|Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel talks to head coach Bill Belichick (right) with his backup Kevin O'Connell is in the middle. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)|
This one stands out
In a game Mike Reiss ranks high on his list of regular-season standouts, Matt Cassel's debut as a starter had readers saying plenty
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Where does the Patriots' 19-10 victory over the Jets rank in terms of most meaningful regular-season victories in Bill Belichick's nine years as New England's coach?
It was a question I pondered upon exiting Giants Stadium Sunday night.
My initial thought: No. 1.
It had been a turbulent week at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots learning that quarterback Tom Brady -- easily their most important player during their dynastic run -- had been lost for the season after tearing his ACL and MCL in his left knee. Keeping the Patriots focused and getting a quarterback who hadn't started a regular-season game since 1999 was a tall task for Belichick and his staff. I think a lot of people saw this as the beginning of the end for the Patriots.
Add in that the opponent was the rival Jets, the team which turned the Patriots into the NFL for illegal videotaping and is led by a coach that Belichick brought into the NFL, and the magnitude of the week only increased.
Detractors were also asking if Belichick could win without Brady.
When I considered all those factors, I put the game at the top of the regular-season list. But there is some strong competition, including (but not limited to):
Perhaps I'm overstating the meaning of this past Sunday's victory to Belichick, but to me, it's exactly the type of reward that coaches work all those long hours to experience. The players deserve all the credit for making it happen. The coaches also deserve a tip of the cap.
Maybe some day, after Belichick retires, he'll compile an actual list of most meaningful regular-season victories.
Until then, let's get on to the questions. ...
Seeing the defense perform like its former self (pre-2007) against the Jets, could it be possible that the way the offense was playing last year took the challenge out of the defense? Several times last year it could just be felt that the defense was not that motivated and did not look as sharp as before. Seeing it on Sunday it was clear that it was all fired up and finally looks like the stellar defense of yesteryear.
Jean-Francois Noel, Quebec
A: I can understand where you are coming from, Jean-Francois. The way I look at it, the defense had a larger margin for error last year, because the offense was spotting it so many points. Human nature sometimes takes over and it is probably a bit easier to lose your edge at times. This 2008 defense now has less margin for error, and its edge was particularly sharp Sunday against the Jets. Key stat: Opponents have been inside the red-zone five times and the Patriots have allowed just two touchdowns.
Hi Mike. Against the Jets I liked the offensive game plan. The coaching staff correctly saw that it was more important to the team if Matt Cassel manages the game with a conservative and mistake-free performance than to make him win it. This seems wise, low risk plays and the young QB still has the confidence of the team. Next week do you think Matt airs it out more?
A: I see two factors here, Scott. First is dictated by what the defense is playing. Part of the reason that Cassel threw mostly short and intermediate passes against the Jets is that New York stayed committed to taking away the long game with Randy Moss by rolling safety Kerry Rhodes over the top of him to form an effective double team. So the Patriots worked the short stuff. The second part is what the coaches install in the game-plan early in the week, and I think it would be naive to believe the coaches were prepared to let Cassel air it out Sunday. I think they were going with the short/intermediate routes regardless, so he could best manage the game. My thought is that we'll start to see that open up as Cassel becomes more comfortable in regular-season game conditions.
When Tom Brady went down last week, I heard a reporter say that, like Spygate, this will have the effect of providing motivation to the team and keep them focused on winning. Why is that the Patriots seem to be the only successful team that needs external reminders to stay focused on winning? Are professional athletes that easily distracted or just those who call Foxborough home?
A: Paul, I think all teams seek motivation, from both internal and external sources. So while this has become the Patriots' m.o., I don't think they are alone in this regard. Especially in football, which is a long, physical season, I don't think there is anything wrong in using external motivation to get the juices flowing each week.
Hey Mike, I was wondering Kevin Faulk's contract status. I think he has two years left. Do you think he will be here beyond that, and would they extend him before his contract is over considering how important he is to the offense.
A: Faulk is signed through the 2009 season, Curtis. He is making a base salary of $2.4 million this year, and is scheduled to make $2.9 million next season. When Faulk signed the deal in April of 2005, there was probably some question as to whether he would collect the final two years (which are the richest years in the pact), but as you mention, his importance to the offense has seemingly grown, not diminished. The way I see it, the Patriots have quite a few free agents at the end of the 2009 season, and I think nose tackle Vince Wilfork - who looks more and more like a premier player - is probably atop their list. Everything else, including a new deal for Faulk, would come after that.
Hey Mike, what's your take on Laurence Maroney's overall performance so far, and in your opinion is he improving each year he's in the league?
A: Shortly after the game, I put Maroney in the "down" category on our Patriots blog on Boston.com. I think my decision was influenced after seeing how hard LaMont Jordan was running, and then watching Maroney come on the field and get stopped for a rush of minus-1 yard. Maroney had been sidelined with a shoulder injury for two-plus quarters before returning late. After watching the game again on Monday, I was probably a bit hard on Maroney, as there weren't many holes through which to run. I still think Maroney can be an explosive talent, and yes, I do think he has improved in his time with the Patriots (as his performance in the season-opener showed). I'm curious to see how he responds this week, as it will be a good test of his toughness. I do think it's fair to say that he needs to show more consistency.
Mike, just a note in response to your ups and downs on the blog. I thought Ellis Hobbs deserved an "up". He played a very solid corner, and several times the announcers commented on his excellent technique and recovery speed.
A: Dan, you aren't the only e-mailer to mention Hobbs, who played tight coverage for most of the night and was credited with two passes defended. I think it's a fair point. I only saw one play that seemed to stand out on the negative side for Hobbs, and it came early in the fourth quarter - on the Jets scoring drive - when he played too far off Laveranues Coles and gave up a 10-yard completion. That moved the ball to the 10, and two plays later, the Jets scored. But on the whole, he seemed to play well.
Hi Mike, my question is on Randy Moss. In both games, he missed out on opportunities that we saw him catch last year. First, it was the play when Tom Brady went down, and in the Jets game when he called for the ball and in the third quarter (although the ball was a little short). We have seen him catch those. Is he restricted by some injury and not at his 100 percent?
Mrinal Malhotra, Quincy
A: Mrinal, Moss generally did make those plays last year, so his fumble (vs. the Chiefs) and inability to adjust and come down with an underthrown ball (vs. the Jets) was a bit uncharacteristic. Moss's back was bothering him last week and he missed part of last Wednesday's practice. I'm not sure if that's why those plays weren't made, however.
Mike, you touched on this briefly in your mailbag last week, but I'm curious to know whether Tom Brady intends to stick around the stadium and continue to be a presence in the locker room, rehab at Gillette etc., or whether he plans to head off to California for the rest of the season. Personally, I hope he stays around to tutor and play an active role. Have there been any updates on this?
Tim Russell, Naples, Fla.
A: Tim, I have no updates on Brady's intentions at this time. It was a question I had hoped to ask Bill Belichick Monday, but I forgot to write it down, and thus, dropped the ball. We do know Brady was at the stadium last week and helped Matt Cassel throughout the week. Here is what Cassel said about Brady's input: "I talked to Tom a lot and his big advice was to go out and manage the game, and be smart with the football. We have good enough players on this team that we should win if we did that." As far as I know, Brady did not attend Sunday's game against the Jets.
Any word on Matt Cassel's knee injury? It didn't seem to bother him toward the end of the game, but he seemed to be limping around for the first few plays after that hit.
Bob K., Cambridge
A: Bob, Cassel's right knee seemed to be a bit of an issue in the second quarter, but Cassel said on WEEI's "Dennis & Callahan" program Monday that it was not a factor and just "bumps and bruises."
How do you feel the Pats will do considering they beat a team who [in its opener] barely beat a 1-15 team last year and another team that probably won't win a game this year. Cassel looked good but most backups would look good against that team.
A: After watching the game over again, I thought CBS analyst Phil Simms echoed my thoughts, Jeff. He cautioned anyone from making any snap judgments through two weeks of the season, because most seasons include about five twists and turns. I couldn't agree more. I firmly believe this time on the calendar is meant for staying in the hunt and giving yourself a chance to be in the mix come late November and December - when Super Bowl hopefuls know they must begin to turn it on. In terms of this specific question, I wouldn't diminish what the Patriots accomplished Sunday. Going on the road with a quarterback who hasn't started a regular-season game since 1999, I could have seen it going either way. Had the Patriots struggled more, confidence could have been shattered and imagine what the newspaper headlines would look like today. Instead, that confidence is now growing.
Mayo has been right in the thick of things for each of the first two games of 2008. I remember a couple of years ago Belichick was asked about the linebacker position and he responded how it was a complicated position to play, requiring significant time to master. When probed, at that time he mentioned only two linebackers that were ready to start right from their rookie season's game one, Lawrence Taylor and Pepper Johnson. So Mayo is in good company. What's your take? Personally, I think we landed a stud who should only improve.
Tom Mangin, Medford, Ore.
A: Tom, I think Mayo is a stud. It makes me think back to my mock draft and kick myself. I had Mayo going in the 20s, but it's clear he's a top-10 talent. By my calculations, Mayo is the only Patriots defender to be on the field for every play for the first two games. I think that speaks to how the coaching staff views him.
Hey Mike, I'm obviously thrilled with the win over the Jets. I noticed Jerod Mayo is getting a lot of playing time which could be an indication of how well he's playing. But I'm also wondering if we need some extra depth at LB at some point down the road. With this is mind, do you see the Pats luring Junior Seau back? Also, what are the chances we see Rosie Colvin (the last I heard he was not fully fit), John Lynch and Ty Law in a Pats uniform sometime this season?
A: Of the group, Dennis, I'd rank the possibilities of a return this way: Lynch, Seau, Law, Colvin. As for the inside linebackers, it looks like rookie free agent Gary Guyton is now the top backup behind Tedy Bruschi. While I think the Patriots are high on Guyton, I do believe that Seau would get a call if Bruschi ever became injured. As for Law, the Patriots probably view their current cornerback crop - with Ellis Hobbs, Deltha O'Neal and Lewis Sanders atop the depth chart - as filling their needs at this time. I think the coaching staff likes the idea of having that experience back there and will groom rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite with the long-range picture in mind.
I believe the Jets got away with two big third-down plays that got them a first down, when the play clock ran out. Am I the only guy who saw this?
A: A few e-mailers mentioned this Stephen. I watched the game over again, and it was very close. The Patriots also had one similar play to this on offense. I'd sum up all three plays by saying they were on the borderline - it wasn't as if the zero was on the play-clock for an extended period of time. I felt the ball was snapped as the "1" was turning to "0", which makes it a legal play.
Hey Mike, I had a few questions for you: 1) What is actually involved in being a team captain, what are the responsibilities?; 2) Now that Brady is on injured reserve, does he remain a captain or does that spot go to Matt Cassel?; 3) I was at a sports bar watching the Jets game on the West Coast, so I didn't hear any commentary. Who was Tedy Bruschi yelling at from the sideline after the game?
A: Hey Yale. Team captains meet weekly with Bill Belichick and serve as a bridge between the rest of the players in the locker room and the head coach. For what it's worth, the Patriots tied for the NFL high by naming eight captains. Brady remains a captain. As for who Bruschi was yelling at, I think it was the official. I believe Bruschi was urging the official to throw a penalty flag against defensive end Shaun Ellis for taking off his helmet on the field of play.
Hi Mike, where was Jets first-round pick Vernon Gholston during the game? I did not see him on the field at all. Is he not as good as the Jets had hoped?
A: SB, Gholston is a backup for the Jets, playing behind outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas. I'm told by one former NFL personnel man that he has been a disappointment. Gholston did not register on the stat sheet. Officials penalized him for a 12-men-on-the-field infraction in the fourth quarter.
Mike, I was impressed with Shawn Crable's play in the preseason. He reminds me of a young Willie McGinest. Any reason why he's on the inactive list? If I had to guess, it's because he has two Pro Bowlers in front of him, Vrabel and Thomas.
A: I think that's part of it Bill, but I'd add two other factors. Pierre Woods is also ahead of him on the depth chart, and if Crable is going to be active as a third or fourth outside linebacker on game day, he'll have to be a multiple-unit contributor on special teams. I assume the coaching staff feels he's not the best option in that role at this time.
Mike, the NFL seems to regulate almost all aspects of the game and operations. Can you tell me if the league limits the number of staff and assistant coaches each team can have? Or can teams hire as many people as they want? This could give a nice advantage to some of the wealthier teams like the Pats.
Dave McGregor, Berlin, N.H.
A: Interesting question, Dave. I don't believe the NFL has any restrictions on how many coaches can be hired, but the Patriots - under Bill Belichick - actually prefer to be one of the league's smallest staffs. I think Belichick feels that ensures there are no conflicting messages and everyone is on the same page.
Mike, since Mike Vrabel has been wearing the green dot helmet on defense, does he have to switch to a non-green dot helmet when he comes in as the third tight end on offense?
Rich Minassian, Londonderry, N.H.
A: Absolutely, Rich. Vrabel could not wear the helmet with the green dot when he comes on as a third tight end. Only one player can have the communication device, and unless the Patriots had the quarterback replace his green-dot helmet, Vrabel would be violating the rules as a second player on the field with the communication device.