The Patriots have dominated headlines all offseason. They came out firing in free agency, adding two tight ends, two wide receivers, and a pass rusher. They drafted quarterback Mac Jones in the first round. They want the world to know that last year’s 7-9 finish was just a blip, and they’re back to take the AFC by storm.
Except, you know who’s not buying it? The NFL and its television partners.
The 2021 schedule, released Wednesday, was unusually indifferent toward the Patriots. A team that always maximizes national TV time slots and gets the benefit of the doubt with bye weeks and December home games finds itself branded an also-ran by the folks who run the league from an entertainment standpoint.
Between 2014-20, the Patriots had 35 national TV games, or five per season. In 2021, despite what appear to be significant upgrades on offense and defense, Bill Belichick’s team only got three national TV games (one each on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday), their fewest since 2011. Fifteen teams have more prime-time games than the Patriots this year.
The Cam Newton-led Patriots, who finished 29th in scoring last season, simply don’t move the needle much. Newton’s big return game to Charlotte to face the Panthers is scheduled for 1 p.m. in Week 9. Two of the Patriots’ three national TV appearances are pity games — Atlanta’s only national game (on a Thursday night), and a Monday nighter at Buffalo for the third year in a row.
For Week 1, CBS put Patriots-Dolphins in a regional window at 4:25 p.m. against Browns-Chiefs in the national slot. The days of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo being regular visitors to Foxborough are over, at least for now.
The Patriots are scheduled for 10 games at 1 p.m., plus two 4 p.m. games that aren’t in the national slot. Last year, that number was eight, and in 2019 just six.
The schedule also conveys the message that the league office and networks don’t seem to have a ton of confidence in the Patriots’ playoff chances.
Mike North, the league’s vice president of broadcast planning, was asked Thursday morning on NFL Network why the Buccaneers-Patriots game was scheduled for Week 4 on “Sunday Night Football.” Almost all of the old Tom Brady-Peyton Manning games were scheduled in November to coincide with TV sweeps and maximize ratings, but Patriots-Buccaneers, which every network had circled as its top choice for 2021, is being played in early October.
Yes, Week 4 is when Brady could pass Drew Brees’s all-time passing yardage record, and it’s possible the NFL wanted to give Brady a chance to do it in Gillette Stadium. But that wasn’t what North said when asked about the game Thursday morning.
“You’re not too far down the road where either of these teams’ season stories is already told,” North explained.
In other words, the networks want this game to have juice, and they don’t know if the Patriots will still have any late in the season. It would be a PR disaster for the Patriots for the whole world to tune into the big Brady-Belichick showdown with the Bucs at, say, 8-2 and the Patriots at 3-5 and going nowhere.
Scheduling this game early in the season is one of two small favors the NFL did for the Patriots this year. The other is giving them a Week 1 home game for the fifth year in a row.
Otherwise, a Patriots team that always seemed to get breaks got very few of them in 2021. They got the latest bye week, Week 14 (Dec. 12). In seven of the previous eight years, the Patriots had a bye between Weeks 8-10, providing a nice break near the midpoint of the season.
The Patriots also have the worst “rest differential” in the NFL, according to ESPN, and play a league-high three teams coming off their byes: the Jets in Week 7, Chargers in Week 8, and Colts in Week 15. The Patriots will also be coming off a bye against the Colts, so while the Patriots won’t be at a disadvantage, they won’t get the extra-rest advantage, either.
Don’t mistake this as making preemptive excuses for the Patriots. It’s playoffs or bust for Belichick’s crew after spending $175 million fully guaranteed on 25 free agents, and drafting Jones in the first round.
It’s just jarring to see the NFL release its schedule and notice how little deference the league paid to the Patriots. Welcome to the new normal.
LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1
Brady closing in on passing mark
That Patriots-Buccaneers game will, of course, be the most-anticipated regular-season game ever in Boston, and nationally since Brett Favre returned to Lambeau Field as a member of the Vikings in 2009.
But there will be an accomplishment at stake that Sunday night beyond the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick duel and Brady potentially eclipsing Drew Brees’s passing yardage record. With a win over the Patriots, Brady will become the fourth quarterback in history to defeat all 32 teams, joining Peyton Manning, Brees, and Favre.
This tidbit got me curious about which other quarterbacks have come close, and the fine people at Pro-Football-Reference had the information:
▪ While Manning, Brees, and Favre are the only QBs to defeat all 32 teams, Joe Montana and Fran Tarkenton defeated all 28 teams in their careers, which ended well before the Jaguars, Panthers, Ravens, and Texans came into existence.
▪ Seven quarterbacks defeated all but one team. Four played for one team their entire career — Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, John Elway, and Terry Bradshaw. Three other QBs defeated all but one team, and two are surprises — Hall of Famer Kenny Stabler (everyone but the Raiders), Alex Smith (Chiefs), and Kerry Collins (Dolphins).
▪ On the other side, no quarterback has lost to even 31 franchises, let alone 32. Seven lost to 30 teams: Drew Bledsoe (never lost to the Cardinals and Chargers), Matt Hasselbeck, Jon Kitna, Carson Palmer, Brees, Favre, and Smith.
▪ Brady has lost to 27 teams, and has never lost to the Falcons (7-0), Cowboys (5-0), Vikings (6-0), Buccaneers (4-0), and Patriots.
▪ Brees lost to every team but the Chargers and Saints. Two older quarterbacks lost to every team but their own: Joe Ferguson (Bills) and Archie Manning (Saints).
Taking a closer look at schedule
▪ The Patriots are 1½-point favorites over the Dolphins for Week 1 at Gillette Stadium, which would be their second-lowest pointspread since the start of the 2004 season. They were 9-point underdogs at Arizona in 2016 for Jimmy Garoppolo’s first start (a 23-21 Patriots victory).
▪The largest Week 1 pointspreads are 49ers by 7½ over the Lions and Rams by 7 over the Bears.
▪ The largest Week 1 spread in NFL history since 1978, per Pro-Football-Reference: The Patriots were minus-16 over the Chiefs in 2008, an infamous game in Patriots lore. The Patriots won, 17-10, on a day when Tom Brady tore knee ligaments in the first quarter.
▪ Week 4 is shaping up to be filled with story lines and marquee matchups. In addition to Patriots-Buccaneers, the NFL scheduled Andy Reid and the Chiefs at the Eagles, star-studded matchups in Steelers-Packers and Seahawks-49ers, and a battle of young guns on Thursday night, Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars against Joe Burrow and the Bengals.
▪ The Eagles won’t be collecting many frequent flier miles, as their Week 10 game at Denver will likely be their last time taking a flight. Their closing schedule has home games against the Saints, Washington, Giants, and Cowboys, road games (and bus trips) at the Giants, Jets, and Washington, and a bye week.
▪ Washington finishes the season with five straight division games: Cowboys, at Eagles, at Cowboys, Eagles, at Giants. It’s a shame that division games aren’t spread out more across the season given their importance.
▪ The Lions and Bears are facing each other on Thanksgiving for the third time in four years and 19th time overall (second only to Lions-Packers, 21 times). The Lions have the most Thanksgiving appearances with 81, followed by the Cowboys (53), Bears (36), Packers (36), Cardinals (21), Giants (15), and Washington (12). The Patriots are 3-2 all time on Thanksgiving, with their last appearance the “Buttfumble” win over the Jets in 2012.
▪ Surprisingly, a handful of old-school teams don’t have much of a history on Thanksgiving. The Browns, established in 1944, have played on Turkey Day just three times, and not since 1989. The Colts only have four appearances, the Rams five (none since 1975), and the Steelers only eight since 1933.
▪ The Jaguars are the only team never to have played a Thanksgiving game. The Panthers, Bengals, and Buccaneers have just one appearance each.
Interest is still there with Tebow
The Jaguars haven’t signed Tim Tebow yet, but Urban Meyer strongly hinted this past week in an interview with Pro Football Focus’s Cris Collinsworth that the team is leaning in that direction. Tebow has done multiple workouts at tight end for the Jaguars, and Meyer said Tebow is “in the best shape of his life” and that “he looks like he’s 18 years old not . . . 33.”
The news prompted outcry that Tebow, who hasn’t played an NFL game since 2012, is not deserving of a roster spot, and the absurdity that Tebow could be back but not Colin Kaepernick. ESPN also reported that the Tebow news already has caused some consternation among Jaguars players.
But I don’t see what the big fuss is all about. First of all, the NFL is an entertainment product, and Tebow still has a huge following — particularly in Jacksonville, his hometown.
“Everyone knows why Tebow got this opportunity,” Shannon Sharpe of Fox Sports said. “He’s from Jacksonville and they’re trying to sell tickets. It’s not because he can play.”
Sharpe is half right. Tebow can sell tickets in Jacksonville. But he might be able to play, if the Jaguars use him correctly. Tebow is no slouch — he was a 240-pound bulldozer and Heisman Trophy winner who dominated the SEC. Tebow can’t be a full-time quarterback, and he can’t be a full-time tight end, but why can’t he be Taysom Hill, a strikingly similar player who carved out an important niche with the Saints as a short-yardage quarterback, gadget player, and special teams contributor? Tebow as a gadget player could present problems for a defense, especially when on the field at the same time as Lawrence. If anyone knows how to use Tebow, it’s Meyer.
As for Tebow not deserving a job, sorry. The NFL is not a strict meritocracy, and Tebow can sell tickets and drum up a lot more interest than most bottom-of-the-roster players. And teams waste 53-man roster spots all the time on developmental players who won’t contribute much. Tebow could even be on an expanded practice squad and get called up to the active roster for games.
As for Kaepernick, he deserved a spot in the league the last few years. But he also hasn’t shown a willingness to take a minimum-salary, role-player job that Tebow will likely get in Jacksonville.
Signing Tebow is at worst a curiosity and at best an outside-the-box move that can help the Jaguars. It’s time to stop worrying and learn to love Tebow Time.
Brady finally acknowledged this past week that his knee surgery following the Super Bowl was more than minor. “I had a pretty serious knee surgery this offseason, which is the first surgery I’ve had in about 12 years,” Brady said on something called Hodinkee Radio. “Last year it just took a lot. Every week I was kind of tending to my knee.” A week after the Super Bowl I reported that Brady needed more than a clean-up and that a friend close to him said, “When it all comes out, all this does is build his legend even greater.” . . . The NFL recently released its injury data for the 2020 season. The incidence of concussions remained relatively stable compared with 2019, but ACL and MCL tears increased significantly. The NFL had 142 concussions in regular-season games and practices, compared with 145 in 2019. But regular-season ACL tears increased from 32 to 40 and were at the highest levels since at least 2014. And regular-season MCL tears increased from 79 to 102. It’s unclear if the increases had anything to do with altered training methods during the pandemic or if it was just a one-year aberration . . . What a disaster the Panthers’ signing of Teddy Bridgewater last year turned out to be. The Panthers ended up paying Bridgewater $30 million for a 4-11 record and are paying him $7 million this year not to play for them. Now Bridgewater is giving unflattering comments about Panthers coach Matt Rhule, saying on the “All Things Covered” podcast this past week that the team didn’t practice red-zone or two-minute drills much last season. “I feel really good about the way we practice and our process,” Rhule responded. “I’m disappointed to hear he didn’t feel the same way.” . . . Bears coach Matt Nagy offers a good example for any player who doesn’t want to get vaccinated. All NFL non-players are required to get vaccinated, but Nagy hasn’t gotten his second shot yet. Now he has to miss this weekend’s rookie minicamp because he was deemed a high-risk close contact of someone who got COVID-19. The NFL isn’t requiring players to get their shots, and Bills receiver Cole Beasley went on a Tweet storm Thursday speaking out about his choice not to get the vaccine. But let’s see what happens when Beasley or any other non-vaccinated player faces the prospect of missing a game because they’re deemed a close contact, or if they miss two-plus weeks because they get sick . . . Progress for the NFLPA: In 2013, only the top 21 draft picks got four full guaranteed years on their contracts. In 2020, that number was up to the top 26 picks, and this year, Ravens receiver Rashod Bateman, the 27th pick, got the full guarantee . . . Demand for the Las Vegas games is out of control. Per TickPick, Patriots-Buccaneers is the season’s most expensive ticket so far, but the Raiders hold the next four spots, and eight of the top 10 overall. Putting a team in Vegas is starting to look ingenious . . . 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said before the draft that “I can’t guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive on Sunday,” when asked if Jimmy Garoppolo will still be on the roster after the draft. It spawned one of the best things on the Internet this past week: A Washington, D.C. company, Breaking T, selling “I survived the ’21 Draft” T-shirts to 49ers fans. “There were no guarantees,” states the shirt.