FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
There were many nice Buddy Ryan tributes across the NFL this past week, following Ryan's passing at the age of 85. In New England, perhaps the first thought to come to mind is how Ryan's relentless, attacking 1985 Chicago Bears defense contributed to one of the most disappointing days in Patriots history, a 46-10 loss in Super Bowl XX. I also enjoyed this story passed along by former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, which has a Bill Belichick twist to it, and seemed to capture the essence of Ryan's coaching approach well:
"It was training camp of 1995 with the Browns, and it was our first year without Nick Saban as defensive coordinator; he had left to go to Michigan State. I was on the scouting staff, but when our new defensive coordinator Rick Venturi had a medical issue, Bill moved me back to coaching until he was ready to return. That made me coach '15b' on a 15-man staff, or something like that.
"We were headed to Arizona for two days of practice and a preseason game out there with Buddy Ryan's team and he had his sons Rex and Rob on that staff as well. We got to Tempe, on the campus of ASU where we were staying, and Bill told me to run over and visit with Buddy and make sure we were on the same page with practices. It was Buddy's second year as head coach, and Bill's fifth.
"So Buddy comes out and says, 'What can I help you with?' I mentioned that Bill sent me over so we could get on the same page for practices, hand him a piece of paper, and I start going through things, something like -- '45-minute warmup, individual time, and then he wants to do inside run nine-on-seven, with six base plays and four sub runs.'
"And here's Buddy, scanning this sheet of paper, before he looks up and says, 'Tell Bill we're just going to play football.'
"Here I am, a young coach, so I try again, going to the next part of practice -- 'we'll split apart, come together for seven-on-seven when the offensive linemen go one-on-one, and Bill is looking for 10 base plays, five sub and five blitzes if that's OK with you.'
"And here's Buddy, scanning this sheet of paper again, and he looks up at me and says, 'Tell Bill we're just going to play football.'
"So I try one last time with the practice script -- 'We'll get to team drills, we have about 30 plays, and Bill is hoping for 15 base, 10 sub and five blitzes.'
"And Buddy does it again, scanning the sheet of paper before looking up and saying, 'Tell Bill we're just going to play football.'
"Now I have to go back to Coach Belichick, who is so detail-oriented, and what do I say? I basically have to tell him Buddy took the script and basically said 'Thanks, but no thanks. We're just going to play football!'
"And Bill just looked at me deadpan."
It's a classic story, as Buddy Ryan wasn't one to follow any script. That is something that stood out in reading many of the nice tributes last week.
Savage, who is the executive director of the Senior Bowl and serves as an ESPN analyst, passed along the following Senior Bowl thought on quarterback Jacoby Brissett, the Patriots' third-round draft choice out of NC State: "During team drills, one of the competitive parts of practice, he was 26-of-30 and I thought that said a lot. Only four balls hit the ground. Of all the development-type quarterbacks, I thought he was as intriguing as anyone and a worthwhile project."
During his visit Tuesday to ESPN, Patriots receiver Danny Amendola discussed what makes the team's offense different than most for pass-catchers, and he explained it in a way that I hadn't heard before. It was insightful commentary that helps outsiders begin to understand why Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Amendola are part of a smaller fraternity that has won over quarterback Tom Brady to become go-to guys. "In our offense, especially at the wideout position, it's all about feeling. It's about trying to find open space, using your eyes," Amendola said. "Other offenses I've played in, West Coast offense, all the routes are run on steps. I kind of relate it to driving a car. If you're out there on the road and you're following all the signs, you're putting your blinker on, it's kind of like the West Coast offense; you follow the route on the page. In our offense, it's kind of like if you take away all the street signs on the road and you kind of just drive -- you yield and stop at an intersection just by what you feel and what you see with your eyes."
When considering why the Patriots have had struggles with highly drafted receivers in Bill Belichick's tenure (e.g. Chad Jackson, second round, 2006), Amendola's description helps explain some of the reasons. How does a prospect play when not required to follow the street signs? That's tough to answer when scouting receivers for one of the NFL's most unique offensive systems. From what I'm told this year, 2016 fourth-round draft choice Malcolm Mitchell (Georgia) is showing early aptitude in that area.
June was the month of the undrafted free-agent receiver cashing in big across the NFL. First, the Jaguars rewarded undrafted Allen Hurns (2014) with a four-year, $40 million extension, then the Seahawks inked Doug Baldwin to a four-year, $46 million extension. Why was Baldwin undrafted in 2011? Scouts relay that he didn't have a standout trait coming out of Stanford, as he's 5-foot-10, doesn't have 4.4 speed, wasn't invited to the combine, and his college production didn't peak until his final season (58 catches). In the big-picture analysis, scouts point out that Hurns and Baldwin are two examples of how the receiver position is deeper than ever in college because of the way colleges are spreading things out, and more capable pass-catchers are getting passed up in the draft.
Trust between the NFL Players Association and the NFL seems to be at an all-time low, and animosity on the players' side at an all-time high, since the sides came together on the current collective bargaining agreement in 2011. Two examples from last week were James Harrison's response about possibly meeting with league officials to discuss being linked to performance-enhancing drugs in an Al-Jazeera America report, and NFLPA spokesman George Atallah's response to the possibility of adding a 17th regular-season game which was mentioned by Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy. The current CBA expires in 2020, which ensures "labor peace" for at least the next five years, but what happens after that? It's almost like looking to the sky, seeing dark, ominous clouds and knowing a storm is coming.
HAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHA 😂😂😂😂😂 https://t.co/cbkZYQOeyR— George Atallah (@GeorgeAtallah) June 29, 2016
Did You Know: On July 4, 1960, the Patriots opened their first training camp at the University of Massachusetts. There were 350 players present. This year's first training camp practice is scheduled for July 28 at Gillette Stadium. There will be 90 players present.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford recently said that he thinks Detroit's offense could be tougher to defend without Calvin Johnson because Johnson used to be featured and now opponents won't be able to key on him. That might be true, but as recently as 2014, the Patriots seemed to be more focused on receiver Golden Tate than Johnson. That was reflected, in part, in cornerback Darrelle Revis being assigned to cover Tate, with Brandon Browner on Johnson (and safety help consistently over the top).
I'm sure Bill Belichick will have a Patriots staffer watch "All or Nothing" -- the eight-part series with the Arizona Cardinals produced by NFL Films (now available on Amazon) -- to see is there is anything to glean on his team's season-opening opponent. It looks like a terrific behind-the-scenes snapshot of the 2015 season with the Cardinals, starting in the draft room when they didn't get their man in the second round (a great example of how sometimes Plan B can work out best).
Is it too early to start thinking about Patriots at Cardinals on opening night? Not if you're Bill Belichick, who annually assigns his coaching and scouting staffs offseason projects to become more familiar with early-season opponents. Here's one thing that stands out from our own study of the Cardinals: They blitzed on 45 percent of opponents' dropbacks last season, the highest rate in the NFL, and have blitzed on at least 42 percent of their dropbacks in each of the last four seasons, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. I'm expecting plenty of work against the blitz in training camp because of it. That's a big part of the Cardinals' DNA.