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J.J. Watt's back surgery could ease burden on Jimmy Garoppolo, Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and the NFL:

1. When analyzing how Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will fare in the first four games of the regular season, he might have caught a break to make life significantly easier. Thursday’s news that Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt underwent back surgery last week and his availability for the start of the season isn’t a guarantee could have a trickle-down effect on Garoppolo and the Patriots, who host the Texans in a Thursday night game in Week 3. To illustrate this point, I rewatched the Patriots’ 27-6 victory over the Texans on Dec. 13, 2015, with a focus on Watt, and here are the big takeaways:

  • Because the Texans move Watt around liberally on a snap-to-snap basis, the first job for the Patriots' offense was simply identifying where he was aligned. Take Watt off the field this season, and it simplifies things from a chess-match perspective.

  • Watt played 64 of 67 snaps that night (he came off for the final three kneel-downs), and multiple blockers were assigned to him 29 times. I thought it would have been even more, but getting the ball out quickly, attacking him early with angle blocks in the run game from motioning tight ends and attempting to use Watt’s aggressiveness against him with draws and misdirection were a significant part of the plan.

  • There is no sure-fire metric to measure how the Patriots' attention on Watt created opportunities for others, but it showed up various times, most notably on a Jadeveon Clowney sack in the fourth quarter (5 minutes, 46 seconds remaining) when left guard Shaq Mason initially doubled Watt and was late to pick up a surging Clowney.

The bottom line: As the Patriots prepare Garoppolo for the first four games, Watt’s recovery bears watching. Even if he returns for the start of the regular season, he will need some time to return to his dominant self after missing all of training camp. There are few defenders who can ruin a game like Watt and who require an offense to build an entire plan to account for him on every snap, as the Patriots did in December. If Garoppolo and the Patriots don’t have to face him Sept. 22 or they get Watt at less than 100 percent, that will make the Tom Brady-less stretch of the schedule more manageable.

2. Can Garoppolo at least help the Patriots keep things afloat in games against Arizona (road), Miami (home), Houston (home) and Buffalo (home)? Here is the percentage of teams since 1990 to reach the playoffs by won-loss record through four games, per ESPN Stats & Information:

4-0: 96.1 percent

3-1: 63.6 percent

2-2: 36.1 percent

1-3: 14.2 percent

0-4: 1.2 percent

3. A few things that caught my eye while reviewing the Patriots’ 2016 staff: (1) Former special-teams coach Scott O’Brien, who was listed as an area scout with the club in 2015, during his first year after retiring as a coach, is no longer listed as part of the scouting staff; (2) Jack Easterby, the team chaplain in 2015, has a new title: character coach/team development; (3) Dana Andrade, who was a scouting assistant in 2015 after two years with the team as a football-operations intern, has been elevated to the position of football operations assistant/player development. The positions for Easterby and Andrade came in the wake of director of player development Kevin Anderson's following Bob Quinn to the Lions this offseason.

4. The front offices of the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Cubs have maintained a cross-sport connection, which was highlighted this month when, I’m told, a Browns contingent traveled to Wrigley Field on a retreat to take in a Cubs game. The Browns did something similar in 2015 on a trip that included owner Jimmy Haslam. One notable New England-based hook to this story: Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown is a graduate of Framingham (Massachusetts) High School, and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein graduated from Brookline (Massachusetts) High, which means they are two Bay State League alums. Much like Epstein helped the Red Sox end their World Series drought after 86 years, Brown is hoping to build a team that helps the Browns win their first Super Bowl championship.

5a. Did You Know, Part I: If the Patriots make it to the AFC Championship Game this season, they will pass the Oakland Raiders (1973-1977) as the only team to do so in six consecutive seasons.

5b. Did You Know, Part II: The Patriots have won seven straight division titles (2009-2015). If they win the AFC East again this year, they will pass the Los Angeles Rams (1973-79) for most consecutive division titles in NFL history.

6. With the Patriots celebrating the 15-year anniversary of their first Super Bowl championship team throughout the 2016 season, it’s fitting that the club is playing at Pittsburgh this year. In 2001, the Patriots beat the Steelers 24-17 in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh, with Drew Bledsoe filling in for an injured Brady and two special-teams plays (Troy Brown 55-yard punt return for a touchdown; 49-yard return of a blocked field goal for a TD) the top storylines.

Prior to his “No Huddle” show last week, I had the chance to ask Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart (1995-2002) what he remembers most about that Patriots team and game.

“It was a time when our country was going through 9/11, a very patriotic season across the board. They put forth a good team effort, and that’s a true testament to the coaching staff -- it’s the blueprint and definition of every guy being ready,” he said.

“When I look at it, I know the team we had at Pittsburgh was very, very, very good. There were some things we wish we could take back, but in the end, the team that actually played the type of football to move to the next level [and] ended up winning was the Patriots. Regardless of bad feelings, ill feelings, it’s a part of the game. You win some, you lose some. It’s unfortunate that we did, considering how great of a year we had, but the rest is history, and they went on to create a dynasty and have been winning championships since.”

7. Neat story: Stewart, now 43, was three credits shy of his college degree at Colorado when he entered the NFL with the Steelers in 1995. He had 117 and needed 120. He just completed the final three this offseason, as he was back on Colorado’s campus because it couldn’t be done online. He told me that it was important to him because of the message it sends to his 13-year-old son, Syre, with whom he lives in Atlanta.

“To go back to a classroom setting 20 years-plus after I was out of school, to sit there with 18- and 21-year-olds, that was one of the hardest things to do," he said. "But my son inspired me to go do this. I can’t preach to him how important it is to get his education when Daddy doesn’t have his completed.”

8. Dennis Green’s passing at age 67 last week yielded some heartfelt tributes, most notably from former Vikings running back Robert Smith via his Facebook page. The words of receiver Randy Moss from ESPN’s NFL Live program also resonated, as he talked about what Green -- who gave him his first NFL chance by drafting him out of Marshall -- meant to him and preached to his players (“faith, family and football”). ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert captured Green’s style in a poignant piece.

Here in New England, the Patriots didn’t cross paths much with Green over his coaching career, with the most memorable game coming in 1994, Bill Parcells’ second season as coach, when New England stormed back from a 20-0, late-first-half deficit to beat the Vikings in overtime as Bledsoe threw a record 70 passes that day.

9. ESPN’s hiring of Moss as an analyst on Sunday NFL Countdown, Monday Night Countdown and Super Bowl coverage sets up the possibility for something that could be unique and insightful from a Patriots perspective: Moss and Tedy Bruschi working together. Sign me up for that. Moss is one of the most fascinating athletes and personalities to come through the Patriots’ locker room, and my 2008 trip to his native West Virginia to profile him remains an unforgettable experience.

10. Here’s a quick feel for what to expect with Patriots training camp this week: Rookies officially report Sunday, and all veterans are due to report Wednesday. Quarterbacks and players returning from injuries annually report early as well. Media coverage officially kicks off at 11:30 a.m. ET Wednesday, when assistant coaches will be available to reporters, along with captains Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater. The first four practices of camp -- Thursday, Friday, Saturday and next Sunday -- begin at 9:15 a.m., followed by player interviews on the field. At 5 p.m. on Aug. 1, Kevin Faulk will be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame (free and open to the public), followed by an in-stadium practice for Foxborough residents and season-ticket holders.

EXTRA POINT: Special thanks and a good-luck shout-out to Jon Zimmer as he departs his position as director of AFC Communications in the NFL office for a job outside football. He worked at the NFL for 11 years and was all about football in its purest sense. Weekly communication with him was an enjoyable part of the in-season routine, and he will be missed.