FOXBORO – This may be the saddest quote of the young NFL season. Uttered by Jaguars defensive tackle Roy Miller III in response to a question about Tom Brady, it dripped with recognition that, despite OTAs, minicamps, training camps, regular-season practices, weightlifting, film study and three games, the gap between the Jags and the New England Patriots is a canyon.
“I mean, we put our pants on one leg at a time, too, and we genuinely thought we had a chance and things just didn’t go our way,” said Miller. “As a man, it’s frustrating. As someone who holds himself accountable, who thinks that we have a shot at every game, it’s frustrating.”
I mean…I really thought we had a shot here…we had no shot…
It is, a wise and hooded man once said, what it is.
What is it? It’s the revelation of the same gap that we often see between the Patriots and the majority of the NFL. It’s a team with the best coach-quarterback combination in NFL history utilizing a historically talented tight end with coordinators who have been in the same system coaching the same things for more than a decade going against a team in the salary-cap era that is halfway through a teardown/rebuild process riddled by injuries and tethered to a quarterback whose got a $30M arm and a ten-cent head.
What is it not? It’s not a stop on “EFFYEW Tour 2015.” The Patriots had as much of an axe to grind with the Jaguars and Gus Bradley on Sunday as they did last October when they beat the Bears and Marc Trestman, 51-23. Or the Dolphins in December, 41-13 or the Steelers in 2012, 55-31 or the Colts in 2011, 59-24.
This had nothing to do with sending any opaque message to Roger Goodell or the rest of the NFL because of the offseason carnival the NFL operated with the support of a cabal of owners.
It was about having your s*** together and – after meekly finishing off the first two games and having next Sunday off – playing professional football. Not “putting in the younger kids” because the other team was uncompetitive. Not keeping Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski out of harm’s way because they could get an owie. This was about doing what they do for a decade-and-a-half.
And because they’ve been doing it that long, that’s what you get in September against a less-than-good team decimated by injury in the early portion of the season.
“They’re on a whole different level,” said Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny, who competed against the Patriots for years while with the Bills. “The quarterback is the elite one in the game. They’re so smart and disciplined that they take advantage of everything that’s hard for us.”
Brady started playing marionette with the Jags defense on the first drive. Coming to the line for the Patriots third offensive play – a first-and-10 from the Jags’ 49 – Brady had Dion Lewis lined up behind him in the backfield. He stood and looked at the Jags alignment and did everything but rub his hands together in anticipation. He moved Lewis out of the backfield. The Jags moved a safety up to the line to cover him. The other safety was now by himself in the middle of the field. Brady took the shotgun snap and looked hard to his left. He never intended to throw into that cluster of receivers and defensive backs jockeying in space, but he wanted that safety headed in that direction.
Once he moved, Brady turned his head to the right, sighted Rob Gronkowski, threw it to his meat hooks and gained 43 yards. It remained that easy all day.
“Each defense is vulnerable,” said Posluszny, “For instance, we’re a big zone team. Whether you’re zone or you’re man (coverage), quarters (four deep cover men splitting the field into quarters) or halves (two sharing the over-the-top space), there’s weaknesses in every defense. The Patriots say, ‘Alright, this is a zone team. This is what we’re gonna do to beat them.’
“We know the challenges in our defense,” Posluszny continued. “If we’re gonna play a three-deep, we know what the difficult things are, what the difficult plays are and they’re able to take advantage of them because of their precision and the way they do things. They’re so good at taking advantage of your mistakes and we made a ton of mistakes on our own. Why are they the best team year after year after year? They’re able to take advantage of your mistakes.”
Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers aren’t the only guys who can figure out where the weakness is in a three-deep coverage. They are, however, smart enough to get the defense to tip its hand to show that that’s what they are doing. And they do have the experience to know without reservation what the next move should be. They also have the continuity in the system with teammates to know who will see the same things they are seeing. And Brady and Rodgers have the physical skills to carry out the execution, as it were.
The Jags were sitting ducks here in September.
“With them, it seems they are always playing at a high level right out of the gate,” said Posluszny. “Whether it’s the same system, the same quarterback, the same guys. You know, regardless of where they are in the season, what you are going to get. But especially early on, while we’re trying to figure out what we do best and figure out our defenses, they are already playing at a really high level.”
The Patriots were 11 of 14 on third down – 80 percent. They played from spread and tight formations offensively. They went jumbo. They went fast. They changed tempo.
They did it all with an ease that defies the calendar. In this NFL, with training camp two-a-days gone and practices ratcheted back, teams take longer to get good. The Patriots are seemingly about where they were in February.
“They’re just very precise,” said linebacker Dan Skuta. “They don’t throw long balls, but shoot, I don’t think they dropped any. They’re just very precise with their game and Brady’s just really good. You have to match that precision as a defense and obviously we didn’t do that today. It’s all precision. They came in and did what they had to do. We didn’t match it.
“They have played a lot together and Brady is the general,” said Skuta. “They’re just good at what they do. Him just being in the league so long, he knows how to prepare guys. They do have a lot more (experience) than us and they have played together a lot more than us but I still don’t see it as any kind of excuse. We still gotta go out there and compete and we didn’t do that as well as we’d like to do.”
They certainly didn’t do it as well as Roy Miller III thought they would. And it has to leave the Jaguars and the rest of the league wondering, who can compete at that level this season?