FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. If the Patriots beat the Jets in Sunday’s regular-season finale to earn a first-round playoff bye, things could happen quickly for defensive playcaller Brian Flores as it relates to interviews for head-coaching vacancies. Bill Belichick making assistant coaches available to reporters this week presented a timely opportunity to go one-on-one with Flores on that topic and more:
Now that you’ve had a full year leading the defense, what stands out to you most about what you’ve learned?
Flores: I’ve learned we have a really great staff, and the importance of each of their roles, and how the things they do are so vital to our success -- guys like [cornerbacks coach] Josh Boyer, [line coach] Brendan Daly, [coaching assistant] DeMarcus Covington, [safeties coach] Steve [Belichick]. That’s been kind of eye-opening. It was a role I had [as linebackers coach] and I enjoyed doing that, but I didn’t realize how important it was until you’re in this spot. You lean on guys for their input. They do such a great job helping me with the game plan. A lot of credit goes to those guys and the players we have. The buy-in on this team -- our veterans, the way they work with the young guys -- it really is a total team effort.
How would you describe what defines a good leader?
Flores: I think leadership is about being honest. It’s about being transparent. I think it’s about putting yourself in the shoes of others. I also think it’s about being tough on people, having high expectations, having a high standard and not letting off that standard. I think you can do that specifically with players -- you can be tough on them, expect a lot from them, but not be somebody they despise. I think it’s important to connect to people. When you can do that, I think you can get more out of them. That’s part of my leadership style. It’s a combination of building trust and building that connection so you can be tough and they know it’s out of love.
Is there a leadership book that you’ve read lately, or one that is particularly meaningful to you?
Flores: The Bible. There’s plenty there as far as how to lead and how to forgive and how to love. I think that’s all qualities of a great leader.
The focus is all about the Jets this week for the Patriots, and there is respect for that. At the same time, because of the way the rules are set up in the NFL, another head-coaching hiring cycle is about to start. What are your thoughts of potentially going through the cycle again after interviewing with the Cardinals last year?
Flores: I would say, "Cross that bridge when we get there, if we get there." Right now the focus is, like you said, on the Jets. This is basically a playoff game for us. Everything is in front of us; all the things we had goals to achieve is in front of us, potentially. That’s kind of where I’m at, my mindset: I’ll let everything unravel the way it’s going to unravel.
From having gone through that interview last year, what did you learn from it that could help you?
Flores: I’d say it was a great experience for me, but with that in mind, I think right now any energy that I put into that is not going into the Jets and what we’re trying to do right now. Obviously, I have goals and things I want to do personally, but that’s for down the line. Right now, my focus is on this team, and this season, and helping this team win any way I can.
2. When Tom Brady reaffirmed his plans to play in 2019 and beyond this past week, my first thought was how his decisiveness and clarity in message should be a springboard to a contract extension this offseason. In my view, this reaffirmation offered a notable difference from last year, when, in the “Tom vs. Time” documentary, Brady said players should do something else when they lose their conviction. Brady invited speculation -- fair or not -- that perhaps it was something with which he was wrestling internally. Not this year. Brady has a salary-cap charge of $27 million in 2019, and an extension would present a win-win for him (more up-front money) and the team (a lower cap number to help better build the roster). Brady’s remarks should give the team additional comfort that he is as committed and invested as ever.
3. Is Brady hurt? That has been a hot topic in New England after his subpar performance against the Bills, who have the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense, and Belichick yanking him with 6:39 remaining and a 24-6 lead. Brady managed a knee injury in November and is as tough as they come, but if he were really hurt with something significant, it’s hard for me to believe he’d be practicing fully each day like he has. My view: What has hurt Brady most in 2018 is the lack of explosive offensive weapons around him.
4. The value of the Patriots’ free-agent investment in defensive end Adrian Clayborn (two-year deal with base value of $10 million) becomes more questionable when considering Clayborn was a healthy scratch in Sunday’s win over the Bills. Up to that point, Clayborn had played 35 percent of the defensive snaps in a niche role as a sub rusher. Because the Patriots wanted more reinforcements against the run, and that isn’t Clayborn’s game, he was not given a spot on the 46-man game-day roster. If he is scratched again this Sunday, it might be an indication that Clayborn faces long odds to return in the second year of his deal, when he’s due a base salary of $3.5 million.
5. Did You Know, Part I: If the Patriots beat the Jets, they will earn a first-round playoff bye for the ninth straight year, extending their own record. The prior mark was four straight byes, achieved by the Cowboys and 49ers from 1992 to 1995 and the Broncos from 2012 to 2015.
6. The four games in which Patriots running back James White played the most snaps this season all had a common thread: Rex Burkhead was still on IR and Sony Michel was sidelined with a knee injury. In those games, White averaged 51 snaps, something running backs coach Ivan Fears essentially acknowledged last week was a concern and not sustainable. “That was a heavy load; we needed three backs,” Fears said. So while the Patriots still want to tap into White’s knack for delivering clutch plays, they also have been mindful of how much tread they put on his tires, knowing there’s still some bigger games ahead.
7. Third-year guard Joe Thuney, who was held out of spring practices as he recovered from offseason foot surgery, has played every offensive snap this season and been one of the team’s more consistent performers. One thing that has been clear when speaking with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia: Thuney has eased the transition of left tackle Trent Brown. Because so much of line play is interrelated, especially for players who align next to each other, Thuney’s steadiness has played a significant part in helping Brown fill the sizable shoes of Nate Solder in protecting Brady’s blindside.
8. From the financial files: Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty maxes out his playing-time incentives at $1 million if he plays 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. He’s at 81.8 percent entering Sunday’s season finale. If he dips below 80 percent, he’ll collect $800,000 instead of $1 million, so he has $200,000 on the line in Sunday’s finale.
9. With the Patriots having clinched the AFC East, here’s what to look for Sunday to fill out the final two spots with 2019 opponents: The AFC West first-place finisher to be determined Sunday (Chiefs or Chargers) will be visiting Gillette Stadium, while the AFC South first-place finisher to be determined Sunday (Texans, Titans, Colts) will host New England.
10. Flores said Patriots undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson (Maryland) has an important trait that can carry him far if he keeps working hard: a short-term memory. Jackson has elevated to the starting spot opposite of Stephon Gilmore in recent weeks, and with bigger games ahead, his rise on the depth chart means he will be stepping into some of the highest-pressure situations he’s experienced in his career. “It’s a testament to his character,” Flores said. “We all get beat at some point -- it doesn’t matter what field you’re in. It’s really how you deal with that adversity and he’s done a good job with it.”