Pats tight ends could have gone to Baltimore

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Pats tight ends could have gone to Baltimore

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be two of New England's most dangerous weapons in Sunday's AFC Championship battle against Baltimore.

That gun was almost pointed at the Patriots.

Gronkowski missed his junior season at Arizona with a back injury. A rogue disk was bothering his spinal cord and needed to be shaved. The procedure required a six-month recovery, which made Gronkowski miss the NFL combine, and made pro player personnel heads worry about his future.

But Baltimore wanted tight ends.

Two-time Pro Bowler Todd Heap was 30 at the time of the 2010 NFL draft. He'd played through a myriad of injuries over his almost decade-long career and the talk that spring was that the Ravens would either bolster the position or start a succession plan.

Gronkowski was one of the players on the team's radar. To be more specific, he was a "medical case" the Ravens were researching.

"These are million-dollar decisions," Eric DeCosta, director of player personnel, told the Baltimore Sun. "When that much money is on the line, you have to exhaust every resource."

The concern kept Gronkowski waiting -- as he expected -- into the draft's second round. When the 42nd pick overall rolled up, it appeared the Oakland Raiders passed on their selection. A Ravens assistant quickly moved forward to turn in Baltimore's pick...

Too late. Roger Goodell announced the Patriots were on the clock.

New England hurdled the Ravens by swapping its 44th pick with Oakland's 42nd. Gronkowski was the ultimate prize.

"I really don't know what Baltimore was going to do," Gronkowski said that April evening. "Obviously, New England thought Baltimore was going to take me because New England was the next pick after Baltimore. Maybe that's why New England hopped one pick ahead of Baltimore.

"That's awesome that they traded up to get me. That means they really wanted me."

The Ravens selected defensive end Sergio Kindle at 43. Its first tight end, Ed Dickson, was quarried in the third round. The second was Dennis Pitta, a BYU product, taken at 114.

The previous pick? That would be Aaron Hernandez, selected at 113 by the New England Patriots.

Todd Heap had a decent 2010 season but was released by the Ravens in July. Dickson has started all 16 games this season, recording 528 yards and five touchdowns on 54 catches. Pitta's numbers (40 catches, 405 yards, three touchdowns) have come off the bench.

By contrast, here are the numbers for New England's two tight ends this season:

Gronkowski: 90 receptions for 1,327 yards, 18 total TD (one rushing).

Hernandez: 79 receptions for 910 yards, 7 TD.

Yeah. You could say the Patriots won the tight end fight. Ask Gronkowski and Hernandez and they'd probably say there's nothing more important than the larger landscape, than their team, than this weekend's AFC Championship.

Thing is, that landscape has been dramatically shaped by those two players and that 2010 draft.

And don't Baltimore know it.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.