Patriots

Jake Bailey's emergence as Patriots' punting 'weapon' key as team's identity shifts

Jake Bailey's emergence as Patriots' punting 'weapon' key as team's identity shifts

FOXBORO — Johnny Hekker stood among a throng of reporters and others wielding microphones during the Super Bowl's annual media night, probably unsure of what to expect.

Players can be lobbed everything from Xs and Os questions to marriage proposals at the league's annual Super Bowl circus event. At one point, Hekker fielded a question that seemed to fall somewhere in the middle. He was asked what he thought of Bill Belichick's glowing description of him as a player.

Belichick called Hekker "a huge weapon" back in 2016. He followed up that week, more than two years later, saying Hekker is, "a tremendous player. Great athlete. He’s a weapon."

Hekker joked he might get "WEAPON" tattooed across his abs to commemorate Belichick's particularly complimentary scouting report.

People latched onto Belichick's Hekker comments when they dropped because they seemed to capture the coach's affinity for special teams perfectly. Here was a punter — someone who's not going to end up in highlight shows or as any fan's favorite player in the Madden video game series — who was drawing fawning praise from arguably the greatest football mind of all time.

The emphasis Belichick has placed on the kicking game has been well-documented, as has his appreciation for good special teams players around the league. But this year it's been fascinating to hear him discuss one of his own: rookie punter Jake Bailey.

It looks like Belichick finally has a punting "weapon" all his own. In fact, Bailey is one of only two Patriots (Matthew Slater is the other) who leads Pro Bowl voting at his position.

After Bailey dropped six of his eight punts inside the Philadelphia 20-yard line on Sunday — a 17-10 win that hinged largely on field position — Belichick lauded this year's fifth-round pick out of Stanford for being able to handle windy conditions on the road and execute.

"He’s a great kid," Belichick said. "He works hard. He’s really played well for us this entire season and he’s been so valuable to this team and he proved it out there today."

For his efforts, Bailey earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. Before the award was announced, when given the opportunity to discuss Bailey's importance to the outcome of Sunday's game during a conference call, Belichick obliged again.

"Yeah, Jake did an excellent job for us punting, holding," Belichick said. "Kickoffs were – we had one there that he missed, but overall, he’s hit the ball well. He’s hit the ball well for us all year since Steve [Gostkowski] was out. But, Jake’s had a great year for us and he continues to come in with some really big plays there both ... flipping the field position and also on the plus-50 of getting the ball up there and making it tough for [Eagles returner Boston] Scott to handle."

Bailey is now tied for first in the league when it comes to punts downed inside the 20-yard line with Titans punter Brett Kern (32). He's only had 18 of his 56 punts (third in the NFL) returned, giving him a 32.1 return percentage (sixth). His 5.4 yards allowed per return — thanks in part to a talented and experienced coverage unit, as well as his impressive hang time — also put him in the top-10 at his position (ninth).

"I think we're doing a pretty good job," special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the game Sunday. "We're never satisfied. There's always room for improvement. But we have a young fella that's doing a heckuva job kicking the ball for us and he's giving our coverage a chance."

Slater added: "As much as we want to say about Jake and the way he's playing, he's a fantastic young man. I really think his play is a result of who he is. I can't say enough about his character, the way he's bought in, the way he supports his teammates, the way he's a professional. He's just a great kid. You really appreciate a young player like that. I'm thankful to have a relationship with guys like that on this team. Can't say enough good things about him."

Slater's not alone. On Tom Brady's weekly WEEI appearance with The Greg Hill Show, he called what the rookie has done "exceptional." And in describing the strengths of the Patriots team at the moment —defense and special teams — Brady noted that Bailey's been a key piece. He's not only punting well, but he's taken to kickoff duties with Gostkowski out, using his powerful right leg to drive 21 touchbacks on 35 opportunities. The average opponent starting field position after one of Bailey's kicks is the 24.2-yard line, which is 11th among kickers with at least 35 kickoffs.

For Belichick, Bailey's start to his career has been rare ... and not only because he's right-footed when the coach has long preferred lefty punters.

In his two decades as head coach, as much as he reveres top punters around the league, Belichick has never had a punter make a Pro Bowl or finish among the best in the league in All-Pro voting. As a franchise, the Patriots have had one punter make the Pro Bowl: Rich Camarillo in 1983.

Ryan Allen had what likely amounted to the most memorable punting performance in team history during last season's Super Bowl. He had three of his five punts downed inside the Rams 20-yard line and only had two returned for 12 total yards, decidedly out-punting Hekker — his former college teammate — on the sport's biggest stage. The Rams couldn't sustain long drives and managed only three points.

But what Bailey is doing over the course of the season is something the Patriots haven't seen in some time, according to Pro Football Focus. He's currently graded as the fourth-best punter in the league, whereas Allen — signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013 — never finished a season graded higher than 19th. In Allen's last three seasons with the team, he graded out as the No. 26, 36 and 24 punter in football.

Bailey hasn't been dubbed a "weapon" by his head coach just yet. But on one of the best special teams units in the league — the Patriots rank third this season, per PFF — that's what he is.

It's no wonder Belichick is happy to have him. And according to the coach, Bailey's only getting better.

“Yeah. I’d say at Stanford, not a lot of tough conditions out there – out there playing Arizona State and Arizona and UCLA and all," Belichick said. "But he’s had a lot of, I would say, challenging conditions out here — both in the spring, and then as we’ve gone through the regular season. This year there have been days out there where it’s been cold, rainy, windy, and I think he learned something every day.

"There’s cross winds and there’s winds in your face and it’s kicking with the wind and all that. There’s challenges in every one of them. If you’re kicking with the wind, that’s an advantage to the punter, but handling the snap, which is coming back into the wind, wobbles and things like that. It’s a little tougher snap for the snapper. So anyway, he’s done a good job of, I would say, adapting to the conditions. He’s still got a long way to go. I’m sure he’ll learn a lot more as the season goes along."

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Five takeaways from HBO's documentary 'Belichick and Saban: The Art of Coaching'

Five takeaways from HBO's documentary 'Belichick and Saban: The Art of Coaching'

HBO's behind-the-scenes feature on the relationship between Bill Belichick and Nick Saban debuted for a national audience on Tuesday night and was called "The Art of Coaching." Fitting given that the conversation between Belichick and Saban that began the piece was almost impressionist in nature. 

The audio was intentionally interrupted time and again by a narrator -- "Are you still playing, like, some 3-4 stuff? But mostly out of a lot of sink but with different guys dropping. . ." Saban started to ask Belichick before being muffled -- offering a glimpse into what it might be like to sit in on a football discussion between two of the most successful coaches in the sport's history.

Running more than an hour, leaning on new interviews as well as stock footage compiled by NFL Films over decades, HBO provided plenty in the way of detail on how Belichick and Saban's paths crossed (Navy, of course), their philosophies on coaching, how they impacted each other's careers, and how they were influenced by their fathers. 

Here we'll highlight five of what we deemed the most fascinating moments from the special. 

HOPE FOR THE 2019 PATRIOTS?

We heard about how Belichick and Saban might be distant cousins. ("There aren't that many Croatians around so somewhere down the line we're probably related, distantly," Belichick said smiling.) We heard about Terry Saban's sarcastic streak ("Terry walks in," Belichick said, "and says, 'Oh look at this! Bill Belichick and Nick Saban! The two great football coaches!... I feel so blessed to be in your presence!' That was a very humbling moment for us.") But before all that we heard Belichick's quick assessment of the 2018 season for the Patriots. 

After Saban complimented Belichick for how his defense played en route to winning Super Bowl LIII, Belichick offered an honest review. "Last third of the season we played good," he said. "We were [expletive] for two-thirds of the year. But then it kind of came together."

The Patriots have about a third of the 2019 season left . . . if they end up playing 18 or 19 games. Three regular-season games remain, and depending on how those go, they'll play either three or four postseason games at most. Can this year's team improve late the way last year's did? Belichick would surely rather lament a bad stretch of the season to Saban next offseason after winning another Lombardi Trophy.

INFORMATION OVERLOAD 

Both Belichick and Saban had tales of what it required to access the kind of information that is now available with the push of the button. Saban cut film and taped it back together to get games organized by offense, defense and special teams. Belichick used ice picks with the Colts in 1975 to help organize index cards that had diagrams of opponent plays. Ice picks.

"It was tedious," Belichick said. "But you learned the game."

Of course, now teams -- like the Patriots -- have the ability to upload video of games to their laptops before the team plane has taken off for home. Times have changed.

"Now it's like rushing to do the most important work, the breakdown stuff, so we can get to the other stuff. It always drives me crazy too. We get on the place after a loss. I walk on the plane after a loss. A lot of times the coaches will be there with their computers and everything. I'm like, 'You know, fellas, the reason we got beat is because we can't tackle and we can't force the run. All the rest of this is a bunch of garbage. This isn't about a computer, getting into some space world technology. We can't tackle."

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE TO TOM E. CURRAN'S PATRIOTS TALK PODCAST: 

AN ECONOMIST? NOT EXACTLY

At one point in the piece, Belichick might've dispelled a commonly-held assumption about one reason why he's been as successful as he's been. He was an economics major at Wesleyan University, and so if he spots a market inefficiency when it comes to team-building, many (myself included) have referenced his Wesleyan background as the place he likely sharpened his understanding of supply and demand. 

"I'd struggle to say that that's really helped me," Belichick said. "I'd say the biggest thing I learned in college wasn't the material. It was how to solve problems and how to think. How to come up with your own idea and solution to the problem. That's really what our job is, my job is. There are problems every day. What are my options? Are there any variables, or do I just have these options? Pick the best one and figure out how to implement it."

RAIDING STAFFS A NO-NO

When Saban left the Browns in the mid-1990s to become the head coach at Michigan State, HBO pointed out that he didn't take assistants from Belichick's program in Cleveland. That led into an interesting back-and-forth between the two coaches about why they don't look kindly on staffs being raided when one assistant gets a head gig elsewhere. 

Coincidentally, that could be how one might describe what happened to the Patriots this past offseason. Former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores took the head-coaching job in Miami, where former Patriots receivers coach Chad O'Shea became the offensive coordinator, former Patriots corners coach Josh Boyer became the pass-game coordinator/corners coach, and where former Patriots assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schupinski landed. 

"We've always had sort of a mutual respect for how we take each other's people," Saban told Belichick. "It's one thing that I always try to emphasize to the guys. What I have a tough time with is we've had however many guys who've worked here who are at Georgia, Tennessee, whoever, wherever. When they get those jobs, and in most cases, you helped them, then they have a hard time understanding why they can't take your people. I want to help you get a job so you can try to take what I've tried to build here and destroy the continuity of what I have. The assistants don't understand why that's not a good thing." 

"I'm happy for the people who've worked hard for me to get opportunities," Belichick said. "I want to see them build their own program. When they try to tear down our program. That's kind of where the line, I feel gets crossed." 

REALITIES OF SOCIAL MEDIA

You had to know this was coming in some way shape or form.

"I hate social media," Belichick said. "We get rid of it whenever we can, [meaning] do things that you don't bring your phone. You just have a conversation with the other person in the eye instead of texting back and forth. 

"But it's the way of the world. [College coaches] deal with it more than we do. It still comes back to fundamental relationships and communication. There's no cell phones out there on the field. You better know what your teammate is doing, you better know what you're doing or you're going to get beat."

While both coaches work with young athletes, Saban's opinion of social media seemed to be derived on the fact that anyone and everyone is now an opinion-maker.

"I think because of social media," Saban said, "they're getting a lot of their positive self-gratification by the communication they have without looking someone in the eye, without developing the relationship with them. I think that's a critical part that they all need to develop and you need to have to have a team. 

"No question. Who cares how many likes you get from 2,000 people you don't even know," Belichick said. "There's 53 guys in the locker room. Those are the 53 that matter. And I don't know if that always gets through or not but we keep pounding away, we keep trying."

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Report: Bill Belichick was 'furious' upon learning of Patriots-Bengals video incident

Report: Bill Belichick was 'furious' upon learning of Patriots-Bengals video incident

The New England Patriots have a major distraction on their hands entering Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Guess what Bill Belichick doesn't like? Distractions.

The Patriots head coach was "furious" upon learning the NFL was investigating his team for illegally taping Cincinnati's sideline in Cleveland during last Sunday's Browns-Bengals game, The Athletic's Jeff Howe reported Tuesday.

New England said in a statement Monday the three-person production crew was in Cleveland to film a team scout for an upcoming episode of "Do Your Job," the team's online video series highlighting the work of staffers behind the scenes.

The production crew had no connection or correspondence with New England's football operations, the team insisted, and Belichick said twice this week he had absolutely no knowledge of their filming before he was notified of the investigation.

The Patriots still could face discipline, however, considering the production crew allegedly violated an NFL rule by reportedly training a camera on the Bengals' sideline for more than eight minutes.

According to Howe, Belichick and his football operations department also could take action.

"The Patriots have also taken steps toward handling the matter internally," Howe wrote. "Those in the production wing fear jobs are at stake."

Howe added a few more details to what we know about the incident so far, including:

-- The three-person Kraft Sports Productions crew included a full-time producer and two independent contractors (an audio technician and video technician).

-- The producer was unaware of the rule that prohibits teams from shooting video of opponents' sidelines, in part because Kraft Sports Productions has permission to shoot the Patriots' sideline during home games.

There's still no word on if or how the NFL will punish the Patriots, but at the very least, the incident has focused unwanted attention on a team that's lost two games in a row.

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