FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Mitchell's advice for Harry: One of the hot-button questions as the Patriots return from the bye for the final seven games of the season is how much rookie receiver N'Keal Harry might contribute, starting Sunday at the Philadelphia Eagles (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
Quarterback Tom Brady recently said that it comes down to dependability and trust, pointing out that one needs only to look at recent Super Bowls to see who was on the field in the most critical situations.
The last rookie receiver to be in that spot was Malcolm Mitchell, whose exemplary second half helped the Patriots come back from a 28-3 second-half deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. I asked Mitchell what advice he might give to Harry when reflecting on his own experience:
Video: N'Keal Harry smiles as he arrives for his first media availability since his preseason injury. pic.twitter.com/Zkqob0nUFT— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) November 14, 2019
The message: "I earned that through practice, not through games. Way before I got on the field, I had to execute in practice consistently. Every day needs to be your best. Every rep needs to be 100 percent, I don't care what you're doing."
Challenge of earning Brady's trust: "It took months, and it took some tough, constructive criticism from him, and from coaches. I had to embrace it and say, 'I won't allow it to happen again. No repeat errors.' The thing I would tell [Harry] is consistency in everything you do, and I promise you the opportunities will come. Don't worry about today; I remember my rookie season, the first six games, I didn't do anything. It wasn't until I earned that trust, through constant repetition and execution of plays in practice, that I started to get those opportunities."
Having thick skin toward criticism: "It almost made me cry one day. [Brady] came into the receiver room, and he wasn't talking about me specifically but just our performance overall, and there was a clip of me on there when he was talking about receivers. Of course, I took it personally because it was me. I walked out of that receiver room and my heart was broken. I was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to do this.' It was in training camp. That night, I laid down and said, 'That will never happen again. He will never call me out like that again. There will be no self-inflicted wounds.'"
Learn the big picture: "One thing you're curious about, from the outside looking in with a rookie, is how much of the playbook do they know? Do they only know their spot? Or the three spots on the field? I knew more than one spot. My advice would be learn conceptually, not individually, and more opportunities will come, because players get hurt weekly. If you can step in to 'X', 'Z', 'Y', whatever spot it is, it can open more opportunities you didn't know exist."
2. Brady's production under pressure dips: Brady is completing a league-low 28% of his passes this season when under pressure, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, which is a major downturn from two years ago. In 2017, when Brady was named NFL MVP, he had the best completion percentage when deemed to be under pressure (59%). Why the decline? Shakiness along the offensive line is part of it. Using ESPN's pass block win rate powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, the Patriots rank 23rd in that metric of sustaining their blocks for 2.5 seconds 54.5% of the time. It's also notable that Brady leads the NFL with 19 throwaways this season, which is already more than his total from all of last season (16). In addition, Brady has been penalized for intentional grounding an NFL-high four times -- two more than any other player and Brady's most since becoming a full-time starter in 2001.
3. Gordon settles in with Seattle: Wide receiver Josh Gordon played 27 of 73 snaps in his Seahawks debut Monday night, contributing with two receptions for 27 yards, and he seems to be settling in nicely with his new team. The Patriots limited Gordon's weekly media availability during his time with the club in hopes of helping him best manage his weekly routine, often cutting things off after three or four questions. Things are looser in a lower-key media environment in Seattle. Gordon's opening news conference lasted six minutes, included 17 questions, and he shared that having his French bulldog -- named Franklin -- with him has helped in what he called a "smooth transition."
4. Patriots and Kaepernick's workout: When the NFL confirmed the Patriots would be represented at quarterback Colin Kaepernick's unprecedented league-arranged workout on Saturday, my first thought was that it was an example of owner Robert Kraft and the franchise acting as a "good partner." I'd be surprised if coach Bill Belichick entertained the possibility of signing Kaepernick, but ensuring the presence of one of the league's marquee franchises is a good look for the league, and it reminded me of Kraft's remarks about being a "good partner" back in 2017.
5. The 4 C's for a thriving culture: When Patriots character coach/team development Jack Easterby left the organization after the 2018 season and landed in a vice president position with the Houston Texans, it sparked questions of how the Patriots' culture might be affected. Easterby was widely recognized by Patriots players for his excellence in creating a positive culture. This year, players said that one way the club has moved forward is by bringing in a local pastor to lead bible study. Also, leaders such as longtime captain Matthew Slater have stepped up to highlight what one player referred to as the "4 C's for a thriving culture" -- communication, connection, commitment and caring.
6. McCourty proud of $450,000 donation from players: Now in his 10th season in New England and ninth as a captain, Devin McCourty has a lengthy list of meaningful things that have unfolded in his time as a pro. But he said what was announced last week, when players banded together in the locker room to raise $450,000 to donate to five nonprofit organizations in the New England region as part of their own player-driven Social Justice Fund, is near the top of the list. What made it special, he said, is that it was a "true team effort" -- including a matching donation from Kraft. "This was every guy in the locker room reaching into their pockets, no matter how much, saying, 'I want to give something to contribute to this.'" Patriots players formed the Social Justice Fund in 2018 to provide support for organizations focusing on initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity, including in the areas of education, economic development, police relations and criminal justice.
7. Did You Know: The Eagles have the most blocked kicks (17) since 2014, and the Patriots are second (16). So that's something to keep an eye on during Sunday's Patriots-Eagles game -- that is, protection at the line of scrimmage on PATs, field goals and punts -- and why the Patriots possibly being without punt team personal protector Nate Ebner (back/ankle) is a notable absence.
8. Plans for Grugier-Hill: When the Patriots made their final cuts at the end of the 2016 preseason, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill was right on the edge, as the club had him stick around the next day in hopes of signing him to their practice squad. But the Eagles swooped in to claim him, and Grugier-Hill -- who had been selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft out of Eastern Illinois -- has gone on to become a captain and core special-teamer in Philadelphia. "He's certainly a guy we wanted to continue to work with," Belichick acknowledged. "At that point, we felt like there were other people ahead of him. That's what happens that time of year."
9. Hot Rod's breakthrough moment from player to analyst: The first episode of the "Pats from the Past" podcast on Patriots.com, featuring Rodney Harrison, touched on a topic that has always interested me: how players transition to a career in broadcasting and gain comfort in criticizing those they played with and for. Harrison, now in his 11th year as an analyst on NBC's "Football Night in America," told a behind-the-scenes story from the night Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009.
"That was my moment right there. I was a rookie in the broadcast booth, I was on television, that happened, and the game was over. One of our producers, Sam Flood, said, 'We have to talk about this.' So they come straight to me, the camera's looking, and it was a one-on-one. 'What did you think about that call?'" Harrison told co-hosts Matt Smith and Bryan Morry. "My heart is beating 1,000 miles [per hour], I'm so nervous and I'm like, 'This is going to make or break my relationship with the Patriots.' I said, 'I've known Coach Belichick for a long time and I've seen him make a lot of decisions, but this is probably the worst decision on the football field I've ever seen him make.' I thought it was over.
"Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, said, 'Excellent job, Rodney.' And I'm like, 'Shoot, I'm not feeling like excellent. I just went after my coach.' That was my moment, because people said, 'He's not afraid to criticize Bill Belichick.' That was a hard criticism. That was tough. Once I got over that, I felt like I had the courage and confidence to just do my job."
Harrison, who shared he didn't believe he would be on NBC without having played for Belichick, later told the story of seeing Belichick at training camp when Belichick told him and Willie McGinest that he understood if they critiqued his coaching decisions.
10. Mitchell hanging in: In August, Malcolm Mitchell released a short film on his Instagram account detailing his struggles with transitioning to his life after football as his career was cut short by a nagging knee injury. It's a daily struggle.
"I'm much better than I was three or four months ago. It was really tough. I'd even say devastating," the 27-year-old Mitchell told me this week. "It took months to find a sense of purpose. I thought it would be simple to move along, but once it finally settled in that I wouldn't be playing football, I got depressed. I had to start working on my spirituality and mentality to combat those negative feelings. I would say I'm close to the tail end of it. Some days are harder than others. Some days I feel a huge sense of purpose. Some days I feel no purpose at all. But there are more brighter days than darker days."
Mitchell, who still is touring the country promoting his reading program, thinks football players would benefit from contracts that include post-career help in this area.
"I think mental health, psychology, therapists should be part of contracts as a form of rehabilitation after you're done playing," he said. "You need it to transition. If you're not bold or courageous enough to seek it yourself, you can be headed down a dark path."