Patriots

Bill Belichick: 'Incomprehensible' to think Patriots would pick up from where they left off last season

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Bill Belichick: 'Incomprehensible' to think Patriots would pick up from where they left off last season

Bill Belichick knows that people outside his organization expected big things from his team this season, but he gave a long explanation for how those expectations should have been tempered headed into 2017. 

Belichick was asked during a conference call on Monday how he balances week-to-week adjustments with the foundation of the system his team installed before the season began. What resulted was a 789-word response on how teams have to come together early in the year -- and why it's difficult for things to look like they're running smoothly through the few weeks of the regular season. 

It felt like Belichick had something he was itching to share on the topic, so here is Belichick's response in full . . . 

"Well, I’ll just say that when you start the season, you have, let’s call it 20 practices, not including the spring. So let’s call it 20 practices and some preseason games, and during that time you’re trying to evaluate your team, work on a lot of basic and fundamental things and I’ll say basically get your team ready to play not only on the opening day, but for getting conditioned and build your fundamentals and all that so that you can compete in the 16-game regular season.

"In those 20 practices and however many preseason games certain players play in – two, three, four, whatever it is – against other teams that are doing the same thing, so you’re not getting schemed, you’re not getting game planned, you’re not getting some of the more sophisticated and the higher degree of difficulty things in any phase of the game. You’re in more of an evaluation mode and a fundamental mode. That’s where you’re at, and then as you get into the season, you build on that and you have things that attack certain schemes or you have to use to address certain issues that your opponent is trying to pressure you with.

"Maybe you just sit in your base, whatever it is, to handle it. Maybe your basics handle it, but maybe you need to go a little bit beyond that or maybe you see opportunities to create a play that you might install on a weekly game plan basis, and then all that accumulates. So, when you go from 20 practices to, let’s call it 60 practices over halfway through the season, maybe 80 practices at the end of the season, you’re going to have a lot more in with 80 practices and you could probably triple the number of meetings on that and everything else then where you’re going to have after a relatively short period in training camp. So, along those same lines, I mean, if we keep running the same play all year, the same ones that you put in in training camp and keep running those same plays all year, it’s not that difficult in this league to figure out what those few things are and game plan accordingly.

"So, if you don’t increase the volume of your scheme on offense, defense and special teams, then every week, your opponent’s just looking at a handful of things and probably most of them they’ve seen before. So, I don’t know how much problem, how much stress you’re really putting on your opponent if that’s the way that you do it. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing because you can play your basic stuff, and if it’s working well and if you’re doing well with it and people can’t handle it, then there’s no reason to change it. But I don’t know how many teams in the league fall into that category. I wouldn’t say it’s an exceedingly high number and it never really has been, based on my experience in the league. Although, I’m not saying that can’t happen, but I would certainly say that’s not the most common way that teams evolve throughout the course of the year. 

"So, you do what you need to do each week to try to win. You put in the plays, make the adjustments, you don’t want to overload things – I mean, nobody’s talking about putting in a new offense every week. That’s not it at all, but are there some modifications you can make? Sure, and as you rep those and you use them and if those situations come up again, then maybe you can fall back to that same type of scheme. But to think realistically, which it’s incomprehensible to me, but, I mean, I don’t know. 

"Maybe I just can’t figure it out, but it’s incomprehensible to me how anybody could think that a team that’s practiced for six months and played 19 regular-season and postseason games and had triple-digit practices, five months later, after not playing a game, after having a fraction of that type of experience, could be anywhere close to the level of execution that they were five months before that after all of the things that I just listed. I mean, it’s impossible in my view. So, each year, you start all over again. You start that process all over again. You build your team over the course of the year though practice repetitions, through preseason to regular season games, through the evolving of your scheme, and that’s why each year is different and unique. But, I understand I’m in the minority and most other people don’t see it that way, which is OK, but that’s the way I see it."

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The quote’s been credited to a whole lot of coaches. It doesn’t matter who actually said it. What matters is how much truth there is in the saying, “Once an NFL player starts considering retirement, he’s already gone.”

There are myriad variations but they all arrive at the same spot. Once a player talks about hanging ‘em up, he’s given mental traction to feelings of football ambivalence. Employer beware.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, Gronk was asked about possible retirement.

His did nothing to spike the idea.

“I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” he said. I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.”

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Rob Gronkowski’s gone past idle musing about retirement. The “that” is the smoking gun there, obviously referring to something that had been ongoing.

In the two weeks since the Super Bowl, we’ve learned Gronk’s  gotten advice from Sly Stallone and The Rock about how much dough he can make in action movies  and that folks in the WWE would offer Gronk a deal similar to Ronda Rousey’s.

Is this an orchestrated attempt to create some urgency with the Patriots so they give Gronk a bump that makes it more worth his while (he’s on the books for salaries of $8M and $9M the next two seasons)?

Is this an effort to dip a toe in the entertainment pool while his NFL marketability remains near its apex? A Brady-esque effort to set up a post-football career while still continuing in the main vocation?

Or is it simply what it is – a 28-year-old whose body’s been through the wringer since college using common sense to realize that his position and style of play are going to exact a physical cost on him for the rest of his life?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s all of the above.

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And that’s why the Patriots have to take this very seriously.

Gronk and his family have had an eye on his football mortality since he was 19. Because of an insurance policy taken out by his father, Gordie, while Gronk was at Arizona, Gronk could have retired from football and received $4 million tax-free. He considered it as his recuperation from back surgery left him concerned he wouldn’t be able to walk correctly again.

He declared for the draft in 2010 to maximize his earning potential. And he bought in. Then 2012 happened. 

He broke his arm during the regular season and had a plate inserted in his forearm. When he rebroke the arm just above the plate in his first game back, it was described as a fluke. Worst-case scenario. But that was small consolation. And when an infection developed in the arm in early 2013, another surgery was necessary. And the convalescence from that ensued. Then came a back surgery in June of 2013. Then came a longer-than-expected recovery that stretched well into the 2013 regular season and a blown ACL when he did return.

The 2014 season was injury-free, but when Gronk was hit in the knee against Denver in 2015, you could sense his panic as he writhed on the field that something was terribly wrong. There wasn’t. But the team and the Gronkowski Camp released a joint statement about his timetable for return then Gronk underscored his intention of not returning until he was “100 percent.”

The 2016 season ended prematurely with another back injury suffered against the Jets and another surgery. That injury followed soon after a thunderous hit was laid on him by Seattle’s Earl Thomas. And his 2017 playoff run was marred by a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

So it’s best to remember all that context when eye-rolling about how the Patriots have had to bend over backwards to accommodate Gronk. His care and feeding are a lot different because A) he came to the NFL with injuries that gave him perspective; B) he got burned when he came back quickly from the broken arm; C) the 2013 whisper campaign painting him as a malingerer left a dent and D) his family is uniquely attuned to NFL reality that it’s a business and you best protect your only asset – your body.

The branding and the marketing has felt hamhanded at times but that’s the nature of the business these days and - in hindsight – it’s been a boon for a player who signed a “safe” six-year, $54M contract in 2011 that’s now severely outdated.

So what are the Patriots to do with a 28-year-old who’s suffered multiple knee, head and back injuries and is openly talking about wrapping it up?

They can’t just sit with their hands folded in their laps and wait until Gronk gets around to deciding. They need to know is he in or is he out? Or if he’s completely ambivalent, at which point, would trading him be a horrific idea?

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The irony is, Gronk told me in December that he’s never felt better. “I’m having fun playing football again,” he told me. His body held him hostage until he changed the way he trained and now the results from increased flexibility are obvious in his statistics, his quickness and the types of catches he was able to make last year.

He’s a Hall of Famer if he never plays another down. It’s not hard to make a persuasive argument that he’s the best tight end to ever play.

But how do the Patriots proceed with a legend that – for all the right reasons – isn’t sure he wants to keep playing? It’s a lot to wrestle with.

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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