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Ask Reiss: Patriots Mailbag

Perfect questions

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / January 1, 2008
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Mike Reiss

Are the Patriots the greatest team of all time?

After posting a 16-0 record in the regular season, that's the question that leads off this week's mailbag.

But before we get to this week's overflowing 'bag, we should note that the Patriots' draft position has been solidified for the 2008 first round. The pick acquired from the San Francisco 49ers will be seventh overall. That was a popular question when the regular season ended.

A few e-mailers also were curious why Patriots cornerbacks don't switch sides. This comes after Saturday night's game in which Ellis Hobbs was locked on Plaxico Burress for much of the contest. Why not put Asante Samuel there? This is something we'll explore later in the week, as I don't have the answer at this time.

All in all, it was a great regular season. Thanks to everyone who wrote in throughout the year, and we'll look forward to continuing with the mailbag throughout 2008. Happy New Year to all, and on to the questions ...

Mike, what an unbelievable season. Wow! I was wondering why the media don't think this team is the greatest of all time despite it being the salary cap era? I mean, with Brady at the helm their winning percentage over the past several years has to be off the charts. Do you know how they compare to the great Steelers, Niners, and Cowboys teams over a similar period of time? Everyone I know keeps asking the same question, yet the media never address it.
Rob Sandler, Bourne

A: I think there are a few factors in play here, Rob. First, I don't think it's a universal opinion shared by all media members that this is, or isn't, the greatest team of all time. I hear mixed opinions in that regard. Second, I think the greatest teams are ultimately judged by Super Bowl championships. So from where I sit, this is how I see it: The Patriots just put together the greatest regular season in NFL history, even better than the '72 Dolphins because it was done in the salary cap era when parity is supposed to create an equal playing field. Yet whether they will be known as the greatest team of all time will be determined over the next three games, because I do believe that the greatest teams are measured by Super Bowl championships. As for how the Patriots' run compares to the Steelers, Niners, and Cowboys, I think it's apples to oranges, because the implementation of the salary cap in the early 1990s changed the game and the way teams are built. The Steelers, Niners, and Cowboys put together their runs before the cap was either implemented or truly affected teams.

Regular reader, first-time questioner, Mike. Two things: First, am I correct that no Patriot running back or receiver has lost a fumble this year? I can't remember an instance, and if this is so it seems an amazing and unnoticed record for the season. The second question is whether you agree that --- despite the one-game-at-a-time mantra -- the Pats were performing under a lot of pressure that had to have taken a toll on them at times during the last month of the quest for an unbeaten season, whereas now in the playoffs the pressure will be less of a burden. The reason is because they've been here before and the other team will be in the same win-or-go-home situation, but with the added pressure of feeling they have to play mistake-free football to beat the Pats.
Evan Carton, Austin, Texas

A: Thanks for reading the 'bag and taking the time to write, Evan. One of the reasons I enjoy putting it together each week is that e-mailers often bring to light areas of the team that are overlooked, such as this inquiry on fumbles. The Patriots had 14 fumbles this season (6 lost to the opposition) and they broke down this way: Tom Brady (6), Wes Welker (3), Troy Brown (1), Matt Cassel (1), Kevin Faulk (1), Ellis Hobbs (1) and Benjamin Watson (1). The lost fumbles came from Brady (4), Brown (1) and Hobbs (1), so you are correct, no running back or receiver lost a fumble (Brown's was a punt return). As for the second part of the question, I look at it differently. I agree that the Patriots were under intense pressure during the regular season. I think that pressure only intensifies for them to turn 16-0 into 19-0.

I'm fed up with Bob Kuchenberg, Don Shula, and, especially, Mercury Morris trying to downplay the accomplishments of the 2007 New England Patriots. Morris, in particular, has said that if the Patriots win the Super Bowl that they will join the 1972 Dolphins on the top of the mountain. Given the cap era and the new rules, the number of games they will have played, the records they have set, and the records of the teams they conquered put the Patriots just a few steps from defining what the NFL equivalent of Everest. The '72 Dolphins are just a bunch of crybabies sitting on Hush-a-Bye Mountain. Your thoughts?
Vince Chase, Winchester, N.H.

A: After the Patriots capped off the 16-0 season, many writers were up in the Giants Stadium press box when a sheet of '72 Dolphins quotes were distributed for use in the next day's newspapers. To be honest, I couldn't believe what I was reading. I take the remarks of Kuchenberg and Morris with a grain of salt because it's clear they are not objective, but it was the comments from Don Shula which caught my eye the most. Shula said: "If they go on to complete an undefeated season, I will be the first to congratulate Coach Belichick and the Patriot organization." While many just realized history had been made in one of the great nights in NFL history, I interpreted Shula's comments as minimizing what had just taken place. I was surprised he said it. The Patriots beat six playoff teams, with three of those wins coming on the road. Last I checked, the Dolphins beat two teams with over .500 records in 1972. The Patriots won 16 regular-season games, the '72 Dolphins just 14. So when I look at the overall picture, and some of the comments that have been made by some members of the '72 Dolphins this year, I think it borders on ridiculous and classless.

Doesn't NFL consider the weather conditions this time of the year before scheduling the games? The reason I ask is why is the Patriots playoff game scheduled at 8 p.m.? Looks like all NFL cares is about money by scheduling this at prime-time.
Narayan, Providence

A: You nailed it, Narayan. When the NFL decided to simulcast Saturday night's finale against the Giants, the rationale was that it was best for the fans. That same rationale, however, doesn't apply in the scheduling of games. It's another reminder that the NFL is big business.

Is there a chance that Vince Wilfork will be suspended for the poke?
Brian S.

A: I don't think Wilfork will be suspended, but I do expect he will be fined. The league is expected to review the play this week.

After Moss made the 65-yard record breaking touchdown, one of the Patriots in the end zone congratulating Moss was number 75, Vince Wilfork. What was he doing there? Is that illegal?
Ahmed

A: Wilfork was running onto the field because he is a member of the field-goal/extra point unit. So it wasn't as if he left the bench area to celebrate. Figuring the Patriots would kick the extra point, he was instead getting ready to block before taking a detour to congratulate Moss. Turns out the Patriots went for a 2-point conversion and Wilfork retreated to the sideline.

Late in the third quarter, right before Maroney's first touchdown, the Pats were flagged for an illegal formation call on the 1-yard line. After the TD, I replayed the penalty again and it appeared to me that they had seven guys on the line with tight ends on both ends of the line (Spach on left, Watson on right). Vrabel was the third TE, and was in motion on the play. Did he forget to declare himself eligible? Can you explain why this formation was illegal?
Steve Guidice

A: The officials deemed that Vrabel did not declare himself eligible. Judging by his reaction on the field, Vrabel felt he did declare himself eligible. Because he has a number in the 50s, which is not given to eligible receivers, Vrabel has to "check in" with the officials each time he comes on as a tight end. The referee then announces twice that "50 is reporting as eligible, 50 is reporting as eligible" so the defense is made aware. The referee also brings both hands from the top of his chest to his belt as he makes the announcement, which is designed to let the defense know the player has checked in as eligible. The same situation occurs when offensive linemen like Ryan O'Callaghan and Wesley Britt play tight end. This is an interesting situation to me because there can certainly be some gray area. A player can think he's made eye contact with the official to check in, but in fact, perhaps it didn't happen. I asked Britt about this last week and he said he makes sure the official knows by getting directly into his field of vision, and making sure he receives a verbal acknowledgement that he has checked in to the game.

Hi, Mike, I thought Bill Belichick quoted Bill Parcels on "meaningless games" in the post-game comments, but I didn't see them in your blog entry. Can you please post the entire BB's post-game interview? Thanks.
Thiru Bazar, Nashua, N.H.

A: Here is the comment that Belichick made in the post-game press conference: "I'd go back to something that the coach that I worked for used to say, and I certainly believe every word of it. What Bill [Parcells] said was 'There are no meaningless games when you're playing them. When we're playing in a game, it means something to us.' I know it meant something to the Giants, too. It might not mean anything to you, it might not mean anything to the standings, but if you're playing in it, you're a competitor, it means something to you. I think that was reflected out on the field today."

Mike, can you explain the fourth-quarter holding penalty on Toomer that caused the Giants to go from second and 5 to second and 7? Isn't offensive holding a 10 yard penalty?
PHG

A: Because the holding came 8 yards past the line of scrimmage, the penalty is marked off from the spot of the infraction. The original line of scrimmage was the 29-yard line. The penalty came at the 37. So they marked off the 10 yards from the 37.

I saw Tom Brady finished the season with a 117.2 passer rating. Where does this rank all time? I know he didn't break the completion percentage record, but did he take the passer rating record?
Edvin Jenssen, Trondheim, Norway

A: This ranks second all time, behind Peyton Manning, who had a 121.1 rating in the 2004 season. Yet the interesting part of this is that when comparing Brady's 2007 stats to Manning's 2004 stats, Brady had more completions, a higher completion percentage, more yards, more touchdowns, and fewer interceptions.

What happened to or who got to keep the record breaking TD ball for Moss and Brady? Is it off to the Hall of Fame?
Dan Faria, Atlanta

A: On his weekly radio interview on WEEI, I believe that Brady said the two agreed that one of them will get the ball that tied each record, and the other will get the ball that broke each record. Brady indicated he would get the record-tying ball, while Moss would get the record-breaking ball.

How ridiculous was Rodney Harrison's unsportsmanlike penalty near the end of the Giants game? I noticed he was pulled from the game before the flag even hit the ground. You have to love his competitiveness but enough is enough. That was simply a stupid penalty on his part. Obviously it didn't hurt the team during this game but you wonder if his emotions will cost them a game when it really matters.
Tony Dente, Manchester, N.H.

A: Bad penalty. Inexcusable. At the same time, I'm going to cut Harrison some slack, and here is why: First, he has had a remarkable season. Let us not forget there was plenty of question entering this year if Harrison could still be effective, yet he has been immense, specifically in eliminating top-tier opposing tight ends. Second, Harrison lost the chance to play in the 2006 postseason when he was injured in the regular-season finale, and I'm sure that was on his mind when he felt the Giants were taking their chippy play too far. As a 14-year veteran, he only has a few more cracks at the postseason, and to have it taken away from him at this point, and after last year's experience, would have been devastating. So I guess what I'm saying is that I acknowledge that Harrison took a boneheaded, inexcusable penalty, and he should be held accountable for that, but I also understand how it could have escalated to that point in his mind.

It really seems like Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs have gotten shorter and shorter as the year progressed. Is it just me, or did he boom them into the end zone a lot more often at the start of the season? I'm worried about how the short kickoffs will affect them in the playoff run.
Ila Dawson, Centennial, Colo.

A: Interesting observation, and one that is on the mark, not just for Gostkowski but for all kickers around the league. This is a common trend, as kickoffs generally get shorter as the weather gets colder and the ball gets harder. Gostkowski has just one touchback in his last 46 kickoffs. With 15 touchbacks on the season, Gostkowski finished tied with fourth in the NFL, with Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski (22), Arizona's Neil Rackers (17), Tennessee's Rob Bironas (16) -- all warm-weather kickers -- leading the way.

On the kickoff following the excessive celebration penalty, what would have happened if the Patriots had kicked the ball out of bounds? Would the Giants have started on their own 40? If so, I think they should have done that since Gostkowski seemed to be having trouble getting distance on the previous kickoffs.
Christopher Horowitz, Wayland

A: It would have been 30 yards from where the Patriots kicked off. Since the Patriots were kicking off from their own 15, the Giants would have taken over at the New England 45. The Giants also would have had the option of taking the ball at the spot it went out of bounds.

The NFL network showed a shot of one the side judges patting down 2 OL (Dan Koppen and Ryan O'Callahan) on the shoulder pads. What was he checking for?
Yoni

A: I didn't see this, but I believe it was just the standard halftime check for illegal substances on jerseys. An offensive could gain a competitive advantage if his jersey included some kind of lubricant that made a defender's hands slip, so the officials generally check all players, in every game, both before and after the game.

Happy New Year Mike! 35 points to the Giants? Am I the only one concerned about the Pats defense? Anyone remember the second half of the AFC title game last year? Yikes!
Rick Magnani

A: I think there should be concern, although I would only pin 28 points on the defense, as the other seven came on a kickoff return. The areas that I identified after watching the game were: 1) Giving up the big play; 2) An inconsistent pass rush in the first half, which hurt the nickel and dime packages; 3) Inconsistent tackling. On the plus side, I thought the run defense was significantly improved from prior weeks. Mike, I'm sure you are getting this question a lot: We should know better by now to look too far ahead, but how could the Pats stop or at least slow down the Colts offense? Obviously, New England can make in-game adjustments successfully, but what if the Colts push them all over the field in the first few drives to mount a substantial lead?
Bevan Manson, Santa Monica Calif.

A: In the first meeting between the teams, the Patriots played a nickel package (five defensive backs) throughout the game. Safety Rodney Harrison was essentially a linebacker in the game, giving the Patriots a 4-3-like look. I think the team would have to do something similar again -- not the same thing, but something similar -- and what would concern me from the Patriots' perspective is that both the nickel and dime packages did not look great against the Giants. When you're playing the Colts, you have to get more speed on the field. I don't believe the Patriots can play their base 3-4 and be successful. That's why, assuming the teams do meet in the AFC Championship game, I think rookie Brandon Meriweather will be more of a factor than he was in the first game between the teams.

The Patriots proved Saturday night that they can beat everyone. We already know that the Colts can give them a good game in the playoffs if they have a full deck. If the Patriots meet the Colts in Foxboro with bad weather, do Patriots fans have anything to worry about? The Patriots can run with Maroney, but I think the game would be pretty low-scoring.
Jason Allen, Cambridge

A: Absolutely. I truly believe that if the Colts visit the Patriots in the AFC Championship, the game is a pick 'em, regardless of the conditions. I've followed the Colts closely this year, seeing them a couple of times in person, and I think they're better than they were last year. I would not be surprised if they come into Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots.

Wow! A perfect season! Holy Moly! Mike, what was up with that celebration penalty on Moss? I mean, come on, that seemed a little ridiculous, don't you think? It gave the Giants a great opportunity which they cashed in with that kick return touchdown and changed the complexion of the game. Didn't you think that the officiating was pretty poor for a game of this magnitude?
Mike Miller, Franklin

A: That call was poor, and I believe the NFL would acknowledge that. At the same time, I think the Giants have a legitimate gripe about the fourth-quarter penalty on Amani Toomer that came on a kickoff. It was a phantom call on the sideline. Overall, I thought the officiating was just OK. Those penalty calls were glaring, and hurt both teams. Ultimately, the calls seemed to even out.

Mike, over the years I have seen Russ Hochstein come up big in games where he substituted for a starter. But this past game against the Giants was about as bad a game as I have seen any Patriots lineman play. Time after time Hochstein was pushed back on his heels and overpowered. On other plays he missed his assignment, i.e. the middle blitz for a sack. I don't know if he is chipped up or if he simply had a bad day. I fear for Brady's health if Hochstein does not improve his play in the middle. On the other hand I thought O'Callahan did quite well even though he may not be as athletic as Kaczur. What are your thoughts on the line play on the right side?
Ling Wong, Duxbury

A: Those guys hung in there, Ling, and to me it was a valiant effort. I'm sure Hochstein had a few missed assignments -- the blitz that resulted in the Giants' lone sack looked like his miss -- but I have to tip my cap to those five guys up front. They were playing a Giants team that led the NFL in sacks (52) and held them to one. They were back on their heels at times and Brady absorbed a few hits, but they hung in there against relentless pressure. I'd define it as a scrappy effort. And in the end, when they needed to create time for Brady to hit Moss on that remarkable 65-yard touchdown pass, they came through big-time. The Giants rushed five on that play and they held their ground long enough for Brady to step up and deliver that gem of a throw. I'm not saying Hochstein and the line were perfect -- and I am the first to say that Brady made a few plays on his own to make the line look good -- but as I watched the game unfold I found myself having great respect for the way the line battled and scrapped. They are truly a tough unit. I can't say enough about them.

I know it's too soon to be thinking about next season, but are the Pats going to figure out a way to sign Randy Moss next year? Don't you think he'd rather stay with Brady and win more rings than take huge bucks to play elsewhere?
David Sobel, Los Angeles, Calif.

A: I don't think anything has changed in this situation. The Patriots want Moss and I think Moss wants to be with the Patriots. As we've talked about all year, I would be surprised if it doesn't work out.

I was at the game on Saturday and sat in the end zone. I noticed on multiple occasions Heath Evans split out to the right? Why do you think that occurred?
Sean Brennan, Medford

A: I spoke with Steve DeOssie about this the other day. I really respect Steve's opinions because he's played the game, and he explained to me that it was all about creating matchups and dictating what personnel the Giants would utilize. Because Evans is usually a player who usually lines up in tight, mostly as a lead blocker, when the Giants saw him come onto the field they would have stayed with their base personnel. Yet by splitting him out wide in a 2 WR/1 TE/1 FB/1 RB look - and specifically taking advantage of Benjamin Watson's unique receiver-like skills -- it can turn a run-based package into more of a passing package. In essence, Evans' presence seemed to be more of a decoy to dictate the personnel the Giants put on the field. The Patriots probably never intended to throw him the ball. Yet by putting him on the field in that package, they dictated the personnel the Giants utilized, and then were able to morph into what was essentially a 3 WR look with Moss, Welker, and Benjamin Watson playing receiver-like roles.

The Pats were great in all areas of the game Saturday, except for one. No Pressure on Manning. Do you think this was due to the size of the O-line for the Giants, or the scheme employed by the G-men? Even on the interception, no pressure, Manning made the blunder. Your thoughts?
Ernie

A: I thought the lack of pressure was mostly a result of the Giants' line stonewalling the Patriots' rush. The Patriots rushed five early -- that technically is a blitz -- but still couldn't get there. That's why I didn't think it was the best game for Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green, the players counted on to get push up front in nickel and dime packages. It wasn't until the team adjusted and began bringing six rushers that the pressure started to pick up. So I have to give credit to the Giants first. Then I would give credit to the Patriots for making an in-game adjustment to turn up the pressure by sending a sixth rusher.

Of the possible teams the Patriots could face in the second round, which one do you believe would provide the best matchup? Additionally, what source (website, magazine, etc) provides the most complete and accurate salary cap and contract information?
Simon Zelazo, Florida, Mass.

A: The best matchup in terms of an exciting game, I'd say the Jaguars. As for the best source for the most complete and accurate salary cap and contract information, I recommend patscap.com. It is put together by a devoted Patriots fan named Miguel. While he acknowledges the numbers aren't 100 percent accurate because they are culled together from various published reports, he is very detailed and the site is unlike any other I've seen.

Mike, I saw a statistic during a pats game a while back on one of the networks that said the Patriots were something like 82-1 with Tom Brady as quarterback when they get a 4th quarter lead. If that is true the only lost must be last years AFC championship game. I think. Is this a true stat that you know of? It would be 90 or more now I think as it was a eight or nine games ago.
Bill

A: Not sure if this is what you are looking for but since 2001, when Brady took over as quarterback, the Patriots have a regular-season record of 70-1 when leading after three quarters. We'd have to go through the playoffs to add in those numbers, but I think the regular-season record gives a pretty indication of how well the Patriots have closed games under Brady.

I thought Meriweather had a breakout game against the Giants. The guy was an absolute monster on special teams -- his hits reminded me of Rodney Harrison circa 2004. My question is this. With Sanders and Meriweather on the rise, another couple good seasons from Rodney still in the tank, and the possibility of re-signing Eugene Wilson, do the Pats really even need to "replace" Asante in the offseason? Is it realistic to cover up for average CBs with an outstanding safety corps? Could Wilson and Meriweather possibly play as big corners in zone coverages?
Craig, Netherlands

A: I would separate Meriweather's performance on special teams (4 tackles) from his performance on defense (3 tackles). I agree that he was a monster on special teams, but I'm not as sure about his defense. On the whole, I don't think I'd subscribe to the theory that Samuel could be easily replaced.

We've seen you say it before that mid 1st rounders carry more dollar value than top of the 1st round players. In your opinion, are the Patriots in an optimal drafting position in this draft or is this pick still too high? Also, does the team keep the pick or actively try to trade it?
Mike McWherter, Rowlett, Texas

A: I still think it's a little rich. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was drafted seventh last year, reportedly received a six-year, $40.5 million contract with $17 million in bonuses/guarantees. I wouldn't be surprised if they keep the pick, but would fully expect them to be actively involved in trade talks.

Most of the year you've been high on Pierre Woods but he hasn't played much. Is it a Bruschi situation where playing LB in the Pats defense takes a couple of years to pick up or do you think it might be a situation where Pees/Belichick don't think he's talented enough to make a contribution outside of special teams?
Lance M., Brookline

A: Woods has been on the field for a few snaps the last few weeks. Maybe it's a bit tough on him, but I was disappointed in one of his two snaps against the Dolphins, when he failed to set the edge on a Jesse Chatman 10-yard rush in the third quarter. The run came directly over his side. Overall, I just don't think the coaching staff feels he's ready, but I do believe there is still a feeling he can one day contribute on defense.

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