When the NFL schedule was announced in May, Patriots receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster could only laugh. Thursday, when asked about the Patriots’ opponent this Sunday, Smith-Schuster again couldn’t stop chuckling.
Of all the teams the NFL could have scheduled for the Patriots’ Week 1 opener, of course it was the Eagles.
“It was actually funny, because I definitely didn’t expect to play them in the first game,” Smith-Schuster told the Globe. “At the same time, just super excited to go back against them, a really great team. I think it’s a great test for us as the Patriots to go out there and see where we’re at.”
The NFL scheduled a few rivalry games for Week 1 — Bears vs. Packers, Raiders vs. Broncos, Giants vs. Cowboys, Bills vs. Jets. But no rivalry on Sunday may be spicier than Smith-Schuster vs. the Eagles.
The rivalry has nothing to do with the Patriots, who haven’t faced the Eagles since 2019. Instead, it’s strictly between Smith-Schuster and the Eagles, who didn’t appreciate how Smith-Schuster handled himself after winning the Super Bowl with the Chiefs in February.
Smith-Schuster caught seven passes for 53 yards in the 38-35 victory over the Eagles, and was involved in the game’s pivotal play. With less than two minutes left, Smith-Schuster drew a controversial defensive holding penalty against Eagles cornerback James Bradberry that led to the Chiefs running out the clock and kicking the winning field goal.
Smith-Schuster said he and the Eagles’ defensive backs were talking trash the entire game.
“Yeah, it’s a hostile environment, just a lot of chirping. It was a physical game,” Smith-Schuster said. “And that’s just what it is, that’s the type of team they are. They’re a very physical team. They get down and dirty.”
But it was Smith-Schuster’s actions after the win that created the drama. On Valentine’s Day, two days after the Super Bowl win, Smith-Schuster taunted the Eagles with a Twitter meme — a digital card featuring Bradberry’s picture and the message, “I’ll hold you when it matters most.”
Losing a Super Bowl on a controversial call is tough enough. Bradberry’s teammates didn’t appreciate Smith-Schuster rubbing their faces in it, too, especially after Bradberry had been mature and accountable for a penalty that most football fans hated.
“You was on the way out the league before Mahomes resurrected your career on your 1 year deal Tik-Tok boy,” Eagles receiver A.J. Brown tweeted back at Smith-Schuster.
Two weeks later, Smith-Schuster poked the Eagles again, posting a peculiar two-minute video to Twitter that again seemed to make fun of the Eagles and their secondary. This time, cornerback Darius Slay fought back.
“That ain’t called for, man,” Slay said on social media. “Y’all be taking it to a whole new level right now . . . What JuJu need to be doing is really just be worrying about his little tik tok dances and keep it going and stop trying to play like that man. Stop playing with my dog.”
That seemed to be the end of it. Smith-Schuster signed with the Patriots in March and everyone moved on. But the NFL brought the feud back to a simmer by scheduling Patriots-Eagles for Week 1.
“I have no choice but to see them,” Smith-Schuster said.
During training camp, Bradberry took the high road when asked about Smith-Schuster’s taunts.
“I didn’t like it of course, but, at the end of the day, I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “That was out of my control. I can only control my response to it, and I chose not to respond to it.”
Smith-Schuster never reached out to Bradberry or any of the Eagles over the summer, and he hasn’t offered any apologies.
“At the time it was kind of what I said, what I did, but that’s in the past,” Smith-Schuster said Thursday. “You talk about Slay, Bradberry, these guys played in the Super Bowl last year. There’s a reason why this defense is really good. So it’s nice for us, our first game to go out here and put ourselves in a challenge against a really good team.”
Publicly, the Eagles say they don’t want to continue any beef Sunday with Smith-Schuster.
“We’re playing the New England Patriots, not the JuJu Smith-Schusters,” Bradberry said. “Of course he’s a good player. I’m not taking any credit from him, but they’re the New England Patriots, not JuJu.”
Brown said he regrets getting into it on social media.
“I wish it didn’t go down that way, but you live and you learn,” he said. “I think that was a moment where my nephew had said something about me fighting JuJu, and that was a moment for me to learn. I know people around me are watching, my nephew is watching as well, and that wasn’t me. So that was a learning moment for myself.”
But it wouldn’t be surprising to see tempers flare on Sunday in Foxborough. Smith-Schuster knows he has to keep his cool.
“You can’t get caught up, and even if we do chirp, you can’t go overboard, get those unsportsmanlike conduct penalties,” Smith-Schuster said. “You’ve got to play level-headed. That’s one thing I learned playing in big games, you’ve got to stay calm in those moments.”
KICKING IT OFF
Week 1 items worth noting
A few notes about Week 1, which marks the 90th season of the legal forward pass:
▪ The Chiefs’ loss on Thursday night snapped Andy Reid’s eight-game win streak in season openers, which had been the longest among active coaches. The Chiefs should be concerned that their offense was out of synch without Travis Kelce. Patrick Mahomes needs more help at receiver.
▪ Reid still has 269 career wins (regular season and playoffs), needing one to tie Tom Landry for fourth in NFL history. Bill Belichick needs two victories to become the third coach with 300 regular-season wins, joining Don Shula (328) and George Halas (318).
▪ At least one team has gone worst to first in its division in 18 of the last 20 seasons, with the Jaguars accomplishing it last year. The best candidates this year: Jets, Falcons, Browns, and Bears.
▪ The NFL’s five hardest schedules this year based on strength of schedule: Eagles .566, Dolphins .554, Giants .549, Patriots .549, Cowboys .549.
The five easiest schedules: Falcons .417, Saints .427, Texans .431, Colts .434, Titans .448.
▪ Best games of Week 1: Cowboys-Giants — an early battle for NFC East supremacy. Bills-Jets — the first of two battles between Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen. Steelers-49ers — a tough road test for Brock Purdy and the 49ers. Broncos-Raiders — an AFC West showdown, and important for Josh McDaniels to start on a positive note. Dolphins vs. Chargers — Tua Tagovailoa vs. Justin Herbert, and teams with Super Bowl dreams.
Special visitor for the opener
Charles Caldwell was 38 and a sergeant in the 115th military police company, Rhode Island National Guard, when he was killed in action Sept. 1, 2003, in Baghdad as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Quincy native had been married for just six months, and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart.
Sunday, his widow, Maggie Caldwell, will get a special experience at Gillette Stadium, courtesy of Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson. For every Eagles road game this year, Johnson is giving two tickets and a signed jersey to a Gold Star family and spending time getting to know their stories. In most cases the meet-up will be at the Eagles’ team hotel the night before the game, but this Sunday Johnson will meet with Caldwell at the stadium before warm-ups.
Helping connect Johnson to the Gold Star families is his trainer, Gabe Rangel, a Marine Corps veteran. Being an Eagles fan is not a qualification for getting chosen.
“I wanted to bring more attention to mental health and the military,” Johnson told the Globe. “So for every away game I get to meet a Gold Star family and learn about their story. I’m excited to see where it leads and the type of impact it can have — for both of us.”
Maggie Caldwell, now 50 and living in Lincoln, R.I., said she hasn’t accepted an invitation for a Gold Star family in about 15 years, but this opportunity felt right.
“Sept. 1 was the 20-year anniversary, so I’m like, ‘This would be a good thing to do,’ ” she said. “A lot of time has passed and I’m in a different place than I was before. I think it’s really nice that other people still think about Gold Star families.”
Demotion would have cost Zappe
Bailey Zappe’s roller-coaster ride from training camp to the practice squad to the 53-man roster highlighted how much young players stand to lose or gain from a financial standpoint.
Zappe’s rookie contract slated him to make $48,333 per week this season, for a total of $870,000, the minimum salary for a second-year player. But when he was released and signed to the practice squad, Zappe’s pay was reduced by about 75 percent.
With the practice squad, the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement locks Zappe and any player without two accrued seasons into a weekly salary of $12,000, for a season-long total of $216,000, with no ability to get a raise.
It’s yet another way that veteran players threw youngsters and grunts under the bus in the 2020 CBA negotiation. Fortunately for Zappe, he was signed back to the Patriots’ 53-man roster on Saturday, restoring his pay to his original $48,333 per week.
Veteran players do a little bit better on the practice squad. In 2023, they can make a minimum of $16,100 per week and a maximum of $20,600. The Patriots gave the maximum to receiver Ty Montgomery, linebacker Calvin Munson, and guard James Ferentz, and the minimum to receiver Jalen Reagor.
New kickoff rule doesn’t solve problem
Pretty much everyone hates the NFL’s new kickoff rule, which grants a touchback any time a returner signals for a fair catch on a kick inside the 25-yard line. Even the NFL acknowledges that it’s just a half-measure to try to reduce the number of kickoff returns, the play with the highest rate of concussions in football.
The new rule doesn’t even fix the real problem, which is players barreling down the field and colliding at top speeds. Since a muffed fair catch is a live ball, special teams players are still coached to sprint downfield.
“You’ve got to cover through the whistle,” Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord said. “Depending on where those blocks are happening and when the ball’s actually making contact with the returner, there’s still going to be some contact prior to the play because you’ve got to cover the play all the way through the end of the play.”
Son knows best
Last week, I asked Patriots linebackers coach/defensive play-caller Steve Belichick about how his father approaches his job at age 71, now in his 49th year of coaching. I thought it was great insight from someone who sees Bill Belichick as both a father and a boss, even considering the obvious conflict of interest.
“Yeah, I mean, he’s obviously old,” the younger Belichick quipped. “But naw, I haven’t seen a ton of changes in terms of his approach and stuff like that. I think he does a good job of adapting. He’s not stuck in his ways, and he listens to feedback. He implements it how he wants to, but he’s always open to feedback, and that’s from a lot of people in the building — players, coaches, support staff, everybody, to try and learn and improve.”
“I’ve never heard him say, like, ‘I got this,’ ‘It is what it is,’ ‘We’re not going to progress or change based on what we have.’ There’s always a level of, ‘What can we do better? What do we need to do better?’ And I appreciate that from him. Especially as a young person, sometimes you get stuck in your ways more than him, being so old. But I appreciate him listening to us and taking the feedback we have.
“And as the head coach, it’s up to him whether he wants to implement the changes or do things differently than how it may be done before. That’s up to him. But he listens to our feedback, and he’s not a micromanager. He lets us do what we do. He hired us to do a job, he has trust in us to do a job, but if it’s not good enough then he’ll step in and tell you it’s flat-out not good enough.”
Chandler Jones was a flop in his first year in Las Vegas, compiling just 4½ sacks in 15 games while making $17 million. Now he’s waging a war against coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler — posting screen shots of their text message exchanges on social media, claiming that the team locked him out of the building, and revealing that the Raiders sent a member of the Las Vegas Crisis Response Team to his home. The Raiders have already paid Jones $15 million of his $17 million take-home pay this year, so it will be interesting to see if they try to find a way to get him back into the fold instead of releasing him. But the episode brings to mind Jones’s bizarre incident from the 2016 playoffs, when he showed up shirtless and disoriented to the Foxborough police station on a Sunday morning of the Patriots’ bye week . . . The Bengals were smart to take care of Joe Burrow before the start of the regular season, agreeing late Thursday to a record $275 million extension over five years. Burrow deserves every penny, and now the distraction is behind them as the season begins. Burrow and the Bengals also handled everything professionally and quietly behind closed doors, a far cry from the organization’s relationship with Carson Palmer a decade ago . . . This is the first season that the NFL is allowing players to wear No. 0, and 23 teams have issued the number so far, with notable names including Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith, Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley, Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones, and Panthers defensive end Brian Burns. The Patriots are one of nine teams not to have issued the number yet . . . Boss move: Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones watching Thursday’s Chiefs-Lions opener with his agents in a suite at Arrowhead Stadium while holding out for a new contract . . . The Colts have just four wide receivers on their 53-man roster, but kept five receivers on the practice squad, all of whom have three years of NFL experience . . . Loved this answer from A.J. Brown when I asked why he wears fluorescent yellow and pink cleats during training camp: “Just so my daughter can spot me in practice,” he said . . . The Ravens are making history as the first team to have an all-Black quarterback room. That includes three QBs (Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley, and Josh Johnson) and both coaches (Tee Martin and Kerry Dixon).
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.