Maybe we should have been talking about the Patriots’ defense all summer

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Kenny Rogers’ decades-old country song “The Greatest” has a plot twist that to stun even M. Night Shyamalan.

For those unfamiliar with the 1999 hit, it tells the simple yet impactful story of a confident little boy tossing a baseball up to himself to hit. Only when he is not able to hit the ball and strikes out after three tosses he realizes that he’s not “The Greatest” hitter but rather it’s his pitching that may be surprisingly impressive! It’s a touching tale on youthful perspective.

Now, what the hell does that have to do with anything relevant to a football column on WEEI.com in August of 2022? Follow along.

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For weeks, the only thing that seemingly anyone has talked about in Patriots training camp are the struggles of the Mac Jones-led “new” New England offense under the direction of curious coaching leaders Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.

Jones’ frustrations have been evident for all to see. The offense’s inability to efficiently throw the ball or find room for Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to run have been the foundation of daily internet blog regurgitations from the Gillette Stadium practice fields. The lack of playmaking by a corps of questionable receiver talents has been detailed in post-practice Twitter flurries.

It’s been all about the New England offense and all about how bad it has looked. Nothing much to say about the defense, the unit opposite Jones & Co. on a daily rep-to-rep basis.

Maybe, just maybe, the little boy in the “The Greatest” had it right. Maybe it’s time to look at this developing Patriots’ team a bit differently, dare we suggest flipping the script with a bit of an optimistic eye.

That idea, that maybe the Patriots’ defense should have at least been part the talk of the first three weeks of training camp for its performances in relation to the struggles of the New England offense, got a major boost during joint practice action with the Panthers on Tuesday.

The Patriots defense was simply superb in joint practice work with Carolina, controlling the action in virtually every rep of every drill.

“We were dominating the whole time,” defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. said afterwards.

Yes, yes you were.

It was no one player doing all the damage, though the defensive front was indeed the foundation of the success. Wise, budding star Christian Barmore, Pro Bowler Matthew Judon, Davon Godchaux and Josh Uche were among the playmakers up front who gave the Panthers offensive line and skill players fits.

Meanwhile de facto No. 1 cornerback Jalen Mills was making plays in the back end for a secondary that began to show off its safety depth sending Jabrill Peppers blitzing off the edge as the versatile newcomer works back to full health ACL surgery.

“We’ve got a lot of players that can do a lot of things,” safety Adrian Phillips said with a confident smile after the impressive practice performance.

The New England defense made Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson and the Panthers’ offense look borderline inept. Actually the Patriots’ defense made the Carolina attack look at lot like it’s been making the Patriots’ offense look for the last few weeks.

But perspective is key, even in this new optimistic approach to the potential on both sides of the ball for Bill Belichick’s team.

This isn’t to say that all is right with the New England offense, though the group did have arguably its best all-around day of the summer against Matt Rhule’s team. Jones put forth his best practice of the summer as well, finding more timely targets in the passing game and fewer times when he had to scramble in the pocket or tuck the ball and run.

This isn’t to say the Patriots’ defense, the unit that failed to force Josh Allen’s Bills to even punt once in a pair of meetings as it wilted down the stretch last season, is suddenly the ’85 Bears. Nope. It still has plenty of questions to answer at both linebacker and cornerback before we begin to make any grand assertions about what might be in store for the regular season.

And while many a Foxborough-based player described the Panthers as a “first test” for New England, Carolina is certainly far from the final exam by any means. It is a team without a clear starting quarterback. A team that could be looking for a new coach very soon. A team that may be selecting very early in next spring’s draft.

But all those written and spoken words spent over the last three-plus weeks detailing the debacle that’s been the Patriots practice field offense, maybe they need to be put in better perspective by looking at things from a new perspective.

Has the Patriots offense struggled this summer? Absolutely.

Might the New England defense that it’s faced on a daily basis have something to do with that? Certainly.

Maybe, just maybe, the Patriots defense has the potential to be pretty darn good. And maybe, just maybe, the New England offense won’t be quite as bad as it looked over the last few weeks. Even if neither is quite ready to be “The Greatest.”

How’s that for a fresh summer perspective?

Podcast Episode
6 Rings and Football Things
How the Patriots dominated the first day of joint practices with the Panthers
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