In the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball, a team can trade for a player and reasonably expect his level of performance to remain constant no matter which uniform he’s wearing.
But football is supposed to be different. It’s a game not just of skill but of communication, teamwork, and precision, and you’re not supposed to be able to just plug-and-play.
“Maybe a third baseman on this team, put him at third base on the other team, and let him hit. How much is there involved?” Patriots coach Bill Belichick once said. “I’m sure there’s some, but it’s not like playing left guard, having 20 different protections and two dozen running plays and a dozen different defenses you have to block every week. It’s a little more involved.”
Except four weeks into the 2015 season, the NFL sure is looking a lot like the Hot Stove League. When the Patriots traded tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to the Saints for defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, it marked the 17th trade since the preseason ended on Sept. 4, and seventh of eight trades over the last three weeks.
It doesn’t sound like much, but the NFL typically doesn’t have in-season trades. There have been 18 deals this year, exceeding the number made from the end of the preseason until Week 4 over the last four years combined
The 18 trades have involved 19 players across 16 teams. The Hoomanawanui-Hicks swap was the only player-for-player trade, as all the other trades involved draft picks.
The most notable moves came in Chicago, where the Bears traded former All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen to Carolina, Jon Bostic, a former second-round pick, to New England, and released safety Brock Vereen, last year’s fourth-round pick.
Most of the trades aren’t headline grabbers and generally involve backup players.
For example, the Patriots traded for Keshawn Martin to be a fourth receiver, Bostic to be a fourth linebacker, and Hicks to be a rotational player on the defensive line.
“It’s just a reflection of what’s available on the street,” one AFC front office executive said. “The alternatives are better on the current rosters rather than the free agent line.”
The Patriots have made trades in each of the last four seasons, acquiring backups such as Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, and Isaac Sopoaga, and pulling off the rare impact trade in 2012 by getting Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay.
And now the rest of the league appears to be catching up with the Patriots’ line of thinking. Instead of finding a young free agent to develop, the Falcons traded for guard Andy Levitre to shore up their offensive line.
The Cowboys traded for quarterback Matt Cassel when Tony Romo went down and running back Christine Michael when they suffered several injuries at the position.
Belichick explained that the early part of the season is the best time for trading, as teams might have an excess of healthy players at one position and a major need at another position because of injuries or ineffectiveness. The Saints, for example, only had two tight ends on the roster before trading for Hoomanawanui, who was buried as the fourth tight end on the Patriots’ depth chart.
The trade deadline isn’t until Nov. 3 at 4 p.m., but as the season wears on teams have fewer players that are expendable for trades.
“You see more of those trades I think in September when A) the value is higher and B) teams have more depth at that position,” Belichick said.
A longtime NFL agent had another theory about some of the trades. “Bad teams dumping cash and salary cap space,” he said.
Certainly, the Bills felt no need to pay Cassel $2 million to hold a clipboard, and the Titans didn’t want to pay Levitre $6.5 million for mediocre guard play.
The AFC executive pointed to the Bears and Saints — both winless and who traded players last week — as teams that look like they are looking ahead to 2016.
Former Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, traded to Seattle in the offseason, shined a light on how dysfunctional things may be getting in New Orleans when he sent — and quickly deleted — a Twitter message to Hicks.
“Feel blessed u got out of there,” Graham wrote.
The Bears, especially, look like a team in rebuilding mode. They switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense this year under new coach John Fox and had little use for Allen, a 4-3 defensive end who was playing out of position as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
The Bears have been getting rid of the players who don’t fit their new system since March, but didn’t want to just dump Allen and Bostic without getting something in return. And those players didn’t have a market until the season began and teams started having needs.
“You can probably assume that they know that this season is a tear-down,” the executive said. “That process started months ago, and it probably exists for the whole year.”
The tough part for Fox is trying to keep hope alive for 2015 for his players and the fans. The Bears didn’t receive any players back in the trades, just draft picks.
“Any move we make, contrary to what might be out there, is what we think betters our football team,” Fox said. “We usually don’t ask our players what they request. We’re going to do things that help the Bears.”
FLAGS ON DISPLAY
Penalties are up in the early going
If it seems like more penalties are being called this season, it’s because there are.
Through three weeks, there have been 733 penalties — including those declined and offsetting — on pace for a whopping 4,856, the most in NFL history. Last year, 4,248 penalties were called. In 2013, there were 3,636 — a full 25 percent less than this year’s pace.
Numbers were compiled using databases at NFLPenalties.com and ProFootballReference.com.
“Really, Week 2 was the anomaly,” NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino said last week. “We had a considerable larger amount of fouls than we ever had.”
No kidding. In Week 2, the NFL had 298 accepted penalties for 2,659 yards. It was the most penalties called in one week since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, and potentially the most ever. In 2014, the most penalties and penalty yards in a week were 224 and 1,960 yards. In 2007, for example, it was 187 and 1,551 yards.
It’s a small, three-week sample size, and Blandino said penalty numbers usually decrease throughout a season. “We really feel we’ll see what we’ve seen historically — as the teams adjust, the number of fouls will come down,” he said.
But penalty numbers for a few infractions have skyrocketed. Just look at these numbers compared with recent years:
There were 206 accepted penalties in Week 1, 298 accepted penalties in Week 2, and 229 accepted penalties in Week 3. Safe to say it’s officially time for the zebras to swallow their whistles.
MISSING THE POINTS
New rule having the desired effect
Let’s start taking a weekly look at the effects of the new extra point rules:
■ Extra points, season — Kickers are 226 for 239 entering Week 4, a success rate of 94.6 percent. The 13 misses are five more than all of last season. Houston’s Randy Bullock is 3 for 5, the only kicker to miss two extra points. Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent, Detroit’s Matt Prater, and New Orleans’s Zach Hocker each had a kick blocked.
■ Extra points, Week 3 — There were four missed extra points, by Tampa Bay’s Kyle Brindza, Miami’s Andrew Franks, Bullock, and Prater. The Saints also had to abort an extra point when the holder fumbled the snap, but that miss counts as a 2-point conversion attempt.
■ Two-point conversions, season — Teams are 12 for 25, a success rate of 48 percent. The Steelers are 3 for 4, the Saints 0 for 3.
■ Two-point conversions, Week 3 — Teams went 4 for 10. The Chiefs went 1 for 2 against the Packers, the Saints failed twice.
Sounding off on the sideline
Bill Belichick wore a microphone for NFL Films during last week’s game against the Jaguars. Here’s what we learned from watching the resulting segment on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL,” which was longer than the edited clip the Patriots posted on their website:
■ Jaguars coach Gus Bradley acted a bit star-struck when meeting Belichick before the game.
“Coach Belichick, I know we’ve never talked, but you’ve been really good for me,” Bradley said. “Without you knowing, you’ve helped me. I know maybe a lot of people say it, but I mean it.”
“I have a lot of respect for what you’ve done with this team,” Belichick responded. “It’s a young team, but I can see where you’re going.”
■ Belichick chewed out Devin McCourty for not recovering Blake Bortles’s fumble and giving up on the play, which McCourty treated as an incomplete pass.
“Come on, Devin,” Belichick told him on the sideline. “Get on the fumble, keep your head up on the tackle, and let’s go. You’re a better player than that.”
■ Belichick never mentioned Tom Brady’s 400th touchdown pass. When he congratulated his quarterback on the sideline, he simply said, “Great drive. That’s what I’m talking about. Great drive.”
■ And for all the talk about the Patriots leaving Brady in late in the game and running up the score in a 51-17 win, Belichick ordered to Josh McDaniels to run the ball when they got to the goal line. “Four times,” he simply said. “Run it in.”
In May, Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) revealed that most of the military salutes at NFL games are actually a form of advertising, with the Department of Defense paying the NFL more than $6 million over the last four years to honor the troops.
Now a bill labeled the National Defense Authorization Act seeks to put an end to the practice, and require the Department of Defense to fully account for all of its contracts with professional sports leagues.
“When some teams are accepting money to do what has been termed ‘paid-for patriotism,’ then it cheapens all the other good work that is done by these sports teams and others,” Flake said.
Reinforcements on the way
With the Patriots churning the bottom of the roster with trades and releases this past week, let’s not forget that they will get a few midseason additions when receiver Brandon LaFell, defensive tackle Chris Jones, and linebacker Dane Fletcher come off the physically unable to perform list.
When can they return to the team? Officially, players on PUP can start practicing six days before their Week 7 game. Since the Patriots’ Week 7 game is Sunday, Oct. 25, against the Jets, LaFell, Jones, and Fletcher can start practicing Oct. 19. The Patriots then have three weeks to activate them to the active roster.
In 2013, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich each played more than 95 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. In 2014, Ninkovich played 94 percent, while Jones rarely took a snap off when he was healthy. This year, Ninkovich is at 84.7 percent and Jones at 82.2 percent. Call it the Jabaal Sheard effect, as the newcomer has played in 70.8 percent of snaps. Having more of a rotation should help those guys stay healthier and fresh throughout the season
. . . The NFL’s motto this year apparently is “Move along, nothing to see here.” The league quickly exonerated the Patriots for their headset issue, referee Ed Hochuli for allegedly telling Cam Newton he wasn’t old enough to get a call, and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger for possibly using his cellphone on the sideline Thursday night. Head of officiating Dean Blandino on the Hochuli-Newton dust-up: “We don’t have any audio of the exchange, and so at this point we’re just going to leave it alone.” . . . On first and 10 this year, the Patriots have called 58 passing plays and just 29 runs. On second and 1, they have rushed the ball once and thrown it five times . . . Nice investment. After spending $60 million guaranteed on Ndamukong Suh this offseason, the Dolphins have one sack through three games . . . The Steelers need Big Ben back in a big way after blowing Thursday’s game against the Ravens. Their next four games: at San Diego, Arizona, at Kansas City, Cincinnati. Those are four losses unless Roethlisberger returns early or Michael Vick somehow improves drastically . . . Interesting that the Raiders flew home between road games in Cleveland and Chicago, instead of just staying in the Midwest last week . . . Patriots fans, please stop whining about the Week 4 bye. This system has been in place for 14 seasons since the league expanded to 32 teams, and in the last four years the Patriots have had their bye in Weeks 10, 10, 9, and 7 . . . Couldn’t have been a fun flight home last week for Kyle Brindza, the Buccaneers’ kicker. He missed three field goals and an extra point as the Bucs lost by 10 to the Texans . . . Patriots fans mostly hate the Colts more because of their involvement in Deflategate, but as Jonathan Kraft made clear last week on the team’s pregame radio show, the Ravens are the bigger enemy inside the Patriots organization. “It’s really too bad about the Ravens,” Kraft said, tongue firmly in cheek. “John Harbaugh, he’s a sweetheart.” The comments, naturally, were later posted on the Ravens’ website. Too bad the teams don’t meet this season.
Last Monday, the Kansas City Chiefs ended a long stretch of futility; for the first time in the regular season since Dec. 8, 2013, a wide receiver caught a touchdown pass. Here’s a look inside the drought: