NFL kickoff change could benefit Patriots

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NFL kickoff change could benefit Patriots

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com

My buddy Rich Levine, who ably columnizes mostly on the Celtics, stepped over today to weigh in on the "safety" issue related to the NFL's kickoff changes. Enjoy. As a practical matter, though, how does moving the kickoff line of scrimmage from the 30 to the 35 impact the Patriots both on kickoffs and returns?Check out some of the numbers. First, on kickoffs, Stephen Gostkowski has gotten progressively more explosive on kickoffs. Here's his year-by-year touchback stats2006: 12 touchbacks on 81 kickoffs (14.8 percent)2007: 15 on 112 (13.4)2008: 17 on 95 (17.9)2009: 21 on 91 (23.1)2010: 15 on 42 (35.7)That 35.7 percent - in limited duty - was second in the NFL behind the Ravens' Billy Cundiff, who had touchbacks on 50.7 of his kickoffs in 2010. (The Ravens can basically just send Cundiff out there by himselfnow if they want to this year.) Only two other kickers were over 30 percent in touchbacks (Matt Prater, Denver: 35.1; Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland: 31.2). Four players were over 30 percent in 2009. Gostkowski was 11th in touchback percentage in '09, but he was the highest among cold-weather, non-dome kickers.Even though he underwent surgery on his injured right quad, you have to figure a young athlete like Gostkowski will return at or even beyond the same level in 2011. He's a ridiculously talented athlete and - with rehab and conditioning what it is these days - the layoff and chance to strengthen could even help him. Mike Reiss at ESPNBoston.com did some research on the touchbacks Gostkowski had in 2010. He found that 22 of Gostkowski's 40 kicks traveled into the end zone (again, 15 touchbacks). If the LOS had been the 35, seven more kicks would have traveled in. So if even five more of those kicks resulted in touchbacks, Gostkowski conceivably would have been at 50 percent. And that's good for New Englandfor a few reasons. Not onlyis 80 yards a long way for an offense to go to score a touchdown, but every touchback means a high-speed, high-collision play on which the risk of injury and the threat to team personnelis high. Take it a step further: Kickoff returns are flash plays that can alter momentum if a big one is broken.
In the AFC East, the Jets have one of the best in the business in Brad Smith. In 2010, Smith led all returners with over 25 returns, averaging 28.6 yards on 50 returns with two touchdowns. Miami's Nolan Carroll averaged 24.3 on 27 returns. Buffalo's CJ Spiller returned a kicoff for a touchdown in the second game of the season but no Buffalo returner was in the top 40 in return average. How does New England's return game get affected by this? Well, Brandon Tate - who was terrific early in the season, then showed an amazing aptitude to not make anybody miss as the season wore on - finished fifth in the NFL among returners with 25 or more chances with a per return average of 25.8. Because his greatest attribute is speed rather than elusiveness, you may see Tate continue to bring out kicks that sail up to 5 yards deep in the end zone (one of his touchdowns was a 103-yard return). But it will hamper the explosiveness of Dan Connolly. Elusive. Not fast.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Garoppolo: Make the best of this opportunity as starting quarterback

Garoppolo: Make the best of this opportunity as starting quarterback

Jimmy Garoppolo, who will start the first four weeks, talks to the media today about trying to take advantage of the opportunity of being the Patriots' quarterback.

Garoppolo takes snaps with first group in 11-on-11 period

Garoppolo takes snaps with first group in 11-on-11 period

FOXBORO -- Less than 24 hours after Patriots coach Bill Belichick called it a priority to get Jimmy Garoppolo ready to start for the first quarter of the regular season, it looked like not much had changed at Patriots practice. 

When the offense ran plays early in the practice -- whether against no defense or in 7-on-7 work -- it was Tom Brady who was the first quarterback taking the snaps. 

Later in the session however, the focus seemed to shift Garoppolo's way, as he was the first quarterback to take snaps during the 11-on-11 and hurry-up periods. It was the first sign of Patriots training camp that things will be different on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium this summer as they prepare to go without Brady as he serves his four-game suspension to start the year. 

From Garoppolo's perspective, though, his late-practice snaps didn't necessarily feel like a watershed moment. 

"Nothing's really changed," he said. "When they put me in for the reps I'm in for, I'll go out there, do my best, and do whatever the coaches ask. Mindset's basically the same."

Since his rookie season, as a second-round pick out of Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo has insisted that his mindset has been to prepare as the starting quarterback -- even though that was an unlikelyhood. 

Now that he has his chance, he wants to make the most of it. 

"It's a great opportunity . . . Gotta go out there, take advantage of it," he said. "You don't get many opportunities in this league, and you might only get one, so you gotta make the best of it."

Garoppolo had a solid first day of on-the-field work, going 4-for-6 in competitive 11-on-11 work. He also went 6-for-8 in 7-on-7 red zone snaps, and he was 3-for-5 (with one rep where he couldn't find an open receiver and held onto the ball) during one period where the team split the field in half to go 4-on-3. 

In terms of the sheer number of snaps, Brady and Garoppolo shared the workload, getting 20 each, with Brissett getting fewer attempts in team work. But the timing of those snaps is what many in attendance paid attention to. 

When Garoppolo got to work with the first group in the 11-on-11 period, he worked behind what appeared to be the first-team offensive line: left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney, center Bryan Stork, right guard Jonathan Cooper and right tackle Marcus Cannon.

The crowd Garoppolo was throwing to was a mix of what might be considered starters and reserves -- which the Patriots often do so that quarterbacks have some chemistry built up with all the team's weapons. His attempts went to LeGarrette Blount, DeAndre Carter, James White, Martellus Bennett, Aaron Dobson and Chris Hogan. 

Garoppolo's quick release was on display throughout, and he didn't appear to make any obvious mistakes. In fact, no Patriots quarterbacks were intercepted on the day. 

Brady, meanwhile, looked like his typically-sharp self. He was 3-for-6 in 11-on-11 work, 5-for-8 in 7-on-7 work in the red zone, and 4-for-6 in the half-field work.

It was an atypical finish to Thursday's practice, however, as someone other than Brady took the first snaps during a competitive period. 

Felger: Jimmy G. may be McDaniels' ticket to a new head coaching job

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Felger: Jimmy G. may be McDaniels' ticket to a new head coaching job

So Josh McDaniels says he wants to be a head coach again?

Perfect. The timing couldn't be better. Because in Jimmy Garoppolo, McDaniels may have the perfect resume stuffer.

If the same man who helped coax a Matt Cassell-led offense to 11 wins and the eighth-highest number of points in football in 2008 can do something similar with Garoppolo in 2016, then McDaniels should be able to write his ticket.

"I want to be a head coach at some point in my life," said McDaniels on Wednesday. "I've learned a lot over the last few years. Hopefully, gained a lot of wisdom. If and when that time comes, I'd look forward to doing it again.''

It's something of a mystery why McDaniels hasn't already made his return to the head coaching ranks. Despite his failure in Denver, it would seem he has sufficiently rehabilitated himself to once again be at the top of most searches. So either he hasn't quite gotten the offer he's wanted or there are some other forces at work that have kept him with Bill Belichick the last few years.

Of course, many have wondered if one of those forces could be a promise of future employment in New England. You know, the heir apparent. So when McDaniels says he wants to be a head coach again, maybe what he means is that he wants to be the head coach of the New England Patriots.

Would that be a good or bad thing?

Judging by McDaniels' work the last time he left Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2009, the prospect is scary. He started out 6-0 in Denver (including a fist-pumping, overtime win over the Pats in Week 5), but then dropped 17 of his next 22 games and was promptly fired. He surfaced in St. Louis as an offensive coordinator the next season, only to lead an offense that finished dead last in the NFL in points scored (second-year QB Sam Bradford started 10 of the 16 games that season). Then it was back to New England the protective glow of Brady.

As for his GM work, McDaniels carries the shame of drafting Tim Tebow in the first round. But he also came away with receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the same draft. He also traded Jay Cutler to Chicago for two first-round picks, a third-rounder and Kyle Orton, a decisive win. In other words, personnel-wise, his two-year stint wasn't a complete disaster.

But most everything else was. He was hated inside and outside the building for his authoritarian nature and lack of experience, a deadly combination. He was caught cheating when his (ahem) video director Steve Scharnecchia (yes, Dante's kid) was caught filming a 49ers walkthrough in London (wonder where he learned that from?). He constantly battled with players. He was reviled.

But that's in the past, and Garoppolo could now be his ticket back to a job he covets. Unless, of course, the Pats go 1-3 under Garoppolo and the offense sputters. Then we go back to talking about Tebow and how it ended in Denver.

Email Felger at mfelger@comcastsportsnet.com. Listen to Felger and Mazz weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 FM. The simulcast runs daily on CSN.