New England Patriots: Joe Philbin
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
1b. Being on the field for the first day of training camp will also be crucial for Patriots seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon in his hopes to earn a roster spot at a crowded receiver position. The slot receiver with top traits and production from the University of Michigan was limited for most of spring camps, missing out on potentially valuable time in team drills with quarterback Tom Brady. At this point, Gallon is far behind second-year receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, and that gap would only increase if he's not on the field for the start of training camp.
2. With so much attention focused on Patriots top picks Dominique Easley and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (second round), I think running back James White (fourth round, Wisconsin, 130th overall) has slipped under the radar a bit. Everything I've heard is that the 5-foot-9, 204-pound White has made a strong first impression, both from a skills and approach standpoint, and even though it's early I don't think it's a stretch to say he will contribute in 2014. Bill Belichick has compared his style of play to fourth-year Patriots running back Shane Vereen.
3. First-year Texans coach Bill O'Brien ended the final day of minicamp with something straight out of the Bill Belichick coaching playbook, with offensive guard Ben Jones attempting to catch a punt. Players cheered wildly when Jones did, and that earned them all a start to "summer vacation." Patriots followers have seen this for years in training camp -- from offensive tackle Matt Light to defensive lineman Vince Wilfork catching punts, with Wilfork having to do with a football already in his grasp. Belichick has cited it as a good team-building exercise, bringing everyone together from the punt returners to the offensive linemen.
4b. We don't get to see that side of Belichick often, if at all. For example, on the final day of mandatory minicamp Thursday, Belichick seemed less than enthused to answer questions from reporters and said he'd take just three. It was a page out of the Randy Moss playbook, as Moss was known for starting his interviews with, "Y'all got three." True to form, an edgy Belichick cut things off when a reporter tried to sneak a fourth question into the mix.
5. The Dolphins are 2-1 at home in September under third-year head coach Joe Philbin, a 23-20 overtime loss to the Jets in 2012 the only blemish. They beat the Raiders handily that year (35-13) and came back to top the Falcons last year, 27-23. Part of the Dolphins' competitive advantage playing at home in early September is being able to practice in the heat and humidity, and along those lines, Philbin passed along last week that the club had 99 percent participation in its voluntary offseason program this year, noting he's never been a part of something like that in his 11 prior years in the NFL. We bring this up because the Patriots visit the Dolphins in the season opener Sept. 7, and unlike the 2011 Patriots-Dolphins opener on Monday Night Football when the late-night start helped cool things down a bit, this year's game kicks off at 1 p.m. I think it's a tougher opener for the Patriots than maybe has been advertised.
6. The Patriots' 13 spring practices (10 organized team activities, three minicamp sessions) weren't just important for players, but for the team's coaches to fine-tune some things as well. "I haven't called a play in five months. I have to rebuild all that myself. We all do," Bill Belichick said last week. That explains why we saw offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia wearing headsets during several practices as they were calling in plays as if it was a game-type situation. So Belichick wasn't just coaching the players, he was also coaching the coaches in a sense.
7. One of the areas I'm most interested to watch in Patriots training camp is the competition along the interior offensive line, where I'd say the only roster lock is at left guard with Logan Mankins. I watched incumbent center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly get praised by first-year o-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo for their textbook footwork and teamwork in one drill Thursday, but they face competition from a deep group of young linemen including rookies Bryan Stork (fourth round) and Jon Halapio (sixth round), as well as second-year players Josh Kline, Braxston Cave and Chris Barker. Stork and Halapio are likely locks to make the roster based on their draft status, and one could make a case for Kline to be included in that mix as well. The competition should be intense as the Patriots, unlike last year at this time when they were a bit thinner up front and combed the waiver wire in late August for help, have a nice influx of young talent that could pressure established veterans for roster spots.
8. I'm also interested in learning how the role of "assistant to the coaching staff" Michael Lombardi evolves over the course of the season. Lombardi, the former Browns general manager, watched each Patriots offseason practice and was often seen speaking with Bill Belichick before and after practice as they walked on and off the field. Early in Thursday's minicamp practice, I watched as Lombardi intently kept his eyes on offensive line drills, chatting with Logan Mankins (who wasn't participating) as he did so. Belichick has long had a right-hand man in football research director Ernie Adams. Maybe that makes Lombardi, who was also in the team's smaller-than-the-norm draft room, his left-hand man.
9. While this is the post-minicamp time of year for coaches to take vacation, all 2014 draft picks across the NFL will be busy this week at the NFL's Rookie Symposium, a four-day orientation held in Aurora, Ohio. The symposium begins today and the idea is to introduce them to life in the NFL, with the following four core teaching principles: NFL history, total wellness, professional experience, and workplace conduct. Rookies can expect to hear presentations, videos, workshops on player health and safety, decision-making, mental health, substance abuse, workplace respect and maintaining positive relationships. Former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, now serving as an assistant general manager with the Falcons, is one of the presenters. Kudos to the NFL for putting it on.
10. The Pro Football Writers Association handed out its annual awards last week and here were the results:
George Halas Award (NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed): Ravens senior advisor to player development O.J. Brigance.
Dick McCann Award (reporter who has made a long and distinguished contribution through coverage): Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jack Horrigan Award (league or club official for qualities and professional style): Seahawks coach Pete Carroll
Pete Rozelle Award (NFL club public relations staff consistently striving for excellence in media dealings): Broncos.
I was thrilled for Bouchette, the longtime Steelers beat reporter who spent his early years in Lynn, Massachusetts, and has covered the Steelers for the Post-Gazette since 1985. As Patriots rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said last week, the goal is to be consistently good, not occasionally great. Ed has obviously been just that or he wouldn't have been on the beat for 30 years.
The biggest game in the AFC East this season takes place Sunday in Miami, where the New England Patriots (10-3) will travel to face the Dolphins (7-6).
The Patriots are trying to secure one of the top two seeds in the conference and a first-round bye. New England also can clinch its fifth consecutive division title.
Miami, on the other hand, is one of four teams fighting for the AFC's final wild-card spot. The Dolphins have little margin for error and need another victory.
Who will prevail in this AFC East showdown? ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.
James Walker: Mike, this is our second go-around this year. But a lot has changed since New England's 27-17 victory in Week 8. The Dolphins have gone through an immense bullying and harassment controversy involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and the Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the year with a knee injury.
Still, both teams have positioned themselves well down the stretch. The Dolphins are looking at this game to make a potential statement. They know a lot of outsiders nationally will see them as a serious playoff contender with a win over the Patriots. Miami spent the entire offseason trying to close the gap, and this is a good time for the Dolphins to prove they made progress.
Mike, the Patriots played without Gronkowski before. But New England doesn't have the proven weapons of previous years. How will the Patriots adjust?
Mike Reiss: Coaches and players have said the same thing -- there is no one player who can replace Gronkowski. He is too special and too unique of a talent. One thing that stood out since Gronkowski's return Oct. 20 was the diversity of personnel groupings the Patriots were calling on with success. Against the Steelers on Nov. 3, they scored six of their seven touchdowns out of different groupings. That is unlikely to be the case going forward, as they'll have to rely more on their receivers and running backs, while asking backup tight ends Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams to do their part.
I'm thinking big-picture here, James. From afar, it seemed like the Incognito-Martin incident could have brought the Dolphins down. So how have they been able to overcome it?
Walker: The Dolphins showed two key characteristics: character and resilience. Miami could have packed it in, especially after losing to the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on "Monday Night Football." But since then, Miami has won three of four, and I think a lot of credit goes to Joe Philbin. The second-year head coach has never wavered through tough times. He remained the same person to his players and never pushed the panic button. That even-keeled mindset permeated the Dolphins' locker room and kept them focused.
Mike, how do you explain New England's penchant for second-half comebacks? Miami got a taste of that in October and is trying to avoid the same result this week.
Reiss: Much like Philbin, whose personal resilience was evident to those who followed his coaching career as he made his way up the ranks in the New England region, this Patriots team has something special about it. It is probably their most admirable quality -- if you're going to beat them, it is going to have to be a knockout. They fight you and keep scrapping for the full 60 minutes. What we saw last Sunday against the Browns was the equivalent of the boxing referee standing over them and giving them a 10 count as they were down on the mat: 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 9.5 ... and at the last moment they spring back up and record the improbable victory. It's a dangerous way to live. It's also maddening at times for the team's fans to watch them play so poorly early in games. But they have good leadership, good depth and, as usual, they're in the playoff hunt.
The Patriots' defense has been vulnerable in recent weeks. What do you see from the Dolphins' offense that might allow them to exploit that defense and record the win?
Walker: Well, the Dolphins are running as well as they have all season. Miami gained a season-high 181 rushing yards in last week's win over the Steelers. The ground game hasn't become an area of strength until recently. Miami should have some success running against New England's 31st-ranked run defense. The Dolphins' passing game also is more efficient. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing solid down the stretch and spreading the ball around. Miami is on pace to have three players -- tight end Charles Clay and receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline -- get 70 or more catches this year. That has made it hard on opponents to key on one player. Clay, in particular, has come on strong as of late. He has developed into not only a good threat in the middle of the field, but also in the red zone. Clay leads Miami with seven total touchdowns (six receiving, one rushing).
Finally, Mike, the Patriots have had their struggles on the road this year. All three losses, to the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, have been away from Gillette Stadium. Which Patriots team do you expect to show up in Miami on Sunday?
Reiss: The Patriots were still in all three of those games, with a chance to win each right up until the end, so that's where I would start. We should probably expect a close game. Slow starts have been an issue for the Patriots and many wonder when that will finally catch up to them, and I could see Miami being a team that capitalizes on that. These are two of the NFL's least-penalized teams, Miami is fighting to keep its playoff hopes alive, and the Patriots are depleted and recalibrating after the loss of Gronkowski. Turnovers will be the difference-maker if the Patriots are to win it.
In the case of the Dolphins, while there are few players and coaches who previously worked for the Patriots organization, there are some prominent Dolphins figures who have direct ties to Massachusetts, highlighted below.
Offensive tackle Will Yeatman. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent tight end out of Maryland by the Patriots, Yeatman, who was a two-sport star in college (he was also a standout lacrosse player), was claimed by Miami off of waivers in 2011 at the end of training camp and has since transitioned to an offensive tackle role. Though he has yet to see regular playing time, he remains an intriguing developmental prospect.
Head coach Joe Philbin. A native of Springfield, Mass., Philbin attended Longmeadow High School. His coaching career has included stops at local institutions such as Harvard, Northeastern and WPI. It was during Philbin’s post-graduate year at Worcester Academy that he would develop an important relationship that has sustained to this day ...
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. A Norwood, Mass., native, Sherman cut his teeth as a young coach at Worcester Academy, where he would coach Philbin. When Sherman was the Packers head coach from 2000 to 2005, he hired Philbin as an assistant offensive line coach in 2003. Philbin would rise through the ranks and land a head coaching job last offseason, at which point he hired Sherman to be his offensive coordinator after he was let go by Texas A&M.