The Patriots will have some off-field holes to fill this offseason
This week's mailbag is focused on the coaching staff, and how the Patriots will fill the void left by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' departure to become Denver Broncos head coach.
With the Patriots also not expected to have special teams coach Brad Seely and special assistant/secondary coach Dom Capers returning in 2009 - and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli possibly being hired to run the Kansas City Chiefs' football operation - the Patriots are looking at some significant holes.
Thus, the complexion of the team's offseason has changed a bit, putting some added pressure on head coach Bill Belichick to make important off-field decisions.
On to the questions.
Mike, any idea about who are potential replacements for McDaniels at offensive coordinator?
A: I can only hypothesize, Matt, as I don't have any concrete answers about potential replacements. The first thing I'd say is that I don't think the Patriots' system will change, so the new coordinator is going to have to adjust to what is in place. That's why a notable name like a Mike Martz wouldn't likely be on the radar and also why I think an internal hire - or someone with a background in the team's system - is most likely. I'd think that receivers coach Bill O'Brien might be a possibility, and I wouldn't rule out Bill Belichick taking a more active role on offense. In addition to losing McDaniels as a coordinator, the Patriots must also replace his work with quarterbacks, which is a consideration here as well. Scot Loeffler, a former Michigan assistant who was with the Lions and was just hired as a quarterbacks coach at Florida, was someone the Patriots had expressed interest in the past. This is purely speculation on my part, but I wonder if he might still be a consideration for that type of QB role.
I was curious about the process by which Josh McDaniels was hired in Denver. Judging from Belichick's comments, it seems like he's been given the blessing of the organization on the way out. This seems to be more along the lines of the Crennel departure and opposite to the Mangini departure. I vaguely remember Belichick not wanting Mangini to take the Jets job because better opportunities would come up. Was Belichick just sour on the Jets organization (understandably, considering how he left them), because the Jets are in the same division or because he felt that Mangini wasn't ready and was trying to look out for him? In the same breath, does that mean that 32-year-old McDaniels is more ready than Mangini was at 35? Or is it because Belichick respects the Broncos organization that much more?
A: My interpretation, Walter, is that Belichick and the Patriots did give McDaniels their blessing. I think part of it is that McDaniels went through the process in an up-front way. When I think back to the Mangini situation, I don't recall Belichick being upset that Mangini went to the Jets. I think it was more that Mangini was recruiting staff members to join him. I don't believe Belichick's glowing comments about McDaniels had anything to do with him being seen as more ready than Mangini was at the time.
Hey Mike, any insight into what the future communication between Josh McDaniels and Belichick will be? Does Josh call Bill and ask for advice? Does Bill give him any advice? Or does Bill say, "You're the enemy now, I'm not giving you any help?" Seems like they got along fine, but I don't really see Belichick as the type of guy to help anyone on the outside.
Bruce W., Minneapolis, Minn.
A: Bruce, I don't envision much advice-sharing as they are now competitors, but I'd call them respectful competitors. I'd envision it would be the type of situation that when they cross paths along the way - at NFL owners meetings, for example -- they'll probably end up at the hotel bar together.
Hey Mike, I realize this is a shot in the dark, but do you see there being ANY chance that Mike Shanahan would be willing to come on board as the Pats' offensive coordinator, if only for a year? It was my understanding he was going to take a year off and re-evaluate the coaching market next year, but he seems like he loves to coach and I think he and Bill Belichick have formed a bond over the years as two of the more tenured coaches in the league. I know the Pats usually like to promote from within, but this seems like the perfect time to make a splash, no?
A: That would be something, Jason, but I'd have to think it's the longest of shots. Shanahan is still getting paid extremely well as part of his old contract, and I can't imagine him coaching unless it's a head job. Another e-mailer tossed Florida coach Urban Meyer's name into the ring. That would be interesting, too, but I'd have to believe it's a longshot because why would he leave such a good (and lucrative) situation in Gainesville? Another e-mailer suggested former Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski and I don't see that happening either.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Scott Pioli is on his way to Kansas City. Have you heard of any attempts by the Patriots to keep him? Is there any dialogue whatsoever?
A: Sure, I believe that there has been dialogue, James. I just don't think it's been to the point that has resulted in stopping Pioli from pursuing this opportunity. Furthermore, one of my other feelings with Pioli - and this is just a hunch - is that he's sort of hit the ceiling here in New England. I'm not sure there is much more he can do in his role. That's why I think he'll ultimately end up in Kansas City, where he can expand his horizons a bit, assuming the sides can hammer out a contract.
Hi Mike, do you think that Scott Pioli leaving (if he leaves) is an indication that he thinks the Pats run may be over and he should ride out on top rather than after a couple of weak rebuilding years? Also, since the salary cap does not apply to management, and if he is that important, why don't the Krafts try to keep him by giving him a sick raise?
A: If Pioli does leave, Mardak, and I see the signs pointing in that direction, I don't think it would have anything to do with him thinking that the Patriots' run may be over. More than anything, I believe it would be a chance to run his own show and challenge himself professionally. As for the Krafts possibly giving him a "sick raise" to stay, I would imagine that would give Pioli pause and put him in a little bit of a conflict. On one hand, he'd have the idea of challenging himself and expanding his horizons, which is something Kansas City can offer to a level that New England can not. On the other hand, he would have added incentive to stay and continue to help build the Patriots and achieve a personal/family-type stability that is rare in today's NFL.
With Scott Pioli in talks of leaving the organization I can't help but ask how this would impact the Patriots offseason free agency moves as well as their draft process? What kinds of obligations would someone like Pioli have to his old employer (Patriots) as well as his new employer? Does all of Pioli's data and input leave with him or is that material property of the New England Patriots? He's been working on the draft and free agency for the past year while employed by Bob Kraft, so will the Patriots reap the benefits or would his new team? Obviously Pioli's allegiance would be with his new team but it seems tough to have a person in such a critical role walk away just before it's his turn to take center stage.
A: I think this answer has a few different layers, Andy. In terms of the information that Pioli and the Patriots' scouts have compiled, my general feeling is that it's probably similar to a playbook. The playbook stays behind, so the Patriots will have the information, but the contents and concepts of it also follow a coach/general manager to his new destination. In terms of how this would affect the Patriots, I think it's significant but not crippling. Thinking back to past years, most of the scouting work from the 2008 college season is done at this point, and now it's about updating and reviewing that information through the Senior Bowl, combine, interviews etc. So in that sense, I've generally felt that Pioli's most crucial work - when he's evaluated players and also overseen the scouts - came from the spring to the end of December. I would imagine that director of player personnel Nick Caserio, who is a strong candidate to replace Pioli should Pioli land in Kansas City, would take on a more active role.
This is about the defensive coordinator position. Since we brought in Dean Pees it seems like the Patriots have lost their ability to get off of the field in key situations -- in the 2006 AFC Championship game, 2007 Super Bowl and the second Jets game in 2008. All three games would or could have turned in the Patriots favor if they made the key stop to get the offense back on the field. Is there any talk of replacing Pees with Dom Capers or maybe even bringing back Romeo Crennel as the coordinator?
Peter T., Taylorsville, N.C.
A: Peter, I happen to think Pees is a solid coach and the Patriots - also given the other changes on the staff - should be glad to have him. Meanwhile, Capers isn't expected to be back with the Patriots in 2009. As for Crennel, friends close to him say that if he coaches this season it would have to be the perfect situation. The reason is that he still has three years left on his contract with the Cleveland Browns, and I just read that he might require hip surgery as well.
Hi Mike, can you help me understand, since 2001, how many Pats coaches have left New England to take jobs with more responsibility in other organizations (including college) compared to other NFL teams? It seems that New England has to deal with this added organizational issue more often than other teams (minus Oakland, which fires a coach every 72 hours). What is your opinion about how coaches from the New England organization perform when they take on more responsibility
again compared to coaches originating from other organizations?
Ian, San Francisco
A: It's a good question, Ian, and one that several e-mailers asked. I'm going to try to do some research in the coming weeks on this one, so I have a better answer. One of the thoughts that came to mind was Mike Holmgren's old Packers staff, which was plucked pretty clean back in the 1990s (e.g. Andy Reid being hired as Eagles head coach even though he was a position coach). As for my opinion of New England coaches and how they perform when they take on more responsibility elsewhere, I think those are all good coaches. Their records might not always reflect it, but I believe they are all good teachers - from Charlie Weis, to Romeo Crennel, to Eric Mangini.
What are the tenures of the current coaching staff (the staff remaining)? Do people make careers of the lower level positions (below offensive/defensive coordinators) or is everyone trying to become a head coach?
A: Absolutely, Isaac, some of these coaches make careers out of being position coaches. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is one example. He just finished his 25th Patriots season and 27th in the NFL and he's never been a permanent head coach (he did serve as an interim Patriots head coach in 1992). At this point, it's hard to imagine Scarnecchia becoming a head coach. On the flip side, there are some younger members of the staff who are ascending and could be considerations down the line.
In light of recent events regarding coaching/personnel staff, is there any form of compensation due to the Patriots for losing Josh McDaniels, Scott Pioli (which is now looking likely) and potentially Dom Capers?
Dave, Mexico City
A: Dave, there is no compensation to the Patriots in the case of McDaniels, as he received a promotion. As I understand it, the same would be true for Pioli, who would have final-say authority over football decisions. Capers is not a compensation type situation either.
Mike, Why shouldn't the Pats try to sign Cassel to a market value contract now instead of just slapping the franchise tag on him? Wouldn't his market value deal (4-5 years, $35-$40mm, $10-$15mm guaranteed?) be better from a cap standpoint this year - and make him much more tradable in the future? Would Cassel be opposed to this simply because he then can't decide his final destination? And who knows, maybe he would end up being THE guy here? Seems a much better way to go to me than promising him $14mm for one year. I am also in the camp that you AT LEAST have to see what Brady will bring
Why wouldn't you at least see what his market is?
Joe, New York
A: Joe, I think the biggest thing is determining what exactly is market value? From a player's perspective, I think the best way to gauge that is to hit the open market and have multiple teams negotiating with you. So I just don't see the motivation at this point for Cassel to sign the type of contract suggested - 4-5 years, $35-40 million, $10-14 guaranteed - when he can guarantee himself $14 million on a one-year deal. It seems to me like he would be selling himself short financially. So while I'd agree that a long-term deal with those terms seems like the way to go for the Patriots, I don't think it would be the way to go for Cassel with the terms suggested here.
Hey Mike, what are the most likely teams that the Patriots would consider a trade for Cassel? Detroit needs a QB and has two first-round draft picks this year. Minnesota is reported to be most interested in a deal, with maybe a first- and second-round draft pick. However at 18, their first round pick isn't as attractive as the Lions or 49ers.
A: I think there are two issues at play here, Paul. I believe the Patriots would consider most any team in a trade, perhaps minus AFC East foes Bills, Dolphins and Jets. So I think the bigger question is what teams would be interested in trading with the Patriots? When I hear Minnesota, I remind myself that they traded their first-round pick last year for defensive end Jared Allen. Assuming the Patriots would be seeking a first-round pick, would the Vikings really trade a No. 1 away for the second year in a row? I don't think so. But if the Vikings called, maybe the Patriots think a bit differently and ask if they'd be willing to part with someone like linebacker Chad Greenway. Carolina is another team that might need a quarterback (boy, did Jake Delhomme look bad against the Cardinals), but they don't have a first-round pick this year after trading it away in 2008. Maybe there is a player on their roster - say a package of defensive back Charles Godfrey and a second-round pick -- that might interest the Patriots. And while the Lions are unlikely to trade the first overall pick, perhaps they'd deal linebacker Ernie Sims. These were suggestions by a few e-mailers last week, and I thought they were quite insightful. When I assess the situation, I don't see any suitor really jumping out at me right now.
In last week's mailbag you mentioned that Rodney Harrison is rehabbing in hopes of playing again. Is he still under contract for the Patriots? If he can't play and ends up retiring what do you think his post-career plans are? I know recently he's dabbled in television and earlier in his career he indicated that he'd love to get into officiating. Do you think his officiating chances were hurt because of his HGH usage?
A: Harrison is an unrestricted free agent, Scott. Often times what happens to players at that point in their career is that they might be more inclined to wait to join a team until after training camp, or during the season. I could see Harrison taking that type of approach if his rehab goes well. As for his post-career plans, I asked Harrison about this and he's interested in both broadcasting and officiating. I don't think his HGH usage is an issue that would derail him.
Mike, it looks like Asante Samuel is having a big post-season. Did you ever sense some regret within the Patriots' organization that they never extended his contract when they had a chance to?
A: I've never heard them say that, Rob, I've just assumed that they feel that way. Given that the gap between the sides was a few million in 2006 - which would have been when Samuel was extending his deal with a year-plus to go on it - it would have naturally been a better move than paying him the franchise-tag figure of $7.79 million and later seeing him leave in free agency.
Mike, I think an area for improvement that can be addressed this off-season is the strength conditioning of the young defensive backs. Take Brandon Meriweather, he made great strides this season understanding the defense and reacting to plays based on good coaching and instinct. However, too many times I noticed he made the right read, got to the play, but couldn't fully bring the man down, particularly on running plays involving a RB either at or just through the line. Assuming that their tackling technique is sound (based on good coaching), I think improving their off-season strength programs would make a noticeable difference for next year. I was encouraged this year about the progress the young DBs made and think with some added strength to compliment their skill level, they will continue to progress. Your thoughts?
A: I think you nailed it, Brian, and made a very astute point. I thought Brandon Meriweather came on strong at the end of the year, but his next challenge is to get a bit stronger so when he makes a hit, the player with the ball is going backwards. A bit too often, Meriweather surrendered some extra yards after the initial hit (e.g. third-and-15 in overtime with Jets tight end Dustin Keller).
Mike, what are the rules regarding compensatory picks? The Pats lost Eugene Wilson, Randall Gay, and Asante Samuel. Do you think they could wind up with a third-round selection for Samuel and maybe a 4th or 5th for Gay? Is there a chance that we could get a pick for Wilson who really seemed to pick it up at the end of the season with the Texans?
A: David, those compensatory draft choices are awarded based on a complex formula that includes contracts, production and playing time, while also factoring a team's net loss of compensatory free agents. I do think the Patriots will get at least one extra third-round pick. Those picks are usually awarded in March.
While I agree with a division winner making the playoffs over a team with a better W/L record (e.g. San Diego/N.E. in the AFC), I don't agree with that team selecting ahead in the NFL draft. Unless they make the Super Bowl, Arizona (9-7) or Philadelphia (9-6-1) will pick ahead of N.E. in the draft. The 12 teams that make the playoffs should be seeded 21-32 in the draft order. What are your comments Mike?
Andrew, The Bahamas
A: I agree with you, Andrew. It is a question I hope to ask at league meetings this year to see if it is under consideration for change. My feeling is that a team is benefiting from playing in a weaker division by making the playoffs (e.g. San Diego at 8-8), but they shouldn't be rewarded in the draft by picking ahead of non-playoff teams who had a better record.
Mike, I understand the Patriots first-round pick improved one slot in the order, thanks to Arizona and Philadelphia still being alive in the Super Bowl chase. I also know the Chargers' second-round pick, owned by the Pats will be about 16th in round two. Do the Patriots' own picks in rounds 2-7 improve a slot or so, following suit of the first-round pick improving one slot? Can you publish the definitive picking slots for every round soon after the Super Bowl is over?
Paul Charles Bibaud
A: Actually, Paul, the Patriots are part of a four-team cluster at 11-5 so they will be rotating picks with those teams in ensuing rounds (they'll be 23rd in the first round; 26th in the second round, 25th in the third round etc ). The Ravens are one of those 11-5 teams in the four-team cluster, so if they're in the Super Bowl, it would reduce to a three-team cluster. For sure, the plan will be to post the exact position of the draft picks when those are made available after the Super Bowl.
Can you explain to me why it is so important for the QB to point out the "Mike" at the line of scrimmage? What's the deal? What is the importance of a "mike" linebacker and what does the "mike" do?
A: Tom Brady once explained that he points out the "mike" linebacker to set the pass protection for the offensive line. So by identifying and communicating the mike linebacker, the blockers in front of him are all on the same page regarding the middle point of the defense and thus can have a better chance at carrying out their assignments successfully.
Does McDaniels' leaving open a spot for Troy Brown as receivers coach? Based on his strong work ethic as a player, and the respect he earned from his teammates, I'd think he'd be a good coach for Belichick to develop. Do you think he'd have an interest, and do you think he has the demeanor to succeed as a coach?
A: Gary, I remember Troy Brown being asked about possibly coaching, and if I recall, he said he wasn't interested in the grind that it would entail. It would keep him away from his family more than he desired.
Mike, a question on the NFL challenge rule. Basically, can a team challenge a non call? During the Tennessee/Baltimore game, the play clock obviously expired on Baltimore but no penalty was called. Could Tennessee have challenged that a penalty SHOULD have been called, and as a result make Baltimore replay the down with a penalty?
Andrew, The Bahamas
A: Andrew, that non-call could not have been challenged based on current instant-replay rules.
What are your thoughts on the Pats resigning Chris Hanson to the team next year. He did a solid job this year, especially in the wind in Buffalo. Will they try to keep him, or look for a less expensive option?
A: Hanson saved his best for last, Eric, as that punt in Buffalo was one of the best I've ever seen given the wind-whipped conditions. We know the Patriots have young punter Tom Malone already signed, and my hunch is that we'll see a veteran added to the roster to form a competition. I would think who that will be will be dictated in part by the Patriots' new special teams coach. I could envision Hanson returning.