Deep thinking helps them go the distance
MIAMI -- Anyone who ever has sketched a few ideas on a piece of paper can relate to what the Patriots accomplished yesterday. We've all been there before, haven't we? We have brilliant plans, either on paper or in our heads, but bringing those plans to life is a different -- and difficult -- story.
If you've got the time, the Patriots can tell you a few sad tales about wonderful plans that went awry in the Florida sun. That changed on their latest visit to Pro Player Stadium, a visit that ended with Troy Brown skipping into the end zone. Bill Belichick and his staff came up with a plan for the Dolphins on Tuesday. The plan was given to the players on Wednesday. They then practiced it, had meetings about it, played devil's advocate against it, cross-referenced it, test-drove it, and, finally, unveiled it.
The defensive plan was to rely on the fabled 46 defense. They would flood the running lanes with as many as eight guys to stop Ricky Williams. They would play man-to-man coverage without their best cover cornerback, Ty Law, in the lineup. They would force Jay Fiedler to beat them with his arm. They would do it with rookie Eugene Wilson switching between corner (his natural position) and free safety (which he began playing for the first time this year). They would do it by keeping the game close and coming up with a shocker in the end.
It sounds feasible in a meeting room. It appears to be feasible in a practice bubble. But try doing it in front of 73,650 people with the man Rodney Harrison calls "the best back in the league, bar none" staring at you through a tinted visor.
The Patriots did it, winning, 19-13, in overtime. They are now the first-place team in the AFC East, a position no one would have predicted after the actions (Buffalo) and words (Tom Jackson) of the season's first two weeks.
With all that said, it would be a tad disingenuous to say that everything yesterday was first drawn up on New England letterhead. As much as Romeo Crennel and Brad Seely love Richard Seymour, neither the defensive coordinator nor special teams coach planned for him to block a 35-yard Olindo Mare field goal attempt with two minutes left in regulation and the score tied at 13.
And when Mare got another 35-yard attempt in overtime, from the same spot of his first miss, more than a few Patriots had to be thinking about paying the Dolphins back on Dec. 7 in Foxborough. As Mare lined up for what most people thought would be the winner, tight end Christian Fauria approached Adam Vinatieri on the New England sideline.
"Hey, what are the chances that he misses this thing?" Fauria said to the kicker.
"Not very good," Vinatieri replied, knowing that Mare is the second-most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL.
Anyway, what's that cliche about the best-laid plans? Mare kicked off the infield dirt that the Marlins will be using tomorrow night in the World Series. His kick appeared to be going between the uprights, but then it took a sudden right and fell to the ground. The Dolphins couldn't quite explain it. Some of them said the kick was low, while others speculated that the dirt was a factor.
There haven't been many Miami nights when the Patriots have heard the home team having these could-have-been conversations. New England hadn't won in Miami since 1997, and never had won here in September or October. Part of the September/October streak can be attributed to heat, and part of it can be linked to the ultimate plan-buster, Dan Marino. (There is a sign on the East side of the stadium reminding players that Marino passed for 420 touchdowns in his career. Former Patriot Bruce Armstrong saw that staggering number last year and shook his head. "Four hundred and twenty touchdowns," the old lineman said. "Give me a [expletive] break.")
The point is that there isn't much difference between a great idea and a grounded one. Tom Brady never could get into a rhythm here last year because the game plan was nearly moot by halftime. There was also the issue of Jason Taylor, the svelte defensive end who makes left tackles miserable. Yesterday, Taylor played OK but was quiet when New England absolutely needed him to be.
That time was overtime. Tedy Bruschi started the sequence by blowing up a third-and-12 play from the Miami 45. Fiedler, who is often booed at home, wasn't expecting the linebacker to shoot through a gap and tug on his jersey. The quarterback was able to escape, but he was scrambling and frantically looking to throw. He tried to find Chris Chambers down the sideline, but Tyrone Poole read the play perfectly and intercepted it at the New England 18.
On the next play, Brady got the pocket time and peace of mind he didn't receive here in 2002. The Patriots had Fauria and Daniel Graham in the game, providing maximum protection. Brady dropped back, looked, and found Brown behind the Miami safeties.
When Brown got into the end zone, the entire team raced on the field. Jimmy Dee, who captures all the team's moments on video, screamed, "He's gone." Belichick, who had been in a good mood all weekend, tossed his headset into the air and smiled. This is the difference a year makes. Yesterday the head coach was throwing headphones in joy; last year he was throwing water bottles in frustration.
There were laughs and smiles everywhere. Harrison was saying that the coaching staff is giving him the freedom to make plays "and they're not overcoaching me." Poole was telling Belichick how much he appreciated him. And Buddy Ryan's legendary 46 was being praised for its role in the game (Ryan's son, Rob, coaches the team's outside linebackers).
There were two missed field goals by a great kicker. There was an 82-yard pass by a quarterback who is supposed to struggle with the deep ball. There were eight Patriot rookies on the field.
Well, you can't plan for everything.
Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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