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How Bill Belichick has thrived when Patriots turn to ‘next man up’ – New England Patriots Blog

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If anyone can survive the unusual offseason the New England Patriots have had, it’s coach Bill Belichick. He has built a dynasty with the “Patriot Way,” a winning, team-first culture backboned by the “next man up” mentality.

The 2020 NFL season might be Belichick’s toughest test yet. The offseason, including the opt-outs of six Patriots players this week (most notable is linebacker Dont’a Hightower), has led to lower expectations — at least according to Las Vegas. New England’s pro football championship odds are at 20-1 according to Caesars Sportsbook (through July 30), its worst preseason odds since 2002.

The Patriots’ roller-coaster offseason has included some massive changes. For example:

  • They return 57% of last season’s snaps, the second lowest percentage in the NFL, behind the Panthers (47%).

  • Eight of their top 15 players, in terms of snaps, who played last season are not returning.

  • Four of their eight longest-tenured players are not returning (kicker Stephen Gostkowski, quarterback Tom Brady, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and Hightower).

Consider this adversity another opportunity for the Patriots’ “next man up” mentality to thrive under Belichick. Here are what some numbers from past Patriots’ seasons reveal:

  • Someone always steps up: Under Belichick, they have had 141 different players score a touchdown, third most in the NFL since 2000 behind the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, per the Elias Sports Bureau

  • There is value to be found: In the past 10 seasons, they have had the most snaps by undrafted players (55,620) in the NFL. That includes players such as center David Andrews, cornerback Malcolm Butler, wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back LeGarrette Blount.

  • They can overcome losses at the most important position: Since Brady’s first career start in 2001, QBs not named Brady have a 13-6 record for the Patriots. That includes starts from Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett

Has New England’s system been perfect when it comes to replacing important contributors? Of course not. Consider:

2019 — Benjamin Watson/Matt LaCosse: If you want to make a case for the Patriots struggling in 2020, look at how they replaced tight end Rob Gronkowski last season. Patriots tight ends combined for an NFL-low 37 receptions in 2019 following Gronk’s retirement. It was one of the many reasons New England finished 17th in offensive efficiency, the team’s only ranking outside the top 10 since the metric’s inception in 2006.

2009 — Patriots’ defense: They had traded defensive end Richard Seymour and Vrabel, and safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi retired. The holes on defense became exposed against the Ravens in the AFC wild-card game. Baltimore running back Ray Rice went untouched for 83 yards on the first play of the game, and Baltimore put up 234 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground in a 33-14 win.

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Stephen A. Smith says the Patriots will be better off with Cam Newton due to the relationship between Bill Belichick and Brady having run its course.

Rare examples aside, the mentality, which has been a constant in New England, has been a hallmark of its sustained success under Belichick. For two decades the team has been able to overcome injuries, win despite some controversial personnel decisions and find hidden gems and castoffs around the league.

Check out more examples throughout the past 20 years of how the Patriots have fared when turning to the “next man up”:

2017 — Amendola/Chris Hogan: Amendola and Hogan saw their roles expand in 2017 after wide receiver Julian Edelman suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. Their biggest contributions were in Super Bowl LII, when they combined for 14 catches and 280 yards, a game that also saw Brandin Cooks leave with an injury.

2016 — Trey Flowers: Flowers, a fourth-round pick in 2015, was pressed into action after Belichick traded defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals. Flowers emerged with a team-high 7.0 sacks in 2016 after he had played one game in 2015.

2016 — Garoppolo/Brissett: The Patriots started their Super Bowl season 3-1 when Brady served a four-game suspension because of the Deflategate investigation. Garoppolo won his first two starts before injuring his shoulder, and Brissett won his debut, 27-0 against the Texans, in place of Garoppolo.

2015 — James White: White stepped into Shane Vereen’s role, catching passes out of the backfield, once Vereen signed with the Giants. White had 14 receptions and the game-winning OT touchdown in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons.

2014 — Butler: The undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama will be immortalized for his interception in Super Bowl XLIX. Butler also emerged as the No. 1 cornerback in 2015, following Darrelle Revis’ departure in free agency. However, the “next man up” mantra burned the Patriots in Super Bowl LII when Butler was benched and New England lost 41-33 to the Eagles, allowing a season-high 374 passing yards.

2014 — Blount: The running back was conveniently signed one day before Jonas Gray infamously missed Patriots’ practice following his 201-yard, four-TD game. Gray didn’t play the following week and Blount was the beneficiary. He ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game, a 45-7 win.

2013 — Julian Edelman: Before Edelman became Brady’s go-to guy and a Super Bowl MVP, he was a special-teamer who occasionally filled in for Wes Welker, and even played some cornerback when the Patriots were thin at the position. Not to mention, he was a seventh-round pick and a former college quarterback. He burst through in 2013 after Welker signed with the Broncos, shattering his previous career high (37 catches in 2009) with 105 receptions.

2010 — Rob Ninkovich: A journeyman who was released by the Saints and Dolphins, Ninkovich ultimately filled the hole left by Mike Vrabel at linebacker. Ninkovich won two Super Bowls and led the Patriots with 45.0 sacks from 2010 through 2016.

2008 — Matt Cassel: The quarterback stepped up when Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2008 season. Despite entering the season with 39 career pass attempts, the 2005 seventh-round pick led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. Cassel ranked ninth in the NFL in Total QBR (63), ahead of the likes of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Dallas’ Tony Romo.

2007 Wes Welker: Troy Brown passed the torch to Wes Welker as the team’s slot receiver. Welker, another unheralded player acquired by Belichick, had five 100-catch seasons in New England and was a perfect complement to Randy Moss during the Patriots’ historic 2007 season.

2005 — Asante Samuel/Ellis Hobbs: Belichick made a controversial, cost-saving move in 2005 when he released future Hall of Fame cornerback Ty Law. The move led to the emergence of 2003 fourth-round pick, Asante Samuel, who became the team’s No. 1 corner, and rookie third-rounder Ellis Hobbs.

2004 — Troy Brown: The Patriots coach moved veteran wideout Troy Brown to slot cornerback midway through 2004 with cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole injured. Brown picked off three passes during the regular season, including one off former teammate Drew Bledsoe. He also played a key role on defense in the Patriots’ 20-3 win against Peyton Manning’s Colts in the playoffs.

2003-04 — Vrabel: Belichick loves versatility and Vrabel, a linebacker by trade, is a great example. Vrabel caught 10 passes from Brady in his career, all touchdowns, including go-ahead scores in Super Bowls against the Panthers and Eagles. The Patriots have had 13 different players catch Brady’s 18 touchdown passes in Super Bowls.

2003 — Eugene Wilson: The first high-profile example of a controversial personnel move by Belichick was team captain Lawyer Milloy in 2003, who Belichick cut a week before the season to save salary-cap space. Harrison, a free-agent signing at safety earlier that offseason, stepped in for Milloy. But it was Wilson, a 2003 second-round pick, who added much-needed depth. Wilson had four interceptions his rookie season.

2001 — Brady: The quintessential example of next man up is Brady. The 2000 sixth-round pick stepped in for an injured Bledsoe, making his first career start in Week 3 of the 2001 season. Brady was thought of as a game manager that year, but consider that his five game-winning drives in the fourth-quarter/overtime (including Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams) were tied for most in the NFL. Six Super Bowls later, the rest is history.

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Raiders’ Jon Gruden calls backup QB Marcus Mariota ‘dazzling playmaker’

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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.”

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Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett ‘had lot of hesitation’ about playing before deciding not to opt out

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RENTON, Wash. — Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett said he “definitely had a lot of hesitation” about playing this season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

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Colts’ Jacoby Brissett says he knows he’ll start at QB again somewhere

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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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