How can the New England Patriots be the same potent offense they were last year? Changes have come to Bill Belichick's team and the questions hang in the air like musket smoke.
Wes Welker was allowed to walk away and he signed a contract with the Broncos. Welker has been Tom Brady's security blanket, running short an intermediate routes, moving chains, scoring touchdowns. He caught 118 passes from Brady last year for almost 1,400 yards and scored six touchdowns. The Patriots believe Danny Amendola will fill the void left by Welker but that's as sure as the Continental Army's resolve at Valley Forge.
Rob Gronkowski is literally the biggest question mark of all. Back surgery is nothing to be toyed with, especially when you're a stud tight-end that needs to hold up at the point of attack. And he caught 55 balls for almost 800 yards and was Brady's favorite target in the red zone, scoring 11 touchdowns.
Gronk is recovering from his sixth surgery in the last 18 months. Jason La Canfora reported that: "It has become pretty obvious he won't be cleared for contact for virtually all of training camp, and spending a considerable amount of time on the PUP list could be ahead as well, depending on the success of the surgery and how Gronkowski's body responds."
Missing so much time and being productive when you come back is almost impossible. The Patriots might have half their season over before Gronkowski feels like himself.
Finally, Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots all-world tight end and matchup nightmare, is a person of interest in a homicide that involves a vehicle he rented, the body of a man that was an associate of his, that was found less than a mile from his house, and police say he's not cooperating. Who knows where this will end but how Hernandez is disaffected by this it seems is far-fetched.
The Patriots have lost a ton of production, have health issues, and legal issues that may derail their hopes of winning a Super Bowl in 2013. Even the great Bill Belichick, a coach I have the utmost respect for, will have a hard time getting this team into the postseason with all that has transpired this offseason.
Bill Belichick has a reason for everything. Very few times will he do anything that doesn't have an agenda, itinerary and/or schema. Randomness is projectile vomited on and happenstance rebuked in the world of Coach Belichick.
In a meeting of team captains, I can still remember him telling us in Cleveland there was a reason behind every decision he made; he then took 30-minutes to explain why he released Bernie Kosar. His reasons were copious, sagacious and completely accurate.
When I heard the Patriots had signed Tim Tebow, I thought of my days in Cleveland with Belichick and pondered the reasoning behind this development. Nobody wanted Tebow. The Tebow Circus is something that should not be taken lightly. Why would Coach Belichick do this?
And then…the pieces started to fall into place.
The proliferation of the read-option in the NFL will be on display en masse in 2013. Washington (RG3), Seattle (Russell Wilson), San Francisco (Colin Kaepernick), Carolina (Cam Newton) and Philadelphia (Chip Kelly & Michael Vick) have already installed or institutionalized the Read-Option into their scheme.
And more teams will tinker with the concept if for no other reason than to understand how it works. The biggest threat to many NFL teams that have established quarterbacks that are adept at throwing the ball in a pro style offense is the read-option. Teams build their offense around the talents of their Q; since most NFL GMs have been looking for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, they know very little of how the read-option works and, more importantly, how to stop it.
Tebow is not going to see the field because there is not a down & distance or situation in all of football where you would have Tebow replace Tom Brady. Nobody is going to take the ball out of Tom Brady's hands.
Belichick is bringing Tebow in to be his third-string quarterback, knowing he can run the read-option. This is brilliant.
Traditionally, the third-string Q is a young, developmental guy. There are very few teams in the league that ever want to see their third-string quarterback in a game and if he is, all is lost on Sunday. By definition, Tebow is the young (25), developmental guy if ever there was one -- whom knows the intricacies, nuance and idiosyncrasies of the read-option. Tebow will be able to show this understanding to Belichick's defense all week long as they prepare to play a team that uses elements of the read-option. Tebow will give the Patriots defense a "good look" Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
And Tebow gets to stay at Q. Although I think Coach Belichick will use Tebow to play H-Back and play on special teams, Tebow will be allowed to continue his pursuit of playing quarterback in the NFL. And don't be surprised to see Tebow running a read-option package on game day if Tom Brady goes down in a pile.
Belichick knows the read-option is here for at least the next two or three seasons. He also knows learning how to stop it is critical. It's one of the reasons he visited with Chip Kelly while Kelly was in Oregon. Belichick wanted to understand the dynamics, precepts and coaching points of the offense, not so he could run it, so he could stop it.
The best way to beat your enemy is to understand your enemy. Ancient Chinese Warrior-Philosopher, Sun Tzu, said, "Know your enemy and know yourself." Or as my old coach used to say, "Some dogs bark and some dogs bite and some dogs like to do their business close to the porch. And you better know what you're dealin' with before you knock on that door."
Belichick knocked on Chip Kelly's door and Tim Tebow answered. And it's just another example of Belichick being ahead of the NFL curve...again.
Wes Welker has always been one of my favorite players in the NFL. Although not the biggest or fastest receiver in the league, Welker consistently gives any offense everything he's got and his production has been prodigious.
But, he has been talking again lately, and I wish he'd just let it go about playing for the Patriots.
Welker said the Broncos haven't told him to avoid talking about certain subjects, unlike in New England, where players' comments may sometimes come under the scrutiny of coach Bill Belichick.
Although I can verify the voracity of Welker's comments, maybe the Broncos should adopt the Belichick approach to Welker.
Yahoo.com that Tom Brady was upset with the Patriots decision to let him sign with another team and that Brady simply took the high road when speaking about it in public.
I wonder if Brady wishes the Broncos would adopt Belichick's policy of shutting one's mouth? With friends like Welker, who needs a publicist?
Then Welker said, "There weren't too many quarterbacks that I would've gone out there and played with (after playing with Brady)."
What? Who are you and what have you done with Wes Welker? Wes, you were an undrafted free agent in 2004… why have you forgotten your humble beginnings? Am I to believe unless you are playing with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees you would've had no interest in playing?
If this is mere hyperbole, letting his friend know how much he respects him, I will excuse Welker. But if there is a shred of truth to this, like Brett Favre, I'm going to have the Wes Welker Totem Poll demolished and hauled off the compound.
Many people have discussed the noticeable difference and the amount of coaching that appears to be going on at the Arizona Cardinals OTAs. While relatively quiet and somewhat boring during the Ken Whisenhunt years, the Cards practices have been loud and energetic.
I don't believe there is a right or wrong way to conduct OTA practices and I don't think people should try to compare coaching staffs; I believe it's a matter of control, style, philosophy and reality.
The reality of the situation for Big Red is that a new scheme, a new system is being implemented offensively, defensively and in transition (special teams). This presents the new coaching staff with many more coaching moments. Players, veterans and rookies alike, are learning not only how to execute the new scheme but also how to communicate on the field and speak the language of the play. Terminology is different from scheme to scheme and if you're unsure what a coach is trying to say to you when competing it will be difficult to execute said scheme. Mistakes will be made which present opportunities for coaches to correct.
Which brings me to philosophy of practice: many coaches like to get as many reps in as they possibly can and then make corrections in the film room. Other coaching staffs prefer to correct on the field. BA and his staff are so inclined. These corrections are many times intense and verbally aggressive as coaches try to communicate how important it is that a player gets it right. This is another reason why many have noticed the verbal intensity of Bruce Arians and his staff.
My brother Craig has been the Pittsburgh Steelers color-analyst for years and knows BA and many on his staff. He told me that BA is the type of coach that will get in a players face, verbally undress him and vituperate him and then be the first guy to hug him and encourage him when he gets it right. This is BA's style and I imagine he has hired coaches that mirror his approach to coaching.
Finally, BA and his staff are new. Many of the players competing in OTA workouts are new to the team or the NFL. The NFL is dominated by hyper-aggressive-alpha-males, playing the most violent sport on the planet. It's important for new coaching staffs to come in and lay down the law. It's important that players understand who is in control, who is in charge, and where the pecking order begins. Meekness is weakness and rarely respected in the locker room. Most coaching staffs in their first year of exposure to the players emphasize their dominance and authority from the beginning.
Bruce Arians is an excellent coach and he's put together a very good staff. Big Red is in transition and the roster has been upgraded from top to bottom thanks to the great work of GM Steve Keim. But people are getting too excited about the juxtaposition of coaching styles between Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians and assuming one is better than the other.
Although I happen to prefer Bruce Arians' approach and am used to his style, there are multiple reasons why people have noticed a difference in coaching at Cardinals OTAs. Let's hope the control, style, philosophy and reality of Bruce Arians and his staff translates into wins for the Cards.
Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best PLAYERS in all of baseball! Not one of the best hitters, not one of the best first basemen, not one of the best power hitters in baseball, Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best players in the game of baseball and his numbers back it up.
Of all the stories we can talk about concerning the D-backs, none is bigger than finding Paul Goldschmidt and that includes Patrick Corbin's 9-0 start. Corbin is a great story and the D-backs may have found an ace with the young left-hander, but finding the franchise guy that you're going to build your team around for years to come is the story of a generation.
Barring injury, the D-backs have found their Albert Pujols, their Chipper Jones, their Andrew McCutchen. The man Justin Upton was supposed to be has emerged from the bowels of the Diamondbacks organization. He was hiding in plain sight the whole time.
And the best part about finding the guy you are going to build your entire franchise around is…he's Paul Goldschmidt. Superman has emerged, wearing Sedona Red: humble, professional, dedicated, sincere, competitive. Paul Goldschmidt is the Diamondback Way.
Goldschmidt is the culture of the clubhouse. And the people at NASA couldn't build a machine to measure how critical this is for any franchise. Finding Paul Goldschmidt means pointing at him and telling every new variable that walks into the clubhouse one simple thing: do what he does and act the way he acts and you'll be okay.
Superman, generally speaking, is the first one in and many times the last to leave. He loves his job, has a passion for it, and works at his craft. He is an excellent fielder, clutch hitter and seems impervious to his own success. His head is down and his eyes are low and he exudes old school principles in a new school era. He hits for average, hits for power, sprays the ball all over the park and is the enemy's worst nightmare with runners in scoring position. He runs the bases well, keeps his head up and his situational awareness is special.
This guy is not like us. I'm not saying he's an alien, rocketed from the planet Krypton by his father, but whatever lies within Paul Goldschmidt -- the thing that makes him unique -- is as rare as Kryptonite.
To wit: Paul Goldschmidt signed a 5-year, $32 million contract extension this offseason. How many guys have you seen sign a huge contract extension and produce beyond the parameters of the contract they just signed? The answer is very, very few but Paul Goldschmidt has done just that.
The Cult of Personality has come to Phoenix in the form of a Paul Goldschmidt and the rest of the nation is starting to notice. The Diamondbacks first baseman is one of the best players in the Major Leagues. And nothing could be more important for the Arizona Diamondbacks than finding Clark Kent.
Chris Anderson should have been ejected from Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals for pushing Tyler Hansbrough but the story of the game was LeBron James.
King James continues to solidify his metamorphosis. With every clutch performance he records, he continues to reinforce the permanence of going from LeBron James to King James. He scored 16 of his 30 points in the third quarter and spearheaded the Heat's dominance to take a 3-2 series lead.
D-Wade and Chris Bosh combined to score 17 points. Although Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers picked up the slack, King James was why the Heat won this game. LeBron James has transformed his person in Miami and that transformation has reduced the "Big Three" to "The One and Only" in South Beach.
"Well, that's playoff competition at its best. The second half we played much more aggressively and committed to our identity and was able to take that through to the end," said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
James is the Heat's identity.
And it's LeBron James' transformation to King James that makes me resolute in my opinion that intensity is good. The rage tree is good when you compete on the floor, on the field, on the diamond, on the ice. And laughing, smiling and trying to play it cool is bad.
Generally speaking, every player that competes in a physical, aggressive sport would be better wielding the Hammer of Intensity than trying to stay cool. That's a dogmatic statement -- I realize that -- and although I'm willing to acknowledge that it's not a prerequisite for success, I would argue that success would come more often by using the power on an intense mind.
Press conferences announcing a new coach, in any sport, are not very edgy. Breaking news rarely comes from a press conference, especially the variety that introduces a coach or player to a new market. The principle rarely says anything that shouldn't be said and remains extremely positive and optimistic. The organization is great, the players are great, the coaches are great, everything is great.
And that's okay; they're speaking Median, the trials and tribulations to come will be dealt with in a blow-by-blow fashion. Hope, faith, and love are spread liberally when speaking the language of public relations.
But there was a very significant moment at the press conference introducing Jeff Hornacek as the Phoenix Suns new head coach.
The presser started with Lon Babby, President of Basketball Operations, Ryan McDonough, Suns General Manager, and Jeff Hornacek sitting at an elevated table. Lon Babby made an opening statement and introduced Ryan McDonough, whom then eventually introduced Jeff Hornacek. But after introducing Ryan McDonough, Lon Babby got up and walked off the high-court stage and sat in the second row.
This was no accident. And although some will say the gesture by Lon Babby was largely symbolic, I believe it had profound meaning.
Lon Babby hired a general manager, not a director of personnel or talent evaluator. Lon Babby hired McDonough to hire and fire coaches, bring in free-agent talent, build this team through the draft, and restore the franchise to its legacy of winning. Lon Babby hired a capable man and got out of his way…literally.
He walked off the stage.
And this is how it's supposed to be. Robert Sarver hired Lon Babby to bring life to a dead planet. Robert Sarver got out of Babby's way and now Lon Babby needs to get out of McDonough's way and let him do what he was hired to do: lead. Babby will still be heavily involved in the day-to-day process of building the franchise but leading the franchise now falls on McDonough's shoulders.
This was a prerequisite for McDonough. He wasn't going to take the Suns GM job if he wasn't allowed to make ALL personnel decisions. Jeff Hornacek was his hire and the players the Suns pursue in free agency this summer (or not) and the players they draft over the coming years will be McDonough's doing.
And that's why Lon Babby walked off the stage; he deserves credit for that. Just like he'll deserve the credit if his new GM leads the Suns to prominence or rebuke if he fails. This hire will be Lon Babby's legacy.
Lon Babby needs to build the stage on which McDonough performs and be content with that sense of accomplishment. After all, humility is a wonderful master.
The NFL is doing it again. Roger Goodell is desperately trying to find a solution to creating more revenue and the easiest way for him to do that is to expand the regular season or the playoffs.
Forget about the integrity of the game or what's good for the game.
"I hear from fans consistently that they want to make every NFL event more valuable. They see the preseason as being less valuable to them because they don't see the best players and the games do not count," Goodell said. "We have to address that, whether we are looking at 18 [regular-season games] and two [preseason games] or 16-and-two and expanded playoffs."
"Valuable," it's an interesting choice of words. Regular season games are more valuable than preseason games and playoff games are even more valuable than regular season games. This truth applies to fans and we know it applies for the league.
But it doesn't create value for the game.
What value is there really when coaches start sitting players in December over the last 3 or 4-weeks of the season because they have already locked up their playoff seed? What value is there for the fans when players start missing more games due to injury because the season is too long? What value is there when half the league gets into the post-season? What value does each NFL event have when regular season games are suddenly treated like preseason games because teams are preparing for the post-season? And we're talking about December games!
Where's the drama? Where's the import of every game? Where's the weekly tension and significance as each week passes by and teams that finish 9-9 are suddenly wild card teams?
More games or more playoff teams do not make NFL events more valuable to anybody but the league. They can charge higher ticket prices, sell more merchandise and sign bigger television deals. The league benefits greatly from expanding the regular season or the playoffs. Fans will turn out and support the game they love and owners will thrive in the comforts of capitalism. And that's fine, it's the American Way and God Bless America!
But the game will suffer.
The commissioner has a responsibility to increase revenue for his league but it cannot be at the expense of the game. There was a time when commissioners respected the sanctity of the game, loved the game and made decisions based on what they believed was good for the game. The bottom line can't always be the fulcrum for every decision that is made in regard to the game.
The bottom line does not understand the concept of less is more. With each game the NFL adds or each team that is included in the playoffs or both, the product is diluted. And that's a dynamic the NFL has always had over other professional sports leagues: every game really does count. The NFL is an event-based league with a premium placed on each game. The NBA, NHL or MLB cannot make that claim.
The bottom line: be careful what you wish for, Roger.
Watching Patrick Corbin go about his business Monday night was impressive. Although the sample size is small, Corbin continues to pitch like an ace. But pitching like an ace doesn't mean you are an ace.
There is a progression that most human beings go through while trying to compete at the highest level our species can produce.
The first-degree or growth spurt typically involves coming to the realization that you belong, that you are capable of competing against the other homo sapiens around you.
The second level of self-realization usually involves being successful against the best our species has to offer.
The third-degree of self-realization is all about dominating the best in the world in order to become one of the best in the world.
I think Patrick Corbin is between the first and second-degree of self-realization. How he deals with this metamorphosis could determine where he'll end up and how quickly he'll reach his destination.
Does he feel like he is entitled to the success he is experiencing or is he encouraged by the results he is getting but knows that success is fleeting? Does he believe he has arrived or does he see himself as deprived? Only Patrick knows what he thinks and how he feels when it's just he and the pillow.
Corbin doesn't need to answer that question now but how he answers that question now will might determine the rest of the season. Through no fault of his own, Corbin has not had a large enough sample size to say he's going to be Clayton Kershaw but based on what we've seen he could be well on his way.
Full disclosure: I thought the Golden State Warriors would force a Game 7 in their Western Conference semifinals matchup against the San Antonio Spurs. The reasons for this matter little, I was wrong.
But watching the Spurs compete reminded me of who they are and why they're so tough to beat in a seven-game series. You have to be more disciplined than they are; you have to execute the fundamentals of the game better than they do and that's not going to happen very often over the course of seven games.
The culture of the Spurs is what makes them great. They might be the best example of what a team is all about in the NBA. The Nuggets use teamwork to beat you, the Thunder (when Russell Westbrook is healthy) play as a unit and the Miami Heat are capable of beating you a number of ways when their great skill plays as one, but the Spurs seem to play as a team better and more consistently than most.
It all starts with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Even after all these years, this triumvirate has afforded Gregg Popovich a luxury that most coaches typically don't have: they allow themselves to be coached, even screamed at.
Watching Game 6 reminded me of what humility can do for a player and an organization when their best players care more about winning than they do scoring points.
Gregg Popovich screams at everybody. It doesn't matter who you are, Tim Duncan (whom he benched for the last 4:38 of the game), Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker. He screams at them all. And if he screams at these players and gets in their grill (because of their humility), what excuse does Kawai Leonard, Tiago Splitter or Danny Green have if they reject Pop's rebuke?
You want to talk about culture within an organization? Talk about your most respected and best players and how they handle being dressed down in front of thousands/millions of people/viewers?
But that's the culture of the San Antonio Spurs; that's who they are.
It's this dynamic -- where Pop coaches everybody the same -- that makes the Spurs the NBA's version of the New England Patriots. Popovich has the same luxury Bill Belichick has in New England: your best, most respected player(s), allow themselves to be coached. And if it's good enough for Tom Brady, what's your problem rook?
And what does that truth translate into for the Spurs? Unselfish, team-oriented basketball. The Spurs had 27-assists on 33 made baskets; they had 5 players in double figures; and they played the best defense I've seen from them in the post-season so far. Their rotations were near perfect. The Warriors got very few easy baskets and every shot was seemingly contested.
Gregg Popovich owes much of his career to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Not because of how many points they have scored, not because of the effort they give on the floor, not because of their talent, but because of their humility. These players have been great for a long, long time and their humility has established a culture within the Spurs organization that has set a standard for years.
Enjoy it and appreciate it now; I don't think we'll be seeing this dynamic very often in the years to come.