On the Monday after Patriots receiver Demario Douglas was benched following a fumble against the Miami Dolphins, the rookie nicknamed “Pop” got a pep talk from someone who’s been there before: running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
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“I talked to him a day after the game,” Stevenson said this week. “‘The same thing happened to me, and missed a lot of games. Hopefully, you don’t miss as many games as me.’ Hopefully, he gets back on the field.”
Let this much be clear: Bill Belichick cannot keep Douglas in the doghouse against another divisional opponent when the team travels to the Meadowlands Sunday.
Back in 2021, Stevenson fumbled in his first NFL game – coincidentally, also against the Dolphins – and rode the pine for the rest of the game and the subsequent three games.
Whether or not the punishment fit the crime -- Belichick famously preaches the Gospel of almighty Ball Security -- the message got through. Stevenson went more than 20 games without another fumble.
But this is a different team, a different player, and a different set of circumstances. The Patriots sit at 0-2 for the first time since 2001 and Sunday’s game against the Jets feels do-or-die. Regardless of anyone’s feelings about Zach Wilson, they’re going up against Quinnen Williams and Sauce Gardner. Continuing to bench Douglas would be akin to showing up to the O.K. Corral and quick drawing a hot dog out of your holster.
Outside of Kendrick Bourne, Douglas might be the only downfield threat with wheels, as shown in the out route he ran against Philadelphia for a nice grab from quarterback Mac Jones. While Jones faces pea-shooting allegations from his critics through two games, that 23-yard reception remains his longest completion. His usage could also free up Bourne to perform more as the yards-after-catch receiver role in which we saw him excel in 2021.
Belichick wouldn’t come out and declare Douglas’ benching a punishment in media appearances after the game. He pointed to the rookie’s return to the field as a punt returner Sunday, which only begs the question, if he can be trusted to carry the ball then, why not with the offense?
He’s a sixth-round pick. He’s a rookie. It’s not like benching Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl.
Except Belichick knows better than anyone that it doesn’t always matter where a player is drafted, and this is a game with season – if not franchise – implications. There’s no need to further tie an arm behind their back to teach a lesson, especially when offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien nearly campaigned for Douglas’ return during his media appearance Tuesday.
“I think Pop will learn from what happened on Sunday,” O’Brien said. “But Pop has had a really good, in my opinion, rookie experience so far. From OTAs to training camp to where we are now, Pop has done a lot of really good things. So, we like when Pop’s in the game.”