Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Saturday’s news about how the Patriots came to the decision to place linebacker Brandon Spikes on season-ending injured reserve, as reported by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, clears up one question I had about Spikes’ future with the team. One of the team’s top unrestricted free agents, it would be a major surprise if Spikes is back in 2014.
2a. Had Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib not missed three-and-a-half games with a hip injury, my sense is that several of those voting for the 2013 All-Pro Team probably would have picked him as the No. 2 choice opposite Richard Sherman. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson got the nod (voting tabulations here), but talking to those who watched Peterson on a weekly basis say that pick was more reputation-based than the way he played this year. It was actually a down year for Peterson.
2b. As for Talib, after spending some time talking with him this week and learning more about his background, I came away with the thought that his fit in New England is a very good one for both the team and him. Not that the Patriots are soliciting advice from reporters, but if I had to map out some offseason contractual priorities for the team, I’d put a Talib/Devin McCourty combination at the top of the list. They are foundation pieces that could ensure the secondary remains a strong suit for years to come. Talib is scheduled to become a free agent, while McCourty has one year left on his deal and is a prime candidate for an early extension.
3. When veteran receiver Austin Collie re-signed with the Patriots on Jan. 2, it was a one-year pact through 2013 that means he is scheduled for unrestricted free agency on March 11. Collie told me he still wants to play in 2014 and this wasn’t the type of situation -- after a string of concussions and a knee injury -- where he just needed another season before shutting it down. “I wouldn’t be coming here and there, here and there, and trying to fight, if I didn’t want to,” he said.
4. I learned a lot about how Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton was viewed by the Patriots in the 2012 draft after listening to Bill Belichick during his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI’s “Salk and Holley” program. A combination of size (5-foot-9, 178 pounds), playing at a lower level of competition at Florida International, and injury in the pre-draft process led to some uncertainty with Hilton, who was ultimately selected in the late third round (92nd overall) by Indianapolis (one of general manager Ryan Grigson’s best moves). Belichick explained that the team saw outstanding plays on tape against lower-level competition, but Hilton didn’t have great pre-draft workouts because he wasn’t 100 percent, which created some uncertainty. I’m always interested to hear the circumstances that lead to a player being drafted in a certain spot.
5. This stat, passed along by director of the Patriots Hall of Fame Bryan Morry, surprised me: Of the eight divisions in the NFL, the AFC East had the third-best record in 2013 against out of division teams and tied for second best against non-division playoff teams. This is the way it broke down:
NFC West: 30-10
AFC West: 25-15
AFC East: 22-18
AFC North: 19-21
NFC South: 19-21
NFC North: 17-23
NFC East: 16-24
AFC South: 12-28
This obviously isn’t a foolproof way to measure the strength of divisions, but for those who label the AFC East as weak – and one of the main reasons for the Patriots’ domination – this is food for thought.
6. Much like a football team that develops chemistry over the course of a season, and players forging a trust, one would think refereeing crews do the same. That’s why I don’t like the idea of mixing crews in the playoffs. I’d be curious to hear from the officials themselves on what they think of the mixed crews.
7. When reading about Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch getting fined $50,000 for his media silence this year, it brought back memories of a visit to Seahawks headquarters in 2012 when the Patriots were in town for a game. I was talking with Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson, and mentioned how ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi was impressed with him, when a loud, deep voice interjected into the discussion and said, “[Expletive] Bruschi!” It was Lynch, who passed by without saying hello.
8a. The Falcons announced Saturday that former Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox has been hired as defensive line coach. For a team looking to get tougher at the line of scrimmage, we couldn’t think of a more appropriate hire. With Cox coaching the defensive line, and Mike Tice hired to coach the offensive line, it reflects the Falcons’ offseason focus of getting better play up front.
8b. When Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien cleaned house except for longtime defensive line coach Bill Kollar, it made me think of how it can be smart for new head coaches to keep at least one holdover from the previous regime, because they can provide valuable insight from the previous regime. Bill Belichick did it in 2000 with Dante Scarnecchia, Brad Seely and Ivan Fears, and O’Brien’s decision made me specifically think of Scarnecchia as a longtime, respected voice/coach.
9. With the Dolphins in the market for a new general manager after the team and Jeff Ireland mutually agreed to part ways, the hope from here is that third-year head coach Joe Philbin is given a real chance to lead the team in the direction he sees fit. There are two strong examples of a new general manager sticking with the existing coach and having success – John Idzik keeping Rex Ryan with the Jets and Dave Gettleman sticking with Ron Rivera. The counter is what happened in Cleveland a few years back when Mike Holmgren let go of Eric Mangini to bring in his own hand-picked choice.
10. Robert Kraft purchased the Patriots on Jan. 21, 1994, as we’re nearing the 20th anniversary of one of the most important dates in franchise history. Entering Saturday night, the Patriots are 237-114 since that time (including postseason), the best winning percentage in the NFL at .675. The Packers, at 220-128-1, are next in line (.632). Nice 20-year run.