FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick’s Friday press conference began with him swatting back inevitable questions about Rob Gronkowski. It’s the dance and Belichick doesn’t love it but on this day he at least went through the steps.
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By the end, though, Belichick warmed to the conversation with the media in general and was letting some Friday perspective loose.
The portion I found most interesting came at the very end when Belichick was discussing Logan Ryan’s adjustment to a different role in the secondary and reduced playing time.
Did Belichick talk to Ryan? Often, the coach will say that his conversations are private. Not this time. And the reply gave insight into the message the Patriots impart over and over and over to their players. The same one the coach has given since 2000. The boat won’t move unless everyone grabs an oar and rows in unison with the rest.
“Yeah, sure,” Belichick began. “We always talk about that. It’s not an easy conversation because everybody wants to play more but at the same time everybody wants to have a good team and everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to do their role. We all want it to be bigger but sometimes we have to understand the bigger team picture, which I think our players do. Again, that’s not always. But you give that up when you play football. You give up some of your individuality. You give up some of your individual preferences or individual control you have to play the great team sport of football.
“If you want to go out there and run track, or swim, or throw the shotput, or play tennis or whatever it is; great,” Belichick added. “There’s nothing wrong with that and you control everything. You control how you practice. You control when you practice. You control how hard you hit the ball or how soft you hit it or whatever. Play golf. Then you’re your own team but when you buy into a team sport, not just defensively but offensively and in the kicking game, practice for the show-team, practice for the other side of the ball, so forth and so on, then you make a commitment to the team. And that’s different than playing individual sports.”
Unanimous buy-in is very hard to attain. Players’ livelihoods depend on how they show out on Sundays. For every Elandon Roberts -- a rookie who’s pinching himself at the opportunity to be a starting linebacker on the Patriots after being lightly-regarded out of Houston -- there’s a Jamie Collins who was on the cusp of a payday bonanza but was playing under a modest contract and in a system that wasn’t allowing him to just run around and make sensational plays.
“All players, that’s something that all players have to deal with but that’s part of playing football,” said Belichick. “But to your point of Logan [Ryan], he does a great job of that. But yeah, do all players want to play more? Do all players want more opportunities? Of course they do. But we have to try to set up a system and a structure that we feel like gives our team the best chance to win and I think everybody respects that.”
FOXBORO -- Want a sense of what it's like for a player to come into the Patriots locker room in the middle of the season and drop everything in order to familiarize himself with a new place and a new system?
Ask Matt Lengel about his socks.
"It just got to the point where I was living out of my suitcase in my hotel room," Lengel said on Thursday. "I was like, just forget it . . . I'd wear the same thing in the facility. I just didn't care.
"I didn't want to think about having style. I didn't have time to do laundry. I was wearing the same pair of socks for a week, and then I'd find another pair and kind of let the other ones dry out a little bit. That's just what you gotta do. Things happen."
The second-year tight end was signed by the Patriots off of the Bengals practice squad back in Week 9 as a depth piece. But now with Rob Gronkowski on season-ending injured reserve after undergoing back surgery on Friday, and with Martellus Bennett dealing with an ankle issue that has limited him since Week 5, Lengel is a play away from becoming the lone available tight end on coach Bill Belichick's roster.
"Matt's got a little bit of experience," Belichick said this week. "He was on the Bengals practice squad last year so he's picked things up, I'd say, ahead of a rookie type player. He has some experience there and he's got some skills. He's done a good job with what we've asked him to do. Works hard. He's been a dependable guy."
When Gronkowski was dealing with a chest injury that kept him out of the team's Week 11 win over the 49ers, Lengel was activated for the first time and saw the first six snaps of his professional career. In front of a handful of family members who flew in from different parts of the country he played six snaps, including one where he laid a strong block on first-round pick DeForest Buckner to help spring running back LeGarrette Blount for a 20-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Lengel was inactive last weekend against the Jets, but will likely be back in uniform Sunday versus the Rams. He acknowledged this week that he felt as though he's progressed with his understanding of the offense with each passing week, and he indicated he would be ready to do whatever he's asked should the Patriots need him to take on a larger workload.
"Mentally, I feel a lot more comfortable," the 6-foot-7, 266-pounder said. "Even coming into the facility in the morning, going through meetings, sitting in a meeting, being told what to do, everything is just processing a lot smoother than it did.
"When I first got here, I'd get [to the facility], try to learn the offense, then I have to pay rent back at my place in Cincinnati, but then I gotta find a place to live here. Then I'd come home after all that and I'd study. Now that's all calmed down. I go home, and I'm not living out of a suitcase right now which is nice. I'm not wearing the same pair of socks for two weeks just because I don't feel like dealing with it in the morning. It's pretty nice. It's a lot easier."
Remembering those first few weeks with the Patriots, Lengel referred back to something he'd heard about Mark Zuckerberg that helped him get by. Eliminating small choices -- like what to wear -- that popped up over the course of Lengel's day might've helped him save energy to pour into his new gig.
"He wears the same thing every day," Lengel said of Facebook's founder. "He says it's because he doesn't want to spend the energy. I don't really care about trying to impress anyone with fashion here. My fiancee's back in Cincinnati. I'm just wearing the same pair of sweatpants, same pair of jeans for two weeks in a row until I can move into my new place and find a washer and dryer.
"That's the thing for me that helped. It really did take a little bit of anxiety out, a little bit of stress out. You're just trying to cut all the unnecessary out of your life for at least a few weeks."
Soon after he arrived to Foxboro, Lengel described himself to reporters as more of a blocking tight end given his experience. A member of the Northeastern football program before it disbanded, Lengel eventually transferred to Eastern Kentucky and finished his college career with 33 catches for 361 yards.
The Patriots will likely use a variety of players to piece together the responsibilities normally taken on by tight ends in Gronkowski's absence should Bennett need a breather. Fullback James Develin may see an increased role since he meets with the tight ends on a daily basis and understands their duties. Offensive tackle Cameron Fleming could continue to be used as a blocking tight end in certain situations in order to fortify the edges, as he's done in the past.
But there have been times -- like on Wednesday of this week -- when Lengel has been a one-man position group, getting one-on-one tutorials from tight ends coach Brian Daboll. Lengel said he has tried to make the most of those moments, as he has every meeting, in order to allow the Patriots offense to function without a hitch on the occasions he is called upon to be in the huddle.
"The way I look at it is this place is a well-oiled machine," Lengel said. "I'm here coming in to be a spare part. I don't want to do anything to hinder the performance of this team. I only want to try to make it better. Asking any questions, if anything is unclear, coach Daboll is awesome about letting me ask. He encourages me to ask questions because we're all just working for one purpose, and that's the team. That's a huge theme around here, and that's really impressed me about being here. Guys are all in for the team."
It's been a little more than a month since Lengel got the call letting him know it was time to get his suitcase together and head back to the area where his college career began. Coming off of a trip to London with the Bengals for their game against the Redskins, Lengel was watching NBC's "The Voice" with his fiancee when he was informed that the Patriots wanted to sign him to their active roster.
"I was like, 'What? Huh?' In the NFL you just never know who's watching," Lengel said. "That's what's crazy about it. You always have to prepare like your name is going to come up. There's just always that voice in the back of your head saying, 'Hey, your time might be coming soon.' "
With Gronkowski out and Bennett playing hurt, Lengel's time in New England could come sooner than anyone anticipated.