Replacements and Repercussions

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Replacements and Repercussions

Eye wuz trying to figger out the bess weigh to demmanstrate what its like to whotch an NFL gayme width replasemint refs, and this . . . iz the best that eye cood come up width.

Siriusly, izzent this seaux unbaleevvibly . . . distrackting? Izzent it sew torcherissly belaybered . . . . . . and drawn out?

Oops. Eye take that back . . . Uppawn further revyoo, ayed like to chainj "torcherissly" to . . . painsteakingly. Everyone ghet that? OK, good. Now if ewell excuse me . . . eye knead about five minitts to remember . . . what the hell I was tawking about . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

Ummmm . . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

OK, Im back. Mostly because I doubt you have the patience to put up with much more of that crap. And I guess you could say thats the biggest (and probably only) difference between this column and the NFL.

Youd click out of this page after a few pathetic, disjointed paragraphs and never come back. With the NFL, theyll keep trotting out 10th rate officials, destroying the leagues integrity and insulting your intelligence every step along the way, and youll never leave.

I know I wont. Honestly, there was a moment during last nights game when I really tried to imagine life without the NFL. I wondered if there was ever a situation where the ineptitude of these replacement refs would push me over the edge. Where I'd say: You know, this just isnt worth it anymore." and really mean it.

But theres no way.

And really, thats the most frustrating aspect of this whole mess. That the owners have us in the palm of their withered, old, money-grubbing hands, and they know it. We see Week 3 as another slap in the face. They see a slew of high-scoring classics, three overtimes and a Sunday night game for the ages. We see a league that doesnt care about its players or fans. They see record ratings and a bottom line that would make Mitt Romney blush. And that's obviously a huge problem. In fact, the replacement refs are currently the biggest problem facing this league which is saying something when you consider that other little issue of the game destroying its players' brains.

But here's the truth: As far as the Patriots are concerned, last night's refs are irrelevant.

A few months from now, when teams are scrambling for playoff spots and seeding, no one will care about last night's officials. There's nothing about that loss to the Ravens that will stand out among the countless other games that have been hijacked by this fiasco. Especially since it's only a matter of time before this fiasco is over. It might not happen today or this week or next week, but I guarantee that at some point before the start of the playoffs, Ed Hochuli and his boys will be flexing all over an NFL field near you.

At that point, these first few weeks will be a distant memory, and the only legacy of last night's game will be the final score. That the Ravens walked off with a victory. That the Pats didn't get the job done.

So, let's ask the real question: Why didn't the Pats get the job done?

Was it because of Devin McCourty? There were a few moments earlier this season where it was reasonable to believe that McCourty was ready to put last year's struggles behind him. Last night with his two dropped interceptions, the worst tackle attempt you've ever seen (on Dennis Pitta's touchdown) and his horrendous coverage on the game-sealing pass interference play McCourty looked more lost than ever. The player who was once thought to be the Pats best first round cornerback since Ty Law was back to looking like the worst since Chris Canty.

Was it a matter of Gronk? Rob Gronkowski was targeted only three times against the Ravens. It was only the second time since the start of last season that he finished a game with fewer than four targets. The other time? Super Bowl XLVI.

And has anyone seen Stevan Ridley? No disrespect to Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden. Neither is the reason that the Pats lost, and they both found the end zone. But here's the thing: A lot of NFL backs can do what Woodhead and Bolden did last night. You give any back in this league (aside from maybe Chris Johnson) enough carries and they'll make something of it. On the other hand, wasn't Ridley supposed to be special? A game-changer? A bonafide feature back that would revolutionize the offense and extend Brady's career into the next decade? A player who you'd probably want to carry the ball more than 13 times in the biggest game of the season and not lose snaps to an undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss?

Furthermore, what's going on with the offense in general? Tom Brady had 11 touchdown passes through three weeks last year. In 2010, he had eight after three weeks. Today, he has four. Four touchdown passes in three games and an offense that barely resembles the juggernaut we envisioned coming into the season. Does Josh McDaniels think he gets points for creativity? Why does he call these games like a stoned college kid playing Madden at 3 am on Saturday?

You know, we could go on forever with questions like this. And there's no doubt that we'll cover all that and so much more between now and next Sunday. After all, the Patriots are 1-2 for the first time in more than a decade. It's only natural to be pessimistic.

But that's only one way to look at it.

On the other hand, through all that pessimism, it's sometimes easy to forget that last night in Baltimore, the Patriots went out on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL in a stadium where the Ravens haven't lost since December of 2010 and were the better team for three quarters. They were the better team, despite playing the entire game without their most versatile if not most important offensive player, and the second half without their "No. 2" receiver. Things fell apart at the end, and there's no question that the Pats players deserve a bulk of the blame. But it's also so hard to take any outcome that seriously when these officials are involved. Yes, the Patriots lost. Week 3 of the 2012 season will always count as a loss. But all things considered, did the game leave you feeling that the Pats aren't on the Ravens level? Even in defeat, do you now consider the Patriots to be anything less than one of the top two or three teams in the AFC?

I don't. Instead, all I really take from last night's game and the first three weeks of this season is that the Patriots are an imperfect team playing in a league where no ones perfect. I mean, come on, look around. The Ravens lost last week in Philly and were insanely close to losing at home to a Hernandez-less Pats team. Yesterday, the Steelers lost to the Raiders. The Jets barely beat Miami. The Chargers were destroyed by the Falcons. The Texans are still going strong, but can they stay healthy? Given their track record and the fact that their quarterback's ear just fell off, I'd say the chances are pretty slim.

I'd say that I'm just as confident in the Pats at 1-2 as I would be if any number of calls or bounces had gone their way last night and they sat here this morning at 2-1. That doesn't mean the loss doesn't burn like a flame-thrower to the brain . . . just that New England's Super Bowl aspirations were unscathed in the blaze.

Itz juss two badd wii kant seigh the sayme about tha replasemint reffs.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

PHOENIX -- Bill Belichick may not be speaking with the media here this week, but there will be plenty for us to examine at the annual league meetings. 

Reporters were informed via a team spokesperson that the Patriots coach would not be in attendance at the AFC coaches breakfast Tuesday morning -- where in the past orange juice has been sipped and tape recorders have been bulldozed -- due to a scouting conflict. 

The breakfast is not mandatory for coaches so for Belichick to use his time at a college pro day (Florida, Texas and Iowa State all have theirs scheduled for Tuesday) or a private workout comes as little surprise. He's been busy on the Trail of Due Diligence in recent weeks, making visits to Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Michigan in order to get a closer look at prospects.

Five weeks behind, remember? No days off. 

Patriots owner Robert Kraft is planning to meet with reporters on Monday so we'll have an opportunity to hear from him on a variety of topics when that comes to pass. 

Here are some of the other Patriots-related stories we'll be doing some digging on this week as we keep you updated with blog posts, occasional television hits, tweets (@PhilAPerry), Instagram shots (@PhilAPerry), and maybe even a podcast or two.

-- What does the rest of the league think when it sees the way the Patriots have attacked this offseason? How will the new pieces fit? Do other coaches and executives see it as Belichick going all in on 2017? Or is this just a case of a team adhering to its motto of doing "what's best for the football team" -- both in the short and long-term?

-- What's next for the Patriots? They're not done building the roster, so where might they turn next? Will they add other lower-level free agents? Will they be looking to trade back into the first and second rounds? Which positions seem to be of interest to them in the draft, and how might that signal the direction this roster is headed?

-- What is the feeling on the future at the quarterback position in New England? We know the Patriots aren't looking to give away Jimmy Garoppolo, but do people around the league really feel as though a haul of draft picks won't get the Patriots to think twice about trading him? Is it possible that in this rare scenario -- where the franchise quarterback is playing at an MVP-level but headed into his 40-year-old season -- people could see the Patriots paying two passers a starter's salary?

-- Will anything happen with Malcolm Butler before the meetings are out? Some have speculated that if his status as a restricted free agent (with an unsigned first-round tender) is to change anytime soon, it could happen here, where presumably his agent will be able to hear offers from one or more clubs in person. Will Butler find a team willing to give him an offer sheet and relinquish its first-round pick to the Patriots? Or will he sign his tender -- whether it's with the intent to play for the Patriots in 2017, or to be traded?

-- Rules changes are coming. We just don't know which ones. Will the linebacker leap (executed by Jamie Collins and Shea McClellin under Belichick) be eliminated? Will Stephen Gostkowski soon be looking to blast kickoffs through the uprights due to the passing of a rule that would place the ball at the 20 as opposed to the 25 for such a feat? Will real-time replay decisions suddenly shift from the officials on the field to the NFL offices at 345 Park Avenue? We'll let you know which proposals are held up, which fall flat, and how the Patriots might be impacted. Belichick and his staff did not submit any proposals for the second consecutive year.

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.