OLB Tully Banta-Cain. Photo by David Silverman
Nearing the conclusion of his opening remarks during his daily press conference Friday morning Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichickexpressed how much he enjoys his current lot in life.
"There's no place I'd rather be, so I'm happy to be doing it," Belichick said on the second day of training camp 2010.
Immediately after those words, Belichick had to address the status of one of his players who doesn't feel nearly the same way these days. Outside linebacker Derrick Burgess failed to show up for the start of training camp on Thursday and, according to published reports, is considering retirement.
"Derrick, of course, wasn't here yesterday. We expected him to be here. He's not here," Belichick summarized. "This type of situation certainly isn't unprecedented. We'll just deal with it going forward. I'm not exactly sure that I know all the information that I need to know, so that's what it is for now. We'll just take that day-by-day. Otherwise, we'll get back at it a couple times today and see if we can improve on yesterday."
After joining the Patriots via trade from the Raiders last summer the 31-year-old defensive end/outside linebacker started six of the 16 games he played in New England last fall, finishing with five sacks. The former Pro Bowl pass rusher seemed to draw little interest in free agency before he eventually re-signed with the Patriots May 27, inking a reported one-year, $1.5 million deal.
But when time came for Burgess to take the first step toward his 10th NFL season, the guy who once led the league in sacks with 16 in 2005 was nowhere to be found.
According to a report on ESPN.com, citing sources, "as recently as Wednesday, Burgess told associates that he was leaning toward retirement. Those same sources indicated, however, that Burgess could still change his mind about his immediate future."
As such the Patriots have reportedly placed him on the reserve/did not report list and are working without one of the team's few known commodities and veteran bodies on the depth chart at outside linebacker.
"We expected him to be here," Belichick said, before a follow-up query as to whether the team is left a bit thin with its edge personnel.
"We'll see how it goes here. Look, you hate to not have all of the players out there all of the time, but when that does happen – and it's inevitable that it will happen for one reason or another – then that gives other players opportunities. The guys that have the opportunities to play have worked hard and are competitive and want to take advantage of it. Every player wants an opportunity, so the guys that get it, I think they are ready for it and they'll try to take advantage of it and do the best they can."
Rob Ninkovich is one of those players. The fifth-year Mike Vrabel look-alike worked opposite returning starter Tully Banta-Cainon Thursday. Afterwards he said it was, "the best opportunity of my life."
Pierre Woods seemed to get more reps on Friday in the spot Burgess had filled out in OTAs and mini-camp. Rookie second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham will also be very much in the mix, while first-year former Jets special teamer Marques Murell could also be an option.
Banta-Cain, now seemingly the veteran leader and top dog at outside linebacker, said he'd left messages with Burgess and maintains some hope he could still join the team.
"I think that's…I mean he's got his own issue going on. I support him either way. Hopefully we'll get him here soon enough."
But neither time nor training camp waits for any one man. Practice and team building will move on with, or in the case without, Burgess.
"I think everybody that is here to play that position is here for a reason," Banta-Cain said. "We don't rely on just one guy. I think the strength of our defense has to be in our depth. If one guys down, another guy has to step up. That's how we're treating it. The guys that are out here, they are getting better and working hard every day to fulfill that role."
While comfortable taking on potentially even a greater leadership role at his position, Banta-Cain is also well aware that nothing is given for any player at this point.
"I think I'm just trying to approach every year with the same focus on getting better. You know I have been playing for eight years now, so if younger guys have any questions or need help with anything, I'm there to lend a hand," Banta-Cain added. "Hopefully they do look to me for that help. But I have to do my best and I have to get better as well and not get complacent thinking because I've been in the league the longest that I have all the answers. I'm just trying to get better and hopefully that will rub off on the younger guys."
The Patriots reportedly put in a claim on a potential outside linebacker addition in former Brown and Eagle Alex Hall this week, but he was awarded to the Giants. The process of looking for additional bodies and talent to add to the depth chart will likely continue into the coming days and weeks. That process occurs at every position at this time of year, but has potentially become a higher priority at outside linebacker with Burgess' potential retirement and the team's release of former third-round pick Shawn Crable on Wednesday.
Surprise retirements. Injuries. Contract disputes. They're all part of the job description when you're running an NFL franchise. It's what Belichick has to deal with on a daily and yearly basis. It's his job. And, he's happy doing it.