Patriots

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

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.

He 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 $8 million and $9 million 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.

Why Drew Brees (not Tom Brady) is the GOAT, per ex-Saints receiver

Why Drew Brees (not Tom Brady) is the GOAT, per ex-Saints receiver

Lance Moore is going out on a very big limb to pump the tires of his former quarterback.

The former NFL wide receiver played eight seasons with Drew Brees in New Orleans and won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009. So, he's a big fan of the veteran QB. In fact, Moore apparently believes that if Brees wins the NFL MVP award this season, he should be labeled the "Greatest of All Time," a designation universally reserved for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Moore made his case in a recent interview with TMZ Sports.

"I don't know how else you would quantify the greatest of all time," Moore said. "If you're talking statistics, Drew's the (NFL's) all-time completion leader, all-time completion percentage leader, all-time yards leader, he's second in touchdowns -- what more do you want from this guy?"

Well, a few more Super Bowl titles would help; Brees has just one ring, while Brady boasts five NFL championships on his résumé and is a four-time Super Bowl MVP. Moore had a counterpoint to the "rings" argument, though.

"A Super Bowl is not an individual accolade. A Super Bowl is a team thing," Moore explained. "And a lot of those Super Bowls that they won -- at least three of them -- the Patriots had awesome defenses that were killing people, and it really made his job offensively, I'm not going to say 'easier,' but not as hard."

In Moore's eyes, Brees has been able to do more with less, as New Orleans has had some shaky defenses over the years. That may be true -- New England had some terrific defenses in the early 2000s -- but it was Brady who led the 2001 Patriots on a game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI and threw for 354 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers.

We suppose everyone's entitled to their own opinion, though. And if you ask Brady, he might be OK with Brees getting the GOAT label.

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Taking a stab at the Patriots' bye week checklist

Taking a stab at the Patriots' bye week checklist

The Patriots are swimming in information at this point in the season. 

They're 10 games in. That's 10 games of film. That's 10 games of third downs, red-zone trips and two-minute drills. That's 10 games of blitz pickups, short-yardage runs and kicks under the revised kickoff rules.

For at least six more regular-season games, the Patriots will have to determine what it is they do best and what their opponents are trying to do to them based on their weaknesses. They can't guarantee that they'll improve those perceived problem areas, but analyzing their 10 games of information on this bye week can certainly bring them some perspective.

"You've got 10 weeks of tape to study and evaluate," Tom Brady told Scott Zolak for Patriots All Access. "I think you've gotta start understanding the aspects of our team that we need to build on or the ones we need to no longer invest our time and energy into."

And despite what may seem like a deluge of statistics from the first two-thirds of the season, Bill Belichick said his team's priorities during its week off are relatively self-explanatory. 

"I think there’s a lot of things that are pretty obvious and very frequent, so those are the ones we’ll address first," Belichick said. "There are some other things that have come up once or twice, and they can be important, too. We don’t want to neglect those. 

"But, things that are repeated multiple times in multiple games that it’s clear that teams are trying to do things a certain way or not do things a certain way. Again, I think those things are pretty evident and we just need to make sure that everybody understands, including us the coaches, what’s happening, what tendencies are being broken consistently by our opponents and probably why they’re doing it because of the certain thing that we do or perceived threat that we pose or however you want to look at it, and we just try to put all that together.

"I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to all of it, but we certainly need to be aware of it. I think it’s always kind of interesting to look back at this point and see, I’d say, kind of statistically some of the things that have happened or shown up. And, a lot of times when you look at it a little more carefully like this, the view is a little different than what you do from week-to-week. 

"We monitor it from week-to-week, too, of course, but when you have a little more time and a little better ability to put a large amount of information together and analyze it, sometimes there’s tendencies or trends that show up a little more significantly maybe than what you thought they would."

Belichick chose not to share those obvious opportunities for improvement, but we'll take a stab at some of the areas the Patriots might've delved into behind the scenes during their bye.

DEFENSIVELY: PICK PLAYS AND BACKS ON THIRD DOWN
It's been a little more than a year since bunch formations had an entire region's collective head in its collective palms. But pick routes still have the ability to drive the Patriots nuts. 

Corey Davis and the Titans got the Patriots to run into some traffic on a third-down conversion late in the third quarter last weekend to extend a drive. Kerryon Johnson and the Lions benefitted from a third-down rub route on a scoring drive midway through the second quarter in Week 3. 

The Bears were able to give the Patriots a scare on the road primarily because of Mitchell Trubisky's running ability -- the only reason you won't see CONTAIN MOBILE QUARTERBACKS as its own subhead in this piece is because it's a weekly issue about which we've written (and will continue to write) extensively -- but they utilized pick plays as well to move the chains. On a third-and-six in the fourth quarter, they were looking at an opportunity to tie thanks to a tight end's pick for Tarik Cohen that freed up the back to make a first down. On the opposite side of the formation on that play? A bunch. More rub routes. More traffic. 

It seems like, a year after we openly wondered why more teams didn't try to use bunch sets and picks against the Patriots defense following their ugly first month of 2017, teams are back on board with the idea.

Offenses turning to pick routes, which can serve as quick and effective ways of freeing up receivers near the line of scrimmage, may help explain some of the numbers associated with New England's third-and-short passing defense. 

According to Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots are allowing a 78 percent conversion rate on third-and-three-or-less passes (18-for-23), which ranks last in the NFL. And whether it's on pick routes or otherwise, when Patriots opponents have decided to throw on third down, they love throwing to their backs, like Johnson, Cohen or the Jaguars' Corey Grant, who was a nuisance for the Patriots in Week 2 and converted a first-quarter third-down target that led to a score soon thereafter.

The Patriots, according to Sharp, have more trouble than any other team defending backs in the passing game on third down. Teams have thrown 21 passes to backs on third down against the Patriots (most in the league) and made first downs on 71 percent of those plays, which is the highest success rate in the NFL on third-down throws to backs. 

On third-and-six-or-more, the Patriots have allowed 50 percent of running-back targets to turn into first downs, which is the highest percentage in the league. The 10.1 yards per attempt teams average to their backs on third down against the Patriots is the third-most in football.

DEFENSIVELY: TIGHT ENDS IN THE RED ZONE
No defense has seen more passes thrown at tight ends in the red zone (17) than the Patriots, per Sharp. And a great many of those targets have cost Belichick's team on the scoreboard. 

Just last weekend, Jonnu Smith got the scoring started for the Titans when he emerged from a bunch set on the left side of the offensive formation and outran Patriots safety Patrick Chung to the back right corner of the end zone. Later in the first half, Marcus Mariota found Anthony Firsker for a key first down in the red zone that led to a Derrick Henry score. 

The Colts got deep into Patriots territory and went right after the Patriots with their tight ends Eric Ebron and Erik Swoope, who combined for three red-zone scores in Week 5. The Bears got a red-zone score against the Patriots from tight end Trey Burton, and the Packers got one from tight end Jimmy Graham. The Jaguars hit Austin Seferian-Jenkins on a third-down pick route in the red zone, giving them a critical touchdown just before the end of the first half in Jacksonville. 

The Bills didn't get into the end zone against the Patriots, but they almost had a red-zone touchdown to tight end Jason Croom in the fourth quarter in Week 8. It was overturned. Undeterred when it came to targeting tight ends deep in Patriots territory, the Bills soon thereafter tried to force a pass to tight end Charles Clay that was returned for a pick-six. Didn't work out for them, but throwing to that position deep in Patriots territory has proven to be a fruitful endeavor in 2018.

There is no easy solution for what the Patriots have seen from tight ends or backs this season. Adding personnel via trade is not an option. Free agent lists are limited this time of year.

However, as we wrote earlier this week, it's possible the addition of Duke Dawson -- recently activated off of injured reserve -- could give the Patriots a jack-of-all-trades option in coverage to help them with tight ends or backs. He's an unknown at the moment after he suffered a hamstring injury in camp that has kept him out to this point. Still, his versatile skill set helped him get drafted in the second round out of Florida last spring. 

OFFENSIVELY: THIRD-AND-SHORT PASSING
The Patriots are converting on 34 percent of their third-down pass attempts, which ranks 20th in the league, per Sharp. Somehow, that third-down passing success rate drops to 29 percent (28th in the league) when you look at the numbers from Weeks 5-10, when Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon have been staples in the offense.

That's an odd stat, considering Brady's track record of success with Edelman in gotta-have-it situations and Gordon's ability to win one-on-one contested catches. But some of the numbers for the Patriots passing game in third-and-short scenarios are equally confounding. 

In third-and-three-or-less situations, the team has been 41 percent successful on their passing plays (7-for-17), which is 28th in football. And again, focusing in on Weeks 5-10 doesn't improve the picture for the Patriots. They're converting 38 percent of those third-and-short throws with Edelman active. 

When the Patriots opt to run in third-and-three-or-less spots this season they're much better but still not in the top half of the league, converting 70 percent of the time, which ranks them 18th.

Despite having dependable short-to-intermediate receiving weapons Edelman and James White, both having outstanding seasons in terms of their per-game production, the short-area passing game through 10 weeks hasn't been as efficient as it has been in years past for the Patriots. 

Last year, the Patriots hit on 57 percent of their third-and-three-or-less passes (10th in the NFL). In 2016, they hit on 71 percent of those throws (second). That means that in 2018, their success rate on short-yardage, drive-extending throws has dropped 30 percent from where it was two seasons ago. 

The reasons as to why are difficult to decipher. Obviously having key offensive players -- both pass-catchers and linemen like Shaq Mason -- get healthy will help. Having Rob Gronkowski return healthy would certainly help things in that area, as well. Perhaps, as has been the case for opposing offenses against the Patriots defense, pick routes could be leaned on more frequently in those spots. 

The Patriots could also simply choose to run more often in those third-and-three-or-less situations. Since Edelman's return, the Patriots have converted 12 first downs on 14 rush attempts in those scenarios.

OFFENSIVELY: HANDLING NUMBERS AT THE LINE
This could very well fall under the category of "picking nits" during the bye week because the Patriots offensive line and their pass-protection across the board (tight ends and backs included) has been solid in 2018. According to ESPN's NFL Matchup show, the Patriots have allowed less pressure than all but four teams. 

Yet, according to NFL Matchup, Brady is ranked last in quarterback rating when facing a blitz, which for that show is defined as a five-man rush or more. 

Keep in mind, teams historically refuse to blitz the Patriots because Brady is adept at spotting the extra rusher and taking advantage of the hole in coverage. The same has been true this year. According to NFL Matchup, Brady has been blitzed on just 15.1 percent of his drop-backs, which is the lowest figure in the league. 

So even though teams are playing coverage against Brady on the vast majority of his drops, on the occasions when they decide to bring a five-man (or more) rush, they've had some success. 

One more point to keep in mind: Brady's rating is about 40 points higher against the blitz per Pro Football Focus -- into the mid-90s -- but the definition of the blitz is different than that of NFL Matchup. At PFF, the blitz is defined not by the number of rushers, but by the instances in which a defense sends an "unexpected" rusher. (A four-man rush with an end dropped out and a linebacker rushing, for example, counts as a blitz. You can find a more detailed explanation of the two different blitz definitions here.)

Add it all up, and Brady's ability to recognize the blitz and attack it quickly seems to be where it's been -- very good. Teams respect it enough that they rarely come after him. And his rating against unexpected rushers is strong.

So, why the low rating in the rare instances when he does see five-man (or more) pressure? 

That figure is due in part to the interceptions he's thrown (three of his seven) against five-man rushes: James Develin was nearly pushed into Brady's lap on a play that turned into a pick in Week 3; Joe Thuney lost his assignment when he thought he had help on a play that ended with a pick in Week 4; White allowed a pressure that rushed a throw that led to a pick in Week 7.

Patriots backs have allowed five total pressures through 10 games, which isn't a devastating number, but last year they allowed three in 16 games, according to PFF. 

How those backfield blockers and their teammates on the line handle their one-on-one pass-protection assignments against a swarm at the line will be critical in the final six weeks of the season. In that stretch they'll play three games against some of the most blitz-happy (five rushers or more) defenses in football, according to NFL Matchup: the Jets twice (sixth in the league with a 30.9 blitz percentage) and Steelers (third, 34.4 percent). 

SPECIAL TEAMS: SLOW STARTS
The foremost example of the sluggish starts the Patriots have had in the kicking game came last week when Darius Jennings returned a kick 58 yards for the Titans on the game's first play. Still, starting slow has been an issue in the kicking game for the Patriots on multiple occasions this year. 

Stephen Gostkowski missed a 54-yard field goal early in Week 2 that gave the Jaguars good field position and helped them march to their first touchdown quickly. A short Ryan Allen punt in the first quarter against the Lions helped set up Detroit's first touchdown drive in Week 3. Cordarrelle Patterson's kick-return fumble against the Bears came in the first quarter of Week 7.

The Patriots were eventually able to swing that Bears game thanks to two kicking-game scores, but if they're forced to play from behind at some point over the next two months because of a slow start on special teams, there's no guarantee they'll be able to pull themselves out of it again.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PENALTIES
The Patriots have had 15 special teams penalties called against them through 10 games, with one declined. That pace is actually down from 2017, when they averaged 1.68 special teams penalties per game, but it's still not where Belichick and special teams coach Joe Judge would like it.

The Patriots have had three illegal formation penalties on kickoffs through 10 weeks as they get adjusted, along with the rest of the league, to the new kickoff rules. Belichick said recently that the kick coverage unit has had more breakdowns this season than it has previously, but they've compounded their errors at times by getting flagged.

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