Patriots

Perry: Patriots may take old approach to new kickoff rules

Perry: Patriots may take old approach to new kickoff rules

We're a long way off from determining Week 1 roster spots, but we had one lingering question from our "Offseason Takeaways" piece last week that's worth keeping in mind as we build up to training camp in a little over a month. 

How will the new kickoff rules -- which we touched upon in detail here -- impact how the Patriots construct their roster for 2018 and beyond? 

Bill Belichick has proven he is as willing as any coach in the league, if not more so, to value players who serve the team primarily in the kicking game. In most NFL cities, the term "specialists" is typically reserved for kicker, punter and long-snapper. But in some cases, even though every other Patriots player meets with an offensive or defensive position group, there are individuals who might as well fall into that "specialist" category because the vast majority of their work is done in the game's third phase. 

Last season the Patriots made room for Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Geneo Grissom, Brandon Bolden, Brandon King, Jordan Richards, Johnson Bademosi and Marquis Flowers at different points in the year despite the fact that several of those players almost never saw playing time offensively or defensively. 

It's early yet, but it feels as though the new kickoff rules won't do anything to deter the Patriots from carrying the same approach. If anything, the new rules may encourage them to continue to load up on players who thrive in the kicking game.

Why? 

First of all, this is a time of experimentation. No team is quite sure what other teams will be doing come the regular season when it comes to kickoff and kick-return strategy in 2018. Teams themselves have plenty to iron out before they settle on the techniques they want to focus on and execute. 

Carrying more players who understand special teams and thrive there, then, may help prevent a team from being caught off guard by what's thrown at them when games really matter. A greater team-wide special-teams IQ could be crucial when dealing with the element of the unknown as it relates to the kickoff. One slip-up there early in the season could determine the outcome of a game. 

Second, consider what we've heard from special-teams experts this offseason when it comes to their opinion of the new kickoff rules. 

"The spacing is going to be the biggest issue," Slater told NBC Sports Boston. "Spacing and timing, ball-handling because of that space."

"There are going to be more single blocks,” Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub said. “You aren’t going to have the point of attack where you’re hitting it and you have a running-back style [return], almost like an ISO play. It’s going to be more of a big-field type, more like a punt return."

Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley, widely renowned for his forward-thinking approach to the game and to special teams, in particular, told Yahoo! that the lack of wedge blocking -- outlawed by the new rules -- will mean there's little need for big offensive linemen on the field. 

"Instead," wrote Yahoo! columnist Dan Wetzel, "the team is made up of quick skill players. The entire play is different. It’s more exciting."

Similarly, Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi noted that there will probably be more skill-position players and fewer linemen playing special teams. 

Not only does the elimination of wedge blocks render linemen less useful, but the requirement to have eight return-team players in a "setup zone" closer to midfield means the three deep return-team players have to be able to cover a significant amount of ground on their own. 

There's a need for speed back there. 

"If teams are going to load up on running backs, receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers on special teams," the Palm Beach Post wrote in its story featuring Rizzi's reaction to the new rules, "it’s bound to affect competition for the final roster spots."

Plus, because coverage players aren't allowed to get a running start, making it less likely they'll be able to pin returners deep in their own territory, fans may see more players willing to make returns from their own end zones.

That's what many believe, including former NFL kicker and CBS analyst Jay Feely. 

“I think you’re going to see more returns than we have in the past," said Saints special teams coach Mike Westhoff. "I think you’re going to see more, we’ll find out."

More space. More speed. More returns. The element of the unknown. 

Add it all up, and the Patriots could very well end up doing what they've always done when it comes time to trim rosters to 53 players at summer's end: Reserve a handful of roster spots for those who can fly, those who can tackle, those who understand the kicking game as something more than just a side gig.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Curran: Oprah interview underscores Brady's wavering devotion to football

Curran: Oprah interview underscores Brady's wavering devotion to football

The money quote from the first episode of Tom vs. Time caused massive swooning in the right-hand corner of the country.

“If you’re going to compete against me, you better be willing to give up your life,” warned Tom Brady. “Because I’m willing to give up mine.”

New England had to collectively lean against the headboard and smoke a cigarette after that.

“The guy’s got everything anyone could want and he’ll put it all on the back burner for football? And, by extension, for me, since I prefer to consume the football his team plays? Hold me . . . ”

Nobody knew then the unspoken sentences after that sentiment would have sounded like this . . . 

"But I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be willing to give up my life.

"Hell, I have three kids. They aren’t just little balls of flesh with eyes and mouths anymore, they are needy miniature humans. My wife is pretty much all set with me getting dropped out a two-story window every week and coming home in a crap mood when some 23-year-old who thinks he’s arrived runs the wrong route at practice for the 233rd time since August.

"I get paid half the dough of players half as good as me.  My boss has been wearing my ass out for almost two decades and when I try to get everyone to understand that, ‘Hey, there might be a different approach to training that’s worked great for me . . . ’ I’m Benedict Arnold. And sorry for being 40 and thinking about the rest of my life after football, advancing the ‘brand’ and not playing Fortnite. So giving up my life . . . I don’t know. Maybe next year I just try to give up a big portion of my life instead of the whole thing and see how that works out."

MORE BRADY/OPRAH

That version of Tom Brady was right there. Right under the surface. The guy attached to another adult male by giant rubber bands so he could drag him around the backyard of a $5 million (or whatever) mansion while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads may actually have realized, “This seems odd.”

Judging from Brady’s 45-minute interview with Orpah Winfrey that aired Sunday, and a slew of other occasions this offseason, Tom Brady’s just not that into it the way he was.

I think you’d call the “give up my life” quote a case of whistling past the graveyard. Brady knew when he chest-puffed about sacrifice that there was an expiration date on that, but he didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Why? Horrible for the brand. Better to appear as if every cell in the organism was swimming  toward the same goal of domination without a single one of them saying, “Are you sure we’re going the right way?”

You could also call that quote a bait-and-switch. Brady’s entitled to be a complete human -- encouraged, even. But the 180 from the first episode of TvT to this offseason is nothing anyone could have anticipated based on the propaganda served. We’ve gotten a steady diet of mixed messages from Brady and those around him and responses that -- in their delivery -- invite more speculation than they douse.

With Oprah, Brady again tentatively pointed out that real life has increasingly encroached on football.

MORE BRADY/OPRAH

Asked about retirement, he answered, “I think about it more now than I used to. I think I’m seeing there’s definitely an end coming sooner, rather than later. As long as I’m still loving it. As long as I’m loving the training and the preparation and willing to make the commitment.

“But it’s also, I think what I alluded to a lot in the docuseries, there’s other things happening in my life, too,” Brady added. “I do have kids that I love, and I don’t want to be a dad that’s not there, driving my kids to their games . . . my kids have brought a great perspective in my life. Kids just want the attention. You better be there. And be available to them.”

Gotham Chopra, who produced TvT, was the first to declare Brady as being year-to-year. Then, soon after, Brady’s agent Don Yee told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, "Tom's intentions have not changed. He's consistently said he'll play beyond this contract and into his mid-40s, or until he feels he isn't playing at a championship level. I understand the constant speculation, but this is one point he's been firm about."

Oprah, who despite the Harry Caray glasses just doesn’t seem that much fun anymore, did ask Brady if there is “something going on” with Bill Belichick.

Brady answered, “Umm . . . no. I mean, I love him. I love that he is an incredible coach, mentor for me. He’s pushed me in a lot of ways. Like everything, we don’t agree on absolutely everything, but that’s relationships.”

The “ummmm . . . ” and averted eyes spoke a lot louder than the “no.”

MORE BRADY/OPRAH

If you asked your kid, “Son, didn’t you see this pile of dog crap on the rug?” and he answered, “Ummmm . . . no . . . ” while looking away, you’d tell him to clean up the dog crap he tried to pretend he hadn’t seen.

There’s no sense turning this into another “Ah HA!” moment about there being friction. You all get it by now. I'm instead pointing it out because it’s another example of the dissembling Brady’s done this offseason, where he indicates one thing and then walks it back in the next breath.

If there is one spin-it-forward takeaway from this it might be this: Given his devotion to understatement, saying the end is coming "sooner rather than later" makes me wonder if my long-held belief Brady would retire after 2019 has to be reconsidered as being a year too aggressive. 

How was the interview overall? Fine, I guess. The two standout parts for me were actually from Oprah. The first came when she admitted being amazed that there was more depth to Brady than the person she’s seen playing football.

“Gee,” she noted, outing herself as one of a dwindling number of “gee” users. “Watching you play football, I wouldn’t have thought of you as a spiritual person or that spirituality was a kind of thing you were seeking or conscious about.”

Holy crap. It would be fun to be a speck in the Oprah universe, say a plumber fixing a drain and then mentioning aloud how much you like jazz.  

“You’re my plumber,” Oprah would say, “But you also think about things other than faucets and drains. Gee.”

The second came when Brady gave some fortune-cookie wisdom passed on to him by Gisele, saying, “We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Oprah shot forward like she was hit with a cattle prod, clutched her chest and blurted, “YES! That’s one of my favorite phrases!”

Gee, she was real excited.

This post has gone on too long so I’ll chew on the other items a little later. I would have done it yesterday when the interview came out but as someone once said, “I do have kids that I love, and I don’t want to be a dad that’s not there, driving my kids to their games . . . my kids have brought a great perspective in my life. Kids just want the attention. You better be there. And be available to them.”

So I golfed. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Brady to Oprah on Belichick: 'We don't agree on absolutely everything'

Brady to Oprah on Belichick: 'We don't agree on absolutely everything'

Most of the highlights of Tom Brady's sit-down with Oprah Winfrey were released here and here last week before the interview was broadcast Sunday morning on Winfrey's OWN channel.

Also, in the hour-long interview, the Patriots quarterback was asked by Winfrey, amid an offseason filled with reports of tension between him and coach Bill Belichick, “Is there something going on with you and Belichick?”

“Umm, no. I mean, I love him," Brady said. "I love that he is an incredible coach, mentor for me. He’s pushed me in a lot of ways. Like everything, we don’t agree on absolutely everything, but that’s relationships.”

When Winfrey asked about his "separate training place" - the TB12 Sports Therapy Center next to Gillette Stadium that Brady and business partner and trainer Alex Guerrero have run for five years - Brady said he wouldn't characterize it as separate.

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” said Brady, who stayed away from Patriots voluntary workouts this spring, has worked out on his own with teammates, but did report for mandatory mini-camp June 5-7. “I probably do some of my own techniques a little differently than the rest of the team. The team, I would say, like most teams, is very systematic in their approach. What I learned, I guess, is different than some of the things that are systematic, but that work for me.”

Brady said he's talked about those techniques with Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Belichick restricted Guerrero's access to the Patriots sideline and team flights last season. 

“It’s nothing that I don’t talk about with my coach and owner,” Brady said. “It is what I want to do and is what I need to be the best player I can be. Hopefully, you can support that.”

More highlights from the Brady interview: 

On why he gave up his court fight in the Deflategate case and served his NFL-imposed four-game suspension:

"Too much anxiety," Brady said. "And I realized I couldn't win." Watch that clip here: 

How this Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in February was a little easier to take than his others, watch here: 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE