|Readers have a lot of questions about new Patriots starting quarterback Matt Cassel, who makes his first start since high school on Sunday in New York. (AP Photo)|
Readers have more questions than ever -- particularly about the quarterback position -- as the Patriots move on without Tom Brady
The complexion of the Patriots' season changed dramatically on the team's 15th offensive play of the season opener, when Tom Brady sustained a season-ending injury to his left knee.
That was easily the most prevalent question among e-mailers. This week's mailbag was overflowing more than I remember any other week over the last four seasons.
With that in mind, let's not waste any time and get right to the questions. ...
Hi Mike, our worst fears have been realized with the injury to Tom Brady. What's the game-plan now? Does the offense go ultra conservative with a QB (Matt Cassel or someone else) trying to manage the game and not make mistakes? Will the emphasis be even more on the defensive side of the ball to control games better? Will the philosophical approach change for the rest of this season or will the team continue to stay wide open like last year?
Jim C., Seminole, Fla.
A: Jim, I think the Patriots now need to alter their approach. I do expect less of the "empty" offense -- when the quarterback is alone in the backfield with five targets split out wide -- and a bit more focus on the running game. But as Cassel showed, he can hit some plays outside the hash marks, and that's where the presence of a player like Randy Moss will be key from keeping defenders from crowding the box. Ditto for Wes Welker, but on the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. The defense will have its margin for error reduced, and special teams will need to win a game or two. I think back to the 2001 Patriots, and the same style applies here.
I know trades are few and far between in the NFL, but are there any trade possibilities for the Pats at QB? Clearly they are not dealing from a position of strength, and this is not an ideal situation for them.
A: Pete, the NFL trade deadline is Oct. 14, so that could certainly be in play, but as I looked at each team's quarterback situation, I didn't see anything that jumped out in terms of a possibility. So I think it would more likely be a free-agent signing, if anything.
Mike, I have been wondering this for some time and figured this would be a good time to ask. With Brady being out the entire season, do the Patriots get any break on their salary cap to sign additional players? I am also curious to see if you believe we will see Kevin O'Connell play some?
A: The Patriots do not get a break on the salary cap, Spagackle. As for O'Connell, I do think we'll see him at some point. A lot will depend on if the Patriots bring in a third quarterback, but I would expect O'Connell to get some work, like Cassel did last season late in games.
Can you explain the confidence the coaching staff has in Cassel? Clearly, they feel good about him or he wouldn't be in this position. Has he excelled in practice? The lack of game experience makes me nervous. Belichick even said the 2 most important attributes to a QB are "accuracy and decision making" -- how do we know anything about Cassel's decision-making with his lack of experience?
A: It's a fair question, Pete. The way I see it, more than anything it's a projection. The coaching staff must see the potential in Cassel from practice, and also feel he has the best command of a complex offensive system. I thought Cassel made some good decisions, and was accurate enough, in the season opener. That was a start. The other point I'd make is that if not Cassel, then who? I went back through some of the veterans who signed in free agency back in February and March and the names didn't jump off the page -- Todd Collins, Trent Green and Cleo Lemon topped the list.
When are we going to call Vinny Testaverde? I think Cassel can win against a bad team, but he almost threw 2 interceptions against a pretty awful KC team; the Colts would eat him alive. Also, is O'Connell ready to play?
A: Alex, I think Testaverde would add a lot in a veteran-steadying type of role, but I don't think he's the type of guy to get you through a 15-game season at this point. I do like him as a player that Cassel could consult with on the sidelines and in the meeting room. As for O'Connell, he's intriguing, but I think the plan was initially to have him in the mix for No. 2 in 2009, not this season. My hunch is that the team won't want to accelerate that process before it has to.
Do we know who they are looking into at quarterback? I heard that Daunte Culpepper was a possible target. Also Chris Simms.
A: Kristina, the Patriots reported to NFL headquarters that Chris Simms and Tim Rattay visited the team on Monday, although they weren't put through tryouts. I am not sure if Culpepper is a consideration. One line of thinking is that Bill Belichick was so emphatic about not having quarterbacks in for tryouts on Monday that it was a show of support for Matt Cassel. Another line of thinking is that the team has something brewing. I wish I had more answers for you on this one.
Why isn't Daunte Culpepper our first call?
A: Eric, Culpepper told reporters he was retiring this past Thursday. I personally wonder how much he has left, but I can see why people are mentioning his name, because of the connection with Randy Moss from their days in Minnesota together. I think the name catches one's attention, but I wasn't too impressed after watching him in Miami in 2006 and Oakland last season. Culpepper did not return a message on Monday seeking comment on his situation.
Any chance of bringing back Matt Gutierrez to back up Cassel?
A: Irv, I would think Gutierrez is on the team's radar based on his knowledge of the system. But by the time I filed this mailbag, I was unable to connect with Gutierrez' agent to see if anything was imminent.
If Matt Cassel starts to flounder as the top QB, do you see any chance that Drew Bledsoe would come back? In my opinion I feel he left football with all his skills intact but was just tired of losing the starting job and the politics of football. Might he not be the answer the Patriots could turn too, or is the bridge between the two burned? Can you see if you can find out if he would be willing to put the helmet on again?
Raymond, Osceola, Ark.
A: Raymond, that would be quite the story. But I just don't see that happening, partially because of the way it ended with Bledsoe in New England. Another e-mailer mentioned Doug Flutie as a possibility. I don't see that either.
Mike, will Brady stay with the team throughout the season while he is rehabbing from the surgery? Despite his loss on the field, his leadership stretches far beyond that and having him on the sidelines coaching Cassel could be inspirational to the team. I do not count the Patriots out for one second, as most others do. This is too talented of a team to just lay down and die. Green Bay is going through the same thing and a lot of people have them making the playoffs (despite it being the NFC). What are your thoughts?
Andrew, Tampa, Fla.
A: Andrew, I am not fully aware of Tom Brady's plans, and I'm sure he'll contribute in some form or another. But the team's top decision-makers might feel that standing on the sidelines is not smart and doesn't lead to the fastest possible recovery. As for counting the Patriots out, I wouldn't do it either. Here is a short bit of analysis I wrote about where the team goes from here.
Hi Reiss, will Tom be back for the playoffs?
A: Ting, when a player is placed on injured reserve, he is lost for not just the regular season but also the playoffs.
Has anyone discussed the fact that Brady missing the entire preseason (either by choice or perhaps by necessity due to injury -- another thing that is unclear) affected his readiness on the field Sunday? It seems to me that preseason work is critical in allowing players' bodies to ramp up physically from the off-season. Maybe the Patriots (or Brady) were careless in having him come in having done little to no preseason ramp up.
A: Jay, I have heard the talk about this, that perhaps if Brady was in the team's offseason program he wouldn't have sustained this injury. I personally don't buy it. I feel this is the type of injury that would just as easily have happened if he was in the offseason program.
Mike, with the Pats a little banged-up to start the season, do you think having an early bye week actually works to their advantage? Also, how does the bye week impact Stephen Neal's return? If he's able to come off the PUP list after week 6, does that mean week six of the NFL season or the sixth game of the Pats season? Thanks.
A: Steven, I think the early off week helps the Patriots in a big way. Losing the starting quarterback can be crippling for teams, and the way I see it, the Patriots have to redefine themselves -- find a new identity -- and the early off week will aid them in doing so. As for Neal, it would be the sixth week for the Patriots, not the sixth game. That is another benefit of the early off week.
Hi Mike. I've been reading a lot of comments from those who blame Sammy Morris for Brady's injury. I think he did his job, maybe could have finished the block better, but I give credit to Bernard Pollard for being aggressive and continuing to play until his target no longer had the ball. He was on the ground, scampering to get to Brady and could not have helped making contact low. His only other choice would have been to give up on the play altogether, and that's not what we would expect our defensive players to do. It was an unfortunate accident, a fluke play. We should be glad Sammy Morris is back in uniform, not saddling him with this responsibility. Your thoughts?
Jason Rubin, Melrose
A: Jason, I agree with you on Morris. I watched the play multiple times and I thought he made a nice play to block Pollard on the blitz. While it looked as if he could have stayed on top of Pollard to stop his forward progress, I also don't think he gave up. On a different note, I thought Morris really added a spark both in the running game (53 yards, 10 carries) and passing game (5 catches, 34 yards).
Hey Mike. Two quick questions: First, I haven't been able to see a replay, but on the Randy Moss fumble, it looked as if the ground caused the fumble. I thought that was not possible in terms of turning the ball over. Second, can you give us an idea on how strong Cassel's arm is? That is, will he be able to stretch the defense? Or will the playbook be limited?
A: Glenn, the reason the Moss play was a fumble was because he wasn't touched down by a defender. Because of that, Moss could have gotten up and kept running. As for Cassel's arm, I think it is NFL-strong. But a strong arm alone isn't enough; a quarterback needs to be able to read defenses, be on the same page as receivers who are making sight-adjustments based on the defense etc. ... I think Cassel is still a work in progress in putting all those elements together, but believe he deserves credit for his performance against the Chiefs.
Hey Mike, why was Shawn Crable inactive? And who are they going to cut with Kevin Faulk coming back?
Jorge, Mexico City
A: Jorge, I'll be interested to see if Crable is active this week, which would indicate to me that he was inactive more due to the matchup. At this point, I view Crable as a player who would contribute in sub packages, and the Patriots must have felt other needs on the roster were more important. Given the defense's struggle on third down (Chiefs were 8 of 16), I thought Crable could have helped a bit. As for who gets released, the Patriots have an open roster spot after placing Tom Brady on season-ending injured reserve on Monday.
Vince Wilfork should ask for his money back. If Pollard's hit was legal, why was Wilfork fined last year for doing essentially the same thing? Some will argue Wilfork threw his elbow -- but Pollard led with his helmet. Isn't there a rule about leading with your helmet? I believe it's called spearing.
A: Walter, I agree with Bill Belichick that there were some similarities between the Wilfork and Pollard plays. It doesn't look like Pollard will be fined and I'm perplexed as to the inconsistency. The only thing I can think of is that the NFL didn't feel Wilfork was being affected by the blocker, as Pollard was by Sammy Morris.
Mike, I know there is a lot of surprise that Chad Jackson was cut by the team and you have indicated your surprise over this move as well. How much influence do you believe Tom Brady had with this personnel decision? Would the coaches have asked him what his comfort level was on the 4th or 5th receiver spot? Would they have gleaned some preference from the QB by his verbal or non verbal interaction with the receivers as a whole?
A: Tim, I wouldn't say that Jackson was cut because of Brady, but I do believe Brady's opinion was factored into the decision. Brady never could develop a trust and comfort level with Jackson, and onlookers at practice could often see his frustration.
Mike, I follow the Pats pretty closely. Not once in any media outlet did I see any explanation for Matt Light's absence during the camp and preseason. Can you shed any light?
A: Steve, I asked Light to shed some light, and this is what he said: "I spent most of my time with the trainers, and they're great people. I really got to know them, and we had a good time." Whatever the physical ailment was, Light now appears to be fine.
Mike, does it ever get frustrating covering the Patriots/Bill Belichick? I am a diehard Pats fan, but I have to say that I get a little sick of BB's games that he plays with injuries. I mean, Tom Brady has been on the injury report pretty much since 2001. No one knows who is actually hurt on the Patriots, or if they are, what part of their body is injured. The other 31 NFL teams report their injuries more or less honestly, one does not. So I guess my question is, what type of advantage does this give the Pats on a weekly basis? Also, has anyone in the NFL spoken with the Patriots organization about this?
A: Chris, I think any level of frustration probably falls in the same category as the beat writers with other NFL teams. Belichick is not forthcoming with injuries, but I think he is far from alone. I believe the Patriots get singled out in this regard, when I've personally seen a team like the Colts handle their injury report the same way. Also, you might recall that the Falcons, a few years back, pulled a fast one with Michael Vick before a Patriots game (he ended up being placed on the injury report late in the week and didn't play, when it was known early in the week he wouldn't play). I think the Patriots feel disclosing full injury information compromises competitive advantage. I am not sure if the NFL has spoken to the team about it.
Hi Mike, just a general question, do you know approximately how many plays each unit has to learn?
A: Brian, Bill Belichick mentioned this during the preseason. He was noting how in the preseason, the offense might run 30 different plays. During the season, Belichick said it would be about 130 for one specific game.