Patriots

Patriots fallout: Taking stock of the damage left by Antonio Brown

Patriots fallout: Taking stock of the damage left by Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown is gone but we are still sifting through the rubble left behind from his 11-day stay.

He was more cyclone than hurricane. He didn’t cause full devastation, just a narrow swath of damage.  Over the course of six days since Brown’s release, a lot’s been said. A lot’s been written. More, probably, has been left unsaid.

The dynamic caused by Brown’s entrance and exit put on display the conflict every team deals with every day. Football vs. Business. The push-pull between putting the best team possible on the field while also protecting the brand built around the 53 players a team chooses to employ.

What’s the tipping point? How badly does a great football player have to act before it’s decided he’s hurting business more than he’s helping?

Depends where you’re viewing it from.  

If you’re Robert Kraft and own the team and sign the checks you’re going to have less patience for a player putting your business and — by extension — you in a negative spotlight.

If you’re Bill Belichick and coach the team and make the personnel decisions, you’ll be in the middle. You’ve earned the latitude to make risky moves because of your track record. The risk-reward is obvious. You can be unstoppable offensively. That’s the holy grail. You’re also asking the owner to enjoy the football and try to tolerate a disruptive, destructive, chaotic person who’s the antithesis of the “team first” mantra the franchise embraces. You know the ice is thin. You just don’t know how thin exactly.

If you’re Tom Brady, you just want good football and peace. You’ll be Father Flanagan. “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” Hurt people hurt people. You’ll help. You’ll tolerate. You’ll live on the sunny side of the street and bring Antonio Brown with you.

Here’s what Brown left behind.  

A bummed-out quarterback who had five practices and one game with an ultra-rare talent. He went all-in trying to make it work, got close to Brown and tried to understand and help him. He’s not happy Brown got flushed both because the football was going to be sublime and Brady thought Brown was reachable.

I was told the practice performance of Brady when Brown was on the field was almost perfect. There were more than a half-dozen plays Brown made that were breathtaking. He was beyond anything Brady ever worked with.

Brady was trying to help Brown stabilize. He disagrees with the business decision made by Robert Kraft to jettison Brown.  

People complain Tom Brady doesn’t give much in the way of answers? He gave it all up Monday regarding Brown when he was on WEEI and said, “You want everyone to become the best they could they could possibly be. And you try to provide leadership and try to care for people. You try to provide whatever you think you can to help them reach their highest potential,” Brady continued. “Whatever situation it is, and I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years. So you invest not just your head but you heart, your soul. That’s what makes a great team, that’s what makes a great brotherhood.”

Brady had two comments to Jim Gray on Westwood One Monday night that stood out.

Asked about his comment to Kraft that he was “one million percent in” when the owner and Brady communicated about Brown’s initial signing, Brady said, “Well, that was a private conversation that I wish had remained private.”

That’s now the third time Brady’s reiterated that Kraft’s candor in that instance irritates him.

Brady also said to Gray, emphatically, “I don’t make any personnel decisions. I don’t decide to sign players. I don’t decide to trade then. I don’t decide to release them. I don’t decide to draft them. I don’t get asked, I show up and do my job. I’m an employee like everyone else. I’m going to show this week and do the best I can do as quarterback. … Maybe one day I will be an owner and I can make all the decisions that I want.”

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Which brings us to Bill Belichick. I reported last Friday evening that the decision to release Brown was unanimous, that the threatening texts were a “bridge too far.” After more conversations this week, I’ve come to understand that unanimous decision wasn’t easily reached. Belichick accepted the decision and understood it. But he was by no means leading the charge to move on — and if Kraft hadn’t insisted, Brown would probably still be here.

Which, one can logically conclude, is why Brown made sure to show appreciation for Belichick in social media posts after his release while sending drone strikes at Kraft on Sunday morning.

Why, when asked, “What was the last straw?” did Belichick not at least mumble something to Dana Jacobson about the decision being what was best for the football team? Because he isn’t sold that it was the best thing for the football team. And the real answer, “Robert is the boss and the heat got too hot…” would have been less prudent than an icy stare.  

By laying out the way things went down, I’m not seeing an insurrection against Kraft in the offing.

Brady — as he made very clear — is in, “Don’t ask me, I just work here…” mode. And Belichick has to know that the entire Brown affair has made life more difficult for the owner. They move on.

But there will be fallout and it will be for the owner.

Aside from the “What about Bob?!” dredging up of Kraft’s West Palm Beach embarrassment all week long, now comes a mudwrestle with Brown and his legal team as to whether the team owes him his $9M signing bonus.

And as long as Brown has opposable thumbs and a cell phone, the next salvo from him directed at Kraft is just a malicious whim away.

How many personnel decisions has Kraft insisted be made in 20 years with Belichick? To my knowledge, none. Everybody doesn’t have to like it — and they don’t — but they will have to live with it.

In the end, though, the cyclone known as Antonio is the one to “blame” for the fact the owner, coach and quarterback ended up at odds.

Business could have been boomin’. Instead it went bust.

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

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Why N'Keal Harry could be the most important non-quarterback in the Patriots offense

Why N'Keal Harry could be the most important non-quarterback in the Patriots offense

Found myself building up to what might be considered a lukewarm take on "Boston Sports Tonight" earlier this week.

The crescendo dragged ... a tad. No surprise then that I was promptly played off the stage, so to speak (probably because I can't hear my producers telling me to "WRAP!" over the sound of my own bloviating), to get to a commercial.

So here we are. Take still holstered.

Thankfully, on the internet, every take has a home. This one comes as a result of a question posed by NBC Sports Boston producer extraordinaire Dave Cherubin: Which non-quarterback is the most important player on the Patriots offense in 2020? 

My answer: N'Keal Harry. 

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

That's right. The guy who missed more than half of last season. The guy who finished his rookie year with 12 catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns. The guy whose first full offseason as a professional was mostly wiped out by COVID. That guy.

Calling Harry "most important" doesn't mean "best," mind you. To me it means that if he doesn't take a leap, it'll be difficult for the Patriots passing game to end up among the league's most efficient. If he does, it could.

Julian Edelman, the other receiver for whom there is an argument as "most important," put together a remarkable 2019. At 33 years old, he posted 100 catches for 1,117 yards and six touchdowns. 

The Patriots offense, however, was stuck in neutral for long portions of the season despite Edelman's efforts. Not his fault. Tom Brady peppered Edelman with targets in part because his other options weren't yet trusted. The offensive line played with replacements at left tackle (eight games) and center (16), which led to a semi-toothless running game and an increased reliance on quick-hitters through the air. Edelman was the least of that group's problems. 

But even in what was arguably his best season, the Patriots offense didn't approach anything close to the levels it achieved, say, two seasons prior when Brady was named MVP and threw for 505 yards in Super Bowl LII.

They were seventh in points thanks in part to opportunistic defense and special teams units. But they were 14th in passing offense DVOA last year, per Football Outsiders, 15th in weighted offensive DVOA, and 23rd in yards per pass attempt. Brady's adjusted completion percentage was 20th among quarterbacks with at least 390 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and his rating on deep attempts ranked 14th (10th among 12 playoff quarterbacks). According to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots ranked 17th in explosive play rate.

Edelman was indeed the best non-quarterback in the Patriots' offensive huddle last year, but getting every last drop out of his mortal coil was not enough to push the offense into the NFL's upper reaches of passing-game productivity. Brady needed more help. 

The Patriots offense has been at its best — Brady won MVPs in 2017, 2010 and 2007 — when the team had an Edelman-type in the slot as well as another more explosive option sharing the huddle.

In 2007, it was Wes Welker inside and Randy Moss down the field. In 2010, it was Welker and two dynamic rookie tight ends. In 2017, it should've been Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Edelman suffered a season-ending injury in preseason, though, which left slot duties to Danny Amendola. But Amendola filled in capably (61 catches on 86 targets, 10.8 yards per reception), particularly in the postseason. With Gronkowski still near the peak of his powers, the Patriots remained a force.

Compare those years to 2013, for example, when Gronkowski suffered a torn ACL and Brady experienced a statistical dip. Edelman had a career year — it was the only other time he notched 100-plus catches (105) — and yet the Patriots still drafted Brady's replacement-to-be the following spring.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Whoever elevates to become a legitimate threat alongside Edelman still won't be the most dependable weapon in Foxboro. Edelman, if healthy, should retain that title. He'll be a third-down monster, one can safely assume, a crutch in key situations.

But most important? That has to be a player who helps draw coverage. It has to be someone who is a chunk play waiting to happen, who has the ability to take a short gain and turn it into a long one. It has to be a player who can complement the slot option while doing things the slot simply can't. 

Unfortunately for Josh McDaniels, there aren't many names on the Patriots roster who fit that description at the moment. 

Mohamed Sanu has for large stretches of his career been a slot player himself. James White is crucial to the overall operation, but not necessarily a consistently explosive threat. The tight ends — I'd pick Devin Asiasi to be the bigger-play possibility — are rookies and facing an uphill climb to contribute come September after a shortened offseason.

Marcus Cannon's replacement will have an argument as "most important," as will left tackle Isaiah Wynn, given the nature of their jobs. But the value of a very good receiver, generally, trumps that of a very good tackle in the NFL. (Just look at the franchise tag numbers at the two positions to see how those spots are valued by the league at large.)

Harry's rookie season was all but lost when he had to sit out the first eight games on injured reserve. When he returned, he tried to jump aboard a moving treadmill with the game's most accomplished quarterback barking at him to dial-up the incline. Outside of a few flashes that showed what someone with Harry's physical skill set — strong hands for contested catches, a hard-to-bring-down 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame — could accomplish, it was not a resounding success. 

But Harry remains a talented player who profiled similarly to Josh Gordon in terms of his height, weight and speed coming out of Arizona State. Harry's traits could have him used like San Francisco's young phenom Deebo Samuel, who was taken four picks after Harry in 2019. 

Plus, with a quarterback like Cam Newton, who spent portions of his career in Carolina getting comfortable throwing to big-bodied targets — guys like Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess — Harry should see his fair share of opportunities. Meanwhile, Newton has much less experience throwing to a prolific slot. Jarius Wright led the Panthers with 47 slot targets in Newton's last extended action in 2018. Jericho Cotchery was the primary interior receiver during Newton's MVP campaign in 2015 (43 slot targets). It's unclear just how often he'll rely on Edelman, who saw 101 slot targets a season ago with Brady, according to Pro Football Focus.

This much we know: The Patriots offense will be different under Newton. But it's hard to say upon which of his teammates the offense will hinge. Perhaps the offensive line and running game will be so improved that a very good slot can carry a productive passing offense. Perhaps a big-play receiver won't be as valuable because the big plays will come from Newton's legs.

But odds are the Patriots are going to need a more explosive target in the passing game in order to reach a higher level in 2020. Whoever that is — and it may have to be Harry given the composition of the roster — will be more important than anyone else in the Patriots offense other than the guy delivering him the football.

Patriots reveal first photo of Cam Newton in full uniform, new jersey

Patriots reveal first photo of Cam Newton in full uniform, new jersey

New England Patriots fans wondering what Cam Newton would look like in the team's new uniforms no longer have to wait.

The Patriots unveiled headshots of each player earlier last week, and on Tuesday they posted photos of all the players in full uniform. The Patriots, of course, will debut new jerseys during the 2020 NFL season.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Here's a look at Newton in the Patriots' home blue jersey:

The Patriots also tweeted a link to check out photos of every player in the new jerseys.

Newton signed a one-year contract with the Patriots a little more than a month ago, and if he's able to stay healthy, the former league MVP is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job over Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.

The Patriots are expected to have their first training camp practice Wednesday.