FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Bill provision hits home: Joe Cardona has been at the forefront of the Patriots’ connection to the military over the past eight seasons.
The long-snapper graduated from the Naval Academy and was able to defer military service to pursue his NFL career. He has regularly spoken to members of the organization about his dual standing, doing everything from leading a reenlistment ceremony on the practice field to being promoted to lieutenant in front of teammates and having owner Robert Kraft present him as the team’s Salute to Service nominee this year .
So when a congressional bill was passed last week that won’t allow others the same opportunity Cardona had, it resonated with him.
“My time in the NFL has made me a better officer,” said Cardona, who had played in 140 straight games (including playoffs) since joining the Patriots as a fifth-round draft pick in 2015, a streak that was broken Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals because of a torn tendon in one of his feet.
“It’s shown me adversity on the biggest sports stage in the world. It’s given me the tools to lead groups of individuals that are all dealing with so many factors, whether it be family issues, things going on back home, financial instability. Obviously, the makeup of an NFL roster, and the instability that goes along with that, these are all things that have honed my leadership skills and made me a better leader for it.”
The new bill, as originally written, would have ended the professional career of Army linebacker Andre Carter II — a possible first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft — before it started.
But politicians scrambled to add new language that will provide an exception for Carter and others in his situation, clarifying that any cadet or midshipman who first enrolled in the US Military Academy, the US Naval Academy or the US Air Force Academy prior to June 1, 2021, will now be eligible for the NFL draft and can defer their military service.
“It’s tough that this rolls into the news every few years. It really affects the athlete’s life a lot, when you’re also training intensely, you have intense military obligations, and the academic rigor of a service academy on top of that. It’s not an easy thing,” Cardona said.
“I felt awful for Andre because I went through it myself. Getting an invite to the Senior Bowl was a great opportunity, and then the next thing you know, it’s ‘Why is he doing this?’ Andre’s an incredible talent, a once-in-a-generation service academy player. I look forward to seeing him play on Sundays now that he’s been grandfathered in to what he really signed up for when he affirmed his service commitment. I think the policy as it was, was really good.”
Some veterans and supporters of the military who weren’t in favor of the policy have noted that officers who pursued athletic careers weren’t held to the same commitment as their peers.
Cardona, however, said he believed there were across-the-board benefits to all involved.
“For the military, the service academies, and for football and the athlete, it was a policy where the service was deferred. All that means is it’s put on pause while getting this opportunity, and once I’m done with it, it’s time to go back and do my job and begin my five-year active service obligation,” he explained.
“I think when you really look at it, and take into account the likelihood of a career that goes beyond that league average of [around 3 years] is so minimal, the athlete is getting what is the equivalent of a master’s degree time frame in performance and leadership at the highest level. When you expect leaders to be exceptional, you have to put them in exceptional situations.”
Cardona has found the connection between the two powerful.
“Other than my rookie year when I was on active duty being a reservist, some of the greatest pride I have as an NFL player are moments when I get to share this world with my fellow service men and women,” he said.
“I think about moments when a kid is with their parent who is in the Navy, and I get to tell that kid — while I’m in football gear — that I work with their mom and dad and see their face light up . That resonates with me. Then, when I’m overseas and on a base, and I talk to fellow service members, I tell them about all the things that go on in the Patriots’ building that makes us the team we are.
“Maybe they take back some of that to their unit and pass it on, and who knows how many people get to experience a leadership tenet we have here in New England or the NFL as a whole, that will improve the lives of the people they work with.”
2. Cardona’s streak: Of missing his first NFL game after playing 140 straight, Cardona said there’s a lot that goes into that type of run, including some luck. He then added, “The streak is secondary to the feeling of not being able to be out there with the guys.”
3. Red zone blues: One reason the Patriots entered Saturday as the NFL’s lowest-ranked unit in the red zone (38% TD rate) was penalties. Their 10 red zone flags were tied for the most in the NFL. Mac Jones’ unnecessary roughness penalty after Rhamondre Stevenson’s fumble added an 11th on Saturday, as the Patriots’ found another way to implode inside the 20-yard line.
4. Sticking together: While the Patriots’ season hasn’t unfolded the way many hoped, longtime captain Devin McCourty hasn’t seen division in the ranks. “I don’t worry about guys turning on each other or the coaching staff,” he said. “I think that’s more like [the] articles people write. If I was a fan, I would enjoy reading that stuff too — it’s like a look inside the locker room — and whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter. But I don’t think we have the type of guys, character-wise, to turn and say, ‘It’s his fault.’”
5. LB’s surprise: After not selecting an off-the-ball linebacker in the 2022 draft, the Patriots seemed to be rolling the dice in a season they were losing Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy & Co. But in one of the more notable surprises of the season, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai and Raekwon McMillan have exceeded expectations. Bentley, who finished with 11 tackles on Saturday, easily leads the team in tackles by double digits. “They just don’t get talked about how they should, and they don’t care. I give my hats off to them,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said.
6. Stueber’s return: One unexpected development last week was rookie offensive tackle Andrew Stueber (seventh round, Michigan) practicing for the first time since being placed on the non-football injury list in the spring with a torn hamstring. Coach Bill Belichick was noncommittal when asked if Stueber might work his way into game action this season, which seems like a long shot. Stueber’s teammates were pleased to see him. “I know he’s happy to get back out there and do what he loves — it’s huge for him to get some reps and try to remember how to do this thing,” starting center David Andrews said.
7. OT future: At the very least, the Patriots can take a closer look at Stueber and determine how likely it is that he might be a significant part of their plans. With Isaiah Wynn and Yodny Cajuste scheduled for free agency after the 2022 season, and Trent Brown entering the final year of his contract in 2023, offensive tackle could be their No. 1 priority in the draft.
8. Pro Bowl: It’s hard for the Patriots to have any legitimate gripe with having just one Pro Bowler (Judon), but rookie returner Marcus Jones (13.6 yards per punt return with 1 TD; and 24.9 yards per kickoff returns) would be the strongest snub candidate. He’s had a better season than the Jets’ Braxton Berrios (11.9 yards on punt returns; 22.6 yards on kickoffs with no TDs).
9. Did You Know, Part I: The Bengals entered Saturday having lost seven straight games at the Patriots, with their most recent win coming in 1986. They entered the game 2-10 all time on the road against New England, the third-worst road record by any team against the Patriots (including playoffs) behind the Jaguars (0-9) and Texans (0-7).
10. Did You Know, Part II: Entering Saturday, the Patriots were just the third team since the 1970 merger to lose on a walk-off defensive or special teams touchdown in regulation; the previous two teams to do it (2015 Browns, 2010 Giants) each lost their next games by a combined 62 points.