New Boston Globe Patriots writer Mike Reiss check in every Wednesday with his take on the Pats. Ask your question now, and come back next week to see if it was answered.
My question is about Patriots special teams: What do the Patriots need to do to improve punt and kickoff return coverage? Is this an issue of personnel, coaching, or focus? Given how sound the Pats are on fundamentals, it is surprising to me that they have been weak in this area.
A: The Patriots ranked 28th out of 32 teams last season in punt coverage (11.8 yards allowed) and kickoff coverage (23.3 yards allowed). Bill Belichick mentioned on Tuesday that his special teams "made some improvements personnel wise" and the team has "tried to take advantage and play into our strengths as a team." Second-year safety Guss Scott, rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs and fourth-year linebacker Wesly Mallard are a few of the newcomers to special teams. The issue is a combination of everything you mentioned, Mike.
The Patriots open the NFL season again with the Thursday Night game. I know they played on Thursday against the Colts last year. How many times has the NFL started the season with the Thursday prime time game? I do not recall the Patriots playing on Thursday after the first Super Bowl win against the Rams.
A: This week marks the fifth time that the NFL regular season schedule opens on a Thursday. Here's the rundown on Thursday regular-season NFL openers:
1949: Philadelphia 7, N.Y. Bulldogs 0
2002: San Francisco 16, N.Y. Giants 13
2003: Washington 16, N.Y. Jets 13
2004: New England 27, Indianapolis 24
2005: Oakland at New England
Just recently, the NFL has decided that the opening game will feature the defending Super Bowl champions.
I read that Chris Hetherington made a visit with the Patriots this week after being released by the Raiders. Is this a case of the team trying to get some more info for this week's game? I'm surprised the Pats would think about adding a fullback to the roster given they just let Kyle Eckel go (and he looked like he could be a player one day). Speaking of Eckel, I bet the Pats are pretty disappointed he didn't make it through waivers.
A: Hetherington was probably here as much for his special teams presence as his play at fullback. The Patriots have two key special teams players on the injury report (Tully Banta-Cain, James Sanders) and my guess is they felt Hetherington might be a stop gap should those players not be ready for the opener. And it would have been a bonus that Hetherington knew some of the Raiders' special teams schemes. So I think his visit wasn't solely to learn more information about the Raiders, and wasn't about adding a fullback to the roster. As for Eckel, quite a few questions came into the mailbag about him. He seemed to be a fan favorite.
I was surprised when I saw Kyle Eckel get picked up by Miami and it appears the Patriots may have had him targeted as the eighth practice squad player. Does he have a connection to or better chance of playing in Miami, when the Patriots seem to be very light in the backfield? Follow up to that question, will the Patriots pursue Jon Ritchie, now that he was let go by Philadelphia?
A: Eckel probably does have a better chance of playing in Miami, because the Dolphins don't have as much talent on their roster right now. Because he wasn't a front-line contributor on special teams, Eckel wasn't as valuable to the Patriots as some other players on the roster bubble, such as linebacker Wesly Mallard. So when the Patriots were considering whether to keep a fourth running back or 10th linebacker, the special teams aspect probably swayed the vote. As for Ritchie, the Patriots didn't pursue him when he was a free agent a few years back, so it's unlikely they'd do so now. The team did bring fullback Chris Hetherington in for a free-agent visit on Monday morning, but that might have been more for special teams than anything else. Hetherington signed with the 49ers.
Wow, I can't believe Belichick let Eckel go. He was picked by the enemy: Saban and the Dolphins! He will end up being their starting fullback. He was a hard-nosed ball player. I would have kept him before keeping Klecko.
Ron, Buellton, Calif.
A: Klecko plays goal-line fullback, is part of a few special teams units, could be part of the team's sub defensive packages, and provides depth on the defensive line. That combination won out over Eckel, whose primary contributions came carrying the football. It looks like the team picked Klecko for his versatility, and I can't argue with that.
Here is something I've always wanted to know the answer to: How is the ever popular quarterback rating calculated? The numbers are always touted but I've never heard them explained. Thanks.
Gary, Vienna, Va.
The short version is that in 1973, the current passer rating system was adopted. Four stats are used as a basis for the rating:
I read somewhere that Roman Phifer still has a locker in Patriots locker room. Is this true? And, if it is true, why does he still have a locker? Do you think the Patriots will be bringing him back?
Tim, Wethersfield, Conn.
A: The nameplate and shoulder pads in Roman Phifer's old locker were taken down last week. That's probably a sign that Roman isn't coming back, unless there are unexpected injuries. The likely reason the locker remained intact is out of respect for his contributions to the team, and the fact he has yet to sign with another team.
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on Tully Banta-Cain and Dan Klecko. I've always liked these kids since the Patriots drafted them in 2003 and felt that they had the potential to really contribute on defense in some capacity or another. But now it seems as if neither is getting much consideration for more significant time.
David, West Tisbury
A: Banta-Cain (7th round) and Klecko (4th round) are two solid players from the team's successful 2003 draft. Banta-Cain is fourth on the depth chart at outside linebacker and I think he's a player on the rise, primed to emerge when Willie McGinest retires. Look for Banta-Cain's role to expand as the season goes on, and he most definitely will be a factor on special teams. He might not play in the season-opener because of a leg injury suffered in the last preseason game. As for Klecko, he made the transition back from linebacker to defensive line this year. He projects as a sub-rusher, so look for him on the field in obvious passing situations, lining up over the center. He might be used on earlier downs at defensive tackle if the team goes to a 4-3 set.
I was reading a publication that had Stephen Neal as an All Pro. Is that way off base? Or is he already at that point after only a few years of football? Another question is if the Super Bowl trophies are available for anyone to see? Also, does anyone out there know of a bar to watch Pats games with other Pats fans out in the Chicago area?
A: Stephen Neal as an All-Pro isn't too far off base, as he is one of the more athletic guards in the league, and a player on the rise. It's an interesting choice considering many of those picks are based on past reputation, not projecting future performance. On the Super Bowl trophies, I'm not 100 percent sure so I'll try to follow that one up next week. As for sports bars in Chicago, I'll open that up to any readers out there, and hopefully we'll have something to pass along next week.
Have the Patriots made any contact with the agent for inside linebacker Mike Maslowski?
Pete, Sherrif Hutton, England
A: As of late last week, there had been no contact with Maslowski, who is coming off an intensive knee surgery. Maslowski, a middle linebacker whom the Patriots signed to a free-agent offer sheet a few years ago, still might return to the Chiefs when all is said and done.
I think the worst person the Pats could lose to injury on defense this year would be Vince Wilfork. They really have no one to replace him. Klecko seems more of a pass rush nose. Would you agree with this assessment? Also a related question: Was it a huge disappointment to the coaches with what happened with Ethan Kelley? Because it seemed like they had high hopes for him when they released Traylor.
A: Wilfork would be a difficult loss, but I'll disagree and say Richard Seymour would be a tougher loss to overcome. While the Patriots don't have a "true" nose tackle behind Wilfork who plays his same style, they could switch to a 4-3 and still have Seymour, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and Willie McGinest as a possible line. That's not bad. If they stayed in the 3-4, it would probably be Seymour, Warren at nose, and Green. That's not bad, either. If you lose Seymour, though, you subtract a player who has rare game-changing ability. Wilfork has it, too, but not yet to Seymour's level.
My question relates to the practice squad. Could you explain what it means for the 8 players to be assigned to the practice squad? Do they still get the league minimum salary? What do they do all week? Can they be promoted to the regular squad at some point in the season? Can they be traded or released?
John, Jacksonville, Fla.
A: The eight-man practice squad is meant to give teams a "minor-league" of sorts. These players are paid a separate salary from those on the 53-man roster -- the minimum amount that a practice squad player will make each week in 2005 is $4,700. These players receive a check for each week of the season -- including his team's bye. They also would receive this amount for each playoff game that their team participates in. They go through much of the same work as all the players, with some extra instruction mixed in. Often times, they are promoted to the regular roster, and like any player, they could be released at any time. Here is what Bill Belichick said about the practice squad on Tuesday: "We meet extra with them. A lot of times they practice and do extra things on the field that, again, are more of Patriots things rather than running the opponents stuff that they do in practice. They're not quite there yet or don't have the opportunity yet. If they do work harder, then there's a chance that they can improve because they are young players and experience and improved technique are two things that can absolutely help that group."
I think that Nick Kaczur will start at right tackle ... maybe not the first game, but he will eventually rotate in. Also, it looks like Don Davis is going to take Roman Phifer's role as the dime LB. What do you think?
A: Kaczur has had a strong couple of months and will probably be the third tackle for the season opener. With starting right tackle Tom Ashworth in the final year of his contract, the team has Kaczur waiting in the wings. As for if Kaczur will overtake Ashworth this season, it's too early to tell. I like Ashworth and think he's an unsung member of the line. As for the dime linebacker question, Davis is one of the team's faster linebackers, so that would make sense.
Am I the only one who thinks that the only reason the Colts picked up Dexter Reid is to get inside information on the Patriot defense (nothing personal Dexter)? That's the first thing I thought of when I saw that the Colts grabbed him as soon as he hit the wire. They need any advantage they can get.
A: The Colts picked up Dexter Reid because they ranked last in the NFL in where opponents started their drives (about the 31-yard line). Reading up on the situation, it seems that was partially because of poor kickoffs and partially because of poor coverage. In other words, their special teams let them down, and Reid has shown some value in that coverage area. When Reid was asked what secrets he might share about beating the Patriots, he told Indianapolis reporters the only way is to "outwork them."
Glad to see your updates from 3,000 miles away. Do you know of a good joint to watch Pats games in Seattle, Washinton?
A: We'll toss that one out to any readers, Michael, and hopefully have something to pass on next week. I've never been to Seattle but hear great things about it.
Does Tom Brady have a say in who stays and who goes in the offense?
Hub, Glenmoore, Pa.
A: My guess is that Brady's say is minimal. I'm sure the coaches ask his opinion and then use that as a piece of information to make the best decision possible. When asked this past week about the team cutting his friend David Terrell, Brady said: "I'm lucky I don't have to make those decisions."
Mike, what happened with Cedric Cobbs? I know he was hurt but they don't have a true tailback backup for Dillon. Faulk is great, but not an every down guy. They could not wait for Cobbs or was he just not that good?
James, Northford, Conn.
A: Turns out Cobbs (fourth round) was one of the big disappointments from the 2004 draft class. I was a little surprised they didn't try to put him on the practice squad (he's now on the Broncos' practice squad). I think Cobbs really struggled in the passing game, and thus was too one-dimensional for the Patriots' liking. Also, he hardly contributed on special teams. The lesson is probably that when you back up Corey Dillon, you need to be able to do more than just carry the ball. As for what would happen if Dillon was injured, my guess is that the Patriots feel like they could find an Antowain Smith-like stop gap. Maybe a guy like Eddie George.
My question is how much of an impact has Matt Cassel made with this team that they have him as there third-string QB, and do you think he can develop into a starting NFL quarterback?
Mike, Brooksville, Fla.
A: Cassel's impact has been positive. While he struggled a bit in the final preseason game, I think the coaches are extremely pleased with what they have to work with. Cassel seems conscientious off the field, and I like his confidence on it. While it's early to say, I could see him developing and following in the footsteps of Brad Johnson -- a player who didn't see much time in college but succeeded in the pros.
Has Roman Phifer's locker been emptied?
Hub, Glenmoore Pa.
A: Yes. It was emptied after the final cut down on Saturday.
I'm an avid Pats fan and enjoy very much following the preseason. What has happened to Ryan Claridge? Is he still with the Pats? I never seem to hear his name.
A: Claridge was placed on injured reserve, meaning he's out for the season. It usually takes a year for a linebacker to get up to speed, especially in a complex defensive system like the Patriots run, so Claridge's potential emergence has been delayed until 2006.
In the Packers' preseason game, it was interesting that when Flutie went in during the second quarter the Patriots ran a few rollout passes, clearly designed specifically for Flutie. Could we see that during the regular season, subbing in Flutie even with a healthy Brady? It could be a way to catch an opponent by surprise, with an offensive look they have not prepared for.
A: Interesting observation, Tom, and you probably nailed it. If I recall correctly, Bill Belichick said something to the sideline TV reporter that he did that to keep Flutie on his toes, because that might be the type of situation he could be in during the regular season.
There was a mystery player in the cuts to the 53-man roster. The Patriots.com Web site roster had Cedric James as one of 71 players on the roster before final cuts. His name also did not appear on any of the cut lists or on any of the internet site transactions lists over the last few months. But his name is now gone from the Patriots.com roster. Any clues as to what happened here?
A: Cedric was sent to NFL Europe this summer as one of the Patriots' allocated players and suffered an injury there. He never suited up for the Patriots in training camp. He's either been released and earned some type of an injury settlement, or is on injured reserve.
It seemed to me based on preseason game performance that receiver Jason Anderson was having the best camp of those competing for the last few receiver slots. Do you agree with that assessment? And, if so, can he still be added to the practice squad or has someone else picked him up?
Sam, Falmouth, Maine
A: Anderson caught a few people's eyes by making two touchdown catches. I thought he might be a candidate for the team's practice squad, not the 53-man roster, but he hasn't been signed. He is still available as no other team has signed him.
Several questions in your mailbag from Aug. 31 referred to the Pats defensive alignment in the SB as a 5-2. That alignment should be referred to as a 2-5 (2 DL and 5 LB), which the announcers gushed about as being unheard of. However, in reality, the alignment was a 4-3 where the DE spots were manned by OLBs. This alignment has been used by the Pats late in games when they have a lead and pass defense is the priority.
Now for a follow-up to one of your answers from Aug. 31 regarding the NFL rotating schedule. I understand that the venue for the regularly scheduled, rotating games is determined by alternating but how is the venue determined for the "strength of schedule" opponents?
A: The venue of the "strength of schedule" opponents is pre-determined by the league. So in 2006, it's already been determined that the Patriots will play the AFC West opponent at home and the AFC North opponent on the road. In 2007, the Patriots will again play the AFC West at home and the AFC South on the road. In 2008, the team will play the AFC North at home and the AFC South on the road. In 2009, the team will play the AFC North at home and the AFC West on the road.
I know it is kind of hard to tell, but how do you think Bill Belichick REALLY feels about the Raiders? Seems to me that it isn't his type of team at all, there are a lot of overpaid old guys, a lot of young players who aren't very good, and no depth whatsoever. On top of that you have guys like Randy Moss who clearly doesn't have the Belichick attitude, and guys like Charles Woodson who just cash big checks without earning them. In fact, I would go as far as to say this is the exact opposite of how Belichick builds his team. Any way, I was just wondering your thoughts.
A: You want me to read Belichick's mind? Tough chore, Max, but I think you're right on. I had a similar thought this week as Belichick was talking about the type of players on the Raiders. There are some players we know could be Patriots (i.e. Ted Washington, Bobby Hamilton), but on the whole, I don't think Oakland is his type of team. I'd go back to the draft as an example. The Raiders were picking 23rd and grabbed Nebraska cornerback Fabian Washington, one of the fastest players in the draft. If Belichick were in the same position, my hunch is that he would have taken Michigan corner Marlin Jackson, who isn't as fast but is a bit larger and more physical. It's just a difference in philosophy, but an interesting one to consider.
Back before SB XXXVIII, Warren Sapp said, "I've already whupped up on them every time they've seen me, so I say the day they beat me is the day I retire, because I am no longer able to play this game like I should." What do you think are the chances of the loudmouth actually keeping his promise?
A: Sapp also had some harsh words for Russ Hochstein prior to Super Bowl XXXVIII. When approached about Sapp in the locker room this week, Hochstein said: "It doesn't matter. That was two years ago. I'm worried about what's at hand." But my feeling is that Hochstein hasn't forgotten, and neither have the Patriots.
I am curious what happens to the $200,000 signing bonus David Terrell received now that he is cut and no longer a member of the team. Also, what happens to the deal he signed with us?
AJ, Bronx, NY
A: That $200,000 goes right into Terrell's pocket. Signing bonuses are the only part of NFL contracts that are guaranteed. The deal Terrell signed with the Patriots is now terminated, and the team takes a $200,000 hit to its salary cap (which is a shade higher when including a workout bonus).
I've heard several stories through the years that following a Super Bowl championship, the championship team tends to get the "A" game of every team they play the next year, because the opposing teams get pumped up to knock off the champion from last year. My question is this: Because the Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls, do you think that the opposite may be true for the Patriots this year? Because the team has been so dominant and Bill Belichick has become so revered as a coach, will there be an intimidation factor that actually gives the Patriots an edge?
Nick, Westford, Vt.
A: I can see both sides, Nick. Teams will most definitely be fired up to play their "A" game, but at the same time, the aura of the Patriots and mastermind Bill Belichick could psyche some teams out. In the end, though, once the first snap is taken I don't think either will play a major outcome in any game. It's all about which team executes better over 60 minutes.
I've heard a lot of predictions lately regarding the next Super Bowl matchup -- who's it going to be? Also, how many rings do we need to prove them wrong?
A: Patriots vs. Panthers, a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII. Two teams that do the little things as well as anybody meet again. And whoever does the little things best in the Super Bowl will win.
What team do you think has the best chance to beat the Patriots during first seven games? Do you think that many of the national "pundits" have focused too hard on the defensive team losses of Bruschi, Johnson and Law rather than the offensive plusses of Watson, Dwight, Mankins in so many of them picking the Pats to not make the Super Bowl?
Bradley, Birdsboro, Pa.
A: The Panthers and Falcons appear to be the toughest of the team's six games before the bye, especially since both games are on the road. I haven't followed much of what the national experts have said about the Patriots, but I don't think it's unreasonable to question how the team will respond to the losses of Bruschi, Law, Johnson, Weis and Crennel. Those are big losses.
Huge fan of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. Will be a Notre Dame and Browns fan while they are there. If the Patriots had came up with similar pay packages, would they have stayed? Or were they more interested in showing their own stuff like Bill Belichick did when he left Parcells for the Pats? Would the Patriots have given them similar packages or are they as adamant on holding the lines with the coaching staff too?
Dave, Myrtle Beach, SC
A: Both would have left anyway, Dave. Their situations were all about opportunity.
More a note than a question. We've heard so much about the fact that no team has ever won three Super Bowls in a row, and the odds against it are just too long. Well, the odds of a team winning three straight Super Bowls are one in 32,768. Long odds. But the odds of a team winning one are one in 32. Same every year for every team, mathematically. That is, the odds of flipping a coin and getting heads 10 times in a row is one in 1,024. However, after getting nine in a row, the odds of getting that 10th are one in two. The odds of the Patriots winning three in row are irrelevant. What is relevant is the chance of winning this one. I like their odds.
A: Maybe we'll run that by Bill Belichick in his next press conference and see if agrees. Thanks for the thought.
I have looked forward to this mailbag for the past several years and all New England football fans appreciate you carrying the torch. I am wondering what happened with David Terrell. When he was first acquired I was reading about how he and Brady had an immediate aura that harkens back to their days at Michigan. What happened? There is no question that Terrell has talent.
Chris, South Portland, Maine
A: Terrell suffered an undisclosed injury that knocked him off track. When he came back, he looked slow and couldn't develop that same chemistry with Brady. As for him having the talent, a lot can change in five years -- and while Terrell was a first-round draft choice in 2001, he wasn't deemed more valuable than a former eighth-round choice (Troy Brown, 1993), seventh-round choice (David Givens -- 2002), fourth-round choice (Tim Dwight -- 1998) or second-round choice (Deion Branch -- 2002; Andre' Davis -- 2002, Bethel Johnson -- 2003).
Tom Brady, right shoulder? Hello! What in the name of heaven is that about on the team's injury report?
Milton, Setauket, NY
A: The team listed Brady on its injury report each game last season. I'm not 100 percent sure why the team does it, but Brady will be playing.
Is it true the Patriots are going to wear their throwbacks this year. Also, I heard their third jersey is changing to red.
Dean, Tolland, Conn.
A: I'm told the answer is "no" to both questions.