LIVERPOOL, England — Each year, the NFL UK, the league’s organization arm across the pond, puts together a tour of some cities in the United Kingdom, and some current and former players get up on stage in a program run by Sky Sports host Neil Reynolds. This year I was invited, and Tuesday night I sat with Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins and Miami wide receiver Jarvis Landry in a two-hour program in front of the good people of northwest England, hard by the Irish Sea.
The benefit for me is spending time with good players and seeing the interest in the game in the United Kingdom. (Stops on this tour: London, Liverpool, Nottingham in England; Edinburgh in Scotland.) Steve Smith Sr. and Cleveland defensive tackle Danny Shelton join the tour in Nottingham today. I’d never spent much time with Cousins or Landry, and I’ve enjoyed two solid days with both.
I’ll write more on the tour in the coming weeks. But today is Jarvis Landry day.
I’d been on only one of these tours before this week—in 2008, on a USO Tour with some NFL players to bases in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. Usually they don’t bring out much news. Or any news, in fact. And I point that out because some will leap to a headline based on what Landry told a London audience Monday night. Landry predicted the Dolphins would beat New England twice this season, and that doing it with Tom Brady still in his prime would add to the satisfaction of his predicted sweep.
I told Landry that was quite a bit of bravado. And he said that was good, and he wanted people to know how he felt.
“If you’re a competitor, that’s the way you should feel, and I don’t mind saying it,” Landry said a day later. “It’s time for a change. I have all the respect in the world for the Patriots, and I respect Tom Brady tremendously. But they’re not our big brother anymore.”
What’s interesting is that after splitting with the Patriots in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Miami was swept by New England (by seven and 21 points) in coach Adam Gase’s rookie season. Progress in catching the Patriots? Not judging by what we saw in 2016. At the two-minute warning of the first half of the first Pats-Dolphins meeting last season, New England led 24-0. At the two-minute warning of their second meeting, New England was up 20-0.
The Patriots are dominating the AFC East the way no American pro sports team has dominated its division or conference this century. In the 16 seasons since the Patriots got good, 2001, only twice has New England lost the division—and amazingly, the Pats tied for first in each of those seasons, losing on tiebreakers both times. It’s absurd, really. Absurd how dominant the Patriots have been. And absurd how the AFC East, with 23 head coaches on the three franchises outside of New England since Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick in 2000, has been unable to break the schneid for going on a generation now. Part of that I’ve felt, but certainly not the majority of it, is that teams have given the Patriots too much respect. That’s something Gase began to work on last year.
What, I wondered, gave Landry the confidence to predict a 2017 sweep of the five-time Super Bowl champs?
“Coach Gase,” Landry said, riding the bus back from Tuesday night’s event in a suburb of Liverpool. “He’s flipped the switch with us. New England’s won the division 14 of the last 16 years, something like that? It’s ridiculous. It’s a problem. We cannot let that happen anymore. What I’ve seen is, when we play that game, sometimes we focus on the guys on the other side of the line instead of just focusing on us. And I want to be part of that change. I want to go into the games against New England expecting to win—that’s something we need to do.”
If you could have listened to Landry, there wasn’t a speck of disrespect or smack talk about the Patriots. It was a simple statement of fact: This franchise needs, among other things, Gase’s continued attitude adjustment to pass the Patriots. It needs more consistent play out of the quarterback, to be sure. Ryan Tannehill needs to keep improving the way he did in Gase’s first year, increasing his accuracy from 61.9 percent in 2015 to 67.1 percent in his injury-shortened season last year. Tannehill’s not quite the holler guy that, say, Brady is. Maybe that offensive leader should be Landry. He says he wants to be the guy, and why not? He’s led by example (no NFL player has caught more balls in his first three seasons than Landry’s 288), including the incredible physical bounce-off of Patriot linebacker Dont’a Hightower for a touchdown last year; and he’s led by fire.
“I love playing in Miami. I want to play my career there,” he said. “When I was 8, 9 years old, playing with 14, 15-year-olds, I didn’t care how old they were, I just grew to hate second place. Losing, sometimes I need to just get lost after a game because it hurts so much. I just live for winning. If we sat down right now and played Connect Four, I’d be pissed off if you beat me. It’s in me. It’s a still a hill to climb with New England, but we need to expect to win. That’s it.”