Last night, my husband and I headed to Foxboro for our first trip to Gillette of the new season. Little did we know that the highlights of our night would be walking into the stadium, and the Pee Wee Football halftime show between school kids from Jamaica Plain and Sharon.
The first sight of the stadium for me this year was jarring. I had trekked through a maze of construction sites last year to go to games, but it was still a surprise when I saw the new Patriot Place complex finished. In addition to a movie theater, shopping center and restaurants, a Patriots Hall of Fame building is under construction at the north end of the stadium, right next to the bridge and lighthouse. We wanted to go in and take a look, but as we approached, we caught sight of a ladder in one of the windows. Still not open yet.
One of the aspects of Patriot Place that's going to take some getting used to is the giant screen outside the stadium, just behind the north end zone, that broadcasts whatever's on the Jumbo-Tron, presumably for the benefit of the people in the new CBS Scene restaurant. I kept getting distracted by the double-image to my left during the game.
I'm not going to lie, though - if I'd been there for a more palatable game, I might not have been looking around for a distraction.
Matt Cassel's first series was decent enough, though it went nowhere. But at least the Patriots gained some yards, including on a 22-yard scramble for Cassel up the middle. The series ended with a long bomb to Moss that I think would have been caught had this been a more important contest. Just my theory, but several first-string Eagles DBs were waiting to cream Moss if he'd gone across the middle to get that pass. No sense getting your clock cleaned in exhibition.
When the first quarter ended, the score was a disheartening 10-0, Eagles. Disheartening, yes. Despair-inducing? That wouldn't come until the end of the second quarter.
Matt Cassel obviously didn't give up an unanswered touchdown and field goal in that first quarter. A still-lackluster Patriots defense did, with complete ineptitude against the run and the occasional burn on a long pass from Donovan McNabb. The Pats' porous defense opened the second quarter the same way, giving up first down after first down as the Eagles worked a grueling, systematic charge down the field for another shot at the end zone, which again worked out in their favor. 17-0 Philadelphia, and the natives were getting restless around me on the third deck.
But it wasn't until the special teams joined our offense and defense in completely imploding before our horrified eyes that things got truly ugly. As the second quarter drew to a close, the Patriots kicked off with 1:48 to go in the half after finally getting on the board with a Gostkowski field goal (meaning that for a second preseason week, Gostkowski was pretty much the only effective weapon on either side of the ball for the Patriots). Gostkowski booted a 71-yarder, and the only way I can describe what happened next was that the Patriots began scrambling around in a complete anarchistic free-for-all, which culminated in a 101-yard return for a touchdown by Quintin Demps, who ran over Gostkowski for good measure on his way to the end zone.
I think Patriots fans had already moved past "stunned disbelief" during the second preseason game - the reaction throughout an otherwise sleepy preseason crowd to this disaster in game three was immediate hollers of outrage. Several people near me started carpeting the field with M-F bombs. The stands reverberated with angry boos.
And in the next minute - literally, the next minute - the Patriots punt unit would pull the same Benny Hill act after another ineffectual series from Cassel & Co., and DeSean Jackson took it to the house for the Eagles' thirteenth point in a minute and thirty seconds.
I'm sure you can imagine the ovation the Patriots got on their way to the locker room for halftime. My dad, watching on TV, said they were also treated to a screaming tirade from Belichick on the sideline after that second runback.
I'm still of two minds about this dismal preseason performance from the Patriots. One side of me has begun constructing elaborate conspiracy scenarios that make these losses all part of Belichick's master plan, like it all being an elaborate experiment with letting the players improvise a game plan, for example. Or...right, this is about where the other part of me chimes in, the part that unhelpfully points out all the convincing arguments for panic, like the fact that our poker-faced coach is losing his mind on the field at these players the same way the fans are. Like the fact that not one of the units on the field at any given time - not offense, not defense, not special teams - has looked ready to play so far this preseason. At all. There haven't been even one or two players here and there managing to stand out and rise above the mess. Everybody looks lost. It was not a good feeling being in that stadium at halftime.
Until the Pee Wee kids came toddling out onto the field, tiny maroon-and-yellow specks on the turf compared to the hulking pros. They played a passionate, fast-paced quarter or so, highlighted by a dramatic quarterback scramble up the sideline for about ten yards. People around me threw themselves into cheering for the kids, undoubtedly to take their minds off what they'd just seen.
The second half was better - I'm glad I stayed until the final few minutes of the fourth quarter. At least I got to see some Patriots touchdowns, the first on a spectacular leaping grab by Chad Jackson in the back corner of the south end zone on a high pass from Matt Gutierrez. Finally, we saw some real football from the boys in blue.
Gutierrez added another touchdown, this time to CJ Jones, as the clock ticked down, making the final score an actually respectable 27-17.
By the time he came in, Gutierrez was facing the JV on the Eagles side, so we have to take his success with a grain of salt. But from the very beginning of the third quarter, Gutierrez seemed more confident and self-assured than Cassel. He stepped up in the pocket and waited to make his reads. He seemed more in control of the offense than the man above him in the depth chart. If (God help us) Tom Brady is actually going to miss any regular season playing time*, my vote after what I saw last night would be to start Gutierrez, not Cassel.
And yes, I make that recommendation after exactly two quarters of football from the kid. But really. At least he didn't make me want to chew off my own fingers, most of the time. This I cannot say for Cassel, who even more than his bad decisions in the pocket and tendency to get sacked for eleventy-yard losses (and sometimes turnovers) just seems lost and panicked out there.
Photos to come soon.
*Here I cling to a theory put forth by one of the meatheads on 'BCN before the game: that Brady was only held back this week because there are some key guys missing from the O-Line, like Matt Light, and you don't want to send The Franchise out there to get killed behind some ham and eggers. And I will cling to that theory, if you don't mind, until we get more definitive news about Brady otherwise.