Will anyone ever challenge the Patriots?

Victories by Atlanta and New England today wrapped up one of the most noncompetitive postseasons we’ve seen in recent memory. Let’s only hope the ATL-NE Superbowl will be better. I think it definitely has the potential to be, but let’s save that discussion for another day. Right now I want to focus on the team everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots.

Brady and Belichick will now head to their seventh (!!) Superbowl after clinching their what has to be a record fourteenth division title. I just want to ask a simple question: Why is it that nobody can ever beat, or even compete with, this team? It honestly feels like they can get to the Superbowl without even trying.

No, I’m not a fan of the New England Patriots. But I’m also not hating on them just for the pure sake of hating. As a fan, I want to see good football. Yes, I know the Patriots are good. They’re clearly one of the best coached teams and their players are some of the best at executing in the NFL. But still, it’s the NFL. Someone should be able to figure out how to beat them. They may be the Patriots, but they’re not impossible to beat. You just have to, obviously not make mistakes, but also, know how to play them.

But for the Patriots it’s not just that they win, but it’s that they win without barely any resistance. Lose Tom Brady for four games? It doesn’t matter. Lose your second stringer also? Doesn’t matter. Trade away your best defensive player? Doesn’t matter. I thought losing Gronkowski would be what would do them in as that’s what usually does, but it hasn’t stopped them yet.

In the divisional round, the Patriots played a sloppy game offensively… and still won by 18 points. And then we get to the Steelers today. It was a pretty sad showing; what was a 17-9 game at the half got out of hand pretty quickly and ended at 36-17, with the Steelers final score coming when the game was already out of reach. A couple years ago, when the Colts got crushed at New England, I chastised them for doing a generally terrible job defending the Pats offense, not just in that game, but throughout the decade. For the Steelers, it’s the same story. Teams just can’t get out of their own way vs New England.

I was pessimistic about this matchup for the Steelers from the start, not just the start of this game, but for most of the season as well–that is, if the Steelers were going to end up going to New England, I did not think they would succeed. That’s because the Steelers rarely ever play the Patriots well, and especially not at New England. This has been the case since about 2004, and regardless of what players are on the team, it rarely ever changes. You see Pittsburgh looking just as lousy, making the same mistakes, and not giving the kind of challenge to New England that they should for a team of their caliber.

Today we saw more of the same from Pittsburgh. More of the same ineffective tactics for defending the New England offense. Pittsburgh seemed largely overwhelmed with and unprepared for New England’s hurry up offense. They were often shuffling to line up and there were blown assignments and wide open receivers–not the first time that’s happened with these two. As usual, they played way too soft, gave receivers on the outside huge cushions, which allowed easy pitch and catches on quick outs and hitches, and allowed receivers to sit down in between zones (Edelman especially–we often saw sticks routes on 3rd and long) as well as run across the field on over routes through zones (no tackling by PIT) and run over the top of man. As usual, NE had little success running but had great success with play action and the spread game. Pittsburgh offensively wasn’t much better. Ben started off throwing the ball well, but they were overly stubborn with the run, showed no tempo late in the game, had a lot of drops, ran draws at the goal line, failed to get their playmakers involved, weren’t aggressive on 4th down, and had balls contested at the catch point in man-to-man coverage. The 4th and goal stop was a horrendous play call– a low percentage fade throw over the top from a tight formation that PIT had shown a couple times and NE had covered well.

Overall the main recurring problems for PIT against NE are the defense is way too passive with their zones and large cushions and often looks overwhelmed with NE’s spread tempo and ends up busting coverages. Some might say I’m being unfair because PIT was without Leveon Bell, but you can’t put the whole game on that, since these are issues for PIT that go back years before Bell was around, and more importantly, they’ve played well offensively without Bell plenty of times in the past. In fact, it almost seems like half their team gets suspended for drug use every year and they still find a way to put it together usually.

For Pittsburgh, I wonder if people are ever going to start questioning if coaching is a problem. I’m not saying it definitely is, but even though this is a good team, it just seems like a team that underwhelms to me so often. As I’ve mentioned, they always falter against NE. They also always have a few games a year where they play down to the competition (like their loss on the road to Miami this year). These few games either keep them out of the playoffs entirely or keep them out of homefield advantage. PIT isn’t going anywhere, but for a team with a hall of fame QB and an otherwise solid foundation, they should be making the playoffs every year and making deep playoff runs every few years, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

For New England, it’s another trip to the Superbowl, and it’s just annoying to sit and watch teams make the same mistakes against them over and over again. They have such a good home field advantage (check out some of these stats at the middle of the page) that with HFA throughout the playoffs they’re basically a lock to at least the AFC Championship if not the Superbowl, and in that division they’re basically a lock for the playoffs. You look at the AFC at the beginning of the year and ask, who can challenge them? PIT is never up to the task. With KC, Andy Reid always seems to choke in the playoffs and struggle with some clock management issue. The Jets had some success against them in the Ryan era, and they play NE well about half the time (and get blown out the other half), but they’re not going to be anywhere near the playoffs for a while. Peyton Manning’s retired, so he’s not stopping anymore Brady runs like he did in 06, 13, and 15. The Ravens and Giants both play NE very well, but half of the time they’re not even making the playoffs. Andrew Luck could be the guy eventually, but his team’s not even good enough to get him to the playoffs, and his coaching staff certainly isn’t good enough to match up with Bill Belichick. Brady will probably be retired by the time his Colts are ready to challenge for the AFC Title. (Although once Brady does retire, he could have multiple rings in his sight. They have to get the team together first though.)

So off New England goes to Houston to play Atlanta for Superbowl LI. For the sake of all of us NFL fans, I ask you, Atlanta, please give us a game that’s worth watching, and don’t hand this thing over to NE.

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The Bears Release Robbie Gould

In a somewhat surprising move, the Chicago Bears have parted ways with their longtime kicker, Robbie Gould. The move comes less than a week before the start of the season. Gould was Chicago’s all time leading scorer with 1207 points and was the most accurate kicker in franchise history. He had been with the team since 2005, and currently ranks ninth all time in career field goal accuracy percentage at 85.449%. <pfref>

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Robbie Gould is the Bears all time Leading Scorer

 

Gould hit on 33 of 39 field goals last year, good for an accuracy percentage of 84.6%, ranked 19th in the league. But he had crucial misses in back to back weeks: In week 13, Gould had ugly misses of 40 and 36 yards, the latter of which would have won the game. Then, in week 14, Gould missed a game-tyer late from 51 (career long is 58). The Bears went on to lose both games. They finished the season 6-10. That’s a potential extra two wins cost because of your kicker. Coaches have very little patience for that stuff.

Gould also appeared to be getting progressively worse on his kickoffs. According to teamrankings.com, his 46.99 touchback percentage ranked 27th in the league. And according to footballdb.com, his average kickoff distance of 60.3 yards ranked dead last. (Although, Bleacher Report’s Kicker Rankings have him at 63.4 yards, so not positive what the correct number is there.) This was a kicker once known for his strong leg; although to be fair, leg strength on field goals doesn’t always translate to kickoffs, and vice versa. Gould did, however, try to increase his weight over the offseason, which I can’t imagine would be for any reason other than adding strength.

The fall for kickers is often swift and unforgiving. Billy Cundiff used to be a pro bowl kicker for the Ravens. He was never anywhere near as good as their current kicker, Justin Tucker, but he hit on 26/29 (89.7%) in 2010, good for sixth in the league. He also led the league with a ridiculous 40 touchbacks in 2010, back when kickoffs were still from the 30 yard line. That was a record for kickoffs after the instatement of the K-ball rule. The Ravens signed him to a long term extension after the 2010 season.

We all know where this is going. In the 2011 AFC Championship game, Cundiff missed a 32 yard chip shot to send the game to overtime in Foxborough with 15 seconds left, and the Patriots went on to lose to the Giants in the Superbowl (hehe). He was released before next season started.

I feel bad for Cundiff, as I don’t really entirely blame him for missing the kick. Never talked about is the fact that the scoreboard at Foxborough was actually behind a down, causing Cundiff to think it was only 3rd down when it was actually 4th. This caused Cundiff to be late coming onto the field, as the replay shows him running to get to the play with the clock at 15 seconds and counting. As a result, he likely rushed the kick, causing him to over-rotate his hips and miss wide left. Kickers are creatures of routine like no other. Any time that routine is off, chaos can ensue.

Ultimately though, none of this mattered. The NFL is a results oriented business. Cundiff was cut. He kicked here and there for the Redskins and Browns, but never kicked higher than 80 percent in a season after the Ravens cut him. He’s currently unsigned.

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Billy Cundiff misses a chip shot to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2011

 

Blair Walsh also had a big time miss in the playoffs that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Walsh missed a go ahead 27 yarder with 26 seconds left in the game in last year’s divisional round vs Seattle. But the punter, Jeff Locke, gave Walsh the laces for the second time that day. Who knows whether this truly affected that specific kick or not, but anyone who’s seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective knows that giving the kicker the laces is a no-no. The Vikings chose to stick with their young kicker, but a few weeks ago in the preseason at Seattle, he missed a longer kick with almost the exact same trajectory. It’s just one kick, but the jury is still out as to whether Walsh will bounce back or not.

Bouncing back as a kicker is tough. The position is so mental. Josh Scobee played ten years with the Jaguars, but he was released in 2014. He was also released by the Steelers last year after going just 6/10, and missing two late kicks against Baltimore that could have put the game away. He was injured last year, but again, it’s results that matter in this business.

Good kickers are around for so long, due to the non-contact nature of the position, that they often become part of the identity of the team, as well as some of the more well known faces of the league. Adam Vinatieri, currently the oldest player in the NFL, has been playing in the league since 1996. That’s absolutely ancient for this league. He’s older than the Giants new coach, for crying out loud! Gould has been around for a while and has been one of the better kickers in the league. I feel bad for Gould. It would have been nice to see him retire a Bear. Apparently, he struggled during the preseason. And like I said, he wasn’t great last year. I know it’s a brutal business, but the Bears could have at least given him a chance to rebound. If they were worried about money, they could have asked him to take a pay cut. That’s what the Packers did with Mason Crosby after his horrendous 2012 season in which he hit just 21 of 33 for 63.6%. I was surprised when they didn’t cut him, but he bounced back nicely and has been above 81% every season since. I believe he was just extended.

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Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 against Brett Favre’s Packers (Left). Vinatieri, now a Colt (Right), continues to be one of the best kickers in the NFL today.

 

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Phil Dawson, 41, after a successful career with the Browns, continues to be an asset with the 49ers.

 

Do kickers ever find life on new teams after such long tenures with their first team? David Akers, after 11 years with the Eagles, had a great season with the 49ers in 2011, but struggled in 2012 and was cut after the season ended. He is now retired. Phil Dawson, one of the best kickers in the league, was released after 13 years with the Browns and is now in his 4th season with the 49ers. He is still going strong. (The Niners did, however, take him off kickoff duty, just like the Colts did with Vinatieri in 2009.) Olindo Mare stands out as similar to the Gould situation because, although he, unlike Gould, bounced around teams for a lot of his career, Mare missed some late crucial field goals in 2011 for the 6-10 Panthers, and was cut the year after. (Unlike Gould, Mare was a great kickoff man that year.) The Panthers replaced Mare with Graham Gano, a guy who’s had a really nice turnaround in Carolina after a few terrible seasons in Washington. Gano’s different however because he was still young when he went to Carolina and hadn’t been with Washington for that long. He also made some really noticeable mechanical changes after coming to Carolina; he looks like a different kicker. Gould doesn’t struggle mechanically. He’s always been a really smooth and easy kicker. He just needs to make the kicks. And Gould is 34 years old. Even though like I said, age isn’t as much as an issue for kickers in terms of the body wearing down, it’s still the case that when older kickers start to falter, it usually tends to be pretty final. Kicking is just a position that’s so mental, and a position where there’s just not a lot of tolerance for error.

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Robbie Gould had a great ten years with the Bears. I wish him all the best. If the Giants do end up getting rid of Josh Brown because of the recent domestic abuse incidents that are starting to come to light, I would be happy to give Gould a shot in Blue.

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