Patriots

Giardi: Listen to Belichick and it’s clear: Malcolm Butler is on notice

Giardi: Listen to Belichick and it’s clear: Malcolm Butler is on notice

Malcolm Butler is on notice. Plain and simple. Improve your play, improve your attitude, improve your focus or else…

Forget about the idea that Butler was not as prominent a part of the game plan Sunday in New Orleans because of bigger receivers and the matchup issues that can cause for a 5-foot-10 corner. Nope. That’s not what happened. Butler began the game on the pine because the Patriots believe he’s not given them his best in 2017, and that right now, Eric Rowe is better than Butler.

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“Well, look, we’re into a new season, so I don’t think anybody’s performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday when I asked him directly about Butler’s performance this season. “We all need to do a better job – players, coaches – all of us across the board. Hopefully, we’ll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That’s why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully, we’ll all be able to improve.”

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was clearly listening to his head coach speak prior to his turn in Tuesday’s conference calls, highlighting the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality that Belichick emphasized.

“It's all about this year,” he said. “I think what things have gone down in the past doesn't really matter to us. We're trying to get better for this year. The guys that are out there and in positions right now currently and help us win that particular week.”

So Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler is not here right now. Nor is the player the Pats believed in so much that they were willing to let that season’s No. 1 corner, Darrelle Revis, walk and not replace him in 2015. Apparently, there’s no sign of the Malcolm Butler they negotiated a contract extension with last year that came close to completion. Nope. That player, one they leaned on so heavily that he rarely came off the field - he played 98.8 percent of the snaps in ’15 , 96.7 in ’16 - saw part-time duty in the victory over the Saints on Sunday, and his play count might have been significantly lower if not for Rowe leaving the game in the third quarter with a groin injury. 

Belichick often talks about how the organization views players: ascending, descending, stagnant. Just a couple of weeks ago that topic came up with regard to Jimmy Garoppolo, who the team views as still on the rise despite rare playing time. You can also be descending or stagnant and still be a player worth working with. Butler is falling into one of those two categories now, while Rowe is someone seen as a riser.

“Well, you know, Eric was in a tough situation last year,” said Belichick. “He came in during the season, didn’t have the benefit of training camp, the foundation of the systems, a lot of catching up on the way, which I thought he did a real good job of and he helped us a lot. But this year it’s been much better for him to be able to be here from the beginning with a year of experience behind him. [He has a] much better understanding of what he’s doing, what our opponents are doing. Some of the techniques and so forth that we use are a little different than what they had in Philadelphia. He’s definitely gaining with the experience that he’s received and earned.”

Earned. That word showed itself again when Patricia spoke.

“Certainly with Eric Rowe involved, having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint, I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field and whatever that is depending on how the game is going kind of just plays itself out when we're in the particular situation.”

There were some rumblings about Butler’s contract situation impacting behind the scenes a year ago but it didn’t appear to hurt his play. Then, despite an offseason of anger and disappointment and finally realization that the big contract wasn’t coming from the Patriots, Butler, 27,  the showed up for voluntary workouts and seemed hellbent on proving his value again, while reminding all he was still the Alpha Dog at corner, not the freshly minted Stephon Gilmore. 

Somewhere this summer - the Texans’ joint practice week likely the beginning - Butler lost that edge in Belichick’s mind. Now, it’s entirely on the free agent-to-be to get that back, or he’ll be looking at more days like Sunday and a decreasing payday once he hits the market. There’s also the memory of Jamie Collins still fresh in everyone’s mind. At this point, any and all options are on the table. The proof is in the past.

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Patriots not taking the bait on potential bulletin-board material from Darnold...yet

Patriots not taking the bait on potential bulletin-board material from Darnold...yet

FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty knew where the question was going before it had even been asked.

"At his press conference yesterday," a reporter started, "Sam Darnold..."

McCourty laughed. He was already aware of what Darnold said Thursday. But he didn't want to be the one generating headlines ahead of Monday night's matchup with the Jets, reacting to something said at a podium by a second-year quarterback he'd soon be tasked with trying to stop.

"We'll see," McCourty said. "I don't have a comment on that right now. We'll see how it goes."

Darnold, fresh off his team's first win last weekend and AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, didn't say anything that would be considered by an impartial observer as incredibly inflammatory. 

But these are the Patriots. They've long had a reputation of taking slights, real or perceived, and using them to their advantage. A little extra motivation never hurt. And it wouldn't be surprising if what Darnold said this week serves as fuel for his opponents.

"Their defense is good, they have been all year,” Darnold said of the Patriots. "But just like any team, they’re not unbeatable. So we’ve just got to go out there, find the weakness in the defense and keep working it. So that’s what we’re going to do on Monday night."

The word "weakness" seems to have been the one that struck a chord with certain Patriots when they were asked about it Friday.

"I wonder what that is," Kyle Van Noy said, shrugging his shoulders.

Van Noy was at the center of things the last time we found out that the Patriots latched onto an opponent's words in the week leading up to the game.

After Bills tackle Dion Dawkins suggested in Week 4 that the Patriots hadn't done anything in 2019 until playing in Buffalo, Van Noy said after his team’s win, "Just wanted to make sure Dawkins knew who we were."

The Patriots, of course, have the league's attention. They rank first in the NFL in scoring defense (8.0 points per game) and first in defensive passer rating (42.6). They are, in the eyes of many, the easy choice as the best defense in football right now. 

Still, Darnold likes his offense's chances. If they can get tight end Chris Herndon back, Darnold said the Jets can be "unstoppable." (Herndon is dealing with a hamstring injury and isn't expected to play Monday.)

"Right now, we're just missing Chris," Darnold said. “Once all the guys are back together, I think we're unstoppable as an offense -- or we can be.  

"It's just up to us and how we execute. It's really up to us how many points we score, I think. I think we're capable of so many points. With our offensive line, too, the way they played last game, with the way we've been running the ball and the way they've been protecting, sky's the limit for us."

Darnold's comments -- comments from a confident young quarterback who undoubtedly is trying to instill confidence in his team ahead of their biggest game of the season -- could be ones he comes to regret. 

Not that the Patriots wanted to suggest as much ahead of the game.

"I don't know," Stephon Gilmore said for his reaction to Darnold's "weakness" comment. "You can ask him that, I don't know."

"I hadn't heard him," JC Jackson said. "I'm not on the internet. I don't pay attention to what other guys say.  We just show up. We let our play do the talking. We're just gonna play ball. We ain't got time for the talking. We're just going to show up and do what we do."

Jonathan Jones said his reaction to Darnold saying what he said is, "to go back to the film to find what he finds and find it before he does, I guess." 

"There's always some plays," Jones continued, "that they're going to be looking at and say, 'Hey, we had them here.' They might not have completed it or targeted the guy, but we'll definitely try to find those plays and anticipate those."

"It's not really [a slight]. There's always going to be plays out there. I don't care how good you are. Whether it be the front disrupting him and the quarterback didn't have time to get through his read and make the throw. but there's always plays that we can get better from. Hopefully, we can find those corrections before he does."

The Patriots are near the top of the league in just about every defensive category, though perhaps the Jets will try to run the football as New England ranks closer to the middle of the pack in yards per carry allowed (4.2). 

But calling that phase of their defense a "weakness" would be a stretch, as interior defenders Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton have been among two of Bill Belichick's best players on that side of the ball this season. Their front seven is loaded with athletic and experienced linebackers capable of stopping the run as well.

Darnold probably felt as though what he said Thursday wasn't a big deal at the time. But he might not be familiar with the time-honored Patriots tradition of taking an opponent’s words and using them as a spark.

They'll take any morsel of motivation they get and gnaw on it until the clock strikes zeros. Using the word "weakness" when talking about a defense on a historic pace probably qualifies as more than a morsel. As would suggesting the Jets offense can't be stopped.

The Patriots didn’t let on that they were zeroed-in on Darnold’s comments Friday. But it would come as little surprise — depending on how Monday night goes, of course — if they later acknowledge those words breathed a little extra oxygen into the fire that’s burned under their defense through the season’s first month and a half.

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Architect of Colts' infamous fake punt vs. Patriots was at it again

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AP Images

Architect of Colts' infamous fake punt vs. Patriots was at it again

Perhaps Denver Broncos special teams coach Tom McMahon knew the anniversary of the NFL's worst fake punt was upon us.

Why else would McMahon, formerly the Indianapolis Colts special teams coach, call for probably the second-worst fake punt on Thursday night in Denver's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs? 

Did he really think this (see below) would work?

Metaphorically, at least, haven't we all been Broncos punter Colby Wadman at one time or another?

Ben Volin of the Boston Globe pointed out that McMahon was also the mastermind behind the Colts' fake punt with a formation-never-before-seen in football that came four years ago today in a Patriots' 34-27 victory in Indianapolis.

That one left backup wide receiver Griff Whalen snapping the ball to safety Colt Anderson, all by their lonesome, with the rest of the formation yards away and not on the line of scrimmage, which led to a subsequent illegal formation penalty flag, but only after Whalen and Anderson got blasted by five Pats defenders.

Next time, McMahon draws up a fake punt, (if there is indeed a next time), his head coach might want to just go for it. It couldn't be any worse. 

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