It's late May, the NFL season has been over for almost four months, training camp is still two months away, and yet the Patriots mailbag continues to fill up each week.
One nice change this week is a focus on more football-specific questions, and less videotaping questions.
As fans are well aware, the Patriots are in the middle of their organized team activity sessions, which lead into the full-team minicamp June 6-8.
After the minicamp, coaches should be taking their long-awaited vacations, making mid-June to mid-July one of the true "dead" periods of the NFL calendar.
Let's get to the questions....
Dear Mike, in your opinion, will Chad Jackson have that breakthrough year for the Patriots this season? I personally think he will and have at least 40 receptions and 6 touchdowns.
A: Emory, as long as Jackson stays healthy, I do think it will be his most productive pro season. Considering he has totaled 13 career receptions for 152 yards and 3 touchdowns in two seasons, that's not exactly taking a big leap. Recent reports out of organized team activities indicate that Jackson looked sharp, which is a positive sign. Yet one aspect that has been reinforced to me in recent years is not to overstate what happens in an OTA or minicamp practice, because there are no pads and hitting. I've found over the last few years that it isn't real football until you add those elements.
Mike, an interesting piece on SI.com predicts that Jerod Mayo will be the rookie defensive player of the year. The article says that Mayo of course has the athletic ability but also the smarts to play in the complex Belichick system. I recall a statement by Mayo that he couldn't wait to start studying the playbook. Two questions: What are your thoughts about Mayo? And is it realistic to think that a rookie linebacker can start right away in the Pats defense?
A: Dave, a few of the scouts and personnel people around the league that I spoke with before and after the draft were raving about Mayo, noting that he played at a high level in arguably college football's best conference (SEC), and is also a top-notch individual. So I defer to them - they've studied the players a lot more than I have. As for Mayo starting, I'd suggest looking at it through a different lens - that of playing time. Because so much of the game is played in sub packages these days, I think the concept of starting is overrated, and more focus should be put on snaps played. And I think Mayo will immediately put himself in the mix with a solid percentage of play-time, whether that's as a starter, or in a sub package. As an example of this, Tedy Bruschi played in about 50 percent of the snaps last year, and Junior Seau about 60 percent. Ask most people and my feeling is that they'd tell you Bruschi was the starter and Seau the backup, but the playing time shows otherwise.
Why don't the Patriots seem interested in bringing back Rosevelt Colvin? It seems to me he could have been the difference maker in the Super Bowl had he not been injured. Also, do you hear anything on the chances of them bringing Ty Law back in for his final seasons?
Mark, Laconia, N.H.
A: Mark, first and foremost, I think finances dictated the initial move to part ways with Colvin. Colvin was due to count more than $7 million against the salary cap and was coming off a foot injury. In general, I think it is often hard for the incumbent team to "win" in those situations where you're asking a player to dramatically reduce his salary. Colvin had restructured his contract multiple times over the last few years, and the Patriots probably felt they couldn't go back to him once again. Although it's different, I view Victor Hobson's situation with the Jets in a similar light. After you've sacrificed your body and given a lot to one club for 4-5 years, it's easier to take a lesser deal with a new team, and a fresh start. On Ty Law, I think it's clear after his name popped up in discussions with the Jets, Browns and Patriots that his asking price is too rich for all clubs right now.
Any chance the Patriots make a move for Jason Taylor? If so, what would it take to acquire him?
Ben W., Wayland
A: Ben, I think the Dolphins would have be overwhelmed by the offer to trade Taylor within the AFC East. So while I think Miami might take a second-round draft choice for Taylor from most clubs, I think it would take a first-rounder for Taylor to come to New England. In the end, I'd call it a longshot.
I would like your opinion of James Sanders. First, I never see him make any plays. Second, during last season Dean Pees said that it was not always Hobbs' fault when it looked like he got beat in coverage, but that Hobbs didn't get the help he was supposed to get on the play. I assume the help would be a safety, also that the smart veteran Harrison would not blow a coverage; therefore, that leaves Sanders. I hope both he and Ellis Hobbs get beat out for jobs this year. Thanks.
Peter, Saranac Lake, N.Y.
A: Peter, I think Sanders is a solid player who makes plenty of plays. His 73 tackles in 2007 were the most of any defensive back. He also had two interceptions and one forced fumble, as well as seven special teams tackles. He's smart, too. Safety can be a tough position to evaluate because the player can do everything right, forcing the ball to go away from him, and thus not be involved in the play. Overall, I see Sanders as a solid run-support player who has improved a great deal in pass coverage. I think he'll be a starter again in 2008.
Mike, the ESPN vultures are once again circling Foxboro, with this latest story about Pats IR players practicing (against NFL rules). Have the Patriots refuted the claim? And if this might be true, what level of a problem is this for the Pats? Does the NFL need to quiz every team on this?
Mark, Princeton, N.J.
So when Tucker went on ESPN's "NFL Live" program last week, he was just repeating what he wrote about the week before. I think it speaks to ESPN's power that the story could generate such momentum the second time around. After reading Tucker's story on May 16, I called some players - past and present - to try to get a feel for if this was the type of thing every team did. One longtime veteran said he had never been a part of it under the 4-5 coaches he played for, but that one other teammate had said he saw it in other places. It was also pointed out to me that it is difficult to determine what "practicing" is in some cases. Is it running with the team? Putting on the pads? Fielding a kickoff? So there are different levels of involvement that would add important context to this claim. My hunch is that players "practicing" while on injured reserve is prevalent in certain coaching trees, but it is not widespread across the NFL. To answer the questions here, I have not heard anything from the Patriots refuting this claim. If it is true - and Roger Goodell said there was no new information as of last week - the team would get fined. In this case, the fine would simply be part of the $750,000 that Goodell has already levied on Bill Belichick and the team, according to Goodell. I do think the league should look at all teams, not just the Patriots.
Hi Mike, have you heard about the Jacobs Steroids story?
I wonder how aggressive Goodell will be with this investigation? The NFL has the names now, let's see what they do with it. Your thoughts?
George, Goffstown, N.H.
A: George, this could be a big story, although I don't personally don't feel steroids are a big part of the NFL. My sense is that human growth hormone is more prevalent, because it's more difficult to detect in the testing process.
Mike, in your opinion is there any chance the Patriots could use third-round draftee Kevin O'Connell in an offensive role outside of QB and take advantage of his natural athletic abilities? For example, a slot/possession receiver on certain plays, a la Seneca Wallace for the Seattle Seahawks?
A: I could envision such a scenario, Sammy, but I think it is far off. Right now, I think the main thing the coaching staff wants from O'Connell is a focus on the fundamentals at quarterback. That's why we saw a video camera focusing on O'Connell's footwork at the end of a rookie minicamp practice, so he could take the tape home and watch himself working on 3-step drops and 5-step drops, and ball placement while standing in the pocket. Once the staff feels O'Connell builds a strong base in that regard, perhaps then they'll include him in a few wrinkles.
Please let us know the status of Sammy Morris, what his "chest injury" turned out to be, and if he's 100% and ready to go for the upcoming mini-camps, pre-season, and regular season.
A: Marie, Morris had a sternum clavicle separation and he was participating in last week's no-pads passing camp. Whether that means he'll be ready for full-pads training camp, I am not sure.
Great job on the offseason updates, it's much appreciated. My question is about Brandon Meriweather. As a fellow UM alum I have followed his career from the beginning and was surprised at his poor hands during his rookie year. Do the Pats have specific drills that they use to get DB's, and maybe even WR's, to improve their ball hawking skills? Obviously the last Giants drive in the SB showed how important it is for DBs to not only be in position to make a big play but to also finish it off. I may be biased but I think if Brandon improves even a little in his playmaking skills he can become a Pro Bowl quality piece to the defense.
A: Tom, from what I understand, Meriweather has spent a lot of time this offseason working with the Jugs machine, which fires balls at him at rapid-fire pace. If I recall, James Sanders did similar work early in his career and it helped. I think another factor that will help Meriweather is that the game should slow down for him a bit this year, in his second NFL season. Sometimes when things are happening so fast, it takes a little more concentration that can be the difference between a catch and a drop. I've seen Meriweather in practice and his hands are solid.
Mike, videotaping defensive signals is against the rules, as we know by now. Can you clarify if it is written in the NFL by-laws that STEALING signals is illegal? I have maintained all along that this story is blown out of proportion due to the fact that it is not illegal to steal signals, only to videotape them. Mike Shanahan has admitted in an article in SI that his team steals opposing signals. Why has he not been called out?
Ed, Claremont, N.H.
A: Ed, teams can scout signals with binoculars, just not by videotaping.
Mike, you suggested in a mailbag response last week that the lack of action in investigating the Jets' alleged past videotaping might be tied to the fact that the practice was not clarified as illegal until the 2006 league memo. However, you also give Arlen Specter credit for pushing the NFL so that the full time period in which the Pats were taping is now known. If knowing that the Pats were taping before 2006 is important, then isn't it also important if the Jets were taping before 2006? Do we need to know if the Jets were taping? You also suggested that because the Jets coaching staff has turned over since the alleged infraction it might be less important to the league. However, Bob Kraft was effectively fined, so isn't it important to fine the Jets ownership, which was in place at the time?
A: Fair point, Dave, although I do think there is one important difference. The reason I felt it was important to know how long the Patriots were taping was that the NFL had stated the penalty/fines were for the totality of the team's actions, but never clearly stated what that was. At the Super Bowl, in fact, commissioner Roger Goodell said that the tapes turned over were from the 2007 preseason and "primarily late from the 2006 season." It might have been unintentional, but I thought Goodell was misleading with that statement, creating the perception that the taping only went back a few seasons. As for the Jets, we're talking about a different coaching regime, but as you point out, it could be the same owner (Woody Johnson).
It seems to me people keep asking "why" BB did what he did with filming signals. People seem focused on the premise that the Pats used these signals in a game to know what the play call would be. BB is notorious for understanding other teams (a.k.a profiling). I think BB used these signals as part of collective data to profile another team and coaching staff to figure out what they tend to do under certain conditions at certain times in the game and then make decisions against. The more you can get inside the heads of the other team's players and coaches, the better you can make your own play calls. But this possible reasoning to "why" has not been discussed by anyone, just the "cheating" focus. I'm curious of your thoughts on this.
Steve, Salem, N.H.
A: Steve, I think this is part of it, but not the only part. With technology today, teams can simply hit a few keys and it pulls up what an opposing team does on all third down plays that are five yards and shorter. I think every team has access to that information. By videotaping the signals, you have a chance to not just rely on the notes of an advance scout, but also have the chance to review the signals in ensuing days, and possibly better decode them.
Hi Mike, we are all aware of what Arlen Specter, Peter King, et al., think about Spygate, but what do other NFL teams and players think? It seems like this is much less of an issue within the league than it is on the outside with the national media and fans. Do other players/coaches/owners really care all that much?
A: I do think other players/coaches/owners care, Eric. At the same time, I think these people know that they better have their own house in order before slinging arrows at others, and most clubs are pushing the envelope in some area. Perhaps the Patriots push it more than others, but I don't think they're alone in having been in violation of the rule book.
Hi Mike, the one thing that keeps nagging at me from the Super Bowl loss is Randy Moss' comments after the game about a poor offensive game plan. Belichick is always the first to say that it comes down to the players executing on the field. Obviously, in the SB the Pats' offensive line was outplayed by the Giants pass rushers but at a coaching staff isn't your job to adapt your plan of attack to fit whatever matchups happen to be in your favor at that moment? The whole game, I kept thinking "run some draws! Throw some screens!" to try and slow down the all-out rush. What do you feel were the reasons the Pats kept trying to stick with what wasn't working, instead of adjusting their attack? Do you see the big play becoming less of a staple (but still a very real threat) in their offensive attack this year?
Jason, Dover, N.H.
A: All fair questions, Jason, and the answer probably won't be satisfying based on the reaction I received when I said it a few weeks ago while speaking to a local Lions club. I think the coaches are human, too. Like all of us, they make mistakes. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots didn't adjust well enough. I look at adjusting as two-fold - diagnosing the situation, and then altering your own attack to counter what is happening. Just as the players didn't play their best game, I don't think the coaches had their best game either. As for this year's offense, I don't see major changes. I believe you win by throwing the ball, and as long as Tom Brady is under center and Randy Moss and Wes Welker are threatening defenses down the field, I think the big play will be a central part of the attack.
Historically, teams that win championships consistently move the football downfield by using a physical running game to control the line of scrimmage to get first downs and touchdowns in short yardage situations. The Patriots for the most part eschewed that strategy last year using the passing game and the skills of Brady, Welker and Faulk to pick up short yardage first downs. I felt the loss of Sammy Morris to injury earlier in the season and the inconsistencies of Laurence Maroney resulted in a shift in strategy away from the physical play which ultimately contributed to the offensive breakdowns the Pats had in consistently moving the ball and scoring points in the Super Bowl. The Patriots select tough players to play on their team and traditionally have won by being more physical than their opponents. Dominant fourth quarter defense and a successful short yardage running game are the manifestations of that strategy. I felt the Giants won the Super Bowl by beating the Patriots at their own game. This was foreshadowed in earlier struggles against physical teams like Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Do you see a change in the overall 2008 game plan approach to bring a more traditional championship style balance to the Patriots offensive attack? Air Belichick was exciting to watch but Boring Bill won Super Bowls.
Harry, West Hartford, Conn.
A: It's an interesting point, Harry, but I think the old grind-it-out days have passed us by. It's sort of hard to believe it could happen that fast, but I don't think those plodding Patriots teams with Antowain Smith could win as much in today's NFL. Along these lines, I'd point out what I thought was an excellent piece by former NFL executive Michael Lombardi on SI.com from mid-May. Lombardi busts three NFL myths, one of which is that "you must establish the run early in the game." In the piece, Lombardi notes that the Patriots ranked 26th out of 32 teams in runs called in the first half last season, en route to a 16-0 regular season. Overall, my feeling is that if the defense had come up with one more play in the Super Bowl - and the defense was solid throughout the game, bailing out the offense more often than not - it's possible the Patriots offense might have been viewed as one of the greatest of all time.
Would it not be fair to put forth a provision to set aside some of the revenue for the retired players without adequate health care and pension? Do you think the players would be somewhat receptive? What about doing away the bonus slotting for rookies and allocating more money to rank and file, including practice members? I read about Mike Webster. That got me thinking that both the NFL and today's players just don't care.
A: This is a complex issue, Naftali, and it's been a tough one for me to get my hands around. I went to a symposium featuring some retired players at UMass-Lowell earlier this year, and the anger in that room was immense, as the players felt the NFL should be doing more. Patriots Hall of Famer John Hannah is starting his own foundation to generate funds and support for retired players. I know the current players do give part of their earnings to retired players, but is it enough? I don't know. So I'm going to have to gather more information before answering this one. As for doing away with those rich rookie contracts, I think it makes sense. I'd like to see those contracts go to veterans, but the owners would have to guarantee they are going to spend the money on those players, and not put it in their own pockets. Can the owners be trusted to do that? I don't know.
Goodell has talked about lengthening the NFL schedule to 17 games. What do you think of the 6 x 6 x 6 schedule idea, which was discussed on Patsfans.com? I think Goodell's idea of 17 games under the current format puts too much wear and tear on the players and his fixation on regular season games in foreign countries in the future is not good for the NFL.
A: My initial thought, Dwayne, is that any talk of a 17th game is at least a few years away. Also, the NFL Players Association would have to agree to it, and I'm not sure they'd be on board. The idea of the 17th regular-season game was floated as a possible bridge in labor negotiations but Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was asked about this last week and said: "Is that going to be the ultimate solution? Probably not." In the end, I think the season will stay at 16 games.
Mike, with the owners opting out of the CBA, does this vindicate the two owners who were against this deal in the first place (Cincinnati and Buffalo) or did the owners opt out for different reasons than the original opposition?
A: The CBA is a complex issue, David, but I think it does vindicate Mike Brown and Ralph Wilson in some respects. In 2006, the owners had enough votes to share 60 percent of revenues with players but the players wouldn't accept unless the owners also agreed on a revenue-sharing plan among themselves. That was the biggest holdup at the time. This time, I think the owners are focused more on the 60-percent figure as being too rich, not necessarily the revenue sharing. So I see some differences.
It seems that the Pats signed a lot of people to one-year deals this offseason, even for people that they seem to want, and who seem to want to be there (Fernando Bryant and Jabar Gaffney, for example). Is this an example of forward thinking by the front office? My understanding is that the 2009 season will cause salary cap problems for a lot of teams because it's the last capped year under the CBA, now that the owners have opted out, so by signing so many players to contracts for just 2008, it would seem to lessen their cap problems in 2009. So were all the one-year deals just insurance for the possibility the owners would opt out of the CBA and not be able to reach an extension before 2009, thus causing salary cap havoc next year?
A: I don't think the one-year deals were related to the CBA, Craig, and more roster-related or negotiation-specific issues. I see the defensive backs as roster-related, with the Patriots loading up prior to the draft to protect themselves if they didn't land a few draft picks. It's the idea of filling out the roster to give you as much flexibility as possible on draft day. On Gaffney, the sides had been negotiating a longer-term deal but couldn't reach a compromise so they settled on a one-year deal.
Mike, with the owners opting out of the CBA and the possibility of an uncapped year coming up do you see the Pats and other teams restructuring deals so that large roster bonuses come due in the uncapped year. While it's not a definite that we'll have an uncapped year wouldn't it be nice to lock up some players long term if there is. Also, who do we have that will be free agents in the uncapped year?
Chris, Atlanta, Ga.
A: Chris, I think owners still need to be careful about putting too much bonus money/guaranteed money into the uncapped year. A reckless approach could lead to a situation where a team is financially handcuffed should the sides agree to a new CBA before the uncapped year in 2010. That being said, I could envision a few deals structured in that way. As for Patriots free agents, in an uncapped year, they would be: linebacker Tedy Bruschi, running back Kevin Faulk, defensive end Jarvis Green, guard Stephen Neal, defensive end Richard Seymour, linebacker Mike Vrabel, tight end Benjamin Watson and nose tackle Vince Wilfork.