Deion's feeling lucky

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Deion's feeling lucky

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

There's no such thing as beginner's luck in the NFL, but beginners can still get very lucky.

Does that make sense?

Basically, what I'm saying is if you come into this league as a rookie and immediately start taking care of business, then it's not an accident. Of course, a fast start doesn't guarantee a trip to Canton, or even the Pro Bowl (that would have flowed a lot better if the game was still held in Hawaii or if I hadn't pointed it out), but at the very least it means you can play.

If a rookie receiver goes out and grabs 11 balls for 150 yards and a touchdown, you're not going to say, "Eh, beginner's luck." That's not how it works. You'll be impressed, excited, and either run and get him on your fantasy roster, or wish awful things on the friend who beat you to the punch. Guys don't luck into those numbers. They earn them. They deserve them.

So, there's the argument against "beginner's luck" in the NFL.

Deion Branch is an example of a rookie who got very lucky. The kind of luck that takes a young, somewhat unheralded receiver out of Conference USA and pairs him with one of the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

From the very beginning of Branch's time in New England, we knew the kid could play. First of all, he was easily the fastest receiver the Pats had had since a young Terry Glenn. OK, maybe he wasn't faster than Tony Simmons, but certainly quicker (and also knew how to play football). Not to mention Branch had the hands, heart, and boisterous, borderline-obnoxious confidence that typically breeds success at that position.

He paid dividends right away, too, with touchdowns in each of his first two games, and a Week 4 coming out party in which he diced up the Chargers for 13 catches and 128 yards.

At the time, we were all still a little jaded by what had happened with Glenn, so maybe we tempered our expectations to a certain extent. But we knew he had something special. We knew we had something special.

But plenty of "special" player comes through this league and fizzle out faster than you can say Peter Warrick. The ones who stick are the guys who not only have the skills, but, among other things, are lucky enough to have been drafted into a system that best allows them to put those skills to work whether it's the right offense, the right coach, or perhaps most importantly, the right quarterback.

In Branch's case, it was probably all three. But it's the last one that made the biggest difference.

"I haven't felt this way in four years . . . " he said after the game, speaking just about as genuinely as humanly possible. "Playing with this guy, he makes you feel a little bit more than what you really are. I give him so much credit, because he deserves it. I wish every receiver had an opportunity to play with this guy, because he's amazing."

Of course, Branch deserves some of the blame for why it had been four years since he felt the way he did on Sunday. Despite the fact that he'd had the fortune to be drafted by a perennial Super Bowl contender, and to play alongside the greatest friend an NFL receiver could have, Branch forced Bill Belichick to make the deal with Seattle. He fought his way out of town.

That's not to say he was without reason. Regardless of the circumstances that had facilitated his success, Branch (and the same goes for David Givens) had earned the right to cash in. For most players, that chance doesn't come around often; a guy's lucky make even one big payday in this league. So when the opportunity arises, you have to act. You want to be part of a team, but it's impossible not to be at least a little selfish. Otherwise, you'll be eaten alive especially when you're going head-to-head with The Sweatshirt.

So, that's what Branch did. And he got his wish. He got paid.

But in the process, he was forced to say goodbye to a special "something," or more specifically and I say this in the least cheesy way possible "someone" who'd had an indelible effect on his life and career.

There were 10 receivers selected ahead Branch in the 2002 draft, and among them are a few names you'll recognize former Patriots Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and Reche "Eye Balls" Caldwell, also Antwan Randle-El, Javon Walker and Antonio Bryant and a few guys you've already forgotten. Anyone seen Ashley Lelie lately? How about Tim Carter? In related news, who the hell is Tim Carter?

But for all the receivers taken before Branch in 2002, none has more career receptions. Throw in his two rings, and no one in that draft Randle-El's the only guy who's even close will leave a greater impact on the game than Branch.

Does that, in large part, have to do with Branch's own skills, determination and work ethic? Of course. But would he have emerged ahead of those other receivers (admittedly, it's not the most intimidating bunch), if he'd spent his first four seasons with a guy like Akili Smith? Or even just Matt Hasselbeck?

No. Branch is a proud guy and for good reason and even he'd admit as much. He was never the same player without Brady. He couldn't reach those same levels without a guy like Brady to give him the boost; to, in Branch's words, make him feel a little bit more than he really is.

But now he has a second chance. It's the return of Brady-to-Branch. And we're all lucky to have it back.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

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Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

When news broke on Tuesday of Buddy Ryan's passing, it wasn't very long before the NFL community at large paid tribute to one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the history of the league. 

Ryan, a longtime coordinator and head coach, leaves a legacy that includes two sons -- Rex and Rob -- who have carved out length careers spent on NFL sidelines. His legacy also includes a defensive scheme that confounded offenses, particularly in 1985, when the Bears '46' defense dominated all comers. With eight men in the box and just three defensive backs, Ryan's defense could be as confusing for quarterbacks as it was intimidating.

On the day of Ryan's passing, we can add to the list of Ryan rememberances a long quote from a Bill Belichick press conference back in 2012. The Patriots were getting ready to play Rex Ryan's Jets, but as the topic of conversation shifted away from the game itself and toward football philosophies, Belichick explained how Ryan's '46' defense changed the game, and where it can still be seen today. 

(To see the video of the press conference, you can head here. It's a bit slow for the first six or seven minutes, but when Belichick is asked about the idea behind being a "game-plan offense" and which coaches inspired him to take that mindset into his own career, things start rolling. Belichick rattles off the names of those who influenced him, including Annapolis High coach Al Laramore, Phillips Andover's Steve Sorota, Navy coach Wayne Hardin, Baltimore Colts coach Ted Marchibroda and several others. He calls the list of coaches who educated him -- including his father, of course -- a "menagerie." If you're into those types of Belichick responses about football philosophy and his own personal football upbringing, it's a video that's worth your time.)

Here is Belichick's response to a question from Sports Illustrated's Greg Bedard, then of the Boston Globe, concerning Ryan and his '46' scheme. A tip of the hat to Chris B. Brown of Smart Football for pointing out the quote on Twitter early Tuesday. 

Q: You mentioned Buddy Ryan earlier. How come we don’t see more 46 defense? I’m not talking about for a full season – not everybody is the ’85 Bears, but in a one-game situation. Is it because of the quarterbacks and the shotgun?

BB: "A lot of the success that Buddy had with the 46 defense came in the ‘80s when there was a lot of two-back offense. It was one of the things that probably drove the two-back offense out. If you remember back in the ‘80s when Buddy was in Philadelphia, he had a lot of trouble with the Redskins and their one-back offense, a lot of trouble. There were a lot of mismatches of Art Monk and Gary Clark on the middle linebacker and stuff like that.

"I think the 46 was really originally built for two-back offenses, whether it be the red, brown, blue and the flat-back type offenses and eventually even the I-formation. I think it still has a lot of good application; a lot of teams use it in goal-line situations. They either use a version of it like a 5-3 or cover the guards and the center and however you want to quite fit the rest of it, but that principle you see a lot in goal-line, short yardage situations. You see it and some teams have it as part of their two-back defensive package.

"As it has gone to one-back and it’s gotten more spread out, if you’re playing that, it kind of forces you defensively to be in a one-linebacker set. You lose that second linebacker and depending on where the back lines up and what coverage you’re playing, then there’s some issues with that. If you’re in a one linebacker defense and you move the back over and the linebacker moves over then you’re kind of out-leveraged to the back side. If you don’t move him over, then you’re kind of out-leveraged when the back releases and that kind of thing.

"There are some issues there that, I’m not saying you can’t do it, but you have to work them out. In a two-back set, I’d say it was probably a lot cleaner and it always gave you an extra blitzer that was hard for the offense. Even if they seven-man protected on play-action, there was always an eighth guy there somewhere. You didn’t have to bring all eight; if you just brought the right one and they didn’t have him or somebody would have to have two guys and that creates some problems.

"I think that’s what Buddy, really, where the genius of that was. He had by formation a different combination and group of blitzes so depending on what formation you were in, then he ran a blitz that would attack that formation and then when you changed formations, then he would change blitzes. Now, plus the fact [he] had Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, [Otis] Wilson, [Wilbur] Marshall, that was a pretty good group there. You could have probably played a lot of things and that defense would have looked pretty good, especially when they put Hampton on the nose. That was pretty unblockable."

Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

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Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

Tom Brady has never been one to hide his emotions when he's on the field, and it sounds like he's not much different at the ping pong table.

When asked about Brady during an interview on ESPN's NFL Insiders show, Patriots receiver Danny Amendola recalled one story from his first few days at Gillette Stadium back in 2013.

"He's the best teammate," Amendola said. "He's so competitive . . . I remember one story, it was my first week in the building and he wanted to play some ping pong. I didn't know how to go about it. I knew I was better than him, [but] I didn't want to beat him too bad because I wanted him to throw me the ball.

"I knew I was better. Needless to say, his competitive nature unleashed a broken paddle by the end of it. It's the reason we love him, and the reason why he's the best quarterback."

That first encounter at the ping pong table didn't seem to hinder Amendola's relationship with Brady in the least. In their first game together, Amendola fought a groin injury and still ended up with 10 catches for 104 yards in a win over the Bills. Since then, when healthy -- and particularly since New England's most recent run to a Super Bowl title -- Amendola has established himself as one of Brady's most trusted targets.

Amendola and the rest of the Patriots are facing a start to the regular season without their No. 1 quarterback as Brady awaits a decision from the Second Circuit on whether or not it will rehear his case against the NFL. Should backup Jimmy Garoppolo take the reins in Brady's place, however, Amendola said he'll be confident. 

"He's a great player," Amendola explained. "He's been in the system a couple of years now and he's learned a lot. He's picked up everything that Tom has taught him and then also what coach [Bill] Belichick has to offer him. So we're all excited to see where he goes and see what the future holds for him."

Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

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Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

Danny Amendola did not participate in OTA or minicamp practices that were open to reporters, but that doesn't mean he's ailing. 

"I feel really good," Amendola said while paying ESPN's NFL Insiders show a visit. "I had a couple minor procedures done after the season. Everybody knows how long the season can be. I wanted to go into next season feeling as fresh and ready as I can."

Amendola joined a relatively long list of Patriots regulars -- including LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon -- who were not spotted during spring workouts. There exists, however, some optimism that he'll be ready to participate in training camp.

Though Amendola has battled nagging injuries in three seasons with the Patriots, he's often played through them rather than miss time. The 30-year-old wideout has played in all but six regular-season games since 2013.

Amendola is coming off of his best year in a Patriots uniform, finishing 2015 with 65 catches for 648 yards and three scores. He now helps make up a receiving corps that will include Edelman, newly-acquired wideouts Chris Hogan and Nate Washington, Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper and rookies Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien.