Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! This week, I reached out to YOU the fans to see what issues your team has that you'd like me to fix. Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 14. Now, let's get to the first response:
Much has been made of Tom Brady's sound bites during New England's loss at Houston. His comments toward his receivers weren't flattering, and with that followed immediate chatter about the inevitable demise of the Patriots' dynasty with Bill Belichick and Brady that has lasted almost two decades. While it is fresh in everyone's mind, I have heard it all before and witnessed the Patriots go on to figure out their issues and address them on the practice fields and in meeting halls.
Julian Edelman was not always Julian Edelman. In fact, he was little used for most of his first four years in the league. One Sunday afternoon in Buffalo in 2011, Brady had a then-rare and poor outing where he threw four picks. In that game, Edelman ran a wrong route that ended up in a pick and Brady blew up on his receiver following the miscue. I am fairly certain that Edelman took a seat at the end of the bench for the rest of the game. Seven seasons later, he was named the MVP of Super Bowl LIII. So these squabbles have been worked out before, but make no mistake about it, they were very real last week.
Let's quickly recap. On the Patriots' opening drive against the Texans, Brady drove the offense from their own 24-yard line to the Texans' 5, converting a pair of third downs on passes to Edelman. But on third-and-goal with Edelman and rookie Jakobi Meyers both doubled, Brady threw the ball to an open spot in the end zone expecting Phillip Dorsett to continue moving toward the back of the end zone. Dorsett choked it down and the ball was incomplete. Brady grabbed his helmet with both hands in frustration as the field-goal team took the field. On the next series, Brady threw the ball on third-and-4 to rookie N'Keal Harry, who was in tight coverage against Bradley Roby. The defender muscled Harry for the ball and made a house call for a touchdown -- further brewing Brady's frustration.
During their third series when facing third-and-6, Brady and Meyers were not on the same page as the veteran passer motioned him to convert the out route into an out-and-up. Meyers was late to Brady's signal, which led to an incompletion and another first-half punt. Then, trailing 14-3 with 59 seconds remaining until halftime, Brady saw a chance to take a shot downfield with Lonnie Johnson matched up on Dorsett. The QB had great protection and launched a throw that fell flat at the Texans' 11-yard line. The issue was that Dorsett pulled up at the 31.
I could do more of this chapter and verse, but it would only exacerbate a problem the Patriots must correct, if they intend to finish December in a fashion t hat will make them a viable Super Bowl contender. The defense and special teams have carried this team to a lofty 10-2 record. A fairly soft schedule has also helped.
The right their wrong, I expect the Patriots to work on their timing in the pass game like never before. That could involve simplifying things for younger players like Meyers and Harry. While it is a huge advantage that Brady has been in one system for 20 years and use anything reuse elements that have helped him win against a particular scheme in the past, he can only be as effective as the players around him. It's up to Brady to make sure everyone knows and understands what he sees because the Patriots need all of their players to get involved going forward. Gronk isn't going to bail Brady out this time. Brady knows that, so I expect him to do what he can to simplify and help his receiving corps. Hopefully we see progress this weekend in Sunday's bout with Kansas City.
The Philadelphia Eagles are mired in a three-game slump and are playing the worst football of the Doug Pederson era. Nothing was as bad as the ugly defeat to the hands of the Miami Dolphins last weekend, yet if they win their final four games against teams with a combined 13-36 record, there's a chance the birds could make a playoff appearance. The schedule appears tissue soft starting with a home game on Monday night against the Giants and Eli Manning, who hasn't played since Week 2. I'm sure Eli studied Philly's Sunday performance, in which Ryan FItzpatrick and DeVante Parker shredded the secondary time and time again. Parker looked more like Randy Moss in 2007 while Fitzpatrick resembled the Dan Marino who tossed 48 touchdowns in his second season with the Dolphins. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills didn't play well, and Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki also toasted other parts of the secondary.
If the Eagles want to entertain getting hot in December like they have the last two seasons, this secondary has to improve. I believe their best cornerback is Avonte Maddox, who started the final five games of last season when Mills was injured. Maddox was in a big win against the Rams down the stretch and had an interception in the Eagles' playoff win over the Bears. His drawback is he is only 5-foot-9, or so people say. I say, "So what?" Joe Haden and Denzel Ward measure the same, and you can't tell the difference when you watch all three play. The problem surrounding Maddox is that he is also the best nickel corner, so he often plays inside against the WR3 or the slot receiver. But now that Cre'Von LeBlanc is finally healthy for the first time this season, I say put LeBlanc at nickel, where he excelled at the end of last season, and put Maddox at left corner.
Now, if defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz doesn't see his personnel the way I see it, then he must decide: Are the Eagles a better zone team, which he prefers, or a better man-to-man team?
If they stay zone, they must have more urgency when the ball is in the air. Last week, Fitzpatrick got an assist from perfect conditions, but it's likely that the Eagles' D could get help from Old Man Winter down the stretch, as throws become a little less perfect this time of year. Regardless, they need to have better technique on those 50/50 balls. It starts with getting in better position when the ball is in the air. I thought both Darby and Mills appeared flat-footed against Parker last week.
Before the snow began to pile up on the frozen turf at MetLife Stadium last week, I was already screaming at my video screen watching the New York Giants lose their eighth game in a row. On the opening drive faced with a third-and-1, the Packers played a diamond defense covering the two guards and the Giants center was left protecting middle linebacker Blake Martinez. It's not a new scheme -- we saw it in Green Bay's season opener -- but I mention it because the Giants had to practice their inside zone play against this look all week leading up to the game. Instead, on that play, center Jon Halapio snapped the ball to Daniel Jones and went to the right while left guard Will Hernandez went to his left to help Nate Solder. Green Bay nose tackle Ken Clark went untouched and crashed into Saquon Barkley for a 3-yard loss. Barkley never had a chance to escape or elude the tackle, and the Giants were forced to put 90 seconds into the contest.
There are many contributions to the Giants' eight-game skid, and there is no shortage of people to blame or reasons why another season has turned into a disaster. But the play of the offensive line is the biggest head-scratcher. They have a lot of experience, including left guard Hernandez, who has lined up on every snap over the past 28 games. Kevin Zeitler was acquired via trade with Cleveland for Olivier Vernon, which seemed like a valuable move if Zeitler helped solidify the Giants' O-line that would protect the quarterback and pave the way for the 2018 Rookie of the Year. It made perfect sense on paper.
But none of that has happened, so this is where the autopsy of the season must begin. As a former offensive lineman myself, I can tell you that communication along the unit is our glue. Many times it is nonverbal because we can look to each other or echo the snap count breaking out of the huddle. If you're around the game long enough, you realize that every offensive line has their own signals. One summer, I was invited by the Packers to sit in an offensive line installation room during training camp. The coach was going through audibles when Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre walked in and said, "Here is what we're gonna do. We need to clean up and simplify what our signals are." In 15 minutes, there were no questions. I was impressed by the dictatorship of Favre.
I think this is what the Giants need to do -- clean up the communication on assignments with one voice. No more of the center looking to the left guard AFTER the play saying, "I thought ..." It has to be clean and communication must be clear between the five guys up front. I'm not leaving the tight ends out because they are guilty as well. Giants offensive line coach Hal Hunter has been around a long time, and he feels the heat (as he should). Perhaps Eli's return to the lineup will give the unit the leader they need to take charge with calls, audibles and communication. If they clean it up and stop the mental errors, it's possible the Giants could start to see some success on offense.