Saturday, May 9, 2020

Belichick To Roll With Stidham And The Receivers He's Got, Because That Was His Plan All Along

May 8, 2020

So, Bill Belichick didn't select any wide receivers in this year's NFL Draft, but at least he doesn't have Tom Brady around to bitch about it.

In reality, however, Belichick's New England Patriots are pretty stacked at the pass catching positions, so long as his wide receivers and tight ends do the job that they are capable of - but with a new quarterback under center, nothing's a given.

Indeed, the Patriots are entering the 2020 season with plenty of mystery surrounding their receiving corps, with only greybeard Julian Edelman, sophomore Jakobi Meyers and passing back James White the only known quantity - and while we got a little taste of what second-year perimeter threat N'Keal Harry and veteran Mohamed Sanu bring to the field, they are largely question marks... are newcomers Damiere Byrd and Marquise Lee, both with undeniable measurables and speed to burn, but both having underachieved thus far in their brief professional football careers - and the advantage that all of them have is working with the aforementioned new, young quarterback who doesn't seem to have the same obsession with perfection that Brady did.

Not that expecting your receivers to be where they are supposed to be on the route tree is a bad thing, but Brady's heat-of-the-moment, Sam Kinison-style of explosive expression seemed to make his young pass catchers tense up so badly that Harry looked like he was running with a corn cob up his ass near the end of the season.

Stidam is young, so he also needs his receivers to be where he expects them to be, but with the fear of pissing off the greatest quarterback of all time no longer dominating their subconscious minds, maybe they can relax a little and work on their craft instead of running away from it.

I love Tom Brady, make no mistake. What Brady gave to the people of New England - to the entire sports world - was nineteen years of the most clutch performances ever seen. When Brady signed with Tampa, my wife tried to peel the Fathead of Brady off of the cave wall, but I defended it like a wolverine and finally calmed her down enough to allow me to explain to her why it was staying in it's place of honor.

I told her of my admiration of Brady and reminded her of all of the excitement and joy he was responsible for, of how he turned us both into adrenalin junkies by making us stew in anxiety during the two weeks between Championship Sunday and Super Bowl Sunday, then really amped us up by making the crucial plays on the biggest stage in sports to win six of those world titles...

...and having his team in position to steal the three that he lost. He has been the one, lone constant on the field for New England for all nine championship runs, and I am thankful and humbled to have been able to witness every single throw.

One of the best passes I ever saw Brady make was the seriously filthy timing throw on a ten-yard out pattern to Danny Amendola, who was well covered by an Atlanta Falcons' defender on the winning drive in the overtime period of Super Bowl 51. The ball exploded out of Brady's hand with the requisite zip required of such a pattern, but with just barely enough loft to evade the nickelback's fingers...

...the Patriots scoring to win their fifth Lombardi Trophy, Brady taking the opening kickoff of overtime and shoving it down the Falcons' collective throat to complete the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, perhaps the greatest of all time. I recanted the tale to my wife, who looked at me thoughtfully and said, "He's still a dumb-ass for throwing that pick-six right before halftime."

Brady. You either love him or you hate him, but no matter which way you lean, you have no choice but to respect him.

Brady epitomized the not-so-well-worn cliché uttered by the old-school "Voice of God", NFL Films' narrator John Facenda who said, "Great players aren't great all the time; they're just great when they have to be.". My wife understood this, finally, despite being an insane female hybrid of Oscar Zeta Acosta and John Cleese, who would fly into a sputtering, animated rage when Brady threw an interception (see above).

But as crazy as it sounds, the way that Belichick has stocked the offense over the past half-decade was in preparation for life without Brady - unfortunately for Brady, that meant the offensive personnel last season was geared more towards a power-based philosophy, or at least it became that way when the offense lost their center, both fullbacks and Harry for half of the season...

...while Edelman played broken after missing a few games, and Sanu never really became part of the offense, dealing with a bum ankle that required offseason surgery - the tight ends didn't do squat, leaving the undrafted rookie Meyers as the only healthy receiver, making it easy for defenses to take away the Patriots' running game as well.

That said, the caveat for this season's offense will have to be the well-worn cliché "If Healthy".

"If Healthy", the Patriots have the receivers to force any defense to defend the entire field, with Harry working the perimeter, Sanu the intermediate routes, Edelman and Meyers working the middle and either Byrd or Lee clearing out the trash as deep threats. To make matters even worse for defenses, Belichick drafted two capable tight ends to handle the seam and safety valve responsibilities.

And, of course, all of that opens up room for the real star of the passing game, running back James White, who along with his battery mates Damien Harris, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel, will also work in the power running game behind an offensive line built to plow the row.

All Stidham needs to be is proficient, the rest has been done for him. Just get the ball to where it needs to be and let his weapons be weapons. If he can command his troops on the field, earn their respect and manage the game plans, the Patriots have as good a chance as anyone to win the AFC East.

Belichick Tanking 2020 Season? Complete And Utter Hogwash

May 6, 2020

There's a lot of talk going around in the media that New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick is going to "tank" this season in order to get a high draft pick in the 2021 draft - and the notion is so un-Belichickian that it is prima-fascie absurd...

...a fraud on it's face, and the so-called "AFC Evaluator" who started the rumor is either a complete lunatic, knows nothing about Belichick, or is a disgruntled fan who is in deep mourning over Tom Brady being shown the door - and perhaps a combination of all three. Then again, he could just be some douchebag blogger who cited this unknown and perhaps completely fictional "evaluator" just to gain page views.

The blogging community is full of irreputable frauds who pretend to have some sort of anonymous insider contact, posting outrageous claims and knowing that they have a fifty-fifty chance of being right - and if they are wrong, they can blame it all on their anonymous contact to maintain their own credibility.

At issue, of course, is the minimal trust that most fans and media have in Brady's heir, second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, maybe trying to make themselves feel better about the future of the Patriots' offense by presupposing that Belichick is going to tank the 2020 season in order to log such a horrible record that they can select one of the elite quarterbacks coming out of college through the 2021 NFL draft.

But here's the thing, and there's really no getting around it: Jarrett Stidham is the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots, and Bill Belichick doesn't give two shits if you like it or not.

Belichick passed on every quarterback avaiable in the draft, and wouldn't even take calls from the Cincinnati Bengals, who were trying to get any value at all out of mediocre quarterback Andy Dalton before finally releasing him. Belichick hasn't even made inquiries of free agent signal callers Jaiemis Winston or Cam Newton.

Perhaps all of this is why some ding dong started the "tanking" rumor, doing their own demented brand of math to connect the dots - but Belichick would never do such a thing, for several solid reasons...

...the most prominent of which is, well, he's Bill Belichick - and Bill Belichick is all about winning, and the amount of losing it would take to obtain a top-three pick in next year's draft would send him into a spiriling, sputtering funk - and if you think he's terse with the media now, addressing them after losing so many games would be like watching an episode of Judge Judy.

But as bad as that would be, tanking would also destroy the culture of the Patriots that Belichick has propogated for the past two decades.

Losing creates a culture that impacts everything and everyone, from the team owner to the guys cleaning the toilets. Losing is a cancer that invades the very core of a sports franchise, and although he played doctor with the Cleveland Browns back in the mid-nineties and brought the franchise to the brink of remission before being uncerimoniously dismissed, he'd rather not put himself in position where he would have to go through that again.

Not to mention that destroying that culture would have a residual effect of making New England a far less desirable destination for free agents, many of whom in the past have wanted to sign with the Patriots simply to escape losing cultures and to have a shot at a title - not to mention the effect it would have on current players, many of whom have taken less money as a free agent over the years to re-sign with the team.

To lose while being competative is honorable, if also dejecting, but to lose by holding back is sandbagging, a dishonorable ploy that no one except lawyers respect, no matter the advantage it brings.

And about that, Belichick cares very much - but even if he didn't, the idea wouldn't sit too well with the veteran players on his roster, affecting the aforementioned culture to the point that those players wouldn't be racing to get in line for new contracts or extensions to hang around.

To that point, there would eventually be some sort of pushback from the players, and chaos would ensue, eventually driving both them and Belichick himself out the door in short order.

In truth, however, Belichick may have come dangerously close to alienating the veterans on his roster last season, and did alienate Brady - or maybe it was Brady alienating Belichick by showing up at post-game pressers looking like someone pissed in his granola and not so subtly bitching about how inert the offense was...

...which wasn't necessarily by design, as Belichick brought in help in the form of Antonio Brown (briefly) and Mohamed Sanu - but Brown turned out to be a post-juvenile delinquent who was all flash (pun intended) and no substance, while Sanu broke as soon as he arrived in Foxborough and contributed next to nothing.

So, it's not like Belichick didn't try to appease his star quarterback, but injury crippled his offense in a way that nobody could have survived, not even Brady - but the good news was that the Patriots were in every game that they lost, a missed play here and there dooming them to having to play in the Wild Card round of the playoffs and an early exit from the tournament.

And I'm off subject a bit, but it is important to know that Belichick never broke stride in his plan for life after Brady - even to the detriment of the offense last season - and, if Stidham turns out to be a good-to-very-good quarterback in the system that Belichick has set up for him, the Patriots will still be in the hunt for a division title and more.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Belichick's Obsession With Safeties Paying Off In A Big Way

3 May, 2020

Lewiston, Maine

Time was, the safety position on the football field was the catch-all for players who were good athletes, but didn't have possess a skill set that translated to anything else.

When I first started playing football as a kid, I was the smallest player on the field but also the fastest. The coaches tried me at many different positions, but eventually "stuck" me at safety. I felt like the forgotten man, all alone on the back end, joining in on the play only when a kid on the opposing offense got past the first and second levels...
Rookie box safety Kyle Dugger

...which, as time wore on and I graduated from Pop Warner to middle school and then to high school ball, became more and more often. Since I was so small, I got trampled if I tried to take on receivers and running backs who broke into the open field, so to stay on the field and off the bench, I had to actually learn the nuances of the position.

That meant that I had to learn the route tree, study angles and work with a track coach to create an explosive first step. I played basketball and developed timing and stronger legs in order to meet the ball in the air - and I started playing hockey, which developed eye-hand coordination and taught me how to absorb big hits - and dish them out - without getting hurt.

In other words, I evolved and became a solid last line of defense as a single high safety who made opposing quarterbacks think twice about dropping bucket throws to deep receivers - not because I arrived at the apex with any kind of thunder, but because I could usually get a hand on the ball and break up the play and, on occasion, intercept the ball.

The point being, the safety positions have evolved into a specialty on every level of football, and have become far more than the last line of defense, no longer the dumping ground for aging cornerbacks or players whose skill set leaves them positionless - and in the New England Patriots' scheme, the safeties that they employ form a three-headed monster that makes their base defense different from every other in the National Football League.

They didn't invent it - the "Big Nickel" defense has been around for five decades - but they run it between sixty-and-seventy percent of the time, and it has been primarily responsible for a defense that has finished ranked in the top ten in nine of the ten years since head coach and general manager Bill Belichick started collecting safeties back in 2009, taking strong safety Patrick Chung with their first overall pick...

...picking up then-cornerback Devin McCourty with his first overall pick in the 2010 draft - the exact same draft that proved to be the talisman that necessitated the need for a three-safety alignment, Belichick selecting tight ends Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez two rounds later, then unleashing them on a league that had undervalued the tight end position, for the most part, since the late 70's.

Knowing that the NFL was a copy-cat entity and seeing that the Gronkowski-Hernandez tandem was tantalizingly successful, Belichick began putting together a group of safeties to combat the eventuality that other teams were going to try to copy what he had. He already had Chung and McCourty but needed a third wheel in order to run the Big Nickel alignment, so he used a 2015 third-round pick on a little-known safety out of Rutgers named Duron Harmon.

Harmon was speedy, big and tough, but had a rap on him coming out of college that he was one dimensional and would only fit in a cover-one scheme - a man/zone scheme that employed a single-high safety - as he was at his best seeing the play unfold in front of him and had sideline-to-sideline range and angle recognition to be that last line of defense.

Harmon blossomed into the best centerfielder in the league and earned a reputation as a closer, knocking away would-be scores and coming down with interceptions at the most critical of moments, usually late in games with the outcome still in doubt.

So while the alignment isn't original, it is old school, which is exactly the direction Belichick is taking his team, creating the roster in his image.

The issue he's faced with is that while he has a defensive secondary that is considered one of the best in the league, Belichick traded away Harmon to the Detroit Lions in a salary dump, but did sign former San Diego All Pro safety Adrian Phillips who, if he's fully recovered from a broken arm suffered in week two of last season, is just as rangy and explosive as Harmon.

To further strengthen the secondary, he also selected the best box safety in the class, maybe the best in the last two or three years, when he selected Kyle Dugger, a 6' 1", 220 pound thumper who was born to play the position, and is without a doubt Patrick Chung's eventual replacement - but for now, the presence of Dugger gives Belichick an intriguing set of options moving forward.

They could still run a three-safety package, as Dugger has the size and speed to body up on tight ends and to neutralize running backs wheeling out into the pattern in man coverage, and the violent intent and explosiveness to lay out receivers crossing over the middle in zone. Both McCourty and Phillips can handle the back end well enough, giving the Patriots the horses to continue running the Big Nickel.

Which is most probably the reason that he valued Dugger so much, because Chung and his damaged body may not make it through the entire 2020 season. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't recall a game last season that Chung didn't have to have the training staff trot onto the field to render acute medical assistance. Terrence Brooks did a serviceable job backing him up, but with so much quality in the safety corps, he may have a tough time cracking this roster.

That's not a bad problem to have, and considering the talent at cornerback, including AFC Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and the interchangeable "J" quadruplets, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, JC Jackson and JoeJuan Williams across from him, the potential exists for the Patriots to possess the best secondary in the league...

...which immeasurably helps a front six that returns stalwarts at linebacker and on the defensive line, plus some intriguing newbies from Belichick's solid draft and deft free agency pick ups that will aid in the pass rush and help set a hard edge in the run game.

The mix of talented veterans and exciting young fire pissers makes up the best group of safeties that Belichick has ever fielded, period, his obsession with collecting off-market safeties finally paying off in a big, big way.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Redshirt "Sophomore" Harris The Key To Productive Running Game

30 May, 2020

There are probably many reasons why Bill Belichick is excited about this years incarnation of the New England Patriots' offense, but the most important one is that he finally gets to build the unit the way he always wanted to.

The way the draft went down suggests that he had everything he wanted to field a product that is based more on power and less on passing, needing only a tight end or two to put the whole thing together - and don't be surprised if the Patriots are formidable on offense despite not having Tom Brady under center.
Damien Harris

Because it's not a matter of replacing the greatest quarterback of all time, it was a matter of getting Brady out of his way so that he could build an offense in his own gruff image, using recent drafts to prepare for a philosophical shift that is going to mirror the early days of Belichick's tenure in New England, when the Patriots won three Super Bowl titles in four seasons with brute force.

Back in that day, a young Brady worked behind an offensive line built to run the football, handing off to the likes of Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon and riding their success to develop one of the best play action passing games in the league - but this is not suggest that second year quarterback Jarrett Stidham is going to enjoy the same success as Brady, nor that the Patriots as a whole are going to hammer their way to another Lombardi Trophy...

...but what it does suggest is that if Belichick made it work before, he believes that he can make that philosophy work again. It's not very scientific, but it is plausible, and he has the horses to make it a reality.

Starting with undrafted free agent center David Andrews and fourth-round guard Shaq Mason in 2015, Belichick has populated his offensive line with players coming from college programs where they developed into elite run blockers, adding left guard Joe Thuney the following year and left tackle Isaiah Wynn two seasons after that.

The offense hit a few snags along the way, most notably when All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski retired before last season, followed by injuries to Andrews, Wynn and every fullback on their roster which, when combined with running back Sony Michel's sophomoric slump and Brady's distrust of any receiver not named Julian Edelman, doomed the Patriots to their worst post-season showing in over a decade.

But as bad as it was, every negative circumstance that came out of the Patriots' struggles last season provided a clear view of what Belichick needed to do going forward as he starts anew with Stidham under center and, truthfully, it isn't that much.

First, Belichick upgraded the tight end position through the draft, taking two seam-busting, rough-and-tumble entities in UCLA's Devin Asiasi and Wake Forest's Dalton Keene, both willing blockers, with Asiasi more of an inline blocker with good speed in space and up the seam while Keene is more of an "H-back" who does his best work in pass protection and as a lead blocker out of the backfield, and as a safety valve on underneath routes in the passing game.

Neither is the second coming of Gronkowski, and they don't need to be, but both offer the versatility and are perfect fits to succeed in Belichick's philosophical shift.

Secondly, and although the jury will be out until they step on the practice field - whenever that will be - the starters along the offensive line should return healthy, and Belichick chose to back them up with new blood in the draft, taking three developmental types on the third day of the draft. They will compete with last season's less-than-thrilling pool of backups, hopefully one or two displacing the veterans.

Third, and most disquieting, was Michel's aforementioned and so-called "sophomore slump" which, in reality, was nothing more that proving that Michel isn't capable of getting anything more than what is blocked for him, looking more and more timid as time wore on and being benched in a handful of games in favor of tougher runners in Rex Burkhead and James White.

But there is an answer waiting in the wings in redshirt "Sophomore" Damien Harris, whom Belichick used a third-round pick on in last season's epic draft haul, number 87 overall. Belichick kept Harris on the active roster just as he did with James White in his 2014 rookie season, which, if history holds true, means that he has a specific plan for the hard-running, shoulder-dipping load out of Alabama...

...where he shared the backfield with now-Las Vegas Raiders' feature back Josh Jacobs, both enjoying equal success on the Crimson Tide's National Championship team, but with Harris becoming one of only eight running backs in Alabama's long history to rush for more than 3,000 yards in his career.

Harris ran over folks in the 2019 preseason, and showed soft hands in the pattern out of the backfield, gaining yards after initial contact by initiating said contact and exploding through the would-be tackler - something that would have been advantageous last season as proven by both White and, in particular, Burkhead.

But Burkhead's style and apparent fragility is a poor mix, as he has spent half of his Patriots' tenure on the trainer's table, and White is too important to the passing game as a third-down back to risk injury as an every down pounder. What the Patriots needed - and need - is Harris.

As far as Michel is concerned, he is still servicable as a change of pace back in a two-back set, though his running style is more angular than sudden, meaning that he is better at attacking the line through straight ahead creases as opposed to Harris, who possesses excellent vision and a wicked jump cut that comes in handy when cutting back against the grain.

In all, the Patriots should employ four backs, with Harris, Michel and White as roster locks, with Burkhead, Brandon Bolden and whatever free agents Belichick chooses to bring in battling for the last spot - while the fullback position should fall to second year undrafdted free agent Jakob Johnson, with rookie Dalton Keene seeing time as a lead blocker as well.

So on paper, the Patriots' running back depth chart looks solid, and with a productive running game being a young quarterback's best friend, that depth chart could be the most important position on the field.