FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Veteran cornerback Jason McCourty was one of four Patriots players to testify in support of an education bill at the Massachusetts State House on Friday, saying the experience sparked more nerves than playing in the biggest game of his professional football career.
“We’re in a different arena here. We have beliefs and we support different things, and then it’s the next step of coming here and talking about it — not knowing what you’re walking in to. For us, we were probably a lot more nervous than we were when we walked in for the Super Bowl,” said the 31-year-old McCourty, who played a key role in the Patriots’ victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Jason McCourty: More nervous at State House than Super Bowl. Video by Mike Reiss
“We were nervous at the Super Bowl, but you can walk in and say ‘Hey, when the ball is kicked off, it’s just football, something we’ve done since we were little kids.’ There was no point today where it was like riding a bicycle.”
McCourty, who was joined by his twin brother Devin, special-teams captain Matthew Slater and safety Duron Harmon, called it a “very humbling experience.”
The players received a cheer from the overflowing crowd inside the Gardner Auditorium when called for their testimony, which was against protocol.
During the testimony, which lasted about 10 minutes, Devin McCourty explained that the group was representing the Players Coalition. “We focus on educating ourselves on a subject matter and then uplifting the voice of people who just don’t get the opportunity,” he said, noting that the focus of the coalition includes education, economic advancement, criminal justice reform and police and community relations.
A feel for how the arrival of Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Matthew Slater and Duron Harmon was received by many in attendance at the Massachusetts State House. pic.twitter.com/TvyyfdUgT6
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) March 22, 2019
The education bill players were supporting is aimed at helping low-income districts.
“We all feel as though we have been gifted with a tremendous, unique platform as professional athletes. Our hope today has been to lend our voices to thousands of children, in particular impoverished children of color who need all of our help,” said Slater, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater and a longtime Patriots captain. “It is our belief that we should do everything within our power to give every child the opportunity to have the same learning experience within our educational system.”
At the end of the testimony, one member of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education commended the players, citing their activism as similar to what Muhammad Ali once did to bring attention to social causes.
2a. When punter Ryan Allen signed a one-year, $1.55 million deal to return to the Patriots in 2019, it sparked an obvious question: Why just one year? Some might have looked at the deal as a show of low confidence from the Patriots. But a source close to the situation said Allen had an option for a multiyear deal, yet he preferred the shorter term. The decision seems to be a result of the money on the open market coming in lower than he had desired (he also switched agents one week into free agency), and so a one-year term provides him the chance to build off a strong performance in Super Bowl LIII by returning to a solid opportunity in New England in a prove-it type of year. If Allen delivers, he’ll be in a stronger negotiating position in potential extension talks with the Patriots, or on the open market in 2020.
2b. From a Patriots perspective, they might now be more inclined to bring in competition for Allen, similar to what they did in 2018 with undrafted rookie Corey Bojorquez. Allen decisively won that competition, but the Patriots had hoped to keep Bojorquez on their practice squad as a developmental prospect before the Bills unexpectedly swooped in.
3. Similar to how the Patriots made an aggressive pitch to receiver Adam Humphries in free agency and didn’t close the deal, a source close to tight end Jared Cook said the Patriots aggressively courted him before Cook elected to sign with the Saints late last week. Rob Gronkowski’s uncertain status seems to have played a significant part in Cook’s thinking, as there is clearer path to a top role on the tight-end depth chart in New Orleans.
4. Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater on his message to teammates: “We need to start shifting our mindset from celebration mode to work mode. Certainly, all of us that were part of what we accomplished last season are very thankful for the way the season turned out, but we have to turn the page. We have to understand this year is going to be a new year with different challenges. We’re going to have to find our identity all over again, and it’s going to take a lot of work and time.” That process shifts into a higher gear when the Patriots’ voluntary offseason program begins April 15. While always subject to change, early indications are that quarterback Tom Brady plans to follow a similar routine as last year when he remained away from voluntary workouts, in part to focus more on family time.
5. Condolences to Dolphins coach Brian Flores, whose mother Maria lost her battle with cancer earlier this month. In a classy gesture a few weeks ago, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wanted Flores to have as much support around him as possible so he offered up his private plane for many of the team’s assistant coaches to be present for the funeral.
6. Jason McCourty told me his return to the Patriots as a free agent (two-year deal with a base value of $10 million) came after he considered some other opportunities. He had hoped that was how it would turn out. “It was a cool process, and a brand-new process,” he said, pointing out he had never hit the open market at the start of free agency. “Talking to New England, talking to my agent, you’re trying to figure out which teams are involved and how much you’d want to play there. It’s your due diligence. At the end of the day, it brought me back here, and I’m happy to be here. I was able to build some really good relationships and I loved the environment here. And to be honest, from a personal standpoint, to not have to move my wife and kids for the third consecutive year is pretty good. I asked my kids what they wanted and they all said ‘The Patriots with Uncle Dev.’ So everybody’s happy.”
7. With Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia widely acknowledged for his exemplary work with Trent Brown, which helped Brown land a four-year, $66 million contract with the Raiders in free agency, it served up a reminder of something Scarnecchia said last season. He believes longtime Colts offensive lineman Chris Hinton, whom he coached in the late 1980s in Indianapolis, should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Scarnecchia is respected as one of the best offensive line coaches in recent NFL history, and with Hinton’s candidacy not seeming to have generated much momentum to this point, perhaps Scarnecchia’s remarks will catch the attention of voters this year.
8. Set to enter his 10th season with the Patriots, Devin McCourty shared with me how he viewed the team’s offseason: “Free agency is always interesting, exciting, sad. It brings all emotions. As an older guy, you hate seeing some of the young guys go; like I’ve watched Trey [Flowers] and Malcolm [Brown] come in and develop. But then you’re also happy to see those guys do what they were supposed to do here and now have opportunities to help their families, and go play elsewhere. You kind of wish it would be with you, but getting older, you understand. But I’m very excited. I thought one of the coolest parts of our defense last year was the mesh of the secondary, and the guys’ personalities, and how well we played with each other. All of those things got better as the season went on. The hard part now is we have to understand none of that matters and we have to build that back up from scratch. But I always say, it’s better to have a better foundation. It gives you a chance to be better earlier and longer.”
9. When coach Bill Belichick wrote a letter to the Pro Football Hall of Fame committee on behalf of Richard Seymour, he called Seymour and Vince Wilfork the two best defensive linemen he’s ever coached. Catching up with Wilfork last week for a story on Patriots left tackle Isaiah Wynn’s recovery from a torn Achilles, Belichick’s letter came up in the conversation. It meant a lot to him. “Any time you have the greatest coach of all time mention you in regards to the respect he has for us … to be put in that category is mind-blowing,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand the defense we ran; a lot of times we went into games with just four linemen. Anyone can just rush up the field and have 6-7 defensive linemen roll in and keep them fresh. But Bill had enough confidence in his defensive linemen to go into games with a lot less than that. We won a Super Bowl like that. I always tell people, you haven’t played defensive line unless you’ve two-gapped, taking on double teams, being durable. That’s a defensive lineman.” Wilfork is enjoying retirement in Houston, coaching four different youth baseball teams in Houston.
10. The NFL’s annual meeting is scheduled from Sunday to Wednesday in Arizona (there are several rule proposals to consider), and Patriots owner Robert Kraft is planning to be in attendance. But Kraft is not expected to talk at the meetings, forgoing all interviews as his legal situation remains unresolved (players declined comment on that topic Friday). Kraft released a statement on Saturday. Meanwhile, Belichick has been mixing some vacation time with college scouting, and he is scheduled to be in attendance at the Arizona Biltmore. The annual coaches breakfast with reporters is set for Tuesday.