Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. The Ravens were the toughest possible matchup for the Patriots in the divisional round and they obviously warrant respect. That was an impressive performance they put forth Saturday night in Pittsburgh. I could envision the Patriots approaching the game similarly to what we saw Nov. 23 against the Lions -- turbo-paced offense and attempting to manipulate a matchup against nickel personnel to attack a potentially vulnerable secondary. The key, as it has been for the Patriots in the playoffs in recent years, will be the offensive line and if it can hold up against a D that has produced 54 sacks in 17 games. It's been an up-and-down season for the Patriots' line, but Nate Solder and the top group should be ready to go, which is all that could be asked for at this point.
2. One of the things reinforced in the wake of Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio’s contract extension through 2020 was that he might have the most unique and varied responsibilities of anyone in his position. Caserio oversees the personnel department, but he’s also part of the coaching staff in terms of attending daily meetings, practices, as well as being part of the coaching operation on game day. Bill Belichick described the role as "very rare" last week, adding that he would be "hard pressed to find another guy like that" in the NFL. Makes me wonder if we see more Caserio types pop up around the NFL in the future.
3a. The Eagles’ new front-office structure, which gives head coach Chip Kelly more power to hire a new personnel director, made me think that the critical linkage between coaching and scouting to which owner Jeffrey Lurie refers is basically the essence of what Caserio does.
3b. With this in mind, I wasn’t surprised when I approached recently signed practice squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert in the locker room this week and asked him about his connection to the club. He explained that in the pre-draft process, he had a private workout for the Patriots at SMU. Caserio put him through the workout.
4. The Patriots haven’t given out their assistant head coach title since Dante Scarnecchia retired following the 2013 season, and I could envision it going to Josh McDaniels should he ultimately stick around. If I’m McDaniels, one of the main things I’m weighing is being well-positioned to be the successor to Belichick (who turns 63 in April) whenever that time comes. Caserio, now tied to New England until 2020, is also one of McDaniels' closest friends in the business.
5. The Patriots missed out on the stellar 2014 draft class of wide receivers, passing on selecting a player at the position. Part of their thinking was probably tied to investing two significant picks at receiver the year before with Aaron Dobson (second round, 59th overall) and Josh Boyce (fourth round, 102nd overall), but the second-year receivers haven't emerged, which should put the club back into the receiver pool again. Here is the good news: Some general managers, like Jacksonville’s David Caldwell, believe the 2015 class of receivers is going to be stacked once again. The not-so-good news: The Patriots' draft track record at the position isn’t very good.
6. Maybe I deserve a 5-yard penalty for naivety, but part of the reason I felt Doug Marrone was a nice fit for the Bills when he was hired two years ago, besides the fact he was a successful coach at Syracuse, was that he seemed to have an appreciation for the region and franchise as a native New Yorker (Bronx native). Here were a few soundbites from his opening news conference that stood out to me at the time:
"I’m not going to stand up here and say I lived in this town [or] I know this town. But I feel this town. The core values here are one of the things I look for."
"I love this area. I love the people I’m working with ... I had some opportunities to make a choice, and I’ve chosen to be here."
"I’m a big believer that when you have a responsibility, you put your nose down and work as hard as you can. From my experience, people who have looked for the next job, or the next jump, really have shorted the organization they’ve been in."
Marrone knew he was entering a situation where an ownership change and potential front-office upheaval wasn’t far away, yet two years later, he opted out of his contract and pocketed $4 million in the process. That’s his right, but if I was a Bills follower, I’d feel misled by a coach whose actions didn’t match his core-value words.
7a. Did You Know: The Bengals visit the Colts today, which is a rematch from Week 7 when Indianapolis recorded a 27-0 home victory, and the last team to win a rematch of a game with a 21-or-more-point deficit was the 2010 Jets (via Elias Sports Bureau). They beat the Patriots 28-21 in the divisional round after losing 45-3 in the regular season in what was probably Rex Ryan’s high point as coach.
7b. Did you Know: Per ESPN’s Stats and Information, six of the past nine Super Bowl champions since 2005 have played in the wild-card round of the playoffs. In the first 15 years of the 12-team playoff format (1990-2004), a team playing on wild-card weekend had won the Super Bowl just twice.
8. If the Cardinals don’t keep receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is due a $16.25 million base salary and will have a $23.6 salary-cap charge, he could be an intriguing New England target this offseason. Since talking with Fitzgerald at the Super Bowl in 2011, I have thought he was someone Belichick would enjoy coaching.
9. The perception of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is more flash than substance, but in reviewing the Associated Press All-Pro team, one thing stood out: First-round draft picks along the offensive line in Tyron Smith (2011), Travis Frederick (2013) and Zack Martin (2014) have all been no-frills foundation-type selections that played a major role in one of the more surprising teams in the NFL this season.
10. Belichick once said that a mark of a good team is how it responds under pressure and in critical times and adversity. It’s the type of thing that can really only be measured in the latter parts of a season, and it’s clear Belichick likes his 2014 team in this regard. This is what he said on Patriots All-Access: "They’re physically and mentally tough. They come to work every day, grind it out and they’re tough. We’ve had moments that have been good and not so good, but they’ve always kept competing. They’ve always been ready to work and try to improve, don’t make a lot of excuses, just play hard and try to get better. And I really respect that."