Looking into the future
With the Patriots' season coming to an end in the AFC Championship game, this week's mailbag has a mix of looking back and looking ahead.
From this perspective, looking back, I don't think there was one specific reason for the breakdown in the second half of the championship game. From the coaches to the players, the Patriots broke down too many times in the second half, at the point in the game they have been so solid in past years. The team didn't handle its situational football well at the end of the game, and six second-half penalties all were daggers. The defense got tired, the offense couldn't sustain drives. And credit to the Colts, who took advantage.
Looking ahead, there are plenty of issues to discuss, and many fans are focusing on the status of cornerback Asante Samuel.
We'll get right to the questions.
Why did Belichick change the defense against the Colts? Why was Vrabel on the outside and the practically rookie linebacker Eric Alexander on the inside? We needed the experience on the inside and Alexander allowed that huge play to tight end Bryan Fletcher. I can't believe this. We wouldn't have allowed 38 points with Vrabel and Bruschi on the inside and Banta-Cain and Rosie Colvin on the outside. Bruschi could not cover Addai or Rhodes. What a disappointment. I can't see how this happened.
A: Here is Mike Vrabel's explanation for why the Patriots made the switch: "I think it gave us the best opportunity to set the edge over there on the left, and they weren't able to run much, and maybe get more pressure." I look at this decision as an indictment on Tully Banta-Cain, who finished without a tackle against the Chargers in the divisional round and was targeted by San Diego in that game. I'm sure the Patriots' coaching staff knew that was on film and figured the Colts would look to exploit it with their patented stretch running play, and decided to be proactive about it. In theory, the idea was sound, as Vrabel could set the edge, take away the stretch running play and apply pressure, while Alexander offered a faster alternative at linebacker, specifically in coverage. But as we know, theories don't win football games, plays and players do, and the Patriots just weren't good enough on Sunday night. Credit to the Colts for exploiting that part of the Patriots' defense. I thought Sunday night was one example of how the Patriots need an infusion of speed at linebacker.
I thought the Patriots had one of the better defenses in the league (and Belichick), but they couldn't stop the Colts at all in the second half. I know there were cramps and Rodney Harrison was missing, but that doesn't begin to explain what was wrong. So what was it? What do the Patriots need to do for next season to ensure this doesn't happen again? If we need new players ... which positions?
Antti Vanhanen, Helsinki, Finland
A: There is no one answer for this one, so I'm going to list a few of them. In watching the game again, I thought the coaching was slow to counter the Colts, as the team stayed in its base defense as Peyton Manning picked them apart up and down the field. Red-zone defense was another big part of it - the Colts were in four times and scored four touchdowns. The Patriots had been the second-rated team in the NFL in that area during the regular season, so that was a big part of it. Penalties were a big part of it - there were four, fourth-quarter penalties and I thought Richard Seymour had a killer neutral zone infraction in the third quarter, a play a Pro Bowler simply can't make to extend a drive on third and 5. And I'd also focus on the overall front seven - they were overpowered at the point of attack in the second half, and the linebackers were exploited in pass coverage. Looking ahead, much like the Patriots drafted Laurence Maroney to have younger, more athletic players to work with behind Corey Dillon, I think the team needs to do the same at linebacker.
I'll be the first to admit the Pats had plenty of opportunities to close this one out. I think it's ironic that as much whining as the Colts have done about pass interference and illegal contact in recent years, it was a blatant missed call of interference in the end zone with the score tied at 28 that ended up being a crucial play. I understand that officials will miss calls but something as wide open and egregious as that has to be called. Thoughts?
Jim Wojcik, Thetford Center, Vt.
A: That absolutely should have been pass interference in my estimation. At the same time, I don't think the officials cost the Patriots this game. Not even close. I think the Patriots cost the Patriots the game, and it's pretty much across the board - from the coaching to the players. I think this game is going to sit with these guys for a long time, because they take great pride in what they do, and when the chips were down, they couldn't come through. Costly penalties. Dropped passes. Mismanagement of the clock at the end of the game. It was a breakdown not often seen by this team, and again, it was across the board. On the flip side, I would take this opportunity to repeat something I've said at various times throughout the season - it's hard to win in the NFL, and this game drives the point home in the sense that the Patriots had not experienced such breakdowns in the past, which makes their past success that much more impressive to me.
On the Patriots' second to last possession on third and four, do you think coach Bill should have called a timeout to be sure and call a play that would not fail? Their season continues if they convert.
Brian, Centereach, NY
A: I had no problem with keeping the timeouts there, especially since the Colts had just called a timeout after the second-down play, so there was a break in the action anyway. I think the biggest misuse of the timeout came at the end of the game, when the Patriots let the clock run down after a Colts running play with 1:53 left, costing them 43 precious seconds. For a team that prides itself on situational football, that was egregious and I assume that Bill Belichick now regrets it. I've said it before that I think Belichick and his staff is the best in the NFL - and I still feel that way based on the last seven years of excellence -- but I don't think they put the team in the best position to win at the end of that game. If a less proven coach had made a similar decision, I think he would be taking a lot more heat.
I didn't see Rosie Colvin on the field at all in the 2nd half. Am I correct, and if so, what happened to him?
Todd, Austin, Texas
A: Colvin was on the field for a few plays, but took himself out of the game in the third quarter, and had his legs being worked on by the team's training staff. It looked to me like he was suffering from cramps.
The Patriots had a great run once again this year. And as I reflect on the season after the loss to the Colts, half of me is incredibly proud and satisfied with what this team accomplished. After all, they made to the championship game in what should have been a rebuilding year with all the talent lost to free agency and injury. However, the other half of me is extremely disappointed because we did not need to lose some of that talent. It did not have to be a rebuilding year. Windows of opportunity to win championships close quickly and that opportunity should be maximized. And I feel that Pats brass let us down in that regard. But do I really have anything to complain about. They did bring us three Super Bowl titles and that run may not be done. It could be much worse. I could be a Cardinals fan.
David Vanasse, Lewisville, Texas
A: I'm sure many in the Patriots' organization feel the same way. It was a tremendously rewarding season for them, but the way it ended was a bitter pill to swallow. Yet as for the personnel side, I tend to think this is a bit overstated. Outside of Adam Vinatieri and Deion Branch, I think the Patriots managed their personnel situation well. I said at the start of the year that the Vinatieri situation was a crusher, and it didn't turn out to hurt the team. So I was wrong on that one. As for Branch, that had a long-lasting impact on the team. But it looked to me like it wasn't a two-way street in negotiations, that Branch's side wasn't negotiating to consummate a deal. It's hard to get a deal done when the other side has a take-it-or-leave-it approach. As for windows of opportunity, I don't buy into that. The Patriots' mission is to contend each year, and I see them in position to do that. The window is still open. Very open, in fact.
While Sunday's loss surely still stings for the fans, players, and coaches, I just want to point out that it really was a great season. Considering all the offseason departures, roster turnover, and injuries that the team faced, making the AFC Championship game and coming up just short of the Super Bowl was truly an amazing feat. Congratulations to the team for a great year. Can't wait until year.
A: Here were chairman and CEO Robert Kraft's thoughts on the team's season, which he said before the AFC Championship game and were printed in the Boston Globe: "We just went 12-4. It's a shame we're not hosting this championship game here. To go 12-4, which is our second best record in our history - and to have our defense do what they did in terms of fewest point allowed - it's pretty special. I think maybe our fans take it a little bit for granted, especially in this age of the salary cap."
With all the sadness about Sunday's loss still heavy on our hearts I want to remind everyone about potential salt in the wounds if last year's contract issues are repeated this year. Specifically, I am concerned that we might lose Asante Samuel due to contractual disagreements. Have Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli learned that low-priced receivers kept him under the salary cap and out of the Super Bowl? I would hate to play against Samuel in the next few years. Ralph L. Cook, Denver, Pa.
A: I see it a little differently. In hindsight, I think the Patriots could have been more proactive in consummating a deal with Samuel when the market was at a more reasonable rate. But from a team perspective, if signing him to an ultra-rich contract means the team's overall depth takes a hit, then I think you have to think long and hard about whether you want to do that. Part of the Patriots' success has been having a strong roster from player 1-53, which has helped them overcome the numerous injuries they've had and maintain a strong team in all phases of the game. I don't anticipate the team straying too far from its philosophy in this regard, as the results have proven to be successful.
I thought Samuel played a great game. Can the Pats afford the loss of such a rising young player? Sometimes you have to pay the piper if you like the music.
David Curtin, Seattle
A: Here is my take on the Samuel situation: The time for striking a deal was during the season, when the price was still at a reasonable level. Now, Samuel's asking price has gone up. So from a team perspective -- and understanding that there is now the benefit of a full season to evaluate Samuel - I think it's fair to say the team wasn't proactive enough at that point in working to consummate a deal. All that being said, we all know negotiations are a two-way street, so this isn't just on the team's side. I think that's an important point. I'm not sure how hard Samuel's side worked to get the deal done either, perhaps angling Samuel for free agency. To sum it up, as part of the team-building and depth-building process, the Patriots can afford to lose Samuel if they replace him with not just a good cornerback, but two to three other solid players on the roster. In the past, they've been able to do that.
Hey Mike, I really enjoyed your blog throughout the season. I particularly enjoyed the Ups and Downs segments after the games. I would have added Todd Sauerbrun to my "Up" list. I thought he really boomed the ball in the game vs. Indy. Also, were you surprised the Pats elected to use Heath Evans over Chad Jackson or Dave Thomas in some of the personnel grouping that called for 4 and 5 wideouts? Unless I missed something I didn't notice this.
Smitty, Halifax, Nova Scotia
A: Thanks for the nice words, Smitty. I think Sauerbrun punted his way back into the league next year with his strong performance. He will be a free agent, and I think the Patriots will consider a switch at the position, replacing Josh Miller with Sauerbrun. As for the use of Heath Evans, coach Bill Belichick said yesterday on his weekly "Coffee with the Coach" appearance on Boston sports radio station WEEI on Monday that Kevin Faulk was dinged up on a special teams play, and that is what led to Evans taking more snaps in the team's three-wide package. The Patriots never went to a four-wide or five-wide set in the game.
Good Season, but now onto 2007. I read where the Pats have over $30 million in cap space for 2007. If that is the case, the exodus of good players must end. Asante Samuel should get the franchise tag. Daniel Graham and Heath Evans should be re-signed. If it makes economic sense, Tully Banta-Cain should be resigned. An impact linebacker (Lance Briggs) and possession receiver should be pursued. The draft should focus on linebackers and the defensive backfield. Last, Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau should be brought back. The team was one minute from going to another Super Bowl but is at a crossroads. By spending the cap money in a shrewd way and drafting wisely, the party should continue in the future. What do you think?
Bill Betley, Corona, Calif.
A: I haven't been able to pinpoint the figure in which the Patriots will be under the cap, as that hasn't been determined. But they should have space to maneuver. As for an exodus of good players, I'm a bit perplexed at the thought. I actually think the team has done a solid job keeping the majority of their core players, starting with quarterback Tom Brady and defensive lineman Richard Seymour. If you could pick any two players to keep, that's where I'd start. I'm not overlooking the departures of players like Deion Branch, Adam Vinatieri, David Givens and Willie McGinest, but I also understand you can't keep everyone. Pick one team in the league, and I can name key players that have left. Looking ahead, I'm not a big believer in spending off the charts in free agency, so I think the key word here is shrewd spending. Given that the numbers for Samuel are projected to be off the charts, I'd start with Graham, who would be my top priority. I think he's the best tight end on the team, and I don't think it's close. I'd also look long and hard at any available free-agent linebackers, although there is no certainty that a player like Briggs will hit the market.
Over the past several years the Pats have built a big strong defense that wants to play physical. And it worked. However at many times over the past 2 weeks the Pats defense seemed clearly overmatched by the fast, skilled offenses of San Diego and Indy. I think it is a testament to how disciplined a team they are to have been in a position to win both games late in the fourth quarter. My question is whether you think the coaching staff is going to have to change their defensive philosophy and start drafting/recruiting speed over size to continue to compete at the highest levels in the league? I think this is especially true at linebacker where several mismatches led to big plays.
Rick Delello, Lansdale, Pa.
A: I don't think the philosophy will change, Rick, because the defensive system has proven to work. But any system needs players, and I think you nailed it - they need an infusion of speed and youth, specifically at linebacker. I don't think it's as much as about size vs. speed as finding a talented player and fitting him into the system. For example, if a linebacker like Jonathan Vilma or Ernie Sims had been available to the Patriots in past drafts, I think the team would have taken them. They're not prototype 3-4 linebackers, but I think the team would have found a way to fit them into their system.
What do you think happened to Maroney the second half of the year. He looked extremely tentative when he was supposed to run the ball between the tackles, took way too long to hit the hole when he was given the ball and thus his runs very often resulted in negative yardage. Was he hurt or does he just not like the contact the comes with being an NFL running back?
Scott McBride, Pasadena, Calif.
A: I thought Maroney was the team's biggest disappointment coming down the stretch. That's the time when you need your playmakers to step up, and he stepped down. It could have been injury, as he had the torn rib cartilage from the Lions game Dec. 3, although we haven't had the chance to speak with him about that.
I heard the temperature during warmups at the RCA Dome was about 72 degrees and by game time it was near 86. If the Colts in fact turned up the heat is this some poor sportsmanship? We cannot make it snow?
Joe Sawhill, Des Moines, Iowa
A: There are some stories about the Celtics doing similar things in the old Boston Garden, from cold showers to no heat in the locker room. And since you're writing from Iowa, it made me think of former Iowa coach Hayden Frye painting the opposing locker room pink, because he felt it would give his team an advantage. While it's certainly not the example we'd want our younger generation to follow, this type of gamesmanship has been around for decades. In the end, I don't think the heat cost the Patriots the game. I think the Patriots cost the Patriots the game.
I'm wondering if the Patriots failed to prepare for the heat in the dome, since it really did appear that they were affected by it. Despite substitutions, the players were suffering from cramping and appeared to be dragging.
David Martin, Bangkok, Thailand
A: I don't mean to sound harsh on the players, but I don't think the heat is any excuse for five costly second-half penalties, especially a crucial third and five in the third quarter in which Richard Seymour was called for a neutral zone infraction. Those type of plays extend drives and lead to the defense staying on the field. To me, that loss of concentration, not the heat, was the biggest factor. I'm sure it wasn't easy to play under those conditions, but the Colts were playing in the same environment and they seemed to handle it OK.
Any chatter about big missed penalty calls (i.e. Gaffney, I think it was in the endzone getting pulled down on a fade pass on 3rd down, and the Pats having to settle for a FG); the brutal call on Troy Brown which seemed to turn the game around; or the phantom roughing the passer penalty; Daniel Graham getting mugged on the last drive?
Timothy, Gainesville, Fla.
A: On his weekly "Coffee with the Coach" radio appearance on Boston sports radio station WEEI on Monday, Belichick was asked about some of the officiating calls, specially the end of the second quarter when the Patriots had good field position and were driving to potentially go up 28-3. That was the drive in which Troy Brown picked up an offensive pass interference call, and the team was ultimately bumped out of field goal range. Belichick said some of it was questionable, some of it was the Patriots' doing. In all, I don't think the officiating cost the Patriots the game. I think the Patriots cost the Patriots game.
What happened to Dillon in the second half? Why didn't the Pats play him more?
Bonnie, Charlotte, NC
A: Of the Patriots' 58 offensive snaps, Dillon played on 14 of them. He was on the field for nine first-half snaps and five second-half snaps. Heath Evans ended up playing 18 second-half snaps (13 as a running back), so the Patriots' coaching staff must have felt he gave the team a better chance to win. Part of that was Evans' role as a third-down type of back, but Evans also saw time in a Dillon-like role on early downs.
I know it's hard to think about anything besides the game on Sunday, but any thoughts on the Pats next season? I've heard that Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, and Corey Dillon all might retire, and that Asante Samuel could leave as a free agent. These are all key players and I don't think the Pats can afford to lose them. I like Laurence Maroney a lot, but I don't know that he's ready to start, and I think he needs one more year. If Bruschi and Samuel were to leave, then the defense is in big trouble. The defensive Line is excellent, but we would need to draft a linebacker and a defensive back. And Troy Brown is another great Patriots player that I am a big fan of, and he does the small things that might not be noticed as much, but are very important.
A: It's amazing to me how fast the page turns to next year, and it wouldn't surprise me if players were already being approached on the plane ride home to tell them the team was interested in retaining them. That's how quickly the page turns. Every offseason includes four major areas in my opinion - free agency, salary cap management, the draft, and the great unknowns (e.g. Ted Johnson retirement, Deion Branch holdout etc.). When I think of the Patriots' offseason, I'd rank an infusion of youth and athleticism at linebacker atop the list. The team has two first-round draft choices, which is a bonanza for a club that just played in a conference championship game. So those players should help. As for free agency, I think the Patriots realize Asante Samuel has a lot of leverage right now, and because of that, the team will focus its attention on Daniel Graham and trying to hammer out a deal. I'm a big believer in Graham as a vital cog to this team. As you noted, Bruschi, Brown and Dillon are all unknowns, so I don't know what to say on that front until decisions are made.
Do signing bonuses count towards the cap number or does that come out of Kraft's pocket?
Jeff Gervais, Durham, Maine
A: It's both, actually. Signing bonuses count on the cap, but they are prorated over the length of the contract. So in simple terms, if you signed a two-year, $4 million contract with a $2 million signing bonus, your salary cap charge each season would be the following: $2 million base salary plus $1 million proration of signing bonus equals $3 million. The signing bonuses are paid out by Kraft.