Patriots

Gunner Olszewski earning trust of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick with hard work

Gunner Olszewski earning trust of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick with hard work

The New England Patriots have had an unsettled receiver room for most of the 2019 season. At one time, it seemed like they had one of the best groups in the league. But the release of Antonio Brown and the team's decision to trade Demaryius Thomas left them a bit weaker at the position. And in recent weeks, they have been thin at the position due to injuries.

Phillip Dorsett (hamstring), Josh Gordon (knee/ankle), and Julian Edelman (chest) have all been dealing with various maladies over the course of the first six weeks of the season. Additionally, first-round rookie N'Keal Harry has been on IR since just after the team's final cuts.

With these absences, some unexpected contributors have been able to step up. And one of them is Gunner Olszewski. The undrafted rookie out of Bemidji State has earned a big role as a return man and has recently seen an increase in offensive action. And so far, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with his energy and effort.

"Gunner works really hard," Belichick told reporters at Saturday's media availability. "He gives a lot of effort to do, again, whatever we ask him to do. Whether that’s return kicks, cover kicks, block, catch – he works really hard. Just gives his best all of the time, so you can’t ask for anything more than that. He keeps getting better, so we’ll see where it goes. But, yeah, he’s a good, hard worker."

Of course, hard work is only part of the equation. In the Patriots' offense, it's important to have chemistry with Tom Brady. Has Olszewski done enough to earn Brady's trust so far?

"Yeah, definitely," Brady said when asked about his level of trust in Olszewski. "I think they’re – like I said, those guys are – when you’re young, you gain trust in practice, and a lot of it’s doing the right thing over and over and over again. Those guys are working at it. I mean, they’ve been here a short period of time, so try to get as many reps as you can and talk about things. You get coached up, and any young player, they’re trying to earn the trust of the coach and the players every day."

This is seemingly the most positive Brady has felt about his young receiving weapons this year. Perhaps the team's success against the New York Giants despite being limited to only one formation because of their lack of healthy personnel had an impact on Brady. And maybe that helped him to become more confidence in Olszewski and fellow undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers.

Either way, Brady will likely have to look Olszewski's way a bit more than usual on Monday night against the New York Jets. Josh Gordon is out for the game and so too are tight ends Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. That should afford Olszewski a good opportunity to make his presence felt.

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NFL playoff picture Week 11: Patriots, Ravens in exciting race for AFC's top seed

NFL playoff picture Week 11: Patriots, Ravens in exciting race for AFC's top seed

The New England Patriots protected their lead atop the AFC standings in Week 11 with a 17-10 road win over the Philadelphia Eagles, improving their record to 9-1.

The defending Super Bowl champs suffered their first loss in Week 9 with a lackluster 37-20 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, but they recovered nicely after a Week 10 bye to keep their grip on the conference's No. 1 seed. Tom Brady and Co.'s margin of error remains razor thin, though, because the Ravens have the tiebreaker advantage as a result of their head-to-head win two weeks ago.

If it wasn't already clear Baltimore is a legit Super Bowl contender, quarterback Lamar Jackson made it quite evident Sunday by leading a 41-7 trouncing of the Houston Texans.

Both the Patriots and Ravens have tough Week 12 matchups on deck. The Pats will host the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys, while the Ravens will face the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams on the road.

The Texans dropped from the No. 3 seed to the No. 6 seed as a result of Sunday's defeat, but they lead the Oakland Raiders for the second wild-card spot because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Raiders extended their win streak to three games with a 17-10 victory versus the winless Cincinnati Bengals.

The Colts earned a comfortable 33-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars to move back into the AFC South lead.

The Kansas Chiefs now have sole possession of first place in the AFC West after beating the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday night. The 7-4 Chiefs also passed Indianapolis and now are the No. 3 seed in the AFC.

The Buffalo Bills continued to ride a soft schedule to a potential wild card berth. Buffalo beat the Miami Dolphins 37-20 on Sunday.

The NFC race is going to be absolutely wild down the stretch. There are five teams with an 8-3 record or better, and the fight for the top two seeds -- which mean a first-round playoff bye -- will be a lot of fun to watch. The best game of Week 12 is a matchup between the Chiefs and Green Bay Packers on "Sunday Night Football" that will impact the playoff race in both conferences.

Here's the updated NFL playoff picture after Sunday's Week 11 games.

AFC
1. New England Patriots, 9-1 (AFC East leader)
2. Baltimore Ravens, 8-2 (AFC North leader)
3. Kansas City Chiefs, 7-4 (AFC West leader)
4. Indianapolis Colts, 6-4 (AFC South leader)
5. Buffalo Bills, 7-3 (First Wild Card)
6. Houston Texans, 6-4 (Second Wild Card)

In the Hunt
7. Oakland Raiders, 6-4
8. Pittsburgh Steelers, 5-5
9. Tennessee Titans, 5-5

NFC
1. San Francisco 49ers, 9-1 (NFC West leader)
2. Green Bay Packers, 8-2 (NFC North leader)
3. New Orleans Saints, 8-2 (NFC South leader)
4. Dallas Cowboys, 6-4 (NFC East leader)
5. Seattle Seahawks, 8-2 (First Wild Card)
6. Minnesota Vikings, 8-3 (Second Wild Card)

In the Hunt
7. Los Angeles Rams, 6-4
8. Philadelphia Eagles, 5-5
9. Carolina Panthers, 5-5

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Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

In Tom Brady’s fever dream, he walks down a long, antiseptic hallway filled with artificial light. This week. This week. This week we get it right. A mantra on repeat in Brady’s mind.

Smooth, soothing elevator music plays. Is it N’Sync?

A door is at the end of the hall. He pushes it open. It’s like a high school chem lab. Every seat at every table is full. Everyone is in full uniform. Brady recognizes none of them from the back of the room. They are all hunched forward, writing, their backs turned to him.

Bill Belichick stands at the front of the class. He’s dressed differently. A hooded cloak. A long white beard. A scythe leans against the wall behind him.

“So, like I said, we’re gonna play to our strengths …” Belichick is saying. He spots Brady. Belichick’s voice tapers. His face spreads into a grin. But it doesn’t stop. It keeps stretching wider. 

“I’m late?” Brady says, his voice a mixture of anger and disbelief. “Why am I late? What time is it?!”

“No, Tom, just finishing up here, not late. Right on time. I was just saying we’re looking to get the ball to Jake Bailey this week. Get it to Jake and let him do his thing…”

Bailey is at a lab table to Belichick’s right.

“Hi Tom!” he says, waving like a lunatic. “I’m here to help!”

In his left hand, he holds an hourglass. He flicks at it absently with his right index finger. Flick. Flick. Flick. Sand falls down.

Panic rises in Brady’s throat. How could he have gotten the time wrong? Is everything already done, really?

“We’re looking to get it to the punter? That’s the plan? What can I do, though? I can do things.” Brady asks, eyes darting around the room. He can't remember ever feeling so exposed.

“You know what, I think we’re all set for now, Tom,” Belichick replies, his grin somehow broadening so that his eyes begin to bulge slightly.

One player sits up straight, pivots rigidly and looks at Brady with dead eyes. It’s Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” he says.

Every other player sits bolt upright. They slowly turn in unison to face Brady. They are all Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” they say robotically. Then they smile and all the Ryan Izzos give a big thumbs-up.

“This shit ain’t real,” Brady mutters. Turning for the door he spins into a body that’s blocking it.

“This is serious as a HEART ATTACK!!!!” Marshall Newhouse says and throws his head back. All the Ryan Izzos laugh.

Pushing past Newhouse with surprising ease, Brady is now in a different hall. There’s a door with a small picture taped to it. He looks at the picture. A goat. With a cane. And a top hat. His cane points at a door. Squinting, Brady sees that, on the door in the picture, there is also a picture. Of a goat. With a cane. And a top hat. That is pointing at a door.

The door opens on its own. Slowly. It’s Brady’s locker room. Same as it’s been since 2002. But at his locker, there’s a scrum of people. They are holding cameras and tape recorders. They are interviewing someone at HIS locker. The MOTHERSCRATCHER!

“Hey!!!” yells Brady. No one turns.

Brady rushes over and grabs a shoulder. Rohan Davey turns to face Brady. Then Matt Guttierez. And Matt Cassel. And Kevin O’Connell. Ryan Mallett. Jimmy. Jacoby. Jarrett. Damon Huard. Michael Bishop. John Friesz. Drew Bledsoe. They all look at Brady with detachment then turn back to the figure at Brady’s locker.

Wedging himself through Brady sees someone in a full-body cast. Only the head is visible. The face looks familiar. Brady can’t place it.

“Hi Tom!” the head suddenly cries. “I’m Tua!!!! We’re gonna work together!”

The music. Brady hears it again. It’s louder now. Deafening. “Bye, bye, bye!” It is N’Sync.

**********

Tom Brady’s purgatory season of 2019 activates the imagination so if you’re still with me, I appreciate you.

Facts are facts, Tom Brady is New England’s Achilles and his NFL Odyssey has never failed to fascinate. 

Now – in season 20 – quarterbacking a team that stylistically resembles the 2001 team that won the first of six Super Bowls, it’s hard to overlook the ironic symbolism.

The joy that coursed through that season radiated from Brady. He was the sun around which the team revolved. This season, he’s a dark star of despondency, morose about the direction of the offense and his inability to do anything but stay out of the way. 

On too many Sundays, it feels like the thrill is gone for the greatest quarterback of all-time.

His team keeps stacking wins and is 9-1 and atop the AFC. But his job right now is to not eff anything up. In less than two years he’s gone from being revving the engine of a Formula One car to pushing a bike with training wheels around a parking lot.

He’s Jimmy Page playing with a garage band, Picasso with crayons, Steve Jobs with an abacus.

Brady’s on record saying he’ll keep playing until he sucks. Maybe sucking won’t be an inability to throw hard, far and accurately and avoid a pass rush.

Maybe sucking will be being unable to play like he’s capable because of circumstances beyond his control. Maybe sucking will be an inability to suck it up and deal with what’s around him because, he figures, should he really have to at this point?

And that’s where the real conflict exists.

The most selfless and accomplished professional athlete of his generation, the guy who’s probably taken about $50 million less than he could have in salary over the course of his career, the quarterback who’s buttoned his lip and succeeded with a succession of merely OK players around him, the player who dealt with Bill Belichick’s verbal slings and arrows and attempts to replace him so that he could try and win the all-important “next one”?

Are some going to see him bummed out after a win on the road that moved his team to 9-1 and say he’s being a bad teammate? Are some going to accuse the player that authored perhaps the most memorable comeback in team sports history of running up the white flag?

Some could. Some will. Some are.

Are others going to see the whole picture in full relief and realize Despondent Tom has been marinating for a while? Through attempts to replace him. Through lowball contract offers that took advantage of his aversion to conflict. Through the lopping off of talented offensive pieces and the half-assed or lamebrained efforts to replace them.

Others could. Others will. Others are.

The Eeyore act isn’t a hit in Foxboro.

It’s understood that he’s used to a certain level of performance. And nobody believes this offense is about to transform into a unit that will approach Brady’s accustomed level. But the moping creates a firestorm and – even if Brady was publicly sounding the alarm about the offense as far back as training camp – now is not the time for “I told you so …” Even if he did tell us so.

The Patriots offense will improve over the final six games. Isaiah Wynn will help. N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu are still new additions. Tight end Matt LaCosse is working his way in. It’s not going to get “good” relative to what we’re used to but it will be better.

Brady’s got valid reasons to be pissed off about how his contracts have been handled, how the offense has been constructed, the team’s reluctance to believe he’s got enough in the tank to play until 45. Things pile up over two decades. It might seem like he’s mad after Jakobi Meyers runs a bad route but that anger may really have its root in a mistake he saw Chad Jackson, Aaron Dobson or Brian Tyms make 13, seven or four years ago.

After all he’s done, if Brady wants to continue kicking rocks in press conferences about what the Patriots can’t do, that’s his prerogative. For me, it won’t undo a millisecond of the Tom Brady Experience or change my belief he’s been the ultimate teammate and still is.

But do you know what it sounds like the longer it goes? A death rattle.

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