The Media Column: Ex-Patriots greats have emerged as some of team's sharpest critics

Alex Reimer
December 19, 2018 - 12:34 pm

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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As the Patriots’ Dynasty nears its apparent end, we’ve spent much of our time focusing on disingenuous carnival barkers such as Max Kellerman and Rob Parker. They make outrageous proclamations about Tom Brady –– he’s falling off the cliff! He’s the LOAT! –– and we get all riled up. But that’s for show. The most cutting criticism comes from those who mean it, and many of the ex-Patriots players who now populate the NFL media landscape have shared some scathing analysis about their former team in recent weeks. Bill Belichick’s decision-making, Rob Gronkowski’s viability and Brady’s arm strength have all been questioned, or in some cases even doubted, by former members of Fort Foxboro.

The most telling example came two weeks ago, when Belichick inexplicably decided to play Gronkowski instead of Devin McCourty on the Dolphins’ Desperado play. That evening, in front of millions of viewers on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” Rodney Harrison dug into the man who helped resurrect his career.

“I think Bill Belichick really outsmarted himself,” Harrison said. “Why would you have Rob Gronkowski on a Hail Mary that’s 70 yards down the field and have your best defensive player, Devin McCourty, on the bench?”

Harrison is maybe the most biting analyst around, and his cynicism is a welcome change from the cheerleading that usually fills NFL broadcasts. While on the call for Falcons-Saints on Thanksgiving night, for example, Harrison lambasted one-time MVP Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense. No other commentator would ever condemn a big name quarterback, no matter how much they were struggling in the moment. Peyton Manning got lauded on his way out the door, and he couldn’t throw the ball more than five yards at the end. 

Unsurprisingly, Harrison was one of the few voices who did not whitewash Manning’s struggles with platitudes about his game management. When he was asked in 2015 about Manning playing another season, he called the concept “crazy,” and implored Manning to “spend time with his family.” 

Harrison played against Manning numerous times, but their personal connection didn’t seem to matter. Harrison spoke his mind, which is precisely how he handled himself in the aftermath of the “Miracle in Miami.” He second-guessed Belichick, explaining in plain English why his former coach was wrong. 

Other Patriots players in the national media spotlight, such as ESPN’s Tedy Bruschi and former wideout Donte Stallworth, are often softer on their former team than Harrison –– which is why it was notable they questioned Belichick in blunt terms.

“Gronk was in because that is a ‘last play’ defense,” Bruschi tweeted. “The last play can be a hail mary pass.  In a situation where chances of a hail mary are low, the "jumper" (Gronk) should be substituted for another safety/DB.  For tackling purposes.  That was not done.”

“Why is Gronk in on defense with the ball on the minus 30 yard line on the last play of the game?,” Stallworth added. “That’s not hindsight, either. This is not Hail Mary territory.”

Then again, just about everybody disagreed with Belichick’s call. And if you’re an NFL analyst at any level, you had to comment on it. There was no avoiding the topic.

That’s why it was especially noteworthy when Damien Woody, who played under Belichick from 2000-2004, called out Gronkowski following the Patriots’ loss to the Steelers Sunday. Woody could’ve sugarcoated his analysis of the Patriots’ offensive struggled, but instead pointed the blame right at one of his former franchise’s most beloved players.

“Gronk is a shell of himself, and because he’s a shell of himself, it’s tricked down to everyone else,” Woody said on “First Take” this week. “In a team sport, you’re only as good as the guys you play around. Right now, when you look at the Patriots, Gronk is not what he used to be. These guys can’t separate like they have in the past. It has an effect on Tom Brady.”

Yes, Woody was never teammates with Gronk, so he is a bit more removed from the situation. But we also had an example this week of one of Brady’s Pro Bowl-caliber former teammates questioning the New England offense, and more specifically, Brady himself.

“He wants to play –– what? –– three more years or something like that?,” Jerod Mayo said Tuesday on NBC Sports Boston. “I’m not sure as a rusher is coming at him if he’s thinking about those things –– ‘this is a business decision.’ But right now, he doesn’t have the arm strength to fall away and throw it on a rope on a 10-yard out. That’s not going to work. I would say, going into the playoffs, you’re going to see a Tom Brady –– whether it’s conscious or subconscious –– stand in there.”

That is one of the best explanations I’ve heard explaining why Brady is bailing on plays early. It’s not surprising it came from one of the people in the media who might know Brady best.

When ex-Patriots greats offer constructive criticism about their team, we should all listen.

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Inside the mind of someone who flipped from the Patriots to Bruins: Predicably, Patriots-Steelers drew a monstrous 41.9 household rating in Boston on Sunday. But the Bruins-Sabres matchup, which started at 5 p.m., drew a 0.9. While that's a very small number, it does mean real sports fans did opt to watch a regular season hockey matinee over the biggest Pats game of the year. 

It's understandable there are hockey diehards. But were there actually people who started with the Pats and then went to the B's? Since I am a weirdo, this topic fascinates me. As a result, I posed the question on Twitter, and actually spoke with one person who claimed to do exactly that.

Josh Fargo, a self-described lifelong Boston fan who lives in Eastern Connecticut says he likes football better than hockey, but just can't stick around with Pats games this season. "Just watching the Patriots this year, something feels different," he told WEEI.com on the phone. "They’re not in sync; they’re not as fun to watch. I feel like there’s no chemistry with them. The Bruins are one of the young up-and-coming teams in the NHL. They’re a lot of fun to watch."

The Bruins are more fun to watch than the Patriots right now, according to at least one fan.

Mut and Villani scooped the world on Tim Neverett move: The Dodgers announced Tuesday Tim Neverett would join their broadcast team next season. But the news was first surfaced on two WEEI shows last week.

Last Tuesday, Chris Villano told me on "WEEI at Night" that Neverett was going to wind up in "Chavez Ravine." Mut followed up Wednesday, saying Neverett was heading to the Dodgers. 

Score one for those wacky radio jocks.

Stephen A. shows you can know nothing about sports and still be a sports pundit: Stephen A. Smith exposed himself last week as somebody who hasn't watched any of the two top teams in the NFL this season, when he wrongly said Chargers tight end Hunter Henry (out with an ACL injury) would be matched up against Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson (retired) when the teams squared off on "Thursday Night Football." But it doesn't matter. He's been back on "First Take" this week, still shouting his opinions and going viral.

It's not what you say; it's how you say it. 

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