Fourteen quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards in the 2011 regular season opening weekend, blowing out Vegas scoring odds and cementing the NFL’s growing reputation as a pass-first league. And in this new era, the New England Patriots possess one of the best quarterbacks to ever play.
Voted last season as the first unanimous league MVP ever, Tom Brady started 2011 with 517 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Patriots scored at will, and it looks like they are set up to do such all season.
No one is surprised by the production of Brady’s offense on Monday night. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty to take away from their season-opener in Miami. It wasn’t long ago that even the Super Bowl-bound Patriots found themselves consistently stymied by the Miami Dolphins, most especially at what is now called Sun Life Stadium. Since the establishment of the Brady/Belichick era, the Patriots have swept the season series with the Dolphins just three times.
So what did we learn last night from the Patriots beating the Dolphins 38-24 in their first game of the season?
1. Patriots defense doesn’t look so bad-- Yes, it was Chad Henne. But it was Chad Henne playing perhaps the best game he has had as an NFL quarterback. And Miami may not have the offensive power of the teams with elite QB’s, but they do have Brandon Marshall who can be among the best in the league when he is playing at his best. Also, don’t overlook guys like TE Anthony Fasano and WR Brian Hartline who showed their own penchant for big plays; Fasano particularly with his one handed catch over some very good coverage by Devin McCourty. While McCourty may not have looked like the interception machine that he was last year, he did make 11 tackles and was often up against Marshall who, at 6’4" 230lbs. is one of the more physically imposing wide receivers that he will match up against this year.
2. Chad Ochocinco is totally out of his league -- This doesn’t mean that he’ll never get with the program. He certainly has the ability and the motivation to do so. But it’s interesting to see a guy who thrived and made Pro Bowls with another team come into the Belichick system and be so obviously overwhelmed. The final straw for most people was last night’s fiasco in which a Brady first down completion to Gronkowski was called back due an illegal formation in which Ochocinco failed "Wide receiver 101." On the other hand, he was robbed of a great catch at the end of the second quarter when a Dolphins defensive back blatantly escaped a pass interference penalty. There is definitely hope for him if he is able to stop making what Bill Belichick referred to as "bad football" decisions.
3. Albert Haynesworth is out of shape, sure, but he still made some plays --Let’s just say, made an impact. He didn’t make the type of impact that he is capable of, and he certainly isn’t in top form. But he seemed to work well with Wilfork on the line, read the opposing offensive schemes, and made some big tackles. He covered well and helped get the type of pressure on Henne later in the game that the quarterback didn’t seem to deal with in the first half. He looked interested and involved and engaged, which is more than one can say for any one game he played for the Washington Redskins. If this first game was any indication of his intentions for the season, the Patriot’s could be looking at a guy that will make a big difference for their defense.
4. The two tight-end sets are the future of this offense – Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have added a dimension to the Patriot’s offense that nobody has really ever seen in the NFL. Equally dynamic, each of the sophomore tight ends brings a skill type to the field that is tough to defend. At 6’6", "Gronk" as he is affectionately known, is built like a linebacker with tight end speed and is nearly un-coverable, especially in the end zone. Where Belichick used to use Mike Vrabel in the end zone, he now has the even better option of Gronkowski. He is also an excellent blocker, and can adjust to get himself open when Brady might be in a tight spot or caught scrambling outside of the pocket. Aaron Hernandez compliments with tight end size and wide receiver quickness. His cuts and subsequent yards after the catch help him open up long runs, and he’s tougher to bring down than Welker and Branch-sized receivers. The two of them combine for 13 catches and over 180 yards in the season opener; and could be one of the most dependable offensive double threats in the league.
5. Wes Welker is still under-rated -- maybe the 2007 season with Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth spoiled everyone, when they combined with Welker and Brady for a passing game that seemed to transcend reality. It was like watching an absurd version of Madden NFL playing out on our televisions every weekend. But since then, Welker has been one of the most consistent receivers in the NFL, despite his injury in the 2009 season. His 99 yard touchdown catch was the exception and not the rule, but his ability to shake defenders, stay on his feet, and regain speed down the seam is undeniable. Brady puts the ball in a spot where only Welker can catch it, and Welker catches the ball in places where only Brady could throw it. Their chemistry is tangible. It's hard to believe that some think the Patriots could let him go after this season, and for a quarterback who has supposedly never had "a guy" before, Welker looks awfully like Brady's guy.