Let’s talk tanking.
As much as some Patriots fans would love to see the team’s rebuild slammed into overdrive with a nice, tidy swan dive down the standings and up the draft order, Bill Belichick cannot and will not coach to lose games on purpose to improve draft standing.
Monday night was a perfect example of that.
The Patriots won at the buzzer thanks to two scores in the final 107 seconds, the game-winning field goal coming at the end of a perfectly-executed, eight-play, 45-yard drive.
If the Patriots wanted to sidestep the win, they could have settled for overtime instead of pushing for the game-winning field goal. They could have eschewed the field goal and thrown a Hail Mary. After all, kicker Nick Folk had a balky back. A case could have been made that he wasn’t up for it. In short, they could have found a way.
Instead, they found a way to win and probably cost themselves a few draft slots in the process. Will they regret it in the morning? Or next April? Maybe.
They’re 3-5 and the almost non-existent hope of New England landing Trevor Lawrence, this year’s “generational quarterback,” just went poof. Eight teams have fewer wins than the Patriots. They will probably settle in nicely to a top-15 pick when it’s all said and done.
Belichick probably wouldn’t take someone like Lawrence even if the Patriots did stumble their way to the top of the draft. He’d deal out of that spot and take two defensive linemen and a cornerback or something maniacal.
It’s exasperating to see a team 20 months removed from winning a Super Bowl be life-and-death with the winless Jets. And it's plain common sense to realize that the earlier you draft, the better chance you have of getting the player you want.
If you want this stay in NFL purgatory to be short, you lose. It seems simple. But it isn’t.
A head coach can’t look at his assistants and ask them all week to give everything they have to prepare and then take a flamethrower to that preparation when the game starts. He can’t ask players to sacrifice their bodies and brain cells just enough to make it look good then lose.
A proper tanking has to be executed by the GM. He knows his head coach will just take whoever he gives him and try his best to win with those players.
So the only way to circumvent that is to give his head coach overmatched players. Or inexperienced ones. Or to get the head coach to sit the good ones for performance or injury or something else. That’s a low-key tanking.
The Dolphins did a little bit of that in 2019. But they didn’t get the No. 1 pick because head coach Brian Flores did too good a job instilling a culture and getting wins late, including one over the Patriots in Week 17.
In the end, they kept their culture, got their quarterback with the fifth overall pick and are two games up on the Patriots. The rebuild is underway.
I suppose it’s possible that Bill Belichick the GM could execute a low-key tanking. But even if he did, Belichick the coach is going to work on game day to undermine that. And Monday night illustrated that.
This team’s roster isn’t very good right now. And Belichick – by saying the team “sold out” the past few years and is now in the process of getting right financially – is ostensibly saying that they are a little less than all-in this year. One eye is on 2021 and beyond.
It’s a strange dynamic to watch unfold.
Heading into this game, the Jets were dead last in just about every single offensive category. Then they spent the first 30 minutes of the game looking like the early 1980s Chargers. Joe Flacco – four years past his expiration date – threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and the Jets were halfway to 500 total yards.
Whatever halftime adjustments any fans were expecting the Patriots to make went poof in a hail of Flacco completions during an extended Jets touchdown drive that gobbled up the second half of the third quarter. Flacco threw for another 60 on that drive. He finished 18 for 26 for 262 yards with three touchdowns and a pick.
Some of the ugliness can be chalked up to missing their best defender at every level – defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. More of it needs to be chalked up to the fact that against San Francisco, Buffalo and now these Jets the defense has been shown to be ... not good.
They couldn’t bow up and stop the run against either the Niners or the Bills. Against the Jets, they decided to show more guys in the box and bring pressure. They couldn’t get home with the rush and the Jets' allegedly anemic receivers had plenty of room to operate against the Patriots secondary.
By the end of the third, Jets wideouts Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims combined for 163 receiving yards alternately beating corners Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson like drums.
The night started poorly for McCourty who got beaten by Mims for a 26-yard catch-and-run. It got worse when he got flagged for a DPI on the Jets last drive before halftime. It bottomed out when Flacco found Jamison Crowder with a ridiculous throw for a touchdown to make it 20-10 at half.
Jackson got beaten for a 50-yard touchdown to Perriman – right after being all but anointed an All-Pro by ESPN analyst Brian Griese – then got left stumbling by Perriman on a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Through it all, the Patriots just kept blitzing and blitzing.
Getting lit up by the Niners or the Bills is one thing. Getting demolished by the Jets with a game against the Ravens on the horizon? This disintegration happened quickly.
KEEPING THEM AFLOAT
The Patriots, trailing 27-17 halfway through the third quarter, had a third-and-1 from the Jets 10. After pounding the ball between the tackles all the way downfield, Josh McDaniels called for Cam Newton to bootleg right. He tripped over his own shoes and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal attempt.
Until the Jets got caught with 12 men on the field.
Given new life, the Patriots offense went … backwards. And wound up settling for the field goal about three minutes later.
PLAY CALLING DEBATE
The aforementioned third-and-1 call was debatable. Also a source of much social media conversation was McDaniels calling for Newton to line up in shotgun on a fourth-and-1 with James White next to Newton late in the first half.
Given that Newton’s about the size of LeBron James, most folks presumed a sneak. So the shotgun setup – even if it at least made the Jets think about lightening the box – was somewhat logical. Newton decided to hand it to White on the RPO and White got demolished.
Was it a mistake to go shotgun? Was it a mistake to have White back there? Was it a mistake to do anything other than run Newton? Maybe. But really, none of it may have mattered since center David Andrews got blown up on the play.
MORE FROM MEYERS
What Jakobi Meyers did Monday night was astounding. He was targeted 14 times and had 12 catches for 169 yards. The Jets really only had Meyers to stop and they couldn’t do it. Going into the game, Meyers had 11 catches for 125 yards.
The emergence of Meyers brings up two interesting questions. The first is: What took so long to get him involved? He had an outstanding camp and preseason in 2019 but when the season began, he slipped down the depth chart and fell into disuse. Tom Brady’s impatience with young receivers is well-documented and there was probably a preference on his part to throw to Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett before Meyers.
But that doesn’t explain this year when Meyers was almost invisible during camp and N'Keal Harry, Edelman, Damiere Byrd and Gunner Olszewski all got the lion’s share of the first team reps. Had Harry and Edelman not gotten hurt, would Meyers still be buried?
The second question is whether Harry – when he returns from his concussion – is able to unseat Meyers as the Patriots top target. The two can certainly work together in complementary roles at times. But if it comes down to determining which player is more reliable and more productive, there is no discussion.
Right after the game ended, I tossed out a poll on Twitter asking whether this was Newton’s best game. He went 27 for 35 for 274 yards, ran for two scores and engineered the game-tying field goal drive. He also took a whiplash-inducing hit in the first half that I’m surprised didn’t put him in concussion protocol for a spell.
But the people spoke and they said Cam’s performance in the loss to Seattle was better. Newton was 30 for 44 for 397 yards with a touchdown and a pick and he ran for 47 yards and two touchdowns.
I think Monday’s performance was better. There were no turnovers, the team was on a four-game skid and – even though the Jets aren’t in the same universe as the Seahawks – Newton had far less to work with on offense.
Either way, without Newton the Patriots would have lost.