Curran: Why Patriots' starters need more than a cameo in Vegas originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
You remember 2004, right? The Patriots were coming off a Super Bowl win, their second in three seasons. Tom Brady was in his fourth year in that Patriots offense with Charlie Weis coordinating and Dante Scarnecchia came back with an offensive line intact.
Good team. Experienced team. What would they need preseason for?
You might be surprised to learn that in the second of the team’s four preseason games, Brady played the entire first half and threw 27 passes. And in the third preseason game, he played until the start of the fourth quarter.
That’s how Bill Belichick used to operate in the days before his team made a habit of setting up joint practices during training camp.
Over the past decade, the Patriots have devalued actual preseason games for their front-line players with the rationale being that the reps they got in joint practices held more value.
Mac Jones got three drives last week against the Panthers. He was 4-for-8 for 61 yards and led a touchdown drive. After that, the second-year quarterback got to peel off his helmet and watch the rest of the game from the safety of the sidelines.
It's amazing to see just how much the joint practice has changed Belichick’s approach to preseason games.
In Belichick’s first season as Patriots head coach back in 2000, Drew Bledsoe played the entire first half of the Patriots' third preseason game and the first two drives of the last one.
In 2001, Bledsoe -- in the midst of a hellacious preseason -- played almost until there was 3:18 left in the third preseason game against Tampa. He was 10-for-21 for 82 yards. The team went 1-for-14 on third down (imagine 11 three-and-outs?!) and managed four first downs all game. As a result, Bledsoe ended up playing seven drives and almost the entire first half in the final preseason game.
And in 2002, coming off a Super Bowl win, Brady played seven possessions -- the entire first half -- against Philly in the third preseason game. Then he played into the second quarter of the final preseason game.
We’ll see how many series and throws Jones gets tonight after two days of joint practices with the Raiders, but you can be sure he’s not playing until the start of the fourth. He probably won’t throw 20 passes for the entire preseason.
That feels like a big missed opportunity for Jones and even more for the entire Patriots offense. This isn’t an experienced offensive line playing for a seasoned coach like Scarnecchia. It isn’t an offense being led by a successful longtime coordinator who can work seamlessly with his quarterback because they’ve been together for years.
It’s a reconfigured offensive line running a new offense with one of its primary coaches -- Matt Patricia -- spending time calling plays and coordinating. It’s an offense with no defined coordinator and a play-caller who’s been in Jones’ ear in a literal game situation inside a stadium against a foreign opponent for 16 plays so far.
Wednesday’s practice reportedly was a very good one for the Patriots offense. Does that mean it’s time to pass out the cigars and kick back for Zappe Time?
The case for playing Jones and the starters isn’t hard to make.
First, the sideline-to-field communication is going to be a critical component of the team’s early-season success.
Last week, the Patriots offense got a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty in the second quarter. The offense had three dead-ball penalties in the preseason opener. Sideline communication was a huge issue for the defense early in 2021 and at the end of last season there were far too many burned timeouts and delay-of-game penalties for the offense. And that was with an experienced coordinator/playcaller in Josh McDaniels.
You get from these preseason games what you put into them. And this Patriots team doesn't deserve the luxury of standing on the sidelines stifling yawns while the scrubs play.
Tom E. Curran
In two weeks, the Patriots will be in the heat and misery of Miami dealing with crowd noise, unexpected defensive alignments, blitzes, injuries, heat-related issues and multiple packages and substitutions. Why pass on a chance to get real-time reps in a stadium with officials on the field and the clock running with no chance to reset like there is in joint practices?
Second, the opener isn’t for 16 days. Now that there are just three fake games, there’s a ton of down time. So while it’s great that the team had two hot practices in Vegas, they didn’t work on Thursday, they probably won’t work Saturday and we’ll see on Sunday. If the starters don’t play much tonight, that’s a surprising amount of idle time.
Third, while nobody wants to see players dinged in preseason, there's a balance between protecting players for games that matter and getting the team ready. If the Patriots were a team with great continuity that was used to playing together in the same system and was guaranteed a spot in the NFL's Final Four? Hell, the last thing you want is to get an important player hurt.
But that’s not the Patriots. They aren’t close to being able to say, "OK, we got it." Playing well tonight won't guarantee that they do either. But it would be either fuel for confidence or proof that improvement is needed.
If it was a good idea for the 2004 Patriots to have Tom Brady throw the ball 27 times in the third preseason game and stay out there until the offense looked like it should, it should definitely be a good idea to do the same thing this year.
You get from these preseason games what you put into them. And this Patriots team doesn't deserve the luxury of standing on the sidelines stifling yawns while the scrubs play. THEY'RE IN A REBUILD, DAMMIT!