Over the Patriots’ nearly two decades under Bill Belichick, every year seems to follow a recognized pattern—from the concerns of the offseason through a firm sense of identity and purpose as January approaches. This week The MMQB examines New England’s 2018 season in four parts, Tuesday through Friday, from the perspective of that now-familiar narrative, and what it means for the Patriots’ ninth Super Bowl appearance of the Brady-Belichick era. Previously:
FOXBOROUGH, Ma. — In the fall of 2016, a week before the trade deadline, the Patriots made what appeared to be a pretty inconsequential deal with the Lions. The Patriots sent them a sixth-round pick in exchange for a seventh-round pick and linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Once upon a time, Van Noy had been a second-round draft pick himself, but he had underperformed in Detroit and had spent most of his time there as a backup, and now the Lions were unloading him to essentially move up 24 spots at the back end of the draft.
At his first practice with the Patriots, during a punt drill, Van Noy had a brief conversation with his new coach, Bill Belichick. They exchanged the usual pleasantries, Belichick welcomed him to the team, and then, before taking off, Belichick told him, “I always get my guys.”
“At first I was like, what? What’s that mean?” Van Noy recalls.
In recent years, especially during this second act of the Patriots’ dynasty, Belichick has made a habit of acquiring veteran players midseason, for mid- to late-round draft picks. Maybe the player is underperforming. Maybe he’s being misused. Maybe he’s had behavioral problems. No matter the reason, Belichick targets these players for a purpose, because he feels they can fill a specific role on his team and potentially contribute to a Super Bowl run. When you bring in a player in September and October, as opposed to the offseason, Belichick has said, “you have a lot better idea how it’s playing out, and if you acquire a player, generally, it’s to put that player into a role that you feel is necessary and that he can do.”
Since 2012, Belichick has made midseason trades for Aqib Talib, Isaac Sopoaga, Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, Jon Bostic, and, of course, Van Noy. Notice, all of those are on the defensive side. Belichick made another trade this year, but for an offensive player, Josh Gordon, the troubled Browns’ receiver, in mid-September. At the time, Julian Edelman was suspended and the Patriots’ lacked an explosive deep threat. Over the course of 11 games with the Patriots, Gordon caught 40 passes for 720 yards, an average of 18 yards per catch. He seemed to help stabilize the offense in the middle months of the season, before he failed another drug test, left the team and was lost for the rest of the year.
Whenever one of these new charges arrives, there’s usually “a feeling out process,” says Devin McCourty, the safety who’s been with the Patriots since 2010. It’s hard to come to a new team and start right away, and it’s especially hard in New England. Some of these players will become starters, some will be contributors, and some won’t last long. “Now that I’m a vet, when guys come in, I may not know what they do well at first,” says McCourty, a New England first-round pick in ’10. “But probably within the first week, I’m like: ‘Ohhh, I see why he’s here. He’s here to fill that [role].’”
Talib ended up being a productive starter for about a year and half before he left in free agency. Sopoaga, Ayers and Casillas all became part-time starters, but each left after finishing out their one season. Bostic was mostly a backup. His stats as a Patriot: one start, two tackles. The only one among this group who appears to have had staying power is Van Noy.
In his first practice, after he and Belichick had that little chat, Van Noy made a good impression. He intercepted a Jimmy Garoppolo pass—and then tossed the ball back in the QB’s direction. It was all in good fun; Van Noy had befriended Garoppolo during the draft process. But, Van Noy says, “That kind of set the tone for me, that I’m here to play.”
Well, not so fast. First Van Noy had to master the play book, which is probably the biggest hurdle for any midseason pickup. The Patriots change their game plan week by week more drastically that most teams, depending on the opponent. For his first month in New England, Van Noy was at the team facility from 6:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., working with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and linebackers coach Brian Flores. This all works for the Patriots, because, apparently, their assistant coaches never sleep. Van Noy was so busy that he didn’t have time to find an apartment; he stayed at the Renaissance hotel in the complex next to Gillette Stadium. Van Noy sat two games and had a bye week before the Patriots finally let him play.
Even then, often Van Noy would have to ask Dont’a Hightower, the veteran middle linebacker, about his assignments. “I felt bad when I was on the field,” Van Noy says. “I’d be like, ‘High, what am I doing?’ And he would tell me, ‘You need to learn your playbook!’”
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A week after trading for Van Noy, Belichick shipped Jamie Collins, one of the Patriots’ better pass rushers, over to Cleveland. “It was like, is [Van Noy] Jamie’s replacement?” McCourty recalls. No one knew. Belichick doesn’t make his intentions known, even to his most trusted players. Van Noy mostly spent that first season filling in here and there, but he did record half-a-sack in the Patriots’ comeback Super Bowl win over the Falcons.
The following year, in the season opener against Kansas City, Hightower was coming off an injury and wouldn’t be playing every down, so the coaches made Van Noy the defensive signal caller. McCourty remembers that game being chaotic: the Chiefs running multiple looks, everyone moving around, players frantically asking Van Noy for the play call. “I remember him yelling, getting mad, and me trying to calm him down,” McCourty says. The Chiefs scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and won that game, 42-27.
That was Van Noy’s lowpoint perhaps. From there, he became a reliable starter. He started 12 games that season and had 73 tackles and 5.5 sacks, second on the team. By then, he’d had enough time to get comfortable with the playbook. “I didn’t want to let anyone down, I think that was the biggest thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the weak link of not knowing [the defense]. You kind of feel that pressure here. You don’t want to be that person.”
It wasn’t until this season, Van Noy’s third with in New England, that he blossomed into a leader of the defense. The coaches use him all over the field now—as an edge rusher, as a blitzer, as a cover man out in space. The Patriots’ defense requires their linebackers to be versatile, because their scheme changes so frequently. “In this defense,” Hightower says, “it’s all about the more you can do.” Maybe this is the role Belichick envisioned Van Noy filling someday, back when Belichick acquired him, essentially, for a bag of footballs.
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This season Van Noy started all 16 games and finished with a team-high 92 tackles and 3.5 sacks, third most on the team. Like a true Patriot, he had his best game on the biggest stage: the AFC Championship against the Chiefs, the team that gave him so many headaches the season prior. This time Van Noy had 10 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. He and the New England defense slowed Patrick Mahomes down enough for the Patriots to eke out a win.
Now Van Noy is preparing to play in his third straight Super Bowl. Those few years he spent on the Lions’ bench feel so far away. He still remembers that first conversation he had with Belichick, after the trade: I always get my guys. “I didn’t know what that meant,” Van Noy says. “But now, three years later, I know what that means. He gets guys who can do it all. I feel like I’m one of those guys. There’s Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Tre Flowers. On offense, same thing. Guys that can do multiple roles and do whatever’s best for the team. Now I know what that means, and to me, it’s a big compliment.”
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