Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin is pure class, so it’s always a pleasure to catch up with him. I had the chance to do so on Friday after he was baptized in the Jordan River. “I’ve been baptized previously, but the honor of being baptized in the same place that Jesus was baptized was something I could not pass up and something I’ll never forget in my life,” he said. “This whole trip to Israel has been one of the best experiences in my life.” The trip, which ends Tuesday, was organized and paid for by Patriots owner Robert Kraft and included 19 HOFers, among them Martin, former Patriots John Hannah, Raymond Berry, Andre Tippett and Mike Haynes, and former Bills running back Thurman Thomas.
1b. Kraft and his late wife, Myra, would sponsor annual trips to Israel. This is the first one specific to Pro Football Hall of Famers, which the Hall has touted as “Mission of Excellence.” Martin, who has maintained a relationship with Kraft since leaving the Patriots in 1998, has sensed how much this particular trip has meant to him. “He and I had a really good talk and I think it’s important to him that there are lives changed for the better, to make us better people,” Martin said. “To be experiencing this with my wife has been a great thing, and then to also experience it with my Hall of Fame brothers makes it that much more special. A lot of us are bonding in a way you don’t get to bond in the Hall of Fame. Mr. Kraft has basically pulled out the red carpet. His intent was to come over, have a good time, and have us be impacted spiritually. I feel like I can speak for everyone on this trip, we have all been impacted in a very spiritual way.”
2. After 12 offseason Patriots practices, it gives us a better idea of the health status of some key players. For example, linebacker Jerod Mayo, who tore his patellar tendon Oct. 12, still isn’t 100 percent as he wasn’t on the field at any point. Defensive end Chandler Jones, who battled through a hip injury last season and was spotted on crutches in February, also didn’t practice. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who underwent surgery on his labrum, wasn’t expected to practice. Add receiver Brandon LaFell (left foot), defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (foot) and offensive linemen Sebastian Vollmer (shoulder) and Ryan Wendell (shoulder), and these are some of the players we’ll be watching in late July to see if they start training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list.
3. The Titans’ release of running back Shonn Greene on Tuesday was notable to me, specifically because Greene hadn’t attended voluntary offseason workouts or any of the club’s 10 organized team activities. The decision to part ways with Greene was made as he was reporting to mandatory minicamp. I thought it was interesting that the Titans’ decision hardly generated any discussion/debate in media circles from an NFL Players Association perspective, similar to what had unfolded following Bill Belichick’s “benching” of Malcolm Butler for six voluntary practices this spring because he was late to the team’s first voluntary workout. I think the Titans would have cut Greene regardless because he was overpaid and underproductive, but to me, the comparison between his situation and Butler’s highlights some of the gray area in interpreting the collective bargaining agreement in this area.
4. Now that the Patriots have signed first-round draft choice Malcom Brown, the next item on their contractual to-do list figures to be with kicker Stephen Gostkowski. After assigning the franchise tag on Gostkowski, the club has until July 15 to strike a long-term extension with him or Gostkowski will be locked in to his $4.44 million tender offer for all of 2015. Gostkowski is the only kicker on the roster, one of the best in the NFL, and his value to the club has only increased with the league moving the line of scrimmage back on extra points.
5. Has anyone connected to the NFL taken more hits than Ted Wells in recent weeks? The latest to discredit his interpretation of science in his $5 million Wells report is ScienceNews, which touts itself as a magazine of the society for science and the public. ScienceNews published a piece that “Deflategate favored foul play over science.” Here’s a suggestion to the NFL: If the league really wants to get it right, why not put any discipline on hold until more NFL-wide air-pressure data can be gathered over the course of an entire season? As commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl, he wasn’t sure if the air pressure of footballs had ever been measured at halftime of a game before. The reason he wasn’t sure was because they probably never have been.
6. When the Patriots drafted long snapper Joe Cardona in the fifth round, there was some question as to his availability for this season based on him being in the Navy. I asked Belichick last week if he had any more certainty about Cardona, and he said, “Ultimately, that’s not really our decision, but the Navy has been very cooperative in terms of his responsibilities. He’s on duty, it’s not like he’s getting out of anything.” As I understand it, the Patriots are proceeding as if Cardona will be with them for 2015 because he has been assigned to Newport, Rhode Island’s Naval Academy Preparatory School. But there’s no guarantees beyond 2015.
7. Belichick annually explains training camp as a two-pronged time to prepare his team for both the season opener and the overall 16-game regular season. With this in mind, one area that Patriots coaches/scouts will be watching closely is how the Steelers’ change at defensive coordinator – from Dick LeBeau to longtime Pittsburgh linebackers coach Keith Butler – alters anything scheme-wise, if at all. The early sense among players, as defensive end Cam Heyward relayed via ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, is that defensive linemen might find they have more freedom to make plays compared to being asked to hold up blockers and keep things clean for linebackers to make those plays behind them.
8. When the Patriots waived tight end Tim Wright 10 days ago, one line of thinking was that perhaps the team liked what it saw from veteran Fred Davis at the position to make such a surprising move. But that didn’t make much sense, because the Patriots still could have kept Wright for depth purposes at a time when 90 players are allowed on each team’s roster. With Davis being cut Friday, it further fuels speculation that there was something more to Wright’s release.
9a. Did You Know, Part I: When the Bears brought John Fox aboard as head coach, it marked only the second time in franchise history that they hired someone who had been a head coach in the league before (via ESPN’s Stats and Information).
9b. Did You Know, Part II: Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston has the most disrupted dropbacks (57) of any NFL linebacker over the last three seasons, which is defined by ESPN’s Stats and Information as sacks plus passes defended plus interceptions plus batted balls. The only player in the NFL with more disrupted dropbacks over that span is Houston’s J.J. Watt (83.5).
10. Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there. Sports are one way a lot of us connect with our dads, and I enjoyed this piece by John McClain of the Houston Chronicle along those lines. My own love of sports was sparked because of my dad, who was a sportscaster in Boston and would hit me groundball after groundball in our yard as we simulated games featuring my favorite Milwaukee Brewers teams of the early-to-mid 1980s and his beloved Cincinnati Reds. Now my dad joins me each NFL season on one road trip (this will be our 10th straight year) as we've had a decade full of unforgettable memories. Every year, we look at the dates and pick the game that works best and the Dec. 13 Patriots-Texans game looks like the winner in 2015; we both appreciate good coaching and it’s hard to beat a Belichick/Bill O’Brien matchup.
Programming note: Looking forward to sharing the ESPN “NFL Insiders” set with my good pal Field Yates, and the always-plugged-in Jarrett Bell, on Tuesday. Hope you have a chance to tune in.