Welcome to the Wednesday War Room, where Yahoo Sports’ football minds kick around the topics of the day. Got an idea for a question you want us to kick around? Email us here. Today, we’re talking the problematic Patriots and the first quarter MVP. Onward!
Question 1: What’s up with the New England Patriots? Normal early-season jitters, or foreshadowing of a train wreck?
Does anyone actually believe the Patriots dynasty is about to fall? I certainly don’t. Sure, New England’s defense is struggling right now, but it was bound to have a drop off following last year’s stellar effort and it has played two games without Dont’a Hightower – arguably its most important player. I suspect things on the defensive side will balance out somewhere between 2016’s unit and 2017’s so far and everything will be fine because guess what: The offense has scored the second-most points in the league. Tom Brady is still Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is still the best coach in the NFL. Losses to a 4-0 Kansas City team and a 3-1 Carolina squad only look worse because everyone believed this team had a legitimate shot at 19-0.
At some point we have to acknowledge that the Patriots have some significant issues. That’s not to say they won’t get fixed to some extent. But we’re talking about not only the worst defense in the NFL, but a defense that’s on pace to allow the most yards in NFL history. Bill Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia will adjust and they’ll improve. But will they go from this horrendous pace to a top-five defense? Doubtful. Consider this: The Patriots could shave 100 yards allowed per game off their average and they’d still rank 25th in the NFL. To become a mediocre defense would require an enormous leap. They can still win big this season but it’s not going to come easy.
There may very well be significant issues with the Patriots play right now. Their defense ranks last in the league in yards allowed per game (456.8) and second-to-last in points allowed per game (32), and yet I can’t help but laugh at the idea that this is any more than early-season kinks. That’s partially because New England has the best passing offense in the league, and partially because they still have Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and a slew of talent littered across the roster and coaching staff. Don’t insult the Patriot Way™. New England is still the team to beat until it’s been eliminated from the playoff race. Sorry, Bills.
The Patriots’ main issue is a sluggish defense with gaping holes across each level. Perhaps most importantly, the pass rush has been nonexistent. Rob Ninkovich’s retirement has been a killer, as has the departure of defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard to Indy – not to mention trading the versatile duo of Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. The result has been a measly 8 sacks (which is fifth worst in the NFL) and worse, a complete inability to create quarterback pressures. The secondary has arguably been even less effective. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore – who inked a five-year, $65M deal in the offseason – has looked confused and slow, repeatedly getting burned with foolish penalties and deep balls. Oh, and his counterpart, Malcolm Butler, has been so inept that he was benched to start the Saints game. As a whole, the defense ranks 31st in points allowed, 30th in big plays and last in both total yards per game (456.8) and yards per play (7.2) allowed.
The Patriots have problems on the defensive side of the ball. A lot of them. They’re giving up the highest opposing quarterback rating (116.5) in the league. The next two closest teams are the woeful Browns and the not-quite-as-woeful-but-still-woeful Dolphins. The Pats have just eight sacks this season, tied for 27th, and that’s despite facing the 11th-most pass attempts. They’re also allowing 5.06 yards per carry, second-worst in the NFL. If you looked at this portfolio without knowing the team name behind it, this would all spell train wreck. But it’s the Patriots, who I would call a train wreck if they were 1-3. But they’re 2-2 in a division that isn’t chock-full of contenders. They also have this guy named Tom Brady, who rescued them against the Texans and might have to continue to play hero throughout the rest of the season. Yes, the defense has been atrocious. There’s no two ways around that. But once Dont’a Hightower gets back closer to 100 percent, things will slowly improve. And even if the Patriots do end up with a bottom-10 defense, I’m still confident they cruise to the AFC East title.
You’ll pardon me if I don’t either a) shed any tears over the Patriots’ current woes or b) assume for a second they won’t shake off their current malaise and return 10 times stronger later this season, allowing teams to get out to double-digit leads only to surge back and break their spirit. The Brady mystique will one day fade; the Belichick mysticism will one day dissipate. Today is not that day. They’ll roll into the playoffs 12-4, they’ll dust the Bills or the Texans in the first round, and they’ll be on their way to another title. It gives me no joy to type these words, but that doesn’t make them any less true.
Shalise Manza Young
You may or may not know this, but I covered the Patriots for almost 10 years (I feel like a one-hit wonder singer who spends the rest of his/her life living off the royalties from that one song. Which also makes me wonder, where’s Toni Basil these days?). And in that time, I learned one thing above everything else: never count out Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots. You just can’t. In 2006, when Belichick traded away Deion Branch rather than pay him, leaving Brady without his best receiver and a group of sub-par players in Branch’s place, Brady darn near got that offense to the Super Bowl. In 2011, Belichick let New England play with one of the single worst secondaries the NFL has ever seen, and they almost won the Super Bowl. In 2015, the Patriots were 2-2 after being blasted in Kansas City and won the Super Bowl. And then there’s earlier this year and 28-3. So yes, there are problems, but it is way too early for me to think the Patriots won’t right the ship.
Question 2: We’re one-fourth of the way through the season, and that means it’s time for way-too-early judgments. Who’s your MVP so far?
Kareem Hunt is the MVP right now. He’s leading the league in rushing yards by a mile and he’s the best player on the NFL’s only undefeated team. What more could you ask? The rookie sensation has been simply fantastic for a normally pedestrian Chiefs offense. Kansas City finished 20th in yards per game last year, let Jeremy Maclin go, stayed with Alex Smith and added Hunt. The result? Second in the league in yards per game through four games. Hunt’s been a revelation for this team, and his ability makes defending play-action impossible. Need more? He’s the best closer in the NFL. Hunt is averaging 93 yards per second half this season. That’s more than what 10 teams are averaging per game. He would lead the league in rushing yards if you only counted his second halves. That’s MVP-caliber stuff. –Pereles
Tom Brady! I mean why make things complicated? Brady leads the league in passing yardage and is tied with Aaron Rodgers with his 10 touchdowns. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m not sure the Julian Edelman injury has bothered him even a little bit. Plenty of others are deserving, including the unlikely Alex Smith, but Brady – at 40 years young – gets my vote at the quarter-pole. –Schultz
It feels so lazy to just look at the best team in the league and point to their quarterback as MVP, but how do you argue for anyone over the Chiefs’ Alex Smith right now? His league-leading 124.2 QBR among qualified starters just barely begins to explain how much he adds to a 4-0 Kansas City team. Sure he’s got stud playmakers in Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to work with, but his ability to get them the ball is only surpassed by his pocket presence and decision-making. Monday night’s performance against Washington was only the latest example. That’s to say nothing of the fact that Smith (89 yards on 18 carries) is right there with Cam Newton (90 yards on 22 carries) and Tyrod Taylor (118 yards on 31 carries) in rushing by a quarterback. Find me another 33-year-old QB who adds a new emphasis on mobility to his game. What Smith is doing right now is special. And it’s why Kansas City is sitting atop the NFL. –Schuster
I’m with Blake – it seems a little too easy to say Alex Smith because his team is the last in the league without a loss, but it’s not wrong to say it either. Smith has been sensational. He leads the league in passer rating (124.2), completion percentage (76.0!), has eight touchdowns and no interceptions, and has three game-winning drives in four wins. Heck, Captain Checkdown is even posting a yards per attempt mark of 8.8, which would be far and away the best of his career. Maybe it’s the fact that he could be a free agent after this year – his contract goes through 2018, but the team has an out after this season – and/or the presence of Patrick Mahomes; whatever it is, Smith is playing incredibly well for the 4-0 Chiefs. –Young
Let me start by acknowledging picking anyone but a quarterback for MVP is foolish – when J.J. Watt’s all-time great season couldn’t beat Aaron Rodgers for MVP in 2014, that sent the message that if you don’t play quarterback, don’t bother applying. That said, the most deserving MVP so far is Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. The Chiefs are 4-0 and having a big-time playmaker like Hunt has changed their overall outlook. And it’s not just splash plays either, in a tough game Monday night, Hunt just consistently got chunks of yards on Washington to sustain drives. He’s impressive. That said, he’s not a quarterback so he has no chance of actually winning. –Schwab
I’m fully aboard the Jared Goff bandwagon. While Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady are certainly strong candidates for MVP, the Rams’ top-ranked (!!!) offense simply isn’t the same if Goff doesn’t show he’s at the very least an adequate passer. Four weeks in, Goff hasn’t just shown he’s adequate, he’s played at a downright elite level. Goff ranks in the top 10 in every statistical passing category for the 3-1 Rams, and that incredible turnaround in his second year has helped Todd Gurley shake off his own awful sophomore season to rank second in rushing behind Kareem Hunt. I definitely won’t regret this paragraph in three months. –Sulla
Gotta be Colin Kaepernick, right? No player has cast a longer shadow over the NFL this season, and since we haven’t seen him actually play, we have to assume his skills are superior to any three-INT chump now on a roster, don’t we? (This is what’s known as “humor,” folks, no anthem screeds needed.) –Busbee
That’ll do it for this round! If you’ve got a topic you’d like us to kick around, hit us up right here. See you next week!
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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