Patriots

Paoletti: Ochocinco never caught on with Patriots

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Paoletti: Ochocinco never caught on with Patriots

The marriage was doomed at "I do."

Chad Ochocinco and the New England Patriots were never a match. Problem is, everyone focused on the wrong flaws.

Where the question was "Can he buckle down and abide?", it should have been "Can he play?" Or, more specifically, "Can he play here?"

When he called Foxboro "Heaven," who dared doubt him? With Tom Brady at Point A and Ochocinco at Point B, who didn't see at least 30 yards of turf stretched between their connection? The equation was so simple: Elite quarterback plus elite receiver equals . . .

Heaven.

Really, he should have been laughed at. Or he should have offered the idea to Disney for a flat fee and 50 percent of royalties.

Football players aren't delivered to glory in Foxboro. There's no Divine Right. There is the Patriot Way, and its foundation is hard work and humility.

Any veteran -- special teamer or star receiver -- who ends up in New England says the same thing about the system: He's never before experienced such expectation for perfection. Ever.

Ocho said it himself.

"That's what it's like around here," he told Jason Cole in January. "Everybody is pushing for perfection, and they're pushing hard. I've never seen anything like it in my whole career. You understand why this team is where it is . . . Tom is on you about the littlest things, that you were a step off where you should be or the angle is wrong or whatever it is. Really, he has me walking on eggshells, and I haven't done that since I was a rookie."

Ah-ha.

Talent alone can't save you in this town. And maybe that's where the disconnect was -- for Ocho and for all. When he took the field, the No. 85 on his back stood for seven 1,000-plus yard receiving seasons. It promised 70-yard touchdown catches. For all the weapons the Patriots offense had, this -- deep wideout threat -- was the one they lacked. The one that would make them unstoppable.

For it all to fall apart because he wouldn't, or couldn't, learn the system? Inconceivable.

When Ochocinco dropped passes in training camp, it was dismissed as growing pains. When he caught just three balls in preseason, it was shrugged off as the rich's irresponsibility for time. When he said he was content to play receiver-by-committee -- The Brand surrendering to The Common Good -- it was seen as blushing modesty.

He'd grown up. He'd matured. Hell, maybe he just wanted a ring.

Except, again, this is the Patriots we're talking about. The bottom line is clear: "Do your job." The subtext: "No free rides."

But Ocho couldn't pay.

He's a man who never wanted to do homework. He struggled in high school and college -- blowing off classes for whatever else. Talent was always there to grab him by the scruff and keep him in the game.

In Cincinnati, he was the offense. In New England, he had to start over. And it was complex. The Patriots wouldn't bend to meet him. In fact, they'd scoff at the thought.

"All he needs is time. He didn't have an offseason. He'll put his head in the playbook this spring," the chorus sang.

Why think that? He'd never done it before. He didn't even do it during his most successful years in Black and Orange. The Boston Globe's Greg Bedard writes that Ocho wasn't brilliant so much as Carson Palmer and the Bengals "had a feel for where he would end up" and met him there.

But we didn't see that. Maybe the Patriots didn't see that before bringing him in.

Trouble happened when Brady found out. Early.

Think a 34-year old, control-freak quarterback wants to patiently develop a 33-year old diva receiver?

Wes Welker leads the league in receptions because of his unique chemistry with Brady. The Deion Branch Comeback Tour is beginning Year Three because he and Brady rekindled their flame quickly. Rob Gronkowski's first career reception was for just one yard, but earned his quarterback a touchdown. Brady and Aaron Hernandez clicked just as quickly.

This offseason's glut of veteran receiver acquisitions -- Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd -- point to a singular need: Proven talent. Whether or not Ochocinco still has soft hands and fleet feet, he lacks the most important thing a Patriots receiver needs.
Brady's trust.

So given retrospect's cruel clarity, we can say that no, Chad Ochocinco can't play -- not here.

We knew it wouldn't work. We just didn't know why.

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.