Patriots

Curran: Patriots' future rides on breaking the tension

Curran: Patriots' future rides on breaking the tension

It’s impossible for me to not see ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary “The Two Bills” as a cautionary tale.

All the elements that led to the messy Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick divorce and the Belichick-Patriots marriage back in 1999 and early 2000 are present now in 2018.

Driven individuals. Great success. Shifting motivations. Emerging opportunities. The passage of time. The friction and resentment that that can grow like weeds in a cracked driveway if that crack’s not repaired.

The players have changed. So have the stakes. But the game’s the same. How’s it going to end this time?  

Weeds pulled and cracks filled?

Or with everyone bitching about whose job it is to pull the weeds. Then, years later, lamenting after the house is sold and everybody’s moved on that if only the crack in the driveway were dealt with, it might have been different. Maybe then reflecting back wouldn’t be so bittersweet.

I won’t pretend to know the exact disposition of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Robert Kraft, Jonathan Kraft, Rob Gronkowski, Josh McDaniels and every other one of the legion of Patriots players, coaches and executives in the mosaic down there.

But my perception is that the friction and fatigue were at a record high in 2017. Left unchecked, it will end them as we know them.

The Patriots of Brady-Belichick-Kraft are an outlier dynasty because the principals have remained the same for nearly two decades.

Robert Kraft’s gold standard in the 1990s was the San Francisco 49ers. In the 17 years of the Niners dynasty from 1981 to 1998, they cycled through three head coaches (Bill Walsh, George Seifert and Steve Mariucci) and two Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

To achieve what they have, all the Patriots’ principals have checked egos while tamping down personal gain and credit grabs for the greater good. Over and over, world without end, amen. Imagine the catalog of slights and irritations that pile up over almost two decades.

How many million inner monologues have begun with the words, “You believe this asshole...?” since 2000? For all of them?

But all the gratification delayed has been paid. In spades. All three men will be in the Hall of Fame. Their records may never be matched. Material wants? None. The ability to do some good for society? Check.

Near the beginning of “The Two Bills”, a clip of Parcells’ Hall of Fame induction speech was deftly used to set the tone for the piece.

“The locker room is a great laboratory for human behavior,” Parcells said. “We got all kinds in this place. Players. Coaches. And we got a wide range of emotions. Happiness. Success. But, on the other side of that locker room, there’s darkness. Villains. There’s pain.

“And then we’ve got that time of exhilaration where you hoist that championship trophy over your head and I don’t know what happens. But some mystical blood kinship is formed. I wish all of American society could have experienced what I experienced in this place. Because ladies and gentlemen, that kinship lasts for the rest of your life.”

The blood kinship is established by now.

The exhilaration has been felt five times. The soul-crushing pain that emerges when someone else has your trophy over their head has been felt more than that.

Is there enough motivation to clear the air, bury the hatchet and pull the weeds so the chase can start again clean?

Or do they just pick up in April and resume a joyless, cynical, suspicious slog laced with passive aggressiveness and pocketed resentments?

Wins, wins, wins. That’s what the Brady-Belichick-Kraft triumvirate has kept as its focal point through every crisis, change and recalibration. If the biggest adjustment now is a shift in approach and a reach across the table, will that seemingly simple action happen?

One person close to the situation said to me succinctly, “Nobody wins when the family feuds. – Jay Z.”

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Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Thursday night should be Tom Brady's night. That's the plan, at least, according to him. 

That's not to say he'll have the spotlight all to himself against the Eagles, or that that's what he wants. But if he plays at all, there will be boatloads of attention paid to every snap he receives. They'll be his first plays he gets against another opponent since Super Bowl LII, and they'll just so happen to come against the team that beat him back in February. 

PATRIOTS VS. EAGLES

We went over the various aspects of Brady's night we'll be watching closely here, if Bill Belichick decides he wants Brady to play at all. But we can't train our focus on No. 12 in blue all night, and we know you won't either. So here are five more storylines -- non-Brady storylines -- to track when the Patriots host the Eagles at Gillette Stadium. 

DECKER CATCHING ON?

Eric Decker had one of the worst starts to a practice of any Patriots receiver this summer just a few days ago. He pushed off in a one-on-one drill. He dropped a pass in a one-on-one drill. Soon thereafter, he dropped two more passes when there wasn't a defender in sight. Not what you're looking for. Decker did, however, bounce back. And for him that was encouraging. Thursday will give the newest Patriots receiver another opportunity to show that he's gaining in his understanding of the playbook. If that's coming along, the fundamentals -- like playing penalty-free and catching the football -- should follow. Given the state of the receiver position in Foxboro at the moment, the Patriots may need to lean on Decker more than they would like. They'll certainly give him some time to figure things out, but he'll have to continue to show progress, as he did during that up-and-down (or down-and-up) session earlier in the week. 

PATRIOTS HAVE THEIR (BIG) BACK?

There's an opportunity here. The Patriots have gone without both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead for the last handful of practices, meaning there will be reps galore for the likes of Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Ralph Webb and Brandon Bolden. All four (plus James White) saw action offensively in the preseason opener against the Redskins. Of that group, I think the most fascinating battle is between Gillislee and Hill. It was Hill who looked the strongest last week (51 yards on 11 carries), but he looked limited at times in practice this week. Is he dealing with something that could drop his snap count Thursday? Will that leave the door open for Gillislee, who had a ho-hum night (43 yards on 14 carries) last week? Hill looks like the more capable pass-catcher and the more kicking-game friendly (three first-team special teams units against Washington) back at the moment. 

McCOURTY'S CHANCE TO SHINE?

The Patriots held Jason McCourty out of preseason game No. 1. He didn't have much of an answer as to why that was the case, but he didn't seem too concerned when he spoke to reporters on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, he was taking snaps with the first-team defense. Will that continue to be the case against the Eagles? McCourty could be in the running for the No. 2 corner role -- Eric Rowe has held that down for most of camp -- and might be able to use a strong performance against Philly as a springboard to greater consideration from the coaching staff to be a starter. In competitive periods Monday and Tuesday, McCourty looked good. He picked off a Brian Hoyer pass intended for Phillip Dorsett in one-on-ones and broke up another intended for Rob Gronkowski near the goal line. He said he's been doing his best to teach the young corners he's in competition with -- JC Jackson, Keion Crossen and Ryan Lewis have all stood out at different points this summer -- but Thursday could be his night. 

BENTLEY SPEEDING TO A ROSTER SPOT?

Inside the Patriots facilities, Ja'Whaun Bentley has an argument as the most pleasantly surprising player of training camp. As a fifth-round pick, he wasn't guaranteed a roster spot . . . but he now seems to have a jump on one. After a strong performance against Washington -- where he showcased good instincts, an ability to relay play-calls, confident pre-snap communication, and competency in coverage -- we landed him on our first 53-man roster projection and highlighted his skill set in our "Long Shot" series. A three-year captain at Purdue, Bentley isn't a next-level athlete, but he has the potential to be a middle-of-the-defense voice on a unit that could be enticed to deploy its best communicator, Dont'a Hightower, on the edge. "Eager to learn," Hightower said of Bentley this week. "He’s really become a sponge. First dude in the classroom, last one out, always asking questions. Nice-sized kid, good on his feet. He’s going to be a good ballplayer."

TIME TO TACKLE THE ISSUE AT HAND?

The Patriots had nine missed tackles against the Redskins last week, and two more were wiped out due to penalties. That kind of thing will drive a coaching staff nuts, but in some ways it's to be expected this time of year. In camp, the Patriots almost never have any periods where players are tackled to the ground. (Goal-line run periods are probably the closest thing to "live" for Belichick's club, and those 22-car pile-ups are rare.) The result is a team that's not accustomed to tackling, trying to tackle in a preseason game that (for some) doesn't really matter. It can get ugly out there, and Belichick knows it. "Running and tackling are two skills that you don’t work on from the end of the season until pretty much the first preseason game. You can do a little drill work, but it’s not quite the same. So, any player that’s involved in any of those, running or tackling, they might have done it before, but they haven’t done it recently, and they haven’t done it at the timing and speed that it occurs in the game. So, there’s an adjustment, a break-in period for all of us, and that’s part of what preseason games are for . . . We can improve our tackling. We can certainly improve our running and breaking tackles. So, that’s part of the process."

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