FOXBORO, Mass. — Stephon Gilmore speaks like Alshon Jeffery and to Alshon Jeffery, but not about the games they play against each other. Gilmore, the star cornerback for the New England Patriots, talks in the same low, near-whispered voice that his dear friend does. Sign language would drown them out. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David could have built a sitcom episode around them. Over the three years that Gilmore and Jeffery were roommates at the University of South Carolina, the pitter-patter of a mouse’s feet across their floor must have sounded like a stampede.
They keep in touch, texting here and there. Gilmore has a wife and two children. Jeffery has a daughter. Free time, even in the offseason, is spare. But there has been and will be no texting, no contact of any kind, between them ahead of Sunday’s Eagles-Patriots matchup at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I wish him the best every week,” Gilmore said here Monday inside the Patriots’ locker room at Gillette Stadium, “except this week.”
It was the same way throughout the days leading into Super Bowl LII, during the game itself, and during the moments afterward. They maintained radio silence for that entire week in Minnesota. They didn’t speak for most of the first half, when Jeffery caught three passes, including an acrobatic 34-yard grab for the game’s first touchdown, and they didn’t speak during the entire second half, when Gilmore covered Jeffery and held him without a reception. And when the game had ended and the Eagles’ 41-33 victory was complete, Jeffery celebrated with his teammates, and Gilmore walked off the field without a word. They haven’t spoken about the game since.
“Maybe,” Gilmore said, “when we’re done playing.”
Once they do reconnect, perhaps their friendship will allow Gilmore to get to the bottom of Jeffery’s regression this season. Both of them are 29 years old, presumably at the peak of their careers. Yet while Gilmore, already a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is in the midst of his best season — he has three interceptions, was named the NFL’s defensive player of the month for October, and is a candidate to be the league’s defensive player of the year — Jeffery is in the midst of his worst. He dropped three passes in his previous game, the Eagles’ 22-14 win over the Bears. His yards-per-catch average, 10.4, is the lowest of his eight NFL seasons. And speculation has swirled that he has been anonymously criticizing Carson Wentz to an ESPN reporter.
In fairness to Jeffery, it is possible that he is playing through an injury — one serious enough to hamper him but not so severe that it would keep him off the field. He didn’t miss any of the Eagles’ 19 regular-season and playoff games in 2017-18, even though he had torn his right rotator cuff during training camp, and it was common for him in college to suit up in spite of whatever injury happened to be nagging him at a particular time.
“He hated the training room,” Steve Spurrier Jr., who was Jeffery’s position coach at South Carolina, said in a recent phone interview. “I used to tell him, ‘Listen, you need to get treatment. They’re there to help take care of you.’ And he just didn’t want to go. And I said, ‘OK, if you’re going to keep playing, you’re going to keep playing.’ And he always managed to.
“He’d have a little sprain or something bothering him, and he didn’t want to talk about it. ‘I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m good to go.’ He was always a very tough kid, always kept it quiet if something was bothering him. You really didn’t know if he was hurting at all because he had that similar expression. He was always ready to go play.”
Gilmore has paid little attention, he said, to Jeffery’s struggles this season. “Obviously, he’s a good player, capable of making big plays,” Gilmore said. After the Miami Dolphins hired Brian Flores to be their head coach and Flores’ replacement, Greg Schiano, resigned after a month to “spend more time on (his) faith and family,” the Patriots were left without a defensive coordinator, meaning Bill Belichick has presumably taken on more hands-on control and direction of the unit. Life in the New England machine tends to be all-consuming anyway, but especially now.
“I’ve got a great coach,” Gilmore said. “He prepares you each and every week. All you’ve got to do is listen. He’ll give you the answers to the test.”
When asked whether Jeffery would be his coverage assignment this Sunday, Gilmore smiled slyly and said, “We’ll see. Whatever Coach wants.” He wouldn’t discuss the topic further. His friend ought to be used to that.