FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Trust.
That’s the word that came to the forefront Wednesday when thinking about the significance of receiver Malcolm Mitchell returning to practice for the New England Patriots. Mitchell has been on injured reserve all season, but his return opens the door for him to possibly contribute in the playoffs, when the margin for error thins and one mistake could end a team’s season.
Quarterback Tom Brady has noted his high level of trust in Mitchell, which is a result of them executing in high-pressure situations, such as the second half of Super Bowl LI; Mitchell had five catches for 63 yards in the second half of that game, including a critical 12-yard grab on a third-and-11 play.
That same level of trust wasn’t there with Michael Floyd last year, which wasn’t necessarily a knock on Floyd as much as it was a result of timing. It’s hard for a receiver to build that trust with Brady in a short time period, and Floyd had been with the team only since mid-December last year.
Recently signed receiver Kenny Britt falls into a similar category this year after just joining the team on Dec. 13.
A pass intended for Floyd in last season’s divisional round of the playoffs reminded me, in part, of a pass intended for Britt in Sunday’s game.
The plays aren’t carbon copies of each other, but to me the common link is trust. When Brady is throwing to a spot, as he was on both of those plays, there is a certain preciseness in route-running that needs to be part of the play.
This isn’t to spare Brady accountability for the throws, or to overlook the defense making a play.
But more than anything, it has me coming back to the trust factor between quarterback and receiver, which is timely with Mitchell’s return to practice.
“I’ve watched his game, and one of the things that stands out to me is the confidence that Tom Brady has in him. As a young guy, that’s not the norm,” former Patriots receiver Deion Branch said of Mitchell last December.
Mitchell was one of three players around the NFL to be designated for return from injured reserve on Wednesday. Part of that is timing. By designating those players for return, the three teams (Patriots/Mitchell; Saints/John Kuhn; Seahawks/Tre Madden) give themselves an opportunity to add depth in the playoffs.
Mitchell has told those close to him that he feels ready and is anxious, but will respect any decision Bill Belichick makes in terms of activating him to the 53-man roster.
“I’m pretty close with Malcolm — just seeing him push forward each day, running routes, working with the training staff. It’s good to see him to be able to be back out there running around with his teammates,” safety Devin McCourty said.
“He’s said for weeks that he hopes he gets his shot to come back out there and practice. He’s got the fresh legs. He was out there moving [Wednesday]. I’m happy for him.”