New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made a surprise and unscheduled press conference appearance behind the mic at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday, the first day of media availability at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Belichick actually spoke at the same time that Jets general manager John Idzik was holding his scheduled meeting with the media at the opposite end of the room, maybe just the latest minor barb in the Border War rivalry between New York and New England.
Belichick last did a combine press conference back in 2009, and the Patriots rarely have a press conference presence of any type at the NFL's annual major pre-draft event.
Speaking for the first time since his season-ending presser the day after New England's loss in Denver in the AFC title game, Belichick opened his comments by raving about where the combine has come in the 30 years since he attended his first on the campus of Arizona State University.
"I was walking over here just this afternoon thinking about just how far the whole combine has come," Belichick said. "The first one I was at was the second one at Arizona State. Obviously held outdoors. The day ended not in total darkness, but certainly past dusk. I still have the image of (future Bears defensive tackle William) Refrigerator Perry doing the vertical jump out there in the middle of the Arizona State field in almost total darkness."
That's a far cry from the current event that takes over Indianapolis each February and has more than 900 credentialed media in attendance as well as 330-plus prospects.
"Now we have the banners on the streets, we have NFL Network. This is a huge media event and fan event. It's really come a long way," Belichick continued.
From a football standpoint, the New England coach went on to describe the importance of the combine for him and his entire talent evaluation staff.
"Obviously a great opportunity for our organization to see the players," Belichick said. "From a medical standpoint I'd say that's probably the biggest thing we get out of this is to have the physical examinations and have them all done at one time. The medical part of it is huge.
"Having personal interaction with the players personally is good, certainly for me. Just being able to see them in person. Even though the drills are workout drills and not really football drills. Certainly there is something to be said to be able to line up all guys together and seeing them compete."
Like many other coaches and general managers, Belichick spoke about the impressive prospects on hand this week in Indianapolis, although he wasn't quite ready to make any definitive assessments of the draft class.
"Obviously it's a pretty good looking group of players," he said. "We have a long way to go in the evaluation. I'm nowhere close to being able to give you any type of analysis or evaluation of what this draft is or isn't. But it certainly looks like a lot of interesting players. Certainly a lot of guys we have to do work on. This is the heaviest underclass group that's come out. So we have a lot of catching up to do in that area."
After his trip down combine memory lane and his general comments, Belichick took questions on a small variety of topics. In his typical deflective fashion, he gave very few answers of any note.
In regards to the moves his team made this offseason to its coaching staff - losing the likes of tight ends coach George Godsey, veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and defensive line coach Pepper Johnson - Belichick said simply, "I think our coaching staff is pretty well set right now. So we'll go forward with it. I'm excited to have the people that we have. We'll just see how it all comes together."
Would he like to have some continuity on offense after a season in which that unit was struck by great turnover?
"I don't know," Belichick responded.
And in regards to key free agents in cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman, where in New England in negotiations with those players?
"I talked about that at the end of the season, about the process that evolves," Belichick said. "And I would say we're in that process."
So Belichick spoke at the combine for the first time since 2009. He did so in an unscheduled manner and at the same time the rival Jets were holding a press conference at the opposite end of the media workroom at Lucas Oil Stadium.
And aside from some reminiscing about how far the combine has come in the last three decades, Belichick said very little of any significance in regards to his football team.
Rather, Belichick chose simply to focus on the "tremendous growth of this event and the whole scouting nature of the National Football League and how it's progressed through the years."
--Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard reported to a Lincoln, Neb., jail to start serving a sentence for a 2012 assault on a police officer, according to ESPN.com.
Corrections officers with the Lancaster County Adult Detention Facility, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to jail policy, told ESPN that Dennard reported to the facility Saturday morning, March 1.
Dennard, 24, will serve at least 35 of the 60-day sentence.
A judge sentenced the former Nebraska star in April to two years probation, 30 days in jail and community service for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest outside a Lincoln bar just days before the 2012 draft.
The judge later doubled Dennard's jail time after he was arrested on suspicion of DUI, which was dismissed after a plea bargain.
--Trade rumors revolving around Cardinals Pro Bowl WR Larry Fitzgerald have been about as frequent in New England in recent years as snow storms. But at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis Arizona general manager Steve Keim made it clear those rumors and reports weren't based in any sort of reality.
"I was driving into work one morning and I heard the rumors about the trade and I was trying to find someone to fire, because they never called me," Keim said, drawing some laughs inside the Faegre Baker Daniels Club at Lucas Oil Stadium.
--Pepper Johnson left the Patriots coaching staff this offseason after having spent the entirety of his coaching career in New England dating back to 2000. Adding in Johnson's time as a player, he actually spent 26 seasons working with Bill Belichick. But rather than returning to Foxborough, Johnson made a lateral move to take over coaching the defensive line under Doug Marrone for the Bills.
Thursday at the combine, Marrone described what drew him to hire Johnson once he became available.
"I always admired Pepper," Marrone said. "When we used to play New England and Pepper was the defensive line coach I thought those guys did a great job up front. Obviously we know a lot about him as a player. I think he brings a lot to our organization. He's someone that's obviously been a part of five Super Bowls (coaching with the Patriots) with a great intensity about himself. He was a great pro. I think he'll bring a lot to our football team not only in the classroom but some of the stuff on the field and off the field to help our players grow as this league continues to grow."
--The Patriots officially added former Browns general manager Mike Lombardi to Bill Belichick's staff, with the official title of assistant to the coaching staff. Lombardi previously worked with Belichick as the coach's director of player personnel with Cleveland in the early 1990s. Lombardi has already begun his work for the Patriots, as he flew with the New England contingent this week to the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
"Mike has a lot of experience," Belichick said Thursday at a combine press conference at Lucas Oil Stadium. "He's done a lot of things in his career in the NFL. I'm sure he'll be doing many of those things for us. We'll see how it goes."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Patriots released safety Steve Gregory. Gregory, 31, joined the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent on March 16, 2012 after playing six seasons for the San Diego Chargers.
Gregory played in 26 games with the Patriots over the past two seasons with 23 starts. Last season, he played in 14 games with 11 starts and finished with a career-high 90 total tackles.
Scheduled to be unrestricted in March
--RB LeGarrette Blount
--DE Andre Carter
--WR Austin Collie
--WR Julian Edelman
--LB Dane Fletcher
--TE Michael Hoomanawanui
--TE Matthew Mulligan
--LB Brandon Spikes
--T Will Svitek
--CB Aqib Talib
--C Ryan Wendell
TIGHT END: Rob Gronkowski has proven to be injury prone and is coming off a torn ACL. Once a strength, New England has to add a playmaker at tight end.
WIDE RECEIVER: With Julian Edelman heading to free agency and Danny Amendola an injury-limited disappointment, the Patriots need to add a top-end target at receiver.
DEFENSIVE LINE: With Vince Wilfork coming off a torn Achilles, a young body is needed at tackle, while depth is a concern at end.
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