Thirteen thoughts on the Patriots’ win over the Dolphins …
1. It was odd Sunday to see someone other than Tom Brady orchestrating the Patriots’ offense. I can’t imagine how odd it was for someone a decade or two or three younger, who has known only Brady (with the occasional Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett or Matt Cassel cameo) during this franchise’s run of football prosperity. It’s strange to see someone other than Brady front and center on CBS’s promos, too. He was the center of everything for so long. Maybe it was different for you, but Sunday is when it really settled in that he’s no longer here.
2. It’s also when we realized that’s just fine. Cam Newton isn’t Brady, because no one has ever been. But he’s an exceptional quarterback in a different way, one with impossible charisma and, from what we saw during the Patriots’ 21-11 win, one with all of his superman skills intact. No, it wasn’t a perfect day for the Patriots; they let the Dolphins hang around too long. Newton wasn’t perfect, either. He needs to be quicker to abandon a bad play, as Tony Romo mentioned a few times on the broadcast). But it was a historic day, the official end of the Brady era and the beginning of something else intriguing, and this much we did learn: More often than not, watching Newton is going to be a lot of fun.
3. Newton completed 15 of 19 passes for 155 yards, ran – yes, a Patriots quarterback that runs by design, a welcome flashback to ’76 Steve Grogan – for 75 yards and two scores, and converted a crucial fourth-and-1 with under 6 minutes left to play to lead the Patriots to victory. Perhaps the most encouraging sign? I’m pretty sure we can set aside any concerns about Newton’s arm strength stemming from his shoulder injury two years ago. His first throw as a Patriot was a dart to Edelman that traveled 29 yards in the air, from the release at the Patriots’ 39 to when it hit Edelman’s hands at the Miami 32.
4. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Newton’s first completion as a Patriot. Edelman dropped the pass after absorbing a hit from Dolphins safety Bobby McCain, and a promising first drive fizzled out a few players later. Edelman had 10 drops last year and another in the single playoff game. His drops percentage, 9.6 percent, wasn’t brutal, but that is one area of his game he could tighten up this year. Receivers do tend to drop more catchable balls as they get older.
5. Newton’s first completion might have been his most impressive, a rifle shot to Ryan Izzo on the third possession that picked up 25 yards. He didn’t spread the ball around much, with Julian Edelman (five catches), N’Keal Harry (five) and James White (three)on the receiving end of 13 of his 15 completions. But that will probably change once Newton gets more comfortable in the offense and with the personnel. I’m really curious to see whether Devin Asiasi or Dalton Keene (who was inactive Sunday) emerges as a threat at tight end.
6. Speedy rookie J.J. Taylor had a reception during a third-quarter sequence in which he touched the ball three times in a row. He might end up being a secret weapon for this team, sort of a smaller version of Dion Lewis (which is saying something, since the diminutive Lewis wasn’t exactly a clone of Sam Cunningham). There is plenty of opportunity for young players to emerge this year. Taylor looked like he may be one. Second-year defensive back Jojuan Williams, who played a very physical game, might be another. And it was nice to see Derek Rivers, who has battled injuries for the first three years of his career, pick up a sack.
7. N’Keal Harry’s talent is obvious. Unfortunately, so too is his unreliability. The Patriots were on the verge of going up 21-3 late in the third quarter when Harry – who had been a significant part of the drive – fumbled the ball through the end zone while committing the sin of trying to stretch the ball to the pylon. The touchback – a dumb but longstanding rule – turned the ball over to the Dolphins, who, reinvigorated, charged down the field to cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-11. So maddening. The Patriots almost need to count on him, but he needs to prove they can.
8. Edelman’s first reception was the 600th of his career. Remarkable for a seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft who, as you may have heard, played quarterback in college. In case you were wondering like I was, his first reception came in Week 2 of the 2009 season, a 10-yard grab against the Jets en route to an 8-catch performance (on 16 targets). How long ago was that? Brady completed a pass to Joey Galloway that day before he found Edelman.
9. Tough to get a clear read on the defense’s performance Sunday, but it was at least encouraging given that they were down five starters from a year ago. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for just 191 yards and the Patriots picked him off three times, including a J.C. Jackson interception in the end zone when the Dolphins were still hanging around in the fourth quarter. But the Dolphins did have moments when they moved the ball well, especially on the 11-play touchdown drive in the third quarter after Harry’s fumble. Adrian Phillips, who had one of the interceptions, did a nice job in the Patrick Chung role, but depth at linebacker is still a question.
10. Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore picked off his first pass of the season in winning his rematch with DeVante Parker, who ended up leaving the game with a hamstring injury after making four catches for 47 yards. A report before the game that the Patriots considered trading Gilmore shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Patriots had cap issues at the time, cleared up by player opt-outs and other free agent departures. He might have brought a haul, and it’s always worth investigating, but it’s a pleasure to watch him play, and the Patriots’ playoff hopes this year are much more plausible with him anchoring the loaded defensive backfield.
11. Yeah, the aesthetics of the whole gameday scene took some getting used to. The juxtaposition of seeing the players knocking the heck out of each other on the field, doing their thing like it’s a normal game in a normal September, with not a soul in the seats, will always be weird for as long it lasts. The fake crowd noise, culled by NFL Films from four years of Patriots’ home games, was unobtrusive and close enough to the real thing. We’re pretty used to that from watching how the MLB, NHL, and NBA have deployed it.
12. It did seem like we heard more audio from the players, which is always a good thing. I believe it was David Andrews who yelled, “Hell, yeah!” after Newton’s touchdown run. And after Gilmore’s pick, a Patriot began yelling, “Easy money! Easy money!” Not sure we would have heard any of that under normal circumstances.
13. Got a chuckle out the Dolphins’ Jerome Baker putting his finger to his lips and flashing the “shhhhh” sign after sacking Newton on the Patriots’ first possession. Nice play, that particular celebration is more effective when there is, you know, a crowd.