In one interview, Tomlin breaks every rule in Belichick's book

In one interview, Tomlin breaks every rule in Belichick's book

It was shaping up to be a delicious dose of schadenfreude for Patriots fans.

The Steelers allowed a Packers game-tying touchdown with just over two minutes remaining in regulation of their Sunday night matchup, and with one slip, Pittsburgh could've seen its No. 1 seed in the AFC vanish.

To the Aaron Rodgerless-Packers. At home. After beginning the day as a two-touchdown favorite in Vegas.

A last-second 53-yard game-winning field goal from Steelers kicker Chris Boswell spoiled the spot for those in New England, but for an instant the prospect of a Green Bay upset dangled in front of them like a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye.

And Steelers coach Mike Tomlin only made the moment juicier by doing his damnedest to break every Bill Belichick PR rule on the books in one sit-down interview with NBC's Tony Dungy.

“Man, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room," Tomlin told Dungy when asked about a looming Week 15 matchup with the Patriots in Pittsburgh. "It’s going to be fireworks. It’s probably going to be Part One, and that’s going to be a big game. But probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second one" -- i.e., the AFC Championship Game in January -- "is really going to be big. And what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, and determine the location in the second one.”

So let's see how many Belichick rules Tomlin broke:

Look past the game at hand to get worked up about another one taking place at a later date? Check.

Peer about two months into the future to predict a playoff matchup? Check.

Insult the remaining opponents on the schedule -- aside from the Patriots -- by indicating they are mere formalities to be rolled over before and after what Tomlin believes will certainly be Battle for Homefield? Check.

Predict victory? (See below) Check.

The hubris. The lack of discipline. The scattershot focus . . . The trifecta. 

And here's the thing: Most of the football world would nod in agreement with everything Tomlin said. The expectation is that homefield advantage for the playoffs will be determined by what happens at Heinz Field on Dec. 17. That Tomlin feels the same way and was willing to share gave us in the media the kind of honesty we crave.

But that doesn't make it the intelligent thing to do. It's one thing for reporters and fans to postulate. It's an entirely different kettle of pierogis for Tomlin to say it so publicly, especially since he knows the weight his words in the media carry with his players.

Consider this back-and-forth that Tomlin had with Dungy during the same interview. The topic was how Tomlin handles his press conferences.

Dungy: “So you use that press conference to talk to the team?”

Tomlin: “No question. And that’s probably my primary function.”

So how, then, does Tomlin think his team will react when they hear their coach say that the Patriots game is the last one on the schedule that matters? Or when he says they're already championship-caliber?

"We can win it all," Tomlin told Dungy. "We should win it all. I sense that about the group. In terms of talent, in terms of having enough competition, depth, I think we check all those boxes. But, checking the boxes doesn’t run the race.”

You'd find Belichick wearing Gucci on the sidelines before he ever uttered anything remotely similar in front of a camera.

"Being around Coach Belichick -- and being so focused on that one game at a time -- that actually sounds really weird," ex-Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who shares a spot on the Sunday Night Football broadcast with Dungy, said later in the show. "Because you do not seem like you are giving your opponent the respect that it deserves when you are sitting back and you are thinking about the Patriots three weeks from now."

"Let me clue you in on something," Dungy replied. "When I was coaching, no matter who we played, I was always thinking about you [the Patriots] so that doesn’t surprise me that Mike Tomlin would be. I do not think this team is going to overlook [the Packers] at all."

We know there are certain individuals in the Patriots organization who look ahead to opponents other than the ones up immediately on the schedule. They have to be. That's advanced scouting. That's being prepared. The idea that the Patriots have a franchise-wide laser focus on the next game is not based in reality.

But the public message and the message to the team is consistently consistent. On to Cincinnati. Or, as is the case this week, on to Buffalo. 

Look at how Belichick replied to an innocuous question during his Monday conference call about how he and the Patriots secured a record 17-consecutive winning seasons by beating the Dolphins over the weekend.

"That’s what we’re here for is to win games," Belichick said. "Yeah, we take a lot of pride in it. But, that being said, there’s probably another time to talk about that and reflect back on it and so forth. You know, none of those other -- however many seasons it was or however many games it was -- really makes any difference this week. I mean, nobody cares about that. This is just strictly a matchup between the Patriots and the Bills in 2017, and how these two teams compete against each other is really what it’s all about. So, I don’t think living in the past is going to help us, and I don’t think living in the future is going to help us, either."

Embracing the elephant in the room is all well and good. (Again, it's fantastic from a media perspective. More embracing of large mammals, please.) 

But living in the future very nearly got Tomlin's Steelers stomped by one of the worst teams in football.


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. 



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. 

Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis



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.


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.


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.


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. 


McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

AP Photo

McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

Devin McCourty said immediately after Super Bowl LII that players knew Malcolm Butler's role had changed. Two weeks later, that story hasn't changed.

After falling to the Eagles, 41-33, and while making his way from his media availability period to the Patriots buses, McCourty said he and his teammates weren't surprised that Butler's workload had been scaled back for the final game of the season. 

His explanation made it difficult to understand, though, why other players were so surprised to see that Butler wasn't a part of the defensive game plan. The corner who started in Butler's place, Eric Rowe, said he didn't know until right before kickoff that he'd be on the field instead of Butler. 


McCourty reiterated his point when asked about the situation during a recent event to benefit Tackle Sickle Cell, founded by McCourty and his twin brother Jason to help families dealing with sickle cell disease.

"As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth," McCourty told NJ Advance Media when asked if Butler's benching was disciplinary in nature. "We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team.

"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up."


Butler took to social media in the days following the loss to dispel any rumors that he was being punished by Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff. He pointed out that he had not attended any concerts during the week, as had been theorized online, and that he spent his free time with family. 

"It sucked for him," McCourty said. "He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."

McCourty called Butler a "great teammte" and appreciated the way Butler grew as a player during his four years in New England. 

"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.

"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."