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

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

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Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

FOXBORO -- What could have been an awkward plane ride for Tom Brady and John Harbaugh was made less so thanks to a high school lacrosse player. 

Brady and Harbaugh shared a private plane back from Michigan where Jim Harbaugh and his University of Michigan program put on an event for National Signing Day. About a year earlier, Brady told a room full of reporters that Harbaugh and his coaching staff should study the rule book and "figure it out" after hearing that they were pretty upset about the unusual formations the Patriots ran during their AFC Divisional Round win over Baltimore. 

They may not have been on the best of terms.

"I was pissed off," he told ESPN's Ian O'Connor before the start of this season. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed. ... So yeah, that should never have been said."

But on the flight was Harbaugh's daughter Alison, a high school lacrosse player. When Brady took some time to share a few thoughts on competitiveness with her, he and Harbaugh found common ground.

"We had a lot of fun," Harbaugh said of the flight. "I don't know if he's talked about that at all, but we ended up sharing a plane ride along with my daughter and a couple of his people, friends of his. We just had a chance to just talk for a couple hours. And really more than anything, Alison got a chance to listen to Tom Brady talk about competing and what it takes to be great at what you do.

"And one of the funny things about it was, he was so nice to her. He gets off and they go, and we get back on the plane and we're talking, and she says something like, 'Boy, Tom really is a nice guy.' And I look at here and go, 'Tom?' I'm thinking 'Mr. Brady' would have been more appropriate. She said, 'He said to call me Tom.' I got a kick out of that.

"It was good. Lot of respect for him and a lot of respect for what he's accomplished. He's very tough to compete against. The best quarterback that's played, certainly in this era, without question in my mind. That's how I would rank him. And it's just another tough challenge to have to play against him."

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions (Curran is sitting this one out) on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag.

MG: Q leading off my portion of the always popular, always exciting, always (occasionally?) informative #FridayBag. I think it would be easy to think that way from the outside looking in, or knowing how callous some organizations can be, but I just don’t believe that to be the case here. Players talk. Agents talk. Hell, coaches talk. If the Pats were to operate that way, it would get around the league in a heartbeat. Then why would someone want to play here knowing they’ll be treated even more like a disposable commodity then normal? The flip side to this is actually protecting the player from himself. Guys in the last year of a deal sometimes feel compelled to play through every damn thing so they can at least say “look at me, I’m a warrior!” And on that note, I’d sit Marty Bennett next week in Denver and probably the following week against the Jets if that will help the ankle and whatever else is ailing him heal to the point where he’s a hell of a lot more effective than what we just saw versus the Rams (He was awful). Bennett’s too valuable going forward. 

MG: Lisa, my understanding is teams nominate their player and then it goes to a panel (one that includes the NFL Commish) to decide who wins for the league (It was Anquan Boldin in 2015). Can’t quibble with Rob Gronkowski being the team’s nominee this year. People have no idea how much he does for the community. Heck, we don’t even know the extent of it, but the great Don Rodman of Rodman Car Dealer fame and one of the most incredibly charitable individuals to ever grace this area said that there are few if any athletes who devote more time and effort to charitable works/foundations. I hope he wins. It would mean a lot to Gronk.

MG: You never figured you’d have to worry about the offense, did you Steve? But the season-ending injury to Gronk and now the injury to Danny Amendola does concern me. Both of those guys are incredibly reliable 3rd down targets, and in Gronk’s case, he’s usually the first or second option on 3rd down. Bennett hasn’t been able to pick up the slack because he’s clearly not healthy either. That means the Pats and Josh McDaniels will be going through a trial and error period here to best determine how to improve that number and become more efficient. I suspect more will fall on Julian Edelman, but also look for the continued evolution of the two back set with James White and Dion Lewis.

MG: Ambrose, the Pats have remained incredibly committed to the run because they don’t want to find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, when the run game was so pathetic that neither Miami in the regular season finale nor Denver in the AFC title game paid it one mind. That means rushers pinning their ears back and smashing into Tom Brady at rates no one is comfortable with. So while I won’t be surprise if Brady throws it 45 times, I don’t think they shelve the ground game, at least in the first half. 

MG: Ok Bunk, I stole a comment of yours for the mailbag. Trying to make you famous…yes, I stand by my tweet in which I stated the Ravens and Broncos are bigger threats than the Chiefs or Raiders. Oakland’s defense would give up 40 to Brady. 45 if the Pats needed it. Or 50. I’m dead serious. As for the Chiefs, Alex Smith is not coming into Foxboro and beating this team, even with some of it’s defensive issues. And Belichick will make damn sure that rookie Hill doesn’t get many cracks at touching the football in the return game. Oh, and now the Chiefs best linebacker, Johnson, is out for the year with an Achilles. Should I continue???

MG: History tells us no, David. Brady would throw a fit and argue that he needs to play to remain sharp or iron out this problem or that problem. There’s also the possibility of a bye week looming, meaning he’d go 3 weeks without actually playing in a game. Seems like a good idea in the sense that you don’t risk a 39-year old to a blindside shot, but neither he nor Belichick would ever go for it.

PP: The running back position might be the toughest to project moving forward because there are so many injuries there and there are so many backs who come from nowhere to earn significant roles. I'll say this though: The backs they have on the roster -- not including Brandon Bolden, who has turned into strictly a special teamer after having a difficult time holding onto the football this year -- don't seem to be slowing down. LeGarrette Blount just turned 30 but is in the middle of his best season. Dion Lewis looks strong after two surgeries. James White has taken his game to a new level in his third season. I could see the same group coming back next season, but given the volatility of the position, you know the Patriots will always be scouring for talent there. 

PP: Tom E. touched on this yesterday, Big Wally. Brandon Pettigrew, who was released by the Lions on Friday, might make sense. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot out there. Zach Sudfeld? He's available. Would be an unlikely reunion, but desperate times . . . I think the Patriots will continue to roll out Martellus Bennett at less than 100 percent. I think Matt Lengel could see more work as a blocking tight end as he becomes more familiar with the system. I think we'll see more Cameron Fleming, and we could see more two-back sets with no tight ends. In my opinion, Bennett could use a rest, but I don't think it's coming any time soon. As far as Sarge's question about the hurry-up, I'm not sure we'll start to see more that. It's possible, but one of the benefits with the hurry-up is to keep a defense from substituting to shift matchups in its favor. With Gronkowski or Bennett on the field in a hurry-up situation would have even further highlighted the matchup issues they present. If either one found himself with a slow linebacker on him, the Patriots could have rushed to the line and continued...to exploit...that matchup. Without Gronkowski and without Bennett at full strength, the advantage of the no-huddle is somewhat sapped.  

PP: It's so late into the season, I'm not sure there's much in the way of opportunity for a breakout game this week, Paul. I guess the obvious choice would be Griff Whalen. If he can give the Patriots a pair of sure hands as a punt-returner, that would be a significant enough add that I might qualify it as a "breakout." Bill Belichick made it clear this morning that the team views him as more than just a returner, though, so he could see some offensive snaps in four-receiver sets and provide the Patriots with a presence in the slot. I'd deem a four-catch, 50-yard performance as a "breakout" as well. To me, that's the range of his ceiling for this week. One other name as a potential "breakout" candidate? Justin Coleman. He could be used defensively after being inactive for the last three weeks due to Eric Rowe's hamstring injury. If he's able to help slow down the combination of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith, that'd be a breakout in my book. 

PP: The combined record of opponents they've beaten is actually 26-57-1, including the Browns 0-12 mark twice, but now it's out there. 'Preciate you, Dave!

PP:  There's still so much up for grabs in the AFC West that it's hard to determine the likelihood of Patriots playoff matchups and where those games will be. However, without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll just point out that it's still possible that the Patriots end up on the road in either of these cities in the postseason. On the road, Denver is the tougher matchup. Always has been a brutal place for the Patriots to play, and Denver's defense is still good enough to cause them problems. At home? I'd say, of these two teams, Kansas City would be the one that would provide the Patriots with a slightly tougher test. In my mind, they're a little more balanced and I have more faith in Alex Smith to make plays than I do Trevor Siemien.