Once the NFL world descends on Indianapolis today for the start of Super Bowl week, a lot is going to be written and said about Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
As it should.
From the tremendous success the Patriots have sustained since he purchased the team in 1994, his critical role in the labor negotiations that saved the season the world will be celebrating in Indianapolis, to the loss of his wife, Myra, who seems to be watching and guiding the team from up on high, Kraft has had a profound impact that deserves to be celebrated.
But it’s behind closed doors where Kraft’s reach is really being felt, as he has carved out a vital role as emissary for all things NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell since losing his wife.
As chairman of the league’s broadcast committee, Kraft was going to be involved in the negotiations for the new television contracts - which will explode the salary cap starting in 2014 - but he has also been actively involved in placing a team in Los Angeles and the league’s ventures in Europe, among other things.
At this point, if something big is going on in the NFL, Kraft is involved.
He wants to be.
He needs to be.
“I told him that I needed to fill my time and I’d help him in any way I could, especially with Myra’s passing,’’ Kraft said. “He and I have a good relationship. The TV deals, that’s something I would normally do. I just told him I was there to help him any way I could, so he’s allowed me to. We have other businesses, but I have capable sons, and I love the NFL.’’
Goodell was more than willing to include Kraft.
“He has tremendous business instincts, he cares deeply about the Patriots and the league,’’ Goodell said. “He is a tremendous resource for me to be able to bounce ideas off of and help me think through ideas, and I consider that a tremendous asset for me personally and the league in general.’’
As an NFL owner, you’d be hard-pressed to have more of an impact than Kraft did in 2011. And he did it while taking care of his wife, then mourning her passing.
“For the first half of 2011, clearly his priority was with Myra and he made that incredibly clear, but at the same time I don’t think he ever compromised helping the league at any critical stage,’’ Goodell said. “Whenever there was a meeting, he was there. If I felt it was important for him to be there, he would be there.
“He was part of those principal-only sessions that we had that I think were critical in breaking the logjam and developing the foundation to get the labor agreement in early June at a point where obviously Myra’s condition was worsening. But he was there.
“And he was there to support, he would always call in, always make sure he was up to speed, and trying to balance that with what he was going through on the personal side was and is rather extraordinary.’’
In the fall, with the labor deal in place, the NFL moved swiftly to secure its future by getting the television deals done.
“The remainder of the year, I spent a great deal of time with Robert,’’ Goodell said. “We were strategizing and meeting with the networks, and he was here for every single meeting throughout the fall and was critical in reaching those television agreements.
“He was down here in New York, because the networks are here, on a regular basis - I’d say easily on a weekly basis, if not two or three days a week.’’
If it hadn’t been for the work done by John Mara and Kraft to end the NFL lockout, we might not even have a Super Bowl this week.
“Everyone on [the NFL Management Council executive committee] contributed a great deal to ultimately getting to the success,’’ Goodell said. “Both John Mara and Robert Kraft contributed a great deal in that context, but there are so many people that played a valuable role in the labor deal.’’
Goodell took the politically correct route - he does have 30 other bosses to report to, after all - but it sure seems fitting that the Giants and Patriots are facing off in this Super Bowl.
Kraft has long respected Giants co-owners Steve Tisch and Mara, so that makes this matchup a little more special.
“We’re lucky to have his family,’’ said Kraft. “They’ve done such a great job for over 90 years and they’ve always put the league first. He did so much and was such a great contributor to the labor negotiations and he’s a classy guy.
“I’ll never forget the eulogy he gave his dad, Wellington. He’s very articulate, very intelligent, and he’s a Boston College grad. He’s one of my favorite guys.
“I think the fact that we both worked so hard on the labor agreement and there was a season . . . I think it’s pretty cool that we’re in this big game.’’
This Super Bowl is a celebration of the 2011 season, one that was like no other for Kraft and his family.
But Kraft’s role in the future of the NFL is just beginning.
BC and UMass represented
Two local colleges were represented at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., with Boston College cornerback Donnie Fletcher and UMass tight end Emil Igwenagu trying to impress scouts.
Fletcher (6 feet, 201 pounds) had some issues in coverage because he doesn’t have blazing speed. Some scouts feel he might end up at a safety in the NFL.
Vikings secondary coach Joe Woods, who tutored the North team’s defensive backs, liked what he saw out of Fletcher.
“Really like Donnie,’’ Woods said. “He’s a very competitive player. And he’s physical. He’s a longer guy, angular, but he plays physical.
“He has a little bit of a tendency to bend at the waist because he’s so long. You get in a position where he can’t come out with balance because his nose is so far over his toes. The biggest thing I’ve tried to tell him is just to get his pads over him, just his body position. His feet are good, fluid with his movements, he’s learning the coverages.’’
Fletcher, a Cleveland native, has been one of the more attentive players from the North team. He stayed on the field an extra 15 minutes Tuesday getting personal instruction from Woods.
“He’s a detail guy, he always asks questions, and that’s what you want from guys in the room,’’ Woods said. “You don’t want guys coming out on the field and having questions and not ask you. So in the meeting room, if he has any questions, he always speaks up and asks questions. Love that about him.’’
Igwenagu (6-1, 245) was one of the rare players to get a Senior Bowl invite because of the way he performed at the East-West Shrine Game the previous week. Igwenagu, who entered UMass as a running back, impressed with his versatility in practices.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise as far I’m concerned,’’ said Vikings tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson. “He’s doing a great job. He’s versatile, he’s sharp. We’ve got him playing fullback and tight end and he’s handling both of those workloads pretty well.
“He’s doing a good job of being physical and getting after folks with his intensity, and we just have to clean him up technically. In terms of him being physical - which is what you really want to see moving forward, because you can coach him up to block - he’s passed that test.’’
Igwenagu, who went to Boylston Holy Name, thinks the rise in versatile tight ends, such as Aaron Hernandez of the Patriots, will help players like him.
“I think being able to play tight end, fullback, split out, and run some routes, it will help any team,’’ he said.
Prospective new Patriots
The good news for Patriots fans out of the Senior Bowl is that there was no shortage of secondary talent, especially at cornerback.
We’ll look more at those players as the draft process plays out, but here is our second annual Patriots All-Senior Bowl team. These are the players who fit what the Patriots do offensively and defensively, in our best estimation. Of course, Bill Belichick will make us look wrong. He always does.
Evaluations were made in consultation with scouts and coaches.
- Quarterback: Kirk Cousins, Michigan State (6-2, 209 pounds).
The Patriots don’t need a quarterback, with Ryan Mallett drafted last year and Brian Hoyer a restricted free agent, but should they trade Hoyer or let him sign elsewhere, another Spartan could fit nicely. Cousins is a little thin, but with a good arm and an ability to diagnose quickly, he is going to rise up draft boards.
- Running back: Doug Martin, Boise State (5-9, 219).
Looks like a lesser Ray Rice, with good enough speed, toughness, and ability to change directions.
- Tight end: LaDarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette (6-6, 237).
Not a great group at the Senior Bowl, but Green’s size and hands make him intriguing.
- Receivers: Joe Adams, Arkansas (5-10, 174), Marvin Jones, Cal (6-2, 198), Chris Rainey, Florida (5-8, 178).
Not a lot of talent in Mobile, but Adams fits the young Deion Branch mold in that he has good short-area quickness, runs great routes, and can get separation. Scouts were talking about Jones by the end of the week. Great combination of size, speed, and polished routes. Rainey is a burner who can play running back or receiver.
- Tackles: Mike Adams, Ohio State (6-7, 323), Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State (6-5, 333).
Osemele has the type of athletic ability and feet the Patriots like.
- Guards: Cordy Glenn, Georgia (6-5, 346), Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin (6-4, 315).
Glenn has the kind of size and athleticism that lends him to either guard or tackle. Looks like he’ll play a long time in the league. Zeitler was forced to play center in Mobile because of injuries. But he’s a road-grading guard.
- Center: William Vlachos, Alabama (6-1, 306).
He is not going to win many best-body competitions, with his short arms and round physique, but the kid just knows how to block and use leverage.
- Defensive tackles: Brandon Thompson, Clemson (6-2, 310), Tony Jerod-Eddie, Texas A&M (6-4, 303)
Both can hold the point and get upfield with a pass rush if needed. Jerod-Eddie has great instincts against the run and knows how to get off blocks.
- Ends: Quinton Coples, North Carolina (6-6, 281), Cam Johnson, Virginia (6-4, 267).
Coples has rare athletic ability in that he can rush and is stout against the run. Johnson is also athletic and has good first-step quickness.
- Inside linebackers: James Michael Johnson, Nevada (6-1, 249), Demario Davis, Arkansas State (6-2, 232).
Johnson diagnoses plays quickly and can fill the hole with authority. Very smart player. Davis showed a lot of versatility and an ability to carry tight ends in coverage.
- Outside linebackers: Melvin Ingram, South Carolina (6-2, 276), Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (6-2, 273), Shea McClellin, Boise State (6-3, 248).
Ingram and Upshaw don’t fit the Patriots profile but both are very good players with positional versatility. McClellin was drawing comparisons to Texans draft pick Brooks Reed. McClellin has terrific intangibles and is tough.
- Cornerbacks: Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama (5-10, 191), Dwight Bentley, Louisiana-Lafayette (5-10 176), Brandon Boykin, Georgia (5-9, 183).
Jenkins was probably the best player, regardless of position. Jenkins, who was kicked out of Florida after two marijuana possession arrests, and Bentley look like twins on the field - and they were high school teammates in Pahokee, Fla. They remind you a lot of Asante Samuel in talent and confidence. Boykin is in the same mold.
- Safeties: Harrison Smith, Notre Dame (6-2, 212), George Iloka, Boise State (6-3, 222).
Smith is more of a strong safety but he can cover tight ends and would bring immediate special teams help. He is one to watch with the Patriots. Iloka is rangy and can play the deep part of the field.
1. Longmeadow native Joe Philbin is bringing a little of New England with him to the Dolphins. His new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman (Hyde Park/Northborough) and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle (UMass graduate, former Holy Cross assistant) have ties to the commonwealth, as does Mark Duffner (former Holy Cross head coach), who is expected to be named assistant head coach/linebackers coach.
2. As a proud alumnus of Rutgers, we are thankful for the tremendous job Greg Schiano did in bringing the program to respectability. His ability to build the program, recruit, and make academics a priority is why he was so successful on the collegiate level. But he has his work cut out in the NFL as coach of the Buccaneers. Schiano is an average game coach; his teams rarely pulled upsets (the 2006 program-making victory over Louisville notwithstanding) and often lost games they should have won. And he is going to have to fight his conservative nature to have success in an offense-crazy league.
3. I covered Dave Wannstedt, whom Schiano coached under with the Bears from 1996-97, with the Dolphins, and I watched nearly every Rutgers game. They have very similar philosophies about their reliance on defense to win games, and on the offense not to lose them. It didn’t work for Wannstedt.
4. Even though Peyton Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay tried to put a good face on it with a joint public statement, the hard feelings between the sides was unmistakable. With Manning’s questionable health and the $28 million bonus he is due March 4, we all know they’re headed for a divorce. Hopefully they take the fans into account and make it as easy as possible. Nobody wants to see another Brett Favre/Packers situation.
5. Not sure what kind of head coach Chuck Pagano will be for the Colts. But I do know he and Irsay will have a lot of fun. They’re both loud, brash, and have a great sense of humor. While Pagano is similar to Rex Ryan, we don’t think he’ll agitate Patriots fans quite as much.