Five observations from the Patriots' 34-14 loss to the Browns on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium:
1. Relating to Rob Gronkowski and his tough day. The fair-catch mishap on the first kickoff is a sign of a rookie not understanding the situation. When you're an upback on the kickoff return team, on that wing, if the ball is coming to you and you make a fair-catch signal, that tells everyone else that you've got it. They all expect you to catch it because you've made the fair-catch signal. You've committed. You absolutely cannot make a fair-catch signal and then expect someone else to catch it. It's almost like baseball, when a player says "I got it!" Once you say "I got it!" you have to make the catch.
From that point on, it looked like it affected Gronkowski, with some of the passes he dropped and trying to make up for it right before the half when he fumbled at the 1-yard line fighting for extra yards. That fumble was probably the biggest play of the game -- a touchdown there makes it 17-14 Browns and the Patriots are getting the ball to open the second half. That would be a different ballgame.
I can relate to this kid. When I was a rookie in 1996, we played the Denver Broncos at home and ran a fake punt called "Brown Right." Tom Tupa was the quarterback/punter and I was the wing, and I went out for a pass. Tupa put it up to me, I caught the ball, bobbled it, and ended up dropping it. That was the first punt of the game. Denver took the ball, scored, and went on to rout us 34-8. That was the game when Shannon Sharpe, the Broncos tight end, was on the phone on the sideline, saying "Bring in the National Guard! We are killing the Patriots!" I felt that loss was my fault. The next day, there was an article in The Boston Globe and a picture of me on the ground that placed blame on that play as the momentum swing. For the next 10 years, I saved that newspaper article and referenced it throughout my career and told myself I'd never be that guy again. I never was.
Gronkowski can look at this as a learning experience; it's a mistake that many good players have made before. What makes good players great is that they're able to put these mistakes behind them and move on to better things in their career.
2. Logan Mankins and rewarding his good faith. After just one week of practice, Mankins was activated and started the game. He had no minicamp. No offseason workouts. No training camp. Just five days after his return, the Patriots started him. They did this because they know he's the best they have. Mankins coming in before Week 10 is a strong show of good faith, and with that, I think the Patriots should reciprocate that and reopen serious contract negotiations to get him signed. Every snap Mankins plays, he's risking injury, something that can affect his career and the dollar signs in his contract. One show of good faith deserves another, and the Patriots would be doing the right thing by working hard to get Mankins signed so he can play without that risk for the rest of the season.
3. Hats off to Eric Mangini's game plan. What an incredible game plan by Mangini and the Cleveland Browns coaching staff. There are two coaching staffs in the NFL that know the Patriots inside and out: the Kansas City Chiefs and the Browns. They knew exactly what to do against this team. When you have a quarterback like Tom Brady, who is incredibly intelligent and does a great job of deciphering defenses pre-snap, you disguise your coverages.
That's easy to say but harder to do, because Brady is as good with the dummy snap count as anyone in the league: "Blue 18, Blue 18, set, hut, hut, hut!" When a defender hears that and is disguising his intentions, he can easily get antsy and want to get into his proper defensive position, which gets him out of that disguise. The Browns knew about the dummy snap count, and Mangini, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and that coaching staff did a great job of telling them to hold their water in their disguises until the last second, because giving that first dummy snap count is how Brady gets the defense to tip its hand.
That's why you saw, when the ball was snapped, all the Cleveland defenders moving in unison -- whether pressuring off one side or dropping back into coverage with a three-man rush. It wasn't done until the last possible second, making it impossible for Brady to get the answers pre-snap. This confused the quarterback, receivers and blocking schemes. When receivers aren't sure about what looks they are getting they don't come off the line with the same conviction. This gives defenders more of an opportunity to get a jam on them and disrupt their timing. When an offensive line isn't sure of who's coming it can take longer for them to sort out their protections. This indecision led to pressure on Brady.
4. Pop kicks hurt Patriots on special teams. The Browns also did a great job on special teams. They showed Patriots returner Brandon Tate great respect by not kicking to him, instead using pop kicks, kicking the ball shorter and higher than usual. They got a turnover out of it on the first attempt (the fumbled opening kickoff). That was another way the Browns' coaching staff -- this time special-teams coordinator Brad Seely -- took away the Patriots' weapons. As a return team, when you see the pop kick, the rule is that if it's over your head don't back up. If it's slightly over your head, show the returner behind you that you're out of the equation of fielding the ball by moving up getting yourself in better position to make a block on a short kick. You have to commit one way or the other.
5. Little things make a big difference. We know the Patriots got beat up on run defense, but I want to highlight a different point -- and it comes after hearing players talk about a bad week of practice, and the thought that some players believed they could just roll the Patriots helmet out there and the Browns would be intimidated by the logo. A situation that stood out to me came in the fourth quarter, with the New England trailing 27-14. The Patriots had just scored a touchdown with 6:42 remaining and they still had some hope. On the Browns' first play of the ensuing drive, defensive lineman Gerard Warren made a great play to stop running back Peyton Hillis for a 5-yard loss. So it's second-and-15.
If you stop them on second-and-15, you get to a makeable third-down situation and get the ball back to the offense, which had just scored. The Browns call a simple run play to Hillis, and Hillis cuts it back. Meanwhile, Patriots outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain runs upfield for quarterback Colt McCoy, defending the boot, defending the quarterback. He opens up the cutback lane and instead of putting the Browns in third-and-long and getting the ball back to the offense with about five minutes left, Hillis ended up gaining 15 yards for the first down at the 50-yard line.
The drive ended with a Hillis 35-yard touchdown run a few plays later, but the 15-yard run for a first down was the key play of the drive. It was the play you could point to and say "Little things on the road matter." It's knowing the situation, and how they are going to put the ball in Hillis' hands, so you don't run up the field trying to tackle a quarterback. That took away an opportunity for the offense to get another score and make a late charge. This is one example of a lack of focus and the little things that need to be done to win football games.