As one of the cool duties that comes with that new byline up there, I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. This column is still a work in progress in Week 1, something you probably won't need to be reminded of after reading it. Some features will reoccur every week, and others will be opponent-specific or even one-and-done. But it will be right here every Friday around noon, and I think it's going to be fun. Hope you do too.
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN Tom Brady I'LL BE WATCHING
1. Brandon Lloyd, wide receiver: He does not excel in one specific aspect of playing wide receiver like slot machine Wes Welker or deep threat Randy Moss do/did, but he's the most well-rounded receiver the Patriots have had in Tom Brady's time here. He'll surpass Chad Ochocinco's 2011 season output of 15 receptions after Week 3.
2. Ras-I Dowling, cornerback: If Devin McCourty -- a bright and talented player who has already succeeded in the NFL -- can overcome his disappointing sophomore season and one other young defensive back emerges, the Patriots should be able to make significant progress in their pass defense. Perhaps they'll even get off the field on third down once in a while. The best hope is that Dowling, who drew comparisons to McCourty as the first pick in the second round a year ago, becomes that player.
3. Brian Waters, guard: Whaddaya mean he's not here? HIS NAMEPLATE IS STILL ON HIS LOCKER! [Update: Um, it's not anymore.] While the temptation to fret is real -- Waters probably was their best lineman a year ago, though Matt Light had a darned good year -- Dante Scarnecchia will turn these guys into a cohesive unit with or without him.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
I'm not one with a lot of gripes, so this will probably be a recurring feature at best. And I hate to be a scold or a nag or a finger-waver or ... well, you know. And I should note this applies to a minority of Patriots fans -- a vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless. Now with all of the qualifiers out of the way, let me just make this request. Please stop overreacting to every little unexpected transaction Bill Belichick makes. Please. Sure, it was disappointing to see Deion Branch, a likable dude and a big-game player, get cut. And it was surprising that Branch, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte' Stallworth all got cut, though it's not out of the realm of possibility that at least one returns. And Belichick has had his share of foibles in free agency. But geez, the Patriots are 123-37 over the past decade, an almost unfathomable run of excellent in an era of free agency and relative parity. One-twenty-three and thirty-seven! And yet Belichick gets relentlessly second-guessed in the comments sections and mailbags by some of the couch-bound general managers among us as if he's football's version of Isiah Thomas or something. Before the 2010 draft, the consensus yelp was that the Patriots didn't have any tight ends. Enter Gronk and Hernandez. Two-plus years later, now the yelp is that he's accumulating too many tight ends at the expense of receivers. I happen to appreciate a coach/personnel boss who makes every decision based on who fits and who belongs, not on name recognition and past accomplishment. Please, let it play out -- chances are it's all going to be better than OK.
[Addendum: If the Patriots really are cheaping out on Waters, I'm right there with you on this one. Squawk away, because it's absurd. Also, hello, my name is Hypocrite.]
LATEST EVIDENCE THAT CHRIS BALLARD IS SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S MOST UNSUNG TAKEOUT WRITER
A year or so ago, Ballard wrote a feature on free-thinking former quarterback Jake Plummer that ranks as one of my favorite pieces I've ever read in the magazine. His piece in last week's issue on Rob Gronkowski is nearly as good, which means it's downright brilliant. Segments such as the one that follows here further confirmed my perception of Gronk as a fratboy/jock prototype -- yes, usually an annoying phylum for sure -- who is so genuine and guileless that you can't help but love the guy.
He paused, grabbed a nearby pillow, cradled it like a football. "I like going out, meeting new people, having a good time," he continued. "I guess that's why I'm all over the papers. I don't have any girlfriends, no kids. Basically I work out two hours every single day, and then I have 12 hours to do whatever I want."
He looked at me, and I nodded, because it did sound simple. In 10 years, Gronkowski will be worried about so much: concussions and aching joints, possibly a wife and children, bad publicity, who knows what else. For now, though, he exists in that electric, untenable flash of time that is being young, supremely gifted and on top of the world. He is, for a fleeting moment, invincible.
Here's hoping the moment isn't so fleeting, because Gronk is about as fun as it gets.
RANDOM FOOTAGE OF A PATRIOTS-OILERS/TITANS MATCHUP FROM 1975
Half-formed takeaways from a 1 minute 34 second clip: Mack Herron could scoot, though that didn't help him much after he put the ball on the ground ... Prentice McCray tackled like he was foreshadowing the ascent of Asante Samuel ... Oilers running back Don Hardeman -- nicknamed "Jaws,'' Pat Summerall tells us -- looked like a fierce runner, just not as fierce as the guy who replaced him three years later. Then again, no one I've seen ran with as much ferocity as Earl Campbell.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Warren Moon is 55 years old, and I still wouldn't bet against him having a better fastball now than anyone who will suit up at quarterback for the Titans Sunday. Save for Jeff George -- yes, Jeff George -- nobody zipped a tight spiral more effortlessly than Moon. Imagine the numbers he'd have put up if he got a chance in the NFL before he was 28 years old.
PREDICTION, ALSO KNOWN AS "DO THE TITANS HAVE A SNOWBALL'S CHANCE IN PHIL SIMMS'S FACE OF WINNING?"
Well, sure they do -- I mean, Chad Henne dropped 416 yards on the Patriots in Week 1 last year, and chances are Jake Locker will perform well enough this year that he doesn't go the Henne route and end up banished to Jacksonville as a backup. Of course, the Dolphins didn't actually win that game, losing 38-24. The Titans are a tough, well-coached, well-rounded team, and running back Chris Johnson (CJ2K in 2010, CJ1.047K last year) can score from anywhere on the field. But the Patriots scored at least 30 points in each of their first five games last year, and their offense is deeper and more versatile this year than it was a season ago. The Titans won't be able to keep up. Few will. Patriots 34, Titans 17.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.