Curran: Belichick's dark cloud has lifted

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Curran: Belichick's dark cloud has lifted

INDIANAPOLIS - Wait, help me out. Fourth-and-2 is in play? We can mention that with impunity and make it a punch line?
Because Ive heard some things.I remember back in 2001 when Bill Belichick looked at the assembled media in the soon-to-be-euthanized Foxboro Stadium and said, The strength of the wolf is in the pack.I remember the night before Super Bowl XXXVI when I sat in a Holiday Inn near the French Quarter and Bill Belichick told me by telephone, The hay is in the barn, and that he felt as confident before playing the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl the next day as he did the week previous when his team upset the Steelers in the AFC Championship.Back then the Patriots were upstarts. Lightly taken and soon to be dismissed.Except Belichick didnt believe that. Earlier in the season he noted in the wolf statement that the 2001 team was better than the sum of its unimpressive parts.But back then, the Patriots were just another upstart team on a hot streak. Still, to Belichick and his players Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Ty Law, Tom Brady, Lawyer Milloy, Roman Phifer, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri and so many others on that team there was something special afoot.Belichick didnt believe the Patriots would be overwhelmed by the Rams in the Super Bowl when the dynasty that he and Tom Brady (and a whole lot of others) created was still in the birth canal.He gave off an air in the first week of February 2001 as the Patriots approached their first Super Bowl with Belichick as head coach that said, Were going to be fine.They were. And they continued to be through the first decade of the 21st century. Two more Super Bowl wins. An NFL record 21-game winning streak. Legitimacy as a team that needed to be included in the all-time greatest discussions with the Packers of the '60s, the Steelers of the '70s, the Niners of the '80s and '90s, and the Cowboys of the '90s.The tenor and expectations changed after 2001. A team and program as good as the one Belichick spawned in New England went from Cinderella to supermodel.But as the stakes were raised, Belichick got progressively more circumspect.By February 2008 the last time the Patriots played in a Super Bowl Belichick had become more guarded.They were the hunted. They had been every other franchises quarry for several years, but the scrutiny and the judgmental nature of the media -- which was bent on chip, chip, chipping away at the foundation of everything Belichick, his players and his staff had built -- wore him down.The AFC Championship loss to the Colts after the 2006 season sent Belichick into a funk and the team set about making sure it never happened again. With two masterstrokes, the Patriots acquired Randy Moss and Wes Welker. They also added Donte Stallworth and Adalius Thomas.They went unbeaten in the regular season in 2007, but it was a joyless march to perfection with the specter of a videotaping scandal taking on a life of its own. The desire of a football-obsessed nation to see the beloved franchise of 2001 get its comeuppance for its real and perceived arrogance was rampant.The Patriots became a franchise detested. And Belichick became a villain. The tightness of the Patriots under Belichicks grip seemed to cause the team to fear failure more than it embraced success.But something interesting has happened since. The 2008 Patriots overachieved with Matt Cassel at quarterback, winning 11 games. The 2009 Patriots a chemistry disaster failed. The 2010 Patriots overachieved again, winning 14 regular-season games before a loss which sent Belichick into an even deeper funk.Now comes 2011. And a Patriots team thats been pockmarked by defensive flaws still found a way to go 13-3 and emerge as AFC Champions.Even though the Patriots had a better regular-season record than their NFC counterparts the Giants, Big Blue despite its 9-7 regular-season record has emerged as the favorite (even if Vegas still says otherwise).With that backdrop, Bill Belichick has especially in the past few weeks seemed to find some measure of balance. Hes lightening up.On Sunday in Indianapolis, Belichick made a punchine of the game back in 2009 when a flawed Patriots team peed away a win in Indianapolis.A reminder: Belichick, feeling his offense could close out a win against the Colts and not trusting his defense to stop Peyton Manning, opted to run a play on fourth-and-2 from his own 28. A pass to Kevin Faulk failed. The Colts answered with a touchdown. New England lost, 35-34.Weeks of second-guessing ensued, colored by a belief that Belichick was arrogant to take the gamble.Sunday, Belichick laughed about a game that previously tore him apart, saying, I never had too much hospitality (in Indianapolis) until I went for it on fourth-and-2 and since then, Ive been greeted in a lot more friendly manner than I have in the past.A minor thing in the grand scheme but, for Belichick, a willingness to show that life does indeed go on was a benchmark moment.Welker was asked about Belichicks mood this season. Is he more kicked back?We wonder about that all of the time, said Welker. I dont know if its a lady in his life or what the deal is, but he definitely smiles a little more than he used to.Belichick will never be confused for Dave Chappelle. But the fact he can joke about a bleak point in his Patriots history is an example that life does indeed go on.This season isnt reminiscent of 2007, when an unstoppable team was stopped by the Giants. This time, the Patriots are the upstarts, never mind what Vegas or regular-season records say.And Bill Belichick is willing to let his team embrace that. To lighten up. And to see once again if the strength of the wolf in the pack.

As he steps aside temporarily, Tom Brady is ever the competitor

As he steps aside temporarily, Tom Brady is ever the competitor

FOXBORO – When Tom Brady got to the Patriots in 2000, he didn’t hand-wring about offending 28-year-old Drew Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowler who’d quarterbacked six NFL playoff games, including a Super Bowl.

Instead, the 199th overall pick had the gall to put Bledsoe on notice. Not that Bledsoe even seemed to notice. The first overall pick in 1993, Bledsoe couldn’t have felt too threatened by a sixth-round, part-time starter from Michigan with chubby cheeks, a bowl haircut and a soft, saggy physique.

But Brady’s aim was in plain sight. This from Charlie Pierce’s 2006 Brady biography called, Moving the Chains:

Brady reported for training camp that spring knowing the 2000 season was essentially going to be a redshirt year for him. He anticipated hardly any playing time but he determined to take the long view of his career. One evening, as he was leaving the team’s practice facility with a pizza under his arm, he ran into Robert Kraft, the team’s owner. Kraft is a billionaire businessman and he’s become one of the NFL’s most influential owners, but he’s also a fan, sometimes arguably to the point of public gaucherie. This day he was just leaving his office at about 7:45.

“So this skinny beanpole guy walks out and he comes up to me and he says, ‘Mr. Kraft? I’m Tom Brady. We haven’t met yet, but I’m the best decision this franchise has ever made.’

“And it was weird the way he said it, you know? It wasn’t like he was arrogant, but it was more like he was very confident. It was almost matter-of-fact the way he said it. I wasn’t offended at all.’

Adorable story. If it weren’t for the fact the maniac Brady believed what he said.

An accomplished high school baseball player, at the highly competitive Junipero Serra High School, who was drafted by the Expos, Brady eschewed both baseball and West Coast football. He wanted to prove himself against the very best in the country, he told me many years ago, and believed Michigan was where that would happen.

But Brady wound up buried on the depth chart when the Wolverines iced Gary Moeller, head coach when Brady came aboard, and replaced him with Lloyd Carr. After a bout of appendicitis left Brady 25 pounds lighter and Michigan started pursuing Drew Henson during Brady’s sophomore year, he wanted to transfer to Cal.

He sought counseling with Greg Harden, an associate AD and advice dispenser. Harden tough-loved Brady through it. By the time Brady got to Foxboro, he’d built up a pretty thick hide and had a far better understanding of what it was like to compete for a job than he had when he arrived at Michigan.

Meanwhile, here’s Bledsoe. Starting quarterback at Walla Walla High by the age of 16, christened the starter at Washington State in 1991 when he was 19 and two years later named the starter in New England. Never had an occasion arisen when Bledsoe was anything but the chosen one. So who could be surprised if Bledsoe didn’t perceive his job as being in any kind of jeopardy.

Bledsoe was a seal in a shark tank and didn’t even know it.

I asked Brady on Tuesday about the dynamic with Bledsoe when he arrived in 2000.

“That was a long time ago, but in college you have maybe a little bit of that [position competition],” Brady began. “That was probably right out of college where there are a lot of guys close to your age that you’re competing with, but you’re still real good friends with. Some of my best friends were Scot Loeffler, who is the offensive coordinator at BC [Boston College] now, and Brian Griese who has been a good friend of mine, and Jason Kapsner who was one of my buddies, Scott Dreisbach and Drew Henson. We were all friends. We played ping pong and we played pool together, but there was a healthy competition on the field too. We all wanted to play, but at quarterback, one guy gets to play. Then you get fresh out of college, and then I was probably – with Drew [Bledsoe], I was the same way. I used to hang out with Drew all the time. We played golf together; I’d be at his house for dinner.”

There was nothing Machiavellian about Brady announcing to the owner his intentions on rewriting Patriots history and then setting out to do it. It’s the way it’s supposed to be done. Brady, in actuality, was pretty damn forward about it. And Bledsoe accommodated.

“I was trying to learn a lot from Drew, and I learned a lot from Drew because he was such a phenomenal player and leader,” said Brady. “He was tough, disciplined. It meant so much to him. I think I learned a lot from him, I learned a lot from Damon [Huard], I learned a lot form John Friesz when I was first here. I think I used all those people as great examples because they were already pros. I had a lot to learn. I just came in, tried to do the best I could do with the experiences that I already had and then tried to transition those to a different level, a different caliber of playing, and just do the best I could do. It’s easy to do when you love what you do.”

It was Brady’s good fortune to join a team where the once-rising-star quarterback had plateaued and grown world-weary. And to have a head coach in Bill Belichick who not only loved to see players “establish their level of play” annually, but loathed seeing a sense of entitlement. It also didn’t hurt that Belichick had designed defenses that routinely made Bledsoe look inept from 1994 through 1999. 

The path for Brady was there. Bledsoe helped lay it out. Brady had the guts to take it.

All of this backstory to present you with the contemporary comparison between Tom Brady in 2000 and Jimmy Garoppolo in 2016.

If Garoppolo approached Robert Kraft in 2014 after Garoppolo was drafted and said that he would be the best decision the organization ever made, Kraft may have had Jimmy removed for the heresy.

And the nyuk-nyuks that Brady had with Drew – glitter in the AC vents! – weren’t happening with 37-year-old Tom Brady, who’d heard Belichick mention both Brady’s age and contract status when Garoppolo was drafted.

Garoppolo, unassuming, inarguably nice person from Eastern Illinois was now in the shark tank with Brady.

Brady played the first few weeks of that season in a barely controlled rage. After a loss in Kansas City when Jimmy looked delightful in late relief, Brady came back the next week, took his doubters by the metaphorical neck and – over the next few months – choked the life out of them.

Brady has never been more earnest and sincere in his support of Garoppolo than he was Tuesday.

But, as he approaches his month-long suspension, he also wears on his sleeve his love for the game. And it logically follows that he sees as a threat anyone who will be doing his job, whether that threat is reasonable or not.

“I’ve always been blessed to love this sport and love the preparation of this sport as much as I have. It really never feels like work because it’s always a learning experience. I’m still learning every day that I go out there. It’s always fresh when you start because there are always new players, always new schemes, always new plays, new situations to go over. That’s why there’s such a great – that’s why people love the sport. That’s why I love the sport, because it’s so challenging. It’s very humbling, too, because it’s incredibly difficult to perform at a high level every day,” said Brady.

“You’ve got to push yourself and find different ways to motivate yourself over the course of long periods of time,” Brady added, maybe giving a deeper glimpse into what helped him ratchet it up the past few seasons. “It’s easy if you just changed what you did every year. Everything would feel fresh all the time. But when you’ve been doing it for 17 years professionally, and then nine years, I’ve been doing it for 25 years, so I’ve got to keep finding ways to retool and learn and use things as motivation.”

Once, the motivation was easy. Win the job. Then it got harder. Win Super Bowls. Then even harder. Win like no one else has won. Finally, now, the cherry. Win longer and more often than anyone else has ever done. To ensure that happens, there will be no dropping of Tom Brady’s guard during this temporary changing of the guard. 

Top prospect Yoan Moncada will join Red Sox on Friday

Top prospect Yoan Moncada will join Red Sox on Friday

BOSTON - The Boston Red Sox have announced they will call up top prospect Yoan Moncada when rosters expand from the current 25-man limit.

Earlier Wednesday, Farrell wouldn't officially confirm the imminent promotion but hinted that the Red Sox appeared ready to call up their top prospect.

Farrell first noted that the Red Sox "need better production'' at third base, where both Travis Shaw and Aaron Hill have struggled mightily at the position.

Moncada, a natural second baseman, was shifted to third base earlier this month at Double A Portland. Moncada has a slash line of .285/.388/.547 with 11 homers and 27 RBI in 44 games.

Asked specifically about the potential of a call-up for Moncada, Farrell said: "We've talked about Yoan. And not just as a pinch-runner. It's an exciting young player, an extremely talented guy. There's all positive reviews and evaluations of him.

"When that major league experience is going to initiate, time will tell that. But in terms of playing the position of third base [in the big leagues], that conversation has been had.''

Previously, the Red Sox had resisted bringing Moncada to the big leagues, worried that he wouldn't be in the lineup often enough to continue his development. The Sox didn't want him to miss out on additional experience in the minors by playing only part-time in the majors.

But now that the minor league seasons are about to end -- Portland finishes Labor Day -- there's nothing in the minors for Moncada to miss.

"This is a different scenario than if it were July or early August,'' said Farrell. "The minor league season ends [soon], so is there benefit to him just being here? The answer to that is yes. Do you weigh playing 'X' number of games per week versus what he could be doing at Portland or Pawtucket? Well, that goes away [with the minor league regular seasons end].

"So, again, by all accounts, there's nothing but positives that could come out of experience here -- if that were to happen.''

 Moncada's promotion is similar to the one experience by Xander Bogaerts in 2013, who was brought up in the final week of August 2013 and remained with the club all the way through the end of the team's World Series run that fall, taking playing time from struggling third baseman Will Middlebrooks.

 "For those who have been around this team for a number of years,'' said Farrell, "teams that have had success have always had an injection of young players late in the season that have helped carry the team through the postseason. I think Yoan would be in a similar category to when Pedey [Dustin Pedroia], when Jake [Jacoby Ellsbury] came into the picture. And Andrew (Benintendi) is already here, so I wouldn't separate [Moncada] out from that at all.

"In fact, he's a direct comparison [to those cases].’’

Farrell agreed that the arrival of a young, highly-touted player can inject some energy into a team in the throes of a pennant race.

"Absolutely, there is,'' said Farrell. "You've got a newness element. You've got, likely, above-average speed. You've got athleticism. You've got the unknown across the field on how does a given [opposing] team attack a given guy.

"In the cases we've talked about, it has been beneficial to us for the young player to come up. They find a way to contribute in a meaningful role. "

Without saying that Moncada's promotion was a definite,  he said "there's a lot [of positives]going for it.''

Farrell also acknowledged that the Sox held internal discussions about how Moncada would be utilized, given that the switch-hitter has been far more productive from the left side of the plate.

"We've talked about what's strong side, how do you look to best ease him in, so to speak,'' said Farrell. "We thought that with Benintendi, how do we best ease him in. Well, he blew the doors off of that one [with his early success]. So, if it happens, and if begins here soon, you'll all be aware.''

Farrell said the reports of Moncada's transition to third base have been encouraging despite three errors in his first nine games there.

"He's shown good range, an above-average arm,'' said Farrell. "Where there will be ongoing work and continued development, just as there was at second base, is the ball hit straight at him. That's just pure technique and fundamental positioning with hands and feet.

"But as far as range to his glove side, moving to third base, that seemingly has not been that big of a challenge for him.''