Patriots

Rookies enter NFL with a lot on their minds

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Rookies enter NFL with a lot on their minds

FOXBORO -- Patriots rookies have their candor forcibly removed during rookie minicamp.

So I wasn't expecting deep, reflective answers last week when I asked Dont'a Hightower and Jake Bequette whether they considered the threat to long-term health the game can pose.

"We as players understand that football's dangerous," said Bequette, a third-round pick from Arkansas. "That's a discussion for the league and the league office and doctors. I play the game safely and to the best of my ability. I'm not gonna worry about that right now."

Bequette allowed that, "There are some risks but it's just like anything else in life. You can't think about that all the time or else you're wasting your focus. I'm going to keep my focus on my job which is to come in here and work as hard as I can and hope I make the roster."

Hightower, the 25th overall pick, puts his fate in the hands of the league and the medical and training staffs in New England.

"I'm out there playing ball," said the linebacker from Alabama whose game is predicated on violent collisions. "Everything we're doing, from a safety (standpoint), I feel like they've done all in their power with the new helmets and new rules. It's out of my hands and all I can do is go out there and play ball and that's what I intend on doing."

Hightower also offered that the player who plays to protect himself is often the one that gets injured.

"That's definitely one thing that I think everybody's learned: When you play for safety, that's when you get hurt," he explained. "In order for me to play fast and play the best I can I have to get into my playbook so safety's not really an issue although you do have to take care of your body. I'll get with the training staff and get the rehab and get in the ice-baths and all that good stuff and take advantage of all the training elements."

Bequette and Hightower's responses came into sharper focus this week when two undrafted players with opportunities to make teams cited concussion concerns and pushed back from the NFL table.

Andrew Sweat, a linebacker from Ohio State, said, "Thanks but no thanks" to the Browns and plans on going to law school. Chris Diehl, a Clemson fullback who signed with the Ravens, got concussed at rookie minicamp just a couple of months after suffering one at the Senior Bowl.

He too said, "Enough."

But the cost-benefit ratio for a drafted player - like Hightower or Bequette - is different.

Bequette, a third-round pick from Arkansas, has business and legal aspirations like Sweat does. With a degree in finance and work on his Master's degree already started, Bequette says he may consider following in his father's footsteps to become an attorney.

The opinions of Hightower and Bequette are the prevailing ones. Of the 253 drafted players, none of them have made the same decision as the undrafted Sweat and Diehl.

That includes Nick Toon. Selected in the fourth-round by the Saints, Nick is the son of Al Toon, a three-time All-Pro receiver for the Jets who retired in 1992 when, at the age of 29, he suffered what was believed to be his ninth NFL concussion.

Nick Toon suffered a concussion in early 2010. The University of Wisconsin was exceedingly careful with his comeback from that. Last October, Nick Toon had this to say about the risks of playing football: "With what happened with my dad, you don't wish that on any player," says Nick. "It's part of the game. It's going to happen. I think it's something that you realize, accept and go out and play."

Al Toon is now 49, a tremendously successful businessman. He attributes some current physical problems to his concussions.

"I still have a problem with strobing," he told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News last October. "It's weird, different situations would set it off. It could be a ceiling fan with a light. It causes a little dizziness sometimes. I think my ability to retrieve information has definitely been compromised. My concentration level is probably not what it was. But clearly I am able to function and take care of my family."

Junior Seau's suicide two weeks ago set off a flurry of hysteria about player safety - specifically head injuries - that hasn't subsided.

Seau never appeared on an NFL injury report with a concussion. Which isn't to say he never had one - or even dozens - but the belief that Seau's suicide was directly attributable to head injuries sustained while playing professional football for 20 years took root immediately.

Whether Seau suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) won't be known because his brain was not submitted for a post-mortem examination. Maybe he had it. Maybe he didn't.

Maybe all NFL players retire with a measure of CTE - protein deposits in the brain caused by trauma - but only the brains of the men who live with depression and die violently are being examined.

Their fate needs to be viewed in the same frame as Al Toon's,Roger Staubach's, Steve Young's or Troy Aikman's - all multiple concussion sufferers who, it would seem, are examples of men whose NFL cost-benefit was acceptable.

For every tragic and desperately sad case like Seau's or Dave Duerson's or Mike Webster's, there may be thousands of Al Toons. Or men who simply get away clean, the NFL leaving no imprint on them at all healthwise.

It's a very personal decision. How much would you need to be paid to do X?

Bequette and Hightower may make a few million, more if they play well. Sweat and Diehl? No guarantees of making more than 100,000.

There is no "right" and "wrong". Which hasn't stopped people (and websites, talk shows and online polls) from discussing if Sweat and Diehl make the "right" decision.

My response would be "How in God's great name would we know? And who the freak cares what our opinion is on their decisions?"

I've never met Andrew Sweat or Chris Diehl. They could end up teaming up to cur cancer. They could end up a couple of crackheads. I don't know. Neither do you.

The only opinion we can have is a general one.

Mine is that it's outstanding that guys feel empowered enough by combining personal experience with the visual, scientific and anecdotal evidence available to make educated decisions about whether to continue.

And I'm also happy that armchair hardasses inclined to question the toughness of Sweat and Diehl are now muzzled because of the current climate.

That they are allowed to make their decision knowing applause for their choice would drown out dismissiveness is a real step forward in football culture.

The 253 young men drafted in 2012 have - so far - unanimously agreed to accept the risk. Sweat and Diehl decided it was not.

Meanwhile, another player who went undrafted but was signed by Tampa Bay after the draft, will not be able to play. Rutgers' Eric LeGrande.

The choices for these young men are hard. The choices are theirs.

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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