FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty could barely wait for the question to finish before he started answering.
He knew what he wanted to say because he had lived it himself. At the root of the discussion was cornerback Stephon Gilmore and his improved play. The query was whether Gilmore’s early season struggles and adversity had actually proven to be a positive in the long run -- allowing the player to reveal his true character to a new locker room.
“I kind of look at everything similar to when I played corner here,” recalled McCourty in an almost empty Patriots locker room. “When you play corner, you already feel like you’re on an island by yourself and then when it doesn’t go well, you’re like, ‘[shoot], I am by myself out here.’ It gives you a very resilient attitude. I’m just going make my plays.”
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Gilmore has made his share over the last few weeks, looking very much like a player worth the resources the team invested in him. Sunday, he drew Miami’s DeVante Parker and made him disappear faster than the turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving Day. Parker caught just one ball for five yards. The big receiver was also Matt Moore’s red-zone target just prior to halftime; Gilmore intercepted the underthrown pass like he knew it was coming. That’s because he did.
“They ran that route on us earlier in the first quarter and I knew they were going to come back to it,” said Gilmore. “Every time DeVante Parker is in the slot, he runs the seam empty so I just beat him to the spot.”
“It was a huge play. No question, a big momentum play,” said Bill Belichick.
McCourty had a front-row seat for the interception and watched Gilmore nearly snag a second before being “a team player” and letting Duron Harmon live up to his "closer" reputation and get the pick himself. The veteran safety smiled in approval at the memory and what he’s seen from the 27-year old corner since his tumultuous start to the season.
“He’s really played well for us the last couple of weeks, going out there and shutting down people has been big for us,” said McCourty. “I’ve been telling him this since he got here: 'You’re a good player and you’re going to keep playing good for us. Don’t worry about about what’s going on, what people are saying.' I think his confidence hasn’t swayed and I think that’s been a big plus for him to just go out and keep playing.”
Gilmore insisted over the first month of the season that his mistakes were not physical and that gave him reason to believe he’d eventually turn the corner. He owned up to those mistakes even if that confidence seemed a bit odd to the untrained eye. He agrees that there was a silver lining in those woes, that his teammates got a crash course in who he was and what he was all about, although to hear Gilmore talk, it makes it seem like it’s nothing new for anyone worth a damn playing cornerback.
“Yeah, that comes with the position,” said Gilmore. “Anytime you’re playing corner, playing man-to-man, that one mistake you make everybody’s going to see it. I’m able to take that. I know how to take it and get better and better every game. I come out on top eventually.”
That’s not misguided. Gilmore is on the right track and now nods approvingly when asked if he’s playing some of the best football of his career.
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I am.”
The adjustment period is over. Gilmore has stood up to Mike Evans in Tampa, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree in Mexico City and now Miami’s Parker in front of the Gillette Stadium crowd. Those challenges would range from strong to quite strong and Gilmore has handled each and every one. But it doesn’t get easier here in the stretch run. In fact, now Gilmore must go back to where he spent the previous five years of his career and face an angry Buffalo fanbase that didn’t take to kindly to him leaving and his references to finally getting a chance to play in prime time and play for a winner.
“I’m here now. I love playing with the guys. I have respect for what the Bills are doing; they have so many talented players on their team,” he said.
Pressed on what he thinks the atmosphere will be like, Gilmore only acknowledged that it will be “loud” but didn’t want to go any deeper than that, at least not yet.
That Buffalo fanbase is boisterous and a little bit wild. The parking lot pre- and postgame is not for the timid. Hell, the stadium can be nearly as bad. While Gilmore wasn’t willing to go there, McCourty would when I asked him about culture shock being a piece of what Gilmore went through during his first summer and handful of regular season games.
“If they lose and lose by a lot no one really cares,” said McCourty of Buffalo’s fans. “Here everyone expects you to win every time you’re going on the field. When you’re the new guy and it’s not going right, people want to point fingers. In any adversity, you realize these are your guys in the locker room and we never turned on him. Guys had his back. I think he felt that and knew that. A 16-game season is not going to go well all the time. You keep pushing, keep working, keep playing and eventually it will turn for you.”
Gilmore has made that turn. Now down the stretch they come.