New England players and coaches returned Monday from a four-day, bye-week break to begin preparations for a visit to Buffalo to face the Bills. With a combination of time off and a couple practices to work on general improvements and fundamentals the 4-1 Patriots head to upstate New York refreshed, rejuvenated and looking to build on the stronghold the team has had on the AFC East for the better part of the last four seasons.
Maybe the player that benefited most from the bye week was recent free agent wide receiver addition Jabar Gaffney. After signing with the Patriots on Oct. 9 the fifth-year wideout spent the week off taking a crash course in the New England offense. Coming off a career high 55 catches last season in Houston, signing with the Eagles and getting cut at the end of training camp the former second-round pick gets a chance at a new start in New England. But he's going to have to hit the ground running in order to take advantage of the opportunity after watching the first five weeks of NFL action from the street.
"If there is ever a good time to bring a player onto your team, this is it, because you're not so in depth into a game plan situation that you're trying to merge and learn in a system and learn a specific game plan," Patriots Head Coach Belichick said of getting Gaffney up to speed. "Last week, we were able to take some time with Jabar and Brian (Daboll), the receivers coach, to just sit down with him and just go through our basic passing game, and route adjustments, and rules, and splits, and depths, and all those kind of things that you have to go through. Now we'll try to apply that to a specific game plan against Buffalo."
"When you're trying to do all of that in one week, it just becomes a little bit more of a challenge. You kind of tend to neglect some of your basic fundamental stuff and make it more specific toward the game. From a teaching standpoint, I think a lot of times it's better if you can just go through the normal teaching progression like you do in training camp or passing camp and try to get the player to understand the whole game and then select things on a week-to-week basis. Obviously, it's accelerated. It's not like training camp in two days. It's two days plus the extra days over the weekend to at least study and review and assemble and comprehend the information, which Jabar is a pretty smart guy. He understands passing concepts and understands terminology and those kinds of things. We'll see how it goes. If you could ever bring a player in, I think it's better to bring him in when you don't have a game than when you do. It's just a little bit less of a rush job."
While the Patriots will likely run the ball early and often against Buffalo, something most teams have done over the last year plus including the 183 yards New England ran for in the season opener against the Bills, an improved passing attack will be the team's long term key coming out of the bye. Troy Brown has the most receptions of any receiver on the team with 15. Doug Gabriel, acquired in a trade with Oakland just before the opener, has been inconsistent in catching 12 passes for 129 yards and two scores. Rookie second-round pick Chad Jackson has been limited since training camp with a hamstring injury and has just four catches for 51 yards and one score in three games with one start.
There is little question New England has to get the passing game going, has to improve on Brady's 54.1 completion percentage and 82.6 passer rating and has to become more two-dimensional on offense. That's the goal coming out of the bye. Gaffney is the latest new face to get a chance to help reach that goal. Time will tell how he and the offense as a whole have evolved with an extra week away from the game field. But Belichick's hopes, like his expectations, are high.
"It's good to have a bye," Belichick said. "It's good to give some of our players a chance to get a little more treatment and get a little rest. I think the most important thing for us is to come back off of the little break that we've had here and get back to playing a higher level of football than we were at when we left. We should be a little bit healthier. We should be a little bit mentally and physically refreshed. But now we have to transfer that potential energy and freshness, if you will, into a more productive and more efficient football team. We'll see whether or not we can do that. I hope we can."
--QB Tom Brady had a career completion percentage of 61.9 heading into 2006, but through five games has completed just 54.3 percent (88-of-162) of his passes this season. Since taking over the starting job early in 2001 Brady's never completed less than 60.2 percent of his passes in any season.
--RB Corey Dillon has enjoyed a far more productive pace in 2006 as compared to the early parts of last season. In 2005 Dillon averaged just 3.4 yards per carry through the first 5 games including three performances with a sub-3.0 average. This fall he's averaging 4.1 yards per carry and had only one game, against Denver, when he averaged less than 3.9 per carry. In five games working in tandem with rookie Laurence Maroney, Dillon has 68 carries for 281 yards and two scores.
--TE Benjamin Watson, New England's leading receiver with 16 receptions for 211 yards, paces a tight end group that Miami's Nick Saban says the Patriots use "as much as or more" than any team in football. The numbers tell that story. New England's tight ends had 13 catches for 265 yards through five games last season. This year they've combined for 26 receptions for 356 yards. And that doesn't take into account the tight ends' extensive role in the team's run and pass blocking.
--WR Troy Brown (529 catches) needs just five receptions to match New England's franchise record for receptions, a mark currently held by Stanley Morgan (534 catches). On the season Brown ranks second on the Patriots with 15 catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
--WR Doug Gabriel's production has actually decreased in recent weeks as he's gotten acclimated to the New England offense. Gabriel broke out for six catches for 65 yards and one score in the second half of the team's Week 3 loss to Denver. He followed that up with a respectable four receptions for 57 yards and a score a week later in beating Cincinnati. But the former Raider caught just two balls for 7 yards against Miami prior to the bye.
--LB Mike Vrabel ranks second on the New England defense with 36 tackles through the first five weeks. But the veteran outside linebacker hasn't made as many big plays as he has off the edge in the past, recording just 0.5 sacks, no interceptions, no fumble recoveries and no forced fumbles in the first five games.
--CB Asante Samuel is the only New England defensive back with an interception this season, collecting two picks in the team's Week 5 win over Miami. LB Tedy Bruschi has the team's only other interception on the season.
--LDE Ty Warren led New England's defense at the bye with 38 tackles in five games. Warren seems to have taken his game to the next level in 2006, serving as an active, disruptive force on the Patriots line opposite RDE Richard Seymour on a weekly basis.
--RB Patrick Pass spent the first six weeks of the season on PUP with hamstring injury and wasn't ready to begin practicing when eligible to do so on Oct. 17.
--PK Stephen Gostkowski has rebounded from a tough stretch that saw consecutive field goal attempts blocked against the Jets and Broncos and then an horrific miss on his first attempt against Cincinnati. Since then the rookie fourth-round pick has hit three straight and is now 5-of-8 on field goals this season. He's also recorded seven touchbacks on kickoffs.