FOXBORO, Mass. — Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty learned one last valuable lesson as his rookie season came to a close. Super Bowl parties were fun in high school and college, but they suck when you're in the NFL.
McCourty's thrilling rookie year came crashing down during New England's surprising playoff loss to the Jets, and it took some adjusting in the days and weeks following that abrupt end. During the Super Bowl, he even got a text from teammate Darius Butler that read, "We should be playing in this game."
"Another season is coming," McCourty said. "Now you know that [losing] feeling like everyone else. You'll be working hard to avoid that feeling again."
Before McCourty cleaned out his locker and departed from Gillette Stadium, he asked the team's veterans for offseason advice — how much time to take off, how to train, things like that — and he prepared for a far less stressful winter and spring than the pre-draft process from a year ago.
Obviously, the league's labor negotiations have created a murky situation for McCourty and the rest of the players, who don't know if they'll be able to report for voluntary workouts in mid-March. All he can do is plan for the best, though, and he'll train with his twin brother, Jason, who plays for the Titans. He's also going to return to Rutgers to work out with their strength and conditioning staff.
McCourty wouldn't get specific when discussing the types of things he wants to improve upon for next season, but he did mention that he could see his growth on film in 2010. He re-watched six games — the Patriots' first three divisional games and their last three divisional games — and noticed significant improvement in his performance in the later contests.
He also learned some helpful techniques from head coach Bill Belichick, who mentioned some basic fundamentals that really stayed with him throughout his rookie campaign. Basically, if McCourty was lined up against a receiver with superior speed, the quarterback would likely test him by throwing over the top. And in that case, McCourty learned how to study a receiver's eyes and hands while they tracked the ball. At that point, McCourty had to best judge when he should turn around to play the ball, and if he tried to track it himself, he'd lose at least a step and get burned for a long gain.
McCourty has really good raw speed, and his quickness and closing ability greatly improved throughout the season. So, Belichick told him if he was lined up against a slower receiver, there was almost no chance he'd run any fly patterns, which meant McCourty should sit on the underneath routes. In those situations, McCourty didn't have to worry about playing fast because his speed would be an asset once the ball was in the air. Instead, that's when McCourty had to play smarter and more instinctively.
"I feel like I'm fortunate to be on this team and to have the ability [to talk with Belichick]," McCourty said. "I think it would be crazy not to go up to him and pick his brain about anything I see on film or any techniques I have. One good thing is if he ever thinks of something, he comes up and tells us. I sit there and say, 'Dang, I didn't think about that, but that's kind of common sense.' His mind just works at a different level when it comes to thinking about football."
That advice helped McCourty finish second in the league with seven interceptions, and he led the Patriots with nine forced turnovers. As a result, he finished second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting and was one of four rookies to earn a Pro Bowl invitation.
While the season came to a screeching halt, McCourty can use this downtime wisely to take a break and reflect upon all of the lessons he learned as a rookie. Because of that, McCourty pronounced, "I'm confident I'll be able to get better for next year."