Line of the times
Fans get in the trenches with some offensive line questions
The Patriots kicked off the 2008 preseason with a 16-15 loss to the Ravens at Gillette Stadium last Thursday, and the performance led e-mailers to fill up this week's mailbag.
One of the nice parts is that many of the questions are based on the game. I always enjoy that part of the football season - each week, a contest gives you another piece of work to dissect, analyze, and debate.
Without question, most of the e-mails were focused on the team's offensive line. Fans are concerned with what they are seeing from the club's blockers.
One popular football saying is that games are won in the trenches, so that's where we start this week.
Do you think the Pats are paying the price for being inattentive to drafting along the offensive line? None this year after three late choices (all cut several times) in 2007. The well is looking pretty dry. Light and Neal are getting older and brittle and neither has a decent backup. RT is manned by big brittle guys; and there's virtually nothing behind Mankins and Koppen. Starting to look like the early BB days when Bill/Scott brought in 15 OL to try and improve the team. Your thoughts?
A: In hindsight, Ron, I'm sure the Patriots would have drafted a lineman had they known they'd be hit by injuries like this. But I can't blame them for not drafting a lineman, because at that time I, myself, wrote that the line had a lot of depth. This happens to a lot of teams in training camp - one position seems to get a run on injuries, or unexpected issues (e.g. Nick Kaczur and OxyContin). The Colts are experiencing the same thing with their linebackers from an injury perspective. I'd also point out that there is still time and the picture we see today isn't necessarily what it's going to be when the season starts. At the same time, I do think it's a concern. I thought the struggles of the offensive line really hurt the offense Thursday night.
Hi Mike, the o-line really didn't look ready for prime time against Baltimore -- perhaps the reason Brady didn't play? No real holes or push in the running game, and the QB's looked like they were running for their lives out there. I know there are injuries, but do you see this line coming together anytime soon?
JC, Wilton, Conn.
A: I see this as the most prevalent issue facing the team at this time, JC. I have my doubts about it coming together if left tackle Matt Light and right guard Stephen Neal aren't back. I am also keeping the possibility in the back of my mind that Nick Kaczur could potentially face some type of suspension from the NFL for the off-field situation he was in with OxyContin. Watching the preseason opener over again the next day, it stuck out to me how much the line struggled, and I think it is something to keep an eye on going forward. While I don't think the line is the sole reason Brady did not play, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it was at least a consideration.
I got to attend Thursday's preseason opener last night, and after watching the offensive line, I came to the conclusion that even a retread like John Welbourn has to be better than some of these guys. Did he play in that game?
James, Kennebunk, Maine
A: Welbourn did not play, James, which wasn't a surprise. When the Patriots signed Welbourn on Aug. 4, Bill Belichick mentioned that Welbourn might not be ready to suit up in the preseason opener. I would expect him to be integrated into the mix this week.
You watch practice, so is what we saw on Thursday -- quick feet, ball speed and accuracy (receiver drops aside) -- an indication of how Kevin O'Connell has looked on a daily basis? On Thursday, even against the Ravens' third-fifth string, he displayed more development potential than our supposed backups.
A: JB, I agree that O'Connell looked better than Matt Cassel and Matt Gutierrez in the preseason opener. I have seen flashes from O'Connell in practice - on one of the first days he got extended work in 11-on-11 drills, he was 5-of-6 and didn't necessarily look like a rookie - but there have also been plays that remind you he's just arrived in the NFL (e.g. an under-thrown ball intended for Jonathan Stupar on Monday night that was intercepted by Brandon Meriweather). In Thursday's game, I thought O'Connell's athleticism and ability to keep plays alive with his feet truly stood out, which was a bit harder to see in practices.
Greetings Mike, why didn't the Patriots jump all over the chance to grab Chad Pennington? Cassel has looked awful since suiting up as a Patriot and hasn't gotten any better in 4 years. Gutierrez didn't look much better and other than imitating Vick's running abilities I'd say O'Connell didn't show much promise either. If Brady goes down it's the end of the Patriots - there's NOBODY behind him capable of getting the job done at this point.
A: Pennington ended up signing with the Dolphins and received a reported $11 million over two seasons. My feeling is that the Patriots weren't going to get into numbers like that. If Pennington was looking for a backup role, then I could have seen it happening in New England. But he's a competitor and he wants a chance to start, and I'm sure the lucrative contract didn't hurt either. As for Thursday's preseason opener, I agree that Cassel didn't look great. I don't think he had much help from the offensive line, either. Gutierrez was a bit better, yet he still had two turnovers (telegraphed interception, fumbled snap). I thought O'Connell showed the most promise of all three based on that one performance.
When are the Patriots going to get rid of Matt Cassel? In 4 YEARS all he has shown is he cannot effectively move that team down the field on a consistent basis.
A: Sonny, if Cassel performs like he did on Thursday night, he won't make the club this year. It's a quarterback's job to move the offense up and down the field and score points, which he didn't do. That being said, I think it's important to point out that he had very little help in this game (e.g. offensive line struggled), and also caught a few bad breaks (Chad Jackson got his feet tripped up on the second play, negating a potential completion; Cassel slipped on the wet turf on third-and-21 and took a sack). Clearly, there was a miscommunication on the first-quarter interception with Jackson (it's unclear if that's even on Cassel). Still, I want to see more than three series in a preseason game before closing the book on Cassel. I think it's easy to pile on his performance - and I agree it wasn't good -- but he was far from alone.
Now with Tank Williams lost for the season does that open the door for John Lynch (even though Jeff Shoate was recently signed)?
A: Peter, the way I see it, right now the Patriots' ability to add to the roster is being hamstrung by injury/health issues along the offensive line and at cornerback. We're seeing the effects of the 80-man roster limit, which is new this year, as teams don't have as much flexibility in their roster additions (86 used to be the maximum). So until the Patriots get a bit healthier at those spots, I don't see a signing elsewhere. As for Lynch specifically, I do think there would be some interest from the Patriots.
I read that Tank Williams has been placed on IR, ending his season. Can you tell me what the team pays a player on IR? Is it different for a returning player/veteran than someone trying to make the team such as Tank? Are the players rehab or medical costs covered and for how long?
A: It depends on the player, Dave, and the contract they signed with the team. In some cases, players sign a deal with a split salary, which means if they get injured they get a fraction of what they would have earned. Tank Williams did have a split in his contract. He was due to make $605,000 this season. His split is $295,000. I'm not sure the specifics of how long his rehab and medical costs are covered.
How do you think the Pats are going to do this year as far as the running game goes?
Paul, Reidsville, N.C.
A: Thursday's preseason opener didn't exactly inspire confidence, Paul, but overall I do think the running game will be more productive this season (assuming the performance of the offensive line improves) because of the club's talented crop of backs. Statistically, the Patriots averaged more than 4 yards per carry last season for the first time since the 1980s, but to me, a productive running game is one that can get the rushing yards when the defense knows you are running, and I don't think the Patriots consistently had that last season (the Super Bowl comes to mind). In Thursday's preseason opener, the Patriots had runs of 1, 6, minus-2, 2, minus-2 and 1 on their first three drives. From a coaching standpoint, I would imagine that was one of the more disappointing aspects of the performance.
I love this year's depth at running back but is there room on the roster for Maroney, Morris, Faulk, and Jordan and Evans at fullback? Who do you see as odd man out if one has to go?
A: Craig, I see room for all five backs. Part of the reason is that I envision only two tight ends (Benjamin Watson, David Thomas) on the initial 53-man roster, and that gives some more flexibility to carry another back. He's not necessarily the same type of player, but I sort of compare Jordan to when the Patriots had Larry Centers a few years back. Centers was technically a running back/fullback, but his pass-catching ability made him more than just a back. I see Jordan somewhat similarly.
Am I alone in thinking that a linebacker unit of Woods/Mayo/Vrabel/Thomas is possibly better, or much better, than a unit of Vrabel/Mayo/Bruschi/Thomas? I know that people love Bruschi, but the production is just not there anymore and Belichick is clearly going for a younger and more athletic defense. We have passed the threshold of Bruschi's 'smarts' making up for is declining skill level.
A: I think it depends on the opponent, P.G. If you're playing a combination of Woods/Mayo/Vrabel/Thomas, my question would be who is the inside linebacker next to Mayo? Is it Vrabel, who hasn't played there since 2006? Or is it Thomas, which would take him off the edge, where he could be creating havoc in the pass rush? Is it more of a 4-3 alignment? I still think Bruschi can be an effective contributor to the defense. I remember Bill Belichick mentioning that Bruschi played about 40-50 percent of the defensive snaps last year. Maybe that number comes down a bit this year as some more players are integrated into the mix in specific packages, but I still think we'll see plenty of Bruschi.
A couple of questions. 1) What's up with the Pats slipping and sliding during the game? If we were the visiting team I might understand it, but this is our field?; 2) This may sound like I'm still down on Gostkowski for not being good enough that the coaches did not have the confidence in him to let him go for the field goal near the end of the Super Bowl, however, whether I am or not I didn't like his short kickoffs Thursday and one of his field goals almost missed as it sailed over the left goalpost. I guess I've been forever spoiled by the clutch kicks of Vinatieri and gave his kickoffs a pass because of his clutch winning kicks.
A: Marco, the slipping and sliding was a result of the wet weather leading into kickoff. I'd also point out that it was the first time many of those players were competing in a game on that surface, so the home-field aspect was a bit negated. As for Gostkowski, I feel that's a bit tough to hold him accountable for one of his field goals almost being wide left in the preseason opener. Yes, it just snuck in the left upright, but it was still good. He also was really whacking the ball on kickoffs (2 touchbacks). No, he's not Adam Vinatieri, but who is? I did think the fact the coaching staff did not have him kick the field goal in the Super Bowl was telling that he had a bad week of practice and a bad first half of that game. But I don't think that necessarily means his future will head in that direction.
Mike, what do the Patriots look for in a kick off return guy versus a punt return guy? Usually it is different guys, but with the same mechanics (focus, catch, follow the blocks). Why do coaches use different guys?
Arliss, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
A: This answer might vary a bit from team to team, Arliss, but the main difference is that it's generally more challenging to catch a punt, especially with a coverage team often within striking distance as the ball arrives. So hands are a bit more important in the punt return game. Otherwise, a lot of the same attributes apply to both roles - speed, instincts, and the ability to read blockers. I brought your question to Wes Welker and this was his response: "On kick return, you're hitting it as fast as you can, and really kind of hoping for the best. With a punt return, it's a little more patience and setting up blocks. Kick return is that way, too, but I think punt return is more quickness, trying to make the first guy miss is key, and making a move and getting up field. [In terms of catching the ball], I don't really work on the kickoffs. My feeling is that if you can catch a punt, you can catch a kickoff."
Mike, thus far at camp, I have heard nothing but disappointment in regards to Chad Jackson, because of dropped passes, route running mistakes, and simply not being on the same page with Tom Brady. This is a complete turnaround from mini-camp in May/June, where we were hearing about how he was poised as a breakout performer to replace Donte' Stallworth. I have defended him all of this past offseason, but I am beginning to grow frustrated. Is it still to early to tell if he is ready to make a significant impact this year, or could it be that Chad Jackson is simply a bust?
Dan, Burnville, Minn.
A: Dan, I'd give Jackson more time before writing him off, although it seems to me it's trending in the wrong direction at this time. I don't think there is any question that Jackson is a great athlete. He's trying to become a great receiver, and it seems to be a little bit of a struggle. I don't think the quarterbacks have the confidence in him right now that needs to be there. Yet I still think he makes the club, and wouldn't rule out that he becomes a contributor in some variety (e.g. punt returner, fourth receiver).
Mike, always enjoy your passion and insight of the patriots but I have some strong reservations regarding Shawn Crable and his ability to setting the edge against tackles. I've never seen skinnier calves on a football player and I just don't see him maintaining his position as he engages tackles. I believe he has potential as an edge rusher and can get after the quarterback, but against the run?
A: Fair point, Jim, and the idea of setting the edge in the running game is something that Crable himself acknowledged is one of his biggest challenges. I think Crable will initially help as a second- and third-down rusher, and will work to become an early-down player. I wouldn't count him out solely based on his skinny calves. As former Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson pointed out, Crable's long arms are a weapon to keep blockers away from his body, and in the end, it's about technique as much as it is physical makeup. Let's see how it plays out because Crable has a long ways to go in his development, but I see early promising signs.
Watching undrafted rookie free agent Gary Guyton (LB) at training camp, he stood out and looked pretty good, but I also know that he has a lot of competition. What do you think his chances are of making the team - or at least the practice squad?
A: I have little doubt that Guyton will be around, Marie. The only question is whether it's on the 53-man roster or practice squad. That was a terrific hustle play he made in punt coverage in the preseason opener - running down Yamon Figurs at the 2-yard line -- so I think he adds value on special teams. He's quite fast. My question would be if another team would claim him if the Patriots tried to sneak him on to the practice squad, similar to what happened last year with Justin Rogers and the Cowboys.
The new 'deferred' coin flip rule has not been talked about much. It doesn't seem to be a big change as it is the same rule as college, high school and Pop Warner, but I am curious what advantage there is. As I understand it now, if you win the toss you can take the ball or receive. The loser picks field position, then at the half the 'loser' gets the choice to receive or kick. Why would a team defer? It seems like that is the same as losing the coin toss in the first place, except you will get to choose field position as well. So is the rule simply an advantage if a team would rather have the ball at the half and have favorable wind conditions? If so, then why don't teams just choose to kick when they win the toss today? It's a minor change but I think I am just missing the logic of it.
Brett, Hudson, N.H.
A: Brett, here is Bill Belichick's take after he was asked about deferring in the preseason opener: "We'll defer just about every time, unless there is some overriding circumstance that would cause us to do it differently. It will take some type of extreme conditions or a very unusual situation to not do that if you win the toss." One benefit to receiving at the start of the second half is to avoid the scenario where a team can score late in the second quarter, then get the ball at the start of the third quarter and score - giving them a chance to total 14 points before your offense is on the field. Also, in recent years, statistics reveal that teams receiving at the start of the second half have a slight edge in wins. There is also the benefit of seeing how a team is defending you in the first half, then developing an offensive plan to combat it at halftime, and executing it right away instead of having another situation dictate their approach. In the end, teams are deferring the choice to the second half. So if a team elected to kick at the start of the first half, they've made their choice. That means the opposition would have the choice at the start of the second half, and could receive in both the first and second halves.
Hello Mike. Can you give an update on Stephen Neal and the other members on the PUP? Can you explain the PUP process?
A: Tres, there are only two players remaining on the physically unable to perform list - guard Stephen Neal and right tackle Oliver Ross. Those players are on active/PUP, meaning they can come off the list and practice at any time during training camp/preseason. Those players count against the 80-man limit. If Neal or Ross don't come off the PUP list by the time the season starts, they can be placed on the reserve/PUP, meaning they are out for at least the first six weeks of the season. Players on reserve/PUP do not count against the 53-man roster limit.
Is Roger Goodell finally coming around to understanding that the preseason games are a waste of time? Let's play real football. Why would you or I spend time watching a preseason game played by people who have no chance of making the team?
A: Jon, the commissioner is on record as saying he does not believe the preseason product is a good reflection of the NFL. While I generally agree that some preseason games are tough to watch, they do serve a purpose of getting players ready for the season. The question is how many is the right number? I'd be in favor of two preseason games and 18 regular-season games. The NFL Players Association may have something to say about that, though. With negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement forthcoming in the next few years, it wouldn't surprise me if altering the preseason is part of whatever agreement is reached.