Matt Light Made Patriots Offensive Line Much, Much Better

Matt Light retired from the NFL Monday. He played for the Patriots for 11 years, starting nearly every game and anchoring a much-improved offensive line. (AP/www.Boston.com)

When the 2012 New England Patriots kick off their season in a few months, many of the faces will look familiar. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker will still be there, picking apart defenses. Jerod Mayo will still blow up any receiver foolhardy enough to run across the middle of the field. Stephen Gostkowski will still split the uprights with computer-like proficiency.

But one familiar face won’t be there: Matt Light, who retired from the NFL Monday. Light played for the Patriots for 11 years, starting 153 of 155 total regular season games, plus 16 playoff games. He started all 16 games in seven different seasons, playing a key role in the Patriots’ transformation into the premier NFL franchise of the 21st century.

Light Anchored Competent Offensive Line

In the five years before Light arrived, the Patriots’ offensive line averaged just under 41 sacks per season, with an average rank smack in the middle of the NFL (16). With Light anchoring the team starting in 2001, average sacks dropped down to 30.5, and average ranking improved to 11.1.

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Rob Gronkowski Has Returned the Tight End to the NFL

Gronkowski's unique combination of size, strength and sure-handedness presents a model by which the tight end might survive in the speedier 21st century NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

As strength and conditioning training has gotten better and better over the years, NFL players have become stronger and faster. Running backs like Adrian Peterson can both bust through lanes without a lead-blocker and also break tackles on short-yardage runs. Slot-receivers like Wes Welker can slip into the middle of the field, then burst for big gains after the catch.

Slower, strength-based offensive positions like the fullback and tight end are becoming redundant. Teams just don’t need as much talent at these spots because they have other position-players who can match the muscle without sacrificing speed. And when teams need muscle, offensive linemen (think Nate Solder) have become fit enough to double as blockers.

With only two marquee tight ends in the NFL through the first decade of the new millennium – Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates – the position was in danger of extinction.

Then Rob Gronkowski arrived, and with him a second renaissance for tight ends.

Fullback Fading Away; Tight End, Too

A look at Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees shows how the league has moved away from certain positions. Gale Sayers was the last halfback to make it to the Hall of Fame, and his career ended in 1971. The fullback seems headed that way as well: Larry Csonka – whose career ended in 1979 – was the last fullback inducted.

The tight end, meanwhile is the third-least-represented position in the Hall of Fame, trailing just place-kickers and the near-extinct fullbacks. Only eight modern-era tight ends are in the Hall of Fame, and the only one who played in the 1990s or later is Shannon Sharpe. Of the remaining seven, most played in the 60s and 70s.

Y2K Almost Killed the Tight End

Though tight ends had hung around longer than the fullbacks, the NFL looked by the mid 2000s like it was sending the position the way of leather helmets.

From 2001 to 2010, a tight end only finished among the top 10 receivers in yardage once: Gonzalez, who finished seventh in 2004. Otherwise, the top tight end – Gonzalez or Gates in eight of those 10 years – averaged a below-18th final ranking in the NFL. Tight ends have been decent scorers, however, finishing among the top 10 for touchdown receptions nine times during that decade, and six times placing among the top five.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 9

The look says it all: Tom Brady played better than anyone else on his team, but too many mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Patriots Sunday against the Giants. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday featured several firsts. The Patriots lost at home for the first time in 21 games. The Patriots lost two games in a row for the first time since 2006. And the offense failed to score in the first half, also for the first time since 2006.

While Tom Brady did his best to overcome all of that, the defense – which admittedly played very well for the first half – faltered in the fourth quarter, allowing two late-game comeback drives.

Who’s going to Harvard, and who’s falling back on a safety school? Only my grades can say.

Quarterback: B+

Another game, another two-touchdown day for Brady. But it took him far too long to figure out how to beat the Giants’ defense, and he made too many mistakes while doing it. Both interceptions were Brady’s fault: he failed to account for linebacker Michael Boley to start the second quarter, who easily read Brady’s pass, tipping it to Mathias Kiwanuka. Deon Grant‘s interception later happened because Brady threw a bad pass to Rob Gronkowski deep and over the middle. The first pick killed a scoring opportunity, and the second led to the Giants’ first score.

Brady redeemed himself to some extent with two magnificent fourth-quarter drives, capping 80- and 64-yard drives with touchdown strikes to Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, but the defense couldn’t hold either lead. A month ago, this offense could put up 30 points or more without even trying. Now, 20 points is a chore. As the commander of this offense, Brady must shoulder the blame.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 6

Andre Carter's two sacks highlighted a strong performance from the New England Patriot defensive line against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

For the first 25 minutes the New England Patriots had the ball against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, they played sloppy, uncreative football. But down three points with 2:31 left in the game, Tom Brady led a precision air-strike that culminated in Brady’s 8-yard bullet to Aaron Hernandez in the end zone, completing yet another comeback in the saga of Tom Terrific. Coupled with a Buffalo Bills loss to the New York Giants, the Patriots enter their bye-week in first place in the AFC East.

Who qualified for the AP class and who’s taking Remedial English? Here’s one analyst’s opinion.

Quarterback: A-

Brady played B/B- football for most of the game, struggling to solve the Cowboys’ complicated defense before their bloodthirsty pass-rushers could reach him. On his final drive, however, Brady’s play became immaculate. Brady went 8-for-9 on that drive, averaging nearly 10 yards per completion. The Cowboys never knew who Brady would throw to next: he targeted his tight ends three times, Wes Welker four times, and Danny Woodhead twice. He also converted a third-and-1 from the Dallas 29 with a QB sneak, capping a 17-yard rushing day to go with his 289-yard and two-touchdown passing day.

Brady’s only truly boneheaded play came in the fourth quarter, when he threw to Hernandez in double-coverage and linebacker Sean Lee easily picked him off. That interception – Brady’s second – killed a drive that had already entered field-goal territory, but better protection might have prevented the snap-judgment throw.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 1

Tom Brady's record-setting 517 passing yards and four touchdown throws highlighted an A-level offensive performance against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

Welcome to Goose’s Gabs’ weekly report card for your New England Patriots! Each week I’ll analyze every Patriots position group, identifying particularly noteworthy performances from the previous week’s game.

In their 38-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, the Patriots answered many of the questions fans had about the offense entering Week 1. Between 622 total offensive yards, 38 points, and 27 first downs on 8-for-13 third-down efficiency, few can still worry about this team’s ability to score points. Their ability to prevent points is another question, but for now all is well in New England.

So let’s play teacher and hand out some grades!

Quarterback: A

Tom Brady set both a Patriots and Monday Night Football record with 517 passing yards. Only four other quarterbacks have ever racked up more passing yards in a game, and none since 1996. Coupled with a 66.7 completion percentage and four touchdown passes, it’s impossible to give Brady anything other than a straight A. His third-quarter interception allowed Miami to tie the game, but even that couldn’t keep him from a 121.6 QB rating. Although one game is too early to tell, Brady certainly looks poised for another big year, able to throw the ball short and deep, over the middle and to the sidelines.

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