Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ninkovich To Call it Quits

The heart and soul of the Patriots defense, Rob Ninkovich will announce his retirement on Sunday
When a professional football player's skill level starts to decline, it's usually a gradual regression in which he and the team can adjust the player's role and extend his career a season or two - so when it happens abruptly right before our eyes, it's a powerful thing to witness.

2016 was a rough year for New England Patriots' linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who tore a triceps muscle towards the beginning of training camp, then got pinched on a drug test from which he missed four games for violation of the league's substance abuse policy - and when he did return, the triceps were still an issue to the point that he was having trouble disengaging from blockers.

Never was that as evident as in the Super Bowl when Ninkovich couldn't disengage and got hung up in traffic on the Falcons' first score, then was in coverage on the back in the flat on the Falcons' fourth and final score, Tevin Coleman easily beating Ninkovich to the pylon.  The pre-2016 Ninkovich probably would have made those plays.

Certainly, a torn triceps muscle is something that takes from eight-to-twelve weeks to recover from, but he was back playing in six, and since it is the muscle primarily responsible for bending and straightening of the elbow, he likely never regained adequate strength in the arm, putting him at a disadvantage.

Long the soul of the Patriots' defense, Ninkovich is walking away from the game on Sunday, and whether the motivation for doing so was residual injury or declining athleticism, he didn't make clear - but it doesn't matter anyway because whatever his reasons, Ninkovich has had a career that deserves celebration and respect.

Picked up off of the New Orleans Saints' scrap heap before the 2009 season, the Purdue product went from long snapper to linebacker to defensive end in Foxborough, twice along the way leading the defense in sacks (2012 and 2014) and consistently setting the strong-side edge for the past eight seasons and even contributing as a situational pass rusher coming off of suspension and injury last season...

...which would have been his role this year as well, if he even made the team, which is something that he hinted at during a recent charity event.

"I'm pretty much in 'bonus time'" Ninkovich said, acknowledging the fact that at 33 years of age, many of his former Patriots teammates, including now Texans' defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, had already been replaced on the New England depth chart. "You start running around, lifting weights and see how you feel.  Training camp is the same way.  If you're looking like a peg leg out there, it's pretty clear cut."

2016 was the second year in a row that Ninkovich had suffered a debilitating injury, as a massive blood clot in his leg buffered his on-field success in 2015.

"It was a very big blood clot in my leg which turned into a hole, a big cavernous three-inch hole, and they had to pack in with gauze every day and I had to wear this thing over it, and I had to take anti-biotics" Ninkovich offered, "I still have the clot in my leg right now.  I hope it doesn't travel."

So with tearing his triceps, running around with a massive blood clot and with Father Time kicking his butt at every turn, it's no wonder Ninkovich is choosing to walk away from the game, while he can still walk - but he hasn't been blind-sided by the regression, nor is he sweating leaving the game.

"I know my job is going to be taken.  I understand that." Ninkovich said recently, adding, "I don't lose sleep over it because I've had a successful career."

Indeed he has - a career that can and should be celebrated.

The son of an iron worker, his father took him on jobs with him during the summer before his sophomore year at Joliet Junior College, where Ninkovich found himself suspended nineteen stories above Chicago, hanging iron beams.  Years later, he told tale of his father purposely working him to exhaustion on the scaffolding, motivating him to stay in college even if the big boys didn't offer him a scholarship.

He wanted more for Rob.  He wanted to give his son a taste of what his life would probably be without a college education - and after he got that education, if he still wanted to hang beams, well, it was then his decision to make.

He played football and wrestled in high school, but no division one schools came calling, so he went to Joliet, paying for school with the grand-a-week job he held during the summer - and the extra money came in handy as the school's budget didn't allow for much of anything beyond pads, and sometimes the players had to car pool or find rides to get to road games.

Joliet won the NJCAA National Championship during his time, and Ninkovich was named a third-team All American, but it took multiple phone calls to the head coach at Purdue University to convince him that he was worthy of a scholarship - and receive a scholarship he finally did, as a tight end, but ended up as an outside linebacker and long snapper for the Boilermakers.

The rest is history: drafted by the Saints, tearing his ACL in training camp, released and picked up by the Dolphins and placed on their practice squad before the Saints poached him and made him their long snapper, then released the following offseason.

That's when the Patriots came calling.

Ninkovich personified everything that the Patriots' Way embodies - physically and mentally tough, carries himself with pride and professionalism, excels as a mentor but never quits learning and, until the beginning of last season, was always available, which head ball coach Bill Belichick treasures most in his players.

Eight years, 470 tackles, 46 sacks, six conference championship games, three Super Bowls and two rings later, Ninkovich leaves New England on top of the football world, going out on his own terms - retiring at an age that his father and fellow beam hangers of yesterday could only dream of.

His plans?  Only he knows for sure - but one thing is for certain: He's earned the respect of anyone connect to the game of football and any fan who watched him play, earning a banner hanging off the rafters at Gillette Stadium and one that is about to be unfurled...

...and when given the choice as to whether hang championship banners or hanging the beams that support them, it's pretty clear that he made the right choice.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Reasons Abound Why Garoppolo Is Here To Stay

No matter the circumstance or the venue, the New England Patriots let their actions - or lack thereof - do their talking for them.

At the annual NFL Draft in Philadelphia this past April, many-a-quarterback-needy-team's fans watched in abject horror as their powers-that-be gave up prime draft capital to snag college quarterbacks - which is always a crap shoot - while New England stood pat with the hottest commodity in the quarterback market up for bids and no picks in the first two rounds...

...while the capital given up by the Texans, Chiefs and Bears would have likely been a decent start in satisfying the Patriots' demands for compensation for backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Houston gave up two first rounders to Cleveland to move up 13 spots to grab Clemson signal caller DeShaun Watson while the Chiefs gave up two firsts and a third to Buffalo to move up 17 spots to take Patrick Mahomes.  Chicago, despite their fans' outcry, wasn't nearly as aggressive with their booty, swapping a third and a fourth rounder to move up one spot to grab Mitchell Trubisky.

Last we had heard rumors about the price tag on Jimmy Clipboard, it would have taken a first rounder and some additional picks to pry him away from Foxborough - so the fact that all three of those teams, all of whom have a good relationship with the Patriots and have generated deals with them in the recent past, had to settle for untested college kids rather than a tenured backup with top-shelf professional training tells us one thing:

The Patriots don't want to deal Garoppolo, no matter the price.

And why should they?  In Garoppolo, they have a ready-made heir to Tom Brady already under contract, and while Brady is firm in his resolve to play well into his 40's, all it will take is one significant injury and without a quarterback to fall back on, the Patriots' championship aspirations take a momentous hit - and history is replete with examples.

For instance, when Trent Green went down in the 1999 preseason, what would the Rams have done without Kurt Warner?  How about in 1971 when Roger Staubach replaced an ineffective Craig Morton in Dallas? Jim Plunkett for Dan Pastorini in 1980?  Jeff Hostettler for Phil Simms in 1990?  Trent Dilfer for Tony Banks in 2000?  All of those teams went on to win championships with their backups.

Of course, how can Patriots' fans forget a guy named Tom Brady coming off the bench in 2001 to lead the Patriots to their first title?

But if you want a more recent example of what can happen if a team doesn't plan properly for injury, all one has to do is to look at what happened to the Oakland Raiders last season, when Derek Carr went down in week 16 with a broken fibula and all they had to fall back on was Matt McGloin and Connor Cook, who combined for two touchdowns and four interceptions as Oakland lost their regular season finale... the same time losing the AFC West and a chance at homefield advantage, then went to Houston as a wild card and got thumped by a Texans team that had Brock Osweiller at quarterback.  If the Raiders had actually employed a decent backup - McGloin had been a career clipboard holder and Cook was a rookie - they might have had the advantage over every other AFC team, including New England.

As has been said numerous times, Jimmy Garoppolo may be the best backup in the NFL, and it is obvious that his value to the forward thinking Patriots as an insurance policy against an aging Brady is worth more than a couple of draft picks or future considerations.

The Patriots have no holes in their lineup to speak of, and their depth is better than just about anyone else's in the league, barring perhaps at defensive end and at offensive guard, and now that the offseason is over, the options that the Patriots have in replacing incumbent talent with a college kid are narrow indeed, no matter the position.

Will how he performs in camp make any difference? Not necessarily, as Garoppolo has proven time and again that he is a "Gamer", meaning that he performs much better in game situations than he does in practices, and even with five interceptions in two days of camp, Garoppolo tells the truth

His explanation for the phenomenon?  He takes more chances in practice.

"You always try to do the right thing in practice" Garoppolo stated after Friday's practice in which he was picked off three times. "But practice is also that time, especially in training camp, where you give a guy an opportunity that maybe you wouldn't in the regular season."

"It's a time to gain trust in your teammates and give guys an opportunity." he continued, "A jump ball, for example, or a back shoulder, both of those are difficult catches.  You just try to learn your teammates the best you can right now."

Makes sense, in a "Patriots' Way" kind of way - and he's thrown plenty of picks in camp the past three years, but when he got the opportunity to get on the field when it counted, he was nearly flawless, going 43 of 63 for 502 yards and four touchdowns without ever throwing an interception, racking up a 2-0 record while filling in for Brady to start the 2016 season.

He is a polished passer with his eyes glued to his feet, meaning that his arm is cocked and ready to fire because his feet are always underneath him, balancing the throwing motion and follow through, resulting in a compact delivery with no wasted motion and a lightning-quick, snap release not seen in the league since Dan Marino retired.

All of that said and true, none of it means that Garoppolo is the second coming of Marino - or Brady, for that matter - it just illustrates the tools that he has to work with, tools that belong in a rhythm offense that grinds out first downs and eats clock.

So with Garoppolo entering his contract year as a somewhat proven commodity with a limited body of work to evaluate from, added to the fact that Brady is soon to be on the wrong side of 40, the Patriots will be forced to make a decision between now and the start of the 2018 league year next March as to what they are going to do with the Northern Illinois product...

...but one thing is for certain, and that is that the fate of the franchise lies in what they decide to do with Garoppolo going forward - and even if they have to absorb an exorbitant cap hit for a year or two to keep him around, in the long run it will be well worth it.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Patriots' Super Bowl Win, Active Offseason Set Stage For Continued Success On Offense

In early February of this year, the entire world saw a display of emotion that is rarely, if ever, offered from a certain coach and a certain quarterback for a certain professional football team that is otherwise universally recognized as a cold and heartless corporation that proactively fires people before they outlive their usefulness...

...yet, on the other hand, they reach out to aging veterans and offer them part-time work, but at a fraction of what they have made elsewhere.  Some may consider their tactics flippant and cheap, but in a world where success is measured not in dollars made, but in quotas reached, only the organization that manufactures one large silver trophy is considered the best of the best.

And manufacturing trophies is exactly what the New England Patriots do.
Cooks taking on Stephon Gilmore

Sometimes they reach their quota, as they have two of the past three seasons and five times in the past decade and a half, and sometimes they don't, but the thing about the Patriots is that they are always in the mix at the end, something appreciated by their fans and the aforementioned aging veteran - enough so that the phenomenon is given the moniker, the Patriots Way.

Four years ago at about this point of the summer, I wrote that the Patriots' Way doesn't mean perfection, it means doing your best and striving to reach the zenith of your profession, putting aside self-edification - be it monetarily or psychologically - and working in tandem with 52 other guys of the same mindset in order to achieve a common goal.

That mindset produces a "Us Against The World"attitude for 53 different reasons, an attitude that eschews personal gain and platitudes - which is important to understand as the Patriots open training camp in earnest on Thursday morning to start the competitive phase of the team building process, a process that has plenty going on behind the scenes.

The way that the NFL has incrementally changed rules to benefit flashy offenses to make the game more exciting - which is understandable in that it puts butts in seats to watch the games - runs against the grain in post-millennial Foxborough, and because of that, Patriots' coach Bill Belichick has initiated a renaissance of sorts.

It's not anything new, as Belichick has stayed faithful to the offensive and defensive schemes that he came to New England with, and are similar in name to the approach that the Patriots instituted under Chuck Fairbanks more than four decades ago, except instead of calling the offensive blueprint the Erhardt-Perkins offense - a run-heavy scheme with a motto of "pass to score, run to win"...

Belichick calls the Erhardt-Perkins system, a concept-based, pass-heavy approach in which the play calls are a single word that tells the five "skill position" players what routes are to be run and where players are to line up, and then adjusted at the line of scrimmage through, again, one-word verbiage or hand signals, which sets in motion a series of resets to manufacture mismatches against the defense.

With the base call and the options that Brady has at his disposal to adjust at the line, there are literally dozens of different formation options that just one word can conjure.  Those who watched the way that the Patriots' offense dismantled the Atlanta Falcons' defense in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl witnessed the concept system running at max efficiency...

...working quickly down the field with deliberate intent, moving the chains in 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) with a short rotation of wide receivers Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and rookie Malcolm Mitchell, so that when the Patriots made a personnel change, it was just to rotate Amendola and Mitchell.

Brady and the New England offense didn't miss a beat, as tight end Martellus Bennett and running back James White took turns picking up rogue blitzers to give Brady time to find his guys down the field - but when either of them found themselves with the ball, it was pure magic.

Down 28-3 midway through the third quarter, the Patriots produced a full game's worth of yardage and points in the space of about 20 minutes, yet their longest play was just a 25 yard safety valve to Bennett on the right sideline. In that span, the Patriots ran 49 plays and ground out an unbelievable 19 first downs - and before you knew what had happened, the Patriots had put up 31 unanswered points to win the title.

It happens in spurts like that for New England.

What we'll be paying close attention to on offense, and some initial observations:

Conor McDermott vs. The Field

A former "Mr. Basketball" in his home state of Tennessee and was a finalist for the McDonald's All American team as a high school senior, but chose football as his one true path to professional sports and went to UCLA after spending a year in a prep school while healing from a separated shoulder.

McDermott is essentially the same size as left tackle Nate Solder at a gigantic 6 ' 8" and 310 pounds and with his basketball background has a type of slide-step and power-to-the-hoop athleticism that has to have line coach Dante Scarnecchia licking his chops in anticipation of turning the kid into a pro.

Many feel that he needs a redshirt year in 2017, working closely with the strength and conditioning staff, but the team has to be hoping that he shows signs of being ready to contribute rather than expose him to waivers on the way to the practice squad, because with his athleticism, he'll probably not clear waivers and the Patriots would lose him.

Fellow rookie tackle Antonio Garcia also has a big-time basketball background, and also needs time to turn into a profession, but his nastiness and tenacity often overcomes his size limitations (6' 6", 300) and his lack of a heavy anchor.  The ideal situation for New England would be for both of them to serve as swing tackles for the season.

More than at camp, their tests will come with major playing time in the preseason

Brandin Cooks' route tree

If the first day of camp is any indication at all, Cooks has integrated himself into the Patriots way of doing things and looks comfortable on the outside and in the slot.  Brady hit the speedster for a 30 yard score against double coverage and scored again on an end around, displaying plenty of speed on both.

The biggest worry that Patriots' fans have to have when a new pass catcher comes in is whether or not they can pick up the nuances of the concept-based offense, as many have washed out - but Cooks seems to be on the same page at this point in his development, which is testament to his intelligence and work ethic.

Expect to see him all over the formation, as he has said that his best destiny includes working from the slot, which is where he made the majority of his bones in college.

Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead rotation

While we won't be able to see the backs in all their glory until pads go on this Saturday, Gillislee showed nice burst through the hole and good hands out of the backfield, as did Burkhead.  Dion Lewis surprised a bit with his electric, video game like moves in the return game...

...we'll come back to this subject on Saturday.

No kid gloves for Gronkowski, but focus on Allen

Rob Gronkowski may be 100% for the first time in years after missing most of last season after having surgery to repair a disc in his back, but don't expect to see Belichick take it easy on Gronkowski, though some well-placed "Gronk Days" could be in the offing when the monstrous man-child takes some time to repair.

So the focus will be on newcomer Dwayne Allen, who has the opportunity to make Belichick's job a lot easier at cutdown day with a solid camp.  Allen is known for his ability to shield off defenders and for his soft hands, but has struggled in OTA's and minicamp with both.

It could be that Allen is dealing with a confidence issue after losing his job in Indianapolis to undrafted free agent Jack Doyle midway through last season, so don't be surprised to see all of the Patriots quarterbacks test him early and often in an attempt to build up his confidence.  He's not going to be cut - not with a dead money hit of $4.5 million hanging on him, so the Patriots have a lot to lose if they can't build this cat up.

But on the first day of camp, Allen showed no signs of the hands of stone that he displayed in OTA's and mincamp - an excellent sign, as having a complementary talent to offset Gronkowski means just one more way for the Patriots to expose opposing defenses.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 8: "Dog Faces" Give the Patriots' Secondary It's Flare

Patriots' safety Duron Harmon stops to admire the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl 51

The New England Patriots have so many premium draft picks on their defensive depth chart that they could field a starting lineup made entirely of first and second round draft picks.

No matter what traditional base alignment they play in, there is plenty of draft royalty to man the positions - why just take a look at what the lineup could look like in a 3-4:

Left Defensive End - Kony Ealy (2nd round 2014 by Carolina )
Nose Tackle - Malcom Brown (1st round 2015)
Right Defensive End - Alan Branch (2nd round 2007 by Arizona)
Weakside Linebacker - Kyle Van Noy (2nd round 2014 by Detroit)
Weakside Inside Linebacker - Dont'a Hightower(1st round 2012)
Middle Linebacker - David Harris (2nd round 2007 by New York Jets)
Strongside Linebacker - Shea McClellin (1st round 2012 by Chicago)
Right Cornerback - Eric Rowe (2nd round 2015 by Philadelphia)
Left Cornerback - Stephon Gilmore (1st round 2012 by Buffalo)
Free Safety - Devin McCourty (1st round 2010)
Strong Safety - Patrick Chung (2nd round 2009)

They could use this lineup, but they won't - for no other reason than they are a much better team when their "Devil Dogs" are on the field - their blue-collar, toiling in the trenches and anything-but-pretty working stiffs - because head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick really doesn't care in what round a player was drafted, doesn't care how much a player makes in salary.

None of that makes any difference on the field. The only thing that does matter is how well a player does his job, and while all of the aforementioned royalty have all had their highlight reel production and individual accolades, there are other players on the team - the Devil Dogs, the Dog Faces, the big ugly collection of irrelevants - who were considered reaches by some draft experts and outright garbage by others that make the ultimate difference.

Which makes no nevermind to Belichick, as he considers draft experts on the same level as beat writers: a complete waste of his time. Belichick has his own formula for grading potential draftees, and has instructed his scouting department to not give players grades on projected rounds, but instead based on a five-tier system of potential.

The criterion is simple.  Belichick wants his scouts to grade players based on how they would fare under his philosophies, placing them in a linear progression of "starters", "potential starters", "developmental players", "backups" and "players who wouldn't make it on any NFL roster." - which precludes status, popularity and any other superficial label that could be applied.

For example, the team's best pass rusher is 2015 fourth-round selection Trey Flowers. Their most consistent defender over the past decade has been former fifth-round pick Rob Ninkovich while rotational nose tackle and 2016 third-round pick Vincent Valentine saw significant snaps late last season and was a force in the running game...

...but it is in the secondary where the "dog faces" make the most impact on defense, as former third-round safety Duron Harmon and undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler make their bones as two of the best in the game at what they do.

Unless you are one of the people who have been living under large rocks for the past few years, you already know of Butler's heroics in Super Bowl 49 and his corresponding meteoric rise to the top of the NFL's cornerback ladder - this is where I question my own usage of the term "meteoric rise", as meteors tend to fall, not rise, but I am a slave to commonly used metaphors - but not many are truly aware of Harmon's contribution to two championship teams.

Pro Football Focus published some interesting numbers in regard to the Patriots' secondary, a unit that they graded out to be the third-best in the National Football League at the end of last season, and while they've added a very sturdy piece to their cornerback kennel in former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore, it is the steadiness of the safety corps that they opine is what makes this secondary.

And, of course, we know this because the Patriots were said to be in their nickle or dime defensive alignments on 80% of their snaps in 2016, with an extra safety in on the action the majority of that time - so is it any wonder that the Patriots ponied up a four-year, $20 million contract to keep their all-important nickel safety, Duron Harmon, in Foxborough for the immediate future?

Harmon is that rare blue-liner that has the size (6' 1", 210 pounds) and speed (4.41 at Rutgers' pro day), plus the requisite lateral agility to play the single high safety role well enough that it allows New England's defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to use free safety Devin McCourty as a coverage chess piece and strong safety Patrick Chung as an impromptu weak side linebacker without losing anything on the back end.

There is not another team in the National Football League that features such capability in their secondary and, as such, the versatility of what is known as the Big Nickel defense - that is, a nickle or dime alignment that features three safeties - is often overlooked when assessing the talent level of a coverage unit, but the talent of the Patriots' safety corps has not eluded the folks at Pro Football Focus.

The one weakness that the report identified in the secondary was the lack of a true nickel cornerback, which was offset by Harmon playing deep and McCourty - a former cornerback with elite speed and an All Pro selection at both corner and safety on his resume - moved around in coverages, often taking the double slot in a spread formation much like a nickel corner would.

But the Patriots appear to have strengthened their cornerback positions by adding former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore in free agency, who joins Pro Bowl talent Malcolm Butler and ascending star Eric Rowe to form an imposing corps - and with Rowe being a former college safety with like-attributes as Harmon, it gives Patricia many, many options in coverage.

Rowe and Gilmore come as like-sized boundary corners who will most likely fixate on the larger outside receivers, while Butler, who has proven his mettle both outside and in, figures as a chess piece that will be moved around to take advantage of mismatches.

With Gilmore on board and with Rowe ascending as a legitimate corner (see his coverage on Julio Jones in the Super Bowl for an example), teams that employ bigger wideouts to create those mismatches really don't apply against New England as they are well above the curve - again - when it comes to neutralizing a competitor's advantage.

Add to that the aforementioned coverage skill of McCourty and Chung's ability on tight ends, there's not much that's going to get by the Patriots' secondary.

That said, depth is going to be more a matter of who Belichick and Patricia see as having the most developmental upside, because with Butler's contract expiring at the end of the season and with Chung and Rowe scheduled for free agency the following offseason, the Patriots are in good shape to bring along potential replacements.

Actually, Belichick drafted Jordan Richards out of Stanford to develop into a Chung replacement, but he's been a disappointment in a backup role, and no Patriots' fan can hear the name Cyrus Jones without cringing and then falling into a drooling, blank-staring stupor in recalling his struggles in the role as a punt returner last season...

...the fact of which has many forgetting that he was a shutdown corner at Alabama, and never really got a chance to showcase that potential as a rookie as his fumbling issues on punt returns sapped him of so much confidence that Belichick didn't even bother dressing him for the final six games of the regular season, nor for the playoffs.

Jones has always bounced back from disappointment in his football career and has the talent to do so again, and don't expect Belichick to throw the towel in on him after just one season, especially as a second round draft pick.  But while Jones looks to improve on his disastrous rookie season, the jury has spoken in Richards' case, and he may well get the axe as a former second rounder who didn't make much improvement from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign.

Like Jones, Richards looked like a bust from the very start - but unlike Jones, Richards doesn't have the speed nor the instincts to play the strong safety role in New England, as his lumbering style is more scripted for an inside linebacker role, but he just doesn't have the size.  His roster spot is in serious jeopardy, especially given the two undrafted free agents that Belichick signed immediately after the draft.

Richmond's David Jones is a Harmon clone with sideline-to-sideline lateral agility and speed and the ballhawking skills that would make him a fine centerfielder, but has durability concerns and a left forearm that has been the bane of his football existence - this combined with the fact that Harmon was just re-signed, it makes sense that Jones find his way to the practice squad, or even to the PUP where he could allow his forearm to adequately heal while being coached up on the Big Nickel...

...while Minnesota's Damarius Travis is ready to contribute immediately.  At 6' 1" and 212 pounds, Travis is a pure box safety that can handle tight ends across the formation and in tight quarters and is a violent striker in run support.  Where he gets into trouble, as does Chung, is when a tight end takes him up the seam in single coverage - which really isn't an issue with Harmon stalking the blue line.

That leaves only the special teams players that populate the rest of the secondary depth charts, as safeties Nate Ebner and Brandon King and slot corner Jonathan Jones are ace standouts.  Ebner has been a fixture for five seasons and King for two, as the speedster from Auburn also doubles as an emergency "Dime" safety in prevent formations.

Jones also played at Auburn and is a speed merchant like King, but has tremendous ball skills and plays much bigger than his 5' 9" stature would suggest, and has the inside track for the fifth corner spot.

All told, the Patriots may just have the best secondary in the National Football League - surely the most diversely talented - and as we've witnessed for the past couple of seasons, that should be enough.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Contemplating Tom Brady's Future

So Lebron James says that Tom Brady isn't a great athlete...

And he's right.  He's right.  Brady has all the elusiveness of a pine tree and the speed of a garden slug, so apparently one doesn't have to be a great athlete to play quarterback in the National Football League. If we are to judge athletic prowess for the position based solely on Brady, the criteria would have to be based on arm strength, toughness and intelligence - because that's all Tom Brady has going for him.

Which is quite enough in the New England Patriots' system, and for football in general.

However, James based his opinion on the fact that football players generally play one just one side of the ball. They don't have to worry about scoring on one end and then having to defend on the other end which, when put in the proper context, means that he doesn't think any football player is a great athlete.

But where James has missed the boat is when he says that Brady affects just one side of the ball, and even then only when he throws the ball - when in actuality, quarterbacks have the capacity to control a football game in all three disciplines, and they do this by playing the field position game-within-a-game, and by controlling the clock - and while it is true that Brady doesn't play defense, it is equally true that he is the best there is at putting his defensive teammates in position to have the best chance at being successful.

Super Bowl 51 is a perfect example of how quarterbacks affect their own defense and special teams in addition to the offense.

Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan may have been the National Football League's Most Valuable Player in 2016, but more than anything else, he won the award based purely on numbers, which also means that the MVP award is a joke, because the definition of what the NFL MVP embodies is that he is the player who is most valuable to his team.

The Falcons' offense is flashy and their natural philosophy is to be aggressive and to score quickly, putting up huge numbers and making fantasy owners champions in their leagues - but on the field where the outcome actually counts, big numbers and flashy playbooks only get one so far, and most times gets their team in trouble more times than not.

Ryan is athletically superior to Brady when it comes to natural ability, but when that game was on the line - when the world championship was on the line - Brady's will and determination carried his team while Ryan couldn't compensate for his team's sudden collapse with the prize practically in their hands.

Having the ability to be aggressive and to score quickly is fine for coming back from a deficit late in a game - which Brady and his Patriots obviously possess - but it otherwise stinks for both a defense and special teams.  For example, the Falcons ranked 26th out of 32 teams in plays per game, and were in the bottom half of the league in time of possession.  They were dead last in number of third downs faced per contest while converting barely a third of their chances.

This adds up to putting a lot of pressure on a defense, as they rarely received adequate time on the sidelines for proper rest, as the Falcons were either feast-or-famine in nature, playing long ball and ranking tops in the league in yards per pass attempt by a wide margin - and when the Falcons offense was in a tight spot, Ryan engineered exactly one comeback and two game-winning drives during their 11-5 season.

Conversely, Brady won the Super Bowl MVP simply by being being able to call upon his superior football acumen, which in football - and particularly at quarterback - is akin to the superior physical athleticism required in many other sports, but with a cool, sniper-like calmness normally found only in professional golfers...

...who, by the way, don't necessarily have to be tremendous athletes, either, they just have to possess nerves of steel and display pin-point accuracy, all while being watched by thousands of spectators under the suffocating blanket of deadly silence. But golfers don't have 270 pound linebackers bearing down on their position - and neither do basketball players, for that matter, and it would be interesting to see James drive the lane knowing that he was going to get belted and driven into the ground.

So collectively, as we've identified, football players don't even rank in the top three of professional athletes when it comes to sheer athleticism.  Basketball players are far better athletes, while soccer players are even better and hockey players are even better still - but to compare athletic superiority from one sport to another is pointless, as football is as similar to basketball as apples are to oranges.

When someone states that Brady is the best athlete in the world, contextually speaking, those people are most likely talking about championships won and sheer intimidating presence, the innate ability to make ordinary players around him better and to put a team on his back when the chips are down and the lights are brightest, no one else in football comes close...

...and neither does Lebron James, for that matter, who has been to the finals in eight of his fourteen seasons, and sports a record of 3-5, while Brady has been to the Super Bowl seven times in his fifteen years as a starting quarterback, and can boast a 5-2 record while playing with a supporting cast that he makes better just by being on the field.

In that respect, Brady is the best athlete that ever played professional football, and it really doesn't matter what anyone else says.

But for how much longer?  As we saw last season and particularly in the first half of the Super Bowl, teams can scheme to neutralize Brady for a time, but rare is the instance where we've seen a defense able to contain him for an entire game, and he remains the most lethal and heartless sniper in sports, as we all saw in the second half of the Super Bowl.

Like it or not, Brady was horrible in the first forty minutes of Super Bowl 51, as the three things that can make Brady look human - pressure up the middle, his receivers being punked at the line of scrimmage and zone coverages - the Falcons were able to employ, but just as bad as he was in that span, he was equally terrific in the final twenty minutes of that game... good, in fact, that when the coin toss for overtime went in the Patriots' favor, even the most ardent Brady detractor admitted that the Falcons were toast, or as Atlanta receiver Taylor Gabriel told an over-confident Mohamed Sanu on the sidelines while Brady was struggling in the first half, "It's Tom Brady, though."

Gabriel knew all too well, and so should have Sanu, as they had both faced - and lost to - Brady in the recent past.

One could make an argument that Brady's occasional struggles are a symptom of his impending decline, but if that were the case, the same could have been said after losing to the Giants in Super Bowls 42 and 46, and after the 2015 AFC Championship game, all of which were not considered Brady's finest hours.

But what has to be remembered is that Brady is human and is just as susceptible to age and injury as anyone else, and that the Patriots, for all of their excellence in game-planning, are still vulnerable to the trappings of talented opposing coaching staffs with the benefit of having 17 years worth of film from which to plot against the man that is universally known as the Greatest of all Time.

To combat those things, the Patriots' roster is constantly evolving with trends and the times.

Many feel that the Patriots have been loading up on talent in order to take advantage of the time that Brady has left, but what the influx of talent is really all about is preserving Brady so that the diminishing of his skill set will not be as sudden and pronounced as those of other quarterbacks who attempted to play beyond their physical capabilities.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is how the Denver Broncos were able to win a Super Bowl a scant two seasons past despite having a clearly washed up Peyton Manning at quarterback.  The Broncos sat Manning for the second half of the season under the guise of him suffering from a severe case of Plantar Fasicitis, with Brock Osweiller leading the offense during that span.

For Manning, the move was clearly a health-preserving measure mixed with a gloomy forecast on the horizon for the Broncos offensively, who were averaging barely 20 points per game with Manning throwing wounded ducks and taking a beating in the pocket - relying on their top-ranked defense to keep the score close and their running game to carry the load.

And it worked, particularly against New England as Brady took the beating of his life behind a patchwork line in front of him and no running backs to take the load off behind him. Yet, behind by eight points and with ten minutes to play in the game, Brady put his crippled offense on his back and drove the Patriots 63 yards in six plays down to the Broncos' 17 yard line where the drive stalled on downs.

Twice more Brady drove his offense down the field in that fourth quarter, turning the ball over on downs one more time before finally scoring a touchdown on the final drive, only to be stoned by the Denver defense on what would have been a game-tying two-point try - only curious play calling keeping the Patriots from consecutive trips to the Super Bowl.

That has been Brady's M.O. since the 2014 playoffs, as Brady rebounded from horrible starts in games against the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks to win his fourth Lombardi Trophy, then the almost-burger in the aforementioned AFC title game in 2015, and including last February's Super Bowl against Atlanta where he led the most epic comeback in NFL history to win his fifth trophy.

Point being is that Brady is showing his age.  Now, instead of running around with his teeth on fire for sixty minutes like he did in his youth, he takes a more mature and responsible approach to the game.  He knows, as does every player in the NFL that no matter how poorly he plays in a game, if given the opportunity to make amends, he tends to do just that, and more.

He still has the arm, as his thrilling display against the Falcons will attest, and he certainly has the brains and experiences to know how and when to use particular tools in his skill set, and he most assuredly enjoys ripping the hearts out of his foe - but the real test will come when he can't put the team on his back and pull out the tough game.

Has he reached that point yet?  Hardly, and it's laughable to even suggest such a thing, but it's coming and you can bet that Brady and Bill Belichick will never let it reach the embarrassing level that Manning did.

The competitive fire that will always burn inside Tom Brady will someday just not be enough. His dedication as a family man may turn him into a civilian before that point comes, as his wife has made very clear her desire for Brady to hang up his cleats - so enjoy him while he's around.

Too often, we as fans tend to take success for granted, as we have been fortunate enough to watch Brady play for the better part of two decades, taking over a doormat of a franchise and willing it to seven conference championships and five world titles.  Let that sink in, and let the game slow down for you - watch Brady work the pocket, never taking his eyes off of his five in the pattern, his snap release generating plenty of heat on the way to it's target.

Appreciate Tom Brady while you still have him, because it's not going to be much longer that he'll be taking snaps.  Don't be angry or sad when he retires, because the man has done his job better than anyone ever has, and has earned his rest.

Besides, he's not a great athlete anyway.  Right, Lebron?