FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Belichick at 69: Coach Bill Belichick will celebrate his 69th birthday on April 16, which highlights his place among a group of the oldest to serve as a head coach in the NFL.
Romeo Crennel (73) became the oldest to do so last season, and is followed by George Halas (72), Marv Levy (72), Tom Coughlin (69) and Dick Vermeil (69). In the current coaching ranks, only Seattle Seahawks‘ Pete Carroll (turning 70 in September) is older than Belichick.
Belichick famously once said he wouldn’t be coaching into his 70s like Levy, but two years ago in a radio interview, backed off that declaration. Levy understands why.
“Age is only an approximate thing. You’re involved and you’re going at it hard, and you love it, that’s it,” the longtime Bills coach, now 95, said in a phone interview with ESPN. “You just coach as long as you love it. I finally retired because the great core of our team had gotten old, and they were all retiring. And I had it finally. I felt I needed some time away.”
That decision, in 1997, wasn’t an easy one for Levy. He said then-Bills owner Ralph Wilson tried to talk him out of it, giving him a week to mull it over.
Levy had no regrets, as it allowed him to write multiple books and travel, but later acknowledged wondering if he made the right decision.
“Maybe a year or two later, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Wow, maybe I did it too soon’ when I was back rested up. I probably could have done another 3-4 years, easy,” he said.
As for how many more for Belichick — who previously said he enjoyed the book, “Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond” by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge — the all-time win charts might provide a helpful guide.
He has 311 victories (regular season and playoffs combined), third all-time behind Don Shula (347) and Halas (324).
If the Patriots average nine-to-10 wins per season, that puts Belichick within striking distance of Shula in about four years, or when he’ll be 72.
2. Carroll counts by fives: Carroll was insightful with Patriots reporters last September on his coaching longevity, saying he was inspired by author David Brooks, the longtime New York Times reporter/op-ed columnist, to take a five-year mindset. So essentially, Carroll said he feels great and each year resets the clock to another five. “Why are you looking year to year?” he asked.
3. Winovich’s weight: Third-year outside linebacker Chase Winovich shared behind-the-scenes insight with Patriots season-ticket members last week on his offseason goal to gain weight. Winovich said a meeting with former Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich inspired him to do so. Listed on the team’s roster at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Winovich relayed that he has hired a personal chef to help him reach his goal. Of Ninkovich, who advised a weight of 260 to help him set the edge, Winovich said: “I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘I’m going to get my weight right.’ That dude’s words get me fired up.”
4. Deion backs Cam: Count Super Bowl XXXIX Most Valuable Player Deion Branch among those who believe the Cam Newton of 2021 will be markedly improved from the 2020 version. “Given the offseason [he’ll have], I think we’ll see a better Cam,” Branch said at the Patriots’ season-ticket member draft preview. “Everybody is always talking about the 2015 [MVP] Cam Newton, but I’d like to go back to just the 2018 [version] — 67.9% passing, 24 TDs, 13 interceptions. If they can get that type of performance, I think this will be a great year.”
5. Corner market: Top cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson (restricted free-agent tender) have contracts that expire after the 2022 season, so the position is a “sneaky” need for the Patriots. It’s a good year to try to fill it in the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, on ESPN and ESPN the App), with South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn (son of former NFL receiver Joe Horn) one notable first-round consideration. “This is a year where you can find corners throughout the entire draft. I wouldn’t be shocked, right now, if 40 corners were drafted,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., said.
6. Draft nugget: If quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Trey Lance are selected within the top 10, as some project, it would be a first. Five quarterbacks have never been drafted in any 10-pick span in the common draft era (since 1967), according to ESPN’s Stats & Information. The shortest span in which five quarterbacks were selected was in 1992, when five were drafted between picks 220 and 230 — a group that included eventual Super Bowl-winner Brad Johnson.
7. Two tight ends a “must”: Michael Lombardi and Scott Pioli, both of whom have been top personnel men under Belichick, have relayed in their current media gigs how each offseason is spent determining the team’s “musts, needs and wants.” Tight end was obviously a “must” for the 2021 Patriots — as evidenced by the contracts for Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 million, with $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 million, with $25 million guaranteed). Here is a telling stat as to why: The Patriots ran 3% of their snaps last season with two or more tight ends on the field, easily a league low, followed by the Bills (12%) and Steelers/Bengals (17%). Two-tight-end packages have long been a staple under Belichick, with the Patriots having scored a league-high 271 touchdowns since 2010 with two on the field, followed by the Minnesota Vikings (217) and Philadelphia Eagles (208). Simply, it was a “must” to re-introduce this to the attack.
8. Asiasi as No. 3 TE: While the signings of Smith and Henry could be viewed as a show of little support for 2020 third-round pick Devin Asiasi — the tight end from UCLA — an alternative thought is it could actually be the best thing for him; reducing pressure and expectations in a No. 3 role that could grow into more over time. Because the Patriots love the flexibility to run two-tight-end packages, they’re more likely to keep at least three tight ends on the 53-man roster for insurance. That’s even more important considering Henry’s injury history.
9. Martin’s $591: The NFL Management Council finalized its performance-based-pay payments, which is a collectively bargained fund that provides additional compensation for players based upon their playing time and salary levels. So the lower-salaried players who have the highest total of playing time receive the greatest reward, with guard Mike Onwenu‘s $554,792 leading the way for the Patriots. The lowest figure was center Marcus Martin‘s $591. That was a result of Martin being activated for the regular-season finale in his Patriots debut and playing one snap on the field goal protection unit. Hey, every snap counts.
10. Did You Know: Since Belichick became coach in 2000, the Patriots have had 22 players return for a second stint with the team to play in at least one game after playing in at least one contest for another team. That ties the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for third-most over that span, with the Seahawks (26) and Steelers (24) leading the way. Offensive tackle Trent Brown and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy will up the Patriots’ total to 24 in Week 1.