FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Welker gets another chance for first Super Bowl ring: When he played for the Patriots from 2007 through 2012, receiver Wes Welker had two chances to win the Super Bowl escape his grasp. He also lost a Super Bowl with the Broncos. Welker is back this year with an opportunity to win his first ring, this time as the San Francisco 49ers' wide receivers coach, and his work hasn't been overlooked.
"What he's doing with those young guys, it's amazing," 49ers receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "The way that he's got Deebo Samuel playing; Deebo was already a player, but you need a coach that can pull the greatness out of them."
Samuel, a second-round draft choice out of South Carolina, played in 15 regular-season games (11 starts) and finished with 57 receptions for 802 yards and three touchdowns. He added 14 rushes for 159 yards and three touchdowns.
While the 49ers have relied more on the running game in the playoffs, Samuel has done his part alongside fellow receivers Sanders, Kendrick Bourne and Richie James with relentless blocking that reflects an aggressive mindset, mirroring Welker's work ethic.
Sanders, who played alongside Welker in 2014 with the Broncos, said he has enjoyed being back in the receivers' meeting room with him.
"Every now and then, he'll pull out some of his old clips to show the young guys, 'Look, I might be saying this, but I've done this before, too,'" Sanders said.
That is precisely what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was hoping would be the case when he hired Welker in February, as there was an opening for a receivers coach with Mike LaFleur promoted to passing-game coordinator. Shanahan likes to hire former players, but has explained that there is a challenge in finding those who are also prepared from a coaching standpoint.
In Welker, Shanahan took note that he spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons working as an entry-level quality-control assistant on Bill O'Brien's Texans staff, which showed him how serious Welker was about the profession. It also didn't hurt that Shanahan had long admired Welker, going back to when the 49ers coach was playing receiver at the University of Texas and Welker was catching everything at Texas Tech.
Not surprisingly, one of Welker's primary messages to 49ers receivers is one that is deeply personal to him based on his own career path -- from undrafted free agent and practice-squad player to trusted target who totaled 903 catches for 9,924 yards and 50 touchdowns.
"Wes always tells the young guys, 'The moment you feel like you make it in this league, that's when you're on your way out,'" Sanders said.
2. Quarterback trade revisited: Jimmy Garoppolo's presence in Super Bowl LIV has reignited media-based discussion on the Patriots' surprising decision to trade him to the 49ers in October 2017, with some going as far as to say it was a mistake. Others say the Patriots shouldn't regret the decision as much as the limited return (a second-round pick). Here's the way I see it:
The Patriots played in three Super Bowls, and won two, since the trade. It was far from a guarantee that would be the case if the Patriots had Garoppolo instead of Tom Brady, and that's why I would never call the trade a mistake.
The return was lighter than it could have been. I think the reason is that some with the Patriots privately believed Garoppolo would consider a bridge-type contract to remain with the team, setting him up to take over for Brady in the future. So they played it conservatively, waiting as long as possible in hopes that would come to fruition. Once there was a realization that wasn't happening, the Patriots were no longer dealing from a position of strength.
The book on Garoppolo is still being written. Franchise quarterback? To be determined.
3. Gilmore's Super Bowl pick: Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore seemed to enjoy himself in the events leading up to Sunday's Pro Bowl, doing his part to help the AFC win the entertaining skills competition on Thursday (it's no easy task "threading the needle" on him, no matter the quarterback). As for his prediction in Super Bowl LIV, Gilmore told ESPN's Dianna Russini: "I think Kansas City will win it. They have a lot of weapons. Pat Mahomes, he's the toughest guy I've played against -- besides Tom [Brady]. He's great."
4. TV ratings dip without Patriots: When the Patriots play in the AFC Championship Game, more people watch. That is one conclusion that can be drawn from this snapshot, per Nielsen ratings:
2019/2020: Chiefs-Titans -- 41.11 million viewers
2018/19: Patriots-Chiefs -- 53.92 million viewers
2017/18: Patriots-Jaguars -- 44.08 million viewers
2016/17: Patriots-Steelers -- 48.0 million viewers
5. Manning-to-Manningham an all-time throw: New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning's retirement on Friday naturally resonated in New England, as his clutch play in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI denied the Patriots two Super Bowl victories. While his escape of the pass rush to deliver a long bomb to David Tyree is most often replayed, with Tyree catching the football on his helmet, I think Manning's 38-yard hookup to Mario Manningham to kick-start the game-winning drive in XLVI was an even better play. It might have been the greatest throw by an opposing quarterback against the Patriots in the coach Bill Belichick era. How did he possibly fit the ball in that tight window?
6. Patriots Super Bowl connections: In addition to Welker and Garoppolo, there are a few notable New England-based connections in Super Bowl LIV.
Brendan Daly -- The Chiefs' run-game coordinator/defensive line coach was also the D-line coach in New England from 2015-18 after having originally joined the organization in 2014 as a general coaching assistant. That means Daly has coached in the Super Bowl five of the past six years.
Mike Pennel -- The 6-foot-4, 332-pound defensive tackle, who was one of the Patriots' notable free-agent signings last offseason but didn't make it out of training camp, signed with Kansas City in October and came up big in the AFC Championship Game against the Titans. He adds a stout presence at the heart of the line of scrimmage.
Anthony Sherman -- A nine-year veteran who has been the Chiefs' fullback since 2013, he hails from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, and attended college at Connecticut.
Kyle Juszczyk -- The 49ers fullback, now in his seventh NFL season, totaled 125 receptions for 1,576 yards and 22 touchdowns at Harvard, leaving as the school's all-time leader in each category.
Mike Borgonzi -- The Chiefs' director of football operations grew up in Everett, Massachusetts, attended Brown University and seems to be on the rise in NFL personnel circles as he finishes his 11th season in Kansas City.
Adam Peters -- The 49ers' vice president of personnel landed his first NFL job with the Patriots as a scouting assistant in 2003, remaining with the team through 2008.
7. Auburn atmosphere eased transition for Stidham: With a chance to reflect on his rookie season, Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham credited his time at Auburn for preparing him well. One leftover from my conversation with Stidham from the Panini Rookie Closeout: "I'm not going to say it's the same thing at all, but I definitely think there are definitely some similarities, with playing at a big-time program like Auburn and then going to New England. There's obviously a big expectation at Auburn and at New England, and that sort of thing. But there's also a lot of differences. This is obviously your job, so you have to treat it a little differently and put a ton of time into it. Whereas college, you have homework, you have to go to class, study hall, whatever it may be. Here, you get to play football pretty much all day long in the NFL and work a lot, and watch a lot of film. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it."
This quote from Coach Pees today> pic.twitter.com/XpD70jKNky— Kim Smith (@Kim_ASmith) January 20, 2020
8. Pees always had a personal touch: Former Patriots linebackers coach/defensive coordinator Dean Pees (2004-09), who later went on to lead defenses with the Ravens and Titans, officially announced his retirement last week and shared some words of wisdom that could apply in all walks of life. One thought on Pees: In a business where egos can swell, he was as down-to-earth as they come, and always expressed an interest in the person beyond the reporter.
9. Cajuste still checking in: The majority of Patriots players have returned to their year-round homes, but some have remained in the area and continue to show up at Gillette Stadium. One player who falls into that category is 2019 third-round draft choice Yodny Cajuste, the offensive tackle from West Virginia who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve (torn quad in the predraft process). The Patriots ranked low in terms of rookie impact this past season, but it often isn't until the second year that some of their selections emerge. Cajuste is a notable prospect in that regard.
10. Did You Know: Garoppolo has completed 66% of his passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield this season, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. That is by far the highest of any quarterback this season, and the highest in a single season since 2006, when the statistic started to be tracked.