Biggest Winner on Sunday was Mac Jones

I don’t think there has ever been a regular season NFL game hyped as much as Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The storylines were abundant in Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro following 20 years in a Patriots uniforms and 6 Super Bowl titles. It seemed on paper that this could be a 1-sided match-up with Brady showing his former fanbase and team that he is still atop the mountain, but instead, it was one of the best football games of the year.

Lost somewhat in the Tom Brady hype this week was his “replacement” Mac Jones. One has to imagine that Tom Brady was feeling a ton of emotion returning to Gillette as a visitor and with the ovations and chants he heard as he came on the field for warmups and then for pregame, but what about Jones? A rookie in just his 4th NFL game who had been compared by some to a Brady and has been anointed the successor to lead this storied franchise. What were his emotions leading up to kickoff and into the first quarter on Sunday?

While there are certainly comparisons between Tom and Mac, I always find it unfair to compare players, especially when one is the GOAT. That being said, once Mac settled in after the first drive or two, he showed a massive national TV audience why he is being compared to Tom and just what he can do in a high-pressure environment (literally). He faced a lot of pressure from the Bucs defense, but was able to make smart decisions. When he sensed pressure coming, he was often able to step up in the pocket to gain an extra half-second to make a better throw (very Brady-esque).

Mac’s quick decision-making is what sets him apart from all other rookies, and many veterans. I’ve been talking about this ad nauseum, but it’s critically important and a big reason he won the starting job this year. He takes the 3-5 step drop, does a quick scan, and and lets the ball go. It keeps the ball moving and doesn’t allow the defense to adjust or get set in coverage. Will the quick decisions lead to mistakes at times? Absolutely, but it’s a recipe for success. When it isn’t a quick read, Mac is able to scan through his receiving options and make the smart, right choice, all while being aware of defensive pressure.

Other than the interception, Mac mostly made the right decisions around when to take a sack vs. risk a turnover with a bad throw. Taking a sack is a negative play and obviously should be avoided, but may also be the most unappreciated successful result of a play. There were at least 2 times on Sunday night that Mac took a sack, because pressure got to him quickly, he couldn’t get out of the pocket, and there was no passing lane to put the ball in. In that case, a sack is the smart decision because you live to play another down, you don’t risk intentional grounding, and you don’t risk a turnover that could shift the momentum of the game and lead to opponent points. Of the reasonable outcomes in that instance, a sack is the best result.

I’ve already said this a ton and I’m guessing it’s going to keep coming up, but Mac is poised and confident well beyond his years. He’s able to put the last play behind him, learn from it, and move forward very quickly and it appears that very little can phase him. It already seems like Mac has been in the league for a few years and has a high floor for performance, but the questions were around his ceiling coming out of college. If he continues to learn and grow, his ceiling is as high, or higher, than any other rookie QB in the league.

While Tom Brady and the Bucs won the football game on Sunday, the real winner for me is Mac Jones. I know they aren’t on the field at the same time and that’s not how wins and losses work, but in the first head-to-head match-up between the GOAT and the rookie, the rookie came out on top. If only the scoreboard reflected the W.

UConn at Vanderbilt Football Preview – Saturday at 7:30pm ET (ESPNU)

After a surprisingly solid performance last week against Wyoming for UConn Football, all eyes have shifted to this weekend’s game at Vanderbilt. It’s not terribly shocking that Vanderbilt hasn’t shown much of anything in their 1-3 start to the 2021 season, as they were picked to finish last in the SEC East this year. That being said, coming off a 62-0 loss against #2 Georgia last week, the Commodores will be ready to right the ship against a weaker Huskies team. Even the worst SEC team is still better than most other teams on UConn’s schedule.

The odds-makers clearly liked what they saw from the Huskies last week, as they roll into Nashville just 15pt underdogs. This is still a tough match-up for the Huskies, but they at least have some confidence and maybe even a little swagger for the first time this year. Can UConn win their first game of the season on the road against an SEC opponent? Let’s take a look.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Overall the Vandy offense has been just okay this season. They were able to break 200-yards in the passing game in their opening loss to East Tennessee State and in their lone win at Colorado State, but struggled more through the air in their last 2 games at home against Stanford and Georgia. The Vandy starting QB Ken Seals is good, but certainly not great with a 52.8% completion percentage on the year and a 4.6 average in yards per completion. He’s also thrown 3 TDs and 4 INTs, which is less than ideal, even against tougher opponents. When you average it out, they have only thrown for a tick above 162-yards per game this year, but I expect to see another 200-yard performance against the Huskies. Their running game has also been okay, with 2 games above 100-yards rushing, one of which was a shining star performance of 247-yards in their loss to Stanford 2 weeks ago. If we see the best version of QB and RB, then they could put up some points on UConn, but that’s a big if.

The Commodores defense has not produced much pressure on the QB this season and haven’t forced a lot of turnovers. As a team, they have just 1 sack (split between LB Michael Owusu and DL Daevion Davis), 2 INTs and 1 forced fumble. They have deflected 16 passes, but overall the stats are pretty lackluster. For comparison, the mediocre UConn defense has 7 sacks and 3 INTs on the year, albeit against lesser opponents overall. Vandy has allowed an average of nearly 37 points per game (skewed slightly by the Georgia game) and have allowed at least 21 points to every opponent thus far in 2021. All-in-all, the UConn offense should have an opportunity to at least move the ball a bit and put some points on the board on Saturday.

UConn Offense

A big headline coming out of the Wyoming game was the emergence of an offensive identity for the Huskies. QB Tyler Phommachanh showed flashes of ball movement and driving down the field and even more importantly, an ability to bounce back from mistakes or stalled drives. It’s a low bar, but it was enjoyable to see the ball stay with the offense for more than 3 plays most drives and actually see an occasional great throw. While he wasn’t perfect, Phommachanh threw for 171 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, including a beautiful double flea flicker 42-yard TD strike to TE Jay Rose in the 1st quarter. In back-to-back weeks, Phommachanh has shown the ability to hit a big play on occasion, which is critical in opening up the opposing defense.

The run game was solid in the loss to Wyoming as well, with Nate Carter rushing 10 times for 65-yards and Phommachanh calling his own name 12 times for 36-yards. If they can establish more of a consistent running game it will help Phommachanh in the passing game and vice versa. The offensive line allowed 3 sacks and 15 QB hits last week, which needs to be cleaned up a bit. Some of that will happen with a young and mobile QB under center, but the key right now is to protect Phommachanh and give him as much time as possible to make plays happen.

UConn Defense/Special Teams

The defense for the Huskies showed some moxy last week. They pulled in 2 INTs to help hand the ball back to the offense and they held the Wyoming QB Sean Chambers to his lowest output of the season (149-yards). Where the team needs to improve is in the run game. The Huskies allowed over 200 yards on the ground last week and needs to get tougher up front. In addition, they didn’t get a lot of pressure on the QB and while that’s definitely related to the large number of rushes Wyoming had, it’s still a concern going into Nashville. They did get 2 sacks, but combined with only 1 other QB hit isn’t enough, even against a heavy-run team.

On special teams, Keelan Marion is now listed as the starting punt returner instead of Aaron Turner this week, which frankly makes sense with Turner getting more attention on offense. He had 6 catches last week to lead the Husky receivers and you want to protect him a bit going forward by giving him fewer special teams touches. Although to be fair, there was only 1 punt return opportunity against Wyoming, so it’s not exactly a big workload either way. In his one chance last week, Marion did have a 31-yard return, so he deserves the look.


Prediction

Vanderbilt 28, UConn 24

This may be wishful thinking (or jinxing it), but nothing about this match-up with Vanderbilt is scary for UConn. Vandy has a solid team with some talented players, but no real standouts who need to be accounted for on each play. In some ways that can be more difficult to predict and gameplan for, but in other ways it allows UConn to establish their identity early and just play their brand of football (the one from the Wyoming game, not before). I think the home field advantage and a Saturday night game for the Commodores will carry them to victory, but just like last week, I think UConn will stick around and surprise some people. The keys to the game for UConn are ball security and not getting buried in a hole early. If they play smart football and the game stays close, UConn could be in business.

An Appreciation for Dennis Eckersley

While the product on the field may be tough to watch at times for the Boston Red Sox, the announcing booth is in top form. The addition of Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox booth in 2009 was one of the best decisions NESN has ever made and it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Eck’s candor, knowledge of the game and unique vocabulary make him a absolute joy to listen to regardless of how bad the game is going (sometimes he’s even better when the game is a blowout).

When thinking about the best color commentators in sports, there are some similar qualities that run between them. One of the most illusive qualities is someone who is knowledgeable, ideally with experience playing the sport, but not too cocky about his or her abilities. Eck fits that category like a glove. He’s clearly a confident person, but he isn’t afraid to admit when he is wrong and be self-deprecating despite being a Hall of Famer. He tells stories from his playing days, but doesn’t brag or hang on his reputation, he does it to comment on, or relate to, the game or current situation.

Another quality that’s important to an announcer is someone who isn’t afraid to tell stories and fill space, especially during a 4-hour baseball broadcast. There are so many announcers who love to leave lots of silent space in a broadcast, and while some silence can be useful, baseball needs announcers who can be entertaining and teach you something along the way. Eck checks those boxes. In a long pitching change or a slow inning, he’ll tell stories of his playing days or give his take on some of the newer headlines in baseball. His energy is contagious and makes me want to tune in just to hear his commentary.

Arguably the most enjoyable aspect of Eck in the booth is his unique vocabulary. On any given night you’ll hear gas, splitage, cheese (also educated cheese, easy cheese, and cheddar), hair, and salad (also educated salad) all describing pitches thrown. In addition to describing pitches, Eck has lots of other phrases he loves to use to describe HRs (i.e. Johnson, slam Johnson, dead central, going bridge), masterson to describe an expert in something (gas-masterson, stat-masterson), and the phrase jump street to describe the beginning of something. How can you not smile when an announcer gets excited and says “That was some educated cheese on the paint” to describe a well-located fastball on the outside corner?

With the Red Sox season spiraling in a depressing way, there is a comforting voice to narrate the journey. As far as I’m concerned, the more Eck the better.

5 Things to Watch for in Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro

If you don’t know that Tom Brady is returning to Gillette Stadium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to face the Patriots this weekend then you must be living in a bunker somewhere. Since the moment the Patriots vs Saints game ended on Sunday (and frankly before), there have been flurries of articles and posts about one of, if not the most, anticipated regular season matchup in NFL history. Ticket prices are absolutely insane and there are as many opinions this homecoming as there are Dunkin Donuts in the greater Boston area. I’m taking simple approach and just looking at the top 5 things to watch for on Sunday night.

1. All-Time Passing Record

This is one of the biggest stories of the Tom Brady return to Foxboro. Brady is just 68 yards away from breaking Drew Brees‘ all-time passing yards record for a career with 80,258 and it will happen on Sunday night at the stadium where he threw the majority of those passes. Could you script a storyline any better than the reality? I don’t think so. The biggest question is how the Patriots and NFL will recognize this accomplishment that likely will never be broken again the way the game has evolved. When Peyton Manning broke the record in 2015 they game was halted to allow for players to congratulate him, there was a tribute played on the video board, and the ball was removed from play to head to the Hall of Fame in Canton. The biggest difference is that Manning was at home in Denver, but I’m still wondering what the moment will be like in front of fans who supported and loved Tom Brady for 2 decades.

Will everyone put aside the differences and give Brady the proper congratulations? Will the Pats allow for a video board tribute or some type of acknowledgment of the incredible accomplishment? If you are as interested as I am, it’s likely the record gets broken in the 1st half, probably the 1st quarter, so don’t grab a snack or take a bathroom break when the Bucs are on offense early in the game.

2. Defensive Struggles for Both Teams

For both teams, their defenses, and specifically their secondarys, have struggled at times early in the 2021 season. For the Bucs, they have allowed the 7th most 1st downs to opponents (71), the most passes completed to opponents by a lot (104), and the most yards (1,015). While part of that can be explained by their opponents, if they want to have a deep run in the postseason like last year and defend their title, the defense needs to improve. It was announced on Wednesday morning that CB Richard Sherman would sign with the Bucs which will help their weak secondary, but he won’t solve all of their problems. QB Mac Jones should be able to find some windows to throw into on Sunday and hopefully he can take advantage of the weaker secondary of the Bucs and show off in front of his predecessor.

The Pats on the other hand have to face the greatest QB of all-time in his homecoming on the night in which he will break the all-time passing yards record, which is a brutally difficult task for any defense. While the Pats stats on defense don’t look terrible on paper, that’s primarily because they have faced QBs Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, and Jameis Winston in their 3 match-ups thus far and sit at just 1-2 against them. Their opponents relied heavier on the run and the Pats weren’t always up for the task. Sunday night’s game will be an entirely different test for the secondary and there is a real risk of an absolute blowout with Brady throwing for 400+ yards. Can Bill Belichick disguise coverages and actually do anything to trick his former QB? He must in order to have a chance at winning this game.

3. Rob Gronkowski‘s Usage

One of the more interesting early-season NFL stories in 2021 is the return of Rob Gronkowski to an incredible form we haven’t seen in a long time. In just 3 games, he has 4 TDs, has caught 80% of passes thrown to him (16/20) and is averaging 9.2 yards per reception. He racked up a lot of those numbers in the first 2 games of the season (12/13) and is likely coming into Sunday night’s game looking to prove himself against his former employer. In 2020, his first year in Tampa, Gronk only caught 58.4% of balls thrown to him, which was a career low and while he played 16 games for the first time since 2011, his numbers were not particularly impressive. He clearly came into 2021 trying to prove he still has more to give the NFL.

When you pair Gronk’s early season success with a defense that occasionally has trouble covering TEs, especially when the WRs are as strong as the Bucs, and it could be tough to watch (unless you are a big Gronk fan). While Gronk is only 32, his track record makes me doubt he will be healthy for the entire season and will be able to sustain his blistering start, especially with a 17-game schedule, but you know he’s going to leave it all on the field this week and then probably take it easy through the middle of the schedule to be ready down the stretch and in the postseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 2 Gronk TD spikes this week at Gillette.

4. Post-Game Handshake

In no other area of the country does the post-game handshake get this much attention, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both infamous for ignoring the typical handshake protocol post-game. Depending on how this game unfolds could determine what the post-game interaction looks like between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, if there is any. If Tom Brady absolutely smokes the Pats, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Belichick go straight to the locker room and the same might be true if Brady were to somehow lose. Belichick has been clear in his press conferences this week (as clear as BB ever is) about his desire to keep Brady with the Patriots before his departure, but according to his words “we weren’t as good an option as Tampa”.

With all the chirping from Tom Brady Sr. this week and the competitiveness of both player and coach, you just never know how they really feel about each other and if either will take the high-road and have a nice post-game interaction regardless of the game’s outcome. Despite it being a late Sunday night game, I’ll be glued to my TV for post-game.

5. Danger of a 1-3 Start

The Patriots come into Sunday’s match-up with a tough 1-2 record. Beyond all the Brady headlines and talk of the reunion, a 1-3 start for the Pats could put serious doubts in their ability to make the postseason. Since 1990, just 14.2% of teams beginning the season with a 1-3 record have made the postseason and the average finishing record for those teams is 6-10 with just 1 of the 218 teams winning the super bowl: the 2001 New England Patriots. This year will be a little different with the addition of a 17th game which could have an impact on those numbers, but it’s still not the place you want to be if you have aspirations of playing into mid-to-late January and early February.

A win would obviously be a tremendous accomplishment for this young QB, but I expect 1-3 is in their future. I don’t think this team is a super bowl contender regardless of a 1-3 or 2-2 start, but in the best of circumstances, a run into the postseason is always on the table in New England and the deeper the hole the team digs early on, the harder that will become.

A Pathetic and Embarrassing Performance By the Red Sox

Do the Boston Red Sox players know that they are playing for their playoff lives this last week of the season? If they do, they sure fooled me. Their performance against the 51-win Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night was pathetic and embarrassing. Their defense let them down, again, and the offense looked completely lost and uninterested. Where is the leadership on this team? Do they even want to make the wild card game at this point or would they rather be golfing?

The situation seemed absolutely perfect for a big win on Tuesday. Chris Sale was on the mound following a rough weekend sweep by the Yankees and the Orioles are the worst team in baseball. That certainly should be enough for a W with this Red Sox offense. As it turns out, they couldn’t get more than 2 hits against the Orioles starter Bruce Zimmerman who was making his first MLB start since mid-June and mustered just 1 hit against the Orioles bullpen in 5 innings. Once again the defense made several critical mistakes, including 2 huge ones in the 8th inning with Rafael Devers‘ errant throw to first and Alex Verdugo‘s complete misplay of a ball in right leading to the Orioles 4th run.

The most egregious issue to me was the complete lack of plate discipline in the final stretch of the game when the team needed base runners and a spark on offense. According to Alex Speier on Twitter, from the 6th through the 8th inning, the Red Sox saw just 2.4 pitches per plate appearance including 5 plate appearances of 2 or fewer pitches seen. The impatience shows a lack of urgency and understanding the situation, not to mention the batters came across as listless and uninterested at times. Where was Alex Cora during that stretch? Clearly not reminding his players of the situation and approach.

I honestly just don’t understand Tuesday night’s performance. It feels like this team has not only lost its way, but is so far off the rails that no one can bring them back. At this point even if they make the playoffs, which has suddenly become a giant if, they have no chance at moving on unless something magical happens and they learn how to play defense, hit consistently, and pitch in clutch situations. This has been an epically embarrassing collapse.

Defense is Absolutely Killing the Red Sox

The old adage in sports is that defense wins championships. The Red Sox are trying to prove that to be true, by doing the exact opposite. We’re witnessing, day-in and day-out, one of the worst defensive teams in baseball and if they ultimately lose in the AL Wild Card game or take an early bow out in the playoffs, the defense will likely be a big reason why.

Sitting with 6 games remaining, the Red Sox are 14th out of 15 teams in the AL with 104 errors on the season and 33 of those errors have come from their starting corner infielders. Rafael Devers has had moments of strong defense this year followed by complete meltdowns and big mistakes. In terms of errors, he’s the worst defensive 3rd baseman in baseball, clear of the 2nd worst by 6 errors. For a team trying to make the playoffs, that’s awful, even if his bat has been on fire.

Now some would argue, and I agree, that the error stat is antiquated and doesn’t tell you the whole story about a player defensively. Here is where we jump into newer analytics to analyze Devers’ performance on defense this year.

A good overall defensive metric I like to look at is Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Avg or Rtot for short (it’s a mouthful). Rtot is described on Baseball-Reference.com as the number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made. Essentially, it’s the most accurate way to rate a player defensively where a 0 means someone is at the league average, a positive number indicates above average, and a negative number is below average. Looking at all 654 players with an Rtot score in 2021 and Rafael Devers is dead last, 654th at -19.

Then flipping across the diamond, 1B Bobby Dalbec has had a rollercoaster year with stretches of power and defensive flashes followed by completely falling apart in both areas. His Rtot is better than Devers (it had to be since Devers was last), but just barely at -11, 640th out of 654 players. His 11 errors are the 2nd most by a first baseman in baseball this year and frankly he could have had a handful more errors this season on plays he could, and should, have made. He’s cost the Red Sox runs on multiple occasions and has looked lost at times in the field (i.e. the pop foul off the bat of Aaron Judge on Sunday night). That’s not ideal when you have a partner across the diamond performing even worse.

While I don’t want to go position by position through the whole roster, there is one more player worth talking about, OF Hunter Renfroe. He has received a lot of attention for his outfield assists, and rightfully so, he leads all outfielders with 16, but he also leads all outfielders with 12 errors. The 16 assists and occasional stellar catch are great, but if 75% of them are offset by errors, then it’s not nearly as impressive or helpful for the Red Sox. Surprisingly, Renfroe’s Rtot is -9, 634th out of 654, just ahead of his 3 other teammates, the afore mentioned Devers and Dalbec, and Kike Hernandez, who sits at -11 and 643rd out of 654. Then just above Renfroe is Alex Verdugo who sits at -8 and 627th. As a team, they are -59, by far the worst in baseball. I think you get the point.


We need to be focusing more on defense as a major issue with the 2021 Red Sox. If you are a fan of the team, it needs to be addressed this offseason, because most of the worst defensive players are likely here for several more years. When 5 of your regular starters are in the bottom 4.1% of the all MLB players in defense, you’re in big trouble and put a ton more pressure on pitching and offense to compensate for mistakes. When fighting for a wild card spot in September, every game matters and poor defense could easily be the reason a team can’t get the job done. Nothing will change in the next week, but if this team is tied for the 2nd worst fielding percentage in baseball next year, don’t expect to see them in the playoffs again.

Defense and fundamentals might not always be the recipe for a championship team, but not paying attention to them will surely prevent a team from making a playoff run.

UConn Football Nearly Stuns Wyoming

Since the UConn vs Wyoming Football game ended in dramatic fashion earlier this evening, I have been trying to put into words the rollercoaster of emotion that I’ve felt since the game kicked off at 3:30pm in East Hartford. Coming into the game there was reason for a glimmer of hope following a strong 2nd half at Army, but realism sets in quickly when you see the -30.5 betting line and remember that the game was already out of hand during the 2nd half last week. The Huskies started strong on both sides of the ball, but as a fan, I’m sitting on my couch waiting for the big mistake and the irreversible change in momentum that crushes my spirit.

The game stayed close and winded towards halftime at 13-3. The UConn defense held strong against a Wyoming offense that scored 95 points in their last 2 games and the glimmer of hope in me grew a bit with each passing minute. The Cowboys grabbed a touchdown in the 3rd quarter to make it a 3pt game and just like that, the hope dwindled and the dread of inevitable doom crept back into my mind. The clock ticked down and the 4th quarter began with UConn still in front. I asked myself “Is this actually possible? Nah, they will still lose by 20+.”

A UConn field goal extended the lead to 6 with just over 11 minutes remaining and the hope grew a tiny bit. Then, 10 plays, 77 yards and 4:39 of clock time later, the UConn lead was erased with a Cowboys touchdown. It felt like that was the moment it would all unravel and in my head I believed the final score would be ugly and not reflect how close this game was in reality. My fears were unfortunately proven legitimate when on the first play of the next drive for UConn, Tyler Phommachanh is intercepted and under 3 minutes later, Wyoming scores a touchdown and is up 8 with 3:34 remaining in the game. I’m reasoning with myself at this moment that a close loss is still an incredible accomplishment, and it is given the state of the program, but I’m dejected.

Then comes a gutsy, penalty-aided drive down the field by a freshman QB playing in just his second game ever at the collegiate level in an attempt to tie the score and send the game into OT. There were a lot of incomplete passes and less-than-ideal throws, but the confidence to grab the game by the cajones and try to drag the offense down the field for the tie was amazing to watch. Every member of the bench was cheering and jumping and engaged in every second, a new feeling at UConn. When fellow freshman Nate Carter crossed the goal line with :04 on the clock, I ran around like someone just lit me on fire. The Huskies were just a 2pt conversion try away from tying Wyoming and sending the game into OT. This was a game the Huskies were not supposed to even be competitive in according to, well, everyone. The only people that truly believed this was possible were the players and coaches and even some of them I bet doubted it at times.

The screen pass on the 2pt try was tipped and read perfectly by the Cowboys defense, ending what would have been a miracle finish. Although the loss stings and was absolutely heartbreaking, the biggest takeaway was a massive heaping bowlful of hope, something that has been completely missing from this UConn Huskies program for years. There is definitely still a rebuild afoot, but maybe, just maybe, they have found a QB to build around. Tyler Phommachanh showed some real moxy and skill and rebounded from mistakes well. Oh yeah, and he’s only a freshman with 120 minutes of collegiate football on his resume. He will continue to improve and grow, hopefully avoiding some of the ‘young’ mistakes he made today into the future.

For tonight, I’m going to bed a proud UConn alum and fan with more hope that the last 3 halves of football are an indicator of a future trajectory that isn’t straight into the ground. There will be a lot more to say about this team that isn’t just doom-and-gloom over the next several weeks and for that, I’m grateful.

Understanding the NFL Practice Squad

The other day my father-in-law asked me a question about the practice squad and how it works in the NFL. I had a general idea, but long after our conversation my head kept spinning with questions. Did I really understand how they work in 2021 or was my knowledge antiquated? While it’s not the most exciting topic for everyone, I’m guessing my father-in-law and I are not the only people with questions. The further I dug into the research, the more interested I became in the evolution of the practice squad.

Before jumping in too far, I want to note that thanks to the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and other negotiations, a lot has changed over the past few decades with practice squads. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, but protections for players and teams have increased dramatically over the years in a myriad of ways. Several of those changes are noted in the sections below. While being a practice squad player isn’t the ideal path for most, it can be a way for players to make a little money while being just one step away from an NFL roster.

History and Expansion

Let’s start with the basics. Every NFL team has a practice squad (sometimes historically referred to as a taxi squad). The concept for the squad began in the 1940s, but wasn’t adopted until the mid-1960s and had a brief disappearance in the 1970s. The squad was more formally adopted with the 1993 CBA that established the practice squad as a 5-player group. That number has expanded several times including a few planned expansions in the 2020 CBA that brought the squad to 12 in 2020 with another expansion planned in 2022 to bring the number to 14, however the practice squad has temporarily expanded to 16 for the 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Promotion and Eligibility

Each team is allowed to activate 2 players from their practice squad before a game without officially promoting them to the main roster (prior to 90 minutes before kickoff before inactives are submitted). Recent rule changes allow these players to go directly back to the practice squad (do not pass go and do not pass through waivers) following the game without having to pass through waivers and potentially get signed by another team. A player is only able to be elevated in this capacity twice per season and if they are promoted a third time, the team must sign the player 53-man roster.

Players are eligible for the practice squad if they have played less than 9 games on an active NFL roster during one season or have spent fewer than 3 seasons on a practice squad already (a season is considered at least 6 games on the practice squad) with an exception that was added over the past few CBAs. Each team is allowed to have up to 6 veteran players on their practice squad (an increase from past years). A veteran player can now be a player with any amount of experience in the NFL. The Patriots used this new rule recently when they put veteran K Nick Folk on the practice squad earlier this year.

Salaries

Players aren’t guaranteed anything except that week’s salary when on a practice squad, they are week-to-week hoping for a call-up. The 2021 minimum salary for a non-veteran practice squad player is $9,200 per week ($165,600 for 18 weeks) and a veteran player is $14,000 per week ($252,000 for 18 weeks). That is the minimum however, players have been paid more depending on circumstances to keep players with the team or honor contracts. Unlike a guaranteed active roster contract, if a practice squad player gets released, they get nothing assuming the haven’t been elevated to the active roster.

One additional protection for practice squad players is if a player is signed to the active roster, they receive at least three weeks worth of pay regardless of whether the player spends three weeks on the roster or not, usually the league minimum. This protects the player from being signed for one game, then cut and having to pass through waivers without any future path and no salary. The practice squad life can be a journeyman experience for some.

Signing and Protection

This is the piece of the practice squad that has evolved a lot over the years. Players on practice squads are free to sign with other NFL teams at any point as long as they are being signed to the active 53-man roster, with a few newer exceptions. Every week, each team can designate 4 players on their practice squad to protect. They are not able to be signed by another team during that week. Additionally, a practice squad player is not allowed to sign with their team’s upcoming opponent within 6 days of the game or 10 days if the team is on a bye week. This essentially protects against a team stealing an opponents game plan the week of the game and is something that Bill Belichick would occasionally employ in the past.


Overall the world of navigating practice squads is an absolutely fascinating business, at least to me. Over the years, Bill Belichick has been a master at manipulating this group as evidenced by a few of his moves earlier this year to open roster spots and move players around (i.e. Nick Folk) which is why some of these rules could come into play more often for the New England Patriots than some other teams. There is no doubt that some of the evolution in rules has come because of Belichick, as with other NFL rules changes over the years, which makes his mastery of it even more enjoyable to watch. Keep on eye out for future practice squad movement and feel more confident in understanding the implications of each move.

The Curious Case of Nick Folk’s Resurgence

Over the years, fans of the New England Patriots have been incredibly spoiled in the kicking department, with just 3 kickers signed in total from 1996 through October 2, 2019. The first 10 seasons of that span were Adam Vinatieri, then Stephen Gostkowski from 2006-2019. There was an 8-game stint that required the assistance of Shayne Graham in 2010 when Gostkowski’s season was cut short with a thigh injury, but until October 2, 2019, those 3 were it. The Patriots then signed K Mike Nugent the day following Gostkowski’s injury in 2019 and after 3 weeks, released him to sign current Patriots kicker Nick Folk; just the 5th kicker at the time to sign in New England in 23 seasons.

My reaction to the Nick Folk signing on October 30, 2019 was not a positive one. I watched a fair amount of Folk earlier in his career during his 3-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys and then his 7-year stint with the New York Jets and the results were mixed, to put it generously. In 2009, Folk hit only 64.3% of his field goal attempts, which ultimately led to him landing with the Jets. His career with the Jets was better after the first few years, but there was always a sense that he would miss the big kick in a clutch situation, whether warranted or not. After being released from the Jets in 2017, Folk spent one miserable year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before looking for work in the Alliance of American Football.

Then in October of 2019 the Patriots came calling to give him another shot in the NFL at age 34. Since joining the Patriots, Nick Folk has somehow turned himself into a reliable and consistent place kicker, improving upon all of his previous career numbers. Prior to coming to New England, Folk was an 80.3% field goal kicker who hit 91.7% of tries under 30 yards, 89.9% from 30-39 yards, and just 66.7% from 40+. In his two+ years with the Patriots, Folk has hit 90.4% of all his field goal tries, including an insane 100% from under 40 yards (26 tries) and 80.8% from 40+ yards. For comparison, Adam Vinatieri was only an 81.9% field goal kicker in his 10 seasons with the Pats. To be fair Folk has missed 4 extra points in his 48 attempts with the Pats (91.7%), but overall he’s made up for those 4 points with many more field goals made.

In 2020, Folk ranked as the 8th best kicker in football by field goal percentage (92.9%), well ahead of the Pats former kicker Stephen Gostkowski (69.2%) who ranked 31st out of 33 in football. In 2021, Folk is looking just as strong as last season early on, hitting his first 7 tries in 2 games thus far. In week 1, Folk broke the Patriots consecutive field goal streak (formerly 29) and extended it in the win over the New York Jets on Sunday to 33-straight. To break a kicking record in New England is incredible given the recent history of Vinatieri and Gostkowski at that position.

It’s still hard for me to not cringe when Folk is kicking a field goal in a big spot, but by all accounts he has been great for the Pats. With a rookie QB that is being eased into the NFL, Folk becomes an even more critical piece this season to score points and thus deserves more attention than in the past. Let’s hope this new Nick Folk trend of reliability and consistency is here to stay.

UConn vs Wyoming Football Preview – Saturday at 3:30pm ET (CBSSN)

The odds have improved for the UConn Huskies as Wyoming roles into East Hartford on Saturday. Ok, so maybe that’s a bit misleading, but after spending 2 weeks as 33.5pt underdogs, they are getting the 3pt home field advantage and are only 30.5pt underdogs this week. They do come into this game with some slight momentum however, after a 21pt 2nd half against Army on the road, outscoring the Black Knights to close out the game. Was it a sign of things to come for the Huskies or a mirage in the desert of sadness? Only time will tell.

Wyoming

This has been an interesting 3-0 start for the Cowboys. They opened the season with a low-scoring victory over Montana State; down 7-3 going into the 4th quarter but won 19-16. Their next two games were significantly more offense-heavy with another 1-score win 50-43 against Northern Illinois and a blowout 45-12 over Ball State. It seems like their offense is more in line with their last few games, putting up big scores with a fairly balanced attack. In all 3 games, the Wyoming QB Sean Chambers has thrown for right around 200 yards and now has 5 TDs to 1 INT on the season. They balance the attack with some running by Chambers, but primarily RB Xazavian Valladay touching the ball 15-20 times per game. They have also leaned a bit on RB Titus Swen this season as a 2nd option.

The Wyoming defense is a bit of a head scratcher. They held Montana State to 16 in their first game, a team that scored 45 and 52 in their other 2 games this year and then the Cowboys allowed 43 to a Northern Illinois team that upset Georgia Tech in their first game 22-21 and couldn’t score more than 10 against Michigan, granted the Wolverines are a top-25 team. As a team, they have 10 sacks in 3 games so they know how to disrupt an offense. Just 2 of their sacks have come from linebackers, the rest from the meat of their defensive line which could definitely play a factor on Saturday with UConn’s offensive line having trouble protecting at times. Keep an eye on seniors DT Ravontae Holt and DT/DE Victor Jones (both from Sacramento, CA), who have a combined 5 sacks on the season.

Offense

There are a lot of changes on the depth chart on offense this week, but most are to align the chart with what we actually saw on the field against Army last week. Freshman QB Tyler Phommachanh is listed as QB1 for the first time, even though that became obvious when he played the entire game last week. He gained momentum in the 2nd half and began to get his legs under him, both literally and physically. All three receiver slots swapped starters this week with freshman taking those roles. One of Phommachanh’s favorite targets WR Aaron Turner jumped WR Jahkai Gill, WR Keelan Marion moved ahead of WR Heron Maurisseau, and WR Kevens Clercius passed WR Cameron Hairston. Same at RB, where freshman RB Nate Carter moved past senior RB Kevin Mensah.

It’s clear Lou Spanos is focused on the future by starting a freshman in almost every situation possible, even over established upper-classman. He wants to see if Phommachanh can develop chemistry with his classmates and create a core group going forward, which is a smart strategy. If they do develop as a group and stick around, Spanos or the next head coach can recruit around them, rather than needing to truly rebuild from nothing. This should be an interesting game for Phommachanh because the Wyoming defense has given up some yards on the ground, allowing 244 to Northern Illinois, including a 75 yard rush. If UConn can complete some passes to keep the defense honest and they unleash the run with Phommachanh and Carter, they could at least prevent the game from being a blowout before halftime and maybe even have a respectable time of possession number.

Defense

There were a few changes on the defensive depth chart this week as well, following a similar trend to the offense. Senior S Diamond Harrell has been dropped in the pecking order and freshman S Durante Jones and freshman S Malik Dixon will man the two-deep slots.

Every match-up is a tough one for this UConn defense, but this should be interesting to watch. The Cowboys balance their attack quite well without relying too heavily on 1 player. QB Sean Chambers has only thrown 72 times in 3 games despite the team putting up 40+ twice, but he makes smart decisions and rarely turns the ball over. They lean slightly more on the run, but that is partially a product of their recent blowout over Ball State when they took a 31-0 lead into the locker room at half (39 rushes to 23 pass attempts). RB Xazavian Valladay has 54 rushes this year for 245 yards, averaging a solid 4.4 yards per carry and his backup, RB Titus Swen, has touched the ball 24 times for 116 yards (4.6 yards per carry). Chambers also definitely factors into the run game with 29 carries and 125 yards on the season.

Overall the offensive opponent this week is solid, but doesn’t appear to be explosive like some of UConn’s past match-ups. If the defensive line can get some pressure and be strong against the run, it could force more from the Wyoming passing game than they want and make it a bit more interesting.

Special Teams

There was some expected movement on special teams this week. Freshman Aaron Turner has moved ahead of Jahkai Gill as punt returner and after a really nice week in the kick return game, freshman Brian Brewton has officially taken over that role. After just 1 return before Saturday for 15 yards against Purdue, Brewton had 4 returns for 142 yards, including a 96-yard return for a TD in the 3rd quarter. It was a nice spark for the Huskies and if he can provide an occasional solid return and set the team up in decent field position, it will significantly help the offense put points on the board. He’ll be backed up by Robert Burns, who had 1 return for 18 yards against Army.

Prediction

Wyoming 49, UConn 24

While I think UConn shows more in this game and has some offensive success like the 2nd half of last week, they just don’t have enough to overcome the balanced attack of Wyoming. However, I do think there is a path for UConn to hold down Wyoming in the run game and force Chambers to throw more, which could force a turnover or two. I think a big success for this Huskies team would be to keep the game within 1-2 scores at halftime and stay within striking distance as late into the game as possible. Other than the Holy Cross game, they haven’t gone into halftime with even a chance to keep it close in the 2nd half yet this season. A close game would allow Phommachanh to experience the pressure and show the coaches how he performs when the game is actually still within reach. I expect at least 1 big play between Phommachanh and Turner this week as their chemistry continues to grow.