Tuesday, August 12, 2014

El Jefe Speaks - Belichick giving Wendell every chance to earn roster spot with Patriots

For those who think of Bill Belichick as cold and heartless, it is important for you to pay attention to the competition at center for his New England Patriots as the clock ticks down on the 2014 preseason - and not just on the field, but in his words.

You see, Belichick isn't quite as secretive as many bemoan him for, as he sometimes presents his statements and answers questions from the media in such a way as to offer clues to his psyche - a cryptic game of cat and mouse in which he bares his football soul for everyone to see, a sliver of tangible emotion in the middle of his penchant for innocuous soliloquy.
"Wendy" has a tough road ahead to make the Patriots' roster

Belichick can be quite terse with reporters - he seems to take great joy in giving the business to Albert Breer and Ron Borges, for example - but when a beat writer pops up with an intelligent and thought-provoking question that begs for elaboration, Belichick is more than accommodating.

Monday's pre-practice press conference was one of those times.

The competition at center in training camp has been of particular interest to those who are truly intrigued by the intricacies of the game, spurred by what was considered a down year along the offensive line and, in particular, the failure of the line to protect quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC Title game last January - though there were very conspicuous circumstances surrounding that debacle...

...such as Brady having one healthy receiver to throw to, which enabled the Denver Broncos to focus on shutting down the Patriots' running game by initially stacking the box, then pinning their ears back and overwhelming the offensive line with sheer numbers and heft.  They didn't stand a chance.

Even so, when New England offered incumbent center Ryan Wendell a middle-of-the-pack free agent contract worth $3.25 million over two years which included $850,000 in guaranteed money by way of a signing bonus, many pondered aloud what could have possessed Belichick to make such an investment in a player that had seemingly already reached his potential and was sliding back down.

But in late July he offered his perspective relative to popular opinion, and the responses that he gave waxed of sentiment.

"When Ryan first got here, he couldn’t even make our practice squad. He was a camp player, wasn’t on our practice squad at the beginning of the season." Belichick said, initiating a monologue that was as telling as anything heard from his mouth, perhaps ever. "We brought him back to the practice squad during his first year -  He has worked his way from there on to a consistent practice squad player to a roster player to playing more plays, or whatever it was, played as many plays as anybody in the league did."

"I’d say it’s been about as big of a progression as really any player could have, any player I’ve had or any player could have – maybe Steve Neal, but it’s the same kind of thing, guys that weren’t even on the practice squad that eventually became starting players in the NFL." Belichick continued. "That’s a pretty big jump. It took a lot of time, a lot of hard work and he’s certainly done his part and worked hard."

"He’s put in a lot of sweat equity himself and he’s got a good result to show for it. It’s a great story. It’s a great example of perseverance and dedication and hard work with good results; I love to see it."

Now, for a guy that usually has his emotions tucked into his sock like a challenge flag, that's a ringing endorsement - and also an excellent reason to continue to try and work with a player.

"As long as the player is improving you keep working with him and see how much more improvement they make. If they continue to improve then you continue to work with them." he said.  "At whatever point you think it’s kind of leveling off or you’ve reached the high water mark, then you have to decide whether that’s good enough."

But given the fact that Belichick selected a center in last May's draft - the Rimington Award winner from last season no less - and has had both Bryan Stork and right guard Dan Connolly taking the majority of first team reps in camp, has Wendell reached that point of leveling off?

That question won't be answered until the final cutdown of the Patriots' roster to 53 men - and even though it doesn't appear to be in the cards for the sixth-year Fresno State product, he certainly shouldn't be counted out - because it is clear from Belichick's statements that he wants "Wendy", as the dark master calls him, to step up and claim his job.

"I think every year you start all over again." Belichick opined.  "Certainly if we would have projected Ryan Wendell and Steve Neal their rookie years; none of us would have thought Brady for that matter. His rookie year, he didn’t do anything either. None of us would have thought that those guys would be the contributors they ended up being. That’s why we go out there and have training camp. That’s what competition is about. Sometimes you find out things differently."

For certain, it would be a sad day for Belichick if Wendell doesn't make the roster, but he has never shied away from moves that give him the best chance to compete on Sundays, difficult as they are at times - but one can be assured that there will be no sentiment in Belichick's decisions, and things could even reach the point where he does Wendell a favor by cutting him loose in time to latch on somewhere else...

...he's done it before with players that he's truly respected, and it's clear that Wendell fits that profile - but since it hasn't happened as yet means that the mercurial coach believes that he has a fighting chance at a roster spot, particularly with Stork's injury status being so ambiguous.

"We’re football players on a team." Belichick finished. "If a guy can improve and contribute to the team, then he’ll eventually have a role for the team."

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