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Paoletti's Super Bowl diary: The circus starts

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Paoletti's Super Bowl diary: The circus starts

Mary Paoletti making her first trip to the Super Bowl. This is the first entry in her daily Super Bowl diary:
BOSTON: I rode to the airport in the dark. Amazing you can be on the road at 5:15 a.m. and worry about being late to your destination. But that's exactly what I felt, both because I've missed a flight before (Pittsburgh? Or was it Oakland? Can't remember) and because I'm a worrier. Never on the surface -- there I can usually manage a calm acquiescence to trouble.

Like after losing my black winter hat this morning. Hope it's not too cold in Indiana because I have no idea where my hat is. Likely on the floor of Hudson News.

So it goes.

Otherwise, I'm pretty blank. The excitement I felt percolating the previous week has vanished. I'm tired. I saw some Patriots AFC Championship gear -- hats, tee shirts, magazines -- sprinkled around Logan, but right now it feels like I could be going to Buffalo again.

For the record, I liked Buffalo.

INDIANAPOLIS: Unbelievable. I step off the plane, walk through the tunnel, and the first thing I see in Indy is a familiar face: Bob Glauber from Newsday. What a relief! The cab ride from airport to hotel was infinitely more comfortable traveling with someone who's done all this before. Me? I'm green. And if other reporters can't smell it on me, it doesn't take long for them to find out.

"First Super Bowl?"

It's the return greeting I get from all media I meet. When I say that, yes, it is, the veterans all nod knowingly and sigh some figure housing the years its been since their first time. Then comes the obligatory advice or warnings.

"Oh, boy. Everyone thinks it's fun, but it's all work, ya' know."

Yes. It's work. I know.

But as I look around the airport I'm grateful for my innocence. The building's been decked out like an enormous parade float -- Super Bowl XLVI banners hanging from every inch of wall space, kiosks selling apparel for both teams, logos slapped onto the damn floor -- and it all spills out into the streets.

It's impossible to imagine Indy as a portal for anything but this football game. It's overwhelming.

I can't wait to get started.
INDIANAPOLIS --Monday, 10:41 P.M.: Two days in the bag now.

I think I'm happy with my work. The objective for our Super Bowl coverage this week is high velocity publishing. It's exactly the opposite of how I like to write. Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, described two different types of writers in Timequake: Bangers and Swoopers. Swoopers spit their words on paper; it's quick and dirty. The rough form is then massaged, edited over and over until its just right. Bangers agonize over every single word. The sentences must be perfect the first time out; edits are rare. There's a lot more staring at the blank page than filling it out.

I am not a Swooper.

But I've done well enough, starting with Sunday night's Belichick and Brady Show. Bill Belichick was oddly, maddeningly charming in his press conference. By comparison, Brady was bland. I don't think there was much he said Sunday in Indianapolis I hadn't heard on a November Sunday at Gillette.

Player availability came next.

Matthew Slater, Logan Mankins, Wes Welker, and Brian Waters occupied separate tables in the corners of a vast white tent. I was struck immediately by Slater's body language. It seemed like he was trying to scrunch down in his chair, his chin almost level with the table top. He spoke well, as he always does, and mentioned how his faith shapes his reactions to the day (as he always does). I wonder if he minded being elevated and alone as he was.

Waters is a funny guy. He has a big personality. I imagine it would take a lot to rattle his cage in a press conference. If you're hoping to provoke Waters into a sensational answer, you'll fail. And it's not that he'll throw up the ready-made Patriots brick wall, he'll just laugh and shrug you off as though you're silly for asking. The reporter who asked him to sing a love song about Brady and Belichick's legacies learned this.

Day Two was different.

Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Dan Connolly (Dan Connolly!), BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Vince Wilfork showed up to speak after practice.

The room was tiny.

Television cameras formed a barrier in front of each table, annoying the scribes who were forced to jostle for position on the periphery. It might seem like a minor detail, but being in sight of the player you're trying to talk to is important. When three, or 30, reporters are all talking over each other -- "Devin! Devin!" -- making eye contact with the guy might be what lifts your voice above the noise.

I spoke with McCourty and Chung.

Chung seemed tired. He usually has a more dynamic personality than McCourty, is more likely to react with an exaggerated expression or a laugh. He can also cut off a line of questioning mid-sentence if he doesn't like it.

McCourty is amazing in his consistency. I've seen him smile a few times, but I feel like if you annoyed him you'd never know it. I think that's why it's so interesting to me when he celebrates on the field. The celebrations have been rare this year, but they're downright impossible to imagine when the guy doesn't have his helmet on.

The day ended at Don Shula's steakhouse. Yes, the restaurant is an homage to the Shula of Miami Dolphins fame. The cuts of meat were offered via football. Really. I had to take the menu off a tee to figure out what kind of steak I wanted.

While working on my salad I looked out the plate glass window to my left and saw fireworks exploding between buildings. Amazing. I have no idea what they were for. It might be my fault for looking for a reason. Anything goes during Super Bowl week, they tell me.

Morning Skate: No place for Gudas’ slash on Perreault

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Morning Skate: No place for Gudas’ slash on Perreault

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while enjoying the new Brown Sugar Cinnamon coffee flavor at Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s not Cookie Dough, but what is after all?

*FOH (Friend of Haggs) and PHT writer James O’Brien has the details on Radko Gudas getting ejected for an ugly, reckless and dangerous slash to Mathieu Perreault’s head last night. Gudas should be facing a long suspension for a play that has no place in the NHL. It’s time for Flyers fans to stop making excuses for a player who’s no better than a cheap-shot artist and hatchet man. He has to face the music for consistently trying to hurt his fellow players.  

*Frank Seravalli has some of the details for a historic GM meeting in Montreal where NHL hockey was born in the first place.

*You always need to link to a service dog being part of the pregame face-off ceremonies. That’s like a rule here at the morning skate?

*Cam Atkinson and the Columbus Blue Jackets have agreed to a seven-year contract extension, according to reports from the Athletic.

*It’s been quite an eventful year for Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet and some of it has been to the extreme both good and bad just a month into his first year as bench boss.

*For something completely different: Chris Mannix is all-in on the Celtics being the front-runners in the Eastern Conference after their big win over the Golden State Warriors.


 

Belichick getting the most out of his veteran safeties

Belichick getting the most out of his veteran safeties

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - Bill Belichick’s never been shy about getting the players who play the best on the field as much as possible. 

So, when he looked at a crowded secondary this summer, the Patriots’ coach didn’t view every spot as a defined position. Instead, he analyzed the skill set of his players and decided that the Pats needed their top three safeties - Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Pat Chung - on the field as much as possible. Just past the midway point of the season, Belichick and his defensive coaching staff have managed to do that quite a bit.

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McCourty missed one defensive snap all season, the last play of the opener (590). Harmon has often times found himself as that single-high safety (479) while - as illustrated earlier - Chung has played 83 percent of the snaps, although about a third of those designated as a cornerback (494 total/333 as safety). There are only two other teams in the NFL that play three safeties as often as the Patriots: the Chiefs (Ron Parker, Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray) and Broncos (Justin Simmons, Darian Stewart and Will Parks). 

When I asked Belichick about all that the responsibilities he puts on that safety trio, the coach wouldn’t single out just those three. He also highlighted veterans Nate Ebner and Jordan Richards.

“That’s good group really with Pat, Devin, Duron, Jordan, Nate gives us a lot in the kicking game. That’s five guys that all help us in a lot of different ways…they all are pretty versatile,” said Belichick. 

Versatility is a critical element to the Patriots being able to put those players on the field and keep them there, no matter what the opposition throws New England’s way.

“You see Jordan play strong safety, you see Jordan come in in multiple defensive back sets. You see Chung play a corner type of role sometimes. I play a corner type of role. I  think it allows us to say ‘if they come out in this personnel, we’ll be ok’” said Devin McCourty. “We’ll just match up these guys in whatever different role in the defense and it’ll work.”

Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done when you consider what personnel the opposing team can employ. In the opener against Kansas City, the Pats tried and failed to match up with an explosive grouping that including Tyreek Hill and DeAnthony Thomas, wide receivers who can line up in the backfield and take a handoff as well. 

The opponent Sunday, Oakland, doesn’t have those kinds of pieces, but the Raiders still have players in place that can keep defensive coordinators up at night. The suspicion here though is that Matt Patricia sleeps better than most, in part because of his secondary.

“A team like Oakland will come in what we call ‘oh 1’ personnel where they have four receivers and [tight end Jared] Cook on the field, which is kind of like a fifth receiver,” noted McCourty. “We can easily stay in different groups and say ‘all right, this is how we want to match that.’ Where if we didn’t have that versatility we’d have to start to run corners on and then they keep [Marshawn] Lynch on the field in place of Cook and run the ball. There’s so many different things that the offense can do to mismatch personnel. Having the versatility and players who understand different roles allows players to stay calm and match up.”

There’s also an unseen element to what this safety group brings to the field every week. That’s their experience, not just in the NFL, but together. There’s comfort in knowing the guy next to you has seen the same things you have and can go through their mental Rolodex to recall and adjust to personnel groupings and formation changes that maybe weren’t prepared for during the week (yes, even with Belichick as the coach that happens).

“I’ve been playing with Pat and Dev - all of us being together - this has been four years and you don’t catch that too often, especially three safeties,” said Harmon. “I just think us being able to be in a whole bunch of different positions, being able to learn from each other and playing together has allowed us to even been more versatile with each other and be able to run more things, have a better feel for the defense and put ourselves in maybe different positions that you wouldn’t put anyone else in.”

“We don’t have many groups like us that have been together for the last four or five years,” said McCourty. “We don’t always break things down as the strong safety, free safety, the money back, like a lot of things we did, it’s just a position, a spot on the field. I think we all understand that all three of us or all four of us on the field at any time can play at any of those positions. I think that allows us to say, ‘Remember last time we did this, in this game, you were here and you were there’ but this time because this is what they like you go here and I’ll go there. This that allows us to understand what we do defensively but also match it to whatever the offense does. Obviously, that’s what the coaches want to do. When the players can do that, it always helps.”

Belichick knows this and it’s pretty clear this trait - the ability to adjust on the fly - is something he appreciates a great deal. That’s why over the past five games, you haven’t noticed nearly as much movement and - let’s face it - confusion as there was in that first month. The players have shared history to fall back on and it’s smoothed out the communication and led to a much higher level of play.

“We can definitely go back to things that maybe we haven’t done in a while, talk about how we used this against Tampa or we used this against Buffalo or somebody and there’s good recall and good application of it,” Belichick said. “Yeah, there’s times where that definitely helps. Same thing on the offense, with guys like Tom [Brady], James White, Rob [Gronkowski], Danny [Amendola]  - guys that have done things together for multiple years. You got a situation that’s similar to a situation you had awhile back, you can go back and refer to that. You’re not going to be able to do that with Deatrich Wise or [Jacob] Hollister. They just haven’t had that kind of experience. But with experienced players, sure, that comes up from time to time. That’s a good reference.”

So, don’t be surprised Sunday in Mexico City if you see Harmon shaded over the top of Amari Cooper, or McCourty in the box providing an extra run fit, or Chung playing slot corner or linebacker. It’s old hat for a group that is asked to do more and routinely responds well to those challenges.