Curran: Patriots' casualty list reconfigures expectations

Curran: Patriots' casualty list reconfigures expectations

NEW ORLEANS – So I have a complaint.

Be forewarned: It’s a whiny one informed by years of unchecked Patriots Privilege in which folks don’t wonder whether the local 53 might make the playoffs, only whether or not they will win the Super Bowl.

This is not what I thought we signed up for in the offseason. Where is the relentless, merciless, march through the opposition that I saw on the brochure?

I distinctly remember being told each opponent would wind up like a bug on a windshield and the Patriots would roll on, impervious. This doesn’t feel historic.


Not even after Sunday’s 36-20 road win over the Saints when 40-year-old Tom Brady (he’s 40, you know) threw for 447 and three touchdowns. You expect to walk away from the stadium smug and cackling after a game like that, saying, “Damn, this team is tough to beat. Exactly what we thought. This race for perfection thing is good for business.”

Instead? They’re 1-1 and even though they smacked that astronaut in the Superdome, the steady stream of players filing in and out of the Big Blue Tent gives pause about where things are headed.  

The arc of the 2017 Patriots has changed from unbeatable to resourceful underdogs forced to survive on dwindling supplies. Already gutted by the season-long injury to Julian Edelman, the weeks-long MCL sprain for Dont'a Hightower, the absence of emotional leader and special teams ace Matt Slater, the concussion for Danny Amendola and the retirement of Rob Ninkovich, on Sunday against the Saints Rob Gronkowski, Rex Burkhead, Phillip Dorsett and Eric Rowe all got hurt. And Chris Hogan was intermittently limping around like he had a nail in his foot.

Gronk’s injury was reported as a groin. He was bug-eyed and urgent-looking on the bench while talking to medical staff. That’ll happen when your groin hurts. But he wasn’t limping. And they weren’t asking him to do anything groiny. And the play on which he was hurt reminded me of the play he got hurt on last year in New York when he had to have season-ending back surgery. So you inevitably wait for the other shoe to drop.

That’s football life with Gronk, knowing that, with him and injuries, it’s a “when” not an “if.” (Which must suck even more for him because he likes playing, is fun to watch and has done enough rehab to last eight lifetimes.)

Even if whatever’s ailing Gronk and Hogan turns out to be minor, the problem is, the Patriots are two games in. Whatever you hurt in September isn’t going to not hurt in November unless you let the thing fully heal. And there’s no real way the Patriots can do that with those two, not with everyone else they’ve lost.

That this team is going to be less “shock and awe” and more “snap and ow” takes some getting used to.

Which brings us to the game itself. This was a win the Patriots themselves took a lot of pride in, beginning at the top with Bill Belichick, who indicated he and his coaches hammered the team and themselves since the season-opening loss to the Chiefs.

Brady, who hasn’t softened at all on what he thought was a half-assed effort against the Chiefs, kept banging the drum on Sunday when asked if the Saints game was better.

“All the veterans had a chance to say the things they wanted to say to their different groups,” said Brady. “Whether it was their own unit, or offense or defense, the whole team. The NFL’s tough, man. Every game’s tough, every quarter’s tough, every play’s tough. You can’t take anything for granted and in order to win you gotta go out there and compete as hard as you can every play.”

He added: “There’s a level of critiquing you do if you lose that you don’t really do if you win. Our coaches were all over us all week. They want us to get it right and they want us to get it right now.”

There was plenty of room for improvement. Even as the offense rolled up 555 yards, there were some defensive breakdowns on the back end that – while not as egregious as Week 1 – were a little surprising.

But nobody was complaining about the effort.

“The feeling after [the Chiefs game], the not finishing, the style of play [wasn’t] what we expect,” said Devin McCourty. “Guys that have been here are accustomed to how we play – playing the whole game and finishing. We won a lot of games coming back. That (performance against the Chiefs) irked a lot of guys. Guys passed it on and everyone got the message."

Interestingly, left tackle Nate Solder, the kindest, gentlest, easy-smilingest, 6-foot-8, 320-pound men you will ever meet, wasn’t ready to come back with a full verdict yet.

“It was a step in the right direction,” Solder said. “We gotta play a lot better still. We had a different level of urgency. But that has to continue for us to be any good.”

Was it daunting to see the parade of teammates disappearing into the Big Blue Tent?

“Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter who’s over there,” Solder replied.

But it does. He knows it. They all know it.

They aren’t on the road to the coronation we thought they’d be on. This is going to be hard.


Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

File photo

Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

Johnny Manziel said 10 days ago, "I'd go to New England in a heartbeat," when asked about the Patriots as a potential landing spot.

That seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but they're taking a look at him...along with 12 other NFL teams, according to ESPN's Eric Williams. 

Tom Brady's current backup Brian Hoyer is, like Manziel, an ex-Cleveland Browns quarterback. Manziel would again be competing with Hoyer for the Pats' No. 2 job should New England take a chance on "Johnny Football", the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems.

FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman had it at 12 teams watching Manziel work out at the University of San Diego and said the Patriots gave Manziel a weigh-in.


Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

The Patriots have agreed to re-sign offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, his agent Scott Casterline confirmed on Twitter.  Waddle hit unrestricted free agency when the new league year began and made a visit to the Cowboys earlier this week. In the end, though, he chose to return to the team that claimed him off of waivers at the end of the 2015 season.

Waddle, who turns 27 in July, appeared in 12 games last season for the Patriots. He was the first right tackle the Patriots turned to when Marcus Cannon suffered an ankle injury mid-season against the Chargers. He ended up playing 51 snaps against the likes of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram without allowing a sack. He then started the next three games against the Broncos, Raiders and Dolphins and held star rushers Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Cameron Wake -- all of whom rush primarily off of the offensive right -- without a sack. 

Injuries forced Waddle (380 snaps on the season) to split the right tackle position with Cameron Fleming (543 snaps), but he was the primary backup when healthy. Waddle started the Divisional Round playoff game against the Titans but suffered a knee injury and was removed for Fleming. 

Both Fleming and Waddle visited the Cowboys this week, and the fact that Waddle has re-signed with the Patriots may impact Fleming's decision moving forward. 

The Patriots went to great lengths to build tackle depth last season, and adding Waddle to the roster helps them retain some of that depth after losing their left tackle, Nate Solder, to the Giants via free agency. Waddle could be an option on the left side, but the vast majority of his work since entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2013 has been on the right side. 

The Patriots now have Fleming, Marcus Cannon, Cole Croston, Tony Garcia and Andrew Jelks on their depth chart at tackle. Croston, Garcia and Jelks are all headed into their second years as pros. Croston remained on the 53-man roster all season -- an indication that the Patriots liked him enough not to expose him to the waiver system -- but did not see meaningful snaps. Garcia and Jelks both missed the entirety of the 2017 season on reserve lists. 

Once the Patriots lost Solder to the Giants, it seemed to be of paramount importance that the Patriots re-sign either Waddle or Fleming. Behind Cannon, there were simply too many question marks not to have one return. The Patriots could opt to draft a tackle, but this is considered an average year at that position in that there are few ready-made NFL players and several developmental types.

Before the Super Bowl last season, I asked offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia how the team was able to manage offensively with backups at right tackle for much of the season. 

"It's not like [Fleming and Waddle are] not good players," Scarnecchia said. "They are good players. Their skill set seemed to fit that position pretty well. They have the traits that we covet. And they're both really smart guys, very willing learners, and they're both driven to be good and they want to play good. And I think all those things have manifested themselves when they've been out there playing. And we've been very, very pleased with what they've done for us this year, essentially splitting that position."

Asked about the aspects of the game the Patriots worked on with both Waddle and Fleming last year, Scarnecchia said, "For us it transcends everything. Obviously run-blocking and pass-blocking. They're both good at those things. Are they great at those things? No. But they've been able to steadily improve over the last two years to the point where we put them out there and no one's worried. And it's been that way the whole season after Marcus got hurt. Yeah they've done a nice job for us."