NFL Wire News

Thursday opener ramps up urgency in preseason’s final week


The Sports Xchange

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Head coach Bill Belichick has been through it all during his 41 years in the NFL and two decades as a head coach in Cleveland and New England.

The 63-year-old future Hall of Fame sideline boss clearly loves what he does.

But one of the few aspects of the job that he doesn’t particularly enjoy and hasn’t grown accustomed to is the fact that each summer he has to send, under current rules, dozens of players to the unemployment line who’ve spent months working hard to make his team.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Belichick and the rest of the NFL will have whittled down 90-man rosters to the 75-man cut. Less than a week later it will be down to a 53-man regular season roster.

Add in the fact that as defending Super Bowl champions the Patriots open up on Thursday night, a week after this Thursday’s preseason finale against the Giants at Gillette, and Belichick has a lot on his plate these days.

“We’re just trying to balance a lot of things here at this time of year between roster, the Giants game, obviously the Pittsburgh opener, and a number of other things,” Belichick said. “Each coach, each player all is kind of in their own individual situation – whatever the circumstances are that surround it here in the next couple weeks – and we just have to try to work through it the best we can and try to get as much done as productively as possible. That’s what we’ll try to do.”

New England’s first set of moves down toward 75 weren’t overly notable, but Belichick knows the rest of the action in the coming week will lay the foundation for what his team will be this season. And there is no doubt that opening on a Thursday is not ideal; in fact it complicates the situation even for an experienced coach and personnel man like Belichick who’s been through it all before.

“Quite a bit, yeah, it changes a lot. In the normal situation, you go through your roster changes at the end of the week there, Saturday, Sunday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – whatever it is – set your practice squad on Sunday and then you play the following Sunday,” Belichick said, acknowledging that only Pittsburgh can really empathize. “It’s the same for both teams, but it’s different than 30 of the other teams in the league. (I’m) glad we’re playing that game. There’s a good reason for us playing it, so that’s good, but it definitely complicates things on a number of levels. It’s the way it is.”

Another thing that adds to the challenges of making cuts under a little extra pressure and time crunch is when players actually make the decision difficult to make. In discussing the tough decisions ahead with young players maximizing their opportunities to prove themselves this summer, Belichick harkened back to Patriots legend Troy Brown’s ascension up the depth chart back in the day.

“It’s definitely made it hard. We’ve had a lot of guys do that. I think Troy Brown made a comment a couple weeks ago when he said, ‘I knew that when I came into the league, I knew it was a longshot for me to make a team and I was probably going to get cut and all that, but I felt like my job every day was to make it as hard as possible for coach (Bill) Parcells to make that decision. I wanted to make his job tough for him to cut me,'” Belichick relayed. “And I’d say there have been a number of guys that have done that this year in preseason. They’ve taken that phrase that Troy used, and really they’ve done that. They’ve forced us to make some hard decisions because of how competitively they’ve played.”

Tough decisions to be made under hectic times. It’s not easy, but it’s the world Belichick lives in, succeeds in and loves. Even if it isn’t always easy with the season opener just around the corner.

–Fullback James Develin suffered a broken right leg (tibia) in New England’s preseason victory in Carolina. The hard working, highly respected third-year veteran played in all 16 games in each of the last two seasons for the Patriots as a key special teams contributor and occasional offensive battering ram.

Many Patriots have expressed much sorrow over the injury to a guy described as the best teammate ever or who enjoys his job as much as any player they’ve ever seen.

“He’s definitely going to be missed,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “He was our thumper. He was a guy that set the tone on our offense and made the big hits and cleared the holes out for the running back. He’s a great guy, hard worker, and I’m sure he’ll be back in no time because he loves the game and always works hard. We’ve just got to come together as a team and just fill the holes that are missing that aren’t quite there yet when people go down and just go out there and work hard at practice to get prepared for games.”

–Gronkowski has not played in any of the three Patriots preseason games this summer, despite the fact that the All-Pro is fully healthy and has not missed any practice time this summer. In all likelihood the first time he takes the field since last February’s Super Bowl will be on Thursday night Sept. 10 in the opener against the Steelers.

Gronkowski seems comfortable with the work he’s done on the practice field and in the background to get him ready for that debut.

“You have to be up on your playbook. During meetings, you have to know what you’ve got to know when you get on the field,” Gronkowski said. “You have to be in the weight room. When you have some time off, keep your muscles strong, work yourself hard, push your body to the limit during camp. Practice harder than the games. Go out there, do a little extra conditioning.”

–Cornerback Malcolm Butler has clearly impressed head coach Bill Belichick with more than just his Super Bowl-clinching interception last February to bring another Lombardi Trophy to Gillette Stadium.

“Much improved, much improved on everything,” Belichick said of Butler this year compared to a year ago as an undrafted rookie looking to make his mark. He worked hard in the offseason. It’s obviously just his second year, the change of lifestyle, becoming a professional athlete, working at this job every day, becoming more mature, more dependable, having a better understanding of what we do, having a better understanding of what our opponents do or the passing game in the National Football League. He’s made a huge jump.”

The cornerback himself admitted that he feels much different this time around this summer in Foxborough.

“I was pretty tense last year, but experience, it’s a big deal in this league,” Butler said. “I feel a little more comfortable, more relaxed and I can play ball free.

“Overall just being a pro, taking my job more seriously, just learning from mistakes that I made last year. It’s just all about improving and getting better. Every day I come out here, I’m trying to get better. If I have a bad day then I’m still trying to get better the next day. It’s all about getting better, learning from your mistakes, improving and being a productive player.”

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