Socci’s View: Suddenly speedier Pats need to start fast on Sunday by not spotting the Raiders a head start.
Bill O’Brien is right. The second week of October is too early to write the 2023 Patriots’ obituary.
Although, as 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Alex Barth shows on this very website, it’s not too soon to devote hundreds of words to the 2024 NFL Draft.
Comprehensive coverage of Oregon at Washington isn’t what one expects anywhere outside Eugene and Seattle. Anytime. Much less New England just as autumn foliage season begins. Unusual as it is, though, it isn’t unwarranted, given the Pats’ 1-4 start and a current state causing questions about the future.
Generally, when a team struggles as they have, confronted by the kinds of issues they face — including at quarterback — the sixth weekend of the NFL season isn’t too soon to pay closer attention to the college game. And this weekend, the college game was on the shores of Lake Washington, quarterbacked by the Ducks’ Bo Nix and Huskies’ Michael Penix.
Meanwhile, Sunday in the Mojave Desert, the Patriots play Las Vegas, hoping to prove epitaphs premature.
“There’s a lot of season left,” O’Brien, the Patriots offensive coordinator, told us on Tuesday. “So let’s see if we can get better. And I think the NFL is always about who can improve the fastest, and we have a long way to go — don’t get me wrong. But, you know, hopefully we can get there.”
O’Brien is trying to script an offensive game plan that ends a touchdown drought of 34 straight possessions over 10-plus quarters. Overall, the Patriots have been outscored, 131-55. The margin was 72-3 in Weeks 4-5.
Their average drive, per Pro-Football Reference, lasts 5.35 plays, 23.1 yards and 2 minutes, 12 seconds; it produces 0.87 points and is as likely to result in a turnover (16.1 percent) as score (16.1 percent). Ten giveaways have led to 55 opponents’ points, including touchdown returns of two interceptions and a fumble by Mac Jones.
A league-high 62 series have featured just one that consumed more than five minutes. Only Cincinnati, with a hobbled Joe Burrow has more “three-and-outs” (18) than New England’s 17. The Pats have been outscored in the first quarter, 36-6, and have produced only a field goal in third-quarter action.
They are about to play their sixth straight game without the five offensive linemen projected to start in the preseason. In fact, they haven’t been able to field that lineup in practice from the onset of training camp to mid-October. And they’re down two receivers, including rookie Demario Douglas, who’s caught three of Jones’s longest completions.
The running game has thus far operated in low gear, averaging just 3.3 yards a carry. Before his ill-fated lateral at the end of last year’s loss at Las Vegas, Rhamondre Stevenson gained 172 yards against the Raiders. He enters Sunday’s return to the Vegas Strip with 188 rushing yards in five games in 2023.
Considering their troubling state, the possibility of the Patriots elevating Malik Cunningham, the former dual-threat Louisville quarterback who dazzled in his preseason debut, from the practice squad seemed more of a probability by week’s end. Undrafted before signing in May, he became subject of questions for O’Brien and head coach Bill Belichick.
On Tuesday, O’Brien called Cunningham one of the practice squad’s most improved players. Three days later, Belichick went further.
“Yeah, Malik’s really worked hard and made a lot of improvement,” Belichick said, noting Cunningham’s previous unfamiliarity with roles as he’s being asked to learn, as a converted receiver and contributor on special teams. “But he’s really improved there. He can catch the ball, but just route running and finding zones and things like that. But, it’s come pretty naturally to him. He plays a good amount of quarterback. He’s competent there. He’s a smart kid, works hard, and the opportunities he’s had, he’s shown a lot of improvement. It’s a little too early for an induction ceremony here, but definitely a lot of improvement.
“Anybody that keeps improving, eventually you’ll probably get an opportunity to play.”
Well, the opportunity is his late Sunday afternoon. Only, Cunningham isn’t a call-up. He’s been signed up, added to the 53-man roster and, as first reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, inked to a three-year contract.
The Pats don’t need Cunningham to earn a Red or Gold jacket against the Silver and Black. They need a spark. And not just figuratively; but a burst with the ball in his hands and maybe a play or more to get the ball out his hands on an RPO.
It’s another big ask of a talented kid who’s already been asked to do a lot in a short time as a college run-pass QB trying to run routes, catch passes, return kicks and cover same in the pros.
Other moves among the half-dozen transactions the team made on Saturday included an activation and elevation. Speedy but spindly receiver Tyquan Thornton was activated off injured reserve, after missing nine of his first 22 possible NFL games. At the same time, receiver Jalen Reagor was promoted from the practice squad.
Thornton, a 2023 second-round pick, has sprinted 40 yards in 4.28 seconds. Reagor ran the same distance in 4.47 seconds before the Eagles chose him 21st overall in 2020. For the record, Cunningham gets from starting line to 40 in 4.53 seconds.
As O’Brien admitted, the Patriots have a long way to go. In their effort to improve the fastest, if we’re to borrow from Billy O again, they at least have gotten a lot faster.
Now they need to start fast(er). That begins by not giving the Raiders a head start, a la last week in their loss to New Orleans.
Otherwise, we’ll start seeing even more draft coverage in the coming weeks.
Bob Socci is in his 11th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. He is scheduled to broadcast Sunday’s game at Las Vegas with partner Scott Zolak.