Now that we can actually start talking about football again without worrying about taking attendance, when we last saw the Patriots play in a meaningful game, there was a bit of an issue with the defense.
You remember that, don't you? In need of stops and playmakers to make those stops throughout the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Patriot defense battled and did what it could manage. But in reality, the "D" was missing a pretty big piece of the puzzle.
Some would call Dont'a Hightower a captain, sure. Others might call him a leader, on and off the field. But he was also a 'playmaker.' And still others observed that while the Patriots' defense managed some big moments without him on the field last season, things simply weren't the same without "High" back there, calling the shots at linebacker.
It's not taking anything away from Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts or Marquis Flowers, who all stepped in capably in the run to another AFC title. But there was a little somethin'-somethin' amiss. Fans knew it, coaches sensed it, players felt it.
And maybe there was a bit of a surprise when the Patriots didn't take a linebacker until the April draft was almost completed (5th round)? Truth is, perhaps the team felt it had the best possible addition to the defensive side of the ball already on the roster.
Dont'a Hightower would be back, hopefully healthy, and there may not be a bigger off-season acquisition than his return to action on the field.
"I still talked to Kyle (Van Noy) and E-Rob (Elandon Roberts) and those guys and gave them my ear when I could (while out)," Hightower told the media at OTA's last week. "But it hurt and stuff, it just goes to show you're one play away from missing. You know, you're used to missing a couple games and being able to fight through it, but this year I wasn't able to do that.
"So, I'm trying to take every measure I can to prevent that from happening again."
"I always say, when you have good players out there and guys that have a ton of experience, you always miss him," fellow captain and safety Devin McCourty said, by way of ESPN.com. "Last year, we had to learn how to play without him, so now you add him back; I think everyone around him was forced to get better last year, so you hope in turn that makes us a better team this year.
"He's been able to come back in there and not miss a beat. Hopefully we just keep him out there and continue to improve."
Improvement would sure be a welcome sign for the coaches and for fans, who undoubtedly saw just how close the 2017 Patriots were to becoming a team for the history books once again. To his credit, Hightower doesn't seem to be putting too much pressure on himself at this early stage of preparation for 2018.
But you know he's anxious. His teammates are anxious. Fans are anxious. Optimum health is a 'High' priority after missing 11 games last season with a torn pectoral muscle and subsequent surgery. And yes, the "D" could use someone to steer the ship back there and make a few plays.
Like Hightower has done before. And he's readying to reassume his role.
"I just know that I feel great right now," he added. "I'm moving around, I'm not having any problems. I plan on being out there for everything."
To that, no one will have an issue.
Everyone present and accounted for. Was there ever really any doubt?
As the team engages in its three-day mandatory mini-camp this week, so much of the off-season focus has centered on who is here, who is working out, and who isn't. It's understandable, especially when you have two human, football-playing lightning rods like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Two of the best to ever play their positions, of course. But here's the thing - did their attendance really matter? It's great that they're here, but even if they weren't - would that stop anyone else from doing the things they're supposed to do?
Of course not. Remember the mantra "Do Your Job?" Several players interviewed last week following the OTA practices chimed in with that much, focusing on doing their own jobs without worrying about anyone else.
What about setting a tone or tempo? Well, who is doing that and for whom? If you can't be self-motivated to play this game for the money and attention it brings, you shouldn't be on a football field.
Saying one thing and doing another? Yes, both Brady and Gronk have previously stated the importance of practices, working out, getting on the same page, yada-yada-yada. This isn't to demean the importance of consistency in one's words or actions...but let's be honest.
If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what he needs to be ready for the season-long grind, it's TB12. And Gronk, as we know, puts his physicality first every time he steps onto the field. Both are at stages where discretion is not only the better part of valor - it's also necessary for longevity in the profession.
Besides, who ever heard of putting your valuables at risk of being damaged...especially if they're approaching antique status? That's meant in a most respectful way.
Maybe contractual issues played a part, maybe they didn't. And maybe time away from the game, as previously stated, was also a factor. Or maybe it wasn't. Like fine wines, aging gracefully is the way to go here.
No need to shake up the bottle before you pop the cork on the career.
Hall calls for the college men
The National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame released the names of 76 players and six coaches from the Football Bowl Subdivision and 100 players with 32 coaches from the divisional ranks this week, all on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019.
More than 5.26 million people have played college football at all levels through the years, so getting a spot on the ballot is an achievement in its own right. Among the criteria for eligibility, a player must have been a first-team all-American, have demonstrated good citizenship in his post-career life and have been off of the college gridiron for at least 10 years.
Among the nominees are several players with Patriot ties, including former quarterbacks Matt Cavanaugh (Pittsburgh) and Michael Bishop (Kansas State), running back and Patriot Hall of Famer Kevin Faulk (LSU), defensive tackle Kenneth Sims (Texas), linebacker Vincent Brown (Mississippi Valley State) and defensive back Tyrone Poole (Fort Valley State).
Members of the National Football Foundation conduct the voting, with the announcement of the Class of '19 made on Monday, January 7th in Santa Clara, CA.
John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster and has completed 25 seasons as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 30 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame and RI's Words Unlimited Hall of Fame.