Patriots

Curran: Leftover thoughts on NFL officials

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Curran: Leftover thoughts on NFL officials

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- So it wasn't an epic. The Patriots preseason finalecould be the most forgettable, unwatchable game I've covered since being fortunate enough to get a job covering the NFL in 1997. So we'll stay off the game-specific stuff for the most part as we tidy up and look ahead. Yes, the replacement referees are embarrassingly bad. And I don't feel sympathywhen they look silly. They put themselves in a position to look dumb by climbing in bed with a partner -- the NFL -- who is going to ride them hard and put them away when this impasse is done. There may be some individual dynamics at play but it doesn't seem a leap to presume the replacement refs are doing it for the money and to advance their careers. So they can take the chants of "We want Hochuli!" and "Scab!" -- which they were showered with Wednesday night as they left the field -- and realize they signed up for it. But the locked-out officials -- to the surprise of many, I'm sure -- deserve a lot of blame for the present situation. I know the NFL's a cutthroat, monolith that greedily sucks up every penny it can find to add to the stack of billions it already generates. But the officials are turning their noses up to an offer that raises the average official's salary from 149,000 currently (!) to 189,000 by 2018. The average starting salary will go from a modest 78,000 in 2011 up to 165K in 2018. The officials don't want their benefits from the part-time job converted into 401K. And they don't like the idea of the league expanding its bench, so to speak, by hiring officials that could be summoned to replace a guy who sucks. Right now, the real refs are winning because the issue manifests itself to fans and most of the media as replacements screwing up the game. And that typhoon of outrage may force the NFL to just say, "Whatever..." and pay them. But don't be misled by the fact the NFL usually wears the black hat in negotiations. In this one, the refs are the ones trying to carry out a stickup. (Great post by Florio on this right here.) I lampooned the speech of the head referee, Don King, on Twitter. Kind of a low-rent move in hindsight. Wish I had foresight to edit that stupidity. It was a cheap, immature way to try and get alaugh and I feelbadly about it. One last thing, as he was leaving the field Wednesday night, Scott Zolak predicted that, against the Titans, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will try to take advantage of the officials by going extreme up-tempo. Hadn't thought that far ahead myself. He's exactly right. But here's where it gets interesting. The officials will stand over the ball until they are ready for it to be snapped. In 2010, we saw the issues that arose when the league moved the umpire from the linebacker level to 12 yards off the line of scrimmage in the offensive backfield. The umpire has to get the ball after each play, spot it correctly and get the hell out of the way. When the head linesman signals, the ball can be snapped. The real refs struggled to keep up.The new guys? Seriously? And that's where the replacement referees will start to impact game plans. If the Patriots are stymied from going no-huddlehurryup by the incompetence of the replacement referees, Bill Belichick will blow a gasket. And,gasket blown, he may not choose to to defer to Mike Pereira's comments on the replacement refs but offer some of his own. Which courts incurring the Wrath of Kraft since coaches are under orders to keep their lips shut on the matter. This is a perfect example of NFL and owner business infringing on the vocation the coaches and players hold sacred. And that's where this will get interesting.

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.