MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
That is the total number of yards that Cooks has drawn in penalties this year: seven for defensive pass interference (209 yards), five for holding (20 yards, one call was declined) and one face-mask penalty (15 yards).
According to research by ESPN's Stats & Information, Cooks’ 209 yards specifically accumulated from defensive pass-interference penalties on which he was the likely target was a league high, followed by Detroit’s Marvin Jones (seven for 159), Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins (11 for 155), Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (six for 155), Minnesota’s Adam Thielen (six for 139) and teammate Rob Gronkowski (five for 126).
When the topic was brought up to Patriots players during the past week, they pointed out how Cooks’ speed is so threatening to defensive backs. Those defenders sometimes grab him, figuring that a holding penalty would be better than giving up a big play.
Then there are the long pass-interference penalties -- two of which came in the AFC Championship Game, for 32 and 36 yards. They are as effective as connecting on a long passing play, which Cooks had plenty of in totaling 65 receptions for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, and another nine catches for 132 yards in two playoff games.
“If you can gain chunks of yards like that, it relieves a lot of pressure from other areas because you don’t have to drive the ball as long,” quarterback Tom Brady said this week. “It’s like a home run in baseball.”
I went through each penalty Cooks drew this season on film review and one of the common threads was that the Patriots usually scored points on those drives: seven touchdowns, two field goals and just two punts.
2. Gronkowski’s personality, uncommon athletic traits and thunderous spikes draw most of the attention, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick said something last week to highlight an area often overlooked with the All-Pro tight end. Belichick called Gronkowski a “very sophisticated player” before comparing him to one of his all-time favorites.
“He can do a lot of things that I haven’t had many guys, I’d say, other than [Mark] Bavaro, be able to do,” Belichick said this week.
Belichick pointed out how Gronkowski was a raw prospect entering the NFL in 2010, having played just 22 games at the University of Arizona. When I mentioned Belichick’s remarks to Gronkowski this week, his face lit up, and he credited Belichick with teaching him.
“It’s not just one day, boom, you flip the switch,” he said, when asked if he remembers the time he elevated to such a sophisticated level. “I would say it’s a process throughout the last couple years. You’re learning not just about defenses, but ways to get open -- not just beating someone with skill or because you’re faster, but because you know the game of football.”
3. What will Brady do next weekend, after football season is over? Proving that you can take Brady out of California for the last 18 years but you can’t take the California out of Brady, he’s destined for warmer climates. A family wedding in Costa Rica is on the agenda, with Brady noting it’s been an especially cold two-month stretch in Boston, and then a frigid week at Super Bowl LII in Minnesota, so he’s looking forward to escaping the wintry conditions.
4. From the media relations department: For years, hard-working public relations staffers from teams across the NFL who worked the Super Bowl would provide transcripts of various coach/player interviews as a service to reporters, but that changed this year. Instead, audio files were uploaded to a site that reporters could listen to. Why the change? One theory is that it was a result of a New York Times article last year that criticized the NFL for producing transcripts that didn’t include questions and responses about President Donald Trump and his connection to Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Brady. If that’s the case, I can’t blame the NFL for the change. The concept of producing transcripts has long been to help reporters, and yet it brought them criticism. So why do it?
5. From the more light-hearted department: Belichick called an unexpected audible when asked his favorite Jon Bon Jovi song. While everyone figured “Livin’ on a Prayer” was the easy call, he instead went with “Bounce,” proving that his unpredictability extends beyond the football field.
6a. Did You Know, Part I: Patriots 1992 first-round draft choice Eugene Chung serves as assistant offensive line/tight ends/run game coach for the Eagles. His connection to head coach Doug Pederson traces to 2000, Chung’s final offseason as a player in the NFL, when they were both with Philadelphia at the time.
6b. Did You Know, Part II: Former Patriots assistant coach Al Groh has rooting interests on both sides of Super Bowl LII, as his son Mike is the Eagles’ receivers coach, while another son, Matt, is an area scout for the Patriots.
7. Something to file away while watching Super Bowl LII: Belichick gave Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz his first NFL job -- as a personnel assistant with the Browns (1993-95) -- and wanted to bring him to New England after landing the head-coaching job in 2000. But Schwartz, who at that time was on Jeff Fisher’s staff in Tennessee, was promoted to linebackers coach there and was essentially made the defensive coordinator in waiting. Belichick had a lot of praise for Schwartz this week, calling him “one of the smartest people I know.”
8. Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (Lions) and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (Colts) should be introduced as head coaches by their new clubs later this week, and their departures have been expected. Less certain is what will unfold with special-teams coach Joe Judge, as he has an expiring contract. Here is my sense on his situation: Much like an unrestricted free agent, he’s earned the right to see what he’s worth on the open market, where some special-teams coaches are paid on par with offensive/defensive coordinators (which hasn’t traditionally been the case in New England). With Belichick losing his two coordinators, adding Judge to the defections in 2018 would be a triple blow and might require owner Robert Kraft to do what he talked about in the documentary “The Two Bills” when he first hired Belichick in 1996: go over budget to strengthen the coaching staff, in this case by ensuring some form of continuity.
9. One other important coaching nugget in what could be an offseason of significant change for the Patriots: Offensive line mentor Dante Scarnecchia, who turns 70 on Feb. 14 and came out of retirement two years ago, didn’t commit to a return for 2018 but also said at one point last week that he could envision himself coaching another season. With McDaniels’ departure, and no surefire in-house candidate to replace him, I could envision a scenario in which Belichick leans on Scarnecchia to come back for at least one more season to help him in what could be a challenging transition in which Belichick himself might have to spend more time on the offensive side of the ball.
10. Belichick said several times this season how fortunate the Patriots were to have a quality, four-layered depth chart at offensive tackle -- left tackle Nate Solder, right tackle Marcus Cannon (IR on Dec. 13) and top backups LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming -- as the team needed them all at various points. Whether the team can keep that intact in 2018 will be one of many personnel questions to answer in the offseason, as Solder, Waddle and Fleming are all scheduled for restricted free agency. The development of 2017 third-round pick Tony Garcia of Troy -- who spent all season on the reserve/non-football illness list -- would be a big help, but Scarnecchia acknowledged that Garcia lost 40 pounds this year due to illness. Scarnecchia said the club will be patient as Garcia works his way back.
PRE-SUPER BOWL CHECK-IN: A note to readers with more of a personal touch.