Friday, January 31, 2014

Open letter to Boston media: Please stop with the Fitzgerald talk

Dear Boston media,

First of all, congratulations on another year of jumping on and off the New England Patriots' bandwagon - looks like the exercise has done some of you some good!

Kraft loves Brady, but is not going to mortgage the future for weapons for him
The reason that I am corresponding with you today is to ask you to stop fostering the idea that the Patriots will somehow ever be able to obtain wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Every single website carrying a story in regard to Tom Curran's evil report that the Patriots tried to trade for Fitzgerald last offseason is qualifying their stories by calling it a fun thing to speculate on, making sure that they have nothing to be held  accountable for.

Guess what?  It's not fun.  In fact it's downright stupid.

"Clearly, there's an interest in improving their receiver corps." Curran said. "It remains to be seen if they'll bring in a guy like Fitzgerald. The Patriots certainly need to surround Tom Brady with weapons the same way the Broncos have surrounded Peyton Manning in the sunset of his career."

Uh, news flash, bro: The Broncos didn't surround Peyton Manning with weapons, they were just the highest bidder with the best group of weapons among several suitors.  Manning surrounded himself with the weapons. If Brady wanted to buy himself a championship like that, he wouldn't have signed that extension last spring.

Of course, Curran has no freaking idea.  His source for the Fitzgerald rumor is someone whom he believes "without reservation", but it's the same old tired Ron Borges-esque secret squirrel source routine, again leaving himself nothing to be accountable for.

How do we know this?  We know because Larry Fitzgerald doesn't know anything about it.

"Never, never," Fitzgerald replied when asked if he was ever approached about a deal involving him going to the Patriots. "And I know Steve Keim, general manager of the year, very well. He drafted me 10 years ago, so I talk to him all the time. If anything was ever probably going to happen, I mean, I would imagine he would probably say something to me."

For Keim's part, he echoed Fitzgerald's sentiments.

"I can tell you two things, and I want to make this clear and simple -- I have not had one conversation with another NFL team regarding a trade with Larry Fitzgerald," Keim said in a radio interview, flatly denying that there was a kicking of tires or even a cup of coffee.

"Number two, starting with Michael Bidwill on down, it is our intent for Larry Fitzgerald to retire a Cardinal. Period. If there is any gray area there, let me know, and we can get that out."

But that doesn't stop the unimaginative media from taking the rumors to a ridiculous level.

To sweeten the pot to try and get the Cardinals to bite on a deal, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald suggested including a player to go along with whatever draft picks it would take to pique the interest of the Cardinals: Tight End Rob Gronkowski.

“One guy you have to consider, a guy with Arizona connections, is Rob Gronkowski,” said Howe said, raising eyebrows and dropping jaws. “I would consider it. If I’m the Patriots, what are the health ramifications from the knee and the back?

He probably should have stopped right there, but instead offered, “Then (the Patriots) have to consider how easy is it to upgrade the tight end position in the draft this year. It seems to be a talented class,”

“If they think they can get Fitzgerald for Gronkowski, and have the best outside wide receiver since Moss was at the top of his game since 2007, and do a plug-and-play for a little while with the tight ends in the draft and get by for a year, it’s something you have to consider.”

Howe went on to suggest that Fitzgerald is "stuck in the NFC West" , with the qualifier being that Seattle and San Francisco are the class of the division and likely competing for the division title for the length of Fitzgerald's contact with the Cards.

Keeping in mind the fact that the Patriots would have to disrupt their entire salary structure to make the deal work within the cap, the long-term integrity of the franchise would be compromised, something that team owner Bob Kraft would never hear of.

At issue is the Tom Brady angle, and while the media and fans are clamoring for the team to surround the aging Brady with enough weapons to get him his fourth ring before he retires, Kraft is preaching prudence and to continue doing things the way they have been for the twenty years that he's owned the club...

...a period of time that has seen the team reach the playoffs 15 times, winning 13 AFC East Division titles, reaching the AFC Championship in nine of those seasons, playing in six Super Bowls and winning it all three times.

Kraft is a sentimental man, but not so melancholy as to reach for a bank and cap-breaking deal just to appease one player in his football golden years.

“There's so many things that happen. I don't ever believe in selling your soul for a bowl of porridge,” Kraft said to Michael Felger in his own folksy way. “We want to be in the running and do whatever we can to be the best we can be.“

“Nothing is more important to me personally than winning as many championships as we can win while the good Lord lets me be on this planet,” Kraft continued, then throwing down the caveat. “You can load up and do whatever you want and you don't know what's going to happen, There are things happening way beyond your control. There are injuries that happen. God forbid anyone on our team get injured."

Reminding everyone that the Patriots have been built from the inside out, meticulously and deliberately, paying just as much detail to the bottom third of the roster than to the starting 22 - and that they had a pretty damned good team going into the season:

“When we started the season, we had some offensive weapons that were pretty powerful and defensive weapons. And look what happened - less than half the season in, we probably lost five or six of the top players on our roster."

“I think a better strategy than loading up is to try to be solid and be able to compete year in and year out.”

Part of what Kraft is talking about is the actual physical toll any deal of this magnitude would have on the team. The cost in draft picks would ruin the team for years - essentially, for lack of another worn out cliche, they would be mortgaging the future - and the present - of the franchise to bring in one 31 year old wide receiver.

So you see, Boston media members, there is no way that Larry Fitzgerald is coming to Foxborough, so stop bring up his name, stop getting people's hopes up, hopes that are just going to get dashed in the end when all is said and done.

Taking all of this into account, and to recap, with the cap hit that Patriots would have to take, even clearing Gronowski's much smaller numbers, there would be absolutely zero chance of resigning any of our own priority free agents, and the team would have to slash it's payroll in order to get in under that cap...

...the fact that it would also cost the team plenty of draft "currency" to even start discussions, and that Fitzgerald seems to be quite happy where he is, making the money that he is making - not to mention that the NFC West is the best division in football and that the Cardinals went 10-6 in it, a young team narrowly missing the playoffs...

...crushing playoff qualifiers like Indianapolis and Carolina outside the division in addition to punking the Seahawks - in Seattle, no less - in week 16, it sounds like Fitzgerald isn't "stuck" in Arizona, it sounds like he's thriving.

So give it a rest, will ya?


Michael Hamm

Photo Credit: Kayana Scymczak

Thursday, January 30, 2014

No division rivals means rainbows and unicorns for Mara, Johnson

You know things have really gotten desperate during Super Bowl week when you hear New York Jets' owner Woody Johnson talk like his team actually had a chance of playing in this Super Bowl...

Mara (L) smiles knowingly about the Patriots in the Super Bowl
In fact, the owners of both of New Jersey's football franchises crawled out of their skyboxes high above the turf at MetLife Stadium earlier this week to declare, en mass, how much it sucked having teams other than their own occupying their practice facilities this week.

Acting as co-hosts for the gala Super Bowl experience at an upscale news conference in uptown Manhattan, New York Giants' owner John Mara hooked up with Johnson to openly lament the hard luck times that their teams are going through - and the moving soliloquy had almost reached it's blubbering zenith when some evil bastard of a bored beat writer brought up the "P" word.

"Are you relieved that the Patriots aren't playing this week?" came a voice from somewhere close to back of the room.

Tears welled up in Johnson's eyes while Mara broke out the quashed stogie left over from after lunch and lit it, the smoke billowing out from beneath a satisfied smile - while the Jets' owner had managed to slip into the fetal position underneath the podium, sucking on his thumb between bouts of sobbing and dry heaves...

Mara wasn't touching that question, but appeared to be enjoying his counterpart's breakdown enormously - though once Johnson regained his composure somewhat, he managed to deflect the question with a quick "Rather not have a team in your division".  Even Mara himself had earlier remarked that "It could have been worse", taken to mean he was thankful that it wasn't an NFC East rival in his practice facility.

Why this matters, no one seems to know - nor does anyone recognize the voice of inquiry, but the bookmakers in Vegas has the smart money on either New York Post sensationalist scribe Bart Hubbuch or Boston Globe resident plagiarist Ron Borges, though there's late money coming in on former Patriots' beat writer and current NFL.Com antagonist Albert Breer.

Mara gave Johnson a xanax and a blanket, then took control of the press conference from that point on, happily rambling on about the weather in Chicago and the lack of hotels in Wisconsin, speaking in regard to other cold-weather cities that he and his fellow owners would be willing to approve as sites for future Super Bowls...but tactfully sidestepped Foxborough altogether.

Which was smart - and he's right.

Gillette Stadium is a fine venue for a football game - in September.  Any later in the year than that and you just have to hope for the best.  There's a reason why "The Razor" has become one of the best homefield advantages in the National Football League: The weather sucks, the stadium is out in the middle of a swampy nowhere and fans wearing colors other than the Blue and Silver of the Patriots are openly mocked.

A village of 45,000 nestled between downtown Boston thirty miles to the north and Providence, Rhode Island 25 miles to the south, Foxborough would be a logistical nightmare - 1-95 the only major thoroughfare that services the stadium.  It's hosted it's share of AFC Championship games, but the Super Bowl is an entirely different animal.

The future of cold weather-site Super Bowls is riding on how well things go this weekend, and with the weather forecasters cooperating, it looks like Woody, John and Roger might just pull this off.

"I think it's important to have an outside Super Bowl," Johnson said later, "I don't want to use the word 'no-brainer,' but we've had 47 of these indoors and in the South. It's about time we played a Super Bowl in conditions, the way the game is routinely played."

Regardless, perhaps the NFL should just keep the Super Bowl at the traditional venues, places like the Rose Bowl or Sun Life Stadium, someplace warm where people actually want to visit - but no more Domes.  A championship game should be played outdoors in the weather, just not in cold weather...

...and certainly not involving the Patriots, because any Super Bowl without Bill Belichick and his Sons of Liberty is a success, at least in Woody Johnson's mind.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Patriots' 2013 Free Agents: The good, the not-so-bad, and the ugly

Mid-season pick up Sealver Siliga was perhaps the best in a good class of Patriots' free agents
At the beginning of the regular season, the New England Patriots had one of the most talented and deepest rosters in the National Football League...

But by the time midseason rolled around, they had lost several starters to injury - both season ending and chronic - blown through their depth and were working on the third level with free agents that no one else wanted, so some would consider it a miracle that the Patriots made it to the AFC Championship Game - a contest where their injuries and limitations caught up with them and ended their season.

Free agent signings had a major impact on the success of this team and, in some cases, a direct impact on their ultimate failure, and now that the New England's season has "crash landed" as coach Bill Belichick would say, it's time to hand out the grades to the free agents that helped make and break the 2013 season:

Ryan Allen, Punter (A) - An undrafted free agent, Allen was brought into camp to give incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko competition - and ended up taking his job.  Allen punted 76 times for the sometimes offensively challenged Patriots, averaging a decent net average of 45.9, while Mesko bounced around the league, ending up on the Bengals' final roster.
Allen had a great season after unseating Mesko

Sealver Siliga, Nose Tackle (A) - Mired on practice squads between San Francisco, Denver and Seattle for the first two years in the league, the patriots signed him in late October to their practice Squad - but when the Broncos came calling and wanting to sign Siliga to their active roster following their loss to the Patriots, Belichick activated him and he immediately solidified the interior run defense.  He, together with Chris Jones, figure to be part of an impressive rotation at tackle next season.

James Develin, Fullback (A-) - A defensive end in college, Develin played in the Arena League for a year, then semi-pro ball for another season before latching on with the Bengals practice squad for two seasons.  Coach Bill Belichick brought Develin on board as a Fullback during the preseason and turned out to be one of the better stories of the season.  Though his main purpose with the offense was to open holes for the running backs, Develin made an impact - not to mention the highlight reels - with full effort running, catching and blocking.
Develin was vital to the running game

Chris Jones, Defensive Tackle (B+) - Another positive story for the Patriots as they picked him up on the rebound from Tampa Bay after they waived him following their second regular season game, Jones played in 13 games - starting all 11 after Tommy Kelly went down - and ended up leading all rookies in the NFL in sacks with six and recorded 61 total tackles.

Tommy Kelly, Defensive Tackle (B/incomplete) - Impactful from the outset, the 6' 6" 310 pound rush tackle picked up on the skids from Oakland registered 2.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and 22 total tackles before being lost for the season with a knee injury against Cincinnati in week 5 - accused at times by the Bay Area Press of being lazy, Patriots' fans saw nothing in his short time on the field to confirm those reports.

Josh Kline, Guard (B) - After going undrafted, the Kent State product signed with the Patriots right after the draft concluded and spent half of the season on the practice squad before being called into service replacing left guard Logan Mankins, who had slid over to play tackle when Nate Solder went down with a concussion.  Kline filled in admirably, earning a start in the following game and playing well enough in spot duty to end the season as the primary backup for both guard positions.

Kenbrell Thompkins, Wide recever (B-) - Another undrafted rookie, Thompkins became the story of training camp and easily made the intiial roster - coming out of the gate as one of quarterback Tom Brady's favorite targets, Thompkins caught the majority of his 32 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns during the first half of the season before nagging injuries relegated him to the bench for the most part.
Thompkins (85) did well when healthy

Matthew Mulligan, Tight End (C) - Another in-season pick up, Mulligan served primarily as an inline blocking tight end, though he made his mark as a pass catcher a couple of times.  His largerst contribution coming as the focus of former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan's various youtube rants, voicing his support for Mulligan and the Patriots.  His future is uncertain and probably directly tied to the health status of Rob Gronkowski.

Joe Vellano, Defensive Tackle (C) - a try-hard undersized defensive tackle, Vellano was frequently overwhelmed at the point of attack in the middle of the line.  He managed two sacks and 59 total tackles in giving full effort, but is truly a develpomental prospect that may not be around next season.

Andre Carter, Defensive End (C/incomplete) - Picked up to be a veteran presence in late October after the defense had lost it's two captains in Vince Wilfork and Jerod mayo, the 34-year-old Carter played sparingly in nine games, but still registering two sacks, two passes defensed and four total tackles.

Austin Collie, Wide Receiver (C/incomplete) - Signed and released twice, Collie ended up on the
Amendola couldn't shake the injury bug
Patriots' final roster due to nagging injuries in the receiving corps - ironic, given that Collie himself had become a major injury risk due to a series of concussions.  Nevertheless, Collie played sparingly but became somewhat of a Johnny-on-the-spot for the offense, as each of his six total catches had significant positive impact at critical junctures of the game that he played.

Danny Amendola, Wide receiver (C-) - Signing with the Patriots at the start of the free agency period, Amendola did nothing to shake the "Fragile" image that he had earned in his previous years in the league - always giving full effort, his playing style was conducive to injury and limited him to playing 12 games, but having a significant impact in just a handful.  A major disappointment that may or may not be around when training camp starts in July if reports of discord between he and Brady are to be believed.

Will Svitek, Tackle (C-) - Despite being lit up in preseason, Svitek produced workman-like efforts as a swing tackle backing up Marcus Cannon - but the fact that Cannon was forced to play the edge instead of his natural guard position has many doubting Svitek's presence with the club next season.

Adrian Wilson, SS (F) - Nice thought by Belichick, bringing in the aging veteran to solidify what had been a shaky coverage corps underneath - and with linebacker size, how could he miss?  Well, miss he did as Wilson ended up on the season ending IR - probably never to suit up again.

Leon Washington, RB/KR (F-) - This one made zero sense at the time of his signing and makes even less sense nearly a year later.  With Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson already designated special teams' players - and combined with specialists Danny Aiken, Ryan Allen and Stephen Gostkowski - the Patriots already had six roster spots taken for one-dimensional players with no real value anywhere else.  Active for just two games, Washington returned one kickoff for 19 yards, which comes out to $63,158 per yard. A monumental failure.

 Other free Agents earning incomplete grades: T Chris Barker, LB Ja'Gared Davis, S Kanorris Davis, CB Justin Green, LB Chris White, DT Cory Grissom, WR T.J. Moe, C Braxston Cave, T Jordan Devey, WR Reggie Dunn, G R.J. Mattes, WR Sam McGuffie, WR Greg Orton, LB Taylor Reed.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 3 - Settling on an identity key to Patriots' receiving corps

The New England Patriots need to identify an identity for their offense, and they need to do it fast - because one false move in the offseason could spell disaster.

No?  Go to Pebble Beach and ask either coach Bill Belichick or quarterback Tom Brady if they want to go through another season of struggles like they did last season - and although they did discover a personality that defined them late in the season, they just didn't have the horses in the receiving corps to take advantage of the opportunities that the identity provided them.
Dobson could be legit #1

The Patriots are at a crossroads.  The power running game that they discovered far too late in the season was something that they wore well, but with a patchwork receiving corps that featured no contributions from the tight ends and relied solely upon a former college quarterback as their primary receiver, it is amazing that they made it to the AFC Championship game - but not so surprising that they could go no further.

If someone told you that Julian Edelman would be the Patriots' leading receiver at the beginning of the 2013 season, chances are you would have expected an unmitigated disaster on offense, with something more along the lines of a 4-12 record rather than the 12-4 record that the team ended up with.

Of course, 105 catches for over a thousand yards is nothing to sneeze at, but at issue is the fact that no one else came within 50 receptions of that mark - nor did any other receiver play more than 12 games is.  That is truly, to say the least, un-Patriots' like...

...and disturbing, to say the most.

Not as disturbing as the interior line play or the fact that the tight end position resembled something out of a Stephen King novel, as the receiving corps was designed to be a complimentary entity, which is exactly what they were but if not for Edelman's fire and toughness, it wouldn't even have been that.

That said, don't expect a huge splash in free agency, because that just isn't going to happen - mostly because of the salary cap crunch - but there are possibilities on the market.  But before getting to those, the team must decide what it's identity is going to be.

If the offense is going to be the same old Brady throwing to the same targets, why bother?  If that's the case, then the Patriots need to lock up Edelman and get some pass catchers in the draft.  If they want another shot at a championship, they need to lock in on the power game and gain a little salary cap relief...

...let Edelman test the free agency waters, cut Amendola on June 1st so as not to take a huge cap hit on his contract and fly with the power game, using the passing attack as a complimentary piece to the heavy offense - a healthy mix of size and speed in the receiving corps to make opposing teams pay for loading the box like Denver did in the title game.

Edelman is not a number one receiver, nor is Amendola, who has fallen out of favor with Patriots' fans - and reportedly with quarterback Tom Brady as well - The only potential #1 receiver on the roster currently is sophomore-to-be Aaron Dobson, who showed flashes of potential between bouts of early season shakiness (drops) and dealing with a mid-season fracture of a bone in his foot.

The potential for Dobson is through the roof, and was even drawing post-draft hype as a Larry Fitzgerald type, and who actually had a decent rookie season with the Patriots despite his early struggles and the injury.

“This is going to sound crazy," NFL Films analyst Greg Cossell gushed a few days after the selection, "but I thought that his size/hand combination, at times, reminded me of Larry Fitzgerald,” Then qualified his statement with, “He’s not Larry Fitzgerald, obviously, but he’s a big kid who can move very well with really good hands.”

A statement for which Cossell took plenty of heat, as Dobson earned the unfortunate moniker "Dropson", a play on his supposed penchant for egregious drops of Tom Brady offerings - and he was credited with nine drops in 74 targets this season - but before condemning the kid to the waiver wire, it has to be remembered that four of those came in his first two games...

...making the five that he dropped in the ensuing ten contests that he played seem relatively obscure.  Still too many, but it also must be remembered that a certain talented tight end turned multiple felon also dropped nine passes in his rookie year, on far fewer targets.

Amendola has a habit of making people cringe.  Tough as nails, he nevertheless plays with fire in his all go / no quit playing style that contributes to his perceived frailty, every hit he takes makes the Foxborough faithful cringe, fearing that he's not going to get up.

And he's playing with fire this offseason as well, counting on rest to help heal his torn addcutors instead of having surgery to ensure his health, making him no certain lock to be fully ready for the start of camp - and the Patriots can't afford to hit training camp with the same manner of ambiguity that they experienced last season, nor can they run with a handful of second year players without some sort of veteran leadership.

What is left with any game experience at all if that scenario plays out is Dobson, undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins, and speedster Josh Boyce - not to discount what tight end Rob Gronkowski brings to the offense, should he be healthy at any point next season, nor what a fully healthy Shane Vereen contributes out of the backfield

Of course, Thompkins fell off the face of the planet right after his game winning catch against the Saints in week 6 and Boyce saw the field rarely, though he showed enough in his limited opportunities to warrant a look in camp.

Running back Shane Vereen who, despite missing eight games with a broken bone in his wrist, still accumulated 47 receptions - a number that placed him third on the team behind Edelman and Amendola and Gronkowski changes the entire culture of the offense when he is on the field - but the team can not afford to count on his full participation, also taking into account what permanent limitations his knee injury will leave him with.

So, with a very good stable of running backs, that's where the genesis of the offense should be - and along with Brady, be rebuilt from the inside out.
McCluster adds value as a punt returner

With cap space being what it is, the Patriots have several low cost options that could potentially give them a  more dependable stable of pass catchers in 2014 - low-cost due to the glut of so-so receivers hitting free agency in March...

...perhaps the most intriguing of which would have to be Kansas City Running back/Wide receiver Dexter McCluster.

McCluster is too small to be an every down back, but has flat out blistering speed with with numbers similar to Amendola's and is an absolute terror on the jailbreak screen, where his value becomes even more evident is the fact that he is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the league.

Rumor is that the Chiefs are set to offer him $9 million over three years, a figure that would fall in line with the salary cap, particularly if Amendola is cut - and those numbers also translate to two other possibilities on the open market in Philadelphia's Riley Cooper and Pittsburgh's Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders has been on Pats' radar for two years

Sanders, of course, signed a one year, $2.5 million offer sheet from the Patriots last summer as a restricted free agent that was easily matched by Pittsburgh - and even though he produced his best season on the field for the Steelers last season, he is 30 years old and shouldn't expect much more that what New England offered him per year.

Cooper is a large target that ran into some personal issues last season, drunkenly slurring racial epitaphs at a country western concert - all very ugly, but once the apologies were made and the business of football was in hand, Cooper produced to the tune of 47 catches for 835 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Draft offers it's share of intrigue, but by the time the Patriots are done fixing the tight end position and addressing the offensive line, it could be the 2nd or third round before they can think about a receiver, but there are game changers to be had.
Cooper's speed and size make him intriguing

The likes of Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans and USC's Marqise Lee will be long gone before New England gets to select, but chances are that the best receiver that the Patriots could hope for, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, may be available in the second round.

At 6' 5" tall and 235 pounds, Benjamin's combination of tight end-like size and 4.55 speed could be a spectacular game-changing target that would force the opposition to key on him and would make a nearly unstoppable red zone target as the following video will attest:

An under-the-radar possibility is Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, a 6' 2", 190 pound speed merchant whose college numbers don't reflect his potential impact in the NFL, due to sub par quarterback play on a Wisconsin team that relied on the power running game - now, why does that sound familiar?

An interesting late round prospect is BYU's Cody Hoffman, with size, decent speed and toughness:

There is little doubt that if Benjamin is available toward the end of the 1st round, the Patriots should seriously consider him - because with Tight End size and remarkable speed, he could be the seam stretching entity and middle-of-the-field possession type receiver that could thrive in the Patriots power system... could Abbrederis, though his skill set sees him stretching the entire field on the outside.  Either one coupled with Dobson and, eventually, Gronkowski would give New England a trio of pass catchers that would cause defensive coordinators nightmares.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

NFL clears Broncos' Welker: "It was a legal hit"

The National Football League today issued it's verdict in the crunching hit put on New England Patriots' cornerback Aqib Talib by Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker - and it wasn't what Patriots' coach Bill Belichick wanted to hear.

"It was a legal hit." Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, announced during a segment of NFL Network's NFL Total Access.

Of course, in the letter of the law it was legal so no fines or suspensions will be forthcoming against the diminutive ex-Patriots' slot receiver, but that doesn't mean that the story is going to go away.

On Monday morning, a casually dressed and unusually calm looking Belichick, who had the opportunity to sleep on the subject before addressing the media, did so, and with out prompting but with direct promulgation started his customary press conference monologue by calling out Welker for purposely taking out his best cover corner with a vicious pick...

...calling Welker's hit that knocked Talib out of the game "a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib. No attempt to get open," then qualifying his statement with, "It's one of the worst plays I've seen."

Belichick also prompted the league by saying he'd let them handle the discipline, while Denver coach John Fox responded by saying  "We were not doing anything with intent.", then taking a jab at Belichick, to the laughter of beat reporters,"Our receivers always try to get open."

Just about every writer and fan in the civilized world and parts of Maine have issued their opinion, the vast majority of them favoring the receiver that Fox calls "a great player, (with) high integrity,", but those who have a dissenting opinion have been heard from as well.

"It was really uncalled for," Seattle Seahawks' cornerback Walter Thurmond said after watching the replay. "The receiver ran right into the guy. I don't know the extent of the injury Talib had, but I thought we were supposed to protect football players in this league now. I guess not. I guess that only goes one way."

Which gets to the crux of the matter.  Receivers are protected by rules that penalize a defensive player for hitting a defenseless receiver - there are fines and suspensions awaiting those who do.  Talib was concentrating on receiver Demaryius Thomas when Welker skirted by his teammate and slammed into Talib, forcing the corner from the game.

Jim Leonard of the Buffalo Bills quipped that it appeared that Welker was on a "Suicide Mission".

In a criminal law case, part of the prosecution's tasks is to prove that the accused intended to commit the crime, intended to injure - and no one can say for sure what Welker's intentions were.  But the National Football League doesn't have to prove intent, just whether the action broke one of their rules...

...and in the spirit of the rule, Welker is clean.

Reloading the Musket: Part 2 - Slim pickins' in free agency may steer Pats toward the draft for a Tight End

Following the disappointment of the loss to the Baltimore Ravens in last season's AFC Championship game and leading into the unmitigated lunacy of the free agency period and the draft, we identified four particular needs that the Patriots absolutely had to address if they were to make if past the damnable conference title game and win another big shiny trophy for the ominous and humbling trophy room at the Hall...

...little did we know that our words would be so prophetic - so much so that the situation is now far more grave than

"From these experiences, we can reasonably assume that Belichick's targets should be, in no particular order, a speedy wide receiver to stretch the field, a three down linebacker with coverage skill, a press corner to develop under Aqib Talib and an athletic hybrid tight end that is capable of backing up both Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez with little drop off in production.

The Patriots have none of these things."
Foxborough Free Press, April 26th. 2013

That's right, written in the wee hours of the morning, after the first round of the draft had been completed and New England had become best buddies with the Minnesota Vikings, who came a courtin' Belichick by dangling a fist full of second day draft picks in front of Bill Belichick's eyes, seeking the Patriots' first round pick.
Texas Tech's Amaro could be a target for the Pats in the draft.

Belichick didn't care why they wanted the pick, just that he had multiplied his chances at hitting on a few draft choices - and he did to a certain extent, drafting wide receiver Aaron Dobson, linebacker Jamie Collins and cornerback Logan Ryan, but not the athletic tight end.

Now, there is no way that Belichick could even consider that Aaron Hernandez would blow his plans for the juggernaut, tight end-centric power passing attack to smithereens by turning into an alleged street thug with a gun fetish - though he had to of known of Rob Gronkowski's back issues that needed to be addressed, and that any delays in his rehab from surgery on his broken forearm could land him on the PUP list - or worse.

So there was really no sense of urgency to spend a draft pick on the likes of Travis Kelse or Jordan Reed to back up their expensive bookends - but there was indeed a very real urgency, and with Hernandez in jail and Gronkowski the villian in many-a-sportswriter's weekly tale of the tape until he returned close to mid-season, only to be cut down by a rouge Cleveland safety named T. J. Ward...

...and with Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan being the only other options, the lack of play-making depth at the tight end position absolutely murdered this offense.

When Gronkowski played, the Patriots look like a dominant force to be reckoned with, even with all of the new faces in the receiving corps, but when he went down the aerial attack went down with him - with their rookies hurt and free agent Danny Amendola working without a functioning adductor muscle, Julien Edelman was the passing game.

The hard running of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley was able to mask that for a couple of games, but the entire offense exploded in Belichick's face in losing his second straight AFC Championship Game.

So New England enters the 2014 Free Agency and Draft evaluation period with an offense in a state of flux - only one of their tight ends was coming back, but only after rehabbing his right knee for the next six to nine months - and with the tight end being such an integral part of what the Patriots do on offense, it is creucial that they do not miss on this position in the offseason.

But what does free agency really have to offer?

Jimmy Graham?  Like New Orleans is going to let him get away.  Dennis Pitta?  Naw, he's going to get the tag - plus he's Joe Flacco's best bud.  Jermichael Finley is damaged goods after having his spine fused together and Lions' Brandon Pettigrew is a drop machine that runs in quicksand.

Those are your top four free agents that are going to be looking to get paid, and it's gets ugly after them.  It is important to remember that one of the ramifications of the timing of the Hernandez issue is that the team is handcuffed with his cap number counting against the books, so signing as close to an impact player as possible is prudent.

Names like Scott Chandler from Buffalo, the Packers' Andrew Quarless, the Jets' Jeff Cumberland, and Clay Harbor of Jacksonville are second-tier talents that could be had on a team-friendly deal - with the 29 year old Chandler the only one with a protracted history of success.

And ir's not beyond the spectrum of possibility that Chandler ends up in Foxborough as Belichick has seen him burn his pass coverage enough times to know what he would bring to the team - barring a move to bring in the 6' 7" condor, there's also the draft that features athletic and versatile tight ends, much the same as last season's draft class.

North Carolina's Eric Ebron likely wont make it out of the top 20, but is a big, fast and strong seam burner that would make an immediate impact should New England somehow get themselves postured to get him...

Texas Tech's Jace Amaro is even bigger and stronger than Ebron, just as fast, too...maturity questions have some scout leery but he is every bit an impact talent.

If the Patriots are content looking in the later rounds, Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen could be a 4th round gem as a move tight end...

On the surface and not knowing exactly what is going to happen with Gronkowski's rehab, the team could do a lot worse than sign Chandler and pick up one of these monsters in the draft, with Amaro being the choice if the Patriots decide that the position is worth their 1st round draft pick in May...

...and it should be.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Patriots lose part of their identity with Scarnecchia retirement

Dante Scarnecchia retired on Wednesday, leaving the New England Patriots with a 2-6 record as their head coach.

Dude, wait...what?

Only old school, hardcore types with a serious self-abuse fetish will allow themselves to remember Scarnecchia's interim term as the Patriots figure head when head coach Dick Macpherson fell ill and was forced to relinquish command of the team for the second half of the 1992 season.
Scarnecchia going over one of his patented blocking sheets

The fiery special teams and offensive line coach took over a rarely competitive 0-8 team at the turn and made them competitive - getting blown out in his first game by the New Orleans Saints, he won his next two and his team hung tough though five consecutive losses to finish a brutally forgettable season, tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the worst record in the NFL at 2-14.

Due to his tireless preparation and his knack for getting the most out of those players, Scarnecchia would be the only coach on the staff that year to survive the purge as owner James Orthwein fired MacPherson and his staff - clearing the way for Bill Parcells to assume the reigns, literally, of a team that was rumored to be on their way to St. Louis to become the Stallions...

...but Bob Kraft bough the team from Orthwein after the 1993 season, blocking the move of the team - and Scarnecchia has remained in Foxborough ever since.

Until today.

For certain, the team will hold a special halftime ceremony next season for the long-time Patriots' coach, but don't expect a man with the nickname "Scar" to get all welled up with emotion, rather, he might just pick up a microphone and start handing out one of his patented ass chewings if the team isn't playing up to his lofty expectations.

That's what the Patriots organization is losing, the man that defined the term "Old time tough", a relentless tactician who made the New England offensive line the gold standard for the rest of the NFL for years, a man that demanded not perfection, but effort - a man that took it personally if one of his players was beaten by a mental error, after all of the coaching he had put in.

"They may get physically beat occasionally by someone better, but they don't make mistakes." Patriots' running backs coach Ivan Fears said of the offensive linemen during the team's Super Bowl run in 2011, "And that's Scar.  Whoever has to step in there, that's a well-coached Dude."

Stories abound of his ornery side, and no one was above his temper and sharp tongue.  He demanded that his players work just as hard as he did, to study his blocking sheets, to be in the best shape of their lives - which is to be expected of a coach who served in the Marines while playing as an offensive lineman and earning a degree in physical education at California Western University in the mid-60's.

So enamoured and respectful of Scarnecchia's work ethic and skill with the players when they worked together on Bill Parcells' Patriots' teams of the mid 1990's that Bill Belichick named him assistant head coach of the team in one of his first official acts as their head coach in 2000...

...and now, 13 years later, the Patriots lose that part of their identity.

Everyone was equal in Scarnecchia's eyes, or as Belichick so eloquently quipped in a statement on Wednesday, "In an industry of constant change, Dante remained a fixture here for the simple reason that he helped every player reach his highest potential, regardless of whom he was, how he was acquired or how much raw talent he had."

From Bruce Armstrong to Matt Light to Dan Koppen to Logan Mankins, every one of them was treated the same by Scarnecchia - and every one of them was a better player and a better person by having him as their coach, and the Patriots are a better team and a better organization for having his professionalism as a beacon to lead the way.

There's a reason why Scarnecchia survived four owners and six coaches in 30 years in Foxborough - because he was the one fixture that could never be replaced, that could never be superseded and could never go out of style...

...because in football, "old-time tough" never goes out of style.

Reloading the musket: Part 1 - Quarterback play in spotlight

The time to think about the future of the quarterback position for the New England Patriots is now.

Sacrilegious as it seems, and although he does still have a couple of years of high expectations ahead of him, Tom Brady is nearing the end of his run - and if the Patriots are going to be able to hit the ground running with a seamless transition when the time comes, decisions must be made this offseason.

Sadly, that offseason began with Sunday's "Crash landing", as coach Bill Belichick refers to it, losing the AFC Title game to the Denver Broncos - a game that his Patriots were good enough to get to but, as has been the case in big games against stiff competition for the past two years, not good enough to win it.

But one thing that has to be considered with this Patriots' team is that they were the second youngest team in the NFL this season - behind only the St. Louis Rams - so the foundation for future success is present as Belichick has stocked his team with young fire pissers that are only going to get better...

...but there are areas that will need to be addressed to finish the roster overhaul that Belichick started in the 2010 draft, most dire is an offense that has Brady and a nice assortment of running backs, but nothing close to being elite otherwise.

The first thing that the team must do is decide what the identity of the offense is going to be going forward - is this a pass-first unit with an endless supply of speedy and/or monstrous pass catchers or is this a grinding power running offense that is going to wear folks down and stomp on their throats?

Is it too much to ask for both?

But as it stands entering the 2014 offseason, it is neither - at least not enough of either to be playing for the world championship, but it certainly could be with some solid roster moves in free agency and deft usage of draft picks.

A lot depends on the fate of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has fallen out of favor with Patriots' fans with both his impatience with the running game and his seemingly complaisant style.  On the surface, Brady indicates he's happy with McDaniels, but as far as accountability is concerned one has to be concerned with McDaniels throwing Brady under the bus a couple of times this season...

...and on more than on occasion this season Belichick has issued subtle barbs in regard to his play calling style.

However, the question with McDaniels is if he is the victim of just not having the horses to pull the wagon or if he's just not using them properly.

Truthfully, the answer is a combination of both - so unless he has a change of heart in regard to the Cleveland Browns' head coaching vacancy, we are apt to see McDaniels on the Patriots' sideline in 2014 - so the next step in the process is for Belichick to load up this offense with enough long-term weaponry that it leaves no doubt as to an identity...

...and the first step in that process is to evaluate where Brady is physically.

At his best, Brady is, well, the best.  The man has proven time and again that he can do the most with the least - and that's where an evaluation on him becomes ambiguous and futile. Injury, felony and attrition have robbed the team of any chance at consistency, and it seems that the fate of the entire team always comes back to rest on the shoulders of the now 14 year veteran - and when it does, it's usually in desperation, which is a bad way to fly.

That said, and knowing that the team is under intense scrutiny to surround the certain Hall-of-Famer with enough weapons for him to work with, the team also must look to the future of the position and decide who takes over for Brady when he hangs up his cleats.

Unfortunately, the free agent class of 2014 is a collection has-been's and never-will-be's and the draft class looks to be just as weak this season as last, perhaps even weaker - and with current Brady backup Ryan Mallett not inspiring much confidence with his limited (preseason) play, the Patriots are in a poor spot to do much about it this season.

But there is a scenario or two that could work out - and all involve dumping Mallett to a team needy for a fresh-start and with ties to the Patriots, Houston and Cleveland come to mind as well as Oakland, picking up what they can in the way of draft picks for the strong-armed gunslinger and heading into May's draft loaded for bear.

The draft is full of developmental quarterbacks, but questions abound as to whether any of them are ready to shoulder the load of being an NFL quarterback - so spending anything higher than a 3rd rounder in this draft is improbable - so who's out there that could potentially be the Patriots' quarterback of the future?

Belichick prefers big, stoic pocket passers, but with names like Blake Bortles of Central Florida and Derek Carr of Fresno State likely going in the second round, Belichick would have to hope that either one would fall a little, but both come with potential and Carr with an NFL pedigree, the younger brother of former Texans' first round pick David Carr.

LSU's Zack Mettenberger shows great skill, but suffered a devastating knee injury that he likely won't recover from in time to make an impression in camp and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron is likely a career backup with not a lot of arm strength to make NFL throws.

Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois is intriguing, though there has to be concern with the level of his competition.  Regardless, he is a highly sought after workout with eye-popping numbers and could be available early on the third day of the draft unless he really kills it in college all star games and starts rising up the charts.

Another name that sticks out is Logan Thomas from Virginia Tech - a huge specimen at 6' 6" and 260 pounds, Thomas has a rocket launcher for an arm, though he could use some coaching on foot work and delivery of a touch ball.  A pocket passer first, Thomas is big and fast enough to tuck the ball and pick up tough yardage and is athletic to the point that he was originally recruited to Va Tech as a tight end after playing high school quarterback.

None of these guys are Tom Brady, but it's important to remember that Tom Brady wasn't Tom Brady coming out of college either, at least not the icon that he eventually turned out to be - but someone has to take over in a couple of years, so why not one of those guys?

List of (uninspiring) NFL quarterbacks eleigble for Free Agency in 2014:

1. Michael Vick
2. Josh McCown
3. Josh Freeman
4. Shaun Hill
5. Chad Henne
6. Tarvaris Jackson
7. Colt McCoy
8. Matt Flynn
9. Kellen Clemens
10. Luke McCown
11. Derek Anderson
12. David Garrard
13. Dan Orlovsky
14. Rex Grossman
15. Curtis Painter
16. Tim Tebow
17. Jimmy Clausen
18. Charlie Whitehurst
19. Brady Quinn
20. Rusty Smith

Monday, January 20, 2014

Teacher! Aqib Talib called me a bad name!

Being a reporter for an unabashed tabloid like the New York Post, one would think that Bart Hubbach would be used to people telling him to get out their faces, and most likely being referred to as someone who has carnal knowledge with someone's mother.

So why would Hubbuch be so butt-hurt about being addressed in that manner by an obviously distraught New England Patriots' cornerback Aqib Talib following New England's 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in Sunday's AFC Championship game?

After all, this is the same guy that called out's Jason La Canfora after the national writer posted a piece in regard to, among other things, how Jets' General manager John Izdik "has rid this building (MetLife Stadium) of many of its most willing off-the-record sources, and that Idzik has yet to endear himself to a media corps seemingly hostile to his very arrival, and you have a bona fide tabloid fight on your hands,."...

...the ensuing twitter war between the two akin to a playground shoving match between third grade sissies - but an incredibly entertaining exchange that painted ultimately Hubbuch as a wannabe that La Confora sarcastically panned should "Keep championing journalism on the back page", then following up with "I can't compete with that."

In keeping with that spirit of playground tattle tale journalism, Hubbuch shot off another tweet regarding Talib, perhaps displaying his true agenda in dealing with injured corner:

Teacher!  Aqib just called me a bad name!

Most media outlets are siding with Hubbuch's interpretation, which goes to show how much research the typical blogger will do before essentially committing plagiarism and taking a yellow journalist's word on everything - instead of taking the stance that Larry Brown of his like-named website Larry Brown Sports wrote:

"People usually don’t say “get out my face, motherf—er” unless they’re prompted in some way, so it’s possible that Hubbuch is leaving out a detail."

Given Hubbuch's history of getting in people's faces, Brown is most likely correct - and given that people who tattle to the teacher usually leave out a detail or two, like maybe he started the confrontation...

He does, after all, work for a tabloid.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Welker taking out Talib his best contribution to Broncos' title

Missed opportunities.

When New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib went down with a knee injury in the second quarter of the AFC Championship game on Sunday, hearts all over New England sank - because memories are long when it comes to bad losses.

Brady and the passing game was out of sync until it was too late
Since winning their last World Title after the 2004 season, the Patriots and their fans have endured just about every big game gut punch that there is, from David Tyree's velcro-helmet catch to Wes Welker's drops to Talib being knocked out of last season's conference title tilt, so they could be excused for being a bit fidgety.

And Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning could be excused for going right to work on the rest of the New England secondary.  But in keeping with their mode of operation for the season, the Patriots defense bent plenty, but more times than not didn't break...

...allowing just 13 points in the first half and an equal number in the second - the 26 points allowed a plenty good enough effort for the New England Patriots offense to top, right?

Not on this day, not with the Patriots' offense out of sync from the very start, not without a running game and certainly not with quarterback Tom Brady under siege and off target - and by the time they found any rhythm the Denver Broncos were all but on the plane and headed to New York.

The Broncos' 26-16 win on Sunday afternoon in Denver was more a matter of of poor execution on both sides of the ball and even worse offensive play calling - the entire game a synopsis of everything that went bad for New England during the course of the season.

Injuries, of course, were the main story line all season, and the injury to Talib on what was essentially a pick play by former Patriots' receiver Wes Welker was his greatest contribution on the day, a blindside shot to the ribs that ended the Patriots' shutdown cornerbacks' game before it really even got started.

The defense had no answer for Denver's passing game after that, but did what they had to do to give the team a chance - getting off of the field on third down just as often as not, and holding the potent Denver offense to three field goals in five red zone trips, yielding just two touchdowns overall.

The problem being not so much the amount of yardage given up to set to the red zone, and not even the amount of time they allowed Denver to eat up on those drives - rather, the offense failing to generate any momentum or points when they got their opportunities until the game had been all but decided.

It's not as if the Patriots receivers weren't open - they were - but in calling just 16 running plays, the offense had no balance and the pass rush started getting to Brady.  He was sacked just twice, but those came in the most critical of circumstances, both ending drives and taking them out of field goal range...

...but he was upright most of the game - mostly because Denver was respecting the run even if New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn't - but started taking a beating after releasing throws as the offensive line started to tire from hand-to-hand combat with the Broncos' pass rushers, many off-target on wide open throws down the field.

When Brady did start to connect he was razor sharp - of course, the Broncos had a three score advantage by that time and was playing off-coverage to prevent the long throws downfield - the same throws that Brady missed the opportunity on earlier in the game.

But in the end, it was loss of Talib that doomed a Patriots' team with no continuity or balance on offense - and Patriots' fans can't help but think that Wes Welker put the fork to them one last time - taking out their best pass defender away from the play.

It doesn't matter if it was an illegal pick, nor that a flag was not thrown - because breaking Talib was the beginning of the end for New England, and that's worth a five-yard penalty any day of the week.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper: Improved Patriots defense is Broncos' own fault

"What happens this year will be determined by what happens in the next five weeks. This is where this team and every other team will define itself."

Bill Belichick - November 25, 2013

That certainly is the way things panned out - as always, Bill Belichick constantly reminding everyone each season that he builds his teams to be at their best after Thanksgiving - though no one thought the team's identity would be that of a smashmouth, old-school entity with a circa-1970's feel to it...

...the Patriots' recipe for success nothing more than fundamentally sound execution and brutish trench play that permeates the lineup from the inside out - injuries that would have finished any other team just setting the stage for a long line of unassuming depth to become impromptu heroes.

Linebacker Jamie Collins is the latest to stand up and be counted, though it is to be remembered that he has just one great game under his belt - but what a game it was.

To be sure, the 6' 3", 250 athletic freak had one of the best performances ever by a Patriots' linebacker in last Saturday's divisional round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts - and, indeed, one of the best performances by a linebacker ever in the history of the National Football league if the folks at Pro Football Focus are to be believed.

But was his game an anomaly in that everything just went right for him, or did the Patriots just unleash him at exactly the right time?  A better question may be, have the Patriots finally discovered their true identity, and Collins is merely part of it?

As good as the rookie linebackers' game was against the Colts, it certainly isn't the first time he's shown up positively for the Patriots, demonstrating his potential and how far he had closed the gap on the learning curve in the weeks leading up to the trouncing of the Colts, with his best statistical game of the season prior to that against - you guessed it - the Denver Broncos in late November.

But Collins' recent emergence is just the latest chapter in a 2013 season that got stranger and stranger as the games wore on, until a monstrous entity slowly took shape during the month of December - a team that seemingly became stronger the more players that they lost.

Against the Broncos in week 12, the Patriots played the entire game in the 4-2-5 Nickle - and got absolutely gouged in the running game.  So some may find it curious that the Patriots will probably come with the same approach in the AFC Championship game on Sunday...

...not necessarily daring Denver to run against a soft or light front, but daring them to run against a run defense that is exponentially better than it was seven weeks ago.

And that's the way it's supposed to work, right?  Your team gets better as the season wears on - and the Patriots obviously have on defense, but for this unit to be operating at peak efficiency going into the conference title tilt after losing linebacker Jerod Mayo and nose tackle Vince Wilfork - defensive captains, both - as well as tackle Tommy Kelly, and all for the season, is crazy talk.

Yet here they are with an identity of a suddenly fast, athletic, pressure-based unit that will take away what the opposition does best, then hold their own with everything else - and the entire thing was brought together by the very team that now has to deal with the monster they helped to create on Sunday at Sports Authority Field in Denver on Sunday afternoon.

After the Broncos stomped the Patriots' run defense on November 24th, there didn't seem to be a sense of urgency to do anything different with the run defense, as the Patriots' are a game-plan specific team that had sacrificed ground acqusition in order to take away quarterback Peyton Manning's passing game...

...but on the other sideline, the defensive coaching staff were in full panic as starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went down with a dislocated hip during the game, leaving rookie Sylvester Williams as the starter and no real viable depth behind him.

Word got to Patriots' coach Bill Belichick the following day that the Broncos had tangible interest in signing an under-the-radar defensive tackle from New England's practice squad named Sealver Siliga, who had been on Denver's practice squad for two years before they traded him to Seattle and eventually ended up in Foxborough...

...and since practice squad players are considered free agents and are available to be signed by anyone who was willing to keep them on their active roster for at least three games, Belichick had little recourse but to promote Siliga to the active roster to keep Denver from stealing him.

The story from that point has been well documented as Siliga has not only fortified the middle of the Patriots defensive line, but his ability to shed blocks and take on double teams - and not to discount what rookie Chris Jones brings to the field along side of the huge nose tackle - suddenly granted the linebacking corps a little autonomy to become the playmakers that they were supposed to be.

No longer did they have to wildly fire middle linebacker Brandon Spikes into an uncovered gap and hope that he guessed right, because now they had a nose that dictated which gap was to be filled - and with Spikes being a downhill run-stuffer but a liability in pass coverage considered a two-down linebacker, he would come out of the lineup in favor of Collins as the nickle linebacker.

Suddenly, Collins' other-worldy athleticism - which was evident in his special teams play and flashed a bit in his limited defensive snaps through the first ten weeks of the season - came into play more and more.  His average of nine snaps per game through the Carolina loss tripled from the win over Denver on, reaching it's zenith in the win over the Colts last weekend.

So going forward into the AFC Championship, the Patriots figure to give the Broncos the same nickle look, but expecting much better results.

The line is set with Siliga and Chris Jones manning the middle, flanked by Chandler Jones as the primary pass rusher on the blind side with Rob Ninkovich on the strong side, Collins and fellow athletic freak Dont'a Hightower covering the second level, Collins with the responsibility for Broncos' Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas and Hightower keying on the dangerous Knowshon Moreno, who caught 60 passes out of the backfield this season.

It remains to be seen how well Collins stays on Thomas in the pattern, though his work on Coby Fleener of the Colts is encouraging, but one area where Collins will have a decided advantage over Thomas is in the running game, where Thomas' skill set falls far short of blocking a talent such as Collins or Hightower - and could be a possible tip-off to the Patriots in identifying run vs. pass.

The Patriots' secondary is as healthy as they have been all season.  Their four best corners are all solid, as are their three best safeties, so defending the receivers is mostly a matter of matching up and staying dedicated to the scheme - also a departure from the first meeting when strong safety Steve Gregory was out with a broken thumb and starting corner Alfonzo Dennard exited the game early with his bum knee...

...all the while Aqib Talib dealing with a chronic hip malady - but he did an admirable job in press coverage on Denver's Demaryius Thomas in the first meeting, as did rookie Logan Ryan on Eric Decker, as did much-maligned slot corner Kyle Arrington on that Wes Welker guy.

Obviously, Belichick had built a roster that featured enough quality depth to endure the losses that the Patriots ended up suffering, which is a testament to his foresight and superior talent evaluation - and now they have put themselves in the position to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl if they can beat the Broncos on Sunday afternoon.

And when the Broncos lose, they have no one to blame but themselves - for it was their lack of foresight that set lit the fire under this Patriots' defense.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Kellen Winslow Jr. to cops: "I was applying my hand brake!"

And speaking of Denver, it is a little known fact that the restaurant chain Boston Market is headquartered just 12 miles from Sports Authority Field in the town of Golden, Colorado...

...which makes sense as Boston Market has long been known as a favorite eatery for dope fiends, what with their low priced, high-in-fat munchies and parking lot service - but this past November, New York Jets tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. took the publicity department for the direction they probably didn't want to go.
If a picture says a thousand words...

Winslow was arrested in the parking lot of a Target store in New Jersey with a sizeable amount of synthetic marijuana in his possession, the result of a complaint from a woman who noticed the oft-troubled offspring of the San Diego Charger great Kellen Winslow was masturbating in his car.

When police arrived and seized his herb, Winslow, Jr. tried explaining to the cops that he was lost and was seeking out a Boston Market restaurant.  When inquiring as to if he was giving himself the "Secret Handshake", he denied doing so according to anonymous sources at the scene, despite the presence of a jar of vaseline in the passenger seat.

The woman said that Winslow asked her if she knew poetry and if she would help him straighten out his Longfellow and that when she refused he asked if she'd at least adjust his antenna instead.

The unnamed sources, whom have since been identified as Ron Borges' and Dan Shaugnessy's long-time sources Harvey the Rabbit from Long Island and Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, reported from the scene that Winslow told police that he was attempting to "Apply his hand brake" while taking a load off.

Of course, the police didn't buy his story which left Winslow stewing in his own juices.

At first the authorities didn't know who he was, even though he identified himself as a famous professional football player for the New York Jets which, according to the sources, caused much rude laughter amongst the onlookers - and when questioned further, the quite stoned Winslow asked if he was under arrest, because if not he wanted to go to find Boston Market...

...where he was meeting a blind date that he wanted to give a pair of slick mittens.  He explained that the cops should know him from his onfield reputation of having sticky fingers and being especially good around balls.

Police impounded his vehicle and arrested the tight end, releasing him within minutes on bail - Winslow immediately paid the impound fee and headed to Boston Market where he proceeded to butter his corn, toss his salad and pound his flounder while waiting for the main course of Beef Strokinoff.

If there is a moral to this immoral story is that you are lost and sitting in your car in a public parking lot, you should just let your meat loaf.

Belichick's "Due Diligence" on display with scout team

"Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things."

Sir Isaac Newton

Bill Belichick lives by the mantra of "Due Diligence".

His truths lie in causing the disheveled to become orderly, the chaotic to the systematic, the absurd into the reasonable - and to turn those truths into weapons that confuse his adversaries...

...which in coach-speak means leaving no stone unturned in preparing his New England Patriots for their weekly battles against both foe and attrition - his micro-managing style so permeating of the organization, his influence so complete, that one can not speak or think of the Patriots without having simultaneous conjuring of Belichick's nefarious glare.

Universally recognized as the best game-planning and on-the-fly tactician to ever roam an NFL sideline, he is also known as a master innovator, certainly at least one step ahead of his contemporaries - his matter-of-fact demeanor often confused for arrogance, his manipulation of everything from the injury reports to press releases causing him to be viewed with the same fear and loathing as one would the NSA.

So, should it come as little surprise that when speaking of Belichick, anyone that has had to deal with him on a personal level recants their tales with a nervous chuckle and a paranoid peripheral glance, choosing their words as carefully as a child would to avoid a stern punishment.

But all that is, is an acknowledgement that Belichick is so thorough with his preparation that on game day it appears he knows what's going to happen before it actually does, his influence on the team and their adversaries such that he is perhaps the most hated - yet most iconic - figure among fans of the other 31 NFL teams.

Jealousy?  Perhaps, and this sentiment is fostered to the point that whenever Belichick does something that makes no sense on the level of multiplicity that Newton was referring to, his detractors figure he must have finally gone over the ledge into the megalo-maniacal realm that all evil geniuses eventually fall into, and which Patriots' fans dismiss with a shrug and the axiom, "In Bill we Trust".

A perfect example is his usage of the team's practice squad, an eight-man unit comprised of what are essentially developmental-type players, a well of untested depth that a coach can dip into in the event of injury and, particularly in Belichick's case, to simulate an impending opponent's most dangerous weapon in an attempt to give his own players a real-time feel for what they will be facing in an upcoming game.

Case in point, two and a half weeks ago Belichick signed journeyman wide receiver Greg Orton to the teams' practice squad - an under-the-radar move at the time now prominently on display on the Patriots' practice field, a virtual mirror image of Denver Broncos' wide receiver Demaryius Thomas...

...a 6' 3", 205 pound pass catcher who has lined up across from shutdown corner Aqib Talib to give the second-team all pro a living, breathing avatar in which to prepare for Thomas - and though his 4.49 speed is nowhere close to the world-class speed Thomas possesses, Orton's other physical attributes and, perhaps more importantly, his ability to mimick Thomas' mannerisms come into play in Belichick's meticulous preperation.

And it doesn't hurt that Orton spent the last two seasons as a member of the Broncos' practice squad who was released in August and was worked out by the Patriots in early November.  Orton's size also translates well to that of New England's injured rookie receiver Aaron Dobson, though he is unlikely to fill Dobson's role on the playing field this Sunday - but one never knows.

"I don't know where he finds these guys," former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt told the Wall Street Journal this week "Every week, they bring in someone. Same height, same speed. It's like they practice against your twin brother."

But it's not too hard to figure out where he finds these players, as his mantra of "Due Diligence' leaves no stone unturned in player evaluation, Belichick constantly bringing in players for workouts, stocking his rolodex with all of their attributes and, of course, their phone numbers.

There are numerous examples of the ostentatious head ball coach preparing his charges for their next opponent using journeyman free agents as inexpensive "temps",  it's record of success speaking for itself - and it has to, because Belichick is less than forthcoming when it comes to discussing - well - anything, and his players are similarly instructed.

"Our big thing is taking the practice field and bringing it to the game," safety Kyle Arrington offered as indulgently as a Patriots' player dares, "The saying here is 'practice execution means game reality.'"

And with an overall record that is 110 wins over .500 for his Patriots' career, there are few in the football world that doubt his genius but many that question his tactics, for no coach in the history of the National Football League can boast such a legacy...

...and as it is true that the many that question stratagem are just in fear what they do not understand, in reality Belichick works in these ways to simplify the process, giving his team the best chance of success in the limited time between games that they have to prepare - and if that causes the bad guy to be confused, that's where Belichick's approach gives his team the upper hand.

In Bill we trust.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper: Alley Cats

"I don't bother chasing mice around
I slink down the alley looking for a fight
Howling to the moonlight on a hot summer night
Singin' the blues while the lady cats cry,
"Wild stray cat, you're a real gone guy."

Stray Cats - 1981

Indeed, slink down that alley looking for a fight - it's the survival of the fittest, a turf war that decides who becomes the overlord and who is relegated to that of a subservient fool.

Most people don't understand the stray cat mentality, and the people that do are either vicious thugs or defensive backs - both need short memories and razor sharp instincts, and the best of the best defend their turf without passion or prejudice, because neither can afford to have those things weighing on their brains.
Cool cat Talib will fight Thomas all game long

Thugs are one thing, and New England Patriots fans have had to deal with their share of them, but the play of their defensive backs - indeed, the play of entire defense - has all but rendered the Patriots' Summer of Pain a distant memory.

This is a strong secondary, the most talented and deep secondary since - well - ever, and are as healthy as they can be heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos.

Despite the hype to the contrary, the Broncos offense is not a breathtaking high-flying tightrope act that moves the football at will - but just like any other team in the National Football League, they certainly are capable of being such if given the opportunity.

What makes the Broncos' offense so efficient is that they have the personnel to force a defense to defend the entire field, which opens up opportunities to exploit the opposition's weaknesses - but to level the playing field against them isn't just a matter of taking away the running game, or focusing on their top receiving threat or even getting to quarterback Peyton Manning.

No, there's not some ancient secret to slowing down the Denver Broncos' offensive juggernaut - rather, there is an approach that is so simplistic that it seems as if it couldn't possibly work - but the body of work that is the 2013 season tell us otherwise.

And it all starts at the line of scrimmage.

Not necessarily just with the bigs, not just with containment or setting the edges either, but by laying the hammer down at every spot on the line - and utilizing the five-yard cushion or alley in which defensive backs are legally permitted to make contact with a receiver.

And the Patriots just may be in a better position to do just that than they were seven weeks ago when a combination of foul weather and Patriots coverage scheme held Manning to a miserable 150 yards.

Many variables went into those season-low numbers - the gale-force winds for one, winds that Brady had no issues penetrating with his tight spirals but Manning could not with his crazy moth-in-a-porch-light wobblers - but the ones that he did let off the chain were challenged by a physical Patriots' secondary, starting in the alley.

But the Patriots were hurting in the secondary, with Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory on the skids and Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington nursing lower-body injuries and trying to play through them - leaving rookies, cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon to make the starts, and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins filling in underneath with limited experience...

...yet they continuously mugged the Broncos' receivers at the line of scrimmage, disrupting their patterns and, coupled with the high winds were able to shut down Manning.

There are no such issues this week, not if Saturday's performance against the Indianapolis Colts is any indication.  Ryan is now looked upon as a rising star while Harmon's playing time is steadily increasing as a more sure-handed option to spell either Gregory or safety Devin McCourty, and Collins has been unleashed and is making plays all over the field.
Rookie Logan Ryan shut down Decker in their first meeting

Talib and Dennard appear to be as healthy as they are going to get - so it's all hands on deck for the Patriots' pass coverage, no issues being physical at the line, which is good because giving the Broncos receivers free release or allowing them to sit down in a zone is asking for trouble...

...particularly when it comes to tight end Julius Thomas, who did not play in November's instant classic - spelled by reserve Jacob Tamme, who ended up being the most productive receiver on the field - and who, in fact, was one of the main reasons why linebacker Dont'a Hightower was benched in the game, Manning using Tamme's route running to constantly pull Hightower out of position.

But the emergence of Jamie Collins and greater experience for Harmon should negate that advantage for the Broncos, though Manning is sure to test those rookies - but probably will steer clear of Ryan, as he was able to completely shut down wide receiver Eric Decker.

In fact, the entire Broncos passing game was shut down by a combination of the elements and the Patriots' secondary - banged up as they were - and perhaps the biggest reason why was their ability to manhandle Denver's receivers at the line.

One way that Manning will probably look to counter New England's physical secondary is to run bunch formations with Welker flanked on both sides by receivers Demaryius Thomas and Decker, and Julius Thomas lined up on the opposite side, running a comeback route as a safety valve - the tight alignment of the formation producing natural picks to rub out one of the defensive backs.

But the Patriots can take that advantage away from the Broncos by jamming each one of them at the line, in theory and on the field causing the receivers to pick each other - Denver will run out of this formation, which is a staple of their offense, but with the stout presence of Sealver Siliga at the nose and Hightower in the middle of the nickle, New England can take that away too.

The common theme for this defense is for them to be aggressive, disguising their coverages to a certain extent, but not doing anything fancy - hitting Manning's pass catchers in the mouth as they try to release off the line of scrimmage, taking full advantage of the five-yard cushion and taking away his ability to dictate to the defense.

"That was my first time playing him when we played them earlier in the season." cool cat corner Aqib Talib said earlier this week, "I just read my keys and play football, man. I just play regular, man. I didn’t try to do nothing extraordinary because I was playing Peyton Manning. Just read my keys and played regular.”

In the end it comes down to fundamentals, stopping the run and jamming the receivers - taking control of the line of scrimmage and turning that five-yard buffer zone into a back alley where the Patriots' defensive backs will try to turn the Broncos' passing game into a street fight...

...and given the swagger that the Patriots' secondary have gained and earned to this point in the season, these street-smart stray cats may well rule the Broncos' home turf.