Clint's Corner Archive

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The source for back issues of Clint's Corner. Forget a trade? Were Clint's predictions correct? Here's every edition, verbatim.

For 11/24/1999

Here we go again...

It must be a clause in Pete Carroll’s contract. For the third time in three years, the Patriots inexplicably have gone into a funk, and with the season winding down once again find themselves fighting to tread water in the AFC playoff picture.

Last season, a 1-4 slump had the Pats at 5-5 and seemingly out of the playoff picture. The Pats went on to beat playoff contenders Miami and Buffalo in consecutive weeks, then went into Pittsburgh and ended the Steelers post-season hopes with an impressive 23-9 victory. Even still, everyone had them dead at 8-6 with the NFC West Champion 49ers in town and Drew Bledsoe out for the season. Playing the unfamiliar role of home underdog, New England topped San Fran 24-21 to clinch the final wild-card spot.

In 1997, yet another 1-4 stretch in midseason had the Pats at 5-4 after beginning the season 4-0. Coincidentally, their next game was at Buffalo, and no one was giving them a chance. The Patriots posted an impressive 31-10 victory, and at season’s end were the only AFC East team to beat Buffalo in Orchard Park. What followed, however, was perhaps the worst performance in franchise history as the Pats laid a giant egg in Tampa Bay. At 6-5, everyone was off the bandwagon, but the Patriots went 4-1 the rest of the way including big wins at Jacksonville and at Miami to claim the AFC East division title.

As if the drama and suspense of the last two seasons was not enough, the Patriots have once again turned a 4-0 start into 6-4. Seemingly overnight, the Patriots are in 4th place with a 2-3 division mark. If the Patriots are to once again rise up after having one foot in the grave, Pete Carroll’s team will have to finish with their best regular season record of his tenure, or his tenure may be over. With the NFC being mired in mediocrity, 10-6 in the AFC will likely not get it done for the Pats.

The three division leaders in the AFC are 9-1, 8-2, and 8-2. If the playoffs began today, two wildcard teams would also be 8-2, with the 3rd, Buffalo, currently at 7-4. It’s almost inconceivable that either Tennessee, Seattle, Indianapolis, Miami, or Jacksonville will finish with more than 5 losses, and even if they did drop to 10-6, the Pats would likely lose the wild-card tiebreakers. Should Buffalo improve to 4-2 in the division and 8-4 overall next Sunday against the Patriots, that will make 6 teams that New England will likely not be able to catch.

With 6 games to play, New England can only afford one loss, and they can least afford to lose to Buffalo next week. If they do, they will have to run the table in their remaining 5 games to have a chance. Should they defeat the Bills in Buffalo, the stage is set for a sweep on December 26 when the Bills visit Foxboro. If that happens, the Patriots have a good shot to go 11-5 even with a loss to the Colts on December 5.

I am making one huge assumption here – but it is not an unrealistic one. The Patriots must win their remaining home games (Dallas, Buffalo, Baltimore) and defeat the Eagles in Philadelphia. Those 4 victories would give the Pats a total of 10, with the all-important 11 required by sweeping the season series from the Bills or Colts on the road. This scenario may be wishful thinking with the way the Patriots have played the last two weeks, but their chances were no better the previous two seasons when the Pats were able to rally with their backs against the wall.

The sad part about this is that what the Pats are struggling to do right now is simply qualify for a wild-card spot, where even at 11-5 they will likely be playing on the road. While at this stage of the game that would certainly be a great accomplishment, qualifying for a road playoff game was obviously not the goal of the team or it’s fans back in August.

With more free agent defections looming (Bruschi, Israel, Moss, Brown, Jefferson, Sullivan, Mitchell...), core talent getting older (Armstrong, Coates, Thomas), and young teams emerging (Colts, Dolphins), the window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller for the Pats. Like the dominant Bills teams of the late 80’s and early 90’s, there comes a time when you have to cut your losses and try to get good all over again with a new cast. The Bills have been fortunate enough to do that with Doug Flutie, Antoine Smith, and Eric Moulds (replacing Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed) while retaining a few core players like Ted Washington and Bruce Smith.

The Patriots certainly have their work cut out for them over their next 6 games, and what’s worse is that "wait until next year" is getting to be less and less of a consolation.

Dear Ernie and Pete...

In the 4+ years that I have been writing this column, I have tried to avoid playing armchair quarterback. While I have had my share of complaints over the years, I try not to second guess the coaches who get paid big money for what they do. After all – I’m just a computer programmer who happens to have watched every single game the Pats have played since 1982. While callers to talk radio are quick to give suggestions following every loss, I do not pretend to know more than the "football" people in my tiny corner of the Internet.

I have always felt it comical to hear "The Pats should have kicked the field goal on 4th down," or "Coates would have been wide open on play action," or "they should throw more to Troy Brown," or "they play too much zone and not enough man to man." While all of these "suggestions" may have merit from Patriot Nation, they do not come with the benefit of complete information, and of course hindsight is always 20-20.

Despite all of that, I cannot help but wonder this week if I can clearly see something that Ernie Zampese and Pete Carroll do not – the Pats offense, particularly on 3rd down, is embarrassingly predictable. While the Pats talent clearly dictates that they should throw the ball to win games – their decision making on 3rd down this season is nothing short of puzzling. Do the Patriots know that running plays are allowed on 3rd down? Who do they think they are fooling when Bledsoe drops back to pass on 3rd and 2? Before I go on, check out the below chart. It shows how and what the Patriots have done on 3rd down in their first 9 games of the season.

Yards to go:

When They Pass:

When They Run

Total:

1

0-1

9-11

9-12

2

4-10, 3 sacks

3-3

7-13

3

2-7

1-2

3-9

4

3-11, 1 sack

2-2

5-13

5

4-10, 4 sacks

1-1

5-11

6+

21-62, 7 sacks

0-6

21-68

       

TOTAL:

34-101, 15 sacks

16-25

50-126

       

2 to 5

13-38, 8 sacks

7-8

 

2+

34-100, 15 sacks

7-14

 

Heading into the Miami game, the Patriots had run 126 3rd down plays (not counting plays nullified by accepted penalties or illegal procedure or kneel-downs). Of those, a little less than half (58) had the Patriots needing 5 yards or less to get a first down. That right there shows me that the Pats offense is doing its job on 1st and 2nd down. When you can get to 3rd and 5 or less, you should be able to dig much deeper into the playbook to get the first down yardage.

Despite the lack of a dominant ground game, the numbers also show that the Patriots have done very well on 3rd and 1, converting 9 of 12, or 75% of the time. Even more impressive is that they have only thrown once on 3rd and 1, converting 9 of 11 chances on the ground. You really can’t ask for much more than that from your offensive line and backs.

Ok, so the offense is able to get to third and less than 5 a good amount of the time. They have proven they can move the chains on 3rd and 1 with good success on the ground. Ready for this? According to my (unofficial) analysis, when the Pats have a 3rd and 2,3,4, or 5, they pass the ball a whopping 82.6% of the time. The real puzzler is that on the 8 occasions they have run the ball on those downs, they have converted 7 times.

Of the 7 total runs on 3rd and 5 or greater, 3 were in the 4th quarter in Arizona with New England ahead 27-3, a 4th was with 3:20 to play holding a 16-7 lead at home over the Giants, and a 5th was a Bledsoe scramble after a called pass play. In truth, the Patriots have called just 2 rushes in 74 3rd down plays during the competitive stages of games when needing greater than 4 yards. That tells an opposing Defensive coordinator than on 3rd down and 5 or more, there is a 97.4% chance that Drew Bledsoe will be dropping back to pass. Even on 3rd and 2 or more, the Pats have run the ball just 9 times in 109 such plays (91.7%) before the game was decided. Gee – what defense should I call?

Wait, there’s more. On 39 passing attempts on 3rd and less than 6, the Pats have just 5 more conversions (13), than they do sacks (8). On 3rd and less than 6, you’re telling me that you’ll do worse than 33% if you mix in the run every now and then?

Why, oh why, oh why, does Ernie Zampese absolutely refuse to call a running play when the Pats need more than 1 yard to gain on 3rd down? This trend is so obvious that you have to wonder what Carroll and Zampese are thinking. During the bye week, the Patriots coaching staff supposedly did some self-scouting in an attempt to get into the heads of the coaching staffs of their opponents. How did they fail to notice this? The Jets and Dolphins both knew that every damn third down play was going to be a pass, and this is why the Pats cannot convert on third down (2-12 in Miami) with Bledsoe getting sacked and knocked down more times than any other QB in the league.

This trend worsened in Miami, as the Patriots ran 12 passing plays on third downs. Their average yardage to gain was 7.9, but still, no running plays? Talk about playing into the hands of the defense. On four occasions, the Patriots had 5 or fewer yards to gain. On the first 3rd down of the game, needing 5 yards, Bledsoe threw incomplete. The next time the Pats had a 3rd and 5, Bledsoe was intercepted. A 3rd and 2 brought another incomplete pass, and a 3rd and 1 resulted in a sack for a loss of 9 yards. Those were 4 plays needing 5 yards or less where the Pats went 0-4 with two incomplete passes, and turnover, and a sack. It is impossible to do worse than that running the ball. On the day on 3rd down, Bledsoe was 2-12 for 24 yards with 3 interceptions and 2 sacks for -21 yards. That's as many turnovers as net yards on 3rd down.

Conversely, Miami had 7 third downs needing 5 or fewer yards to gain, but were 4-4 running the ball for 21 yards and a touchdown, and 1-3 throwing it (all 3rd and 5). For the day, Miami was 8-17 on 3rd down, rushing the ball 5 times and throwing it 12. The simple fact that Miami showed they were willing to run on 3rd down helped their offense's cause tremendously. The Jets the previous week had 20 third downs. They rushed on 8 of them, converting 4 for a total of 76 yards and a touchdown. Martin's 36 yard TD run came on 3rd and 5. On the day, the Jets were 10-20 on 3rd down.

Could this picture be any clearer? Again, how can the Pats do any worse sprinkling in a run here and there on 3rd down? If the stats above from the first 9 games were not enough, the film of the Miami game alone should be enough to convince Zampese that "Plan A" is obviously not working.

Running the ball on more than 3rd and 1 should become priority #1 beginning this weekend in Buffalo. The first time the Pats have 3rd and 5 or less, they should run it. Even if they only pick up a yard or two and have to punt, that play will establish the following:

  1. You are assured that Bledsoe will not get crushed again to add to his dubious league lead,
  2. You are assured of no sack, which costs you field position and fires up the home crowd,
  3. You will add about 30 seconds to your time of possession, and the Pats could use every second they can muster,
  4. Most importantly, you have shown that you are willing to run the ball on 3rd down. It may take a while to reverse this trend, but once defenses have to wonder what you’re doing to do on 3rd and 3, you have vastly improved your chances of success.

Even if not a single third down run is converted, the Patriots will not have lost much off of their dreadful conversion rate while attempting to throw. Even if you can’t convert on the ground – the defense is forced to at least think run – and even saving a half a step on the pass rush could give Drew the extra split second he needs to get rid of the ball before his clock is cleaned. If the Pats do manage to pick up even a couple of 3rd and 3’s or 5’s on the ground during the game, that will drastically change the defenses approach on the game’s most critical down.

Again, the Patriots talent rightfully dictates that they need to throw the ball to win. Certainly the Patriots should be throwing the ball more on 3rd down than they run it, but throwing the ball 91.7% of the time you have greater than 1 yard to gain is the sorriest excuse for play calling that I can imagine. It’s a wonder that Drew is still playing this season. Even had the Patriots run the ball on every single 3rd down play in Miami, they could not have converted fewer than 2. Even if they matched the 2 for 12 showing, they would have added nearly 5 minutes in time of possession on their failed running plays, turning a 5 minute deficit into a 5 minute advantage in that department without diminishing their conversion rate.

Since the opening two weeks of the season – a time when trends had not yet been set – the Patriots offense is averaging 18.75 points per game. Only twice, in Arizona and against Denver – has the Patriots offense scored more than 19 points since week 2. In that time, Bledsoe and the "high octane" passing attack have twice been beaten by Damon Huard and lost to Ray Lucas. Neither of those guys is exactly in line for $42 Million contracts. While passing and passing and passing over the past 6 weeks, the Patriots are 2-4, aren’t converting 3rd downs, and aren’t scoring many points.

I’m just a computer programmer with season tickets, but I do know this; it’s time for plan B. Run the damn ball on 3rd down, or you can forget about the post season and both of the guys who are responsible for making sure they are called. If I’m being arrogant for pretending to know more than the head coach, so be it.

See you next week...