Here’s what’s at stake for the Patriots’ big three this season
The NFL regular season is finally here, and with it the start of the 19th straight season for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft together with the Patriots. Of all their accolades and accomplishments, staying together for 19 years is right at the top. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw lasted 14 years together; Don Shula and Dan Marino 13 years; Bill Walsh and Joe Montana only 10.
The longevity record is hardly the only one being set or chased by the Patriots’ triumvirate this season. Let’s take a look at each person and examine what they have at stake this year:
■ Brady will build on several records this year. He already has the most wins in NFL history (postseason included) with 223, compared with 200 for Peyton Manning. Brady has 27 postseason wins, well ahead of No. 2 Montana with 16.
Brady’s longevity and durability are remarkable. He has started 37 postseason games, in addition to 251 regular-season games. That’s 289 total starts — or 18 football seasons condensed into 16 actual seasons. Brady will break Manning’s record of 292 starts in Week 4.
Brady should also become the all-time touchdown king this year. He has 559 touchdown passes (including postseason), 20 behind Manning’s 579 for the most in NFL history. Brady has 488 regular-season touchdown passes, and should join Manning, Brett Favre, and Drew Brees (also 488) in the 500 Club.
Brady also needs 3,841 passing yards (240 average over 16 games) to join Manning, Favre, and Brees in the 70,000 yards club. Brady’s 517 passing yards in 2011 against Miami remains the best Week 1 passing performance in the Super Bowl era.
Brady is 41 years old, if you haven’t heard. Last year at 40, he became the oldest player in history to lead the NFL in passing yards. His 4,577 yards and 32 TDs were also the most in history by a QB age 40 or older.
Brady made news this past week when he announced on his Tom vs Time epilogue that he still wants to play until he’s 45 years old, despite some waffling this offseason.
But Jay Feely, Brady’s Michigan teammate and one of his older friends, isn’t so sure Brady will be playing in 2019, let alone 2022. Speaking two weeks ago at a CBS media availability, Feely — whose family sometimes vacations with the Bradys — said he believes his friend is year-to-year.
“I expect him to play this year. Beyond that, who knows?” Feely said. “If you’re at that age and you win it again, what do you have to come back for? But who knows? I didn’t think he’d play as long as he has.”
Feely said that the best chance of Brady playing several more years is if he doesn’t win that sixth Super Bowl.
“I could never see him retiring after losing. We all want to go out on a win. I know he’d love to,” Feely said. “Had they won that Super Bowl, maybe [he would’ve retired this offseason]. But when they lost that game I didn’t think there was a chance.”
Feely said he was surprised Brady skipped the offseason program, but isn’t worried about him being ready for the season. “Because he’s too competitive,” Feely said. “He’s done it so long. You know how to prepare yourself, you know what your body needs, you know mentally what you need. And when you’re as competitive as he is, you’re not going to cut corners, because you know that it will have an impact on your performance.”
Meanwhile, while Brady said that he’s going to play until he’s 45, don’t be certain it will be in a Patriots uniform. The Patriots reworked Brady’s contract this training camp, but notably didn’t add any years beyond 2019. And in the recently released book “Big Game” by Mark Leibovich, the writer reveals that Brady wouldn’t have minded being released this offseason, while Tom Brady Sr. again predicts a messy ending for Brady. Brady’s contract and his future is going to be a major story next offseason, as he enters the final year of his deal.
■ Belichick enters the season with 250 regular-season wins, tied with Tom Landry for third most ever. Belichick has 278 combined wins, ahead of Landry but well behind George Halas (324) and Shula (347).
Belichick’s Patriots are 123-37 over the last 10 years, 17 games better than the next-best team (Steelers, 106-54). The Packers (100-59-1) are the only other team to win 100 games over the last 10 years.
The Patriots have won 10 or more games in 15 consecutive seasons. The 49ers hold the record with 16 straight.
Belichick’s Patriots are currently tied with the Cowboys and Colts for most consecutive playoff appearances with nine. They already hold the record for most consecutive conference championship game appearances (seven) — the Raiders held the previous record (five).
And the Patriots are competing for their 10th straight division title. The Rams previously held the record with seven.
■ As for the owner, 2018 will be Kraft’s 25th season running the Patriots. The team is an NFL-best 268-116 (.698) over Kraft’s 24 seasons, with 23 more wins than the Steelers.
Kraft has also overseen five Super Bowl wins, nine AFC championships, and 17 division titles in 24 years.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Packers are facing toughest schedule
A few more facts and figures about the 2018 NFL season:
■ The Packers have this year’s toughest schedule, based on opponents’ winning percentage (.539), while the Texans have the easiest schedule (.453). The Patriots have the 10th-easiest schedule (.484) and only have eight games against teams that finished .500 or better, but do play seven games against 2017 playoff teams.
■ The Raiders lead the way with most miles traveled this year (31,384), thanks to three games in the Eastern time zone and one in London. The Patriots are 26th (11,576 miles), with 14 games in the Eastern time zone and two in the Central. Carolina travels the fewest miles this year (6,920).
■ This year’s schedule features a Battle for LA (Chargers at Rams, Week 3), and one last Battle for the Bay (Raiders at 49ers, Week 9) before the Raiders bolt for Las Vegas.
■ This year marks the 85th anniversary of the forward pass (1933), the 75th anniversary of the mandatory use of helmets (1943), and also the 75th anniversary of the Eagles and Steelers merging for one season as the Steagles (really).
■ Really interesting study by OverTheCap.com, looking at where the NFL finds its talent. Per the study, more than 32 percent of current players came into the league as undrafted free agents, and that 27 percent of all veterans in the league were previously UDFAs.
■ The NFL’s kickoff media guide lists the winning percentage of “active NFL quarterbacks,” and includes an interesting name: Colin Kaepernick, who is 32-32 in his career (including postseason). Kaepernick is an active NFL player? That’s news to us.
■ In the same publication, Bears coach Matt Nagy says his favorite nickname is “Swaggy Nagy,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel’s says his favorite food is “Joe’s Taco Pizza in Dubuque, Iowa,” and Lions coach Matt Patricia interestingly lists “winning Super Bowl 49” as his most memorable football memory.
BIG SHOES TO FILL
McCarron takes on ‘Edelman role’
■ The Patriots promoted slot receiver Riley McCarron to the 53-man roster, with the potential to return punts and play in the “Julian Edelman role” in the offense. McCarron spent his 2017 rookie season on the Patriots’ and Texans’ practice squads, and his size (5 feet 9 inches) lends to obvious comparisons to Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Wes Welker.
Turns out, McCarron has a big fan in Welker, a Texans coach who helped sign McCarron last year as an undrafted free agent.
“I loved him coming out of Iowa. He was a guy that I really targeted and got during free agency,” Welker told me in mid-July. “He’s got some good speed to him, good quickness, really good hands. Very, very smart player. He’s kind of a sponge, and once you tell him something, he’s pretty much got it. He’s tough and smart, which is what you really want in those types of players.”
As for the comparison to Welker?
“I think it’s a good comparison,” Welker said. “He’s faster than me, but that’s about it.”
■ Going on injured reserve hurt some Patriots in more ways than one. Rookies Braxton Berrios, Ryan Izzo, and Christian Sam all have injury splits in their contracts, reducing their yearly salaries from $480,000 to $363,000 (costing each player about $7,000 per week). Same for second-year receiver Cody Hollister and rookie Darren Andrews, who are on the non-football injury list.
Veteran tackle Ulrick John’s salary decreases from $705,000 to $433,000, costing him about $16,000 per week.
Rookies Isaiah Wynn and Duke Dawson don’t have an injury split due to being high draft picks, and will still make $480,000 this year.
Veteran center Luke Bowanko, released with an injury designation at the roster deadline last weekend, received an injury settlement of six weeks pay ($161,647), but he can still sign with another team if he is healthy.
■ The Patriots named six captains on Thursday. Tom Brady, David Andrews, Devin McCourty, and Matthew Slater are repeats, while James White and Patrick Chung are first-timers.
But far more interesting were the players not named captains. White replaces Rob Gronkowski, who coincidentally skipped the offseason program and made a stink about his contract. Chung replaces safety Duron Harmon, who coincidentally embarrassed himself and the organization this offseason by getting detained at a Costa Rica airport for marijuana.
■As for Brady, he may have skipped the offseason, but not naming him a captain would have created a tsunami of media hot takes that the Patriots were smart to avoid.
■ Dont’a Hightower is also not a captain this year, despite serving multiple times in his seven-year tenure, including last year. Hightower didn’t seemingly do anything wrong in the offseason, and there is no obvious reason why the Patriots wouldn’t name him a captain this year.
Troy Brown speculated during training camp that the Patriots might trade Hightower, and this captaincy news adds more fuel to the fire. But I don’t see Hightower going anywhere in 2018, mostly because of his contract. He is set to make $6.6 million this year, plus $2 million in play-time, Pro Bowl, and All-Pro incentives, and I don’t see any team willing to take on an injury-prone, 28-year-old linebacker at that price.
But next year is a different story. Hightower gets $2 million of his salary guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2019 league year (next March), which could be a deadline for the Patriots to renegotiate or release him.
NFL’s TV shows are educational
Learned a few interesting tidbits this training camp watching the usual bevy of NFL Films programming — “Hard Knocks” with the Browns, and “Philly Special” and “America’s Game” about last year’s Eagles:
■ The most poignant lesson learned in “Hard Knocks” was that the whole “sign a player from a rival team in order to get inside information” thing is quite real. Before the Browns faced the Eagles in the preseason, coach Hue Jackson had linebacker Mychal Kendricks, a starter on the Eagles last year, give his teammates a scouting report:
On Nick Foles: “I realized on his long balls, his deep balls, he has like a teardrop effect. He’s tall and he likes to drop it literally from the sky. So, corners, the timing’s just a little slower on the ball coming.”
On tight end Zach Ertz: “I think he is the best receiver on the team. Notice I said ‘receiver.’ When it comes to blocking, you hit his [expletive] over and over, he doesn’t want any smoke.”
On tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai: “He doesn’t have the quickest feet and he’s not the strongest. He doesn’t trust his feet at all. You get on him, his confidence will go down.”
And this was just for a preseason game. Remember this the next time a team downplays it when they sign a player from an upcoming opponent.
■ As for the Eagles, I learned that the night before Super Bowl LII, coach Doug Pederson showed his team the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI win over Atlanta, with the message that they have to be aggressive and keep their foot on the throttle against the Patriots.
And former quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo revealed that in the NFC Championship game, the Eagles’ game plan was to attack Vikings safety Harrison Smith with run-pass options and take advantage of his overaggressiveness. I wonder how that played out last week in the Vikings’ locker room, now that DeFilippo is the Vikings’ offensive coordinator.
It’s hard not to love Rams coach Sean McVay and his willingness to think outside the box. With the Rams set to open their season Monday (7:20 p.m. Pacific time), McVay had them practicing at night this past week, to get their bodies into rhythm. And when Aaron Donald was asked about skipping the entire preseason, he quipped, “Well, nobody really played in a preseason game this year. It ain’t just me. It’s everybody.” McVay didn’t let his starters play a single snap in the preseason, to avoid injuries . . . The Bills enter the season with $53 million in dead salary cap money for players no longer on the roster, by far the most in history. More than $40 million of it is from shedding Marcel Dareus, Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn, and Tyrod Taylor. And frankly, it didn’t stop the Bills from doing whatever they wanted with the roster this offseason. The salary cap is increasingly becoming irrelevant in the NFL, as the Cowboys, Giants, 49ers, Cardinals, and Browns each have more than $20 million in dead cap money this year, which even a few years ago was unheard of. The Patriots are 25th in the NFL with just $6.4 million in dead cap money . . . In the easiest prediction of 2018, the Dallas Cowboys have become the first NFL team with an official casino sponsor, partnering with Winstar World Casino and Resort in Oklahoma . . . Speaking of safe bets, 49ers cornerback and leading union voice Richard Sherman predicts the owners will lock out the players in the 2021 offseason when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. This seems almost a certainty, as the owners will squeeze the players for more financial concessions, and the players can’t just sign off on a deal without looking like they put up a fight. The players seemed to enjoy the lockout back in 2011, but they panicked and caved too soon, agreeing to a new CBA at the beginning of August, before the games had begun. Let’s see if the players have the discipline and wherewithal to take a lockout into September, when it would actually hit the owners in the wallet.