On a frigid, freezing-rainy afternoon in Foxboro, the Patriots collected their first win in three games today. But despite the much-needed W, this game saw as many boos as cheers from the huddled masses in the stands.
Their target today was Randy Moss--on more than one occasion the erstwhile hero was booed in his home stadium today like Roger Clemens at Fenway Park.
Today, Moss, the same man who broke Jerry Rice's single-season touchdown reception record just two years ago, collected a single catch in the entire game, which he then fumbled on the Carolina 20 yard line. There were at least three other catchable passes, particularly one over the middle in the third quarter, which glanced off his hands. After what we've become used to from Moss, watching balls fly right through the wickets--rain-slicked ball notwithstanding--was a jarring sight. Finally, Moss capped off the day's efforts with a false-start penalty in the fourth quarter.
It's not just that he was bad. It was that it didn't seem like he was paying attention. There were other plays that won't make the box score that suggested as much, at least to the Gillette crowd. When Brady threw an interception in the first half, Moss was his intended target, and didn't seem to even turn around to look for the ball before it was picked off.
Worse, once he went back to the sidelines after each of these plays, particularly after the fumble, he sat alone, his body language radiating dejectedness. Teammates milled around him as if he were invisible, though eventually I saw both Tom Brady and Kevin Faulk approach him on the bench. It's impossible to know what they were saying, obviously, but Moss barely seemed to acknowledge them.
There's more than one way to read that, of course -- it could have been that Moss felt so badly about how he was playing that he was inconsolable. That is at least a possibility. But, given his reputation for sullenness and selfishness, particularly when things aren't going well for him or his team, the knee-jerk assumption is far from being that he is overcome by grief. Instead, judging by the condemnation they rained down on him, Patriots fans looked at him today and saw the ultimate anaethma to a Boston fan: the guy who's shutting it down.
After the game, some of the Panthers defensive backs who'd been covering him opined that that was exactly what Moss had been doing. This also should be taken with a grain of salt, since it accompanied said defenders crediting their own hits with rattling the wideout, an oversimplification at best.
Still, if Moss had felt like getting back into the fans' good graces, he showed no sign of it postgame. Sucking it up and at least appearing for postgame platitudes about getting back on the horse next week might have gone a long way toward disabusing us of the notion that he's reverting to form and quitting on the team. Instead, he dressed and left.
By contrast, today Wes Welker once again came on strong to save the day. The most memorable moment--and probably the turning point--of this game came at the hands of Welker in the third quarter.
The offense was right in front of our seats near the north end zone, starting from deep in their own territory. Brady threw a quick pass to Welker on his left, and the speedy slot receiver had just caught the ball when Panthers safety Charles Godfrey met him midair with a ringing hit that sent Welker flopping to the ground like a rag doll.
The crowd did more than gasp -- it sounded suddenly like the buzz of an enormous courtroom while a judge pounds a gavel for order, thousands of gasps of "Oh, my God..." going up all at once. Welker lay motionless on the field for what felt like 15 minutes, but was really only probably 30 seconds at most. Then, maybe a bit more slowly than usual, the man rose to his feet.
As he did, a roar from the whole stadium rose to meet him, as did his teammates, who patted him on the shoulder pads and pounded on his helmet. Welker strode back towards the huddle, but before he did, the screaming fans in the 100 section just behind the north end zone seemed to catch his attention. He paused to make the universal gesture for them to scream louder, which they obliged.
Then, he got back in formation and caught two long passes to put the Patriots deep in Carolina territory. Finally, after some of that disconcerting dithering the Patriots offense has been doing in the red zone lately, Kevin Faulk ran in the touchdown. Once again, Welker was the MVP with zero touchdowns to his name in the box score.
And more than that, Welker was the human spark fans were desperate to see somewhere, anywhere on a Patriots squad that has looked by turns disorganized and lifeless this season. He was the one who finally said, enough already. He's the dirt dog we're looking for.
Otherwise, offensively, the running game carried the day. Maroney continued to do his frustrating tap-dance at the line of scrimmage on some plays, but also broke free enough to be effective. Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris picked up the rest of the yardage.
This is a case in which the secretiveness of the Patriots organization is frustrating not just beat reporters but the fans watching this team go through whatever it's going through right now and scratching their heads. For example, when it comes to the running game, the choice to feature that aspect of the offense today has at least three potential explanations: the nature of the opponent, the weather, and the relative strength of the Patriots passing game.
Which brings us to Tom Brady. It's clear he is not going to just spring back into Super Bowl form coming off last season's knee injury, but now, after that rib-crushing hit he took in Miami, there are more current concerns to contend with. In particular, on a fourth-and-inches on the Patriots' first series of the game, at least half of my section was wondering aloud why on Earth the Patriots wouldn't run a quarterback sneak. And then, almost as soon as the words had left our mouths, we collectively concluded it must be the ribs. That was the talk in the stands, at the tailgates and on talk radio: It's the Ribs. He is probably more hurt than we're being told, par for the course with Belichick's team, of course, but in this case, it's becoming reasonable to wonder if he isn't very badly hurt.
Toss all that into the hopper with our young defense, which generally did well today (despite being burned for a 41-yard touchdown pass by the otherwise hapless Carolina offense in the first half) but has been the more glaring problem in other weeks, and the usual injuries, including one that caused Vince Wilfork to leave the game in the third quarter and never return, and you have, well, a mess.
Week to week, it's often been easy to identify the scapegoats for a particular game; in New Orleans and Miami, the defensive secondary took home the Booby Prize; no sooner do they seem to be shored up than the offense springs more leaks. It sometimes feels like each week they've solved last week's problem, only to find a new one cropping up.
On the surface, what's so perplexing is that this seems to be a team built around the same building blocks that put together a perfect regular season two years ago. But the more I watch the problems, and the more they seem to be systemic, the more I think it's not the guys on the field but the guys on the sideline, in the front office, and on the scouting staff who have changed, and that may be the root of the problem.
That said, it sure would be nice to have Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour around right now.