FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Life after Brady: The Patriots will celebrate their championship past when they honor Tom Brady at halftime of Sunday’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), which is also a reminder of how challenging life has been without him.
They are 25-25 the past three regular seasons, with one playoff berth when they were blown out by the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round. Few are picking them as a contender in 2023.
That’s why the team’s longest-tenured player, 16-year veteran Matthew Slater, thoughtfully described what is set to unfold Sunday as “a small picture of what we’re going through on the whole.”
“As we look back and celebrate our past, we’re also looking forward and starting what I believe is a very important chapter in the story of this franchise,” he told ESPN. “I think any time you make a transition like that … there’s going to be some growing pains, ups and downs, peaks and valleys, a period of struggling to find your footing a little bit. Only a fool would tell you there wouldn’t be.
“I think for us initially, there was that, ‘Oh, he’s not here, what do we do?’ That lasted for a period of time, and everybody processed that a little differently. But I think now, as we are celebrating him this weekend, it’s an important reminder that in life, change is inevitable and you have to be able to adapt and move forward, and reflect, learn and grow. … We’re excited about the season, we’re excited about beginnings which offer you opportunities that you’ve never experienced before — a time to hopefully come together and experience success.”
Slater was asked what it would mean to return to championship glory without Brady.
“Everyone is very competitive and no one thought to themselves, ‘Because Tom is gone, we can’t win.’ But it would certainly mean a great deal to all of us to get back to that,” he said. “I’ve joked, ‘If you really want to honor Tom this weekend, go win the ballgame.’ I know that’s what he would want the most.
“Regardless of what the outside thinks about us, what people may say about us, we have a lot of pride, and we want to show we can win regardless of who is on this roster. I love that about this group.”
Slater arrived in New England in 2008, which was the start of a notable transition point in coach Bill Belichick’s 24-year coaching tenure. He sees similarities to where the team is now, with their last playoff win coming in Super Bowl LIII against the Rams on Feb. 3, 2019.
“When I was young, they would talk about the [Tedy] Bruschis and the [Mike] Vrabels and how we weren’t those guys. Well, there’s been a great deal of turnover in the last several years, not just Tom — now with Devin [McCourty] gone, Julian [Edelman], [Rob] Gronk[owski], guys like that.
“I think these guys feel that to an extent and it’s a great motivator. I hope it pays off for us.”
2. Andrews’ perspective: Starting center David Andrews is the Patriots’ second-longest tenured player (2015) and, like Slater, shared his perspective on life after Brady.
“He obviously had so much to do with our success, but it’s the greatest team game for a reason, and he’d be the first one to tell you that,” Andrews told ESPN. “You had to deal with all of us, and that’s what I’d like for us to get to and strive for every week.
“You can talk about ‘We did this,’ but it’s ‘What are you doing now?’ I think that’s a big thing — what does this team want to be? What does the younger core group of players want to be about? Because the truth of the matter is the guys who were a part of that [with Brady] are getting older and older.”
3. Kraft and Belichick: It was a rare sight to see Patriots owner Robert Kraft pacing up and down the middle of the practice field alongside Belichick on Thursday as players loosened up, with Kraft later telling reporters that Belichick asked him to be there. It reflected the optic of a unified front at a time some are asking — fair or not — if the heat could be turned up on Belichick depending on how the 2023 season unfolds. Later that day, Kraft said: “In the end, we want to win.”
Owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick walk the field and have an extended chat as players loosen up at practice. pic.twitter.com/4P8LzqoPur
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) September 7, 2023
4. Patricia subplot: One juicy storyline to the opener against the Eagles is the potential impact of Philadelphia senior defensive assistant Matt Patricia, based on his intimate knowledge of working closely with Patriots quarterback Mac Jones last season. “He was vital in terms of giving us intel on all their players, and what he thinks they do well, and where maybe we can take advantage of some matchups,” first-year Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai said.
5. Mac vs. pressure: Out of 38 quarterbacks who had 50 or more dropbacks under pressure last season, Jones ranked last in the NFL with an 8.1 interception percentage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It highlights one of the key matchups against the Eagles, whose 70 sacks last season were the third highest single-season total in NFL history behind the 1984 Bears (72) and 1989 Vikings (71).
6. Zeke and Dillon: Veteran running back Ezekiel Elliott hadn’t been a Patriot for more than a week, but that didn’t stop Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon from asking him for his No. 15 jersey after the team’s mid-August preseason game. In exchange, Dillon took off his No. 28 Packers jersey and gifted it to Elliott, who had it hanging in his locker at Gillette Stadium. Elliott appreciated the respect the 6-foot, 247-pound Dillon showed him, and also respects his game. “He’s a load, and he catches the ball too,” he said.
7. Undrafted streak: Before this season, the Patriots had at least one undrafted free agent on their opening-day roster for 19 consecutive seasons. That streak was broken when the team didn’t promote quarterback/receiver Malik Cunningham from the practice squad by Saturday’s deadline. Cunningham was the most likely option to keep the streak alive, but with 11 draft picks making the team, there wasn’t a spot for an undrafted free agent.
8. Kraft and Fuller St.: Kraft briefly turned nostalgic on Thursday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the just-completed $250 million Gillette Stadium renovation, saying: “When I drive here, I pinch myself that a little kid from 131 Fuller Street is able to help our family be a custodian of these great assets.” Kraft reflected on how the old Foxboro Stadium was built for $6 million, then Gillette Stadium opened in 2002 after he privately financed it for $325 million, and now the renovation at $250 million, which he said wouldn’t have happened without the backing of fans — like he was, growing up on Fuller Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, and later as a season-ticket holder himself.
Ceremonial ribbon cutting for Gillette Stadium north end zone renovation. pic.twitter.com/YpAq41HC7L
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) September 7, 2023
9. McMillan’s assist: Veteran linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who is on season-ending injured reserve after sustaining a torn Achilles in a spring practice, plans to be on the sideline for every Patriots game this season — home and away. The reason? “I want to be there for the guys,” he said. Injured players aren’t often awarded that opportunity, which reflects the respect Belichick has for McMillan.
10. Did you know? The Chiefs’ 21-20 loss to the Lions on Thursday snapped their winning streak against NFC teams at 16, falling one short of tying the longest winning streak against an opposing conference since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. The Patriots won 17 straight games against NFC teams from 2005 to 2009.