Curran: Loss brings leadership issues on Patriots defense into focus

Curran: Loss brings leadership issues on Patriots defense into focus

If, on Sunday night, LeGarrette Blount had scored on his fourth-quarter, second-down, vault attempt instead of being stopped inches short of the goal line, would we be speaking now about charged and weighty issues like deficient defensive leadership?

Probably not.

Blount scores, the Patriots win in overtime and we’re all talking, “Nice win, Patriots gotta clean up that defense before someone makes them pay…”

Instead, New England loses and reasons for the team’s defensive permissiveness – well-explored throughout the season – are no longer just about Xs and Os and who’s good at doing what, but about whether the defense has the leadership mettle necessary to right itself.

And that’s not a bad thing.

The team’s defensive personnel and personality has drastically changed over the past 18 months. Vince Wilfork – their unquestioned defensive line leader – went to Houston. Jerod Mayo – a captain since his second season – retired. The two most loudest voices were gone.

Then business and chemistry intervened. The team lost Akiem Hicks in free agency, decided it had had enough of Dominique Easley, traded Chandler Jones and shipped out Jamie Collins. Meanwhile, left behind are a bunch of players with contracts that expire in four months and the attendant uncertainty that comes with that reality.

I explored the potential for discord, questioning and “WHY ARE WE ALL HERE?!?!?!” right after the Collins trade was made.

Then, it was more of a keep-an-eye-out-for-this piece. Now, after the Patriots’ worst defensive performance of the season came after their bye when they had extra time to prepare and looked lost at times? It seems like a concrete thing.

It’s not a defense that’s gone rotten. It’s a defense that’s lost its identity. On paper, being versatile and changeable week-to-week looks like a great plan. In reality, if the players being asked to master myriad roles and responsibilities can’t get a finger on what they are all about it’s going to sap confidence.

“Do Your Job.”


“What’s My Job Today?”

Former Patriots exec Mike Lombardi opined on his “Make Me Smarter” football podcast (aside: How do you come up with that for a podcast name? Was “I’m So F****** Smart” too long?) has again poked his head up with an opinion as to what ails the Patriots.
Full disclosure. I don’t talk to Mike and as I’ve said on our “Dumbest Guy in the Room” podcast, I don’t have anything against him personally but he’s always struck me as a bit of an opportunist.

That said, his view is generally similar to mine. So, I share this quote as more validation of a viewpoint than actual news.

"They lack confidence and they lack leadership," Lombardi said, "and that, I think, is the area that is most important that I think fans don't see. What fans don't always understand about winning is -- Marcus Aurelius has this great quote about, 'The secret to all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.' (aside: that’s why it’s called “Make You Smarter”). Now, it's not obvious to the fans that Seattle has incredible mental toughness . . . They're mentally tough. You can't see that. The Patriots, you can't see their lack of leadership. It really hurts them.

“Losing Jerod Mayo has hurt them because Mayo was their leader,” Lombardi continued  “Even though Mayo wasn't a great player the last three years, he was hurt quite a bit, but his leadership has really affected the Patriots. His lack of leadership now is there. And there's no one there, whether it would have been Jamie Collins, who was aloof and a loner, or [Dont’a] Hightower, there's no one there to lead in the front seven. Devin McCourty's a great leader, but the back-end guys can't lead. The front seven guys have to lead. I think that's what they're missing. They're missing that tremendously." 

Not sure I’m buying the “guys can’t lead from the back” notion since the Patriots and the NFL have had plenty of back-end defenders whose voices have been followed – Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, Earl Thomas, Bob Sanders and so on. But I do agree that Hightower is still growing into the off-field, set-the-tone aspects of leadership that Mayo, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and others were comfortable with.

On Wednesday, McCourty was asked about leadership.

“Play better,” he said. “We can hoot and holler and yell and scream, but the leaders have to play better. It starts with us. If we play better, usually the whole defense plays better, so Slate [Matthew Slater] is right. Leadership comes in different forms and at times you have to do different things to lead, but the best way to lead is to go out there and play good football and lead the team and give them an example to follow.

“All the veteran players and the leaders on this defense have to go play better, and I think that’s what we think as a team in all phases,” he added. “Bill [Belichick] says it all the time. If you’re a leader on the team, it starts with you. If you go out there and play well, the team will follow.”

Slater was asked the same question.

“I’m confident in the men that we have in this locker room,” he stated. “There is some great leadership there. Everyone leads differently though and that’s something that I certainly understand and I think guys understand that. Yeah, obviously we all have to hold each other accountable to do our jobs at a high level. We play for one another. Ultimately everyone can do a better job when you look back at the tape after a loss and everybody can say, ‘if I had done that,’ or, ‘if they had done that,’ but we’re one or two plays from coming out with a different story.”

That they are. And that they didn’t have those one or two plays and a loss resulted isn’t the end of the season. It actually brings into sharper focus areas that may be issues. Fixable ones. Is leadership or, perhaps more accurately, faith, trust and buy-in a fixable area? We’ll see.


Cam Newton, Julian Edelman joke about Patriots' playbook on Instagram

Cam Newton, Julian Edelman joke about Patriots' playbook on Instagram

Before Cam Newton suits up for the New England Patriots, he has some homework to do. And he's already opened his textbook.

The veteran quarterback, who reportedly signed a one-year contract with New England in late June, shared a photo Tuesday via Instagram of himself with a cup of coffee and what appears to be the Patriots' playbook.

"This s--- calculus!!" Newton joked.

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The Patriots have a notoriously complex playbook, and it appears Newton is finding that out after nine seasons in Carolina.

Our Tom E. Curran reported there's "no concern" in New England that Newton won't master his new offense, though, and the 31-year-old QB already digging into his playbook helps explain that confidence.

Newton also tagged Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, the team's longest-tenured offensive player (not counting special teamer Matthew Slater). Edelman responded on Instagram with his own acknowledgment that figuring out New England's playbook is like decoding a tricky math problem.

If Newton can return to full health after undergoing offseason foot surgery and pick up the offense quickly, that should add up to a successful season for the three-time Pro Bowler and 2015 NFL MVP.

Patrick Mahomes contract will be an albatross for dynasty-chasing Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes contract will be an albatross for dynasty-chasing Chiefs

“We’re chasing a dynasty.”

That’s how Patrick Mahomes closed his ode of gratitude after signing the richest contract in pro sports history.

Of course you are, Patrick. You and everyone else.

But are you chasing “a” dynasty? Do you just want to be mentioned along with the Packers, Steelers, Niners, Cowboys and Patriots, the only dynasties of the Super Bowl era?

Or are you using chasing as in following? As in the dynasty that came immediately before you? Specifically, New England. The only dynasty of the salary cap era.

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Because if you’re chasing the Patriots, modeling yourself after the Patriots, thinking you and the Chiefs might be the Patriots and go to four Super Bowls in one decade and five in the next, you and your team just made a fundamental mistake. You went “pig at the trough.”

That phrase is one I heard from key folks in the Patriots organization several times in the early 2000s. Tom Brady? Not a pig at the trough when it came to contract time. Peyton Manning? Pig at the trough.

What difference does it make?

Without a piggish quarterback, you can still go 11-5 because there’s talent all over the roster. The Patriots did that in 2008. But when you have to feed and feed and feed that position? The roster gets so thin elsewhere that – without the quarterback – a team might go, say, 2-14 after nine straight seasons of double-digit wins as the Colts did in 2011 without Manning.

This isn’t to say that the Chiefs did the wrong thing in signing Mahomes. Business-wise, they win. And Mahomes wins as well. But lack of funds because of fat cap hits will inevitably make the on-field product suffer and make the chase for a dynasty that much harder.

You can’t blame the Hunt family.

Mahomes is the most important and impactful player in the NFL.

What he authored in the 2019 playoffs is unprecedented - erasing a 24-0 deficit and winning 51-31 in the Divisional Playoffs, going on a 35-7 run in the AFCCG to erase a 10-point deficit then score 21 unanswered in the fourth to erase another 10-point deficit in the Super Bowl. All that coming after the AFCCG nut punch from the Patriots at Kansas City when Mahomes did all he could in the second half to resuscitate KC but came up short because the Chiefs defense sucked.

Having Mahomes sewn up for a dozen years makes their already-skyrocketing asset that much more valuable.  

Consider this: According to Forbes, the Chiefs were the 28th most valuable franchise in the NFL with a total value of $986 million in 2011. By 2018, they were 24th in the league worth $2.1 billion and last September they were still 24th worth $2.3 billion. That will likely rise to nearly $3 billion when Forbes' new list comes out given the Super Bowl win and the presence of Mahomes, which will bring in way more revenue over the next 12 years than the $503 million they pay him.

The Chiefs made the deal as easy-to-swallow as they could in the first two years. Plus, the so-called “guarantee mechanisms” give the Chiefs an escape hatch they can use basically every year.

As for Mahomes, what’s he going to do, turn down a half-billion? Take the money and run, especially since the NFL could be approaching a bit of a recession.

The cap is going down in 2021 because local revenues are going to suffer with the pandemic. The changing media landscape, the financial fallout networks may experience because of COVID-19 and the fact this season may not deliver the same product the networks signed up for all may serve to diminish the next TV deal. The wrangling over how to deal with the drops has just begun.

So the deal is good for the Hunts and it's good for Mahomes.

But the cap hits begin getting big in 2022 ($31.5 million) and they are around $40 million for the next five seasons after that before ballooning to $60 million. If the NFL spreads out the revenue loss and cap decline it’s going to realize this season over a three-year period to soften the blow, the cap is not going to rise at the anticipated level.

And that’s not that good for the football team. Right now, defensive end Chris Jones is playing on a $16 million franchise tag and is pissed about it. Travis Kelce will make about $9 million the next two years as the best tight end in football. The Chiefs have six players this year with cap hits over $15 million. They can do that because Mahomes is a bargain with a $5.3 million cap hit.

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“If the Kansas City Chiefs can keep all the players together, we’re going to be a dynasty,” Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins said on Tuesday. Yeah, well, about that.

It’s virtually impossible to keep all the players together when A) one guy is making a huge percentage of the cap and B) your team starts getting pilfered because it plays well every year.

There will be pooh-poohing about Mahomes’ cap percentage and insistence on TV and gambling money rolling into the coffers. Again, post-pandemic, I don’t see the cap rebounding that quickly.

And if the cap gets to $225 million by the time Mahomes starts seeing his $40 million hits beginning in 2023? That’s 17.7 percent of the cap.

Tom Brady’s highest cap percentage in the past decade was 12.2 percent in 2018. His average cap hit since 2011 was 9.8 percent.

Brady’s willingness to take less for so long enabled the Patriots to pay Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Stephon Gilmore, Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Donta’ Hightower really well (ever notice how many of the fat deals are on defense for Bill Belichick?). And it also allowed them to make sure the so-called middle class was squared away too.

By the end of it, when Belichick blanched at every Brady request to give him a bump, it was obvious the head coach was dying to be unburdened of a big-ticket quarterback.

We’ve gone over this at length already this offseason. And the benefit of Brady allowing himself to be lowballed was annually highlighted at Super Bowl time by national media.

People (Mike Felger) want to pretend the cap isn’t real. It is. You can ignore it. You can delay it. But eventually bills come due as they have for the Patriots this year.

New England’s stay in cap hell should be short. Meanwhile, a team like the Ravens who will now have Lamar Jackson using the Mahomes contract as a comp? Hell is on the horizon. Same for the Cowboys and Dak Prescott. Teams like the Rams, Raiders, and Eagles are already in hell now or approaching it next year having paid maybe really good but maybe not first-round picks like Jared Goff, Derek Carr and Carson Wentz huge amounts.

Mahomes is a unicorn. We can all agree on that. But his contract is going to be an albatross.