What a week to be following the Patriots.
Tom Brady's sore right shoulder. Kevin O'Connell's surprising release. Tedy Bruschi's spine-tingling retirement press conference.
This is an exciting time as the team gears up for the season opener against the Bills on Sept. 14. I could sense a shift in tone in the locker room following the Patriots' 27-24 victory over the Redskins as players were already talking about the season opener, and preparing for the Bills' no-huddle offense.
We should have plenty of roster-related moves to break down in the coming days. Teams must cut down to 75 players by Sept. 1. The cut to 53 players is by Sept. 5. Given the Patriots history, there should be a few surprises.
On to the questions.
Hey Mike, the timing of Tedy Bruschi's retirement suggests that he realized that he wasn't going to make the cut and didn't want to put himself and Bill Belichick in that awkward position. What do you think? Is there any chance he joins the coaching staff?
A: Joseph, I think a player who has meant so much to the Patriots franchise deserves the right send-off, and that's the main thing I'd focus on when it comes to Bruschi. People might think Bill Belichick is an emotionless guy, but as we saw, that's far from the case. He wasn't just going to put Bruschi's name on a cut list. A player like that deserves more. Bruschi probably could see the writing on the wall, and at the same time, I think Belichick has a relationship with Bruschi where they could sit across from each other, look each other in the eye, and speak honestly about his potential contributions. Those watching training camp and preseason could notice those contributions were diminishing. In the end, I think this was about mutual respect. On Bruschi as a coach, he's expressed interest in the past about doing so but there is nothing definitive at this point.
Do you think that Bruschi has been contemplating retirement all along, or only since his place on the team was in jeopardy?
A: From watching Bruschi over his career, and trying to understand his mindset a bit, I think he was hoping to give it another year but that he would accept Bill Belichick's honest analysis because he respects him so much. So I could envision a situation where he went to Belichick and said "What do you think?" And Belichick could tell him "Tedy, I think the world of you, it would be best for the team if we go in this direction." Or "Tedy, I have a spot for you, but you might not be active on game days." I could also see a situation where Bruschi himself felt he wasn't helping the team, and went to Belichick to run his decision by him for confirmation.
Now that Bruschi has retired, the depth at LB is thinned out yet again. What options do we have besides switching to a 5-2 formation (just kidding)? Crable has underperformed thus far leaving us Mayo, Thomas, Woods, and Guyton for LB depth. Are you as nervous as I am about this? There doesn't appear to be a lot of free agent LB's we can grab this late in the game.
A: Mike, even before Bruschi's retirement, I thought we'd see a lot more four-man line in 2009 than we have in the past. Gary Guyton was the third linebacker Friday night in Washington. Given the lack of depth, I'd give Crable a bit more time to emerge (I had cut him on my latest projection, but I'm changing that). This position is very thin. I assume the Patriots will be scouring the waiver wire and pursuing possible trades in this area.
Mike, Tedy Bruschi was truly one of the greatest players in New England football history. How do Gary Guyton, Paris Lenon and Jerod Mayo look filling the hole left by his departure?
Aaron B., Germany
A: Last year, Bruschi was a first- and second-down player, appearing in 50 percent of the snaps. So when considering filling the hole from his departure, I think it's important to keep in mind that he was no longer a full-time player. I think Mayo is ready to emerge as a centerpiece of the defense. One of my favorite plays from Friday's game against the Redskins was the speed he showed running to the sideline to chase down Ladell Betts on a 12-yard gain. It was a "wow" type of moment to me. We also saw him blitz a bit more and make an impact. Overall, I see big things ahead for Mayo. Guyton shows promise and Lenon looks like he's on the roster bubble to me. Without Bruschi, my biggest question is who brings the energy. Bruschi did everything full-tilt and that was infectious at times. I'm not sure who might fill that energy-based void.
Mike, with Bruschi retiring, do you feel this will hurt the team from a leadership standpoint? Obviously his departure will be felt, but with losing Bruschi, Vrabel and Harrison in one offseason, it seems like the team is going to take a big hit in the leadership and knowledge departments. It feels like we have lost a bit of our identity and heart.
A: Joe, I can see where this is a hot topic, and a worthy one to discuss. I buy into the idea that football is a changing game and that means new leaders have a chance to emerge each year. I look at a player like Ty Warren. It's hard for me to believe this is already his seventh season. Seems like yesterday he was walking in as a soft-spoken first-round pick from Texas A&M. I see him as a leader now, not to mention a heck of a player. I look at the special teams void left by Larry Izzo's departure and see Sam Aiken doing more. Logan Mankins on the offensive line is another example of a player who has become a spokesman of sorts, and it seems like yesterday he was donning a suit for the first time in his life as a first-round draft choice. Bill Belichick talked Monday about passing the torch and I think part of that torch gets passed a bit each year. I think the Patriots will miss the leadership of franchise greats like Bruschi, Vrabel and Harrison. At the same time, I see players in that locker room who are still leaders.
What are the salary cap implications with Bruschi retiring?
A: Bruschi was scheduled to earn $1.9 million in 2009 so the Patriots get some extra cap space.
With Bruschi hanging them up and the team playing more 4-3, does Derrick Brooks get a look as a possible free agent signing for the Pats?
A: Brooks is hoping the Patriots call, MM. Without any inside knowledge of the situation, my feeling is that a Brooks-to-Patriots storyline isn't likely. This defense needs to get younger, not older, at this point.
If Deion Branch is cut by Seattle, do you think the Patriots might be interested in signing him?
A: Steve, I think it would be a natural fit, although I'm not sure the Seahawks are truly leaning that way. If Branch was available, things would have to check out medically for the Patriots to sign him, but I think it would make a lot of sense. Joey Galloway is the current No. 3, and while he could still emerge, the chemistry is not yet there as he adapts to a new offense and Tom Brady.
Now that Kevin O'Connell is gone and Andrew Walter looks like he'll be the No. 2, I'd like a little more info on him. Is he a Brady drop-back passer prototype or will the Pats have to change their offensive schemes?
A: Walter was a third-round draft choice out of Arizona State in 2005 who played his first four years with the Raiders. At 6-feet-6-inches and 230 pounds, he looks like a basketball player on the field. He is not known for his mobility, so he's more in the mold of a pure dropback passer. In 15 career games (9 starts), he had three touchdown passes and 16 interceptions. Not impressive production, but when one considers the Raiders have been the junior varsity of the NFL of late, the stats take on a different context. There should be no changing of schemes to account for Walter.
Hey Mike, is O'Connell getting waived a sign that the Patriots are in love with Brian Hoyer? What do you make of his performance thus far in the preseason?
A: Greg, I'm not sure if the decision with O'Connell is connected to Hoyer. I did think Hoyer moved the offense well in the second half of the Bengals preseason game. Final numbers: 11 of 19 for 112 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs. It will be interesting to see how he does Thursday against the Giants. I think we can read a few different ways into the move with O'Connell: Is it confidence in Walter and Hoyer? Is it a sign that a veteran quarterback could join the team? Is it a reflection that Brady's injury isn't serious? I wish I had a definitive answer on that one.
Well Mike, just a quick e-mail to say I told you so. No chance you recall e-mailing with me last year, but I told you how absurd your call was to have O'Connell replace Cassel was very early on last season. It was a pretty stupid idea then with the release of O'Connell plus the large contract that Pioli gave Cassel only makes it that much more stupid.
Rob M., South Boston
A: Rob, you are an enforcer serving in the role of the accountability police. I was wrong. I thought Cassel looked bad last preseason, and we all know how that turned out once the regular season arrived. I am accountable for what I write, and in that case my analysis was off. We'll see what type of career O'Connell has, and if he lands in a spot that will aid his development.
Hi Mike, given how important it is to avoid injuries, are certain player positions such as quarterbacks coached on techniques on how to fall when tackled (by various means and angles/positions) to minimize or avoid injury? For example, we all saw how Brady instinctively extended his arm to try to break his fall; would it have been better to tuck the arm in, for example?
T. Wong, Honolulu, Hawaii
A: I had not thought of this until hearing Brady during his weekly interview with WEEI mention that there is an art to falling to avoid injury. In the case of the hit he took on Albert Haynesworth, I'm not sure he could have reacted any differently in that split-second moment in terms of being able to tuck his arm in. I've also noticed that the Patriots' receivers - maybe taking a cue from the Colts before them - often given themselves up to avoid big hits after catching passes.
Mike, I am surprised to see the Patriots give up on O'Connell so soon. I wonder what the coaches saw that we didn't. Can you shed any insight on this?
Watson, Canton, Ohio
A: Like you, Watson, I was also surprised. It wasn't just that they gave up on him, but also that they didn't receive any value for him in a trade. I assume they called around the league to gauge trade interest, but we'll see if they potentially missed an opportunity on that one when it is learned how many teams place a waiver claim on him. Usually when multiple teams place a waiver claim on a player, it means that a player has value in the market. One example was last year when offensive lineman Andy Alleman was waived by the Saints. Multiple teams claimed him. The Dolphins were awarded his rights and have since retained some value for him, trading him to the Chiefs. As for the O'Connell decision, Bill Belichick touched on him during his regularly scheduled appearance on WEEI on Monday. He said he didn't do enough with his opportunities. I wish there were more specifics. One e-mailer pointed out that his two-minute drive at the end of the Bengals' game might have been a major consideration, as he didn't play the type of situational football that Bill Belichick preaches.
Mike, do you think that Julian Edelman has the skill set to be a No. 3 or No. 4 backup quarterback in the NFL? This, of course, would be in addition to his other roles as WR and returner. This flexibility would make him even more valuable to the team, especially with the departure of O'Connell. It kind of reminds me when Troy Brown practiced as a backup QB.
Dave, Berlin N.H.
A: Dave, I'd consider Edelman an option as a "specialty" quarterback, meaning that I don't think he would be called upon to get a team through a stretch of games in the event of injury, but rather be called upon in specific situations during games.
You have to give the former draft tandem of Belichick and Pioli credit for three championships and building a dynasty. That said, their drafting in the second and third rounds leaves much to be desired, considering that there is a higher expectation and probability of success in the higher rounds. From Chad Jackson to Terrence Wheatley to Bethel Johnson to Kevin O'Connell, there is a litany of underachievers and absolute failures that preclude Pats' management from having earned such an elite reputation at drafting, in spite what is seemingly a widespread positive perception. And though their first rounders have been hits more often than many other teams, Ben Watson and Laurence Maroney were not worthy of first round picks, hindsight being 20/20. Do you think this is a fair assessment of their drafting?
A: I think the key on topics like these CJ is to put it into the context of the entire league. Everyone misses on draft choices. But when I stack the Patriots up against other clubs, they still rank highly. Maybe not the highest, but still right up there. For every Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson in the second round, there has been a Matt Light and Deion Branch. For every Kevin O'Connell, there has been a Nick Kaczur. They've also had some nice success in the later rounds. So while I think we could find certain breakdowns in the scouting/drafting process, I don't think it's any different than any club. The one area that I might turn a bit of a critical eye of late is in the pro area - giving up a fifth-round pick for tight end Alex Smith doesn't seem to be working out, and a third-rounder and fifth-rounder for Derrick Burgess looks a bit rich at this point based on Burgess's projected role as solely a nickel rusher on a team that values versatility and flexibility.
Mike, after watching the first three preseason games, I am very disappointed and discouraged by the inability of the Patriots defensive backs to make open field tackles. Wheatley, Wilhite, Butler and even Leigh Bodden seem incapable of tackling. Instead, they dive and if they miss, the other player gets at least 10 more yards. If they don't have a good pass rush this year, they will definitely lead the league in opponents' yard after catch. Can they be coached to learn how to tackle now in the pros? Didn't anybody teach them to tackle when they were in college?
Speros Zakas, Salem
A: I agree, Speros, the tackling by defensive backs in the first three preseason games was generally poor. Wheatley couldn't corral Jeremy Maclin and Chad Ochocinco. Wilhite had his fundamentals break down against Malcolm Kelly. Bodden dove at Chris Cooley and simply missed him. It hasn't been pretty in the tackling department with the defensive backs, and if that continues, the team's third-down struggles from last year will probably continue. Because there are only a few live tackling drills in training camp because of injury concerns, the preseason games are really the main area for players to get up to speed on the fundamentals, so that is something to keep in mind.
I'm starting to get real concerned that our pass rush is still mediocre at best and the defensive backfield hasn't improved as much as I thought. Is this me worrying too much since it's still preseason or is there real concern within the team?
A: I don't think the rush or the defensive backfield has been as solid as anticipated at this point, although the rush was close against the Redskins, so that was a bit more encouraging from a Patriots perspective. It's always a balance on preseason issues. In one respect, it's probably good to remember that the preseason is the time to work out problems. In another respect, sometimes you can pick up clues to issues that could hurt a team. With this in mind, "real concern" might be a bit strong, but I think it's worthy to keep on the radar.
Mike, while watching the Pats-Redskins game last Friday I could not help but feel that something is missing on this team. When I saw BB on the sidelines he either was frustrated or angry. The defense still looks bad and the team seems to lack any spark. I know it's the preseason, but I think after eight months of planning, the team is not where it should be and Belichick knows that. I also think there are far more players on the bubble than most people think. Your thoughts?
Paul, Kenosha, Wis.
A: Paul, I can understand why those feelings would be there. At the same time, I'm always reluctant to put too much into preseason action. I think the Patriots' offense, while still working out some kinks, has the potential to be one of the league's most explosive units. The defense, on the other hand, looks a bit more vulnerable to me. Special teams appear solid. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that more players were on the bubble than projected, as the Patriots annually seem to pull out a few shockers in that area.
Many commentators thought it was odd that the Pats drafted 12 players given the strength of their roster. Separately, the question of lucrative, long-term veteran contracts (Wilfork, Seymour, Mankins, etc.) has been an issue. I wonder if the two are related? Given the uncertainty of the CBA, could it be that the organization was trying to stock up with cheap young talent as insurance in case they lose a lot of veterans after this season?
A: I think this is an excellent point, Bruce. I'd also add this thought from John W., who emailed after reading the following line in the Boston Globe Sunday football notes "With Eli Manning and Philip Rivers the latest to sign mega-contracts, it's just more ammunition for new Players Association director DeMaurice Smith to call out owners for crying poor in the upcoming labor negotiation." I think John is on to something. He writes:
"This insight has caused me to evaluate the Pats position relative to signing Vince Wilfork and, possibly, Tom Brady, to name a couple. We all know that Mr. Kraft and Roger Goodell are close and that Mr. Kraft is one of the more involved owners in the NFL. Since he will be intimately involved with the upcoming CBA negotiations, he would seem to be one of the last owners that would want to provide DeMaurice Smith with ammunition heading in to these contentious negotiations. With teams such as the Giants and Chargers offering these mega dollar contracts prior to the CBA being extended, it seems to send the wrong message to the players union as to how much money these teams are actually earning/losing."
Breaking news, particularly relating to personnel, is often attributed to "league sources". Does that imply someone within the NFL or team offices, or could it be just anyone with connections? I'm not questioning the validity of these stories, just wondering about the meaning of the phrase "league sources".
Johnny, Rutland, Vt.
A: I think it's a great question, Johnny, and one I appreciate readers inquiring about because it adds crucial context to any report. A league source is vague and is a term that you hope to avoid as a reporter. The preference is to give the reader a more specific description, such as a "team source" or a "source in the NFL office" or "a source who has seen the contract" but often times sources are concerned there will be repercussions if the description hits too close to home and they are discovered to be the one providing information. So you try to negotiate a middle ground and I'd say that's why you see so much of the "league source." So to answer your question, a league source could be an owner, coach, player, agent, NFL employee and then some. As a reporter, it's our job to determine if the source is close enough to the story to be providing accurate information.
Mike, without giving anyway any sources, when the report that Brady's injury might not be so severe, it was from "a source close to the Patriots". What does that mean? Could it be somebody on the coaching staff or in the front office? Or, was it somebody outside of the team who might know. "Close to" sounds like an "outsider." If so, how do they know?
Mark B., Seattle, Wash.
A: Mark, this is a tough question to answer because it wasn't my report. My interpretation of it, from afar, is that it could be a coach, a front-office employee, or perhaps a trainer/doctor who works on behalf of the Patriots. I know my colleague Christopher L. Gasper wouldn't print something if he didn't have it on good authority - he's a pro -- and so I don't doubt the validity of what he wrote. I think the important thing as a reporter is not just hearing the information from a source, but determining if that source is close enough to the story to be providing accurate information. That can often times be the hardest part of working a story.