Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. With tight end Rob Gronkowski cleared by all doctors to make his 2013 debut today against the Jets, it is topical to revisit the play, and coaching decision, in which Gronkowski was initially injured. Gronkowski, as we remember, was playing the right wing position on the field goal protection team when he broke his left forearm against the Colts last November, which sparked some to ask the question why such a critical player on offense was being exposed to added injury risk in that role on special teams. For those curious if Bill Belichick has changed his approach along those lines, the answer is a decisive no. The Patriots’ right wing on the field goal protection unit last Sunday was 2012 first-round draft choice Chandler Jones, one of the team’s most critical players on defense.
2. As for Gronkowski, his agent Drew Rosenhaus put out the word on Friday that he had been cleared by all doctors, paving the way for his return to action today. But based on the way Gronkowski practiced this week, it seemed like the decision was made earlier than that. Starting on Wednesday, Gronkowski had a higher energy level in practice this week and had shifted things into a higher gear with his route-running and the intensity of his work, which gave teammates a stronger feeling that this was going to be the week for his debut.
3. The contracts for Patriots players Jerod Mayo, Danny Amendola and Tommy Kelly all include $31,250 per-game roster bonuses, so every game they miss will cost them some money. For Mayo, landing on season-ending injured reserve means he will miss out on $312,500. Amendola is out today, the fourth game of the year he won’t suit up, which brings his season total to $125,000, while Kelly’s second game missed puts his total at $62,500. Also, cornerback Aqib Talib will miss his first game of the season, which will cost him his per-game roster bonus of $23,437.50. Talib also has a $500,000 bonus if he’s named to the Pro Bowl, which is something to keep in mind if he misses time in the coming weeks. In the past few years, the Patriots have seemed to include more per-game roster bonuses in contracts, which one would think agents generally would like to avoid.
4a. Jets rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s claim that the NFL babies Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, which turned into a splashy back sports page cover in the New York Post, is laughable. When I’m looking for NFL perspective, someone with a grand total of six regular-season games played doesn’t qualify.
4b. As for Richardson, he’s been one of the most impressive rookie defenders we’ve seen so far this season. Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso (second round, 46th overall) tops the list. The Patriots, for what it’s worth, had Alonso in for a pre-draft visit at Gillette Stadium.
4c. One other random league-based perspective: When I watch Seahawks safety Earl Thomas make an interception like he did on Thursday night, showing terrific range, instincts and ball skills along the left sideline after initially aligning as a single-high safety, it makes me think he’s the closest safety currently in the NFL who looks like Ed Reed in his prime.
5. The NFL Players Association is no longer pursuing its grievance against the Patriots seeking the removal of team doctor Thomas Gill. When the NFLPA and Patriots settled the Jonathan Fanene grievance last month, a “settlement” on the Gill issue was wrapped into that ruling, as we understand it. The “settlement” had each side sending a letter to its constituents -- the NFLPA to its players about fully disclosing any medical issues (that was the crux of the Fanene issue) and the NFL to its medical staffs about the role of the team doctor as it relates to player care. Most importantly for Gill, he clearly has the support of Belichick, and seems to have plenty of it in the locker room as well.
6a. Did you Know, Part I: With a win today, the Patriots would tie the Raiders for most victories among the original eight American Football League franchises with 432.
6b. Did you Know, Part II: The Patriots enter today’s game against the Jets having won 12 straight games against AFC East opponents. That is the longest active NFL streak against division foes, and the fifth-longest win streak since the 1970 merger. The record is 15 straight, held by the 1972-73 Miami Dolphins.
6c. Did you Know, Part III: ESPN’s Stats & Information notes that entering this week’s games, 65 of the 92 contests played have been within seven points or fewer at some point during the fourth quarter. That’s the most through the first six weeks of a season. The previous record was 64, which happened in 1999 and 2004.
7. Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith threw two ill-advised interceptions in last Sunday’s loss to the Steelers -- both as the Jets were driving toward the end zone -- which reflected some of his overall struggles through six games. Smith has committed 13 turnovers and has been sacked 21 times, which is the highest total of any quarterback this season. The Giants’ Eli Manning (33), Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (32) and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (28) round out the top four on that list. With the Dolphins coming to town next week, Tannehill’s inclusion among the group (he’s been sacked 24 times) highlights how pass protection has been a big issue for the Dolphins.
8. Last year, and even beyond, Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer was the subject of media-based criticism, with some going as far as to detail his background and question if he was qualified for the job. It was easy fodder because prior to joining the Patriots in 2006, Boyer’s coaching experience came at King’s College (Pa.), Dayton, Kent State, Bryant University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Also, it wasn’t as if the Patriots had much success drafting and developing defensive backs. But even then, I thought the criticism was unfair because it wasn’t like many, if any, of the Patriots’ defensive backs were breaking through elsewhere. And now that the Patriots’ defensive backs have been one of the strengths of the team through the first six weeks, is Boyer all of a sudden a good coach? The answer: He’s essentially the same coach, just coaching better players, and as many coaches will say, that’s what makes them look smartest.
9. Belichick paid Stephen Gostkowski one of the highest compliments for a kicker this week, saying, “He’s a solid football player, too.” Not all kickers fall into the same category. “We’ve been around a lot of specialists, but his mentality is more of a competitive athlete,” Belichick said, citing Gostkowski’s collegiate baseball career. “He makes tackles on the kickoff team and works out in the offseason program with the regular position players and competes well with them.” Gostkowski’s 26 touchbacks rank second in the NFL behind Denver’s Matt Prater (35) and he’s 16 of 17 on field goals this season (no NFL kicker has made or attempted more field goals).
10. The Patriots' decision to go with rookie Ryan Allen over incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko was made, in part, due to financial considerations. Allen's $405,000 salary was significantly less than Mesko's $1.3 million, and Allen also was signed through 2015 while Mesko would be a free agent after the '13 season. But that wasn't the only reason. Allen had clearly shown potential and a stronger leg in the preseason, but just wasn't as consistent as Mesko. So the Patriots had to project future improvement in that area and the decision looks like the right one through six weeks. Allen ranks 10th in the NFL in net punting (41.4), while Mesko (37.7) checks in 27th. Allen also ranks 16th in punting average (45.6), while Mesko (42.7) is 32nd. Allen has also served as the holder for Gostkowski, and hasn't had any major issues.