key points in Pats' turnaround
By Mike Reiss
"This looks like a poorly constructed team playing bad football."
Those were my words from Nov. 8, and the subject was the New England Patriots. The team had dropped to 5-3 on the season after a home loss to the Giants, marking the low point of their season.
Since that point, they've won seven straight. Nice run.
In recent days, I've thought about that line of a "poorly constructed team playing bad football" and wondered if it was too harsh. That point could be debated -- I think it was fair based on the picture at that time and some of the ensuing roster moves -- but what isn't up for debate is that the Patriots took an important U-turn from that point to get themselves back on track.
Since 2001, when Tom Brady took over as QB, the Patriots are 102-4 when they have fewer turnovers than their opponent.
How did they do it?
Here is one view on some key alterations:
1. Cleaning up the turnovers. Through the first eight games of the season, the Patriots had committed 14 turnovers. Over their seven-game winning streak, they've had just two. No statistic correlates to winning and losing more than turnovers. Since 2001, the Patriots are 102-4 when winning the turnover battle. Quarterback Tom Brady is obviously the key player in this area because no player has the football in his hands more.
2. Releasing Albert Haynesworth. Not to pile on the big guy, but his release Nov. 8 was an important move because of the message it sent to the rest of the players in the locker room who saw he wasn't fully on board, putting his own playing-time situation ahead of the team's goals while at the same time holding court with reporters weekly as a team spokesman of sorts. Locker-room chemistry is extremely important, and that move, along with a few other roster tweaks that week, represented an important checkpoint to Bill Belichick's message that "These are the players we're going with." It helped foster the "complete trust" that Brian Waters referred to Saturday (link here).
3. Reinforcements from the PUP list. Belichick gets all the credit for this one, as four players who opened the year on either the physically-unable-to-perform list or non-football injury list -- defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace, running back Kevin Faulk and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon -- all have made contributions in the second half of the season. Deaderick has emerged as a starter at left end and looks like he's a Bobby Hamilton-type of unsung player at that spot. Simply by having patience early in the season and having the willingness to pay full salaries without a half-season of production, this was essentially like trading for four players in early November. Brilliant.
4. Tightening up on special teams. When the Patriots are at their best, their offense, defense and special teams complement each other. Furthermore, when the offense and defense are working through issues, sometimes special teams can provide a crucial pick-me-up, but the Patriots were getting little out of that area. The Nov. 9 signing of linebacker Niko Koutouvides -- a solid special teams player who basically took the roster spot of blocking-only tight end Dan Gronkowski -- might have looked minor on the surface, but it represented an important shift in prioritizing special teams from a roster perspective. The Patriots have been better on special teams since, which has provided a spark in their quest for better complementary football.
5. Help from opponents. Take nothing away from the Patriots, who have won in some tough spots (e.g. road games against the Jets, Eagles and Broncos). At the same time, they caught a break in not having to face injured Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. This seven-game winning streak has come against quarterbacks Mark Sanchez, Tyler Palko, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow and Matt Moore, with only two -- Sanchez and Grossman -- opening the year as his team's starter. That doesn't mean the Patriots shouldn't get credit, as things change over the course of the season, but it does add context to their winning streak.