Heavy workload on tap for campers
In scheduling seven consecutive two-a-days at the start of 2009 training camp, head coach Bill Belichick is making a loud statement to Patriots players.
Forgoing his standard 2-1-2 practice schedule, Belichick is upping the on-field workload. He apparently has the 2008 preseason on his mind, when the team was outscored 89-56 in four losses and hardly looked ready for regular-season action.
Surely, some of the Patriots' preseason struggles last year could be attributed to not having quarterback Tom Brady under center.
With that in mind, it's my belief that if Brady continues to progress in his recovery from torn left knee ligaments, he won't go through another preseason without taking a snap. Getting him back under center seems to tie in to the tone that Belichick hopes to set for 2009 training camp and the preseason.
Let's get to the questions.
Hi Mike, it's been a busy offseason. We've seen players arrive and depart via trade, the draft, and free agency. We've also seen coaches and player personnel men come and go. My question to you is, in your opinion, with all the movement and new faces that have arrived, which ones will help the team the most and which losses will hurt the team most this year?
Nick M., Montreal, Quebec
A: Nick, I'll pick the Shawn Springs/Leigh Bodden pairing - which is the projected starting cornerback duo - for the "new faces to help the team most" category. I thought the cornerback play was a weak link in 2008. As for which losses will hurt the most, I think the natural instinct is to go with outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, because there is no clear-cut, proven replacement at the position at this time. In addition to Vrabel, I'd put offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and long snapper Lonie Paxton next on the list.
One of the things Bill Belichick mentions when discussing developing players is the importance of continued improvement. Some of the cuts we see (e.g., Bo Ruud) seem to be based on Belichick's assessment that the player has hit his ceiling at a level below where that player needs to be. This leads me to a thought in connection with the constant speculation about bringing in a veteran OLB, with the scenarios ranging from the plausible (McGinest) to the ridiculous (Peppers): Maybe Belichick believes that the current young OLBs on the roster (Woods, Crable, Redd) are still improving, so that with a few months of daily practice and competition against each other and Banta-Cain, and with the game experience they will receive in the upcoming season, it is likely that the performance at the OLB position will be at least adequate and will be improved by the time the Pats are in must-win games. Thoughts?
A: Glenn, I do believe the Patriots think they can win with the players currently at outside linebacker, but at the same time, if the opportunity presented itself to upgrade with a veteran (e.g. Derrick Burgess) I think the move would be made. Still, I think you've hit on something here. Belichick has talked about this in the past - how when you're comparing Player A and Player B, you can't just look at the here and now. You also have to project how Player A will look in Week 10/beyond vs. how Player B will look in Week 10/beyond. I think this applies perfectly to the Mike Vrabel situation. Would Vrabel be better than what the Patriots have in Week 1? I believe so. But when you start looking a bit further down the road - and consider more wear and tear -- I think the answer becomes a bit less clear.
What QB's are still available on the FA market? We might already have the perfect backup QB on the roster, but I was wondering what the flip side is.
A: Aroon, the Patriots' quarterback snapshot was posted on Boston.com Monday and the question was asked to readers: Would you sign a veteran quarterback behind Tom Brady? The overwhelming majority said no. Here are some veteran free-agent quarterbacks: Brooks Bollinger, Brett Favre, Gus Frerotte, Quinn Gray, Brian Griese, Brad Johnson, Cleo Lemon, J.P. Losman, Jamie Martin, and Michael Vick.
Tony Kornheiser from "Pardon The Interruption" predicted 19-0 from the Pats this year. What do you think? Also, who do you envision as the starting RB (on first and second down) between Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney? I'm still a big believer in Maroney's talent. If he stays healthy I say he cracks 1,000 yards and Tony K's prediction is correct.
A: Jim, I guess I'm not as optimistic as Tony because 13-3 or 12-4 is where my prediction would fall. The reasons I went with those possibilities include: 1) The overall talent on the roster being superior to most teams they will face, which should create more favorable matchups; 2) The inevitable ups and downs of any season that are often unpredictable in nature; 3) Unexpected injuries that are challenging to project. As for the starting running back, I think it begins with Kevin Faulk. This offense is at its best passing the football and Faulk is the top weapon and best pass protector in the single-back set with three or four receivers, as evidenced by the fact he's played more than any running back over the last two seasons (941 of 2,159 snaps, 43.5 percent). So I look at the question this way: How will the other 56.5 percent of the running back snaps get split up? I'd start with Taylor, but with the understanding that the coaching staff will ride the hot hand.
What is the contract situation for the starting o-line? Where they spent some high draft picks on the o-line they must be looking towards developing Sebastian Vollmer to take over at one of the tackle positions. The kid is a giant and under Dante Scarnecchia's teaching he could develop out to be a good player for years to come. Where does he project playing (left or right tackle) and where do the other project playing?
A: Dave, here is a list of the Patriots' top offensive linemen and the year their current contract expires: Matt Light (2010), Logan Mankins (2009), Dan Koppen (2011), Stephen Neal (2009), Nick Kaczur (2009), Russ Hochstein (2009), Billy Yates (2009), Al Johnson (2009), Mark LeVoir (2009), Ryan O'Callaghan (2009) and Wesley Britt (2009). With such a large group of players entering the final year of their contracts, it makes sense that the Patriots drafted three players - Vollmer (2nd round), Rich Ohrnberger (4th round) and George Bussey (5th round) who will probably all have four-year contracts and - assuming they pan out - keep the young pipeline flowing. As for where the rookies will play, Vollmer is getting work at both tackle spots, Rich Ohrnberger (4th round) is at center and guard, and George Bussey (5th round) is at guard and right tackle.
During the course of the season we all know that the Pats will use multiple defensive fronts (depending on who they play). I believe that we may see more 4-3 then 3-4 this year because the Pats fourth and fifth defensive linemen may be better then their fourth and fifth linebackers. Your thoughts?
A: I wouldn't rule it out, Bo, although I still think the Patriots will use the 3-4 as their base scheme, meaning that they will continue acquire players with that alignment in mind. As a total aside, this topic reminds me of Super Bowl XXXIX against the Eagles, when the Patriots played their "Cali" front and ran what was essentially a 4-3 alignment after playing mostly 3-4 throughout the course of the entire year. It surprised the Eagles and played a big part of keeping quarterback Donovan McNabb in the pocket. In my 12 years covering professional football, it was the most remarkable switch I've seen in a game with such high stakes. I'm not sure that victory, the scheming elements that went into it and the players' remarkable ability to pull it off, ever received their proper due.
Mike, has there been an update on the signings (or lack thereof) of the Pats' 2009 draft class. I feel like I have seem a few blurbs about some of the lower picks signing, but what about the Pats' top picks, particularly Patrick Chung? Is there a risk of a holdout with any of the picks?
Joe, Washington, D.C.
A: Joe, I talked to the agent of one draft pick who mentioned that he has yet to speak with the Patriots regarding a contract for his client. I asked him if that was a concern. His response was "No, not at all. This is still very early." Another factor to consider is that these deals aren't that hard to put together. At this point, the Patriots have agreed to terms with three of 12 draft picks that I am aware of - cornerback Darius Butler (second round), offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger (fourth round) and defensive lineman Myron Pryor (sixth round). While there is always a risk of a holdout, my sense is that all the deals will get done in time.
Hi Mike, I have trick plays in mind. Some are just novelty/symbolic (Flutie's drop kick conversion; TD pass to Tom Ashworth). Some are solely strategic (Cassel's 3rd down punt; direct hand-off to Moss). Some are exciting but don't quite work (attempted flea-flicker to Moss in opening drive against Dallas). I have to admit, I love 'em all. Any favorites?
Matt, Tucson, Ariz.
A: When I read the question, Matt, I decided to go with the first thing that popped into my mind - the direct snap to Kevin Faulk near the goal-line with Tom Brady faking as if the snap went over his head. Unlike a flea-flicker, which is a bit more drawn out, the quick-hit nature of that play - to go along with its success rate -- is something I appreciate.
Mike, what's all this talk about Willie McGinest coming back? Wasn't he quoted within the last two seasons saying that he didn't even want to talk about the Patriots? What's the deal?
A: I think this is one of those situations where context is everything, Matt. McGinest said he'd be open to coming back to the Patriots, and that picked up some headlines, probably because of his recognizable name and the fact he played here before. But to me, the key part of those stories is that the Patriots apparently aren't reciprocating that interest at this point. So if I had to sum up the deal, I think it's that McGinest would be open to coming back, but the door isn't necessarily open for him at this point.
Mike, I just finished watching the NFL Films Super Bowl stories. It amazed me how many times Rodney Harrison came up big in the biggest games with an interception. Do you think the "big game" moments will help him in his Hall of Fame resume? I know the NFL is a stats-geared entity; however, the critical moments are what should be remembered.
Mike F., Fishers, Ind.
A: I'm not a great person to talk to regarding the Hall of Fame, so I usually defer on these types of questions to actual selectors. The feeling I got when speaking with the selectors is that Harrison is going to have a hard time getting in - due in part to the fact not a lot of safeties are in the Hall. Whoever is presenting him will surely point out some of his big-game moments, yet the sense I get is that it won't be enough.
I can't agree with your suggestion that in order to have his number retired, a Patriots player should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There is a difference between a player's importance in Patriots history and his distinction to the league as a whole. To me, a compelling example is Troy Brown. Not only did he spend his entire career with the team -- something very rare these days -- but he was one bright spot during the team's darkest days. He was the one guy when all the foolishness was going on who stayed above it all, conducted himself with dignity, worked his tail off and played well. When the team finally found success, he continued the same ethic, did whatever was asked of him, always put the team first, and contributed consistently above and beyond his physical talents. He will never be enshrined in Canton, but that doesn't mean he wasn't one of the greatest Patriots. I think it would be appropriate to retire number 80 because of what it says about what really makes a great football player. Tedy Bruschi deserves the same honor regardless. I think it will say a lot for the team to have its own criteria about which players deserve its highest honors.
Bart, Jamaica Plain
A: Bart, your opinion has respectfully been heard. The point I was trying to make is that teams are running out of numbers and a possibility to avoid that problem, but also appropriately honor the player, is to induct them into a team Hall of Fame. I would imagine a player like Troy Brown will be enshrined in the Patriots Hall of Fame.