FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Cornerback Malcolm Butler played all 68 defensive snaps in the AFC Championship Game but sustained a knee injury at some point during the course of the team's 20-18 loss. It isn’t serious to the point that Butler is expected to need surgery, but the club wanted him to rest the knee (and perhaps tweak the NFL by ensuring that no Patriots would be present at the Pro Bowl), which explains why we won’t see Butler today in Hawaii. Surely that’s a trip Butler would have wanted to make otherwise.
2. Some players make a quick escape after a season-ending loss, needing some space from what Bill Belichick described as a “crash landing”, but don’t include quarterback Tom Brady in that group. I was told that Brady was present at the stadium every day last week, presumably to receive treatment after taking a pounding against the Broncos. He’ll be getting away in time, but his presence was another reminder of his year-long commitment to his craft. Brady wants to play into his mid-40s and takes care of himself in a way that he hopes will give him the best chance to do so.
3. After the offensive line struggled considerably against the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, there’s naturally been a lot of media-based discussion on what has to happen for things to improve in 2016. Count me among those who believe the issue is more about the ability to run the ball than subpar line personnel. I thought Belichick’s post-game comments highlighted this, as he said the Patriots couldn’t run the ball well enough to take the Broncos out of what they were doing defensively. When you’re one-dimensional and playing on the road using a silent snap count, that’s a tough combination for any offensive line; thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots take a 2011-type approach in the draft (e.g. Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley) and select two running backs. Losing Dion Lewis (torn ACL, Nov. 8) and LeGarrette Blount (hip, Dec. 13) ended up hurting the Patriots more than I could have imagined at the time. Blount, by the way, was seen walking with the aid of crutches as of last week.
4. Belichick has some decisions to make in filling out his coaching staff now that linebackers coach Patrick Graham has departed for the Giants and offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo is moving on to the Chargers. Both had contracts that were expiring. If history is any indication, we could see highly-regarded safeties coach Brian Flores fill the linebackers void, similar to how Belichick exposed Matt Patricia to different spots at multiple levels of the defense before his ascent to defensive coordinator. Flores, who played at Boston College, is an assistant to watch in the coming years to move up the ranks. He's really sharp. On the offensive line, barring a surprise Dante Scarnecchia return, tight ends coach Brian Daboll would seem to be the obvious fit. It was Daboll who worked closely with Scarnecchia in 2013 to help ease the transition to DeGuglielmo.
5. A quick thought on Super Bowl 50 between the Broncos and Panthers: Some of my most enjoyable pure discussions on personnel have come with third-year Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who once told me that he obviously studies the Patriots and how they annually build depth to give them the best chance to overcome the inevitable injuries that hit every team. Gettleman, 64, has taken a Patriots-type approach with the Panthers in a no-frills, ego-less way that makes him an easy guy to root for. There's a good local hook, too: Gettleman grew up in Mattapan and attended Boston Latin School.
6a. Aside from his inexcusable head-butt that led to an unnecessary roughness penalty, Patriots center Bryan Stork caught my eye in film review (coaches tape) of the AFC Championship Game for a different reason: His shotgun snaps were noticeably inconsistent. Of 67 shotgun snaps, I marked 23 as coming outside the desired strike zone, forcing Brady to either bend down or significantly alter his hand placement, thus putting more stress on his mechanics. One example came on the play Von Miller sacked Brady at the 2-yard line, blowing by Cameron Fleming (6:42, third quarter); the snap was delivered at Brady’s ankles and to his right. On that particular play, a perfect snap probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference, but overall, I don’t recall such variation in delivery of the shotgun snap when David Andrews was in the pivot.
6b. I talked to one former NFL center to relay this information, as I was curious if such a film study had any merit. What I learned is that sometimes the shotgun snap can drift to a side depending on which way the center might be sliding protection-wise at the snap, so perhaps that explains why I marked nine of Stork’s snaps as off the mark to Brady’s right. But at the same time, the point was made that for a perfectionist like Brady, such inaccuracy still probably wouldn’t be overlooked. The low snaps, in particular, are the worst result.
7. One Patriots player said things were naturally somber in the locker room after the AFC Championship Game, but the words of fourth-year running back Brandon Bolden helped ease at least one player's pain. Bolden apparently spoke loudly about how the team gave everything it had, and while it hurt to come up short, they had reason to be proud of how they hung in until the end. Bolden enters his fifth year with the team in 2016, with his primary contributions coming on special teams. It sounds like he’s emerged as a leader of sorts as well.
8. The Patriots will have their third medical director in three years after Dr. Matthew Provencher resigned from his position at Massachusetts General Hospital to accept a position in Vail, Colorado. The Patriots were pleased with Provencher, and the change was driven in part by Provencher’s desire to move as a quality-of-family-life decision. That took the club by surprise a bit.
9. With Patriots director of player development Kevin Anderson moving on to the Lions as “chief of staff” to general manager Bob Quinn, my first thought was that his position would be ideal for Jerod Mayo if Mayo (coming off three seasons cut short by serious injuries) decided his playing career was over. Mayo is also that rare type of player/person who could probably transition right into a full-fledged coaching position if he so desired. He is extremely well respected around the Patriots. If Mayo wants to play again next season, my feeling is that he'll probably have to head elsewhere for that to happen.
10. Contract extensions signed by tight ends Travis Kelce (Chiefs) and Zach Ertz (Eagles) provide a springboard to revisit Rob Gronkowski's contract and how it stacks up among the elite. Kelce’s contract is reportedly a five-year, $46.8 million deal, with $20 million in guarantees. Ertz’s contract is reportedly a five-year, $42.5 million pact with $20 million in total guarantees. In 2012, with two years left on his rookie deal, Gronkowski had signed a six-year extension worth a maximum of $55.2 million, with $16.5 million in new guaranteed money. That deal has been a win-win for both the Patriots and Gronkowski; by being proactive the Patriots locked up Gronkowski early and through his prime years without having to break the bank. Gronkowski earned security that was important given his injury history, even if his total guarantees are lower than the deals currently being struck for tight ends.