When you scroll back to take the Google Earth view of Stephon Gilmore's time in New England, it really is an odd picture. For the first month, September of 2017, it was an unmitigated disaster with the defense on pace to set records for stankery. Then almost immediately they figured it out and were among the rest in the league. Until costing the team a Super Bowl, squandering 505 yards from their own quarterback and getting beaten by Nick Foles (which still sounds like a scenario from Marvel's "What If..." and not reality). The next year they won a ring with the best defensive performance in Super Bowl history, capped off by Gilmore himself:
The next year he won the Defensive POTY, anchoring the best unit it the league. Then he wanted a pay raise. And got it. Then in 2020? Nothing. I mean, he played. Then got hurt in the last month. And ever since then, media and fans who've wanted to know where Gilmore stood with the Patriots have been in an information Sensory Deprivation Tank. Or were, until he got traded to Carolina for what amounts to a tax deductible donation to Kars4Kids.
Were it any other superstar, particularly a superstar cornerback since that's a position that tends to attract - and I'm choosing my words carefully here - athletes who are ... self-confident and ... oh, let's say ... loquacious. Talkers, in other words. But that's never been Gilmore's style. He's one of those humans who prefers to let their actions speak for them. In fact, in four seasons in New England, the only thing I can ever remember him saying without looking it up was when Jalen Ramsey had been running his very loquacious mouth and Gilmore called him "a zone guy" and they talk a lot because "they have a lot of energy." Which was a third degree sick burn in their world.
The downside of Gilmore's general introvertedness is that we never knew what the issues were between him and the Pats, if any, other than money. That is, until now.
ESPN - Cornerback Stephon Gilmore said Wednesday that he didn't agree with how the New England Patriots handled his return from surgery on his torn quadriceps, which along with his contract was a primary factor in his departure. ...
"I just didn't like how they handled my situation, my injury. A lot went on with that I didn't agree with," Gilmore told Patriots reporters on a conference call from Carolina.
"Now that I'm here, I'm able to do the things I have to do to get me back ready to where I need to be. I learned a lot there. I have a lot of friends there. A lot of great coaches. I just didn't like how they handled my situation with my injury."
I'll be the first to admit, that on the heels of Rob Gronkowski's bitterness of his medical treatment and Tom Brady packing up his personal fitness Yoda and leaving for Florida, having yet another best-at-his-position talking stool samples about the team doctors does not sound good. What exactly is he accusing them of? Malpractice? Unnecessary procedures? Running insurance scams? Using cold stethoscopes? Sending the guy with the fat fingers in to do the prostate exams? Using leeches like a Medieval barber?
Or, to look at it in the light most favorable to the team, could it just be that they were trying to clear him to play late last year because they felt he was fine and thought he was making a business decision? It wouldn't be the first time a player and medical staff disagreed. It happens across sports.
But this is that rare case of a player that doesn't share much and a team that reveals even less. The only thing we can deduce for sure is that there is an Overlook Hotel hallway's worth of bad blood here. Even if the Belichick did do Gilmore a solid by taking two cents on the dollar in return for him just to ship him home to North Carolina.
And how that animosity plays out will be one of the great individual story lines on Sunday. And there's a lot to consider going into it. While in New England he was almost always the Star corner, taking the opponent's top receiver in man coverage the vast majority of the time, we don't know how he's going to be utilized in Carolina. Coach Matt Rhule said right now, until he's fully healthy and in game shape, he's primarily a 3rd down subpackage back. For last week's game against Atlanta, Pro Football Focus had him down for 17 total snaps, 14 in coverage, with six of those against tight end Kyle Pitts. He was targeted three times against PItts, only allowed one catch for just two yards, while picking off one. He also gave up a 17 yarder to Tajae Sharpe and got flagged once.
The thing is, Gilmore seems like a great system fit in Carolina. According to USA Today, the Panthers played the third most man in the league last year under Phil Snow, and are playing the 10th fewest snaps in zone this year. How he'll be use ill be fascinating to watch. I don't necessarily trust that what a head coach says on a Zoom call in the middle of the week before the game can be trusted, so I'm not buying the 3rd down thing Rhule said. But Gilmore's not likely to be locked down on a WR1 either, because the Pats don't have a WR1. Yes, Jakobi Meyers gets more targets than anyone, but you're not going to put the 6-foot-1, 202 pound DPOTY in the slot. And Mac Jones next two receivers and both his tight ends are all within five receptions of one another on the season. Spreading the ball around is not only one of Jones' strengths, it's a strategy at this point. So it's likely Gilmore won't be locked into anyone.
What we do know is that wherever he is and whomever he's on, the best free agent signing in franchise history is coming in angry. With old beefs to squash.