Curran: With injuries piling up, 2-0 Patriots already building character

Curran: With injuries piling up, 2-0 Patriots already building character

FOXBORO – Without (deep breath) Tom Brady, Dont'a Hightower, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, Dion Lewis, Rob Ninkovich and (another deep breath) Jimmy Garoppolo for the final 2.5 quarters of the game, the Patriots still found a way to win.

They are 2-0 at the midway point of Brady’s suspension. One could say “no blood,” but the combination of what the process did to Brady and Jimmy being used as a posthole digger makes that phrase inappropriate.

A price has been exacted.

But the tradeoff for that price has been two wins and – maybe more importantly – an early-season galvanizing process. Sometimes, it takes weeks and months for a team to bond and figure out what its character will be.

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The 2014 team didn’t truly coalesce until after the loss to Green Bay and the subsequent week spent out in San Diego.

This team is getting welded together right now.

Is it a plus to have Jacoby Brissett as the starter Thursday night with the ever-understated J.J. Watt across from him? Not exactly.

But it won’t feel quite as daunting and desperate as it would have if the Patriots hadn’t survived in Arizona and against Miami.

Neither win came easily, even though Sunday’s appeared as if it would. But even the puzzling drama that ensued when the Patriots defense made Ryan Tannehill look like someone who is better than Ryan Tannehill had a silver lining. That would be the performance of an offensive line that’s been maligned and the awakening of LeGarrette Blount who ran through and around the Dolphins - and hurdled over one as well.

How many times in the offseason did we spitball about what the Patriots record would be after four games of Garoppolo? Countless.

Now they are 2-0 and – while they go into Thursday’s game with the Texans with an even greater sense of the unknown, the self-belief that’s taking root means their confidence isn’t going to wane.

“All over the field, everybody’s doing their job,” said defensive end Chris Long, who had his second impactful game after coming to the team in the offseason. “It’s a saying we use a lot but it really is true. It’s about everybody doing what he’s capable of doing. Don’t try to do anything more, anything less and that’s what creates a team win. At the end, we were under stress but we made the last one. We were resilient. That’s the epitome of team football, the next guy being ready to step up.”

Long was one offseason pickup that made big contributions on Sunday. Tight end Martellus Bennett is another.

After a modest game in terms of catches and yards in the opener, Bennett went off a bit against the Dolphins and caught five passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. He also continued to mash in the running game.

The litany of user warnings that came on Bennett’s package when the team acquired him from Chicago has people waiting for the day he is anything less than the perfect teammate. Through two games, he hasn’t wavered.

And that’s kinda just how the program works. Annually. Absolutely there are hiccups and it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. But the hokey-ass belief that players will take up their oar and row in unison for some unseen destination if they believe that the boat is headed the right way is time-tested. Annual.

Now they’ll try to do it – at least for this week – with a rookie quarterback.

"Tough hand to be dealt", I said to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as he hustled through the locker room after the game.

“Don’t count us out!” he yelled back over his shoulder.

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.