The Raiders began their offseason program last week, and Jon Gruden had someone he wanted to introduce his players to right away. To Gruden, this person takes precedence over his coordinators and position coaches.
“We’ve got to introduce Tom Shaw, our new strength coach,” Gruden told reporters last month at the NFL owners meetings. “Tom Shaw is great. He was my No. 1 hire. That guy touches the whole roster, all the time.”
There might be a bit of hyperbole in Gruden’s quote — hopefully he spent a little more time considering his offensive and defensive coordinators — but the sentiment is common among head coaches across the NFL.
The season of OTAs, or organized team activities, kicks off in April. Teams with new head coaches have been going for the last one or two weeks, while everyone else, including the Patriots, begins their nine-week offseason program on Monday.
Gruden’s quote was interesting because it shined a light on the roles of the strength and conditioning coaches, often an underappreciated part of a coaching staff. And it also personified why Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been squabbling over Alex Guerrero’s role with the Patriots over the past six months or so.
Per the CBA, in the first two weeks of the offseason program players can only do strength and conditioning and injury rehab. The head coach, coordinators, and position coaches aren’t allowed on the field. Players can’t wear helmets, or even use footballs (except for specialists, and quarterbacks are allowed to throw to receivers, but with no defenders).
Plus, time in the building is strictly limited to four hours per day, four days per week (and not on the weekends).
“We’re only allowed to have [players] for four hours a day, so I’m not going to talk to them for two hours,” Gruden said. “I’m going to get them downstairs and really sell our strength and conditioning program.”
The strength coaches don’t just stack weights and shout motivational sayings. They are the only coaches who work with the players every day. They set the tone for the first two weeks of the season, when a team establishes its way of conducting business, and players get acquainted to their new surroundings.
The Patriots’ strength coach, Moses Cabrera, serves as the point man for new nose tackle Danny Shelton, making sure that he’s in his ideal playing shape for this fall.
“Talking with the coaching staff and Coach Moses with weight training and Ted [Harper] with nutrition, we’re going to build the best plan for me going into the next couple of months of the offseason and we’ll be ready for this season,” Shelton said after being acquired.
Strength coaches also serve as the eyes and ears for the coaches, reporting back about how hard players work, who takes directions well, and how players are progressing with their training.
“The strength coach and the trainers are incredibly valuable in terms of insights into your own team,” said former Eagles president and Browns CEO Joe Banner.
NFL coaches, particularly Belichick, want uniformity — “one voice.” Cabrera is the Patriots’ head strength coach, Jim Whalen is the head trainer, and Belichick wants all of his players adhering to the programs that they have established.
Instead, Brady and Guerrero have tried to hijack the training program. By the middle of last season, it has been reported that approximately 30 of the Patriots’ 53 players were seeing Guerrero regularly, either in Gillette Stadium or at the TB12 facility at Patriot Place. Guerrero’s methods certainly work, but they also conflict with the more traditional strength and conditioning methods espoused by Cabrera and Whalen. This led to conflicts such as Rob Gronkowski refusing to do squats, per Guerrero’s advice, and Guerrero reportedly blaming the Patriots’ training staff for injuries to certain players.
It’s common for NFL players to have their own specialists — a massage therapist they prefer, or a chiropractor, or orthopedist for second opinions — but not common for these specialists to work with over half the team, or fly privately with the team to every game, and be provided sideline access and their own working space inside the stadium.
Belichick didn’t ban players from seeing Guerrero, but he revoked Guerrero’s special privileges after the bye week last season and treated him more like an outside contractor. Guerrero was not allowed to fly with the team or stand on the sideline at road games anymore. He was also not allowed to work on any player other than Brady inside Gillette Stadium. And Guerrero’s work space inside the training room was revoked, forcing Brady to use an empty suite in the club level of the stadium for his daily treatment.
Belichick’s response wasn’t popular with Brady, who seemed to air his grievances in the final episode of his “Tom vs Time” documentary.
“It’s a big commitment sitting here, laying here three days after the year getting my Achilles’ worked on and my thumb,” Brady said. “When you go, ‘What are we doing this for? Who are we doing this for? Why are we doing this?’ You’ve got to have answers to those questions, and they have to be with a lot of conviction.”
But Belichick’s response wasn’t unreasonable, either. Most teams wouldn’t allow someone from the outside to have that much influence on the strength and conditioning program.
“You wanted players to use your people, and be part of your program,” Banner said. “We tried to bring really good people in those positions, so [players] could develop the confidence in them to kind of stay within the building and the program.
“We had massage people and stretching people that we would bring with us on game day that weren’t full-time members of our crew. But they weren’t any particular players’ massage guy. They were just additional people to service additional needs.”
So it’s understandable that Belichick would push back against someone trying to overrule his strength and conditioning coaches. They are his most important coaches for this time of year.
Plenty to follow with Patriots
■ Tom Brady will be appearing as a Best Buddies Global Ambassador in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday, which means he probably won’t be back in time for the Patriots’ first OTA of the spring on Monday morning.
Skipping one practice certainly isn’t a big deal, especially since it’s only a conditioning practice. But it seems a bit curious that Brady would miss out on Day 1, as he is the leader of the team and has been a devout offseason participant in recent years. In 2015, everyone in the local media reported that Brady was the first one in the door on Day 1.
Brady has been present for the first day in most seasons over the past decade. But Brady missed the first day of last year’s OTAs, too, due to a family commitment, and he still was named an offseason award winner.
Brady’s attendance is something to monitor moving forward, but for now I’m not reading too much into his initial absence.
■ Nate Solder wrote an enlightening and gut-wrenching essay for The Players’ Tribune, thanking all of New England for his seven years here. The piece detailed how Solder and his family have dealt with his young son’s bouts with cancer, and how he developed a deep bond with Josh McDaniels and many other Patriots for the way they helped him cope with the situation.
Solder also provided interesting insight into what it’s like to play for the Patriots.
“It can be a tough environment,” he wrote. “It’s very businesslike, and at times it can be cold. Everything in New England is predicated on performance. It’s a place where people sometimes treat you differently based on how you practiced that day or how you answered a question in a meeting. One day, you could walk around the facility feeling like a Pro Bowler — the next, like you’re about to get cut.
“I don’t mean that to sound harsh or negative. It’s also an incredible place to play, and I’m grateful for the years I spent there. It’s just that it could be tough sometimes. The Patriots have set a standard, and the pressure is very real.”
This description certainly explains some of the animosity and frustration shown by Brady and Rob Gronkowski this offseason.
■ Meanwhile, Robert Kraft told The Athletic last week that he’s not too concerned about extending Brady’s contract, and there’s really no reason for the Patriots to do so.
Brady is under contract for two more years, due a $15 million salary and $22 million cap number each year. While those numbers may seem high, his cap number is tied for 11th among quarterbacks for 2018, and his cash intake is 18th. Brady is still great value at quarterback, even at those numbers.
And his contract was hardly an albatross this offseason. The Patriots are just about done making moves in free agency, and have emerged with more salary-cap space ($13.9 million) than when they started (about $12.2 million).
Since Brady’s under contract for two more seasons, and already starting to grumble about walking away, why bother with a new contract right now?
■ Former coach Jimmy Johnson popularized the “draft chart,” which assigns a point value to each pick. But the values have changed in today’s NFL, and Belichick highlighted on Friday one challenge of trading picks.
“One of the problems with the draft chart, if we all have our own draft charts, which is fine, sometimes it’s hard to make a trade because, ‘Well, my draft chart says this. Well, your draft chart says that,’ ” Belichick said. “Whereas if we all use the same chart, we all agree on basic value.”
But according to a chart created by Rich Hill of the website Pats Pulpit, who has tracked every draft trade going back several years, the Patriots look like they have the ammunition to make a big play for a quarterback, if they so choose.
A package of the 23rd pick (244.86 points) and the 31st pick (190.21) is worth 435.07 points, or between the sixth or seventh overall pick. Add in their 43rd pick (138.15 points), and that lands the Patriots in between the second and third pick of the draft.
It’s obviously a lot to give up for one player, and it’s far likelier that the Patriots use those picks instead of trade them. But the possibility to move all the way up to the top of the draft at least exists.
■ Jordan Matthews should be an intriguing target for Brady, especially if the Patriots use the 6-foot-3-inch receiver in the slot, where he has mostly been used throughout his four-year NFL career. But at least one team that had Matthews in for a visit this offseason doesn’t think he can run that well anymore, per a league source. Matthews was never the fastest receiver, and now he’s coming off ankle and knee surgeries. His contract — $1 million this year, $700,000 in incentives, and only $170,000 guaranteed — certainly reflects a concern about his health.
Protests still sticking point
Colin Kaepernick remains unable to find work in the NFL. Last week, the Seattle Seahawks agreed to bring him in for a workout, then canceled it when Kaepernick wouldn’t commit to ending his protests during the national anthem. And Kaepernick is not the only having trouble finding work.
Safety Eric Reid, who began kneeling alongside Kaepernick in the 2016 season with the 49ers, had a productive visit with the Bengals end without a contract offer after owner Mike Brown said he would not permit his players to kneel during the anthem, and Reid was not ready to commit to that. The same franchise that stood by Pacman Jones and Chris Henry through four arrests, and gave a second chance to Joe Mixon, apparently has no tolerance for Reid’s silent protests of racial inequality.
And the Bengals have been Reid’s only sniff since free agency began in mid-March. Reid hasn’t quite lived up to the hype since he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, yet certainly is good enough to play in the NFL.
Julius Thomas, a frequent protester during the anthem in Miami, is currently out of work, though it might be skill related. His former teammate and fellow kneeler, safety Michael Thomas, had trouble finding offers but eventually landed a two-year deal with the Giants. Receiver Louis Murphy, who protested in Week 17, is also unsigned. But Duane Brown, Marquise Goodwin, Eli Harold, Kenny Stills, and Olivier Vernon, who all protested in Week 17, are all still employed.
Bears GM Ryan Pace made a big blunder with restricted free agent Cam Meredith, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury but in 2016 led the Bears with 66 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns. Meredith is now a Saint after signing a two-year, $10 million deal that the Bears declined to match. Pace gave Meredith the original-round tender, which placed a $1.907 million salary on him but wouldn’t net the Bears a draft pick in return, since Meredith was originally an undrafted free agent. Pace should have instead put a second-round tender on Meredith, which would have increased his salary by just a million, to $2.914 million, and also would have returned a second-round pick from any team that would have signed him. The Saints clearly valued Meredith higher than $2.9 million, and signed him without having to give up a second-round pick . . . The Bills are completely remaking their offense. Tyrod Taylor is out at quarterback, left tackle Cordy Glenn was traded, longtime center Eric Wood retired, and now guard Richie Incognito has retired . . . Dez Bryant, like Richard Sherman, seems intent on joining a former division rival just so he can play his old team twice a year. The Redskins badly need a receiver after losing Ryan Grant and Terrelle Pryor in free agency. This has “Dan Snyder bids against himself” written all over it . . . Patriots running back Brandon Bolden signed a one-year deal in February, but recently switched agents, signing on with Zeke Sandhu, who represents LeGarrette Blount. Bolden had been with Rodney Edwards since entering the NFL in 2012 . . . Former Patriot Rob Ninkovich, current Patriots Jonathan Jones, Marquis Flowers, and Brandon King, and former Giants tight end Mark Bavaro are among those appearing at an NFL Draft watch party8 on April 26 at Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton. Click here for tickets and information.