With another Patriots Super Bowl looming, and Island fans still glowing from the team’s miracle win over the vaunted Chiefs, the Times decided to consult our local gridiron guru, MVRHS Football Coach Donald Herman.
In a far-ranging conversation covering everything from blitzing linebackers to coin-toss strategies, Coach Herman offered passionate opinions, chalkboard instruction, colorful anecdotes — and more than a trace of humor.
We began with how the Pats managed to get to the AFC title game in the first place.
After bad regular-season losses to Tennessee and Miami, are you surprised the Patriots even got this far ?
I had given up on the Pats, particularly their defense. They were giving up too many points to weak teams — like Tennessee in November and then Miami.
As a coach, is that hard to watch?
It’s very frustrating. That’s when I start yelling at the TV. My wife hears me from the other room and takes it in stride.
Is that just part of the “bend but don’t break” Pats approach?
I hate seeing the Pats play that way, especially at the end of the first half. They have a lead, then play that loose defense, giving up short passes. Next thing you know the other team kicks a field goal and cuts the Pats’ lead from 10 to 7 at the half.
So they lose to Miami on the last play, then come out flat against the Steelers and lose. How did they turn it around?
The season came down to do-or-die. The Pats are professional athletes, and they realized they needed to step it up. They took care of business against the Bills and Jets, and dominated the Chargers in their first playoff game.
Which brought us to the AFC title game against the Chiefs.
What were your thoughts going into the AFC championship game?
I thought the Miami loss had killed their chances. They gave up home-field advantage, and I didn’t think they could win in Kansas City.
It was a long shot for sure. But they managed to pull it off somehow.
They got great clutch performances from everyone. They also had some some luck, especially in the final period. A lot of key calls went their way, including an incorrect roughing-the-passer call against Kansas City. The Edelman punt review also went their way.
It was shocking to see a veteran like Edelman get in the way of a bouncing punt. If it hits him, it’s a live ball. What was he thinking?
These guys are like kids. They make mistakes. Once the punt hits the ground, the return guy yells a code word. It’s usually something like “Fire,” but you could hear Edelman yell “Peter.” It means GET AWAY FROM THE BALL, don’t let it hit you.
So he just couldn’t resist?
Exactly. He thought he could scoop it up and get some yardage out of it. They dodged a bullet.
It was interesting, and exciting, to see the Pats shut down the Chiefs offense in the first half. Zero points. How did they do that?
(At this point, Coach Herman led us to the white board for some instruction in defensive schematics in the form of squares and arrows.)
The Pats used a lot of cross stunts to pressure the quarterback. A defensive lineman rushes across the man blocking him, not directly into him. (Here, the coach drew a slashing mark indicating the angle of the rush.) This creates a gap for a linebacker or defensive back to charge through. (Again, a dry-erase marker specifies the blitzing defender.)
Well, it was effective for two periods, but the Chiefs made halftime adjustments and scored 31 points the rest of the way.
Time to look ahead
Next Sunday will be the fourth Patriots Super Bowl in five years, and ninth of the Brady-Belichick era. The Pats are a three-point favorite.
I’m not a betting man.
Fair enough. But do you think it’s a reasonable prediction?
Sure. The Pats should be a slight favorite. Based on their experience, their personnel, and the way they’ve been playing the last month.
What kind of game do you expect?
It’s going to be a typical Pats Super Bowl. An even battle with a lot of scoring. It’ll come right down to the end, whoever has the ball last.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see a rout, though?
Yeah, but that’s not their track record. Every Pats Super Bowl has been decided by one play — one big, late-game play.
What concerns do you have about the Rams?
My biggest concern is, How do we reduce the number of throws to backs out of the backfield? The Pats give up so much yardage that way. The Eagles did it to them last in the Super Bowl last year.
Are we back to the bend-but-don’t-break problem?
Yes. The Pats are weak against — or don’t bother stopping — the short passing game to backs out of the backfield. It drives me crazy. I start yelling at the TV.
The Rams have one great back, Todd Gurley.
Gurley is a beast. But they also have C.J. Anderson. It’s a two-headed monster in the backfield. They both run the ball well, and Gurley can catch the ball. Especially in the flat.
What should the Pats do against those guys?
I’m not sure we have anybody we can put on Gurley. It would have to be a linebacker, but I don’t know which one.
How about the Rams defense?
Their pass rush is outstanding, especially tackles Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald. Tom Brady likes to step up into the pocket to throw. The Rams will try to collapse the pocket from the middle and make Brady leave the pocket. That’s when Tom has trouble.
The Pats offensive line has played well lately. But are they up for this?
Well, our left guard, Joe Thuney, needs to have the game of his life. He’ll be handling Donald. Pats center Dave Andrews will be stepping to his left to help Thuney, double-teaming on Donald. I also expect the Pats to keep a back in the backfield to help protect Brady from Donald and Suh. That means fewer receivers for Brady.
What can make the difference in this game for the Patriots?
We need to get off to a good start. That’s crucial. We don’t have to score, just control the ball and get our rhythm going. In the Super Bowls we’ve lost, we’ve struggled early.
And we need to respect the Rams coach. Sean McVay is a genius; he’s creative, disciplined, a good motivator, and a hard worker. And he’s my son’s age — 33! Youngest head coach ever.
Where does Coach Herman stand on a couple of NFL controversies?
There was a glaring pass-interference non-call in the NFC championship game that helped the Rams beat the Saints. Should the NFL expand the use of official review?
I’m not a fan of reviews. Reffing mistakes are part of the game, and reviews take too long. I could see two possibilities: Maybe give another challenge to the coaches, or allow special official’s review in the last minutes of a game.
The Pats have now won a Super Bowl and an AFC title game in overtime. In both instances they won the toss and scored a touchdown. Should the OT rules be changed so that both teams get their hands on the football?
I like the system the way it is, as long as you can’t win the game on a first-possession field goal. Which you can’t. So if you lose the toss, just stop the damn team from scoring. You know why the country’s up in arms about this? Because they hate the Patriots.
Thank you, Coach. Any last thoughts?
You’re going to see an Edelman pass on Sunday. Gronk will block like he did against the Chargers, and catch passes like he did against the Chiefs. And I’m glad it was Matthew Slater and not me who called the coin toss against Kansas City. I’ve called tails my entire career.