MIAMI — A New England Patriots castoff could play a key role in Super Bowl LIV.
Defensive tackle Mike Pennel signed with the Patriots on the first day of free agency last spring but was cut before the end of the preseason. He landed with Kansas City two months later and has since helped solidify a Chiefs run defense that’ll look to slow down the San Francisco 49ers’ punishing ground game Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.
Why did Pennel, a projected Patriots starter entering training camp, flop in Foxboro? According to the 28-year-old, a lack of communication from New England’s coaching staff ruined that relationship.
“I’ll definitely keep the particulars of that to myself,” Pennel said Monday at Super Bowl Opening Night. “But it was just with how the preseason was going and everything like that, me being a veteran, I kind of knew what was going on with the (decreased) reps and everything like that. I didn’t really understand what was going on and didn’t really get any answers. So after that point, it was a little bit of confusion, a little bit of relief when I got cut. But I’m just glad to be somewhere with a lot more transparency.”
Pennel wouldn’t share many specifics about those interactions, but he singled out Bret Bielema, mentioning a “disconnection between something I was doing with the defensive line coach” as the reason why his Patriots tenure ended so swiftly. He’s found Kansas City’s staff — which includes former Pats D-line coach Brendan Daly — much more accommodating.
“It’s different when you go up to your coach and talk life and not just football,” Pennel said. “It’s different when you can have a different technique or be able to talk through techniques with your coach. Some places you can do that; some places you can’t. New England wasn’t the place to do that.”
Pennel, who was released after playing deep into the second half of New England’s third preseason game, wasn’t the only Patriots D-lineman to clash with Bielema this season. The team traded Michael Bennett to the Dallas Cowboys in late October after an argument between Bennett and Bielema that resulted in a one-game suspension for the veteran pass rusher.
Bennett played just 35.7 percent of New England’s defensive snaps before being shipped out, a steep drop from his 69.0 percent clip with Philadelphia Eagles in 2018. Bielema, a former college head coach at Wisconsin and Arkansas who replaced Daly last offseason, left the team earlier this month for a position on Joe Judge’s New York Giants staff.
“It was something where, as a player, you come and you try to conform sometimes,” Pennel said of his time with the Patriots. “But you can conform too much and get taken out of your playing style. So after weeks and weeks and going through training camp and everything like that, I think on both ends, it was kind of a (realization that) we’re over this. This is over with. So we respectfully parted ways after that, and that was it.”
Pennel has proven to be a valuable addition to Kansas City’s defensive front. The Chiefs have allowed an average of 96.3 rushing yards in games the 6-foot-4, 330-pounder has played in. In the games he hasn’t been active for, they’ve surrendered an average of 158.8 rushing yards per game.
“Mike’s been awesome,” said Daly, who’s in his first season with KC following five with the Patriots. “He’s smart. He’s been a hard-working guy. He’s learned quickly in terms of what we’ve asked him to do coming in in the middle of the year. He’s been very impressive in terms of being able to figure out what we’re asking him to do. It started with a small role, and he’s one of those guys that did a good job with that role, and that’s given him increased opportunity as this thing’s moved.”
The Chiefs enter Super Bowl week on an eight-game winning steak. Among those victories: a 23-16 decision at Gillette Stadium in Week 14. Pennel acknowledged that result was particularly satisfying for him.
“Most definitely,” he said with a smile. “I would be lying to you if I said there wasn’t a chip on my shoulder when we went in there. But more important to me was to get the win and be able to do it with my brothers and my teammates, knowing (Daly) was with the Patriots and the history of them last year.
“It just felt good, man. And I feel like a lot of people talk about where our hot streak started — I think that’s where everybody really got brought together and realize what we can do when we come together. That was a good moment.”