FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. One of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's close friends had traveled to Tampa, Florida, on Thursday with the expectation of watching him play, which reflected how Gronkowski’s deactivation with a thigh injury came as a surprise to even some in his inner circle. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots expect Gronkowski to be ready for the next game, Oct. 15 at the Jets, and my sense from talking to those close to Gronkowski was that if the Patriots-Buccaneers game had been Sunday instead of Thursday, he probably would have been active.
So the quick turnaround might ultimately be the primary reason Gronkowski doesn’t cash in on his playing-time contract incentives by season’s end.
Gronkowski has now played 257 of 365 offensive snaps (70.4 percent) this season. One way for him to hit his top tier of $10.75 million is to reach 90 percent playing time. To hit the second tier of $8.75 million, it’s 80 percent; the third tier of $6.75 million is 70 percent.
Gronkowski is currently right at the edge of the third tier when looking solely at playing time.
He can still reach the first and second tiers based on receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns or All-Pro recognition, which might now be his best hope after missing Thursday’s game.
2. Always great to catch up with Ira Kaufman, the longtime football scribe in Tampa, who relayed a story from early last week about Bill Belichick’s conference call with Buccaneers reporters: Kaufman has a Pro Football Hall of Fame vote and was soliciting Belichick’s opinion when the Patriots coach pivoted and brought up safety Rodney Harrison in the discussion. Belichick is a big Harrison booster, and with the ear of a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter on the other end of the line, he let Kaufman know it.
3. Five games into the season, veteran linebacker David Harris has been active for four games and played just seven defensive snaps, with no snaps on special teams. He’s already looking up at Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Marquis Flowers on the off-the-line linebacker depth chart, and with linebacker Shea McClellin soon eligible to come off injured reserve, it seems fair to wonder how safe Harris’ spot with the Patriots is without a significant injury to another player. It’s hard to imagine this is the way Belichick saw it unfolding when the team guaranteed Harris $1.25 million this offseason. My sense is Harris’ lack of speed, which makes the 33-year-old a potential liability against the pass, is the primary reason he hasn’t carved out a role.
4. Last Monday, the day after the Patriots were called for seven penalties and the Panthers just one, quarterback Tom Brady said the following on sports radio WEEI-FM's “Kirk and Callahan Show” about referee Jerome Boger: “From previous [experience], that crew has called much more penalties on us than the other team.” Brady made it clear he wasn’t making excuses, but his reference to the Patriots’ history with Boger had me researching all the Patriots games Boger has worked since he was elevated to referee in 2006.
The numbers weren’t as strong as I was expecting based on Brady’s remarks, and my conclusion was that Brady might have been strongly influenced by the past four games Boger’s crew worked. In those contests, the Patriots were called for 34 accepted penalties and the opposition just 18. One of the penalties was a controversial call in overtime of a 2013 loss to the Jets when Chris Jones was flagged for pushing a teammate while attempting to block a 56-yard field goal try. It was the first time that call had ever been made in an NFL game, as it was a new rule instituted that season. The penalty shortened the Jets’ winning field goal attempt to 42 yards, and the kick was made to end the game.
Boger’s crew on Patriots
Total games: 12
Total accepted penalties on Patriots: 80
Total accepted penalties on opposition: 71
Times Patriots were called for more accepted penalties: 6
Times opposition was called for more accepted penalties: 5
Accepted penalties equal in a game: 1
5. In that same radio interview, Brady also said he didn’t mind Thursday night football because it can lead to an “extended break” on the other side of it -- as long as it was a victory. With that in mind, the Patriots aren’t scheduled to be back on the practice field until Tuesday at the earliest. The Buccaneers -- who, after seeing their Week 1 game against Miami postponed because of Hurricane Irma, won’t have a bye -- are giving players a similar break.
6. With Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota a game-time decision, 35-year-old Matt Cassel could get the start in his place for Sunday’s road game against the Dolphins. Things are a lot different now for Cassel than when he entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft choice of the Patriots in 2005 (he and his wife now have five children), and when we caught up in the offseason, I had asked him how much longer he thinks he’ll play. “I still enjoy the process. I think the moment I don’t enjoy coming to the offseason and having a tough time motivating myself to go work out and continue to push myself, and it doesn’t seem like I’m having as much fun, I think I’d re-evaluate it. But at this point, I enjoy the team aspect of it, I still enjoy working out and getting prepared, and I still love the game and playing,” he said at the time. “It’s Year 13, and hopefully I have some more football left in me.”
If he has to step in for Mariota, Sunday might give him a better idea of how much.
7a. Did You Know, Part I: Since the start of the 2003 season, the Patriots are 44-6 in regular-season games following a loss, and as a starter in his career, Brady is 44-10 in games following a loss.
7b. Did You Know, Part II: Since realignment in 2002, the Patriots have the best record in interconference games, improving to 50-13 after Thursday's victory at Tampa Bay. Pittsburgh (41-20), Indianapolis (39-24) and Denver (38-23) are next.
7c. Did You Know, Part III: After going 8-0 on the road last season, the Patriots have won their first two away games this season, as the 10 consecutive road victories is the second-longest stretch in franchise history (12 wins between Dec. 24, 2006 and Oct. 5, 2008).
8. Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater acknowledged that the club has yet to play its best football and is searching for more consistency, but it sounded as though he was more tolerant of some of the uncharacteristic miscues made Thursday night because of the short turnaround. “I’ve said my piece several times on what I feel about Thursday games, in regards about player safety and health,” Slater relayed. “But I think what we did, coming off a tough loss, an emotionally draining loss, to come back and refocus ourselves, I think that says a lot about our football team.”
9. When quarterback Taylor Heinicke signed with the Patriots' practice squad late last month, the coaching staff at his alma mater, Old Dominion, had multiple reasons to exult. First, they were obviously thrilled for Heinicke, who had been released by the Vikings after two-plus seasons with an injury settlement. On top of that, ODU head coach Bobby Wilder is a native of Madison, Maine, and a University of Maine alum. Two top Monarchs offensive assistants have Maine connections, as well. They were already big Patriots fans and now have another reason to be.
10. Patriots practice-squad players and their salaries:
CB Ryan Lewis -- $465,000
DE Angelo Blackson -- $255,000
QB Taylor Heinicke -- $255,000
WR Cody Hollister -- $122,400
C James Ferentz -- $122,400
S David Jones -- $122,400
G Jason King -- $122,400
WR Riley McCarron -- $122,400
S Damarius Travis -- $122,400
S Jomal Wiltz -- $122,400
This reflects how much the Patriots want to work with the 6-foot, 200-pound Lewis, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent this season with the Cardinals. When Arizona released him from its practice squad Sept. 12, the Patriots pounced and signed him the next day. The University of Pittsburgh product (51 career games) comes from an NFL family: His father, Will, played cornerback for the Seahawks and went on to work in the front office with the Packers (1997-98), Seahawks (1999-2013) and Chiefs (2013-2017). Lewis’ cousin is Louis Riddick, the six-year NFL veteran and director of pro personnel in Washington and Philadelphia who now serves as an ESPN analyst.