It’s been a busy week in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Once again, the New England Patriots find themselves embroiled in a media frenzy. One of their major stars is under scrutiny. The national media (*cough* ‘Worldwide Leader,’ et.al *cough*) smells blood in the water. The defending Super Bowl Champs are vulnerable to attack. Channeling their inner Admiral Farragut from the Battle of Mobile Bay, the order is given…’Damn the Torpedoes…Full Speed Ahead!’ No punishment is too severe. They must be stopped, no matter the cost.
Ok. So, maybe it’s not THAT bad. But, let’s face it…
There is almost never a happy medium with the Patriots. Their fans adore them. The rest of the country loathes them. Despite that fact, one thing is certain. There is no team that handles distraction better than the patrons of Gillette Stadium. That type of preparation starts at the top.
As usual, head coach Bill Belichick will tell you that his team is singularly focused on Monday night’s matchup with the Miami Dolphins. However, the team must maintain that focus to combat the aura of controversy that has been surrounding the team this past week
As the first full week of December hits its midway point, let’s take a look at three stories that might keep the Patriots in focused hot pursuit of another Super Bowl title; as well as three that might not have the Pats best interests at heart.
Hot: Eric Lee…Belichick does it again?
Bill Belichick has a knack for finding diamonds in the rough. With defensive end Trey Flowers (ribs) out for Sunday’s game, Eric Lee stepped in and ended up being one of the most productive Patriots players on the field. He finished with an interception, 1.5 sacks, a pass breakup, a quarterback hit and four total tackles. Until recently, Lee had been relegated to the Bills practice squad.
Lee, a second-year player out of South Florida, had caught the collective eyes of the Patriots brain trust for quite some time. They saw a good athlete with long arms who had an opportunity to contribute quickly.
In addition to his physical attributes, Lee also had the background. He had joined the Bills practice squad before the start of the season after being released by the Houston Texans. Under Bill O’Brien and Mike Vrabel in Houston, he learned schemes and techniques that were similar to the ones taught by Belichick’s coaching staff. Lee fit New England’s criteria, both physically and athletically. The decision to sign him seemed to be an easy one. On Sunday, he proved the team to be right.
Could Lee join the likes of Vrabel, Ninkovich and Van Noy? Defensive players, that found their niche in New England, despite being square pegs in other organizations? Time will tell, but the future is looking bright so far.
Hot: Stephon Gilmore just might be a good fit after all
Apparently, reports of the demise of Stephon Gilmore have been greatly exaggerated.
The Patriots offseason investment at cornerback appeared to be off to a rocky start in New England. However, Gilmore has come on strong as of late. On Sunday, it seemed the Bills wanted to attack their former teammate, especially in the red area. To the satisfaction of Patriots Nation, Gilmore proved that he can handle the pressure.
The Bills wasted no time in targeting Gilmore. They did so on their opening drive. Much to their chagrin, the 27-year old was up to the challenge. Gilmore got a good jam on Bills’ rookie Zay Jones as he tried to get off the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor pulled off that route and, instead threw an awful pass. He was intercepted by Eric Lee at the goal line. That set the stage for the type of day Buffalo was about to have.
While Lee will get the ‘lions share’ of the credit (and deservedly so), it was Gilmore’s defensive prowess that forced Taylor to make poor decisions. In fact, he has been doing a lot of that lately. In playing more ‘man’ coverage, Gilmore has been able to play to his strengths and find his comfort zone in the New England defense. As a result, the Pats D has become much more stingy on surrendering chunk plays. With each passing week, Gilmore looks to be more and more at home in New England. That is good news for everyone involved.
Hot: Rex Burkhead is a true Patriot
Lately, he’s been called “Touchdownasaurus Rex.” Running back Rex Burkhead has earned that nickname for good reason.
Despite his penchant for finding the end zone, Burkhead can be a dangerous weapon for the Patriots on blocking, as well as special teams. He also excels in pass protection. In true Patriots fashion, he does whatever is needed of him.
On offense, Burkhead can play the traditional running back role. Playing the most snaps of all the Patriots’ running backs, Burkhead has seeming replaced Mike Gillislee as the short-yardage back. While it is expected that Gillislee may see an increase in snaps as the temperature drops, Burkhead has been consistent in picking up some tough yards between the tackles. He has also been quite apt at converting short yardage fourth down gains. One has to whether or not Gillislee’s struggles in these areas has led to greater opportunities for Burkhead? Perhaps. Regardless of the reason, the tandem of Burkhead and feature-back Dion Lewis has been quite the potent complement to the backfield threat that is James White. As the winter approaches, it is comforting for Pats fans to see that their offense can be just as effective on the ground as through the air. Burkhead is a big reason why.
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Not: Rob Gronkowski and ‘Cheap Gate”
Aristotle once said: “Virtue lies in the Middle.” Perhaps those words should be well-heeded in the ongoing saga surrounding tight end, Rob Gronkowski. For those of you that haven’t heard (and it’s hard to imagine that anyone hasn’t) Gronkowski was suspended for one game for a late hit (and undeniable cheap shot) on Bills’ rookie Tre’Davious White. In a fit of anger (and, if being honest, immaturity,) Gronkowski took a shot at a defenseless White. That shot resulted in a head injury for the Bills’ cornerback. He was penalized on the play, but not ejected from the game. Having lost his appeal, Gronkowski will serve his one-game suspension on Monday night, when the Pats take on the Miami Dolphins. It is the first NFL suspension for Gronkowski since he entered the league as a second-round draft choice with the Patriots in 2010.
Here’s where the story takes a turn for the absurd.
No one should argue the fact that Gronkowski’s actions were inexcusable. Frankly, he is fortunate that White’s injury, while significant, was not more serious. He deserved a suspension. He received one. Case closed? Hardly…
Fans, ex-players and many “reputable journalists” have called for outrageous penalties to be imposed on Gronkowski and the Patriots. “Take away their (Patriots) home field advantage!” “Suspend him for the rest of this season and next.” “Ban him for life.” Some have even suggested criminal charges to be filed. Is this really a case for ‘Law and Order” and the conspiracy theorists? Certainly not. However, one would never know that, based on the coverage of this story, so far. The reasoning is simple. They are the Patriots and everyone hates them.
For a moment, let’s ignore the fact that the outrageous media outcries would be non-existent if this act had been committed by a player on any of the other 31 NFL teams. Gronkowski’s actions have been punished in accordance with league regulations. True. The NFL has been maddeningly inconsistent when dispersing punishment. However, the league has addressed matter. It is now the duty of the NFL to ensure that everyone moves forward. Keeping this narrative alive only enhances the chance of someone being hurt in the future. After all, White himself, reportedly text messaged NFL analyst and former Steeler, Ryan Clark about the “whole hood being after him (Gronkowski.)” Would Buffalo be plotting revenge? White’s comments indicate that could be the case. Let’s hope not. In this case, an eye for an eye will only make both parties blind.
Not: Tom Brady’s sideline behavior
Rob Gronkowski was not the only Patriots star dealing with controversy this week. During the Pats’ win over the Bills, quarterback Tom Brady was seen shouting at offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels on the sidelines after Brady had missed an open receiver downfield. The two were engaging in a screaming match that drew the attention of CBS’ cameras.
After the game, Brady downplayed the incident, calling it “just football.” However, McDaniels took it a step further. His long-time offensive coordinator said that Brady’s emotions are one reason why he’s one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks. Therefore, it was largely portrayed as another example of his intensity driving him to succeed.
This drew the ire of some, including New York Giants wide receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr. Beckham has often been the recipient of criticism for some of his sideline antics and on-field behavior. His assessment was that his intensity is as genuine as that of Brady. However, he is labeled as “selfish” while Brady is categorized as “intense.”
Beckham has a point. Genuine intensity should not be portrayed in a negative light. A desire to win and passion for the game are two traits that any coach would be proud to have in his players. Beckham possesses both. Has he been unfairly criticized? In some ways, yes. However, here’s the difference. Beckham has brought some of this on himself. Simulating a dog responding to the call of nature in the end zone is not the best way to endear yourself to the fans of the NFL.
Yes, Brady is definitely viewed differently. However, it is not because of race, media bias, or even because of the position they play. Bluntly put, Brady has earned more leniency in such outbursts because he’s generally more composed than not.
Not: Coaching Staff Swan Song?
The Patriots are no strangers when it comes to coaching change rumors. While they seem to be pretty content with the man at the helm, their assistants are almost always sought after by teams in search of a new head coach. Last offseason, they came pretty close to losing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Several teams interviewed him, during the allowable postseason window. In fact, the San Francisco 49ers nearly whisked him away.
With several jobs expected to open this offseason, they might not be as fortunate this time around. Both McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are expected to draw significant interest. For the Patriots, it is a reminder that the glory days cannot last forever.
Despite their early struggles, the Patriots still sit at 10-2 in the AFC. They seem to be in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye in the playoffs. While most point to Belichick’s genius and Brady’s greatness, McDaniels and Patricia have quietly been adding to their appeal. McDaniels has been able to keep the Patriots offense in dominant form. He has done so despite the losses of Julian Edelman (season-ending IR,) and prolific wide-receiver Chris Hogan for the past few weeks.As for Patricia, he was able to calm the defensive maelstrom the Pats in which the Patriots seemed doomed, earlier this year.
With the New York Giants coaching vacancy already present, and more sure to come, might we be seeing the end of an era in Foxboro? We won’t know until the season has concluded. In the meantime, the question will continue to loom large in New England.
Our own, Caitlyn Allen, will return next week to bring you “Patriots Three Up, Three Down.” Until then, we’re on to Miami.
–Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Content Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC.