Socci’s View from the Booth: The ‘other Bill Murray’ looks to ‘adapt and overcome’
In this third year with the Patriots, Bill Murray is trying convert from the defensive line to offensive line.
Growing up in a family of globetrotters, Bill Murray set foot on every continent except Antarctica, visiting more than 25 countries by the age of 21. Between family vacations and school missions, he had passport stamps from such places as Belize and Tanzania, South Africa and New Zealand.
Murray was a junior then at the College of William and Mary, a young man with broad horizons and broad shoulders, a 6-4, 280-pound defensive tackle on the school’s football team. While W&M is famous for educating Founding Fathers, not football stars, and though it competes at the FCS level, Murray made it onto the radar within the small world of pro football scouting.
Two years later, he was signed by the Patriots. Two years after that, he’s reached a crossroads, trying to keep his career going by spanning the 11 inches — from the front to back tips of the ball — that separate his previous position as a defensive lineman from his new one on the offensive line.
On Saturday, in his first NFL media availability, Murray stepped behind the mic and before TV cameras to speak about his switch. A few feet away, another world traveler, his mom Alison, smilingly savored the moment, capturing it on her smart phone.
“I’m just here to help out the team in any way possible,” Murray said, opening with a message he repeated several times in the next six minutes. “Coach wanted me to try out offensive line, so I’m gonna give it everything I got and help out the team anyway I can.
“It’s a whole new position, it’s very tough. My teammates have been helpful, coaches have been very helpful. I’m just trying to do my best to get better every day. That’s all I can do.”
As a practice squad player who’s never cracked the 53-man roster, Murray was wisely reticent regarding his conversations with coaches prompting his position change. However, he did reveal that they mentioned Stephen Neal, the quintessential embodiment of Patriots’ player development.
Neal, an All-America wrestler at Cal State-Bakersfield, never played college football, yet was signed by New England originally as a defensive lineman in July 2001. He was waived the following month and picked up by the Eagles for their practice squad.
That’s when Neal began a conversion to offense he successfully completed after the Pats reacquired him in 2002. His progress initially slowed by injury, Neal eventually made 93 career starts, including playoffs, between the ages of 26-34.
Well past the era of 60-minute men in the NFL, there are other recent examples of line changes from defense to offense. There were several for a short time in Seattle, under head coach Pete Carroll and then assistant Tom Cable (see note below). Recently-retired Alejandro Villanueva, who became a Pro Bowl left tackle for the Steelers, was first signed by Philadelphia as a defensive end.
Although in Villanueva’s case, he had great length at 6-feet-9 and offensive line experience at West Point before proving he had the athleticism to be a wide receiver for the Black Knights. In contrast, Murray, who recently turned 25, is much smaller (6-4) and last played offense as a teenager at the Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J.
What they share is athleticism. At William and Mary, Murray blocked 10 kicks, including an overtime attempt in a win over rival Richmond — a game in which he also caught a two-point pass. While working out for scouts virtually in 2020, Murray ran 40 yards in 4.93 seconds, bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times, broad jumped 9-4 and leaped 32 1/2 inches from a standstill. All results that compared well to numbers posted by defensive tackles who, unlike him, were invited to the NFL Combine.
He also packs toughness with stick-to-itiveness. Those measurables? They were recorded after his on-campus pro day was canceled due to COVID-19, forcing Murray to drive 6 1/2 hours to Millington, N.J. for a live-streamed workout the next day at the TEST Football Academy.
“Obviously, you’re upset when it’s eight weeks of training, and all of a sudden, that’s off the table,” Murray said to Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter John O’Connor. “Unfortunate, but life happens. You just kind of have to persevere. It was really unfortunate for guys like me, who are kind of on the edge [of being drafted].”
Murray summed up his state of mind then, and, likely, given the challenge he’s facing this training camp, now.
“Adapt and overcome,” he told O’Connor.
Someone who’s seen much of the wide world, Murray’s long had a one-track way of working and playing. After his final college game, the aforementioned victory over Richmond, W&M coach Mike London noted the “sweat equity” Murray invested in their program.
He’s done the same as a pro, even if the returns thus far have been preseason flashes — like his 1 1/2 sacks in 33 snaps against the Giants in 2021 — and respect of teammates. One of whom, Deatrich Wise, has become his post-practice training partner the last two-plus years. They regularly hit the pads and sleds, honing their techniques as blue-shirted defenders.
Although Wise was missing from Saturday’s practice, Murray was at it again; still pouring out sweat equity, only in the offense’s white jersey.
“What we preach here is just try to be smart, tough and dependable,” he said afterwards, between swigs of bottled water. “That’s what I try to do every day.”
You’d think that everything Murray’s done to date trying to beat offensive linemen could someday help him avoid being beaten by defensive linemen. He knows none of it can unless he first masters all of the basics.
“That’s the biggest thing for me, just focusing on my fundamentals, then hopefully that (knowledge) will help out later on, once I get a good base,” he says.
Murray’s a long way from where he’d like to be. But thankful he’s in an organization offering a way to get there.
“It’s an opportunity, right, so I’m willing to do whatever it is they ask me to,” Murray said. “I’m ready to take the opportunity the best I can do it.”
Belichick on defensive-to-offensive line changes
(Photo by Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports)
Late in 2016, while fielding several questions related to fullback James Develin, who made a post-college transition from the Brown defensive line to, eventually, the Patriots’ backfield, Bill Belichick broached the subject of defense-to-offense conversions up front mainly at lower levels of play.
“Most of the offensive linemen get moved from defense because they don’t run well enough,” Belichick said on Dec. 28, 2016. “If they ran better, they’d probably play on defense, because those guys are hard to find. So to see those players offensively that can run 4.9, 5-flat at those kind of weights, most of them are first or second-round left tackles. That’s where most of them show up. That’s a premium position on offense. If you have that kind of an athlete, you probably could play them on defense or you could play them at left tackle. That’s where they go. So do they get moved? I don’t think you move a defensive lineman to the offensive line unless you’re going to move them to left tackle or, again, you have so many defensive linemen that you can afford to move him. Usually you move them because they don’t run well enough.”
Although, again, Belichick was speaking about moves made more often by high school and college coaches, his remarks are interesting in light of his staff’s decision regarding Murray. One, he runs well for the position. Two, his stature doesn’t seem fit to be tried at tackle.
What’s the takeaway from this perspective? Unfortunately, despite all of Murray’s hard work, the numbers defensively don’t favor him. But he’s a bright kid who always busts his ass and has potential value in the kicking game — remember those blocks in college? — and the Pats’ coaches want to give him every opportunity to help the team in ‘any way possible.’
Cable dispatches from Seattle
J.R. Sweezy played defensive tackle at N.C. State before converting to offensive guard in Seattle. (Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
About the (much) earlier reference to the Seahawks, Seattle moved a number of defensive linemen to the other side of scrimmage during Tom Cable’s tenure as offensive line coach (2011-17) .
Kelly reported that the half-dozen or so conversion projects were all good athletes in the range of 6-3 to 6-5, weighing close to 300 pounds, and quick enough to execute the Seahawks’ zone-blocking scheme. The next day, Cable appeared on Seattle radio and expounded on the subject.
“It’s the guy who shows the toughness and the effort on defense, but he’s just not quite there for whatever reason…Once you find that on film, (then) you ask the question, ‘Hey are you willing to try this?’
“I’m not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally. And so you see these big bodies, and — he’s 6’5-this, and he’s 300-this, and his arms are all that — and you watch him, and he’s not a finisher, and he doesn’t strain, and he can’t pass set, and he can’t stay on balance, and he can’t play with leverage, and you start listing all these negatives, and you look at it and say, ‘I can go get a guy who runs a little faster, jumps a little higher and has an aggressive streak in him, and at least I can see that on defense, and I can start with him…I’m going to have to retrain an offensive lineman out of college anyway.”
Founding Fathers and football coaches
Longtime Patriots assistant Ivan Fears began his career as a player and coach at William and Mary (Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA) TODAY Sports
With a list of distinguished alumni probably as long and historically significant as any university south of the Charles, William and Mary’s reputation since its 1693 founding has always been rooted in academics and rarely influenced by athletics.
Williamsburg is where three of our first 10 presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, were schooled. Arguably, its best-known ex-athlete today is Jon Stewart, who played soccer by his given name of Jon Leibowitz until his college career ended in an NCAA Tournament loss to a University of Virginia team coached by Bruce Arena.
Which is not to wrongly say that W&M is without prominence in professional football. Two current NFL coaches, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, were teammates there. Among their predecessors is Ivan Fears, Class of 1976.
Fears was one of the school’s first Black football players. He stayed in Williamsburg as a grad assistant and full-time coach, before a decade-long stint at Syracuse and 31-year career in the NFL. A quarter-century of it, as you likely know, was with the Patriots.
Rhodes less traveled
Luke Rhodes was signed out of W&M as a linebacker, before becoming an All-Pro long snapper. (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Perhaps one former W&M player Murray can look to for inspiration is the Colts’ Luke Rhodes. In 2016, Rhodes was signed by Tampa Bay as an undrafted linebacker. Cut at the end of training camp, he joined the Indianapolis practice squad about a month later.
The remainder of the season, Rhodes started working on long snapping. Within the next year, he was starting. Today, Rhodes is a two-time All-Pro (First Team in 2021), coming off a Pro Bowl campaign.
Understood, converting from every-down player to long-snapping specialist, especially as good as Rhodes has become, seems a lot less difficult than what Murray’s trying to do. Then, it can’t hurt to take hope from any and every example of an in-career change of positions and phases.
Particularly, when it’s someone who’s traveled the same road as you out of Williamsburg.
All joking aside
Comedian, actor and renowned minor league baseball owner Bill Murray (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Okay, I’ve managed to write (and write…and write…) this long (thanks for sticking with me) without any references to Bill Murray the comedian, actor, celebrity golfer, minor league baseball owner, Chicago Cubs’ fan, etc.
If only the Pats’ Bill Murray could go so long outside Gillette Stadium without hearing someone comment or joke about his namesake.
“Honestly, with new people it’s definitely once a day,” he said Saturday, good-naturedly. “But not really too much in this building, which is nice.”
And, no, he doesn’t have a favorite ‘other Bill Murray’ memory.
Nevertheless, here’s one from my days calling games in the South Atlantic League in the mid-90s, when Murray co-owned the Charleston RiverDogs with Mike Veeck. On a night when they hosted the Delmarva Shorebirds, Murray was in the ballpark. No sooner than the final out, he hopped out of the stands with his ball glove and began playing catch with a young kid.
I can think of million Saturday Night Live skits and movie scenes he’s starred in. But this will always be the best act I’ve seen by the other Bill Murray.
Bob Socci enters his 10th season as the play-by-play broadcaster for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter at @BobSocci.