The Unprecedented Expectations of the Defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots

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Thursday September 7th, 2017

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick would love people to believe he’s not reading this story, or anything on this site, or on the internet, or watching anything on TV, and he’s certainly not letting anyone believe he even knows what social media is. But every so often, he’ll put his players on notice: His head is not in the sand.

And so it was that a moment came in the spring when optimism over just what the 2017 Patriots were becoming was boiling over. Could they go 19-0? Could they take on the dominant look their older brothers from 2007 did when Spygate mixed with a juiced-up roster to result in scorched earth?

Belichick wasn’t having it. At all.

“He quickly let us know how good that ’07 team was,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Wednesday. “It was basically, Don’t think you’re touching that. He told us, ‘They broke a ton of NFL records, not just Patriot records.’ That was one moment. … It was a meeting, he threw it out there, he let us know, that wasn’t the case here.”

And Belichick is right. It’s not the case. Yet.

Tom Brady and the Patriots begin their Super Bowl defense Thursday night against the Chiefs.
Billie Weiss/Getty Images

In this week’s season-opening Game Plan, we’ll take a good hard look at the potential for anthem protests across the NFL on Sunday; how the Dolphins are handling Hurricane Irma; where Cam Newton is in his recovery; and examine Josh Rosen’s furious start to his possible final season at UCLA, and the loud statement he made about his NFL potential.

But on this Thursday, there’s just one place to start—right here at Gillette Stadium. And the story here, as the Patriots get set to open the season against the Chiefs, is of a team faced with borderline unprecedented expectations.

It’s a team with arguably the greatest coach and greatest quarterback ever to play, returning from its second Super Bowl title in three years, and fifth in 16 seasons, in position to make history and loaded up like—sorry Bill—that 2007 team was to do it. Consider …

• While that 2007 team stocked up in the offseason with Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Adalius Thomas, et al, it wasn’t coming off a title. I looked back at every returning champion this century, and couldn’t find another one that added immense veteran pieces on both sides of the ball the way New England did in adding Brandin Cooks to its offense and Stephon Gilmore to the defense.

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• The attrition rate here was manageable. The defense lost Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Logan Ryan, and the offense lost Martellus Bennett. In each case, reinforcements were acquired to shore up the holes left behind (though Kony Ealy represents one that already hasn’t worked out).

• The Patriots also get back their second best player, Rob Gronkowski. He was lost for the 2016 season on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the team won it all without him.

• The coaching staff returns almost completely intact, with tight ends coach Brian Daboll (now the offensive coordinator at Alabama) representing the biggest loss. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels turned down the Niners job to stay. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s candidacy for the Chargers and Rams jobs didn’t take. And the result is New England coming into the season with the two touting 16 years of play-calling for Belichick.

Now, there are questions here. The depth of pass rushers and linebackers is one. How the Patriots, and Brady, will adjust without Julian Edelman, their trusted, tone-setting slot, early in the season is another.

But these are high-class problems to have, which is why Belichick felt the need to address the 2007 comparisons during the spring. He reinforced it to players by opening camp with this message for his players in the first team meeting: Last year is last year, and we’re on to a new year.

“The gist was, cut that out of your head, we have to start over again,” said cornerback Eric Rowe, now in his second year as a Patriot. “So ever since then, I haven’t thought about the Super Bowl. I’ve basically forgotten that we won the Super Bowl last year. We’re starting over. We haven’t watched the Super Bowl tape, none of the highlights. That’s over.”

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For the rest of us, it’s not. That game, and so many others over the past 16 years, are why it’s almost impossible to envision a scenario now, on Sept. 7, where the Patriots don’t win the AFC East (they’ve done that eight straight years), get a bye (they’ve had one seven years running) and advance to the AFC title game (they’ve been there six years in a row).

It explains how their odds are 13-4 to win another championship, more than twice as short as the odds of any other team (Seattle is next at 8-1). It’s how they’re a 9-point favorite, according to Westgate, Thursday night against a Chiefs team that was the second seed in the AFC playoffs last year.

“No question, we have great football players,” Danny Amendola says. “But it comes down to playing good. The good news is the season’s here.”

It is, and that means there’s plenty for the Patriots to sort through, like there is for every team, over the next few weeks, as their season takes shape and they develop an identity. But there does seem to be one thing going on here that we can count on.

All that hype? It probably won’t go to these guys heads.

“You guys don’t get to go to meetings,” McCourty said, now smiling. “You’d find out fast, it’s hard to get a big head around here. I mean, from the spring, Bill’s been on us, you’d think we’re one of the worst teams in the league. And it wasn’t unusual. Since I’ve been here, that’s how he coaches.

“I think you’ve heard a lot of guys who were here before say it, you won’t get many pats on the back. He says, ‘There’s no reward in doing your job.’ That’s expected. From Day 1, he’s been on us about being perfect.”

And maybe they can be.

First and 10: On Ezekiel Elliott, Sheldon Richardson, Adrian Peterson and More

Ezekiel Elliott will be on the field when the Cowboys host the Giants on Sunday night.
Al Bello/Getty Images

1. We’ll see if Ezekiel Elliott gets the temporary restraining order that would affectively push the pause button on his suspension while his case snakes through the district court in Sherman, Texas. But while the NFL and Cowboys disagree on what happened between Elliott and Tiffany Thompson, both can agree he needs a wake-up call. And if this doesn’t serve as one for him, it’s hard to see what would.

2. Consider the Jets’ recent trade a gift to Todd Bowles. You heard me right. The team, you might have heard, will have some bumps over the next few months, and thanks to the purge of the spring and summer, the locker room was bereft of veteran leaders. Good thing that incoming receiver Jermaine Kearse is one, given the potential for things to swing the wrong way there.

3. That’s not to say Sheldon Richardson will be a problem in Seattle. His issues were different than Mo Wilkerson’s in New York. The Jets never had a big concern with Richardson’s effort or his passion for football, it was more his overall maturity. And those maturity problems could well have cropped up in what’s expected to be a lost Jets season. But in a place to succeed like Seattle? Richardson should be OK.

4. Intrigue of tonight: How do the Chiefs use Tyreek Hill? All summer, we’ve heard about the plan to move him all over the formation. How does that play out, and will New England’s Malcolm Butler draw the assignment? Both how Hill is deployed and how the Patriots defend him (I’d think big-ticket free-agent Stephon Gilmore may draw Travis Kelce) should be fun to watch.

5. Another storyline for you will be how the Patriots use Dont’a Hightower defensively. Hightower’s health has been an issue, and he failed the Jets’ physical in March when he was a free agent and didn’t play in the preseason. The Patriots need his presence as a traditional linebacker and as a pass-rusher, given their depth issues in the front seven.

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6. Adrian Peterson’s Saints debut in Minnesota is full of intrigue for a number of reasons, but I’m genuinely excited to see what he has left. His teammates swore up and down to me that he’s looked like the same freak he always was. “I played with a mediocre offensive line and still led the league at 30,” Peterson said to me in June. “I just look at things different. If I started buying into what everyone was saying, I probably would’ve retired three or four years ago.”

7. Facing mounting expectations, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, as I understand it, hasn’t changed much. The premise, as one staffer explained it, is that “our expectations are higher than anyone else’s could be.” Interestingly enough, Oakland plays this year’s version of them on Sunday—the young, rising Titans, a promising team that’ll look to make the same leap the Raiders did last year.

8. Joe Flacco is expected to play, and play well on Sunday in Cincinnati. But it feels like his back issue won’t just go away. He’s 32, 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, and when guys are that big and that age, and have a back issues, they generally don’t just resolve themselves.

9. So all three first-round quarterbacks will start the season on the bench, and the fourth one drafted last April, Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer, will start. A lot of that is circumstantial, but it’s still a pretty sure sign that he’s impressed Hue Jackson’s staff with his ability grow up fast.

10. I understand, appreciate and respect those who take concussions, and studies into their effects, seriously. That said, that investigation into Tom Brady, based on a TV interview with his wife, came off as a total waste of time.

Four Downs: NFL Unsure What To Expect From Players During Week 1 National Anthems

The Panthers aren’t concerned whether Cam Newton stands for the anthem as much as they are with how his surgically repaired shoulder stands up to the rigors of a regular season game.
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

1. Anthem protests. There were rumblings in league circles about larger scale efforts to organize players kneeling on the opening Sunday, and that was before Michael Bennett went public with his accusation of being unfairly pinned down and held at gunpoint by Las Vegas police. So what’s the expectation for what will happen in three days?

“I honestly don’t have any expectation, one way or the other,” said NFL EVP of communications Joe Lockhart, who will be with commissioner Roger Goodell at the opener Thursday night. “This is a player-by-player and club-by-club thing, but it’s not like some other things where we have contingency plans in place. And I honestly don’t know what the impact of the Bennett situation will be.”

The interesting thing is that, a year later, there may be more focus on how players will handle the anthem than there was for Week 1 of 2016, when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest was still fresh. So he doesn’t have a job, but the impact of what Kaepernick did certainly still resonates in pro football, even if the next steps are uncertain.

Looking back, there were other big topics I wanted to cover with Lockhart on this. The first was how he’d respond to the protest outside 345 Park Ave. in support of Kaepernick last week.  “We certainly recognize the right of people to come forward and express their views,” he said. “And there was a group out there that did it.” And the second thing was the idea that Kaepernick is being blackballed. “I would say that I don’t have much to add to what Roger’s said. He’s addressed it three times a week for the last four weeks. We’ve been doing 3-4 press conferences a week at these fan forums, and it comes up and he’s addressed it.”

Goodell has told fans that there’s been no effort to keep Kaepernick out, and his hope is that the focus can go from the protests to progress in addressing the issues the players are attacking. Certainly, there are players, and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins is one, who’ve done work to make it happen while they continue with their quiet on-field statements.

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2. Dolphins adjusting with Irma coming. In the 9 a.m. hour Wednesday, Miami coach Adam Gase gathered his staff and players and essentially told them: This is a normal bye week, and you can go home, get out of town, or do whatever you need to do to be ready for the arrival of Hurricane Irma. He could do it, in part, because of how the Dolphins set up Week 1, which was not typical of a normal week. Gase and his staff treated Monday as a Wednesday (which is the heavy work day of an NFL practice week), and Tuesday as a Thursday, with plans to make Wednesday like a Friday (walkthrough and light practice), have meetings and no practice on Thursday, then have a normal Friday after that. Given that the players got two full days of work in before reporting to work on Wednesday morning, Gase saw fit to call off the noon walkthrough and practice to follow.

The expectation is that everyone will report to work for Chargers week on Monday, provided conditions allow it. And from there, the Dolphins will jump into the gauntlet. Their first three games: at Los Angeles, at the Jets, and in London vs. the Saints. On top of that, what would’ve been their bye week now becomes a short week, with the Bucs game coming six days after a Monday night game in Carolina. And erased now is the bye that was fronting a three-game stretch in which Miami will play New England twice. And remember, this is a team that lost its quarterback for the year in training camp, and watched a starting lineman (Ted Larsen) go down on the same day.

Now, this is Miami, and so it’s not like hurricane contingencies are new for the team. In fact, last year, before a November game against Tennessee and with the threat of Hurricane Matthew bearing down, the Dolphins closed their facility and cancelled a Thursday practice—and coaches adjusted by working out of The Bonaventure hotel further inland in Weston. The difference here is the potential for a further-ranging impact of the team’s season. That, of course, pales in comparison to the larger challenges ahead for the entire South Florida community. But it is there.

3. Keep an early eye on Cam Newton. There’s reason for the Panthers staff to be a little on edge going into Sunday’s season-opener, and it’s got nothing to do with what they know about Cam Newton’s readiness for the trip to San Francisco. It’s what they don’t know.

Coming off surgery for a torn labrum, Newton was on a pitch count all summer, and threw a grand total of two passes in preseason games. That, of course, was a necessary part of the process in getting him back after what they hope was a procedure that will have him right physically for the next decade. But it also kept Newton from testing the shoulder and getting conclusive results on where he’ll be in live game action. Yes, he’s made the more difficult, high-velocity throws in practice that have been a staple of his game since he came into the league. What he hasn’t done is truly cut it loose. He hasn’t had to make a lot of those sorts of throws consecutively under duress. He hasn’t had to make them off-platform. And so that’ll be a little bit of an unknown going into Sunday.

The good news is that Newton’s been great otherwise, following a plan to keep him engaged with the rest of the offense as he got himself back to where he needed to be physically. But my feeling is, until Newton is throwing deep comebacks during the fourth quarter on Sunday, at the end of a full day’s work, Carolina’s moderate concerns won’t be truly eased. And then there’s the matter of his offensive line, which will need Matt Kalil to get comfortable quickly playing two spots over from his older brother Ryan on Newton’s blindside.

4. Rosen up the charts. On Sunday night, America got to fall for Josh Rosen all over again. The UCLA blue-chipper seemed to be a lock to become the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft during his star freshman season of 2015, but off-field hiccups and a shoulder injury left him chasing the quarterback, Sam Darnold, of his school’s crosstown rival going into this season. Time for Rosen to rebound? So far, so good.

Rosen completed 35 of his 59 throws for 491 yards—going 19-of-26 for 292 yards and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone—in leading the Bruins’ incomprehensible comeback from a 44-10 deficit to stun Texas A&M 45-44. The thing, though, is that all the people who will decide where Rosen goes in April knew what he was capable of.

“Going into the year, I had two things I my head,” said an AFC college scouting director. “One, what happened last year? Could he have played through? He chose to have the surgery. And the other thing is, when saw I him live, ‘holy s---, he’s talented.’ He’s shown that, going back. He was very talented as a freshman. So now you just let him go through the process and see where he is when he comes out. … But as a pocket passer, he was really efficient as a freshman. If you watch his delivery and mechanics, he just seems to be very advanced at a young age, in how he handles himself and plays.”

Another AFC exec added, “Anytime someone makes a comeback like that, you have to take notice. He got away with some bad mistakes but made plays under pressure when he had to, and dind’t flinch.” At any rate, it should be a fun fall following these guys. Darnold and USC get Stanford on Saturday, while Rosen’s Bruins host Hawaii.

Lesson of the Week: Tanks, But Buffalo Bills Simply Just Rebuilding Foundation

The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 17 seasons. Will 2017 finally be the year?
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Looking at the quarterbacks potentially coming in 2018, I know the temptation is out there to pin the idea of tanking on every bad team that trades or cuts a big-name veteran.

I’m going to tell you, with confidence, that is not what’s happening in Buffalo. And that’s where we’ll give you this week’s lesson: First-year head coaches have to operate a little differently. For Sean McDermott and the other handful of rookie NFL bosses, a little more has gone in to getting to this point than other places with established programs.

Why? Because these early months are when players are figuring out what they can and can’t get away with, and learning to understand what they, if things go right, will be passing down to other players in coming years. And when I reached out to McDermott to talk about that on Wednesday, what he explained sounded a little like buying a fixer-upper and taking it down to the studs.

“It’s in everything we do,” McDermott said. “It’s how we get out of our cars when we come into the building, how we walk, how we talk, how we meet, it’s the teaching that’s going on, the note-taking that’s going on. It’s how we practice, whether it’s training camp, during the season, spring OTAs. It’s how we play, and that’s not only games on Sunday, but it’s preseason games.

“The standard doesn’t change. The standard is a daily standard that’s always there. It’s a challenge, and that’s what we’re in the process of, and that takes time. When we see it, we try and celebrate it. And when we don’t see it, we try and use that to correct it.”

OK, so that’s where you can look at the Bills’ moves over the past month, and explain them without breaking out USC or UCLA tape.

Sammy Watkins, while not a bad guy, had a foot injury that he pushed through last year, and the handling of it led to strained relations between the young receiver and some club officials. Meanwhile, corner Ronald Darby was coming off a disappointing 2016, after the team took a chance on him in the 2015 draft and was rewarded with a stellar rookie campaign. Bottom line, both had baggage—and were gone.

Likewise, star defensive lineman Marcel Dareus was put on notice by the new regime, sent home the day of a preseason game in Baltimore for behavior that’s part of a pattern in his six years in Buffalo. Conversely, later that day, a two-year extension for center Eric Wood—who’s bought in fully and is a team captain—was announced.

Now, the hope is that by McDermott’s second or third year, these sorts of moves won’t be needed. By then, the idea goes, McDermott and Beane will have their people in the building, and veteran players who’ve bought in will be passing down what they’re doing. For now, though, the foundation needed for that still has to be established.

“We’re new, and we’re adding to the roster, and taking away from the roster,” McDermott said. “It’s a little more of a constant, constant, constant focus on the standard. Because if you don’t, that culture’s gonna grow up around you in the form of weeds. If you don’t manage the culture, develop the culture on a daily basis, it’s going to grow around you whether you like it or not.”

McDermott saw Andy Reid do it in Philly in 1999, while he was a first-year NFL assistant, by doggedly sticking to his plan through thick-and-thin. He witnessed it again as Ron Rivera’s defensive coordinator in Carolina in 2011, seeing the rookie coach learn to put his people skills to work, and give players ownership.

McDermott is taking a little bit from both those experiences, and knows the start can’t possibly be completely smooth.

“Over time, when we can show it to the players, and say, ‘OK, that is up to the standard, they can see it and say that’s what it looks like,” McDermott said. “We’re fortunate to have quite a few leaders on this team at the coaching level and the player level, and those guys have done a phenomenal job of carrying forward my message into the locker room. It continues to be a process. It’s not a quick fix.”

The moniker McDermott’s come up with for that standard is “playoff-caliber.” The Bills, of course, haven’t been for a long time.

So the team needed a little shakeup? That shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

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