Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga has become an important run-stuffing presence for the Patriots who should play extended snaps in today’s AFC Championship Game. One of the reasons he’s emerged from practice squad player to starter is one-on-one tutoring with head coach Bill Belichick. When Siliga was on the practice squad from mid-October to mid-November, there were a few times that he was invited to the team hotel the night before games by Belichick, who went over film with him for about an hour each time. Maybe it’s commonplace for head coaches to spend such one-on-one time with practice squad players, but that was the first I’ve heard of it.
2a. While it’s hard to argue with players maximizing their earnings given their generally short career span, there are examples where sometimes taking a cut is smart business on their part. Running back LeGarrette Blount is one notable example of this. He was on the outs in Tampa this past offseason, needed to revitalize his career, and he made a significant sacrifice to do so – slashing his base salary from $1.2 million to $630,000 to facilitate his trade to New England. Now Blount is scheduled for unrestricted free agency where he figures to make up the lost earnings, and then some.
2b. One additional note on Blount: By eclipsing the 20 percent mark for snaps played in 2013, he earned an additional $100,000.
3a. Seeing Blount’s “Blount Force Trauma” T-shirts brought back memories of 2003 when burly defensive tackle Ted Washington had his “Homeland Defense” hats in the locker room. The apparel have caught on quickly with players as somewhat of a rallying point.
3b. The other connection to the past has been the bug that spread through parts of the Patriots’ locker room, which was similar to the week leading up to the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis. The Patriots faded a bit in the second half of that game in the steamy RCA Dome. They obviously hope to avoid a similar situation in the altitude of Denver.
4. Had the Patriots’ initial intentions at the safety position been realized, veteran safety Steve Gregory probably wouldn’t have earned an addition $375,000 this season, on top of his base salary of $1.25 million. Gregory earned the $375,000 for eclipsing the 70 percent mark for snaps played (72.7), as he was the team’s most consistent starter next to Devin McCourty. When the Patriots had signed veteran safety Adrian Wilson in March, it looked like Gregory might be part of more of a three-man rotation. But Wilson never panned out and Gregory’s value to the team (his smarts have been lauded all season) grew larger.
5. If the Seahawks beat the 49ers today to advance to the Super Bowl, one natural storyline from a New England perspective is head coach Pete Carroll and the impressive team he’s constructed. It all starts with the defense and the “Legion of Boom” secondary. Those who were around the Patriots during Carroll’s tenure from 1997-99 might remember he hoped to do something similar here, where the vision was that 1998 first-round pick Tebucky Jones could have been the 2013 version of Richard Sherman – two bigger, physical cornerbacks playing press coverage. But Carroll felt he didn’t have enough input in personnel and he vowed that if he ever received another head coaching opportunity, that would be a necessity.
6. With Willie McGinest serving as the Patriots’ honorary captain today for the AFC Championship Game, his candidacy for the team’s Hall of Fame came up Thursday during his conference call with reporters. I was surprised that there wasn’t more momentum for McGinest this past year, his first as an eligible candidate. He wasn’t even among the three finalists (Tedy Bruschi, Chuck Fairbanks, Leon Gray). The competition will increase as players like cornerback Ty Law become eligible.
7. First-year Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle that he plans to call the offensive plays in 2014. Just another reason the hiring of veteran defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was a coup for O’Brien, as he’ll have an experienced hand with head coaching experience leading the D when he’s pulled toward the offense. It’s somewhat similar to the current Patriots dynamic when we see Bill Belichick huddled up with defensive linemen on the sideline as the offense, with coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Tom Brady leading the charge, is on the field.
8a. Veteran Patriots defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga had a decelerator in his pact for 2014 if he didn’t play in 50 percent or more of his snaps this season. Sopoaga didn’t hit the mark, which has reduced his base salary for 2014 from $3.75 million to $3.5 million. That likely isn’t enough of a decrease to ensure his return to the team as he’s slipped off the radar as a healthy scratch the past three weeks.
8b. To give a context of where Sopoaga’s contract falls, here are the top base salaries for the Patriots in 2014: Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork ($7.5 million), guard Logan Mankins ($6.25 million), tight end Rob Gronkowski ($3.75 million), Sopoaga ($3.5 million), linebacker Jerod Mayo ($3.25 million), receiver Danny Amendola ($3 million), guard Dan Connolly ($3 million), kicker Stephen Gostkowski ($2.9 million).
9. We’re always interested in the “third” team on the field today and congratulations are in order for umpire Paul King, who has elevated to be one of the best in the business as reflected by his assignment. The 50-year-old King is a native of Central Massachusetts, who has been refereeing football since he was 17. Paul Jarvey of the Worcester Telegram had this nice feature on him back in 2010 after King’s first season as an NFL official.
10. The trip to Denver Friday night had an unexpected enjoyable twist when the person assigned the middle seat was good pal Tom E. Curran. We talked a bit about how fortunate we feel to be covering this era of Patriots football, and to be first-hand witnesses to a 15th Tom Brady/Peyton Manning duel. And as Tom so perfectly put it, what we do wouldn't be possible without you as a loyal audience. So enjoy the game and, as always, the journey.