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Patriots and Cardinals Jockeying

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This past Saturday at Churchill Downs, a historic decision was made to disqualify Maximum Security, the heavy favorite and winner of the race, for interference. Following Maximum Security’s victory lap and a 15 minute delay, the highly controversial disqualification was announced and the garland of red roses was draped around the mane of 65-1 long shot Country House.

There to witness this historic event was a small cluster of NFL stars which included Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Kliff Kingsbury.

Curiously, in looking back to Nashville, the week before to what occurred at the 2019 NFL Draft, there was a testy bit of jockeying going on between the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, the best and the worst teams in the league in 2018.

Why would the best team in football be all that concerned about the worst team in football?

Well, it seems that legendary head coach/GM Bill Belichick is not all that keen on the Cardinals these days. It goes back to the bad blood created by the Chandler Jones trade---usually Belichick trades wind up heavily in his favor or are at least hailed as a win-win for both teams.

However, as Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim and former head coach Bruce Arians were quick to point out on numerous occasions, the Cardinals lauded the trade as a coup. Obviously, Belichick was listening. Arians described the trade as “shocking” and a “sure cure for the Cardinals’ pass rush” and said that “Steve Keim did an unbelievable job.”

When the 2016 season began with the Chandler Jones led Cardinals hosting the Tom Brady-less Patriots on Sunday Night Football, Bill Belichick had an axe to grind. Backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo played very well, perhaps even “shockingly” well, and the Patriots saddled the Cardinals with a 23-21 opening night home loss.

That Sunday Night game was being touted by the media as a potential “2016 Super Bowl preview.”

After the game, the habitually taciturn Belichick was a little more loquacious than normal. It was then that he dropped his timely zinger: “The Cardinals are a playoff team---or so they think.”

Ironically, after the Cardinals sputtered through a disappointing 7-8-1 season, Bruce Arians conceded that the loss the Patriots put on the Cardinals in game one gave the Cards their own bout of Deflate Gate---i.e., that the tough loss took the wind out of their sails.

One might think that over the past couple of years, the tensions between Belichick and the Cardinals had been abating---and there was strong speculation in the midst of the “Run for the Rosen” rumors that the Patriots might be interested in offering their 1sr round pick (#32) to the Cardinals for the young QB.

However, it appears that a new development regarding the Cardinals was now sticking in Belichick’s craw.

The Cardinals’ team president Michael Bidwill had turned to Ernie Accorsi, the former Browns’ and Giants’ GM, who hired Belichick to be the Browns’ head coach in 1991, for some timely advice with regard to the Cardinals search for a new head coach. And the shocking name that emerged from that conversation was former Patriots’ 2003 6th round pick (#201) turned college offense savant, Texas Tech QB Kliff Kingsbury.

Now---mind you---when the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury on January 11th, early into the new head coach searches--the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, was still a potential prime head coaching candidate.

Over the years, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had remained very high on Kliff Kingsbury and rumors had it that Kingsbury was their backup plan for OC if McDaniels were to take one of the head coaching jobs.

Belichick and Brady had invited Kingsbury to Foxboro a couple of years ago for a training camp visit and an X’s and O’s session, as a kind of prelude to a possible hiring down the road.

One might imagine that Belichick was not too thrilled that Ernie Accorsi interfered with the Kingsbury plan. Nor would Belichick have been all that pleased to see Kingsbury interviewing with the New York Jets---of course we know the notorious history that Belichick has with the Jets.

Whatever the Cardinals did to lure Kingsbury away for the Jets’ interview and into Michael Bidwill’s private jet, it worked.

The Cardinals performed some nifty last second jockeying there to sign Kingsbury, perhaps somewhat akin to the timely manner in which Bob Kraft managed to pry Bill Belichick away from the Jets in 2000.

Thus, heading in to this year’s draft, Bill Belichick had some jockeying of his own in mind.

When the Cardinals tabbed QB Kyler Murray with the #1 pick and now finally Josh Rosen was officially on the trade market, per reports, Steve Keim gave Rosen’s agent, Ryan Williams, the go-ahead to gather up trade interest. Curiously, per reports, Keim asked Williams to go and test the Patriots’ interest---which apparently angered Williams to some degree, because why did the Cardinals wait until the 11th hour to open up trade talks?

This is interesting because why didn’t Steve Keim call Bill Belichick himself? The Patriots were picking at #32---so there was a three hour window for a discussion. Instead, Keim asked Williams to gauge the Patriots’ interes---which came back---zero..

Well, there was no way that Bill Belichick was going to bail out Steve Keim and the Cardinals at #32.

In fact, when the time came for the Patriots to make their pick, they shocked everyone by taking Arizona St. WR N’Keal Harry with the #32 pick.

Just a strange coincidence?

It was common knowledge that on the eve of the draft, the day after N’Keal Harry’s guest appearance on the NFL Network’s “Path to the Draft” and “Total Access,” the Cardinals hosted Harry for a lengthy visit and workout. Reports of the visit were so positive that Harry and his agent posted a tweet that if Harry does not get selected in the 1st round, “I won’t make it past the Cardinals at #33.”

Talk about jockeying.

On the afternoon of Day 1 of the draft, Burns and Gambo interviewed N’Keal Harry and Harry expressed his joy with regard to how fantastic his visit was with the Cardinals and how wonderful it would be to stay in Arizona and be a Cardinal. So, Gambo asked Harry, “did the Cardinals give you assurances that they would take you at #33?” To which Harry replied, “No, I just got such a strong vibe from the Cardinals that I feel sure that they will take me.”

There is no question that the Cardinals taking local icon WR N’Keal harry at pick #33 would have been a fabulous “feel good” story. That is, until Bill Belichick interfered.

The curious fact is, that in Bill Belichick’s 19 years with the Patriots, he has never taken a WR in the 1st round.

The last WR the Patriots took in the 1st round was Ohio State’s Terry Glenn in 1996.

The other curious fact is that X WRs are 4th on the priority list of the Patriots’ passing targets, behind slot WRs, TEs and RBs. Make that a distant 4th.

Now---there is no doubt that the Patriots added a playmaker with big potential and upside in N’Keal Harry. Strangely, despite Rob Gronkwoski’s retirement, and having 5 of the top 101 picks heading into the draft, the Patriots did not select a TE. After the draft, they even traded away one of their current TEs, Jacob Hollister, to the Seahawks. Thus, the Patriots will likely flex N’Keal Harry out wide and isolate him the way they did at times with Gronk.

Just the same---it is curious that the Patriots chose Harry over more prototypical Patriot-esque WRs like Parris Campbell, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Deebo Samuel and Andy Isabella, all of whom were on the board at #32.

The question is, however, for all of Belichick’s jockeying, did the Cardinals, like Country House, go home with the roses?

In a way, the Patriots may have done the Cardinals a huge favor by taking the popular N’Keal Harry because it essentially took the pressure off of them to go ahead and take the top rated player on their board at #33, another local high school (Saguaro High School) favorite, CB Bryon Murphy (Washington).

Byron Murphy, generally considered the most instinctive cover CB in the draft, was ranked in the top 10 of the Cardinals’ board and thus, seeing as the Cardinals stayed true to their board throughout the draft, the Cardinals would most likely have selected Murphy over N’Keal Harry anyway.

Coincidentally, the Cardinals selected Massachusetts players, WR Andy Isabella (UMass) and DE Zach Allen (Boston College) with the #62 and #65 picks---both playmakers who in some stylistic ways fit the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman (quick, elusive slot WRs) and Mike Vrabel (run stopper, QB harasser, pass batter) molds.

Another key development was the Cardinals trading QB Josh Rosen to the Patriots’ division rival Dolphins, which garnered the Cardinals the Isabella pick. The Dolphins, with former Patriots’ DC Brian Flores now as head coach and former Patriots, WR coach Chad O’Shea as OC, are installing their own version of the Patriots’ offense, for which Josh Rosen is potentially an excellent match.

Even right down to Mr. Irrelevant---the very last pick in the draft---the Cardinals snagged Caleb Wilson (UCLA) the nation’s fastest and most productive TE, a player the Patriots were quite possibly on the phone with (UCFA) when the pick was made!

One can just imagine what Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had to say to Kliff Kingsbury, clad in his Ray Bans, sky blue blazer, pink shirt (thank you Kyler Murray!) and blue suede shoes, at the Kentucky Derby. The question is---who was running interference?!!!