Game Day: The replacement stench lingers

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Game Day: The replacement stench lingers

BUFFALO - The Patriots are 1-2. Playing Sunday in Buffalo without Logan Mankins, Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman and with a less-than-perfect Gronk, the chance that the team ends this day 1-3 is probably 50-50.

Their margin for error over the final 12 games will shrink even smaller.

The truth is, they have themselves to blame for their losses. They could have won the Arizona game by converting a makeable field goal. They could have closed out the Ravens game on offense. They could have made a play to keep Baltimore out of game-winning field goal range on defense.

Still, damage was done to New England by the replacement officials. The hold on Gronk wiping out Danny Woodheads fourth-quarter touchdown run against the Cardinals was a game-changer. Repeated defensive holding and pass interference calls that extended Ravens scoring drives allowed points to be scored against New England.

If the real officials were on the field and those calls were made, it would be easier for the players and coaches to swallow. Not easy. But easier.

However, the fact that fake refs made repeated bad calls that directly impacted the score leaves a scar. The losses can impact everything from home-field advantage to future employment for players and coaches. Theres no way to measure the ripple effect.

So when Robert Kraft told ESPN after the settlement that I think this is a minor blip and now we move on, you have to wonder how that comment flies with the coaches and players. Because the blip, Im sure, doesnt feel too minor to them.

If youre like me (you have my pity), you like to consider yourself an armchair expert on fineable hits. Somebody gets lit up, you get your impression in real time and then wait for the replay to see how defenseless the target was and where he was contacted. You understand that the geometry and physics of the game lead to unavoidable head and neck shots. That some shots are actually CAUSED by the offensive player. But you know the rules.

And then you have Ray Lewis, who this week tried to claim Ed Reed driving a shoulder into Deion Branch was legal.

Reed turned his head to the side and clearly hit Branch with his shoulder pad. Those things cannot affect the way this game is played. And then the saddest part about it is when you hear other people say, Oh, those are the rules. For real? Thats not the rules. The rules of this game is, Do whatever you gotta do, by any means necessary.

So were how many years deep into the policing of hits on defenseless players and the NFLs most lionized linebacker has no clue what the rule is? Tell you what, if James Harrison said that, the NFL would be sitting him down for three games. Ray Lewis? Somehow he gets carte blanche.

I went hard on Devin McCourty last Sunday. Watching the game live, there were four glaring plays on which he failed. First, he didnt give proper support to teammate Steve Gregory on Dennis Pittas 20-yard touchdown, showing up ill-prepared to finish off Pitta if Gregory got beaten physically by a player who was 50 pounds heavier. Second, he dropped a simple interception early in the fourth quarter. Third, he got turned inside-out on the first play of the Ravens' last drive for a 24-yard gain. And fourth, he tackled Jacoby Jones on a third-and-9 play that turned a prospective 51-yard field goal attempt into a chip shot.

Somehow, there was great debate as to whether or not McCourty played well. There were plays on which he did his job well 14 times he was the primary cover man on balls thrown by Joe Flacco. He had four plus plays. He had six minus plays. He had four that were a mixed bag (good coverage on the dropped pick, an offensive holding that wiped out a play on which he had good coverage, a BS defensive holding on him and a touchdown allowed that was aided by an uncalled push off).

That there was debate about how well McCourty played shows how low the bar has been set for him. Meanwhile, Kyle Arrington was thrown at just five times. He had four minus plays.

Quick hits:

The game in Buffalo is going to require Tom Brady to play at an extremely high level because of the shakiness of the offensive line in front of him. If hes less than an A, the Patriots probably wont win.

The Ravens already have a league-leading 15 big catch plays of 25 yards or more. The second-place team? Cincinnati, with nine. (The Ravens do have a game up on everyone, having played Thursday). The Patriots have six.

Hey. Peyton Mannings in Foxboro next week.

Brandon Lloyd is tied for 6th in the NFL with 33 targeted passes. Reggie Wayne is first with 40.

So far this season, Tony Romo is 12-for-12 when the game is late and close according to Stats LLC. Tom Brady isnt in the top 20. And the 20th is at 47.1 (Josh Freeman, 8 for 17).

Jamaal Charles leads the NFL with 11 stuffed runs. Stevan Ridley is tied for second with nine.

Curran: Hard to believe Garoppolo's completely untouchable

Curran: Hard to believe Garoppolo's completely untouchable

Months ago, I was told by someone who’d know that it wasn’t a done deal the Patriots would trade Jimmy Garoppolo.

This was after Garoppolo got hurt and Tom Brady was in the midst of his didn’t-miss-a-beat return. At the time, it made all the sense in the world for the team to start listening to overtures. 

And it still does. 

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Despite having it reiterated to me recently that people shouldn’t “expect” Garoppolo to be dealt (and plenty of national media reporting the same thing), I’ve maintained that -- while it may not be likely -- that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. 

A recitation of the reasons why:

-- First, Garoppolo is a backup behind the best quarterback in NFL history who also happens to be one of its most durable. Regardless if he’s pushing 40, even compared to quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, Brady is a less prone to injury. So the likelihood the team will need to summon Garoppolo to sub for Brady either because of performance or injury is tiny. 

-- Second, value. What good does it have to be in possession of a good player if he never plays? Brady is signed through 2019. The Patriots can control Garoppolo through 2018 if they franchise him, but they’ll have to spend close to $25 million on a one-year deal to do that. And what’s the plan there, spend $25 million to have him watch Brady play at a level Garoppolo still probably won’t be able to approach? When it comes to draft picks, Bill Belichick is like an old guy with a metal detector at the beach. He’ll pocket anything he can find. But he’s not going to flip Garoppolo into possible first-round currency and -- after almost two decades of saving for the future -- just sit on a tradeable asset that may never play?

-- Third, Jacoby Brissett’s ability to play is a helluva lot better demonstrated than Matt Cassel’s, Ryan Mallett’s, Brian Hoyer's and Matt Guttierez's. All those players were the lone backups to Brady at different junctures. The belief the Patriots don’t trust Brissett to back up Brady and need more security is inconsistent with what they’ve done in the past. Further, they seemingly groomed Brissett to be the backup in 2016 in little ways -- bringing him back from IR, taking him on the road when he was on IR. 

Finally, does this actually mean that Garoppolo is somehow the player without a price? Completely untouchable in a way Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Jamie Collins and whoever else we want to dredge up as a trade example were? 

So where’s this leave us? 

One of three possibilities. 1) The Patriots do indeed have an asking price and are driving up the market. 2) The Patriots are going to franchise and trade Garoppolo next year. 3) Or they are going to trade Brady before the 2018 season and give the job to Garoppolo. 

If the ultimate plan has even crystallized, it’s not going to be shared. Not now. So instead we need to look for bread crumbs to lead us to the team’s mindset. 

Perhaps the best insight Belichick gave into his approach was in November of 2009 in an interview with Jason Cole. The interview came a couple of months after the Seymour deal. in which the Patriots grabbed a 2011 first-rounder for the former All-Pro. 

“We gave up a significant player and we gained a significant asset,” Belichick told Cole. “There’s a balance of this year and years in the future. Do we consider that? Yes, but in the end you look at the level of compensation and you do it. Had it been for another level of compensation, would we do it? Maybe not. I don’t know. There’s a point where you say yes and a point where you say no and there’s a real fine line in the middle where it really depends on how bad you want to make the trade. It’s like anything else, if you really want to do it, you might take less. If you don’t, it probably would take more.” 

The link is dead so here I lean on Mike Florio of PFT, who aggregated the Cole interview from Yahoo!:

Belichick also said that “probably everybody is available at the right price,” but when Cole pressed him about whether he’d really trade Tom Brady, Belichick acknowledged that he’s building a team around a certain core group of players -- and he wouldn’t trade those guys. As an example of a player he wouldn’t trade, Belichick named linebacker Jerod Mayo, last year’s first-round draft pick.

“Now, is Jerod Mayo available? No, not really,” Belichick said. “But there are certain players who are young that have a certain number of years left on their contract that you want on your team, so you’re really not going to trade them. Those guys are realistically not available, no. But is everybody else available for a certain price on every team? I would say, for the most part, they probably are. Who’s willing to give that? What you want and what someone else is willing to give, that’s usually very different. In this case, it worked.”

Bearing that in mind, and understanding the amount of desperation around the league to find the right quarterback, I still believe there’s a price for Garoppolo. But unless someone pays it, we’ll never know what it is. 
 

Curran: Pats earn their success the hard way

Curran: Pats earn their success the hard way

In the afterglow of Super Bowl 49, Brandon LaFell gave all the insight you need in order to grasp why playing for the Patriots is an acquired taste.

A first-year Patriot in 2014, LaFell recounted a moment with Darrelle Revis, another player the Patriots signed before that season.

"Me and Darrelle were driving home one day in [organized team activities] and they must have worked us to death that day," LaFell recalled. "We said it at the time, 'If we don't win the Super Bowl this year after doing all this work, we're going upstairs to the front office and telling somebody something.' Man, just the way we worked, the way we worked in camp, I believe in this team.”

They grind.

Tuesday night, Revis was released by the Jets after two seasons that leave a smear on an otherwise brilliant career. Revis’ conditioning, effort and off-field decision-making all indicated a guy who -- after earning a ring in New England -- just didn’t give the same number of flocks that he did in 2014 when he chose to subject himself to a one-year, NFL boot camp.

Idle speculation has begun as to whether or not the Patriots might want Revis back. The better question would be whether Revis -- 32 in July -- would want to subject himself to New England.

Consider this: Belichick sent Revis home in October of 2014 for being late to meetings on a Tuesday morning. I don’t know for sure, but I highly doubt Revis had his knuckles rapped like that in his entire career.

The rules, the practices, the conditioning, The Hill, the not-good-enough, gotta-be-better mindset, the need to self-censor for fear of saying something that will get you browbeaten in a team meeting, all of it wears the players down to a nub mentally and physically. There’s no “star system” per se. The best players are subject to the same expectations the undrafted rookies are.

And if there’s pushback, then GTFO. Recent illustrations of that would be Jamie Collins being traded to Cleveland, Alan Branch being put in detention for a week during training camp or Malcolm Butler being kept off the field for OTAs months after sealing the Super Bowl.

Free agency starts in a week and, when players weigh where they will sign, the work environment matters. New England’s stands out as being both the most difficult but also the most professionally -- if not financially -- rewarding destination in the league.

Year after year, players choose to come to play in a program that will be recalled in 50 years the way Lombardi’s Packers are now.

And some players choose to leave because the opportunity dangled elsewhere -- whether it be financial, geographical or atmospheric -- trumps Foxboro.

Donta Hightower is the Patriots most important free agent. He’s been candid about how much the expectations for success in New England weigh on a player mentally and physically. Since 2008, he’s won two BCS National Championships with Nick Saban at Alabama and two Super Bowls with Belichick in New England. He was 17 when he committed to ‘Bama. He’ll be 27 this month. That’s a long time in the grind.

When he signs, wherever he signs, he’ll be choosing where he wants to end his playing career. For Hightower -- for any player -- deciding to play in New England is a lifestyle choice.  

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Why do NFL owners stand so united behind Roger Goodell even though he’s reviled by players, fans and media? He makes them soooo much money. The projected 2017 salary cap numbers came out this week and the $166 million-$169 million estimate is about $25 million higher than two years ago.. And since the yearly cap is a portion of total revenue (with a maximum to the players of 48.5 percent between 2015 and 2020) it stands to reason that if players are in line to make bushels more money, it’s because the owners are bringing in barrels more money.  It’s also worth remembering that, despite the windfall for everyone, the NFL still tried to bilk players out of money by hiding revenues and are in the process of paying back the $120 million they stole thanks to a court ruling just one year ago. 

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So bear that in mind when free agency starts and players with modest resumes sign for dough that dwarfs what elite players got just a couple of years ago. Last year, the Giants signed Janoris Jenkins to a $62 million deal, second in the league in guaranteed money behind only Revis. Collins, exiled to Cleveland by the Patriots with one Pro Bowl to his name, already signed for four years and $50 million and that would no doubt have been even more had he gone to the market. So prepare to have your chin hit your chest when Logan Ryan signs. He’s got the same agents as Jenkins (Neil Schwartz and Jon Feinsod, formerly Revis’ agents as well), he’s 26, he’s one of the three best corners in the free-agent class and he’s probably going to sign a deal that’s easily north of $10 million per season. And that might be light. Ryan has very good ball skills, is physical enough to match up with big receivers, can also play the slot and is a true professional. But he’s not yet been a Pro Bowl-level player and he’s going to get paid what we’ve come to expect All Pro-level players get.

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Which brings us to Gronk. That contract he signed which gave him great security when he was recouping from his string of injuries looks so awful right now. When the Patriots exercised their option on the back end of his contract, it was like signing him to a four-year, $36.51 deal with $10 million guaranteed. Coby Fleener signed a five-year, $36.5 million deal with $18 million guaranteed last year. Gronkowski is better than Fleener. Coming off another back surgery, Gronk isn’t in a position to agitate for having his deal reconfigured but he absolutely has his eye on the tight end market as he indicated in his comments about Martellus Bennett possibly breaking the bank. Gronk will be hoping for the trickledown effect from a player like Bennett. Weird, since it should be the inverse. My hunch is that Bennett won’t get an eye-popping deal but he’ll still decide against returning to New England in 2017. Absence may make the heart grow fonder in some cases but in the NFL, the warm camaraderie of the locker room fades a bit once March comes, visits are being made and offers are being slid across the table.