Readers can't forget this forgettable loss
Last week, I made a case for the Patriots' 19-10 victory over the Jets possibly being the most rewarding regular-season triumph in Bill Belichick's eight-plus seasons as Patriots coach.
One week later, I wasn't expecting that the next game - a 38-13 loss to the Dolphins - would be in contention for the most forgettable regular-season game of his Patriots tenure.
So where does this latest one rank among the "forgettable" regular-season competition? Some of the contenders include:
Sept. 7, 2003 - Bills 31, Patriots 0. The Lawyer Milloy Game - in which the safety signed with the Bills after being surprisingly cut in New England, and provided Buffalo an inspirational presence.
Nov. 12, 2006 - Jets 17, Patriots 14. On a rainy day at Gillette Stadium, Eric Mangini and the Jets steal a victory with a controlled passing game and attacking defensive scheme.
Oct. 31, 2004 - Steelers 34, Patriots 20. Cornerback Ty Law is hurt as the Patriots' 21-game winning streak (including playoffs) comes to an end.
Dec. 20, 2004 - Dolphins 29, Patriots 28. At 12-1, the Patriots lose a stunner to the one-win Dolphins and interim coach Jim Bates.
Dec. 16, 2002 - Titans 24, Patriots 7. After three straight wins to improve to 8-5 and provide hope for a playoff push, the Patriots can't match the Titans' plan to run out of spread formations in a Monday Night Football clash.
Dec. 10, 2006 - Dolphins 21, Patriots 0. Jason Taylor and Co., dominate against Tom Brady in Miami.
Nov. 7, 2005 - Colts 40, Patriots 21. The team's winning streak over the Colts comes to an end.
Now, on to the questions.
Mike, I'm sure that there's been a lot of agonizing over the debacle of the Miami game and I'm sure that there are quite a few reasons why it went the way it did, but honestly, does the team really think that Matt Cassel is anything but a game manager? In reality, if you need some heroics or some real improvisation, then you don't have to be a professional talent evaluator to realize that Cassel is not it. When you need a fill-in for a game or two, then maybe you can give him the ball, but when it comes to a season, once teams get some footage on him, he's going to really have it difficult. What do you think about spending the bye getting rookie Kevin O'Connell ready and then bring in Testeverde for a backup and see what you have there? We know what we have in Cassel and he's obviously not the answer.
A: Lee, I'm not sure how the Patriots truly view Cassel. At this time, after what I felt was a subpar performance Sunday, it's easy to pile on Cassel. But taking into account the big picture, if I had to guess, I'd say that the team was a bit concerned with what it saw in the preseason - but based on the three-year investment and the lack of other options -- hoped that it could get by with him for a stretch until O'Connell was ready to take over the No. 2 spot. Then the disaster struck with Brady's injury in the opener. So as for the future, I do think O'Connell will eventually leapfrog Cassel, who I'm not sure can consistently throw the ball to the deep third of the field. I have been impressed with what I have seen from O'Connell. The way I view it, it's not a matter of if he passes Cassel, but more when.
Mike, I'm not ready to give up on Cassel yet (unlike many others!) - but let's give the kid some time in the pocket already! Purists will tell you the game is won and lost at the line, and we seem to be losing. First three weeks, we gave up 2, 4 and 4 sacks against teams NOT known for their pass rush. Against the Dolphins, zero sacks recorded by the defense. Whatever about the long ball to Moss, we can't get the intermediate pass going (the 10-15 yarders). Is this O-Line picking up where it left off last year?
A: David, you're not alone when it comes to e-mailers noting the play of the team's offensive line. I watched the game again after seeing it live, and I'd say the protection was average. There were a few times I thought Cassel could have got rid of the ball quicker, and that contributed to the rush getting to him. Also, I'm sure there were other times when the receivers' routes were the problem, which led him to hold on to the ball. Other times, such as when Joey Porter blew past right tackle Nick Kaczur late in the second quarter, the protection wasn't good enough. We know Brady often helped the line with a knack for nifty side-stepping, keeping plays alive, and I haven't seen the same skills from Cassel.
We all watched the game, and it was a total team collapse with the Pats on Sunday. I thought Matt Cassel's performance was horrible. He looked like a high school quarterback in there. I thought he held on to the ball much too long. I hope Coach Belichick reconsiders signing a veteran quarterback after that display. Do you feel this could happen?
A: John, I look at it this way: 17 points, 19 points, 13 points. That's what the Patriots have scored in each of their first three games, and it's not good enough. If it continues for another week or so, I do think the Patriots could make a move to bring in a veteran. But my feeling is that rookie Kevin O'Connell would get the nod first.
Hi Mike, you see our Pats on a regular basis -- at the start of practice and at games. Do you feel all the "panic posts" are legitimate? It seems hard to believe that Pats fans need to get so wrought up over a bad loss.
A: Leslie, I subscribe to the it's-a-long-season theory. I don't think there should be any panic at this point. You be realistic about the problems you have, work hard to fix them, bury the football, and move on to the next challenge. I believe that this time of year is about hanging around, and staying in the race, and then you try to turn it on in November/December.
Hi Mike, It's quite an experience watching this town completely overreact. One recalls that BS about Brady's body language when he didn't have receivers. This team barely got by the McNabb-less Philadelphia Eagles last year. This team had no business beating Baltimore, and if it wasn't for a miracle play between two legendary players (Brady and Moss), it would have certainly lost to the Giants at the Meadowlands. Last year, have people forgotten the Super Bowl? This isn't the first time the Pats have gone out and laid an egg with or without Brady and it won't be the last. There was bad fundamental football being played [Sunday], Wilfork was dominated, people were not tackling well AT ALL. That's what happened Sunday. If they played like yesterday, they would have lost even with Brady. Do you agree?
A: Mardak, I agree to a point. Brady doesn't play defense, so it's hard to imagine he would have played a part in stopping Ronnie Brown. But I do think football is a complementary game, the offense, defense and special teams mixing together. Surely, with Brady, the Patriots would have sustained more drives, controlled the clock more, aced more critical situations and had a player on the field that demanded everyone rise up to his top level. I can't say with certainty that the result would have been different, but I do think Brady would have made a significant difference.
Mike, I continue to hear the Pats defensive line referred to as one of the best in the NFL. I'm just not seeing it. The Dolphins ran all over them and Pennington had all day to throw the ball. How do you access the D-Line's performance so far?
KC, Cranford, N.J.
A: I feel strongly about this one, KC. This line is one of the best in the NFL. Sunday's game wasn't the line's best, but that was a small sample of an overall solid product in my opinion. A major part of the Patriots' problems Sunday was the Dolphins' Wildcat package in which Ronnie Brown took direct snaps. The Dolphins gained 100 yards on five carries out of that package, and also scored on a 19-yard touchdown pass. I think that was as much about coaching as it was performance; the Patriots never adjusted. As for the pass rush, the linemen first must play run responsibilities before getting into their pass rush. Because Chad Pennington was getting rid of the ball so quickly, their impact with the rush was negated.
Mike, for the past couple of seasons this Patriots' defense has been suspect at times. Two seasons ago they blew that huge lead in the AFC Championship game against the Colts, then last season was carried by Brady and the offense into the Super Bowl, only to blow another lead at the end of the game. Judging by how they let the only player Miami had who could hurt them, Ronnie Brown, have a big game, do you think they are good enough the carry the offense into the playoffs?
A: Rob, I think this is a bit unfair to the defense, because it doesn't factor in the coaching aspect of things. Players need to be put in position to make plays, and I think the coaches did not identify and adjust fast enough to what the Dolphins were doing with Brown in this game. I look at this way: Brown gained 69 of his 113 yards (and scored 3 TDs) while taking the direct snap from center. So that means that when Brown was in the Dolphins' base offense, he had 14 carries for 44 yards (3.1 avg.). That's competitive on defense. I know you can't take out the plays made with the direct snap, but I just feel like any analysis pinning that solely on the players is unfair. It's a combination between players and coaches. As for if the defense can lead the team to the playoffs, I'm not sure how it will all unfold. But I'm fairly confident that the defense will play a lot better than it did Sunday against the Dolphins.
Hi Mike, shocking loss to Miami on Sunday. I'm going through the typical why scenarios - 1) Offense wasn't effective, especially in red zone (again); 2) Defense, surprisingly, was just lousy all day to a very average team (gimmick plays notwithstanding). But the thing I get stuck on though is the coaching staff's complete failure to make adjustments - within the game or at halftime. I found it reminiscent of the Super Bowl a bit although obviously the game and stakes were much different. Why do you suppose the Patriots did nothing to counter the wrinkles Miami put in, particularly on offense?
A: It's a fair point, Gregg, and I think it speaks in part to the competitiveness of the NFL. The Patriots aren't the only team with good coaches. There are other top coaches in the league too. On that day, I think the Dolphins should get some credit for having an excellent plan, and for the players executing it. As much as the Patriots' coaches struggled to adjust Sunday, I thought they were equally as brilliant the week before against the Jets. That's the NFL for you. If I were to sum it up, I'd say Bill Belichick is one of the best head coaches and talent evaluators in the NFL, whether he has Tom Brady at quarterback or not. His staff is also one of the best in the NFL. They just had a bad day Sunday. We've all had them.
Hi Mike. Your opinion on the development of Josh McDaniels as an offensive coordinator? I've felt that he has been to quick to give up on the run in the past. With Brady and the weapons Brady had last year that it was too easy to go to the pass. That he doesn't have the experience to stick with the run during games, or to change the focus to run/short pass when a team is able to generate significant pressure.
Mike, Concord, N.H.
A: Mike, I think Josh McDaniels is an excellent coordinator and I believe he'll be a head coach in the NFL in the future. Obviously, having Tom Brady will make any coach look good - there is no denying that. But on top of that, I think the Patriots' offensive system is excellent and is one of the most challenging to prepare for in the NFL because of all the personnel groupings they use. McDaniels is a big part of that.
I have a rule/philosophy question. First, if Ronnie Brown is taking the direct snap, does that make him the QB on the play? If so, what prevents the Patriots from giving the Dolphins a little disincentive to line Pennington out wide? Surely there are no rules against lining a Rodney Harrison out wide and "bumping" Pennington at the line as they would with any other eligible receiver. My guess is that the Dolphins would have been less inclined to continue with those plays if their starting QB was getting his clock cleaned on every attempt. You can get away with those plays in college (particularly when you have a no-name QB and two stud RBs like they did in Arkansas) but there is no reason to put a guy making that much money out there to take a beating. Sure it's not the "classiest" thing to do, but it's sure better than being made to look foolish by a team that won one game last year.
A: Jeff, Pennington was fair game on those plays, you are 100-percent correct. On Ricky Williams's 28-yard run, in fact, Pennington had a key block on cornerback Deltha O'Neal to help Williams gain more yardage.
Hi Mike, greetings from London. Yes, it was an off day for the defense, and I am confident they will bounce back. My question is about the option formation that the Dolphins used. I have long heard experts say the option would never work consistently in the NFL because the defenders are too fast and skilled. Do you think [Sunday] was an anomaly, or is it something we will see from teams that have the personnel with which to pull it off? It looked unstoppable. I would expect the Raiders to try something similar against us with McFadden. Perhaps other teams with dynamic running backs?
Vincent, London, UK
A: I don't think those plays could work consistently, Vincent, but they're a nice change-up in a specific matchup. The Dolphins only used it six times, which given their success with it, is probably the best indication that it's an every-once-in-a-while type of thing. While I was surprised that the Patriots did not adjust to it, I have to believe they ultimately would have if the Dolphins hit double-digits in terms of attempts. I'd compare the package to the hurry-up, two-minute offense in some respects. It's good in spots, but you just can't use it all the time.
Pats panic has not yet set in Finland, though I, for one, am worried about the team's lack of motivation. My question actually concerns the new leader of the AFC East: How legitimate are the Bills this year?
A: Greetings in Finland, Bob. I don't think motivation is an issue. When you watch the game from field level, and see/hear the physical pounding these players are taking/dishing out, I don't come away with the feeling that there is a lack of desire or effort. I think the Patriots players are hungry and are professionals. As for the Bills, I think they are legit. They have home wins over the Seahawks and Raiders, and a tough road win at Jacksonville. It starts at quarterback with Trent Edwards. He's an upgrade from J.P. Losman.
Hey Mike, can you explain to me why on earth the Pats are wearing white at home this year? It has nothing to do with the heat. Seems like a bad move from a superstition perspective ...two games wearing white at home this year: one was a blowout at the hands of the 'Phins, the other was the heartbreaking loss of Brady. They usually wear blue. What gives?
Dave C., Westborough
A: Dave, that question was asked to team officials on Sunday and I was told the reason the team is wearing white is because of the heat. The feeling is "why drain your own team when you could drain the opponent."
Curious what happened to John Lynch. The prevailing wisdom seemed to suggest that the Pats cut him and would sign him after the Chiefs game for salary reasons. I don't think he's signed with anyone else. Any news?
A: Robert, I thought Lynch would be back, because my assumption was that he'd be part of a defensive package designed for a specific opponent. But I recently learned that when the Patriots signed Lynch, they projected him into a hybrid linebacker/safety role, but after working with him felt he was a better fit at safety. With Rodney Harrison, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather at safety, Lynch wasn't going to be active on game days, so the sides mutually agreed to part ways.
Hope I'm not jumping to conclusions here but yesterday it looked like Randy Moss was showing the unfocused unmotivated attitude he had while with the Vikings and especially the Raiders. He showed a halfhearted effort to catch a pass from Cassel over the middle and I noticed he was sulking by himself on the sidelines a lot. Do the Pats have a problem on their hands now that Moss doesn't have Brady around to keep him focused?
A: Dave, I think Moss is saying all the right things, and Bill Belichick has touted him as being one of the team's most consistent players. I look at it this way: Moss is a competitor who in many ways is like Bill Belichick. When things don't go well, he's not going to put a happy face on it. I noticed Moss sitting on the bench by himself and that caught my eye, more so than the short-armed attempt to catch a pass (Bill Belichick said on WEEI's "Big Show" that he thought Moss might not have seen that pass). I think this will be something to watch going forward.
Mike, CBS decided not to show a replay of Ricky Williams blocking Mike Vrabel at his knees and from behind on one of Ronnie Brown's many touchdowns. It seemed like some pushing and shoving resulted from that play. Did you see the play? Was it a dirty play? Isn't that the type of play that Goodell has recently promised he would try to outlaw?
Jason, Camarillo, Calif.
A: I did see the play, Jason. Vrabel was running down the field, and from behind Williams lunged at his lower legs - from the outside-in - to slow him down. When someone asks if it's a dirty play, it's difficult for me to answer because you have to judge intent. For example, when I first saw Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard hit Tom Brady, my first thought was "dirty play." But the more I saw it, I don't think Pollard intended to injure Brady. So to me, Pollard's hit was illegal (and should have been fined) but not dirty because of the intent. As for the type of plays Goodell has said he wants to crack down, to be honest, I don't know if this qualifies. Part of the reason I don't know is that the NFL seems to send mixed messages on this stuff. In one respect, you see Adalius Thomas getting chop-blocked by Leon Washington and say 'that's the type of play that Goodell is talking about.' But Washington doesn't get fined. On the flip side, you see the ticky-tack penalty on Dolphins defensive end Vonnie Holliday for hitting Matt Cassel, and it really doesn't seem to be consistent.
Hi Mike, I was just wondering what the benefit is for a team to place a player on injured reserve. I thought the team got some type of salary cap relief, but I've since learned that's not the case.
A: The real only benefit, Jeremy, is that it opens up a spot for another player on the 53-man roster. A lot of times if a player is injured and can't play, a team needs to bring in another option, but needs the roster spot to do so.
Hi Mike. Writing from up here in Anchorage, Alaska. I wanted to know what you make of the Pats/Chargers draft day trade (69th overall for their '09 second-rounder)? At the time, I was angry about the move because Jacob Hester was still on the board, and I thought he'd be an excellent long-term replacement for Kevin Faulk. Dan Connor was also still available, and went four picks later. With LT hurting and Merriman out for the season, it looks like the Chargers could miss the playoffs and make it an earlier second-round pick. Any thoughts?
A: David, I thought that trade was good business. If you have a strong talent base like the Patriots, any time you can upgrade a draft pick into a higher round the next year, it's usually a good move - not just for the higher pick, but also because you are ensuring a continuous flow of assets.
Why is the game day roster so small? If Bill Belichick thinks that he could play 50 guys, why does the NFL limit all teams to 45? Doesn't the salary cap do the job of spreading talent out? I don't understand the purpose of all these roster limits.
Jon, Amherst, N.H.
A: Jon, the main reason for the 45-man limit is injuries and competitive balance. The NFL wants to avoid a situation where one team has an advantage because it has more healthy players available for a game than the other team.