FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the Patriots-49ers trade for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and after an offseason in which San Francisco was a popular pick as a rising team and many were forecasting the end of the Patriots’ run of success surrounding questions of relations between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, little has actually changed.
The 49ers are 1-6 and looking at a lost season with Garoppolo recovering from a torn ACL and facing bigger-picture questions about his ability to avoid unnecessary risk. Meanwhile, the Brady-Belichick combo is coexisting just fine at 5-2 and again a top AFC contender, with Brady reinforcing his desire to play until 45 and Belichick as entrenched in the job as ever.
When I caught up with Brady in a quiet moment in the locker room Saturday, and mentioned the approaching one-year anniversary of the trade, he said, "Time flies, man. It’s going so fast for all of us."
Then he reflected on his connection with Garoppolo, and how they remain in contact.
“Jimmy has been a friend of mine since he came in, so I’ve always kept in touch with him," he said. "He got a great opportunity and I think he’s in a great place for him. We had a group -- it was Jimmy and I for a while, then Jacoby [Brissett] got added. Now it’s just Brian [Hoyer] and Danny [Etling]. I think I’m so used to guys coming and going over the years, it’s just part of the NFL, and any position. But you still have those relationships."
As for himself, Brady relayed that his mindset at 41 years old is similar to what it was at 31 and 21.
"I’ve always tried to take the same approach -- to do the best I can for the team and try to help us win in any way I can," he said. "I think that’s what my role and responsibilities are -- try to be a good example and try to show up every day to work consistent, dependable, so guys can trust me, and then ultimately go perform well on game day.”
2. The death of former Patriots defensive coordinator Rod Rust at age 90 on Tuesday sparked a call to Patriots Hall of Fame linebacker Steve Nelson.
“He was a real trailblazer as far as some of his defensive philosophies and how we played a matchup zone, which a lot of teams didn’t play at the time,” Nelson said. “Especially in the  AFC Championship Game [against the Dolphins], it allowed us to really leave Raymond Clayborn by himself and help everyone else. That was a big thing because we knew Raymond could cover Mark Duper or Mark Clayton, and so the rest of the defensive backs and linebackers were almost double-teaming everyone else. So it was a great theory and it worked great.
“He was a genius, a professorial type. And while he thought all of the deployment was great, he also stressed that if you couldn’t tackle, it didn’t mean anything. So we really worked on the fundamentals of tackling and taking on blocks and shedding blocks.
“His approach allowed us to use Andre Tippett to rush the passer, his best skill set, and Don Blackmon, the other outside linebacker, was really a good cover guy, so all these different defenses we got into was to maximize certain guys’ talents and let them play. Andre, Don Blackmon and Raymond Clayborn were good examples of that."
While Rust didn't have success in his one year as Patriots head coach (a 1-15 record in 1990), Nelson believed it was a situation that any coach would have struggled because of lack of leadership from ownership and no clear-cut quarterback, among other things.
Very sad to hear the news of the passing of coach Rust.. He was a great football mind to be around.. RIP coach! https://t.co/vYFJQ82gBi— Andre Tippett (@AndreTippett) October 24, 2018
3. Receiver Josh Gordon remains one of the most compelling storylines around the Patriots, and last week’s Cowboys-Raiders trade involving Amari Cooper reinforces what terrific value New England received in the trade (Gordon and a conditional seventh-rounder in exchange for a fifth-rounder). Consider that the Cowboys gave up a first-round pick for Cooper, who is signed through 2019 (his salary spikes to $13.9 million next year). While Cooper doesn’t come with the same off-field risk as Gordon, the Cowboys paid a premium price, while Gordon is scheduled for restricted free agency in 2019, which means he will earn between $2 and 4 million depending on what level tender he receives from the Patriots.
4. Gordon’s rise on the depth chart to a top-two role, which is reflected in his snap totals over the past four games (18, 18, 63, 61), has had a significant trickle-down effect on Phillip Dorsett. But in a credit to Dorsett, whose snap total has dipped sharply over that span (57, 42, 3, 8), he’s staying upbeat. “Being the competitor I am, I’m going to stay ready no matter what,” he said. “It’s a long season. Mentally and physically, I’m going to keep doing everything to make sure I’ll be sharp and ready to go. I know all the positions, so whatever happens I’ll be ready to fill in and there’s no drop-off.” That type of professionalism will go a long way in New England.
5. From the behind-the-scenes department: Walk into the Patriots locker room during the media-access period on any given day, and the odds are high that a small group of defensive players will be standing around one of the temporary towel/trash carts playing cards. Spades and blackjack are usually the games of choice. “It’s just a fun thing, we’re not playing for money or anything, but a good way to relax a bit at times,” relayed second-year defensive lineman Adam Butler. The locker-room champion? Word is that Butler and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy are top contenders in spades, while Derek Rivers is quite the blackjack player.
6a. For those who crave football X’s and O’s, and wonder what coaches are often doing in their offices when working 18- and 20-hour days, Dont’a Hightower’s blocked punt against the Bears that produced a touchdown is a notable example to highlight. On the fourth punt of the game, special-teams coach Joe Judge sprang to action by making a 4-for-4 substitution to a heavier unit including Hightower, with the hopes of exploiting a favorable matchup against the Bears’ punt protection unit that was perceived to struggle with power. Who focuses so closely on the right guard on the opposing team’s punt protection unit? A special-teams coach who is locked in on the details of how one play -- and one minor detail -- can make the difference in a game. Players were raving about Judge's preparation this week.
4-for-4 swap to go heavy on punt-rush team sparked block:— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) October 22, 2018
IN: Danny Shelton (6-2, 345), Lawrence Guy (6-4, 315), Dont'a Hightower (6-3, 260), Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 250)
OUT: Nicholas Grigsby (6-2, 230), Elandon Roberts (6-0, 238), Jason McCourty (5-11, 195), Chris Hogan (6-1, 210)
6b. In his weekly film review on Patriots.com, Bill Belichick highlighted the team’s improved kickoff coverage against the Bears, which had traditionally been an area of strength prior to this year. Opponents have an average drive start of the 28-yard line against the Patriots, which means the Patriots are last in the NFL in that category. Houston is the NFL’s best kickoff coverage unit (opponents' average drive start is the 23), and to NFL coaches, a 5-yard difference is huge. So it’s no wonder Belichick decided to highlight that point this week.
7. Did You Know: The Patriots have scored at least 38 points in four straight games, joining the 2014 Cowboys, 2004 Colts, 2000 Rams and 1998 Vikings for the longest single-season streaks since the AFL-NFL merger (1970). According to Elias, the only team to score 38-plus points in five straight games (single season or spanning seasons) was the 1949 Eagles.
8. What were the Bills thinking when they traded quarterback AJ McCarron to the Raiders for a fifth-round pick in September? While he wasn't great in the preseason, and a fifth-round pick had some value, the deal made little sense from a financial standpoint after they had signed him to a two-year, $10 million contract with a $4 million signing bonus earlier in the offseason, and now it looks even worse after rookie Josh Allen injured his elbow and the only other backup, Nathan Peterman, has looked overmatched in regular-season action. That led the Bills to sign veteran free agent Derek Anderson, who is scheduled to start against the Patriots on Monday night.
9. The Patriots had rookie punter Corey Bojorquez in their offices on the morning of Sept. 2, with the intention of signing him to their practice squad. But in a surprise, the Bills claimed Bojorquez on waivers, even though Bojorquez hadn’t punted in a preseason game. Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater said this week that Bojorquez “has a cannon” and the team has to prepare for some long punts Monday night. While much of punting is situational and affected by weather conditions, Bojorquez is currently 12th in the NFL in average (45.8) and 13th in net (40.3). Patriots punter Ryan Allen (eighth in average at 46.6 and 19th in net at 39.1) is in the final year of his contract, and Bojorquez -- had he spent this year on the practice squad -- could have been a contender for the job in 2019.
10. The Patriots’ decision not to sign a free-agent running back this week reflects, in part, the good news they received on rookie Sony Michel’s knee injury (Michel returned to practice for the first time Saturday). Michel likely won’t play Monday night in Buffalo, which means the team either enters the game with just two running backs (James White, Kenjon Barner) or promotes Kenneth Farrow from the practice squad by Monday’s 4 p.m. ET deadline. Farrow, a hard-charging, physical rusher who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Houston in 2016, missed all of last season after undergoing ankle surgery and resurfaced on the NFL radar only when the Patriots signed him prior to the fourth preseason game in late August. He’s a good example of why having four preseason games -- an oft-debated topic -- can be beneficial to players on the fringes of the league. It’s not a stretch to say he wouldn’t be in New England otherwise.