Patriots

No Gilmore? No problem for Patriots

No Gilmore? No problem for Patriots

FOXBORO -- When Bill Belichick told us it was incomprehensible to him to expect a team eight and a half months ago to be on the same level now, I nodded. The Patriots coach has long pointed to post-Thanksgiving as the time be playing your best ball. 

But despite statements to the contrary leading up to the Super LI “rematch” with the Atlanta Falcons, the Pats needed this one more than they let on, and delivered with a defensive performance that reminded me of last year, or even some of their work in the 2014-15 season. 

We both know how those seasons ended. Will this one end with the same result? I’m not going there yet, but this was a show and tell kind of night, and the Pats defense in particular showed me more than they had in the 6 weeks prior. That should tell us something: that what we thought they were capable of when this season started is indeed still there.

“The motivation really was we knew if we didn’t come ready to play that Matt Ryan had the ability to really kill us,” said Devin McCourty after the game. “You put him back there with the receivers they have, we knew it was going to be a huge challenge. So defensively, especially in the secondary, we knew we had to execute the game plan. We felt that we had a really good game plan our defensive coaches came up with, and I think we kind of knew if we executed and played to it, then we were going to have a great chance to go out there and win today.”

The group played with energy, they played with confidence and oh yes, they played with discipline. Without benefit of film review, there didn’t appear to be many - if any - catastrophic breakdowns that had plagued them beginning in the season opener versus Kansas City and continued right through last week’s near loss to the Jets.

“We’re excited because we finally see our hard work come into show,” said Duron Harmon. “It’s not perfect; we still left some plays out there. We still did some things that we know we need to learn from. I just feel like the energy that we played with, the excitement, how fast and physical we played kind of covered up a lot of the mistakes that we made. We just got to build on that.”

That energy has been missing a better part of the year, and some of that can be tied to the breakdowns that had this group issuing a Code Red following the loss to Cam Newton and Carolina. You remember it: McCourty called it an embarrassment, and Harmon reminded us “we can’t play no more simpler than that.” 

A week later, they turned that into a media-driven narrative, fully ignoring that they were the ones who pushed the panic button. But they finally played the football we’re familiar with, Patriot football, during this Sunday Night showdown with the Falcons, and to their credit, they did it without their biggest free add in years, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who remained sidelined with a concussion.

“We’re just better,” added Harmon. “We continue to improve each week. From the Panthers game on until now, we just continue to get better each and every week. We continue to come to work, work together, try to find the best combination of players that we can put out there and everybody that goes out there continues to do a great job and just work hard.”

The best combination of players was suppose to be Malcolm Butler and Gilmore at corner, with Eric Rowe covering the slot. It was suppose to have Harmon, McCourty and Pat Chung as your three-headed safety grouping. 

But Rowe remains out indefinitely with a torn groin, and Gilmore’s injury has opened the door for a special teamer turned cornerback, Johnson Bademosi, who went toe-to-toe with Julio Jones at times Sunday and won. 

Yeah, who saw that coming? But maybe that’s the combination Harmon is referencing, and it surely makes the decision of what to do with Gilmore once he’s ready to play as interesting as any Belichick’s had to make this season. 

Upset a good thing? Or trust that Gilmore has learned enough to step back in and deliver the kind of performance you paid him for? It’s one to watch moving forward, that’s for sure.
 

Georgia the new Rutgers? Contingent of Bulldogs growing in New England

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AP Photo

Georgia the new Rutgers? Contingent of Bulldogs growing in New England

FOXBORO -- David Andrews was excited. He just had a hard time showing it.

The Patriots center stayed up long enough to see his team pick at No. 23 in the first round of the NFL Draft, long enough to see his Georgia teammate Isaiah Wynn have his name called.

But the Thursday night prime time event isn't for everyone, and so Andrews wasn't fully conscious by the time the Patriots picked a second Bulldog, Sony Michel, at No. 31.

"I was in bed. My wife stayed up and watched it," Andrews said last week. "I was in bed and I saw Isaiah get drafted, and then I passed out. She came busting in th'.;e room about Sony getting drafted, and at that point, I really didn’t care. I was just trying to get to sleep, but . . . No, I was very happy for them. It was awesome to talk to them. They were here the next day. I didn’t really get to see them, but it’s good to see them around, see some familiar faces"

Suddenly, with five Georgia players on the roster -- Andrews, Wynn, Michel, Malcolm Mitchell and undrafted free agent John Atkins -- they now make up one of the largest contingents of players from one school in Bill Belichick's locker room.

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Iowa is right there with Georgia at five players (Aidrian Clayborn, Cole Croston, James Ferentz, Riley McCarron, Matt Tobin). Vanderbilt is next on the list with four (Adam Butler, Andrew Jelks, Jordan Matthews, Ralph Webb), even with Rutgers (Devin and Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, Kenny Britt). Arkansas follows closely behind with three (Trey Flowers, Dietrich Wise, Cody Hollister).

If you look at the coaches involved in helping certain groups of players develop, the Patriots connections become even a little more clear.

At Iowa, it's Kirk Ferentz, who served as a Belichick assistant in Cleveland back in the 90s. At Vanderbilt, Belichick thinks highly enough of Derek Mason that he gave Mason and the Vandy coaching staff a behind-the-scenes look at spring workouts in New England last year. At Rutgers, Belichick's relationship with former Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano has been well-documented.

Then there are the coaches who've bounced around a bit and impacted multiple players on the Patriots roster at different spots.

Bret Bielema, who's been helping the Patriots this offseason (and was spotted with Belichick at The Preakness this weekend), coached all three Arkansas products as well as James White during his time at Wisconsin. Bo Pellini has coached three Patriots (Vincent Valentine and Rex Burkhead at Nebraska, Derek Rivers at Youngstown State).

Then there's that Georgia connection. Kirby Smart coached all three Bulldog rookies as well as the two Alabama products on the Patriots roster (Dont'a Hightower, Cyrus Jones) when Smart was coaching defense for the Crimson Tide. Former Georgia coach and current Miami sideline boss Mark Richt recruited all five Georgia players currently on the Patriots roster, and he coached both Miami rookies now in New England (Braxton Berrios, Trent Harris).

Asked why Belichick and the Patriots front office would be so interested in acquiring so many players from the same school, Andrews replied, "That’s a psychology question. Man, I don’t know . . .  

"You know, no, I don’t think there’s really like one thing. I think those are some great guys. They all work really hard. They’ve been great teammates to me, so that’s something you can always respect, and it’s guys like that you love having in your locker room and playing with.

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No matter how you look at it, the Georgia connection in New England is as strong as ever.

"Georgia the new Rutgers? Oh, I’m going to have to talk to Dev and Du about that and all those guys," Andrews said with a smile. "We might be now. We’ll have to see."

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Johnny Manziel signing with Hamilton of the CFL

Johnny Manziel signing with Hamilton of the CFL

Johnny Manziel won't be in the Patriots' plans at quarterback anytime soon.

The former Browns QB, Heisman winner in 2012 and first-round pick in 2014 announced on Saturday morning that he had decided to sign a contract to play in the CFL in order to "further my football career after a long break."

"I believe this is the best opportunity for me moving forward and I'm eager for what the future holds," Manziel tweeted. 

Manziel also announced that he'll be co-hosting the "Comeback Szn" podcast for Barstool Sports alongside his agent Erik Burkhardt and our buddy, former "Boston Sports Tonight" and "Football Fix" co-host, Kayce Smith.

"It's just a really good fit," Burkhardt said on "Comeback Szn." "Good offense. It's a really good league. It's been around forever, we vetted it well, and at the end of the day, like Johnny said, he wants to play ball."

Manziel, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems, has battled bipolar disorder. He will play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats under head coach June Jones, who has also coached in the NCAA and NFL ranks. Jones served as offensive coordinator of the Falcons (1991-93) before becoming their head coach (1994-96). He was also quarterbacks coach and interim head coach for the Chargers in 1998 before heading to the college ranks. Jones coached at Hawaii then at SMU, where he was the first person to offer Manziel a college scholarship. 

CFL rookie contracts are for two years, meaning the Tiger-Cats will have his rights through the end of the 2019 CFL season. 

Earlier this year, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie reiterated the league's stance that they're not in the business of letting players break their contracts to pursue NFL opportunities.

The Patriots took a look at him this spring, but even if they had interest, the possibility of which we discussed on Quick Slants the Podcast last month, any marriage will have to wait. 

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