Patriots

Giardi: Listen to Belichick and it’s clear: Malcolm Butler is on notice

Giardi: Listen to Belichick and it’s clear: Malcolm Butler is on notice

Malcolm Butler is on notice. Plain and simple. Improve your play, improve your attitude, improve your focus or else…

Forget about the idea that Butler was not as prominent a part of the game plan Sunday in New Orleans because of bigger receivers and the matchup issues that can cause for a 5-foot-10 corner. Nope. That’s not what happened. Butler began the game on the pine because the Patriots believe he’s not given them his best in 2017, and that right now, Eric Rowe is better than Butler.

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“Well, look, we’re into a new season, so I don’t think anybody’s performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday when I asked him directly about Butler’s performance this season. “We all need to do a better job – players, coaches – all of us across the board. Hopefully, we’ll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That’s why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully, we’ll all be able to improve.”

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was clearly listening to his head coach speak prior to his turn in Tuesday’s conference calls, highlighting the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality that Belichick emphasized.

“It's all about this year,” he said. “I think what things have gone down in the past doesn't really matter to us. We're trying to get better for this year. The guys that are out there and in positions right now currently and help us win that particular week.”

So Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler is not here right now. Nor is the player the Pats believed in so much that they were willing to let that season’s No. 1 corner, Darrelle Revis, walk and not replace him in 2015. Apparently, there’s no sign of the Malcolm Butler they negotiated a contract extension with last year that came close to completion. Nope. That player, one they leaned on so heavily that he rarely came off the field - he played 98.8 percent of the snaps in ’15 , 96.7 in ’16 - saw part-time duty in the victory over the Saints on Sunday, and his play count might have been significantly lower if not for Rowe leaving the game in the third quarter with a groin injury. 

Belichick often talks about how the organization views players: ascending, descending, stagnant. Just a couple of weeks ago that topic came up with regard to Jimmy Garoppolo, who the team views as still on the rise despite rare playing time. You can also be descending or stagnant and still be a player worth working with. Butler is falling into one of those two categories now, while Rowe is someone seen as a riser.

“Well, you know, Eric was in a tough situation last year,” said Belichick. “He came in during the season, didn’t have the benefit of training camp, the foundation of the systems, a lot of catching up on the way, which I thought he did a real good job of and he helped us a lot. But this year it’s been much better for him to be able to be here from the beginning with a year of experience behind him. [He has a] much better understanding of what he’s doing, what our opponents are doing. Some of the techniques and so forth that we use are a little different than what they had in Philadelphia. He’s definitely gaining with the experience that he’s received and earned.”

Earned. That word showed itself again when Patricia spoke.

“Certainly with Eric Rowe involved, having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint, I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field and whatever that is depending on how the game is going kind of just plays itself out when we're in the particular situation.”

There were some rumblings about Butler’s contract situation impacting behind the scenes a year ago but it didn’t appear to hurt his play. Then, despite an offseason of anger and disappointment and finally realization that the big contract wasn’t coming from the Patriots, Butler, 27,  the showed up for voluntary workouts and seemed hellbent on proving his value again, while reminding all he was still the Alpha Dog at corner, not the freshly minted Stephon Gilmore. 

Somewhere this summer - the Texans’ joint practice week likely the beginning - Butler lost that edge in Belichick’s mind. Now, it’s entirely on the free agent-to-be to get that back, or he’ll be looking at more days like Sunday and a decreasing payday once he hits the market. There’s also the memory of Jamie Collins still fresh in everyone’s mind. At this point, any and all options are on the table. The proof is in the past.

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Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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