Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Setting the stage for player arrivals: In recent weeks, the Patriots’ quarterbacks have been split on separate coasts — Cam Newton throwing in Los Angeles, and Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer leading their own throwing sessions in suburban Boston. Following Newton’s arrival to town on Wednesday, they’re now in the same spot, connections have been made, and they’ll officially come together at Gillette Stadium on Monday.
That highlights a decisive turn on the football calendar for the Patriots, with rookies and quarterbacks among those scheduled to arrive at the facility on Monday.
As per the protocol established by the NFL and NFL Players Association, the focus is on testing before players can enter the facility. Here is what the week will look like for players arriving Monday (followed by a second group on Tuesday):
Day 1: COVID-19 testing (Group 1)
Day 2: COVID-19 testing (Group 2)
Day 3: No COVID-19 testing
Day 4: COVID-19 testing (Groups 1 and 2)
Day 5: Daily COVID-19 testing begins; players with two negative results may enter the facility for the first time.
At that point, there will be two days of physicals. Days 7-14 will cover strength and conditioning work and walk-through instruction only, while Days 15-18 will involve practices without pads. The first padded practice can’t happen before Aug. 17, and there can be 14 in total.
Whoever wins the Patriots’ starting quarterback job — and Newton’s résumé makes him the odds-on favorite if healthy — will have to do it without playing in a preseason game.
It all starts Monday.
2. Impact of head athletic trainer: ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick tweeted last week about the unsung staffers across the NFL — head athletic trainers who will be playing an instrumental role in teams returning to safe facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. For the Patriots, that’s Jim Whalen, the Bridgewater State (Massachusetts) alum who has been in the position since 2002.
“I have a ton of respect for Jim. That’s a tough position to be in,” said former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, a two-time Super Bowl champion who is an NFL analyst for ESPN. “He has to care for 80 players. Every single guy that walks into that building, he has to make sure they’re ready to go and at the top of their game.
“I’m sure he’s working overtime, trying to figure out the logistics, doing what the doctors and guys above him are told to do, making sure everyone is on the same page with the guidelines. I don’t see an easy answer on how to get 80 guys socially distancing the right way inside the facility — taping ankles, doing rehab, all that stuff. I’m sure Jim’s trying to figure [it] out, using every resource available. I can’t think of a better trainer to come up with a plan.”
Former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham, a three-time Super Bowl champion who is an analyst for the New England Sports Network, said the health of Whalen and his staff can’t be overlooked.
The MVP’s of this upcoming football season, at every level, are the training & medical staffs of each team. The importance of their professional competence CAN NOT be emphasized enough. They have a 24/7 job with unlimited unknowns to contend with for the foreseeable future.
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) July 21, 2020
“What if Jim catches something? It sounds morbid, and you don’t want to say that, but most of the conversations surround the players, understandably so,” Chatham said. “But [trainers] are the people — they can’t not touch, they can’t not get close. They have to treat you. It’s a very hands-on profession. It’s [a] part of this we haven’t talked very much about.
“What if you have that type of interruption? The entire training staff getting wiped out for a couple weeks? How in the world do you continue to function? We can’t forget about those guys. That has to be terrifying for his family.
“These guys are incredibly underappreciated to begin with. They keep some of the worst hours of anyone in our profession, and now this is such a massive unknown for those people in what is going to be the hardest season as far as unknowns go that they’ll ever have.”
3. Equipped to handle ’21 cap: As part of the agreement reached between players and owners Friday to return to training camp on time, a key consideration is that the 2021 salary cap will have a floor of $175 million in the event of lost revenues. That would be notably less than projections (this year’s cap is $198 million), and force some teams into a tight spot. Consider that 14 teams have 2021 cap commitments over that figure, according to OverTheCap.com. The Patriots, however, aren’t one of them — they have about $125 million in cap commitments for next season, one of the lowest figures in the NFL.
Louis Riddick is confident the skepticism about Cam Newton’s comeback season with the Patriots will fuel a strong performance by the determined quarterback.
“My head popped off when I saw how much he signed for. It’s the all-time greatest deal.”
“From talking to guys that have played in New England, I think the public persona of Bill [Belichick] is one thing, and I’m sure there’s truth to some of that. But I think behind closed doors, he understands what each of his players individually needs — the support, the space at times — to bring out their best. If you look across Belichick’s coaching career, he’s coached a lot of different style players. The one thing he’s going to learn about Cam is that no one wants to win more. And no one is going to come every day and practice harder and train harder and prepare better.”
5. Will Patriots cut to 80 right away? One thing that should be learned in the next few days is how much Belichick values the opportunity to bring an extra 10 players to training camp. Every team can bring a full 90-man roster to the start of camp but will be required to work in a split-squad format until reducing rosters to 80 by Aug. 16. The other option for teams is to reduce to an 80-man roster by July 28, and that means the Patriots wouldn’t have to work in a split-squad format at any point. Essentially, the question comes down to this: Are the 10 final roster spots, which might consist of players with long odds to make the team anyway, worth sacrificing the chance to work in a full-squad setting until Aug. 16?
6. Value of McDaniels’ presence: While the Patriots don’t place a high priority on job titles under Belichick, it seems fair to say offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be the most likely assistant to assume any type of interim head coach role if the situation called for it. Belichick has spoken in the past about how fortunate he feels to have McDaniels, and here’s something else that reflects McDaniels’ value to the franchise: He is one of just two offensive coordinators in the NFL who has been in the position with the same team for more than two seasons, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research. McDaniels has been the Patriots’ OC since 2012, while Pete Carmichael Jr. has held the position for the Saints since 2009.
7. Keeping coaches safe, too: Patriots safety Devin McCourty has been prolific this offseason, with his “Double Coverage” podcast each Sunday night an insightful addition to the media landscape. The next podcast, featuring linebacker Dont’a Hightower, might be the last one for a while as training camp/acclimation to football gets underway.
One thing McCourty said last week was that the safety measures players have been seeking because of the coronavirus pandemic go beyond themselves: “Throw coaches in there, too. We have coaches who are in their mid- to upper 60s trying to get the job done. That is a little nerve-wracking.” McCourty seemed to be referencing Belichick (68) and running backs coach Ivan Fears (65), who fall into a high-risk category for the virus, and he said everyone in the organization needs to treat each other like family.
8. Chiefs’ chatter: The Patriots were the last franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowl championships, in 2003 and 2004, which reinforces how difficult it can be to repeat. Players often said the target on reigning Super Bowl champions is hard to understand unless you’ve lived with it, which came to mind after hearing defensive tackle Chris Jones and receiver Tyreek Hill set the bar high for the Chiefs’ Super Bowl aspirations — five to seven titles. Optimism can be good, and the Chiefs have a lot of good things going for them, but some of their top players could find out quickly that a second championship in 2020 is a lot harder than they envisioned.
9. Belichick leads in longevity: Mike Zimmer’s contract extension as Vikings head coach as he enters his seventh season shines a spotlight on longevity in the NFL coaching ranks. Zimmer is tied with Houston’s Bill O’Brien as the league’s seventh-longest-tenured head coach. Only Belichick (since 2000), New Orleans’ Sean Payton (2006), Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin (2007), Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (2008), Seattle’s Pete Carroll (2010) and Kansas City’s Andy Reid (2013) have been the head coach of their teams longer.
10a. Did You Know, Part I: The Vikings are one of five teams with at least eight wins in each of the past five seasons, joining the Patriots, Chiefs, Steelers and Seahawks.
10b. Did You Know, Part II: Since Zimmer took over as Vikings coach, only New England has allowed fewer points per game than Minnesota.
Raiders’ Jon Gruden calls backup QB Marcus Mariota ‘dazzling playmaker’
HENDERSON, Nev. — While Derek Carr is firmly entrenched as the Las Vegas Raiders starting quarterback, the guy signed to be his backup, Marcus Mariota, impressed coach Jon Gruden on Friday, the third practice of training camp in which players wore helmets.
“He’s interesting,” Gruden said with a smile of Mariota. “He took off a couple times today and it really fired me up. He’s been hurt, but looks like the ankle really turned a corner. He’s a dazzling playmaker with his feet and that’s the key to his game.
“I saw glimpses of that today. It’s exciting. Started off slow on 7-on-7 [drills], but [he] picked it up, had a nice day. Had a real nice day.”
Indeed, Mariota, who lost his starting job with the Tennessee Titans to Ryan Tannehill last season, struggled early in practice, missing tight end Jason Witten badly on an intermediate pass to the right sideline. And he throws a different ball than Carr.
But it is Mariota’s scrambling ability and willingness to extend plays with his legs that makes him a good fit for Gruden’s offense. Even as Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, has said since signing as a free agent with Las Vegas in March that the Raiders were Carr’s team.
In fact, both Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft by the Titans, and Carr, a second-round pick of the Raiders in 2014, suffered season-ending broken legs on the same day in Week 16 of the 2016 season.
“It’s like weird, crazy things that link you together,” Carr said earlier in camp.
“I’ll tell you one thing, in our quarterback group you have to compete and that’s what I do. Anyone that’s around me, all I’m going to do is compete. I’ve had multiple starters in the NFL come in here and be in the same room as me. You can go through the list about who’s started games and who’s been in our quarterback room. It happens all the time, but when you go 7-9, people like to make up stuff.”
Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said Mariota would push Carr, a three-time Pro Bowler and the franchise’s all-time leading passer who is coming off career highs in passing yardage (4,054), completion percentage (70.4%) and Total QBR (62.2) but is just 39-55 as a starter, with one winning season in six years.
And as Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN.com, “The best quarterbacks are the ones that have the wins; stats will follow.”
Mariota is 29-32 as a starter.
“Competition brings out the best in any player in any sport,” Olson said.
“I would say it’s the best competition that we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett ‘had lot of hesitation’ about playing before deciding not to opt out
Lockett’s concern stemmed from a preexisting heart abnormality as well as the fact that much of his family has asthma. Before the Seahawks drafted Lockett in the third round in 2015, medical checks at the scouting combine revealed that his aorta is on his right side. At the time, Lockett was briefly unsure if he would be able to continue playing football.
“So just with everything that happened in COVID, that was one of my biggest issues was just trying to make sure [this heart condition] wasn’t gonna affect me if I was able to go out there and play,” Lockett said Friday on a video conference with reporters. “Obviously, nobody really knows. You’ve got doctors who kind of give you what you need to know up front, what they think and what their biggest opinion is of it, but I think I had my chance to opt out, and I said that if I come up here, I’m gonna just play.
“I know that we’ve got Pete [Carroll], we’ve got a lot of older coaches. They don’t want to put themselves in a situation to get sick neither, so I told myself if they could do it then I know I could do it. And if I’m going to come out here and play, then I’m just going to do what needs to be done. I’m not going to stress about COVID. I did that from February to before we came into camp.”
The 27-year-old Lockett has led the Seahawks in receiving in each of the past two seasons.
His family experienced a scare earlier this year when a cousin contracted COVID-19. The woman had previously lived with Lockett in Seattle.
“It was bad,” he said. “I would get messages from her mom and she would send me like a long paragraph and stuff because my cousin never told me. She was just telling me how she was having a hard time breathing, she really didn’t feel good, and when I ended up talking to my cousin after she ended up overcoming it, she had told me that there was one day where her body was just aching so much she had told a woman … basically like she really didn’t think she was going to make it. She was like, she didn’t think her body was going to be able to deal with what she really felt another day.”
Lockett said the cousin has asthma, as does much of his father’s side of his family.
“That’s why it made me question if I wanted to come play,” he said. “I have a lot of stuff in my family to where I don’t want to put anybody in jeopardy.”
The Seahawks had one player, guard Chance Warmack, opt out of the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. As of Friday, they had placed only one player on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and that was due to a false positive test to wide receiver John Ursua, who has since been activated and is taking part in practice.
Colts’ Jacoby Brissett says he knows he’ll start at QB again somewhere
INDIANAPOLIS — Jacoby Brissett might never start another game at quarterback for the Colts. But in his mind, he believes he’ll be a starter again in the NFL at some point down the road after he failed to hold on to the job in Indianapolis in 2019.
Brissett said he was surprised when coach Frank Reich gave him the news last winter that they were replacing him with veteran Philip Rivers as the starter. Reich acknowledged that Brissett, like any other player would be, was upset by the demotion.
“I still believe in myself,” Brissett said Friday in his first public comments since Rivers’ arrival. “I know I’m a starter in this league. I know I can play at a high level. I did it last year.”
Brissett became the starter when Andrew Luck announced his retirement two weeks before the regular season last year. The Colts gave Brissett a two-year contract, allowing him the opportunity to prove he could be the next franchise quarterback.
Brissett, however, didn’t consistently play at a level needed to lead a team to the playoffs last year. He started strong in leading the Colts to a 5-2 record, including victories over playoff teams Houston, Tennessee and Kansas City. But Brissett, who suffered a knee injury at Pittsburgh in early November, faltered down the stretch as the Colts lost seven of their final nine games to miss the playoffs.
He finished 29th in the NFL with 196.1 yards per game and was hesitant to take shots down the field.
General manager Chris Ballard gave an indication a change was going to occur when he said the jury was still out on Brissett at the end of last season. Rivers is a 38-year-old veteran who has passed for 59,271 yards and 397 touchdowns in his 16-year career. Brissett said he still plans to compete even though Rivers is now the starter.
“I really can’t say enough positive [things] about how he has been with this change, I guess — I don’t know another word for it, with me being here and also how he has just been,” Rivers said. “He’s an impressive guy to be around. The way he works at it and then how helpful he’s been with little things, ‘Here’s how we signal this. Here’s how I usually set that. Here is how I set that.’ Then the few things that I’m like, ‘Gosh, can we do this? Can we do that?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ll learn it. Whatever you are most comfortable with.’ So he has been super helpful, gracious.”
Brissett still has significant value to the Colts. Reich has said they plan to have special packages for Brissett to get him onto the field this season. And Brissett has to be ready to step in and start at any moment, especially with the uncertainty when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.
Brissett, like Rivers, will be a free agent at the end of this season. “I know I’ll be a starter in this league one day again,” Brissett said. “Wherever that may be.”
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