Patriots

Schwartz has come a long way since interning for Belichick

Schwartz has come a long way since interning for Belichick

MINNEAPOLIS - Bill Belichick gave Jim Schwartz his first job in the NFL, hiring the man who’s now Eagles defensive coordinator to be a research assistant and scout. It was hardly glamorous, didn’t pay a damn thing and meant Schwartz’s life was no longer his own. He’s not complaining.

“I owe just about my entire NFL career to him,” said Schwartz last week, recalling his three years with Belichick. 

Belichick has long lauded his former assistant. In the aftermath of Schwartz getting his first head coaching job back in 2009 with the Lions, Belichick showed up at the NFL scouting combine and offered this gem.

“Schwartzie was probably the smartest guy [we had],” he told Michigan Live. “Georgetown graduate. Schwartzie is one of those guys who you could give him 10 different things to do, and at any point in time you could ask him, 'Where are we on this?' And he'd have it for you in a second, and then you'd throw two or three more things at him, and say, 'Hey Jimmy could you take care of this, could you take care of that?' Half of the time he would say, 'Hey coach I've already started on that.' He was part mind reader. Tremendous work ethic and really just extremely intelligent."

While it’s a nice, tidy thread for the media covering Super Bowl 52, Schwartz laughs when asked if it has any impact on game-planning for the biggest game of the year.

“You think any of our players care that in 1993 I got hired as an unpaid intern? They are just going out and playing,” he said. And he’s right. It means very little. What matters most is how Schwartz has his defense playing and what it is capable of doing to the most important player on the Patriots, Tom Brady.

Schwartz has come a long way since those days in Cleveland fetching coffee for Belichick and his paid staffers. He rose to defensive coordinator in Tennessee, earning him those five years as the head coach in Detroit. After the Lions fired him, Schwartz revitalized the Bills defense a year later and now has done the same in Philly.

He inherited a mess. The Eagles were bottom four in yards three straight seasons. That’s hard to do in an NFL that encourages parity. In year one, that number improved to the low teens. In this, year two, it’s now fourth best. Same for points allowed. And no team is harder to run on. Inspired by Schwartz’s schemes, Philly has allowed fewer than 80 yards per game. That’s a league best.

“He always puts us in the best position to make plays,” said Malcolm Jenkins.

“He demands a lot of us, but knows how to get the most of each and every guy,” said Fletcher Cox. “How can you not love playing for a coach like that?” 

As we get closer to Super Bowl Sunday, you’ll hear more and more about how Schwartz and the Eagles might have the perfect recipe to slow down Brady and this Patriots’ offense. Maybe they do. There are certainly plenty of elements in place, but past history hasn’t been as kind to Schwartz vs Brady as you might think.

Schwartz’s teams (as the head coach or DC) have faced the Pats QB seven times. They’re just 2-5 and one of those wins came in the 2014 regular-season finale at New England where Brady was pulled after one half (The Pats had already locked up the No. 1 seed). 

The last two full games of Schwartz vs. Brady were squarely in Tom Terrific’s favor. On Nov. 10, 2010, Brady led the Pats to a 45-24 victory over the Lions in Detroit. TB12 went 21-of-27 for 341 yards and four touchdowns. His quarterback rating - if you’re into that sort of thing - was 158.3 Perfect. Brady was sacked just once.

Their next meeting didn’t come until almost four years later. Oct. 12, 2014. The Pats visiting Buffalo to play Schwartz’s defense. All Brady did was complete 27 of 37 for 361 yards and four more touchdowns. He did get sacked twice. That proved a minor irritant. Brady’s QB rating was 139.6.

Schwartz won’t avoid looking back at those matchups but doesn’t expect to find too much there.

“You always look at other games that you’ve played but he’s playing with a different cast of characters and were playing with a different cast of characters,” said Schwartz. “And the game changes so much. What we did in 2003, the game’s a lot different now. You always want to go back in the files and look at things that have been successful and maybe things that haven’t been, things they’ve had success with. 

But you also want to stay current and stay with how they’re handling things. They’re going to look a lot different with number 87 [Gronk] out there than not. They’re going to look different with Brandin Cooks out there then with Cooks not out there. Same can be said for us. We play a little different. We’re different this year from last year. We’re probably a little bit different now than we were at the beginning of the season.You need to keep your strengths in mind as well as the opponent.”

The 2017-18 Patriots aren’t without weaknesses. The same holds true for 2017-18 Brady. The Pats interior offensive line has had issues with bigger, more powerful interior defenders. That’s a strength for the Eagles, with Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan both handfuls. And Cox is a three-down player as capable of harassing the passer as he is off stuffing the run. Center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney, in particular, will have their hands full. Right guard Shaq Mason also surrenders a fair amount of length if he finds himself lined up across from Cox. Cox could be a one-man wrecking crew.

And guess where Brady has had some of his biggest difficulties this year? When teams have managed to pressure him from the inside out. Actually, that’s long been the way to unnerve the now 40-year QB. Hell, it’s that way for just about any QB. It’s far easier to step up against the outside rush then it is to get flushed left or right because of interior pressure. And with Chris Long, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett coming off the edges, Brady may find a front four capable of squeezing that pocket and sealing off any escape routes. Of course, it’s not that easy. Against Brady it never is. Schwartz says that’s because the Patriots are about more than one player.

“You have to put that challenge to playing the Patriots offense,” he said. “No player stands on his own. I’ve mentioned Gronk, Cooks, Amendola, Hogan, White, Lewis - there are a million different guys in there. I’m sure someone [he didn’t mention] will feel slighted… In the NFL in general, but particularly the Patriots, you can’t scheme for one player. If you do, they have plenty of other players that can make plays. You have to do a good job against their entire offense.”

That was evident in the AFC title game. Jacksonville was focused on limiting Rob Gronkowski’s impact. But once he went out with an injury, the Patriots scored 21 of their 24 points in a little more than two quarters. In theory, the Jags task should have gotten easier. Instead, it was just as difficult. So, while the Eagles, like the Jags, prefer to use just a four-man rush to get after the quarterback, this QB still almost always finds a way.

“We have to play a 60-minute game,” said Schwartz. “We can’t think because we get a couple three-and-outs that we’ve solved the riddle. With them, they’ll keep adjusting. You have to adjust with them, ahead of them. However it works. Just keep at it because he sure as hell will.”

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

gronk.jpg
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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. 

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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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