PATS INSIDER

Curran's NFL Notebook: Are expectations getting to Brady, Gronk, Bucs?

PATS INSIDER

Tight. That’s the best word to describe the vibe coming out of Tampa Bay so far. I had Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times on the pod this week and he agreed.

Tight fits. What’s the root cause? Where do you want to start?

The most accomplished player in NFL history’s been added to one of the league’s most annually boring and  overlooked teams.

Suddenly, everyone’s paying attention. And they’re not just paying attention, they’re weighing in! Expectations are up. So is urgency. When someone screws up, it’s not just the Tampa/St. Pete media discussing it, it’s the continental United States and it’s on every platform.  

Chortling about Tom Brady’s Week 1 performance against the Saints (which really wasn’t that bad) got a boost when folksy blame-evader Bruce Arians shot ‘em straight in the postgame and jumped on the Brady pigpile.

Tom E. Curran's Raiders-Patriots Preview

A day later, he had to walk back part of his criticism. By the end of the week he was obtusely wondering what all the hubbub was about while Brady was in all his clenched jaw splendor when asked about Arians public flogging.

 

In Week 2, Brady’s volcanic temper showed signs of life as about seven passes clanged off the hands and helmets of Buccaneers teammates. Arians was liberal in his praise of Brady after the win over Carolina but flavored his comments about Rob Gronkowski’s tepid start with dismissiveness.

Obviously, he’s there because Brady convinced him to come back. So Gronk pocketed the mental duress he spoke openly about the last two seasons to put himself back in harm’s way for more beatings.

So far – and the sample size is tiny – he’s looked to me like a guy who isn’t all-in for getting pounded. It’s not that he’s suddenly become slow. He wasn’t fast in 2018. Check him out in Week 6  and then again in the Super Bowl and compare that to the 2015 edition.

But in 2018, he convinced himself to suspend concern over the physical punishment he was taking because there was light at the end of the tunnel in the form of retirement. And after he retired, he spent a great deal of time talking about the abuse his body took.

Now he’s back and starting slowly – as he did in 2018 when he had 25 catches through nine weeks after getting dinged in Week 1. In this case, though, he’s in Tampa at the behest of the team’s newest employee and he’s taking reps that would have otherwise gone to Cameron Brate (seven snaps the first two weeks after a 36-catch season last year).

How willing is Arians to wait on Gronk? How much of an obligation does Brady feel to get Gronk involved to A) prove it was worth the Bucs effort to trade for him and B) make it worth Gronk’s while?

Meanwhile, Jameis Winston never screamed at everyone when they dropped his passes. Is there a point at which Brady’s new teammates start wondering where he gets off telling everyone how it’s going to be since he just got there?

In short, how much trust and leeway are Brady’s teammates and coaches to willing to give him? How willing are they to accept the demands, corrections and culture he’s bringing in? How willing is Arians to yield and allow Brady the latitude to be Brady?

How things go with Gronk may be a test case for that.

Where could Cam go?

A lot of time was spent this week discussing Cam Newton’s future. And – even though it’s just the third week of a long-awaited regular season – it’s still a discussion worth having because, well, teams plan.

How does Newton – who’s toiling on a low-budget, one-year deal – fit in the Patriots' plans? And just as important, how do they fit into his? Newton went to some length this week to move that talk off the stove completely, never mind the back burner.

 
Perry: Should the Pats pay Cam Newton now?

But it will remain a source of curiosity because if he does go, the Patriots will need a backup plan. Is that Jarrett Stidham, who’s twice been passed over as the game-day backup in favor of Brian Hoyer? Or is the answer in the draft?

One thing that seems clear, there aren’t a lot of obvious landing spots yet. One could be Chicago, where Mitch Trubisky’s contract runs out after this year. Another would be Indy as both Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett are set to become free agents.

But most teams – as of right now – appear to have semi-long-term plans in place. And while that can change in a hurry, Newton’s best chance for success – if not a massive, multi-year deal – may be here in New England.  

The QBR conundrum

Number-crunchers go to great lengths to come up with workable evaluation tools for the rest of us “eye-test” luddites to rely on. We appreciate the efforts, even if we sometimes can’t follow the math and data.

The age-old problem with trying to quantify with a stat – like quarterback performance – is that sometimes the numbers don’t jibe with what we’re seeing.

Such is the case with Newton right now. Cam’s been one of the best quarterbacks in football the first two weeks. His QBR (quarterback rating), which is calculated by ESPN, is 16th best in the league at 73.0. That puts his two performances behind those of Baker Mayfield (9th at 80.8), Ryan Fitzpatrick (8th at 81.1) and Derek Carr (14th at 76.3).

It also puts him well above Brady, who’s 29th at 43.8.

Draftees heating up?

The first two weeks of the season have seen players from the much-panned drafts of the past few seasons making significant contributions to the team’s better-than-expected start.

One of those players was cornerback Joejuan Williams, who did a nice job in coverage against Miami tight end Mike Gesicki in Week 1. With the highly-skilled Darren Waller in town Sunday, Williams – who has outstanding size – could be in a critical position to contribute.

The second-round pick from last year probably won’t get Waller all day – that’s more likely a job for Stephon Gilmore. But how often he’s on the field could be a sign as to how much the Patriots trust him. As for the others, left tackle Isaiah Wynn continues to play at a high level and N’Keal Harry is in position to follow up last week’s promising performance with another competent one against a permissive Oakland pass defense.

It’s a little disappointing that neither Devin Asiasi nor Dalton Keene – both tight ends taken in the third round back in April – have done anything yet. But the early returns from safety Kyle Dugger and offensive lineman Michael Onwenu are encouraging.

 

Chase Winovich, along with Wynn and punter Jake Bailey, is the best of last year’s bunch. We should also get more of a look on Sunday at lineman Hjalte Froholdt since he could be the next-man-up behind injured center David Andrews. Fifth-rounder Byron Cowart is seeing significant work up front for the defense. But the jury is out on Stidham.