PHOENIX -- Let’s start with a few of the light moments from Patriots coach Bill Belichick's appearance at the AFC coaches breakfast here at the NFL’s annual meeting.
As Belichick arrived at the circular table and saw recorders and microphones piled in front of him, he looked to his immediate left in the direction of Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet and was blinded by Curran’s bright yellow shirt.
Curran, who often brings a light-hearted touch to the proceedings, asked Belichick if he was planning to eat. Belichick volleyed back by noting all the things in front of him, some of which belonged to Curran.
“A computer. Three phones going. What do you mean ‘Am I going to eat?’ Where is it going to go?” Belichick said. “In my lap? There’s not room for anything here.”
Later, former Boston Herald reporter Ian Rapoport arrived at the table dressed in a full suit as part of his duties at NFL Network, and fired off a question about one of the NFL’s proposed rule changes. The question didn’t take Belichick by surprise, but Rapoport’s attire did.
“Jeez, look at you,” Belichick said. “Looking sharp, man. Looking sharp.”
Those types of casual exchanges, and seeing Belichick in a bit of a more relaxed environment, is part of what makes the breakfast a different experience than any other media-related event over the course of the year.
Belichick, who wore shorts and sandals, set some ground rules at various points of the breakfast, saying he preferred to keep all questions to football-specific things.
Here were some of the highlights from this perspective:
1. Still a ‘flurry’ to come in free agency. While the Patriots have used a good chunk of their salary cap space, they still have flexibility to make moves. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will, but Belichick expects a league-wide spike of free-agent movement shortly as the market continues to take shape. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see another flurry of activity in the next week to 10 days, somewhere in there,” he said.
2. Pleased with Mallett’s progress. With trade rumors that perhaps the Browns would be interested in trading for quarterback Ryan Mallett, Belichick was asked if Mallett was a player who could suit up for another team. “I’m glad he plays for our team,” Belichick responded. “I think Ryan improved a lot last year. I think he really had a good season. I think he was obviously, like every player that came out in the ’11 draft, slowed by the lack of preparation heading into the season. But last year I thought he really performed well.”
3. Cannon as possible starting right tackle. With the possibility that starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer might not return (he’s a free agent), Belichick was asked about top backup Marcus Cannon, who enters his third season in 2013. “He’s improved tremendously as a player,” Belichick said of Cannon. “The opportunities he had to play early in the year, and even later in the year, he showed that improvement in games as well as the practice field.” Asked if Cannon could be a starter, Belichick said, “That’s up to him.”
4. Ballard’s rehab on positive course. Belichick said that tight end Jake Ballard’s rehabilitation was on a positive course by the end of last season after he spent all of 2012 on injured reserve (knee). If the rehab continues to progress, Ballard would join a crowded tight end depth chart that includes Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells and Brad Herman. That's good news for the former Giant.
5. Distancing himself from Chip Kelly’s offense. With reporters from the Eagles present, and many having noted the often-publicized link between Belichick and Kelly, a question was asked about the Patriots’ use of Kelly’s up-tempo offense and its influence on Belichick. Surprisingly, Belichick said there is little connection. “You know, Chip is a good friend. I have a lot of respect for Chip and we’ve had dialogue on a number of occasions, but I would say that from a strategic or a football standpoint, it’s been very, very limited in both directions. We talk football and stuff like that, but as far as us running his offense, and him running our offense and stuff like that, I think that couldn’t be anything further from the way it is here.”
6. No endorsement of running back/lowering helmet rule. One of the rule proposals to be voted on here is prohibiting running backs from lowering their head and leading with the crown of their helmet with forcible contract outside of the tackle box. Belichick’s thoughts: “I think the game is pretty hard to officiate as it is. I think this is a real hard rule to officiate. Let’s start with that. I guess we’ll talk more about it in the next couple days.”
7. Tuck rule hurt Patriots, and helped them too. The tuck rule, which could be abolished here at the NFL annual meeting, is often associated with the Patriots because of how it helped them beat the Raiders in the playoffs following the 2001 regular season. But Belichick also pointed out that the Patriots lost a regular-season game to the Jets that year, which is something we had forgotten.