Monday, January 20, 2014

Bill Belichick vs. Wes Welker Continues After Game, a.k.a. PickGate

Did Wes Welker set a pick on Aqib Talib? Clearly. Was it intent to injure? Only Welker knows that. Was it a targeted hit on Talib? Probably.

Bill Belichick seems to think so. And I'm inclined to agree. I know by agreeing with Belichick, that somehow invalidates my opinions. The cool thing to do is to disagree with him, and to side with Wes Welker. That's what people do when someone stands up to Belichick the bully. The media, the fans, they all side with the poor David of a player standing up to the Goliath of Patriot Management. Welker is like Bob Cratchit standing up to Scrooge, or the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi fighting against the Empire and Darth Belichick.

Welker's play was dirty. Maybe not an explicit intent to injure, but certainly an intent to hurt. I do think Belichick used some hyperbole in his remarks, making his comments sound like sour grapes. I've seen dirtier hits from defensive backs and receivers. Some of them wearing a Patriots uniform.

What makes me think Welker's actions were intentionally dirty is the timing, the players involved, and the potential benefits of hindering/hurting/injuring Talib. Not necessarily knocking him out of the game, but hitting him around enough so that he was less effective. The game-ending injury was a bonus for the Broncos.

The Broncos were held to 3 points in the 1st quarter (only the 19th time in 69 quarters of play that the Broncos failed to score a TD). Part of that was because Talib was covering Demariyus Thomas. Thomas had 1 catch for 29 yards in the 1st quarter. Once Talib was removed, Thomas exploded for 6 catches, 105 yards, and a TD. Without Talib, the Pats' coverage on other receivers also struggled, as everyone was forced to shift assignments.

It's something Welker witnessed first hand in last year's AFC Championship game against Baltimore. Talib left that game with a thigh injury. Anquan Boldin, whom Talib had been covering, took advantage of Talib's absence and scored 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile the rest of the Patriots' secondary struggled with their adjusted responsibilities. Talib's presence allows Dennard and Arrington to cover easier assignments. It also allows the safeties to give them more help.

Taking Talib off the chess board (or making him less mobile on it) would make things easier for all of Denver's offensive pieces to get open. Welker knew that.

I'm not saying Welker meant to injure Talib. But how often did we see him run into defensive backs like that while he was here? It didn't seem accidental. Maybe it was a mistimed block, which seems odd after the refs flagged New England for setting a pick.

Which is more likely, that Welker was setting an early block or that he saw Talib and saw an opportunity to make a hit on the Patriots' most important defensive player?

In hockey if a player hits someone away from the play like that, we assume there is an intention. If someone took a similar run at Zdeno Chara in a playoff game, for instance, everyone would know that it was deliberate and targeted. Especially if the team that took him out was struggling to score. So what was Welker's intention? To block? To send a message? To make an impact on a key part of the opposing defense which had done well to contain your high-powered offense?

Which is most likely?

Welker had motive: his team had been struggling to put up points and their best receiver wasn't much of a factor.

He had the opportunity as crossing plays are a big part of Denver's offense.

And he knew what losing Talib would do to the Pats' defense after seeing it firsthand against the Ravens last season and seeing how well Talib did against Thomas in the regular season (4 catches, 41 yards).

The most important defensive player was injured by an ex-teammate running into him away from the play. That's suspicious at the very least. It's probably intentional, and likely dirty. I think Belichick was a bit over the top in his analysis of the play. Then again, I'd be pissed too.

I don't think Welker should be suspended or fined or hated by Patriots fans for this. It was a physical play. He went after a key player on the opposing team. We've praised that type of play from the Patriots for years and criticized the lack of it when it's not there. Marginal dirtiness is something the Patriots are known for.

However, it is time to dismiss the childish fairy tale notion that Wes Welker represents the forces of Good fighting against Evil. It's time for media and fans to stop "feeling good" for Welker's success with the Broncos. He's a person, he's a football player, and he did something that was marginally dirty on Sunday. He injured the most important defensive player on the hometown team. Sorry, but that doesn't jive with the narrative that he's the good David fighting against the evil Goliath. He didn't use a slingshot to take down the Patriots, he used a dirty play.

Leave Richard Sherman Alone

Immediately after this frightening interview, Richard Sherman became the center of the football world. But I don't think what he said was out of line. How he said it was shocking. I bet Erin Andrews wishes she could go back to interviewing Koji Uehara's son. Sherman was hyped up, in the moment. That whole team rails adderall anyway so we shouldn't be surprised when one of their most energetic players has a bit too much energy.

Sherman talked trash about his opponent. So what. Wasn't that what we were primed for in this game? "These teams hate each other." We heard that all week. Sherman expressed the hate we'd been told to expect, then he gets criticized for it?

He didn't do or say anything violent, anything inappropriate, anything obscene. And when he had calmed down later his interviews were heavy helpings of the same flavorless porridge we get from everyone else.

I suppose what he said was technically "classless," since it wasn't classy. But if we go out and look for classless things in pro sports, we'll be very busy. Sherman isn't any more classless than most athletes. What he did was bring his true personality to a segment of sports coverage we've been conditioned to expect polished and polite responses. Thank teammates, thank coaches, option to thank family and/or God, praise opponent, then for some reason say "thank you" to the interviewer. Sherman was himself for an interview. Who cares?

The outcry in response to Sherman's "classlessness" ironically verged on being more classless and inappropriate. Justin Verlander, who plays baseball, which is not football, Tweeted this...

Is that tweet considered classy or classless? I'm not a member of the Classless Police, so please tell me.

So this baseball player is suggesting that if an NFL defensive back were to play baseball, he'd be taught a lesson. Okay, Justin. I respect Verlander as a pitcher, as an athlete, and for hooking up with Kate Upton. But baseball players shouldn't be touting the physicality of their sport to football players.

Maybe I find all this Sherman backlash to be amusing and trivial because I'm a Patriots fan. I've heard my favorite athletes and coach called "classless" countless times. The word carries little weight with me. And if you are a Patriots fan and you have a problem with Sherman being "classless," remember that in 2006 the Patriots celebrated a playoff win over San Diego by dancing on the Chargers' logo, and we all ripped LaDainian Tomlinson for whining about classiness and classlessness. And in the Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl Mike Vrabel flapped his arms like the Eagles after scoring a touchdown. It's an emotional game.

So don't be a hypocrite. Don't hate Sherman because he was emotional and in the moment. I thought he acted like a bit of a clown. And a good clown is an entertaining one. But also kind of scary. And Sherman pulled that off Sunday night.

Patriots' Season Ends in Denver

Pressure. The game of football is about pressure. You pressure an opponent, they pressure you, and the clock pressures everyone. To win you must put pressure on an opponent and play well under pressure.

On Sunday the Patriots failed to put any significant pressure on Peyton Manning. For all the talk about Manning struggling in pressure situations, he never found himself in one. The defense rarely pressured him in the pocket, his receivers weren't pressured (especially once Aqib Talib left the game), and the Patriots offense didn't pressure him to put up points.

The Pats gave up 2 touchdowns and 4 field goals. That's not bad against the Broncos. That was the third fewest points they've scored this season. The Pats defense didn't allow a huge number of points but they allowed yardage and possession time. They allowed almost 0.3 miles of offense. And they couldn't make a big third down stop.

The offensive side of the ball was an even bigger letdown. Before Denver went to softer coverage in the 4th quarter, Brady threw only a handful of good passes. He overthrew Julian Edelman on what could have been a touchdown. He missed Austin Collie just before halftime on what would have been a huge gain. What happens in this game if these two plays are made?

The plays were there. The Patriots didn't make them. In the 2nd quarter on 3rd and 9, Manning threw a duck into double coverage. And if Kyle Arrington had turned around to play the ball he probably would have intercepted it. At the very least he would have broken the play up and ended the drive. Instead it was caught by Welker for a first down. The Broncos went on to score a touchdown on that drive.

While the Patriots failed to make big plays, the Broncos succeeded. On the same drive that Arrington could have had an interception, Knowshon Moreno gained 28 yards on a 3rd and 10 draw. The Broncos sacked Brady on a pivotal 3rd and 8 play the next drive, and later in the game on a 4th and 2 attempt. Last week I wrote about the timing of big plays the Patriots made against the Colts. This week the Broncos had excellent timing against the Pats.

Tom Brady had an awful game. Maybe he has an injured hand. Maybe he has the flu. Maybe he just had a bad day. Whatever the cause, the effect was a hole dug too deeply to get out of. The defense could have done better, maybe gotten off the field on a few 3rd downs, but I think the blame for this loss lies mostly with the offense. Three points in three quarters? The Pats only scored when Denver's defense eased up.

To be fair to Brady he didn't have much to work with. With a struggling running game the offense looked shabby, like the Patriots had picked people from the stands to play. Shane Vereen was the second most targeted receiver. Danny Amendola did nothing, and had a big fat drop. You're targeting Matthew Slater and Matthew Mulligan. And when receivers did beat coverage, Brady either missed them or he was sacked.

It was an anticlimactic end to what was an exciting season. I'm not as miserable as most fans are. I enjoyed the ride, not knowing where or when it would end. I didn't set my expectations high for this team. I didn't set any expectations. I had hopes and I had doubts. The Patriots did better than my most pessimistic doubts and didn't do as well as my highest hopes.

The one thing I'm disappointed in is that the Patriots didn't go out with their best fight. They went out with a fizzle, not a bang. I think there were some missed opportunities early in this game. I think the defense could have been a bit more disguised. I would have liked to see some sellout blitzes. You couldn't take out all 4 of Manning's weapons, so focus on attacking Manning. Take a risk. What's the worse that can happen? You get burnt for a touchdown, but at least the drive is short.

The off-season should be interesting. So will next season, Pats fans, so cheer up.

Photo Credit:
AP Photo/Joe Mahoney