Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nixon Was Taken Down By The Press; Is Goodell Choosing The Same Path?

"As far as I'm concerned, I just want you to know that I like the job I have, but if I had my life to live over again, I would have like to have ended up a sports writer"  Richard Nixon
The 37th President of the United States delivered that little ditty shortly after being elected to the office, before anyone knew that he had purposely sabotaged the Paris Peace accords for his own political gain and years before he resigned from office, a broken man.  How poignant and poetic justice can be...

When the Watergate scandal broke headlines in the early 1970's, it did so mainly due to the work of two journalists, Washington Post columnists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who, through their anonymous source, known only as "Deep Throat", was able to publicize that the knowledge of the break in at the Democratic National Headquarters and the subsequent cover up reached into the upper echelon of the White House, the FBI and the CIA.
Goodell playing high school ball just a Nixon was embroiled in Watergate

The work of these two caused a simple breaking-and-entering bag job into a scandal that changed the way Americans regarded these entities.  No longer was the Federal Bureau of Investigation the "Untouchables" as their reputation had been previously, nor was the Central Intelligence Agency any longer the brave souls who risked life and limb to keep our radar screen clear of foreign threats...

...and, most of all, no longer was the Presidency of the United States viewed as an office for the valiant and powerful image that embodied truth, justice and the American way. Watergate took the innocence of the general public that the Vietnam war had not, and left the country the laughing stock of the civilized world.

Richard Nixon became so paranoid of the media that he ordered the FBI to wiretap the telephones of certain journalists, and even had the IRS audit an editor of Newsday after the publication ran a story exposing Bebe Rebozo, a Florida banker and good friend of the President, as Nixon's "Bag man", covertly receiving "donations" for Nixon's re-election effort.

Nixon's paranoia got so disabling that he ordered the assassination of long-time nemesis Jack Anderson, a freelance journalist who escaped with his life when the two assassins were arrested as part of the Watergate break ins.

Richard Nixon resigned in shame a short time later but escaped going to jail when his hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford, issued him a full pardon, while most of his cronies went to a few of the nicer federal prisons...

And damn these memories.  The 1970's were a rotten time to be in charge of anything, because of rampant paranoia and the public's distrust of anything to do with the government - and not even a full clearing of the offices by the Jimmy Carter administration did anything to renew the constituency's trust in public servants, and it wasn't until Ronald Reagan took office and re-focused the country's collective attention to the red menace of the Soviet Union that public trust began to form again.

All of that over a simple breaking-and-entering that, on the surface, appeared to be the work of rogue campaign staffers, but actually had so many layers to it that it toppled an entire government.  Nixon lived to be an old man, never confessing his role in the cover up, surrounded by a brace of secret service agents and betting heavily on professional football.

Nixon was a huge football fan, even stocking the oval office with Sunday buffets for his many friends who would watch football with him, a direct line to the Las Vegas sports book within reach at all times - he was crooked, and so, apparently, is current National Football League dictator Roger Goodell, whose integrity has taken as many hits as Nixon's had in just as short a span as the former president, and for reasons just as innocuous.

What kind of advice would Nixon have for Goodell over the corner he's painted himself into over the alleged deflation of footballs by New England Patriots' staffers - a violation of the rules that carry a $25,000 fine, yet turned into one of the ugliest black eyes in the history of professional sports?

The so-called "Deflategate" saga has turned professional football on its ear, and is the closest that the Watergate-inspired "gate" suffix has come to symbolizing the fraud and corruption inherent to power the Watergate represented, only this time it is a league commissioner in the cross hairs of the media instead of the leader of the free world, but the debate, back-biting and hatred all feels very retro.

Of course, "Deflategate" refers to the email by the Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson sent to the NFL offices, accusing the Patriots of using footballs deflated below the minimum allowable air pressure of 12.5 Psi, stemming from a game played between the teams in Indianapolis in November of last year.

During the Patriots' 42-20 victory, Colts' safety Mike Adams intercepted two Tom Brady passes, one of which he reportedly gave to the Colts' equipment manager, saying that the ball felt soft.  From Grigson's email, which was dated a few days before last January's AFC Championship Game between the same two squads, he warned the league of the equipment manager's concern.

This much is not in dispute.  However, every single movement in this saga after the email was received by League Senior Vice President of Football Operations David Gardi reeks of cover up on a scale not seen since Watergate - but a cover up for what?  The only thing that made sense in the waning hours after the story broke was that the Patriots were victims of a sting operation that somehow caught them in a web of deceit.

When Gardi received the email from Grigson, he then forwarded the email Director of Football Operations Mike Kensil, who then forwarded the email to Director of Game Day Operations James Daniels, who fired the email off to a litany of league executives, including senior members of the league's officiating department, Alberto Riveron and Dean Blandino.

What happened from that point is subject to much conjecture and lost in a pile of he said-she said road apples, with Blandino stating that he had approached championship game referee Walt Anderson to make sure that "Proper protocols concerning the footballs was followed" - proper protocol defined as inspecting each game ball selected by the quarterbacks of both teams, which includes measuring the air pressure in each...

...but in a press conference during the week before the Super Bowl, Blandino denied knowing anything about the Colts' accusatory email, a direct response to being questioned as to whether the ensuing investigation of the Patriots was a planned activity - a "sting operation" - and the first of many contradictory statements made by league executives in regard to the chronology of events.

For the uninitiated, a Sting Operation is a deceptive operation designed to catch a person committing a crime - but Blandino was unwittingly truthful about one thing.  This wasn't a sting operation, this was a flat-out set up, with Brady labeled as the fall guy.

The league wasn't trying to catch the Patriots in the act of deflating footballs, they were acting out a choreographed play in which the script called for the Patriots to finally be taken down by the league, and the commissioner to be carried off the playing field awash in the adoration of the football world outside of New England.

Ray Rice?  Adrian Peterson?  Yeah, sorry about that, we got a little ahead of ourselves there, but to make it up to you, here are the Patriots on a silver platter, the league's golden boy suspended for four games - and in the ensuing scuffle to gain legal leverage, we bet you forgive and forget the Rice thing and the Peterson thing.

Leaks out of the NFL office got public perception simmering against the Patriots - which they collectively knew wouldn't be that hard to do, as New England is one of the more disliked franchises in the league - and once someone in the NFL offices started leaking information to Indianapolis Star beat writer Bob Kravitz and his subsequent article surfaced the morning after the Patriots defeated the Colts in the AFC title game, the witch hunt was on ...

...and that's when the NFL decided to turn up the heat just a little more by leaking to ESPN's Chris Mortenson that 11 of the 12 Patriots' game footballs tested came in a two pounds per square inch under league specifications when the officials measured the balls at halftime, and the public had already found the Patriots guilty of cheating.

Never mind that on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday,'s Ian Rappaport debunked Mortenson's report - and that Kravitz is a known Colts' homer - the blood was in the water.  Now it was just a matter of generating some documentation with a few numbers and some fancy words - and that cost the league five million dollars, but as damning as the evidence was, it was worth every penny.

That, of course, was the Wells Report, a 264-page document that took four months to produce - a document that so fit the pattern of leaked "evidence" against the Patriots that when it was finally published, Wells and his investigative team became the the modern day version of the Untouchables, bringing down the evil Patriots with a flair not seen since the Watergate hearings

But a funny thing happened to the league while they were busy patting themselves on the back, something that they least expected: Journalists collectively started thinking for themselves.

Wary of - and appalled by - the way the NFL shamelessly used Kravitz and Mortenson to get their propaganda out to the public, writers began to slowly dissect the Wells Report and piece together their own theories and, lo and behold, the notion that the Patriots were set up by the league became a universal theme.

Much like Woodward and Bernstein, local journalists like Michael Hurley, Tom Curran and Jerry Thornton came out of the weeds armed with marked up, notated copies of the Wells Report and a dose of common sense, slowly whacking away at both the report and Blandino...

...and once the American Enterprise Institute came into the picture with their unsolicited testimonial in favor of the report being a complete fraud, numbers-wise, science was officially off the table as leverage for the league and Ted Wells did a Howard Hughes, emerging from isolation on Tuesday to join Forty or so other legal types in the dungeon at the NFL offices on Park Avenue, which is just a short slither from his own posh digs.

Brady's appeal hearing on Tuesday morning had the feel of a senate judiciary committee meeting - according to reports coming out of both the NFL and Brady's camps - but the contrast in how things went for Brady were as pronounced as the flaws in the Wells Report, with Brady's attorney telling the media that the quarterback was stoic and truthful in his sworn testimony, while NFL spokesman Greg Aielo boasted that Brady hadn't offered anything new and it would be difficult for the commissioner to find a reason to reduce his penalties.

Brady testified under oath at the hearing, which is an aggressive maneuver by his attorney, Jeffery Kessler, that tells the NFL that his client is prepared to take this to court, and is already poised to do so.  Like the rest of the country, Kessler knows that the league set up Brady and the Patriots, and in having Brady offer testimony under penalty of perjury, he put the NFL on the defensive and on the spot.

How?  Simply by doing what the league is loathe to do and, ultimately, afraid to do - because Brady is the only player in this foul game of pin the tail on the donkey whose story has never changed and, as a result, has never been scrutinized.  Sure, there are many who don't believe Brady's side of the story - whether by preconceived notion or by aid of false leaks emanating from Madison Avenue - but he has never wavered in his conviction...

...whereas the executives at NFL headquarters have been caught in lie after lie, first allowing information to leak out to the press, then using Aielo to debunk those reports as reporter's speculation - a very tidy little operation.

Brady's oath is a direct threat to the integrity of everyone involved on the side of the National Football League, because if Goodell does not eliminate Brady's suspension, Kessler will file an immediate temporary injunction in federal court, compelled by a claim of unfair labor practice and unfair procedure, needing only Brady's testimony to meet the standard of the court to support his claim...

...using the language in Ted Wells' own report of a Preponderance of the Evidence against him and setting the stage for a battle that the league is ill-equipped to fight, given the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against them from scientific sources, the list of which grows by the day, and which paints the Wells Report as the smoking gun in an attempt to frame Brady and, therefore, the Patriots.

The federal appeals court can then find either for Brady or the league, and takes into consideration the methods in which evidence is collected as part of the league's fiduciary duties to it's employees, which strictly prohibits clandestine attempts to secure unfair gain - or, in lay terms, whether or not the NFL deliberately attempted to deceive the parties using fraudulent (Wells Report) means.

Fraud is tough to prove, that is, unless one is armed with a 264-page smoking gun that has been proven by independent sources to be inaccurate, yet the league clings to it like lint to a blanket - but the Wells Report is only the most visible evidence that the NFL framed the Patriots, and the deeper any investigation goes into the matter, the more suspect the league becomes.

So, how long does it take before Goodell becomes just as paranoid as Richard Nixon?  How long before his cronies attempt to cover up a league sponsored frame job becomes exposed?  And, how long before Goodell resigns in disgrace?

Chances are, he won't be allowed to hand-pick his successor, nor will there be a helicopter waiting to whisk him away to seclusion and shameful exile - and all because Goodell, Kensil, Blandino et al haven't taken into account how history set a precedent for corruption, particularly Watergate, wherein Nixon's crimes - Obstruction of Justice, Abuse of Power and Contempt of Congress - led to his resignation once the media started asking questions.

Is there a case of Obstruction of Justice (Wells Report)?  Abuse of Power (Brady's and the Patriots' excessive punishments)?  Contempt of Congress?  Congress is not involved in this filthy drama, but the actions of the commissioner's office should be held in contempt by the public for trying to pass off their many lies on a constituency that they must view as moronic.

It should be exciting to the public that the sports media has focused its collective efforts to discredit the executives of the National Football League just as the press united to take down a corrupt President - and while the game of football can't compare to the fate of a government standing in the balance, corruption is still corruption and fraud is still fraud, no matter the venue...

...and in a world where sports plays a vital role in the fellowship of man and provides one of the welcome few distractions from the horrors of every day life, the taking down of a league should not be taken lightly - but just like the Nixon Administration, if it is by their own doing, it must be undone.

And in the end, it is going to be the sports' writer who causes it to be.

"It is necessary for me to establish a winner image; therefore I have to beat somebody.", Nixon was fond of saying, along with "People react to fear, not love.  They don't teach that in Sunday School, but it's true."

Did Roger Goodell take the course that Richard Nixon did in abusing the power of his office to beat down his enemies?  Did he use the media to not only sway public opinion against the Patriots, but also to instill fear in them? It might take a while, but the world will eventually find out.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 7: Patriots' Starting From Square One With Corners, But Potential Is Evident

Butler's game-clinching interception in Super Bowl 49 was only the most visible piece of good work for the rookie
Anyone looking for justification for the New England Patriots stripping their secondary of three starters from last season needs only to look at the numbers.

Sure, Darrelle Revis' presence added a legitimate top corner to the mix.  Brandon Browner was fun to watch hanging all over receivers and Kyle Arrington was solid - if not spectacular - underneath in the slot until he imploded in the Super Bowl.

Still, the Patriots secondary was merely average - actually a tad below average - in passing yards allowed, coming in at number 17 of 32 teams.  Sure, some of that can be attributed to the Patriots gaining big leads and mailing in coverages late in games, but for the most part, those opponents were no more successful in those situations as they would have been otherwise...
Butler's range and high-point ability on display

...with only Andy Dalton (186 yards, 2 tds) and Jay Cutler (183, 2tds) posting decent numbers in the second half of blowout losses to New England.

It was week 9 against Denver when the Patriots faced anything close to an elite passing game, and then surrendering 429 yards to Peyton Manning, 303 to Andrew Luck the following contest and then 348 to Aaron Rodgers two weeks after that. In fact, those three games were supposed to be the toughest games the Patriots would face all season, all in a four week span, sandwiched between groups of also-rans.

But despite the talent in the secondary - and perhaps because of it - it was the teams that concentrated on their running games and who ran the ball well against the Patriots that gave them the most trouble, as Miami, Kansas City and Green Bay all handed New England losses by averaging 205 yards per game on the ground - and the New York Jets played them close until the final minutes of both division meetings with their traditional ground-and-pound style.

Most of those games were played before the Patriots signed defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas, and before nose tackle Sealver Siliga was activated from the IR, after which New England's run defense shut down the rest of their opponents running games to the tune of 76 yards per game, allowing just one team to rush for over 100 yards before clinching the division in week 15.

The point being, the Patriots have won big with mediocre to bad secondaries as long as their front seven has been up to the task - but once the playoffs start and the competitors are more balanced, that's when the Patriots have their toughest tasks of all - and none of their playoff runs have been cakewalks.

In 2011, the Patriots' squeezed by the Baltimore Ravens thanks to a shanked field goal attempt in the waning seconds before losing a heartbreaker to the Giants in the Super Bowl.  In 2012, the Ravens avenged themselves by eliminating the Patriots in the AFC title game, then Denver followed suit in the 2013 contest.  Last season, it took epic comebacks in both the divisional game against Baltimore and in the Super Bowl against Seattle to claim the World Championship.

What all of these opponents had in common is that they all had well-balanced offenses.  The games were all close and the Patriots' offenses under-performed in many of them, but the fact remains that the New England defense struggles against teams that run and throw the ball equally well - and last season was hardly an exception.

It has been six seasons since the Patriots' pass defense finished the season ranked in the top half of the league - that's 2009 with names like Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite holding down the fort.  Since then the Patriots ranked 21st in 2010 before making it to the AFC Championship game and two Super Bowls with passing defenses ranked 31st in 2011, 21st in 2012, 18th in 2013 and 17th last year.
McClain could find himself a home in Foxborough

As you can see, there is no magic formula to winning, it's all just a matter of putting the people that you have in the position to make them successful, and Bill Belichick does that better than anyone has in decades, perhaps ever - it doesn't matter whether he has Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib or Leigh Bodden...

...or even Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler or Robert McClain, who along with a myriad of players that no one else wanted comprise the cornerback corps of the New England Patriots.

Indeed, third-year man Ryan is the only corner on the depth chart that was actually drafted by the Patriots - save this year's seventh rounder Darryl Roberts.  Everyone knows Malcolm Butler's journey from undrafted free agent signee to Super Bowl hero, but while the rest of the squad don't have stories quite as dramatic as Butlers, they still have taken the long road to Foxborough.

Roberts is a lighting quick press corner from Marshall that fell almost to the point of being Mr. Irrelevant in the most recent draft, being selected 30th overall in the last round, mostly due to his penchant for mugging receivers and drawing illegal contact and pass interference penalties - but his 4.38 speed is intriguing as it allows him to take some chances with receivers on the deep end.

He needs some time in the weight room to add perhaps 10 pounds to a frame that could use it, as does UAB undrafted free agent Jimmy Jean, who is a very raw hands-fighter that doesn't have the bulk to contribute in run defense, but has good length like Browner brought to the defense last season.  His tackling technique consists of latching onto the ball carrier and trying to drag him down, so he could find himself on the practice squad to add some bulk and get coached up.

The Patriots also added some veteran candidates in McClain, formerly of the Falcons, along with former Ram and Eagle Bradley Fletcher and former Jaguar/Charger/Viking Derek Cox, the latter two arriving with their careers at a crossroads.
Ryan is best working from the slot, using his aggressiveness in space

Fletcher was projected to be a safety coming out of Iowa in 2009, but made the Rams squad and developed into a decent press corner, but after twice tearing his right ACL, once in his rookie season and then again in 2011, the former thrid round pick has recently resorted to more of a grabbing style that does little to slow down outside receivers, and makes him susceptible to getting turned around on slant routes and to biting on double moves, and has earned a reputation with officials that will make him overly scrutinized on close pass interference calls.

Cox is a little tougher to figure out, as he appeared to be developing into one of the better young corners in the league while with Jacksonville, but completely tanked after signing a big free agent contract with San Diego, getting benched in three consecutive weeks after getting burned deep repeatedly - which pretty much constitutes living up to his draft profile which stated that he played best in a zone system because of stiff hips and a short gait.

Both Fletcher and Cox are good in run support, so both may get looks in the box as a nickle corner or as a dime defender against double slots that feature multiple tight ends.

McClain is a much more polished product than either of his fellow free agent pick ups, despite the abysmal scouting reports coming out of his stint with the Falcons. The 5' 9" UConn product played inconsistently in slot duty for both the Jaguars and Falcons before an ineffective pass rush and the off-man scheme employed by Atlanta robbed him of his aggressiveness.

McClain is pure press corner.  Period.  His strength is on the outside where he can mug receivers coming off the line and who can flip his hips and jump in the pocket of just about any receiver - and even being shorter than a prototypical outside corner, he is proficient at high-pointing the ball and gets his hands on a fair share of them...

...and is as strong a corner as there is in the league in run support, perhaps why the Falcons used him in five different positions last season in trying to shore up an atrocious defense.  At the very least, McClain is a nickle corner, but the team should be cautious of playing him anywhere but the outside, which plays to his strength in coverage.

That pretty much describes Butler as well, only the second year phenom is a smidge taller and with similar speed.  Butler is largely still an unknown quantity for the defending Champions, as he played sparingly with the secondary populated with pro bowl quality talent - but when the lights were brightest, Butler arrived on the scene by making one of the most clutch plays in Super Bowl history.

His brilliant second half against the Seahawks in which he broke up two passes, almost a third on the Jermaine Kearse circus catch, and the one epic interception, was just some very rich and tasty icing on his under-the-radar rookie season in which he outperformed and surpassed on the depth chart the likes of Alfonzo Dennard and Arrington, neither or whom are still with the team.

Although Butler's duties in the Super Bowl came from the slot, his best destiny is as an outside coverage guy, where his fluid change-of-direction and high-point skills make him a good matchup on even the tallest of receivers - and having 4.4. speed doesn't hurt either.

While both McClain and Butler do their best work on the outside, Logan Ryan has proven time and again that the slot is where he belongs.

Not blessed with blazing speed, Ryan is a scrapper whose best work has been underneath where he can physically contain receivers in a phone booth.  As everyone saw in the Super Bowl, Ryan will open his hips early in a route, making him susceptible to both giving up automatic short passes and also to double moves, and if a receiver gets behind him, he just doesn't have the closing speed to make up the ground.

A hand fighter, Ryan's best work is in the 5-yard buffer zone where he can mug receivers.  There was even talk last preseason that the Rutgers alum could be tried at safety, given his excellence in run support working from the box, and perhaps he could make an impact there as well, though the Patriots are covered in more ways than one with a deep group of blue liners... of which, Devin McCourty, is the key to the Patriots' secondary, where Belichick finally has the pieces together to run a real big nickle, which will be covered in detail in part eight of this series when we take a look at the safeties.

McCourty is another Rutgers corner who the team transformed into one of the better free safeties in the league, for which he was given a handsome raise this past offseason  With the trend in the NFL going toward stack and bunch formations that make coverages unbalanced, usually with a versatile tight end in the mix, the big nickle is impactful only if the defense has a third quality safety in the place of an average nickle corner.

The third safety joins the box safety and one corner on the strong side of the formation, usually leaving the top corner isolated on a wide out on the opposite side with a single high safety protecting over the top - and the way things are shaping up in the Patriots' secondary, there are far more options of a known quantity at safety as there are at corner...

Cornerbacks on the roster at present (with cliffnotes on each):

Darryl Roberts 6' 0", 185 - 4.38 speed, Handsy press corner with quick twitch recovery speed
Logan Ryan 5' 11", 195 - Aggressive hand fighter, best play is from the slot
Malcolm Butler 5' 11", 190 - superb technical corner, has makings of a number one
Robert McClain 5' 9", 195 - Pure press corner, good speed and excellent hips
Bradley Fletcher 6' 0" 200 - Grabby zone corner who plays with fear, torn right acl twice
Justin Green 5' 11", 195 - Well travelled with average skill, good speed
Derek Cox 6' 1", 195 - zone corner with questionable hips, very stiff, no recovery speed
Jimmy Jean 6' 3", 180 - very raw, hands fighter, drag down tackler

This is the seventh installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part eight will focus on the safeties, and how the Patriots have plenty of talent to make up for big personnel losses on the back end...

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 6: Reserve Linebacker Stable Full Of One-Trick Ponies

Lynch could be another undrafted gem picked up by Belichick

In football acumen, a player like D. J. Lynch shouldn't have a role anywhere on defense.

The Bowling Green University product has good cornerback height and awareness, but speed is not his friend.  He hits like a rogue safety, but is too bulky and inflexible to make many plays in that capacity.  He has requisite weight and instincts to play defensive end, but if far too short to be effective in the passing lanes.

Lynch is a linebacker by default, as his 6' 0", 255 pound frame precludes him playing anywhere else, but it is his limitations in those other areas that makes Lynch an intriguing fit in the New England Patriots' defense.

His awareness in coverage, violent physicality and football instincts all come into play as he was often asked to drop into zone coverage to patrol the middle and punish pass catchers in college, as well as playing on either side as an edge setter who has shown great instinctiveness and awareness to break off of his responsibility to shut down the wings by taking perfect pursuit angles, blowing up screen before they ever get the chance to start.

His closing speed is evident in his game film, as is his decision making and willingness to pound the gaps:

Lynch will likely never be a starter in the National Football league, but he is far from the one-trick ponies that comprise the Patriots' depth chart at linebacker as the team breaks for its "Dog Days" vacation preceding the opening of training camp - which doesn't bode well for the Patriots should weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo continue to prove fragile and if middle linebacker Dant'a Hightower is not ready to start the season due to surgery on his labrum...

...leaving only rising superstar Jamie Collins as the lone incumbent among a stable of linebackers whose depth is anything but super - which makes the status of Mayo and Hightower even more crucial as, when healthy, these three make up perhaps the best starting trio in the NFL.

Weakside stalwart Mayo has played there since the Patriots made him the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft, a rookie season which saw him earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl selection - followed by middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower at number 25 overall in 2012 and strong side freak Jamie Collins the team top pick in 2013, at number 52 in the second round.

But depth has been an issue for New England for many moons, which consecutive season-ending injuries to weak side linebacker Mayo has exposed as being a weak spot in the Patriots defense.  Last season they were able to mask that deficiency somewhat by being able to obtain linebacker Akeem Ayers in a trade with Tennessee and also made a deal with Tampa to acquire Jonathan Cassillas...

...but, curiously, head ball coach Bill Belichick allowed both to sign elsewhere in the offseason, leaving the cupboard relatively bare behind his top shelf starting talent - countering with the signings of two former Patriots in Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, both just a year removed from the team and finding that the grass is nowhere near as green in Buffalo and Tampa respectively.

Spikes, who had been an effective two-down run stuffer for the Patriots for four seasons before electing to bolt to Buffalo, was being counted on to perhaps fill the void left by Hightower if he was unable to contribute right away, but a night of reckless driving destroyed what was apt to be a glorious homecoming for the fan favorite, and he was released the following day.

Three days later, the Patriots signed Lynch who, while not as tall as Spikes, is like-weight and decidedly faster, plus comes to Foxborough with a squeaky clean resume as a team leader and an imposing hitter - in fact, the only drawback to Lynch's game is his height, but given that he models his game after four-time pro bowl linebacker London Fletcher and plays with the same intensity, that shouldn't be an obstacle.

Lynch went undrafted - his size and a 2014 knee injury hurting his draft stock - but joins sixth round pick, Mississippi State Matthew Wells, and Alabama's Xzavier Dickson, plus hybrid defensive ends Geneo Grissom out of Oklanhoma and Trey Flowers from Arkansas, all candidates for weakside duties when the Patriots go 3-4.

Those five join a crowded depth chart consisting of incumbent veteran reserves Darius Fleming, Chris White, Eric Martin and James Morris, while veterans Rufus Johnson, Jonathan Freeny and Dekoda Watson signed on as free agents.  That's quite a list, though not unusual on a 90 man pre-camp roster, but the one thing that they all have in common is that if they were horses, they would know only trick.
Some feel Wells would make a better candidate as a strong safety

On the weakside, Wells seems to have the inside track to back up Mayo by default, as there just isn't another linebacker that has coverage ability. This is by no means to make light of Wells' skill, as he is fleet of foot and has shown the ability to cover backs and tight ends - problem is he is not overly physical and is closer to safety size than linebacker, so if Mayo were to go down again, it is inconceivable that Wells would be able to pick up that slack.

Perhaps a combination of Wells on third down and someone like Fletcher as the early down back, as the Montana State product was the choice coming off the bench for four seasons before bolting for Tampa last season.  Freeny, Johnson and Watson are more pass rushing types that are hard-core tweeners, never really finding a groove in the pros despite multiple opportunities.

Fleming is the lone strong side reserve and shows plenty of promise as long as his surgically repaired knees hold up, and is a pure edge setter who is instinctive enough to disengage from blocks to blow up screens, which he did several times last season backing up Collins and coming in as the third linebacker in obvious run situations...

...but that spot could also be manned by veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich, as the Patriots' acquisition of former Cleveland Brown Jaball Sheard gives Belichick some flexibility in moving the clutch pass rusher Ninkovich all over the formation.

Martin, White, Morris and Lynch are all capable of playing inside, with Martin the fastest of the group who could play some third downs to give one of the starters a breather.  White is purely an inside run stopper with limited athleticism while Morris offers little more, but is a bit more fluid in breaking down and getting to the gaps.  He has also been spotted aligning the defense during OTA's which is a good sign for him that the reserve role is his to lose.

Needless to say, the depth situation behind the starting three is volatile at best, even with returning reserves like Fleming, White and Fletcher - and Belichick's charge is to find the right combination among the back ups so that he isn't left scrambling to find a quality reserve is another season ending injury occurs on the second level.

Linebackers on the 90 man roster heading into summer break (Plus some notes on their abilities):

Dont'a Hightower 6' 3" 270 - Solid interior presence, disruptive and plays at Pro Bowl level
Jerod Mayo 6' 1", 250 - Perpetually injured, but smart and instinctive
Jamie Collins  6' 3", 250 - Plays inside and out, most athletic linebacker on squad
Matthew Wells 6' 2", 220 - speedy, good in man or zone coverage, not a physical tackler.
Darius Fleming 6' 2" 255  pure edge setter, occasional pass rusher
Eric Martin 6' 2" 250  4.53in the 40, good chase ability sideline to sideline
Chris White 6' 3" 238  purely an inside run player and an outstanding special teams player
James Morris 6' 2" 240  try hard tough and duyrable, liability in passing game
Rufus Johnson 6' 5" 275 More of a defensive end, gets lost in coverage but plays edge well
Jonathan Freeny 6' 2" 254  Special teams player only despite good size on weak side
Xzavier Dickson 6' 3" 266  more effective as an end line pass rusher along with Grissom and Flowers
Dane Fletcher 6' 2" 245 4.6 in 40 as OLB
D. J. Lynch 6' 0" 255 4.7 in 40, natural gap blitzer and good anticipation technically sound
Dekoda Watson 6' 2" 240 3rd down LB that has some speed, mostly special teamer

This is the sixth installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part seven will focus on the secondary, and how the Patriots have plenty of talent to make up for big personnel losses on the back end...

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Goodell Could Learn Something From Military Protocol

What is the sense in even holding a hearing?

Once upon a time when I was in the Navy, I once missed ships' movement, a victim of being bumped from my flight from Salt lake City to Oakland.  When I finally did make it to Oakland and, eventually Naval Air Station Alameda where my boat was home ported, I was arrested immediately and confined to the barracks, under guard, until a helicopter taking mail to the boat was set to depart the air station.

As if the helicopter trip to the USS Enterprise wasn't enough punishment, I stood to possibly be restricted to the boat or even fined and broken to a lower rank if the Captain found my behavior to be egregious and purposeful.
Balls being tested before an NFL Game

I was taken off the helicopter in handcuffs and escorted straight to the Executive Officer's stateroom, where he was holding XO's mast, sort of a one-man Grand Jury who decided if your offense warranted wasting the Captain's time on - and if it was, you could pretty much count on being found guilty and spending the next 30 days confined to the ship, scrubbing toilets for a couple of hours a night...

...but since I could present evidence that missing ship's movement was caused by something other than my negligence, I was set free, but not before a stern warning from the XO that further episodes wouldn't be tolerated, and that I needed to give myself some cushion when returning from leave, and particularly if the boat was leaving port.

By the time two hours elapsed after the Enterprise pulled into Pearl Harbor two days later, I was sitting in a place called the Monkey Bar in Pearl City, swigging rum and bottled Primo beer with my shipmates, dodging whatever those filthy monkeys decided to throw into the bar from behind their fishnet prison - just being a squid and acting appropriately...

Ah, the Monkey Bar.  The monkeys are enclosed behind glass now, perhaps due to the obvious health code violations inherent with having wild animals flinging their own feces around in a place that sold food - but many happy hours have been spent there, quite a few on that week in port, in fact, courtesy of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and an Executive Officer that understood the difference between evidence and pure bullshit.

So does Bill Belichick, but unlike my old XO, he isn't bound to a code of justice, and is the final word in discipline for the players on his team - and though cornerback Malcolm Butler found himself in a similar pickle a couple of weeks ago, that's a story for another time - or maybe never - because this lesson is more related to how the National Football league should conduct themselves in the next couple of days in order to save a little face in the ongoing and increasingly laughable Deflategate saga...

...because NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is bound by precedence and by rules adopted through the last Collective bargaining Agreement in regard to dishing out punishment of the employees under his charge - and where the punishment in the case of the New England Patriots' allegedly deflating footballs below the legal standard set within the NFL guidelines was shockingly harsh and unreasonable beyond precedence, he should know enough to amend the sentence.

But there is another little thing in play here, that of the question, was there even a crime committed?

Increasingly, even the most critical of journalists and news sites have come a full 180 degrees regarding the Patriots' innocence in the Deflategate scandal, the rags that called for quarterback Tom Brady's head and called out team owner Robert Kraft for not having his star signal-caller's back not even a month ago are now busy plotting how the Commissioner is going to weasel his way out of a very tight corner that he's painted himself into.

The drama is as thick as the air on a hot New England mid-summer day, rife with hints of sabotage and notions of dark malfeasance wafting like smoke from an opium hut - only in this case, that opium hut is the National Football league offices in Manhattan, and the ones doing the sabotaging and are engaged in malfeasance are none others than vice president of game operations Mike Kensil and vice president of officiating Dean Blandino...

...and Ted Wells, who went all Howard Hughes after he issued his paranoid rant on NFL Network in response to intense criticism of his aptly-named Wells' Report, going into about seven layers of deep cover immediately afterwards because he knew it was just a matter of time before someone picked his monstrous report apart.

That time was Friday and that someone was an investigative team from the American Enterprise Institute, who stopped just shy of calling the Well's Report an outright fraud on the document, but then qualifing their findings on sports-talk radio and podcasts all over the country by calling it exactly that.

"This was terribly executed." said AEI's Stan Veuger, co-author of the damning report that discredits the Well's Report. "I don't think he (The Commissioner) can sustain the punishment he put in place for Brady in the first place because that punishment was based, at least in part, on a report that at least, in part, has been discredited."

Veuger was very careful in selecting his words, saying that columnists are being overaggressive with the substance of the report he helped write, saying that he "wouldn't have chosen the same tone." as Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins, who jumped on the story like a ravenous wolverine, stating that he does take into account that it's not possible to know other people's motivations...

...but then goes on to explain what may have happened for the investigators in the Wells Report to come up with the conclusions that they did, as they seemingly ignored the fact that the Patriots' footballs were measured immediately upon being brought inside from the cold, while the Colts' football, according to the Wells Report, had to have been measured 10 to 13 minutes after the Patriots' ball were measured, making the Patriots' footballs to appear to have been deflated at a higher rate.

"If you account for the Colts' balls to warm up, the statistically significant difference they found disappears." Veuger states, then, "I think they believed the story they were telling, and you deemphisize things that don't fit the story if you want to present a coherent narrative."

Which, in lay terms, means that he feels that the Wells Report investigators "deemphisized" the time difference between the two teams' footballs being measured in order to present the evidence that they needed to corroborate their intent - which was enough to start the shit-storm of anti-Patriots sentiment on close to a universal scale.

Veuger then went on to address the "In part" caveat to his statement, saying that his group's statistical analysis didn't cover the fact that Brady declined to hand over his cell phone nor did he address the circumstantial evidence recovered from the cell phones of Patriots' equipment staff Jim McNally and John Jastremski because, as he puts it, if things had been done properly, there would have been no reason for an investigation to take place.

"If there's no deflation to begin with, then none of circumstantial evidence matters," Veuger said, "In the way that if there's no dead body, then there's no need for a murder investigation."

Veuger stayed away from the topic of whether the entire matter was, in fact, a sting operation as many claim, but that hardly matters at this point - what does matter, however, is that if Brady is not fully exonerated in his appeal hearing with Goodell on Tuesday, his attorney, Jeffrey Kessler will immediately file motion in Federal Court challenging the Commissioner's ruling...

...and if that happens, it becomes a matter of full cooperation on both sides, which means not only will Brady have to turn over his cell phone to an independent arbitrator, but pertinent members of the National Football league offices will have to submit to that as well as a matter of discovery and, in fact, making any kind of correspondence fair game and relevant to the case.

If that happens, all hell will break loose, as the paper trail that tells a story of prior knowledge of the Colts' General Manager Ryan Grigson's initial accusations lodged against the Patriots with the league office stemming from suspicions raised during a November meeting between the two teams - a knowledge flatly denied by Blandino, even though the Wells Report cites him telling the head referee in the AFC Championship game to make certain that proper ball inflation protocol was followed for the game.

This entire episode has a certain cloak-and-dagger quality to it, something that is not lost on the bureaucracy and red tape inherent with the Navy, and the government in general, an entity that always needs to find a scapegoat for everything - that is, except for the service level, where Captains of sea-going naval vessels can't be bothered with such trivial things, especially when the evidence suggests that he doesn't need to be...

...leaving the stern warnings to his second in command, which is exactly what should happen in this instance, Goodell's number one issuing a warning to the Patriots and, indeed, the other 31 franchises within the purview of the NFL, that such behavior will not be tolerated going forward - and then be done with it.

No hearing is needed, perhaps a league-wide email and a personal letter of apology to Brady, then all members of the NFL upper hierarchy retreating to wherever Ted Wells disappeared to, where they should remain until Goodell is forced to make an appearance at the season-opener, which happens to be in front of 70,000 rabid Patriots' fans at Gillette Stadium in early September.

That gives him a good two months of separation from the controversy, which should be enough time to identify a scapegoat and to conduct all necessary means of damage control - but if he takes the other route and stands behind his flawed report or even clings to his assertion that Brady's refusal to hand over his cell phone as being detrimental to the investigation then he'd best be ready for a wild ride on a boat that he certainly doesn't want to be on.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paolantonio Report Signals Awakening Of Media To Brady's Innocence

"History is hard to know because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened." Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson loathed many more things than he actually feared, but one of his greatest fears was for the future of print media by being left in the hands of lazy journalists - people that he referred to as "dullards, bums and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity."

He knew. He saw it coming.

Thankfully for him, he isn't around to see his words become so prophetic, but in purely selfish curiosity, it would be interesting to hear his take on the evil and wrong Deflategate saga.  For certain, he would have thrown himself right into the fray and given Roger Goodell a taste of the whip that he wouldn't soon forget...

...and Ted Wells and the Wells' Report would have driven him purely crazy.  Thompson's best work was when covering the Watergate hearings back in the mid-1970's, his hatred for Richard Nixon exceeded only by his disgust for the working press, whom he saw as the scribes that would record history for posterity, and only a select few were up to the task.

But even with this fine quote from the good doctor rising from the grave he blasted himself into ten years ago, it could be construed that he was speaking of the Wells report, particularly the last line - because it never explains, in retrospect, what actually happened.

Fortunately for him, and for all who value justice, there are the learned folks at the American Enterprise Institute...


Good news travels fast.

Well, at least good news that is a month old, when finally corroborated by a respected right-wing Washington think tank.

The American Enterprise Institute sent shock waves through the world of professional football on Friday afternoon when they released their own independent report on the New England Patriots being mired in the throes of the so-called "Deflategate" scandal - but not a report on the scandal itself, rather, the Institute took to task the findings of the NFL-sanctioned investigation.

While stopping just short of calling the Well's Report an outright fraud, the Institute (heretofore dubbed "AEI") nevertheless jabbed at the report like a fresh fighter opposing a tired and old pugilist, before rocking the veteran with a roundhouse square to the grill - and now while Investigator Ted Wells crawls shakily on the canvas searching blindly for his mouthpiece, the national media are taking to their keyboards to report that the grizzled old attorney has met his match.

But this wasn't the first time we've heard that the Wells report was a biased, inconsistent witch hunt - at least, it's not the first time for some.

In it's letter of appeal to the National Football league over a month ago, the Player's Union (NFLPA to the uninitiated) issued a scathing retort to the penalties imposed on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, calling his four-game suspension, "grossly inconsistent with the League's prior disciplinary treatment of similar alleged conduct." and that "no player in the history of the NFL has ever received anything approaching this level of discipline for similar behavior."

But that just deals with the penalties imposed as a result of the Wells report that the letter from the NFLPA dismisses as grasping at "dubious, contradictory and mischaracterized circumstantial evidence merely to conclude that it is 'more probable than not' that Mr. Brady was 'generally aware of inappropriate activities'."

But, the question looms: why now?

For five months, the Patriots and Brady have been taking gut shot after gut shot from the media regarding the ball deflation saga, then taking a nearly mortal blow from the league when they released the Well's Report, an event that came with plenty of pomp and circumstance, and also with an automatic indictment against Brady and the team.

As you might expect, the repercussions from that report had even Patriots fans backbiting each other in wake of the severe penalties handed down by the league - and with plenty of former players and media around the country suggesting that Brady should just be a man, accept his punishment, then move on.

Some felt it prudent to come to Brady's defense, but their backhanded remarks felt awkward and accusatory.  It won't affect his legacy, some would say - but apparently Brady feels that isn't good enough.

On Tuesday morning, ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio published a gushing report over some fresh information coming out of Patriot Place, saying that Tom Brady will settle for nothing less than full exoneration, and that the normally demure Bob Kraft was boasting that he fully expects Brady to be on the field and playing in the Patriots' season opener.

Paolantonio quoted directly from the letter from the NFLPA, using the "dubious, contradictory and mischaracterized circumstantial evidence" cited from the letter to it's full journalistic effect and, suddenly, websites and newspapers are reporting the content of that letter as if it were fresh and new, not a month-old document that they should have been more than generally aware of...

...and Brady should settle for nothing less than a full pardon, and Kraft should expect the face of his franchise to be the standard bearer on that Thursday night opener, when the team will unfurl its fourth championship banner in front of a national television audience on a night reserved for the league champion - a homecoming, if you will.

But long after that game is over, and forever on the internet - remember, there's no place to hide - the journalists, players and fans who found it easier to attack the integrity of both Brady and Kraft - indeed, the entire Patriots' organization - instead of taking the high road and actually examining the Well's Report and the resultant the letter from the NFLPA will always remember the day that the report from AEI forced them to acknowledge their own deficiencies.

For the journalists, that means taking a look at how you research a story, not just how easy it is to copy and paste from your IPhone.  For the players, it means don't throw rocks in your own glass houses by making self-indictments or accusatory, holier-than-thou soliloquies that you hope sounds like having someone's back - and for the fans, it means don't take either group's word for anything. Investigate for yourself before turning on a player like Brady based on the words of lazy journalists and players desperate to get decades-old skeletons out of their own closets.

Don't take my word for it.  For all you know I could be a lazy plagiarist with a hidden agenda or who deliberately misleads folks for my own gain - which I don't, but how do you know that?

In the end, however, Dr. Thompson's words resonate.  They make us wonder if our great grandchildren will ever know what actually happened in the first half of the year of our lord 2015, when the greatest quarterback of that generation - perhaps ever - was accused of and suspended for "more likely than not being generally aware." of the actions of Patriots' equipment personnel being involved in the deflation of footballs.

They will see that very few journalists, players and fans took the time to absorb the evidence before first issuing an indictment of said greatest quarterback, and then proclaiming his innocence once a group of well-read individuals from a political think tank decided that enough was enough, did their own investigating, and came to a conclusion that ripped the Wells Report to shreds.

It is shameful to think that this is our legacy, and that our recorded history is left to the hands of dullards, bums and hacks - but it is, as they say, what it is.  It is entirely possible that history will remember this episode as lore, much as we romanticize sports scandals of the past in our own generation - maybe they will even look at the way that we attach the suffix "gate" to any indiscretion and call us all unimaginative dullards.

Regardless, if Tom Brady and Bob Kraft and millions of Patriots' fans have their way, the only thing that is going to be suspended at Gillette Stadium on that early September night are the four Super Bowl banners suspended from the railings on Champions' Bridge...

"For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

AEI Report Provides Means For Both Kraft And Goodell To Save Face

Jeffrey Kessler was unavailable.

The time table for the National Football League to set a date in any appeal is 10 days from the date of a request for appeal from a player - many are confused by this, thinking that the appeal must be heard within 10 days of the suspended party's notice of appeal, but the 10 day period is merely a deadline for the league and player and all council to agree upon a date for an appeal to be heard.

The first date proposed would have seen Brady's appeal take place last week, but was delayed until June 23rd upon the request of Brady's lawyer, as he claimed to be unavailable on that date.
Goodell and Kraft at the Owner's meeting in San Francisco

Obviously, there was not much contention between the parties involved in regard to the delay, but with the release of a report from the American Enterprise Institute, (heretofore referred to as AEI) one has to wonder if Kessler's delay was a tactic to ensure that this very tangible piece of independent study was completed and in the public eye with time to spare in order to contradict what has been perceived in this blog as flawed and biased findings in the Wells Report.

The AEI released its independent study of the Wells report on Friday and, in line with the thoughts of most Patriots' fans and, indeed, Kessler, the findings of this right wing think tank presents potentially damaging contrast with the league commissioned report.

The American Enterprise Institute defines itself as a "private, nonpartisan, not-for-profit institution dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics and social serve leaders and the public through research and education on the most important issues of the day.", and its integrity and intellectual rigor is considered beyond reproach.

One of the more compelling features of the organization - and, indeed, what separates it from a for-profit entity such as the contributors to, and of, the Wells Report - is that it does not perform contract research, and that its research agenda is determined by its president in consultation with its trustees, scholars and fellows.

In lay terms, and as was made very clear in the preamble to their report, the AEI is a non-biased, independent research facility whose sole purpose is to elevate debate on many controversial subjects, and their findings are considered wholly independent and expert testimony in a court of law... when this institute publishes a report that summarizes that the evidence presented in the case of the New England Patriots alleged deflation of footballs prior to the AFC Championship game matchup with the Indianapolis Colts last January is "inconsistent with the Wells findings", and that the "Wells report conclusions are likely incorrect" and that "a simple misunderstanding appears to have led the NFL to these incorrect conclusions", both the NFL and the Patriots have room to maneuver without losing face.

How much of the knowledge of this undertaking was known as far back as the start of the Owners meetings, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Patriots' owner Robert Kraft hugged it out and exchanged a quiet word the night before Kraft announced that he was giving up the fight against the sanctions imposed on his team?

How much of the knowledge of the research being undertaken prompted Kraft's decision?  How much of it influenced Goodell's decision not to recuse himself from Brady's appeal hearing?  The world may never know, but logic dictates that AEI's report is a key piece of damage control measures undertaken by both men to not only clear the Patriots and Brady of any wrong-doing, but also for Goodell to have a base in which to distance himself from the flawed Wells Report.

The institutes reputation with the NFL is well documented, as it was the independent findings of AEI that caused the suspensions of all New Orleans' Saints players alleged to be involved in the so-called "Bountygate" incident to be overturned and vacated by the NFL when said findings were presented in an appeal hearing in November of 2012.

"Considering that our impartiality was at least implicitly recognized by the NFL in the past, we believe that our analysis in Deflategate...could help resolve this latest controversy." reads an introductory paragraph from an article released by the institute to the New York Times on Friday entitled, "Deflating 'Deflategate'" - meaning that both the NFL and the Patriots' Organization - as well as the NFLPA and Kessler - are bound by precedent  to accept the findings of the institute as being expert and impartial testimony.

What this means for Goodell and the NFL is that the findings of this report serve as a talisman to officially vacate penalties to Brady and the Patriots based on the "new evidence" that Goodell spoke of in his letter of refusal to the NFLPA to recuse himself from the proceedings, without fear of reprisal from the other 31 franchise owners of NFL teams.

Of course, to do so, Goodell would have to dismiss the entirety of the Wells Report, which would severely damage the reputation of attorney Ted Wells, a high-priced Manhattan-based litigator that the NFL had retained and contracted to investigate whether the Patriots had intentionally deflated footballs prior to the AFC Title game...

...which isn't going to be so difficult since the AEI basically concluded that the Wells report is indeed biased in its findings, electing to utilize portions of evidence that fit the findings that they wished to establish, while dismissing important portions of the same research - the AEI concluding that because of this, the Wells report is "Deeply flawed."

As for Kraft, the AEI report should be exonerating him in the eyes of his critics.  The day following his statement that he was giving up his fight against the sanctions levied by the NFL, he said that he knew that the fan base was going to be upset with him, but also asked the same fan base to trust him that he was doing the best thing for the organization and for the fans.

Kraft's pleas for trust from the fan base was met with extreme negativity by a majority who cumulatively have trashed Kraft on social media platforms, calling him a "wimp" who "backed down" to the power of the NFL and who "turned his back on Brady."

With this new evidence coming to light - assuming that Kraft and Goodell most likely knew about the AEI research being undertaken - the conversation between Goodell and Kraft in San Francisco gains some possible context and Kraft's decision to give up his fight against sanctions has reasoning to it that even his harshest critics should be able to recognize.

In the end, the people who will lose are Wells and some of Goodell's top lieutenants, whom it is reported initiated a sort of sting operation against the Patriots, and most likely dictated the course of the Wells report - which may or may not put their names on a list of defendants in any subsequent civil litigation pertaining to defamation of Brady's character.

There is apt to be much finger pointing between all of those people, but it stands to reason that both Goodell and the Patriots will come out of this controversy unscathed, while the people who precipitated the entire debacle are likely to be under heavy scrutiny and in a fight for their own reputations...

...then the only thing left to do is for Goodell to issue an apology to Kraft and the Patriots, and everything will be right again in Patriot Nation.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 5: Patriots Defensive Line Improved Despite Losing Wilfork

Siliga will be counted on to hold the nose in the Patriots run defense
What do Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch have in common?

Not a hell of a lot, other than they both were briefly members of the Seattle Seahawks, both are extraordinarily large human beings and both took immense pleasure in knocking off those aforementioned Seahawks in last February's Super Bowl - oh yes, and also, they represent the veteran interior of the New England Patriots' defensive line.

How each ended up on the Patriots' roster is a lesson on why one teams' trash is another teams' treasure - in fact, nearly the entire interior of the Patriots' defensive line is littered with folks that were shunned by other teams before finding a home in Foxborough...

...Rob Ninkovich, Chris Jones and Antonio Johnson also fitting the profile, though their individual journey to the Bay State are not as compelling as those of Siliga and Branch.
Branch played in eight regular season games...

Branch was originally drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, spending four seasons as a solid, yet anonymous rotational defensive tackle, then two more in Seattle as a rotational free agent pick up before heading off to Buffalo where he became recognized as a top 10 run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end.

Siliga's path to the world champions was less celebrated, having not been drafted but ending up for a brief stay with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent before spending two years on the Denver Broncos' practice squad, then traded to Seattle for offensive lineman John Moffit.  The University of Utah product then bounced back and forth between the Seahawks' practice squad and football limbo early in the 2013 season before his agent, who is close to many in the Patriots' organization, sought a workout for his client.

Siliga was signed to the Patriots' practice squad soon after, but when the Broncos lost defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to a dislocated hip during the Patriots' epic come-from-behind victory over Denver, word got to head ball coach Bill Belichick that the Broncos wanted Siliga back, and were set to sign him off of New England's practice squad to their own active roster.

Belichick, having lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork and rush tackle Tommy Kelly to season-ending injury earlier in the season and getting zero impact from trade pick up Issac Sopoaga and undersized nose Joe Vellano, trumped the broncos by promoting Siliga to the Patriots' active roster - and the space eater solidified the interior of the Patriots' rush defense.
While Siliga made an impact in just seven

Much has changed since then, as New England has replenished their depth chart through the draft, selecting explosive rush tackle Dominique Easley last season and nose tackle Malcom Brown this past April, fully intending for the two youngsters to eventually take over the majority of snaps.

And why not?  The undersized Easley has elite explosion off the line and could become one of the premier interior pass rushers in the league if his knees hold up, and Brown is a two-gap space eater with a powerful lower body who has shown the ability to collapse a pocket up the middle and occupy multiple blockers.

What the Patriots want from their tackles is the ability to re-establish the line of scrimmage two yards deep in the opponent's backfield and filter the running game to the edges where, in theory, the defensive ends and outside linebackers can string out the play to the sidelines or redirect the back off-tackle, where the box safeties and big linebackers are waiting for them...

...and that worked like a charm, but only after Siliga and Branch found their way onto the field in the middle of last season.

Branch joined the Patriots on the field against Denver in week nine, while Siliga saw his first action of the season at Indianapolis after coming off the IR with a designation to return, and the results are startling.

In the first half of the season before the two behemoths saw the field, the Patriots' run defense was surrendering an abysmal 4.53 yards per carry to opposing running backs, including an alarming 5.32 right up the gut - which is merely a side effect of a combination of Wilfork trying to hold the nose by himself with no pure rotational nose tackle to spell him, and with Easley a shell of his enormous potential as he recovered from offseason ACL surgery.
Moore, Ninkovich and Jones

But once Siliga and Branch were available to be rotated into the lineup, the average yards per carry given up by the Patriots on the ground dropped by nearly a full yard per carry to 3.63, most of that division coming up the middle, where New England held opposing runners to a stupid good 2.8 yards per carry, the best in the league during that time frame.

So with the Patriots releasing Wilfork from his contract in March, is it any wonder that they turned around and spent their first round draft capital on Brown, or that they quickly re-signed Branch to a two-year, $6 million contract?

The combination of Siliga and Brown at the nose and Branch, Easley and Chris Jones at the three-tech have the potential to be just as effective in 2015 as the positions were in their championship season - perhaps even better, and they are going to have to be, gauging from the unit's performance in the playoffs, where they were merely average against two of the league elite ground games in Baltimore and Seattle...

...particularly on the edges where, when they couldn't find success up the middle, those teams found plenty of room, going for five yards a pop to the left, and a pornographic 6.5 yards per carry to the right.

That explains Belichick's moves in free agency, where he plucked defensive end Jabaal Sheard away from Cleveland and spent a significant portion of his draft capital on edge players Geneo Grissom out of Oklahoma and Trey Flowers from Arkansas to back up incumbent starters in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.

So pleased was Belichick with his offseason acquisitions that he felt he was able to slice some of the fat from his veteran roster, cutting Michael Buchanan outright and swapping positions for enigmatic rush end Jake Bequette, who will don number 85 and try to make the team as a tight end - the only other holdover from last season being 6th rounder Zach Moore, a small school prospect who absolutely dominated at Division II Concordia College.
Sheard is relentless in pursuit

Jones will start on the weak side, but could be pushed for early down duties by either Moore or rookie Flowers, particularly Flowers, as power is the name of his game and could be the containment end that the Patriots have been seeking seemingly forever. Traditionally undersized for an end, Flowers makes up for his 6' 2", 265 pound frame with long arms, an innate ability to stack and shed and hold his ground at the point of attack...

...while Moore is nearly a clone of Jones in stature, which makes his development from his rookie season a key point to watch with Jones in his contract year and likely to command eight digits on the open market, which the Patriots would be hard-pressed to be able to afford.

Flowers could also rotate in on the strong side, where Sheard may displace Ninkovich as the early-down as, like Flowers, his game is all about power and leverage.  Like-sized as linebacker Donta' Hightower, Sheard also possesses the same containment ability as Hightower showed in college and gives right tackles and tight ends a fight on every snap.

But what makes Sheard special is that he seems to have a sixth sense, knowing when to disengage from his blocker to sniff out screens and running plays to the outside, and not much gets past him as he is strong enough to shed and release, blowing up those types of plays before they ever really get started - and with his ability to bull rush tackles by getting under their pads consistently, Ninkovich could easily move to more of an outside linebacker role, preserving his 30-plus year old legs.

The Sheard - Ninkovich debate is a problem that a lot of teams wish they had, as Ninkovich is a proven all-around defender who leads the Patriots in sacks for the past three seasons and made a momentum-changing sack of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson in the Super Bowl that propelled the Patriots' fourth quarter comeback.  He is always around the ball and is as scrappy as they come, but is not an elite edge defender, while Sheard has the makings of a Pro Bowl selection on the strong side.

Regardless of how the strong side shapes up, the Patriots have improved their defensive line with their offseason acquisitions despite losing Wilfork - because it's all about rotation with Belichick's defenses.

With their elite set of starting linebackers backing them up, the Patriots can continue last season's trend of switching back and forth between three and four man lines, with Siliga and brown rotating in the middle mixed with their kennel of hybrids that can play either the three or the five technique with equal success - going heavy with all tackles if need be, or fast and violent on the pass rush with a combination of quick twitch interior defenders like Easley teaming with the likes of Jones, Sheard and Ninkovich to put the oppositions pass protectors back on their heels...

...and when one considers the talent the Patriots possess at linebacker and the seemingly endless supply of box safety types that add another layer to both the pass rush and run defense, the Patriots' front seven could be one of the best in the league.

And that all starts up front.

This is the fifth installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part six will focus on the linebacking corps, and how the Patriots have shifted philosophies to make up one of the most imposing front sevens in the league...

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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 4: Patriots Boast Biggest, Best Pass Catching Corps In NFL

Brady's top four targets Amendola (80), Gronkowski (87), Edelman (11) and LaFell (19, bottom right) are back in 2015
The New England Patriots may have the largest stable of pass catchers in the National Football League.

Certainly, the have the largest tight end corps in the league, and probably the most talented as well, and when combined with a litter of wide receivers that excel in the concept-driven passing attack, well, you have an almost unstoppable force.

Consider: The Patriots return every single pass catcher on the depth chart from last season, plus have added at least one major red zone threat and welcome back at least one field-stretching deep threat to an offense that may not be the prettiest at first glance, but is deadly efficient and as clutch as any in the history of football.

That's right, the most clutch in the history of football.  How else would you describe an offense that was able to come back from 14 points down against a tough Baltimore Ravens' defense - not just once, but twice in the same game - to win a thrilling Divisional Round matchup last January, then follow that up with an epic come-from-behind win for the World Championship and there shouldn't be any questions.
Amendola shined in the playoffs

The Patriots fell behind Baltimore 14-0 in the first quarter before quarterback Tom Brady found receiver Danny Amendola to tie the game late in the half, then faced a 28-14 deficit until Amendola hauled in a 51 yard strike from fellow pass catcher Julian Edelman to even things up, then Brady and free-agent pick up Brandon LaFell connected on a sensational toss and catch to eliminate the Ravens...

...with all three figuring in the Super Bowl win over the Seahawks, LaFell with the initial scoring strike, then Amendola and Edelman hauling in paydirt to provide the final - and winning - points of the game - not even mentioning that All-World tight end Rob Gronskowski snagged touchdown throws in all three Patriots' playoff games and led all pass catchers with 15 on the season.

Truthfully, that was about it for the passing game, three wide outs and a monstrous man-child of a tight end mixed with the soft hands of since-departed passing back Shane Vereen - and you would be hard pressed to identify another team in the league that did so much with so little - numbers wise - let alone label them as defending champions.

Yet, here we are.

The Patriots receivers are considered the best blockers in the NFL
All four pass catchers had plenty to prove in 2014, Gronkowski and Amendola returning after offseason surgery, LaFell coming over from Carolina with an underachiever sticker on his name tag and Edelman on a quest to prove that his huge 2013 numbers weren't an anomaly - all legitimate question marks for sure, but questions that were answered with huge statements from each at various points of the season...

...all of them shining brightest on the biggest stages that the sport has to offer - and coming into 2015, there isn't a more solid and experienced pass catching corps in the league.

It's almost unfair, really.  Edelman, the former college quarterback-turned-receiver evolving to the point where he has earned the moniker of the toughest guy to cover in the league. LaFell becoming a legitimate possession receiver after toiling in Carolina's boot-option offense for his first four seasons, and Amendola finally showing the Foxborough faithful what makes him such a special talent when he killed it in the playoffs.

Until that point, Amendola had struggled to stay in the lineup, the rehab from offseason surgery to reattach his adductor muscle to his pelvis a painful and slow - painfully slow? - undertaking, but head ball coach Bill Belichick kept him involved as a kick returner, bringing back 20 kicks for a sterling 24.5 yard per return average, slowly integrating the Texas Tech alum into the offense.

Slowly enough, in fact, that Amendola caught only 27 balls during the regular season, but turned it up a notch in the playoffs with regular playing time, catching 11 balls for 137 yards and the three scores while LaFell topped off his breakout, 74 catch, 953 yard regular season effort with another 13 for 119 in the tournament, including the slick one-handed game winner against the Ravens.

But when you're talking the New England Patriots' passing game, Edelman and Gronkowski get top billing.

One NFL General Manager, who wisely chooses to remain nameless, remarked to ESPN's Mel Kiper that Edelman is "The toughest cover in the NFL right now." as part of Kiper's reset of the 2009 Draft where, if that draft was conducted with the knowledge of how the players careers have evolved, the draft expert put the former seventh-round draft pick as the number four overall selection - making him by far the most productive pass catcher from the class.
Gronkowski is too big and fast to be covered consistently

The former Kent State quarterback followed up his 105 catch season in 2013 with 92 last season, then piled 26 more on top of that in the playoffs, completely taking over the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX as the Seahawks had no answer for his sharp cuts, precise routes and true grit...

...a label that could used on Gronkowski as well, the 6' 6" 265 pound tank of a tight end finally enjoying a fully healthy season after dealing with back issues, a twice-broken forearm and a torn ACL.  How good was Gronkowski?  He was the unanimous choice as first-team All Pro tight end by posting an absurd line of 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 scores in also winning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.

The really scary thing for defenses facing the Patriots this year is that all four of Brady's top options in the pattern are healthy, save Lafell's shoulder surgery - though he is expected back by the start of training camp - and also that New England actually has a chance to be even better and more dangerous in 2015.

Belichick signed 6' 7" pure pass catching tight end Scott Chandler away from Buffalo, picked up for Redskins' move tight end Fred Davis to compete against incumbent depth in Tim Wright and Michael Hoomanawanui, with the possibility of keeping four...

...and former Dolphins' number two receiver Brandon Gibson was signed on the cheap to compete against third year disappointments Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce and fan favorite Bryan Tyms.

Aaron Dobson is fast.  He's big and makes the crazy catch in traffic that makes your jaw drop to your midsection. But he can't do that from the trainer's table, where he has seen most of his time in New England thanks for a fractured bone in his foot that seems to have had some chronic manifestations.

A broken bone in the foot certainly has a tendency to eliminate the speed factor of a receiver, and as a healthy Dobson runs a sub 4.4 in the 40 yard dash, he has the speed to take the top off of a defense, as does Boyce, who ran an insane 4.24 at his pro day coming out of college, but his inability to fully grasp the concept-based offense had him running with the scout team in 2014.

Obviously, this is a make-or-break camp for both players, and even more so when one considers that receivers who can take the top off of a defense is not really necessary for Belichick's version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense, which relies on short to intermediate "spot" throws dsigned to have the ball out of Brady's hand in no more than a second and a half.

That doesn't leave much wiggle room for purely vertical speed merchants, especially since the effective range for both Brady and his protoge Jimmy Garoppolo is right around thrity yards downfield.  That doesn't mean that neither quarterback can get the ball deeper than that, it's just not how the offense is set to run - and in truth, the accuracy for both suffers any deeper than that.

Both are deadly down the seam, however, and that's where Gronkowski, Chandler and LaFell look to make their bones, and if Dobson finds himself on the roster come the regular season, it will be because he's shown that ability on slants, in-cuts and seam routes where he can use his combination of size (6' 3", 210 pounds) and speed to turn a short cut into a big gainer.

Boyce is going to have a tough time making the roster, as will Gibson, Tyms and Jonathan Krause, because there are just so many roster spots, and the trend in New England these days is to get as big as possible at any given time, and only the raw Tyms tops six feet in that crowd.  That being the case, one could reasonably envision eight pass catchers making the squad:

Julian Edelman (5' 10", 200 pounds)
Rob Gronkowski (6' 6", 265 pounds)
Brandon LaFell (6' 3", 210 pounds)
Danny Amendola (5' 11", 200 pounds)
Aaron Dobson (6' 3", 210 pounds)
Scott Chandler (6' 7", 260 pounds)
Tim Wright (6' 4", 235 pounds)
Fred Davis (6' 4", 250 pounds)

One could also make a case for Hoomanawanui, who also came up huge in the playoffs in the pattern, and is a devastating blocker in the running game and a key contributor on special teams.

Because of the unique way that Belichick uses his tight ends as part of the conceptual scheme, he has loaded up the preseason depth chart with size and athletic ability, perhaps in an effort to make the Patriots' offense one that actually fits the mantra of the Erhardt-Perkins, which is not only predicated on having multi-talented receivers that can run every route in any given concept, but also in their blocking ability in the four minute offense.

That is something that is overlooked much of the time, but it is something that sets the Patriots' receivers apart from everyone else, is that the top four are considered to be the best group of downfield blockers in the league.

So, it seems that there's nothing that this stable of pass catchers can't do.  As long as health is on their side and Belichick is running things from the sidelines, this group is going to be very difficult to stop, if not impossible - the only thing that could really dampen the enthusiasm about the passing game being the instability of the interior offensive line at the moment, but if that is worked out in camp, there may be no stopping the Patriots' offense.

This is the fourth installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part five will focus on the defensive line, and how the Patriots have shifted philosophies to make up one of the most imposing front sevens in the league...

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