Sunday 7: Could Matt Patricia be this year’s Cam Newton?

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1 – Things are not always as they appear or as they’re reported in New England.

We certainly learned that lesson a year ago when Cam Newton was proclaimed to be the Patriots starting quarterback throughout the spring and summer competition with rookie first-round pick Mac Jones. Remember when Newton was definitively called the starter numerous times by Bill Belichick and took all the starter reps in practice and preseason action a year ago?

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The veteran Newton was the offseason “starter” right up until Jones won the regular season starting job. The former NFL MVP was cut and the big job was the young, unproven quarterback’s to fill out for what ended up being an impressive Pro Bowl rookie season that included a return to the playoffs in New England.

So what could Newton’s final few months in Foxborough last summer keeping the seat warm for Jones have to do with Matt Patricia and the Patriots’ need to fill the void at offensive coordinator after Josh McDaniels moved on to coach the Raiders this offseason?

Maybe nothing.

Or, maybe everything!

ESPN reported this week that Patricia and Joe Judge – New England’s former defensive coordinator and special teams coach who failed in head coaching stints with the Lions and Giants – are the loudest coaches on the offensive staff during spring practices in Foxborough. ESPN went on to report that it wouldn’t be surprising if Patricia -- whose miniscule experience as an offensive coach came way back in the infancy of his NFL coaching career when he assisted legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia – ends up with job of offensive play caller for the Patriots in 2022.

There has even been some speculation that Patricia and Judge could have a “competition” for the right to replace McDaniels like they were seeking Belichick’s love in some sort of bad, rose-earning reality TV show.

To say it’s a curious plan to put Jones’ development and the overall New England offense in the hands of a couple coaches who have less experience than he does on the offensive side of the ball would be an understatement.

Sure Belichick is known for thinking outside the box, doing what he truly believes is best even in the face of what might be considered conventional wisdom. But this idea is extreme even for him.

It’s almost too crazy to be believed.

In fact it’s almost like the idea of Newton retaining his starting job despite coming off a dismal 2020 season in New England in which he showed an alarming inability to lead an offense, score points or even make simple throws. Flaws that were then only magnified by the arrival of an NFL-ready first-round rookie.

Of course that never happened. The much-hyped competition and Newton’s status as the starter last summer ended up being a bit of ruse. It ended up feeling like a con job by Belichick, allowing Jones to compete and develop all summer long without too much fanfare, attention, pressure or criticism.

Could a similar plan be in play this summer in regards to the vacant play caller job?

Might we be spoon fed the idea that Patricia and Judge are duking it out for the right to replace McDaniels? Meanwhile maybe the most obvious candidate for the job on the current coaching staff, young tight ends coach Nick Caley, just goes about his business in the summer shadow of his more experienced veteran co-workers, men who’ve been in the crucible of criticism in Detroit and New York and survived.

Maybe Patricia is going to actually call the plays. Maybe Belichick would leave the McDaniels’ former job up to some ill-conceived preseason competition.

Or maybe the young, developing offensive assistant Caley, who’s spent the last five years coaching the tight ends for McDaniels, sitting in every offensive meeting learning from McDaniels and mirrors McDaniels’ own resume when he took over for Charlie Weis back in 2005, maybe that guy is just being allowed to go about his business in relative peace while Belichick, Patricia and Judge take the speculative offseason heat.

Then, like Jones last August, maybe Caley will “surprisingly” get the headset and play sheet just in time for the season opener in Miami.

It wouldn’t be the first time most of New England fell for the Belichickian bait-and-switch.

2—Regardless of who is calling the plays, it’s safe to say that there is some doubt as to just how productive the Jones’-led passing attack will be in his second season in New England. In fact, the odds are seemingly stacked against the Patriots have premier results in the passing game.

BetOnline released its prop bet odds for players to lead the NFL in passing yards, at both the quarterback and wide receiver positions, and the Patriots don’t get a lot of love. According BetOnline, Jones is tied with New Orleans’ Jameis Winston as the 16th most likely quarterbacks (33 to 1) to lead the NFL in passing yards. Not only is Jones behind all the usual candidates such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, but also trailing guys like fellow second-year passer Trevor Lawrence and fellow former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa.

Things are even more dubious at the receiver position in New England. BetOnline gives the odds for 40 different NFL receivers to possibly lead the league in receiving yards in 2022 and not a single Patriots player makes the list. No mention of Jakobi Meyers, who led New England with 866 yards last fall, or Kendrick Bourne, whose 14.5-yard average on 800 yards have some believing bigger numbers are in store this season. Nope, based on the odds, the Patriots still don’t come close to measuring up to the playmaking competition at the receiver position across the NFL.

3 – While BetOnline’s odds makers don’t have much love for the Patriots passing game, there is a little more respect for Damien Harris and the New England rushing attack. Harris’ is given the 12th best odds to lead the NFL in rushing at 25-to-1, same as stars Ezekiel Elliot and Christian McCaffrey. Harris led the Patriots with 929 yards rushing last fall.

4 – Jarrett Stidham’s Patriots career came to an anticlimactic end this week with his trade to the Raiders. The former fourth-round pick was widely promoted as the potential replacement for Tom Brady at one point in the 2020 offseason but never ended up starting a single game in a New England uniform despite all the hype. Who can forget ESPN infamously reporting during that offseason, before Cam Newton arrived in town to take the starting job without seemingly much of a fight, that the Patriots “love” Stidham? Now, it appears that maybe the guy how had love for Stidham, and maybe still likes him as an NFL backup, is McDaniels. He and former Patriots director of player personnel Dave Ziegler had enough interest in adding Stidham to Las Vegas depth chart competition to swap late-round picks in the deal. In New England Stidham becomes a forgotten footnote of one of the most turbulent times in franchise history.

5 – When Jalen Mills joined the Patriots as a part of the team’s huge free agent class a year ago, the veteran former Eagles defensive back was seen as a versatile piece to the defensive back puzzle. He joined a secondary that included Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson as Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks. A year later, after Gilmore was traded and Jackson’s free agent departure, Mills is now the top returning name at the cornerback position where he actually started all 16 games he played last fall.

Likely slated to start at a dangerously thin cornerback position once again, and maybe even be New England’s No. 1 cornerback, Mills said this week that he’s definitely better prepared or his role after a year under his belt in the Patriots’ system.

“I think I really just got comfortable within the scheme,” Mills said of his 2021 experiences. “Two totally different schemes from the scheme I was playing in before. Just getting comfortable in the scheme, getting comfortable with certain guys.

“Definitely feeling more comfortable. Just going over the plays, going over the installs. My mind isn’t wandering and I’m asking 100 questions, now I’m asking 50 questions instead of 100 this year. Definitely more confident within the scheme.”

6 – The relationship between Belichick and the media over his two-plus decades in New England has been a unique one. Belichick runs a pretty tight ship regarding the way information of any kind is protected with the Patriots and how his players interact with reporters. In the middle of it all is the team’s media relations department led by vice president of communications Stacey James. In some ways it’s really a thankless job. This week James and his staff were recognized for their work with the Pro Football Writers of America’s 2022 Pete Rozelle Award as the top public relations department in the NFL. James – along with director of communications Aaron Salkin and communications coordinator Stephanie Burnham – were lauded for their efforts through the difficult 2021 season, which included coordinating more than 850 Zoom calls with reporters. It’s an honor that’s well deserved.

7 – New England lost a truly classy man and Patriots franchise legend this week with the death of former AFL MVP Gino Cappelletti at the age of 89. The team Hall of Famer was the star of the Boston Patriots in the 1960s as a playmaking wide receiver and kicker. Cappelletti later served as an assistant coach in New England and became beloved to a new generation of Patriots fans as a broadcaster.

While Cappelletti will forever remain in the minds and hearts of Boston football fans, at some point he might also take what is probably a deserved and long overdue spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Recent changes to the bylaws regarding Hall of Fame voting mean that senior nominees for the Hall will be presented, discussed and voted on in the same manner that modern candidates are selected. While the old system allowed legends from past eras like Cappelletti to fall through the cracks in the process, the new format could give the AFL’s all-time leading scorer at shot at Canton.

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