McCourty embraces different roles in the secondary

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McCourty embraces different roles in the secondary

FOXBORO -- As far as Devin McCourty's position in the secondary goes on game days, there are two things we know:

1. McCourty says he'll play wherever the coaches ask him to.

2. The coaches say they'll play him wherever it is deemed best for the team on a week-to-week basis.

Good to have that all figured out.

But for however uncertain his status may be -- especially considering safety Steve Gregory's possible return this weekend and last week's trade for cornerback Aqib Talib -- there are a few things to take from the situation.

For starters, the secondary has settled down some. McCourty has now played two games at safety this season. He remarked after last week's win over the Rams that he already feels more comfortable on the back end.

It seems he's embracing the move.

"It's cool. It's different. You get used to seeing more of the field," McCourty said of the new vantage. "I think you have more of a responsibility, since you have that viewpoint, to let everyone else know. Because I know when you're playing corner it's not as easy to see the different things that you see on film when you're just on that side of the field. So I try to just communicate and let guys know if I see anything from film study that might happen so they're aware of it."

Communication is key. Unfortunately, consistency in personnel -- something the Patriots haven't had in the secondary -- is key to communication.

Earlier in the week, head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged how roster upheaval can create problems.  

"I think the more consistent we can be as a unit then that builds their communication and better teamwork between the players that are involved.There are always going to be some moving parts, there are moving parts every week because of the team that we play and unfortunately weve had, like every team does, guys go in and out for various reasons, so its not perfect."

During games, much of that effort now falls on McCourty's shoulders. Belichick said Wednesday he appreciates his player's style.

"He's not a guy that has a lot of excess communication; he's concise, he's to the point: 'Here's the call, here's what it is.' It's good. Devin's more like, 'Here's what we need to do. Just get to the point and do it.' He does a good job at it."

As for the player himself, McCourty believes his positional flip-flopping actually provides an advantage.

"I have a good knowledge of, especially for our corners, what they're doing. I think a little bit of that helps when I can say things and communicate with them, to let them know that I'm going to call. My experience at corner helps me out with that aspect, and then just going out there and playing and listening to the guys that've been playing safety when they're trying to help me out."

Guys like Gregory.

Though he's been sidelined with a hip injury since Week 4, the veteran safety has been a valuable resource  in the film room and in meetings for the entire defensive backfield.

McCourty's appreciation for Gregory was returned in kind this week.

"Dev's a great athlete," he said. "He understands football; he's a smart football player. He understands what we're trying to do as a defense and he has the ability to play any position in the secondary, so he's done a great job."

So despite all the moving parts, all the instability, maybe there are fundamental aspects of McCourty's move that will make the whole thing work.

Gregory put it simply enough.

"Dev's a selfless guy. He's a team player. He just wants us to win, and whatever they ask him to do, just like the rest of us, he'll do."

Curran: Even after all that's gone down, sun still shines for Brady

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Curran: Even after all that's gone down, sun still shines for Brady

I wasn’t looking to get nostalgic last Thursday. But I got that little twist in the tummy. It was a song that did it. It reminded me of how things were and how things are.

The song was “Beautiful Day” by U2. It was, for a few years, practically a Patriots anthem. It was the first song the legendary Irish band played during its halftime set at Super Bowl 36, a mini-concert that was sad, hopeful, jubilant and defiant all at once. 

It’s not hard to recall what things felt like in early February of 2002.

Five months earlier, the September 11 attacks stripped away the sense of security and insulation we'd come to enjoy as our birthright. Anger, indignation, unity, national pride and a sense of resolve emerged that probably hadn’t been felt in 60 years.

But our new reality also meant a palpable sense of unease, too. Vulnerability.

It was at sporting events in the wake of 9/11 that we got an introduction to how things had changed and how we’d been changed. Armed security, bomb-sniffing dogs, personal searches and patdowns fueled our new trepidation. But once inside, a strength-in-numbers feeling emerged. The vulnerability was replaced by a near-universal sense of community and patriotism. The focus was on what we had in common as Americans, our shared interest in being safe and maintaining who we were.

The feeling isn’t quite the same now, is it? A lot’s changed.

It was near the end of that Thursday practice that the song came on. Blaring. It was supposed to replicate crowd noise during an 11-on-11 drill but it had the additional impact of causing me to reflect on that time and Tom Brady.

Brady was standing behind the offense watching rookie Jacoby Brissett take the reps at quarterback. Next to Brady was Jimmy Garoppolo.

Brissett was 9 years old when U2 played at that Super Bowl while Brady sat in the visitor’s locker room at the Superdome, improbably in possession of a 14-3 lead and 30 minutes from taking the first step on the road from “cool story” to “legend.” Garoppolo was 11.

How many rookie quarterbacks has Brady seen come and go since he was a rookie himself in 2000? How many backups has he dispatched since Brady himself was a backup in 2001? A lot.

He’s so far removed from the 24-year-old kid who, upon winning the MVP in that Super Bowl, put his hands to his head in beaming disbelief.  Does he think about that game? That atmosphere? That song?

That was an amazing day. I remember the military presence all week in New Orleans and on Super Bowl Sunday especially. Soldiers with M-16s surveyed and patrolled all along inside the barriers set up outside the Superdome. Inside, the Patriots were the ultimate Cinderella team going against a dynasty-in-waiting. They were -- hard as it is to believe now almost 15 years later -- beloved nationally. And the country didn’t hate Boston fans then, either. They mostly felt bad for us because of the constant sports heartbreak.

There were emotional juxtapositions that day -- from U2's moving halftime tribute to those killed on 9/11 to the Patriots stunning win -- that by the end felt cathartic. It was like an Irish wake.   

Brady doesn’t beam too often anymore. At least not publically. He’s got 17 years in the league, 16 minicamps, four Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl losses, three Super Bowl MVPs and two league MVPs under his belt. The novelty’s worn off some.

There’s also the matter of the NFL itself deciding it would bring the franchise that went from Cinderella to Godzilla to heel by over-prosecuting the team in 2007 and trumping up charges against Brady himself in 2014.

Can’t beat ‘em? Delegitimize ‘em.

For Brady to find himself a reviled athlete, a target of the league office, a media piñata must have been beyond comprehension.

But on Thursday, there was a sign that maybe he’s making some peace with that, too.

The person who was at a loss for words in an uncomfortable 30-minute press conference a year ago January, who set his jaw and refused comment last summer walking in and out of New York courthouses, who welled up in September talking about the impact the investigation had on Jim McNally and John Jastremski . . . that guy actually walked past the media on Thursday when practice was over.

He didn’t stop. He only smiled and waved a few hellos. But compared to last year, when he’d exit the practice fields 100 yards from the media and didn’t speak from the Super Bowl until September, this was a departure.

There is no bigger point I’m trying to make here about football, patriotism, party politics, the decline of civility or the Patriots being a national treasure or blight.

All this was just something that occurred to me last Thursday. Which just so happened to be the first legitimately beautiful day of the year. 

Unlike Wakefield, Wright has helping hands with Red Sox

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Unlike Wakefield, Wright has helping hands with Red Sox

BALTIMORE -- Near the start of his Red Sox career, Tim Wakefield -- who would wind up pitching 17 years for the club and would tie for the most number of wins in franchise history -- was largely on his own.

One of Wakefield's first pitching coaches in Boston, Joe Kerrigan, regarded knuckleballers as little more than freakish performers.

When Wakefield encountered mechanical issues, Kerrigan could offer little assistance. The pitch was unpredictable, and in Kerrigan's mind, so was the pitcher. The same rules that helped Kerigan dissect and analyze a conventional pitcher's issues wouldn't work with Wakefield.

That frustrated both coach and pitcher, as Wakefield was left to fend for himself.

More than once, as Wakefield foundered, Kerrigan essentially told him: "There's nothing I can do to help you; you're on your own.''

Steven Wright has far more at his disposal, and it's one of the reasons Wright has enjoyed a run of consistency that often eluded Wakefield. There's help available, assistance that Wright readily takes full advantage of.

If throwing a knuckleball hasn't exactly developed into a science, it's certainly far more advanced than it was in 1995, when Wakefield arrived in Boston.

In the middle of a season that has seen him post an ERA of 2.45 and toss a league-best three complete games, Wright has has developed his game fully.

He regularly changes speeds with the knuckler, adding one more complicating factor to an already mystifying pitch.

Depending on the conditions, the hitter, and the score, Wright can either add or subtract to the velocity of his signature pitch. On Monday, when he limited the Orioles to two runs on four hits in a 7-2 Memorial Day victory, he offered knuckleballs as slow as 59 mph and fastballs as fast as 83 mph.

"I like it,'' said Wright, "especially against a lineup like [the Orioles]. They're a very aggressive team. In that inning they scored the two runs (the fifth), I kind of got caught up in the same speed. So I kind of went out there after that and concentrated on not throwing too many at the same speed. It kind of throws them off, because I'm hoping that if I leave one up, the difference in the speed will get them out front.''

But perhaps Wright's biggest step forward this season -- the first in which he began the season as a full-time starter in the rotation -- is the ability to detect and correct flaws within a game, sometimes within an inning. Again, this stands in stark contrast to Wakefield, who was notoriously streaky. When Wakefield was trending in a positive fashion, both he and the club could only hope that it continued. When he hit a rut, however, there was telling how long he would scuffle, unable to reverse his downhill slide.

Wright has no such issues. He can often tell -- and if he doesn't, pitching coach Carl Willis can help -- when his delivery has gone askew. Better yet, he knows what he needs to do immediately to correct it.

"Absolutely,'' agreed Wright. "It's my fifth year doing it and I've worked tirelessly with Wake and [bullpen coach Dana Levangie] and Carl and that's one thing we've concentrated on, is staying within that delivery. Because it's all about staying relaxed and repeating my delivery -- especially for me, but really, any pitcher. Because I'm getting more years, more reps, it's become a little more easier to make an adjustment pitch-to-pitch.''

"He's shown that [ability] in a number of starts this year,'' said manager John Farrell. "That's a testament to someone who knows more about himself, to have those checkpoints.''

Ironically, it was Wakefield himself -- who got so little help for periods of his own career -- who offered Wright a key checkpoint last season.

"He had me move my hands back,'' recalled Wright. "What it does is, it helps me lock my shoulders in a place so I don't get rotational. That's one of the biggest things because if I started feeling that I'm getting rotational, then there's something off.

"It could be a number of things, but I feel like that's the biggest adjustment that I made. It's a small one, but it's huge in keeping everything within reason. Because I'm not a power pitcher, I don't need to reach back and get something (extea in terms of velocity) so when I do throw a fastball, it's the same mechanical look.''

Wright seemed on the verge of becoming undone in the second inning Monday. With two outs, he walked two hitters, allowed an infield single and loaded the bases.

But from the dugout, Willis noticed that Wright was rushing with his delivery.

''I had a hard time [noticing] it,'' said Wright, "but he could definitely see it. We work tirelessly, especially when Wake is around, to try to find some mechanical things so Carl can help me out if I need it. Same thing with [catchers Ryan] Hanigan and [Christian] Vazquez -- they see it too, because I'm throwing to them all the time.''

All of which has Wright among the game's ERA leaders and tied in the complete game category with the likes of Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw.

"I definitely sometimes pinch myself," he said, "like, 'Man, is this real?' "

Big weekend: Timberlake likes Gronk's moves; Edelman cries 'Free Brady'

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Big weekend: Timberlake likes Gronk's moves; Edelman cries 'Free Brady'

Rob Gronkowski has never been one to keep his dance moves from the public eye. While he's received a wide range of critiques -- the body-slamming of one of his brothers in Las Vegas was not quite as well-received as his girating on a Duck Boat early last year -- the compliment he received this weekend will be hard to beat.

In Nantucket with teammate Julian Edelman, Gronkowski got on stage to dance to Justin Timberlake's new song "Can't Stop the Feeling." When the artist found the video on Twitter, he gave the Patriots tight end a social-media thumbs up in the form of the hashtag "#thosemovestho".

Gronkowski had an eventful day for himself -- with camera phones seemingly recording his every move -- as did Edelman, who began the weekend in Boston at the Boston Calling music festival to scream "Free Brady!"