Patriots

Sooner or later, the Patriots will cut you down

Sooner or later, the Patriots will cut you down

FOXBORO – Somewhere in Jacksonville, there had to be a whiteboard drawn up with the following “MUST DO'S!!” on it.

PATRIOTS 24, JAGUARS 20

Control Rob Gronkowski.

Control Dion Lewis.

Win turnover battle.

Convert third downs.

Stop Tom Brady on third down.

Win time of possession.

Run football.

Stop the run.

Convert in red zone.

Get brilliance from Blake Bortles.

When the Jaguars return to Jacksonville, they will look at this hypothetical whiteboard.  They’ll see that they checked every . . . single . . . box. Even the last one. Then they'll clean out their lockers and go home for the season.

The Jaguars -- who had an upset for the ages in their hands until they realized it was too hot to hold -- will have to grapple with how they let it get away.

They will never accept that they weren’t a better team on this day. They don’t have to. But they will have to accept that they got beat. This was one of those stealth assassinations by the Patriots -- a blowdart in the back of the neck from behind a bush 200 feet away.

The Jaguars will watch another Super Bowl. Like the Lions, Browns and Texans, they still don’t know what it’s like. The Patriots are headed to their eighth Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick Era. That means 15 percent of all Super Bowls will have included those two. Twenty-one percent of all Super Bowls will have featured Belichick on the sidelines (nine with New England and two with the Giants).

Even Tom Coughlin couldn’t save the Jaguars from the inevitable Brady’ing they got in the fourth quarter Sunday evening.

Watching Brady bring the Patriots back from a 20-10 deficit without Gronk over the last 15 minutes was like watching MacGyver disarm a bomb before the orphanage blew up.

Even after the wires sparked (Lewis getting stripped by Myles Jack with 13:53 left). Even after he dropped his wrench (a sack and an incompletion bringing up third-and-18 with 10:49 left). Even after the lights went out (forced to punt with six minutes left, still trailing by three). You knew, I knew, the Jaguars knew and America knew how it would end.

With kneeldowns and confetti and the Patriots heading to Super Bowl 52. With another local opportunity to produce odes and t-shirts commemorating the grit, preparation and resourcefulness that New England loves and makes the rest of the country want to punch itself in the face.

The Jaguars, with their Pro Bowl corners (Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye), their Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Calais Campbell), their $90 million defensive lineman (Malik Jackson), a defensive end taken third-overall in 2015 (Dante Fowler) and two rocket-fueled linebackers (Myles Jack and Telvin Smith), got outfoxed by Danny Amendola.

Undrafted, 32-year-old Danny Amendola, noted for annual pay cuts, a lengthy injury history, a modeling contract and a narrow frame that hasn’t been acceptable by NFL standards since the 1970s.

A player that was dismissed before he began in New England, mocked once he did begin and lamented even after that.

Danny Amendola was the Robin to Brady’s Batman this time. Over an eight-miniute span in the fourth quarter he caught five passes for 56 yards and two touchdowns and returned a punt 20 yards, helping bring the Patriots from down 20-10 to ahead 24-20.

It was Amendola and Brandin Cooks -- a player maligned this year in a way similar to what Amendola once got -- carrying the Patriots after their Hall of Fame-bound tight end that got knocked out with a concussion in the second quarter.

This will be the kind of game Jaguars fans will have to watch a dozen times before they finally see the tiny things that caused them to lose. Because the numbers sure don’t show it. Gronk caught one pass for 21 yards. The Jags were 6-for-15 on third down and the Patriots were 3-for-12. The Patriots had the game’s only turnover.

The Jaguars scored touchdowns on both red-zone trips. The Patriots ran for 46 yards while the Jags ran for 101 (and 18 of those Patriots yards came on one run in clock-killing mode). The Jags had the ball 10 minutes longer than the Patriots, and Blake Bortles went 23-for-36 for 293.

But the Jags mismanaged the clock before the half. In a three-play span just before halftime, they took three penalties. One of them was a delay of game after a Patriots time out. Moronic. The clock stoppages and penalties gave the ball back to New England and the Patriots -- predictably -- got a touchdown before the break instead of the Jags being able to double up possessions at the end of one half and the beginning of the other.

Meanwhile, a Jags coaching staff that probably figured it would be playing from behind and trying to keep the ball away from New England didn’t adjust to the flow of the game and take what the Patriots were giving -- miles of open space in the secondary.

The Jags kept running into the middle of the Patriots defense on first down. Leonard Fournette looked like the drunk guy at the barbeque who keeps walking into the slider.

In the second half, this is what Jacksonville did on first down while it had the lead: Fournette for 2, Fournette for 1, Fournette for 3, incomplete, Fournette for 0, FLEA FLICKER for 15-yard completion! Fournette for 2, Fournette for 14, incomplete, Fournette for 2, Fournette for 1, Fournette for 1, Fournette for -1.

Think about that for a second. The Jaguars had the Patriots on the run. Gronk was down. Julian Edelman never played. Donta Hightower never played. They’d taken the running backs away on the ground and in the air. The 40-year-old quarterback was playing with a gash in his hand. Both Patriots coordinators have a foot out the door on their way to new coaching gigs. Bortles was playing like Aaron Rodgers. And they ran 10 dive plays, a flea flicker and threw two incompletions on the first 13 first down plays they ran in the second half.

That’s just asking for the result they got. If you steal a lead against the Patriots, you don’t hide in the closet and hope they don’t come looking for you there.

They always look in the closet.

And they always get you. In the end, they always get you.

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

gronk.jpg
File Photo

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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