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AFC coaches still chasing Patriots

PHOENIX - Bill Belichick normally commands the most media attention during the traditional AFC coaches' breakfast at the NFL Annual Meeting. His table is always swarmed with reporters, microphones, cameras, and tripods.

This year, his table was empty, save a couple of reporters who used it to gobble up their pancakes and eggs. That's only because Belichick himself wasn't in attendance. New England's head coach, fresh off his latest Super Bowl victory, took the opportunity to bow out and instead head east to scout players at the University of Florida.

His absence may have been conspicuous, but Belichick's shadow still seemed to envelope his fellow coaches.

"The Patriots aren't going anywhere. We're chasing them. Everybody's chasing them," declared Houston Texans head coach (and one-time Patriots offensive coordinator) Bill O'Brien. "They're on top right now for obvious reasons. They have a great coaching staff, great players. They're doing what they need to do and everybody else is doing what they need to do to try to get better.

"They've done a good job of adding players they feel fit their system. I know the players they added – whether it's [wide receiver Brandin] Cooks or [cornerback Stephon] Gilmore – those guys are good players and they're going to help them. The Patriots do a great job."

"He's not slowing down," Baltimore's John Harbaugh remarked about Belichick. "He's stumbling over all the [Super Bowl] rings he is winning."

"It's really impressive," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of New England's sustained success during Belichick's tenure. "I've got a lot of respect for it from a competitive standpoint. Their résumé speaks for itself. It needs no endorsement from me. They have extreme consistency in the key components: Coach Belichick and that quarterback [Tom Brady]."

Even if Belichick had been around in Phoenix, he might have had some stiff competition from Raiders boss Jack Del Rio. Most of the media attention focused on him and his team Tuesday morning, less than a day after league owners overwhelmingly approved the club's eventual move from Oakland to Las Vegas. That could be several years down the road, as there isn't even a stadium plan in place yet. So, Del Rio maintained that he's focused on "the here and now."

"I don't know a lot about Las Vegas," Del Rio admitted. "I've been two different times, golfed a little, gambled a little, saw some shows. The shows are the part my wife and I probably appreciate the most.

"Looking for the future, it's exciting because the community there is super fired-up about it. But that's kind of down the road for me right now. Need to focus on this season, where we are right now, on the 2017 schedule when it comes out."

We know, of course, that the Raiders' schedule will feature a date with the reigning Super Bowl champs in Mexico City, most likely in late November. Del Rio's Raiders will be the nominal hosts of that game and will be returning to Estadio Azteca for the second straight year, after having beaten the Houston Texans in November 2016.

"We did post-op evaluation of the experience last year," he continued. "We'll go back and, I'm sure, refer to those notes and make plans accordingly. That's one small thing we have to make sure we do on a checklist of things that are part of traveling well and taking the team and being able to perform on the road, through time zones, elevation."

Del Rio was peppered for most of the hour with the media about the Las Vegas news, so, he welcomed the chance to discuss his looming tilt with Belichick's Patriots.

"Yeah, we look forward to competing against the very best. Obviously, for a number of years now, the combination of Brady and Belichick has been special. Those guys have been tremendous. I know my son will be excited to watch that game because he's a big Tom Brady fan. I look forward to the matchup. It's always a tough matchup. That's a really good team, well-coached… obviously that's one [game] we're all aware of."

Belichick and the Patriots have been making offseason moves at a furious pace – almost as if they hadn't won the Super Bowl – which hasn't gone unnoticed by his rivals in the AFC East. Finding a coach to admit as much proved difficult, however, as most took a very Belichickian approach to commenting on New England's unusual activity this offseason.

"The defending champs and the whole AFC East [is full of] good coaches," noted rookie head coach Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills. "That was a great draw for me to this division in terms of the quality of coaches, the quality of football teams. Having said that, we're focused on what's happening at 1 Bills Drive. We'd be sorely mistaken if we were looking at anyone else right now other than ourselves."

"Well, you don't peek because they're [making] headlines," acknowledged New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles with a grin. "So, you can see what's happening, but you can't worry about what's happening at this time of year. You still have to line up and play in the fall. We got our own team to worry about right now. We're really not worried about anybody else."

"We can't worry about it," echoed the Miami Dolphins' Adam Gase, who enters his second year at the helm in 2017. "We've got to worry about what we're doing and focus on getting better ourselves. If we're going to start worrying about what other teams are doing, it's mental clutter. It's not going to help us at all.

"When it's time to play [New England] on whatever week, those two times, we have to compete better than we did last year. We can't spot them 20 and 24 points and wonder why we lost. We have to play better against those guys that week. We have to keep getting better and when we go up against them, play better against them."

GOING SILENT ON GAROPPOLO

The Cleveland Browns own the top pick in next month's NFL Draft, as well as the 12th overall selection. They've also been the team most often linked to a possible trade with New England for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady's current backup.

Browns boss Hue Jackson spoke at length – indirectly – about his and his staff's efforts to scout for and acquire a potential franchise QB this offseason, be it a rookie or veteran.

"There's still more to do. It's in progress, as we all know. It's not finished yet. We still have more evaluation to do, still more guys to see. We're going to continue to do that," Jackson told reporters.

"There are other players at this point that we've really had a lot of conversation about, to see if we can put on our team. Until we have the guy that we feel comfortable with, that would be the face of our franchise, playing quarterback the way we want it played, we're going to keep searching. But if we can't, then we have to coach the guys that we have.

There's the draft coming up, there's trade opportunities. We'll exhaust every opportunity as we move forward."

When asked specifically about reports that Cleveland is prepared to make a last-gasp effort to trade for Garoppolo, Jackson laughed out loud good-naturedly.

"You guys know I can't speak about that. I can't comment on other teams' players."

ELECTION DAY

As noted earlier, NFL owners voted yesterday on the Raiders' move to Vegas. Today, decision-makers will focus on the two dozen rule-change proposals, bylaw amendments, and resolutions on the table at this year's annual meeting.

One rule change, if approved, could directly impact how New England coaches its players. Belichick has employed with success the so-called "leaping" field goal block tactic in each of the past two seasons, but a proposal by the Philadelphia Eagles would make that illegal from now on.

Pittsburgh's Tomlin explained his rationale for siding with his cross-commonwealth colleagues in Philly on this measure.

"I think that's a player safety emphasis. When we watch the video, there are a lot of guys landing on their heads. We don't want to sit back and be reactionary and wait for someone to get hurt seriously before we do something in that regard. That's why we're presenting it and why we're for it."

Voting will take place throughout the day Tuesday, and possibly into Wednesday, or even tabled, in some instances, for consideration at future league meetings.

MEETINGS WIND DOWN

The NFC coaches will entertain media questions on Wednesday morning, after which the annual meeting comes to an official close with Commissioner Roger Goodell's midday press conference.

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