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A look back at story lines is telling

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 5, 2008
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Things move so fast these days, sometimes it's easy to forget to look back.

When the Patriots gathered for the start of training camp in late July, there were story lines aplenty. The weather was toasty, the sting of falling just shy of an undefeated season resonated among players, and one of the more prevalent questions was whether the team could avoid the "Curse of the Super Bowl Loser."

Now that the team has hit the midpoint of its regular season - at 5-3, and in a three-way tie for the top spot in the AFC East - how have the top camp story lines unfolded?

A look back at the key issues then, and how they've been answered:

1. Who replaces Asante Samuel?

The top question then remains a pressing concern today. The Patriots have not filled the void left by Samuel's departure to the Eagles, which has led to second-guessing of the team's decision-making process. It started with free agent signee Fernando Bryant (cut before the season). Veteran Lewis Sanders started on opening day before fellow free agent Deltha O'Neal stepped in, but O'Neal hasn't made anyone forget about Samuel. Rookie Terrence Wheatley started at the spot Sunday night and showed some early promise before leaving with a left hand injury that looked serious as trainers held his arm en route to the locker room.

2. How will first-round pick Jerod Mayo progress?

Much discussion centered on how complex the Patriots' defense was for a rookie linebacker, so it was unclear how much Mayo, the 10th overall selection in the draft, would contribute. Yet he was thrown into the mix as an opening-day starter and played every snap in the first two games, showing the athleticism, versatility, and smarts to be part of every package. On the season, he has played in 84 percent of the defensive snaps, which is more than everyone but linebacker Adalius Thomas and safety James Sanders. Mayo leads the team with 65 tackles and is a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

3. Can the defense get over the hump?

The 2006 season ended with the Colts driving for a late fourth-quarter touchdown in the AFC Championship game, while 2007 had a similar ending with the Giants marching down the field for what turned out to be the winning score in the Super Bowl. Because of that, it was suggested there could be some schematic changes to help the defense close the deal, while the possibility of fusion between Bill Belichick-based and Dom Capers-based schemes was broached. However, there have been no major changes, and the defense as currently constituted has looked more vulnerable than in the last two seasons.

4. The right side of the offensive line.

It was unclear how much the Patriots could count on starting right tackle Nick Kaczur, who was arrested in April in possession of more than 200 OxyContin pills. Meanwhile, starting right guard Stephen Neal had been knocked out of the Super Bowl with a knee injury and has battled shoulder issues. Ironically, Kaczur ended up being one of the team's sturdiest linemen in training camp as the club dealt with a variety of injury issues, and he's currently locked in as a starter. Neal opened the year on the physically-unable-to-perform list, with Billy Yates stepping in. Now Neal is back, and Belichick said yesterday he is the starter.

5. Is Richard Seymour ready to roll?

In the offseason, five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour talked about how happy he was to be healthy again, and he hoped to return to top form. He battled through an arm injury in 2006 and a knee injury in 2007, which contributed to seasons that were well below the standard he had set. A man of his word, Seymour has returned to his dominating self, with four sacks (second on the team), a team-high nine quarterback hits, and 32 tackles.

6. Would the third year be the charm for Chad Jackson?

With Donté Stallworth having joined the Browns in free agency, the No. 3 receiver spot was there for the taking, and the Patriots surely were hoping that Jackson, a 2006 second-round pick, would seize it. But Jackson and Tom Brady never seemed to be on the same page, and Jackson - one of the few forgettable high draft choices of Belichick and Scott Pioli's nine-year tenure - was released before the season.

7. The backup quarterback competition.

The No. 2 quarterback spot seldom makes for sizzling headlines, but Patriots followers have discovered the position's importance. In camp, Matt Cassel was battling Matt Gutierrez and Kevin O'Connell to retain his spot as the top backup, and he didn't have a great preseason. Yet the Patriots stuck with him, and when Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener, it seemed fair to ask: Did the Patriots give themselves enough insurance at the most important position? Cassel, to the surprise of many, has proven to be up to the task.

8. The health of the top running backs.

Both Laurence Maroney (shoulder) and Sammy Morris (sternum clavicle separation) were coming off seasons in which they were sidelined, but they expressed optimism upon their return to health. Turns out both wound up back where they started, Maroney on injured reserve (shoulder) and Morris shelved the last two games with a knee injury. Meanwhile, LaMont Jordan has been sidelined the last four contests with a right quadriceps injury.

9. Recovering tight ends.

Benjamin Watson was coming back from offseason ankle surgery, while No. 2 option David Thomas had played in just two games last season because of a broken foot. While neither has been a significant factor as a pass-catcher, they've quietly been effective blockers.

10. Brandon Meriweather's development.

Did the Patriots strike out with their 2007 first-round draft choice? That's what some wondered after Meriweather went all of last season without starting a game. When he did play, he dropped some would-be interceptions. Meriweather since has taken some major strides and is now a full-time starter, since Rodney Harrison sustained a season-ending quad injury Oct. 20.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

Things move so fast these days, sometimes it's easy to forget to look back.

When the Patriots gathered for the start of training camp in late July, there were story lines aplenty. The weather was toasty, the sting of falling just shy of an undefeated season resonated among players, and one of the more prevalent questions was whether the team could avoid the "Curse of the Super Bowl Loser."

Now that the team has hit the midpoint of its regular season - at 5-3, and in a three-way tie for the top spot in the AFC East - how have the top camp story lines unfolded?

A look back at the key issues then, and how they've been answered:

1. Who replaces Asante Samuel?

The top question then remains a pressing concern today. The Patriots have not filled the void left by Samuel's departure to the Eagles, which has led to second-guessing of the team's decision-making process. It started with free agent signee Fernando Bryant (cut before the season). Veteran Lewis Sanders started on opening day before fellow free agent Deltha O'Neal stepped in, but O'Neal hasn't made anyone forget about Samuel. Rookie Terrence Wheatley started at the spot Sunday night and showed some early promise before leaving with a left hand injury that looked serious as trainers held his arm en route to the locker room.

2. How will first-round pick Jerod Mayo progress?

Much discussion centered on how complex the Patriots' defense was for a rookie linebacker, so it was unclear how much Mayo, the 10th overall selection in the draft, would contribute. Yet he was thrown into the mix as an opening-day starter and played every snap in the first two games, showing the athleticism, versatility, and smarts to be part of every package. On the season, he has played in 84 percent of the defensive snaps, which is more than everyone but linebacker Adalius Thomas and safety James Sanders. Mayo leads the team with 65 tackles and is a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

3. Can the defense get over the hump?

The 2006 season ended with the Colts driving for a late fourth-quarter touchdown in the AFC Championship game, while 2007 had a similar ending with the Giants marching down the field for what turned out to be the winning score in the Super Bowl. Because of that, it was suggested there could be some schematic changes to help the defense close the deal, while the possibility of fusion between Bill Belichick-based and Dom Capers-based schemes was broached. However, there have been no major changes, and the defense as currently constituted has looked more vulnerable than in the last two seasons.

4. The right side of the offensive line.

It was unclear how much the Patriots could count on starting right tackle Nick Kaczur, who was arrested in April in possession of more than 200 OxyContin pills. Meanwhile, starting right guard Stephen Neal had been knocked out of the Super Bowl with a knee injury and has battled shoulder issues. Ironically, Kaczur ended up being one of the team's sturdiest linemen in training camp as the club dealt with a variety of injury issues, and he's currently locked in as a starter. Neal opened the year on the physically-unable-to-perform list, with Billy Yates stepping in. Now Neal is back, and Belichick said yesterday he is the starter.

5. Is Richard Seymour ready to roll?

In the offseason, five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour talked about how happy he was to be healthy again, and he hoped to return to top form. He battled through an arm injury in 2006 and a knee injury in 2007, which contributed to seasons that were well below the standard he had set. A man of his word, Seymour has returned to his dominating self, with four sacks (second on the team), a team-high nine quarterback hits, and 32 tackles.

6. Would the third year be the charm for Chad Jackson?

With Donté Stallworth having joined the Browns in free agency, the No. 3 receiver spot was there for the taking, and the Patriots surely were hoping that Jackson, a 2006 second-round pick, would seize it. But Jackson and Tom Brady never seemed to be on the same page, and Jackson - one of the few forgettable high draft choices of Belichick and Scott Pioli's nine-year tenure - was released before the season.

7. The backup quarterback competition.

The No. 2 quarterback spot seldom makes for sizzling headlines, but Patriots followers have discovered the position's importance. In camp, Matt Cassel was battling Matt Gutierrez and Kevin O'Connell to retain his spot as the top backup, and he didn't have a great preseason. Yet the Patriots stuck with him, and when Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener, it seemed fair to ask: Did the Patriots give themselves enough insurance at the most important position? Cassel, to the surprise of many, has proven to be up to the task.

8. The health of the top running backs.

Both Laurence Maroney (shoulder) and Sammy Morris (sternum clavicle separation) were coming off seasons in which they were sidelined, but they expressed optimism upon their return to health. Turns out both wound up back where they started, Maroney on injured reserve (shoulder) and Morris shelved the last two games with a knee injury. Meanwhile, LaMont Jordan has been sidelined the last four contests with a right quadriceps injury.

9. Recovering tight ends.

Benjamin Watson was coming back from offseason ankle surgery, while No. 2 option David Thomas had played in just two games last season because of a broken foot. While neither has been a significant factor as a pass-catcher, they've quietly been effective blockers.

10. Brandon Meriweather's development.

Did the Patriots strike out with their 2007 first-round draft choice? That's what some wondered after Meriweather went all of last season without starting a game. When he did play, he dropped some would-be interceptions. Meriweather since has taken some major strides and is now a full-time starter, since Rodney Harrison sustained a season-ending quad injury Oct. 20.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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