FOXBOROUGH -- Quarterback Tom Brady is front and center in this week's mailbag. Fans have picked up on Brady's negative body language, and the seventh-year quarterback was the subject of most emails this week.
There are plenty of other questions as well, and it seems as if the Patriots' 17-7 loss to the Broncos has raised the level of concern among the team's fans.
On the injury front, the top players to keep an eye on this week are running back Corey Dillon (arm) and safety Eugene Wilson (right leg), both of whom didn't finish Sunday's game. Dillon was spotted in the locker room on Monday, and to the casual passerby he looked OK. Wilson wasn't in the locker room on Monday for the media-access period.
We'll get right to the questions this week:
I've been a Pats fan since the Fairbanks days. I've seen QBs come and go for the Pats. None of them got us to the promised land until Tom Brady took us. He's special and we might wait another 25 years before this franchise gets another field general the likes of Brady. So why did the Pats bid adieu to his No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, Deion Branch and David Givens? The team has the money (both in terms of cap dollars and real cash). How can that feel good to Brady? There's also this: When Brady signed his big contract extension, he did it with the idea that if he took a little less, the Pats would have a little more capital to spread around to the rest of the roster. Brady did it for the express purpose of keeping players like Branch and Givens. Now they're gone and the Pats are sitting with $10 million in cap room. So here's my question. Isn't the future now? Tom's not going to be here forever. Why shouldn't he have three elite WRs to go to?
Ron Freeman, Buellton, Calif.
A: It can't feel good to Brady. How can it? But at the same time, I think Brady understands that if Givens and Branch wanted to be playing for the Patriots this season, they could be while at the same time collecting fair contracts. It turned out that other teams offered more and those players took those contracts. It's not like the Patriots sat on their hands and just let those players walk out the door. They have a team-building system that they are consistent with, and -- whether you agree with it or not -- it has produced positive results over the last five years. Part of the team's success is that it has been consistent with its approach, not making exceptions based on short-term needs.
You've been defensive of Tom Brady after two mediocre performances (at best). How about three? Yes, Denver's defense is good and losing Dillon didn't help matters any, but still
I think he's ticked off at the Patriot brass for letting his top weapons get away. Maybe it's even subconscious. The fire and intensity just aren't there so far. Not consistently anyway. Brady has now become at least a concern if not a problem -- timing and rhythm with new receivers or not.
Bob Rinker, Mount Joy, Pa.
A: Brady hasn't been his usual solid self -- and I again thought his body language was negative and not reflective of his generally cool demeanor on Sunday night -- but I still thought the overriding offensive story of the 17-7 loss to the Broncos was the lack of a running game. Totaling 50 yards on 21 carries (2.4 avg.) was a thoroughly disappointing performance after two weeks of solid production in that area. I'd repeat my thought from last week: if Brady is the team's biggest concern or problem, start printing the Super Bowl tickets now.
There's been a lot of talk regarding Brady's uncharacteristically negative body language, even during the Pats' two wins. Did he lose the exceptional self-confidence, and resulting clutch magnificence, as a result of January's playoff loss?
Sam Selden, West Hartford, Conn.
A: My read on Brady is that he works harder than any player on the team, and because of that, he's incredibly frustrated based on the situation the offense is currently operating. The reason you put in all those hours in offseason workouts and training camp is to develop chemistry and cohesion, but the Patriots are trying to do that now, during the regular season. It's far from the ideal situation and I think Brady's frustrations are boiling over at times on the field.
Any idea what vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and Tom Brady talked about after Sunday night's game? I'm assuming it wasn't a discussion of what to serve on the postgame buffet.
John Keller, New York, NY
A: I'm sure they spoke about the game. Pioli and Brady talk after every game. I don't see that as a big deal. I think the only difference is that it happened while reporters were in the locker room, leaving some the chance to read deeply into what it meant.
What is wrong with Brady's arm? When he did have receivers open, he was either late or he over/under threw them. I have never seen him play so poorly.
A: Brady is a career 61.9 percent passer and he's 57 of 107 this year (53 percent). So he's definitely missing more than he has in the past. While some of that can be attributed to Brady working with new targets, and developing cohesion, he has simply flat-out missed some throws. I don't think there is anything wrong with his arm.
I'm sure the bulk of your inquiries this week will be about the Patriots anemic offense but I was just as disappointed in their defense. Allowing the Broncos to complete 44 percent of their third-down conversions is awful. We are not talking about one the NFL's elite offenses and yet the Pats allowed 144 yards rushing and 256 yards passing while causing no turnovers and no sacks. What's going on?
KC, New Jersey
A: Here is linebacker Mike Vrabel's take on the third-down situation: "I think the thing you have to realize about third down is that you have your cover guys in there that you expect to cover, and then you have your rush guys and you expect them to rush. You have to put those two units together. We have to do a better job of forcing them out of the pocket, and forcing them to make bad throws, and sometimes those guys on the back end help us out with coverage sacks. So the two units have to work together."
Where is the fire this year? Where is the intensity? I hate to say it but Junior Seau is the only one looking fired up on plays. They look as though they are sleepwalking through the games and the Denver game, Brady seemed very lethargic in his actions in the huddle and at the line. Is there more going on besides the Branch thing? Is he upset with management?
A: I agree. No fire. No intensity. Watching the game a second time, I saw one sequence late in the first quarter when the Patriots had stopped the Broncos on a third and six play, and the camera cut to Bill Belichick, who was waving the defense off the field, as if to say "Let's go! Let's move!" But it just seemed as if there was no spark. Usually, a big turnover, or a big hit, or a big play, can ignite some of that, but the Patriots couldn't get it going.
Corey Dillon out of the lineup on Sunday night, the Broncos had no problem stuffing Laurence Maroney. Is the Broncos' run defense that good, or were the Patriots simply much more predictable without the "Thunder" of their running back tandem? If the latter is true, what does that say about Maroney's ability to be a premier feature back when the Pats and Dillon inevitably part ways?
Matt B., New York
A: It looked to me like Dillon would have had the same problems as Maroney. That's because the Patriots' offensive line had a very difficult time against the Broncos' front. It seemed like on many plays, the Broncos were in the correct spot moments before the Patriots were. I thought Denver dominated up front and this was less about Maroney and more about the Patriots' line not having a great game in the run-blocking area.
It seems like a big key to the Patriots success in the past has been in creating multiple turnovers and taking advantage of them. They did not do a good job producing them last year and we know what happened. In your opinion, why haven't they been able to create more this year with a healthy defense back on the field and why doesn't it seem to be concerning anyone?
Rich Casey, Denver
A: The Patriots are ranked last in the league with one turnover -- the late interception against the Jets. While one could argue that the team's two fourth-and-one stops in the first two weeks were the equivalent of a turnover, this area is a major concern to the club. They were close on two against the Broncos -- a Tedy Bruschi interception and a Eugene Wilson forced fumble -- but close isn't good enough. Turnovers are game-changing plays and the Patriots haven't had enough of them. As for why they haven't been able to create more turnovers, I'd give some credit to the three teams they faced (specifically the quarterbacks), and also turn some of the focus on the defensive players' lack of execution when the opportunity presented itself for a turnover (especially on third down).
Seems like the Pats secondary was burned by long plays yet again. How much of this is due to the scheme, vs. the players, vs. the defensive line? As the players are somewhat set at this point, and have played together for some time, how much hope do we have that this is fixable?
Pats Fan in Denver
A: I don't see it as a scheme issue. Against the Jets, the Jerricho Cotchery 71-yard touchdown reception was fluky, but two players missed tackles. On the 46-yard Laveraneus Coles touchdown against the Jets, three players missed clean tackles, and Coles made a super play. Against the Broncos, the 32-yard touchdown to Javon Walker came on a blitz and was perfectly executed by the Broncos (credit to them). The 83-yard Walker touchdown came against a cover-2 defense in which the safety (James Sanders) was late coming over and then overran the play. As for if it's fixable, I think it is, because I believe the Patriots' secondary has talented enough players to play better.
Understanding that a player can't make every play, I still find it disappointing that the Patriots' defensive secondary can't make a better percentage of open-field tackles. This trend is evidenced in both the Jets and Broncos games. Other than more tackling practice, can you offer any insight into how the Patriots might upgrade their defensive secondary at this point?
Roy Brush, Woodbridge, Va.
A: The return of Artrell Hawkins, who missed the last two games, would help. He's a sure tackler. But I also thought this week, with Eugene Wilson specifically, was a good example of how one player can go from a poor game to a good game in a span of two weeks. So I don't think it's personnel related as much as it is players being more consistent.
It was clear that the Patriots WRs got little to no separation in the Denver game. What can the Patriots do at this point in time about the WR situation? Other than the somewhat injured speed burner Chad Johnson, they don't have legitimate threat to keep a defense honest. Has there been talk about trading for a veteran WR? Or will the Pats simply stand Pat?
Albert U. Turner, Jr., Smyrna, Ga.
A: Agree on the lack of consistent separation. I think they'll stand pat and work with what they have, increasing Doug Gabriel's role in the offense. Because the Patriots are working new players into the mix now, and Brady has spoken consistently about how it takes time to develop cohesion, I don't think a new, veteran receiver is the answer.
Would you agree that the game turned on one play? Second quarter, 4th and 1 on Denver's 35, the perfect spot for a "pooch" punt. Instead, Maroney gets stuffed and Denver takes over on downs. It was game, set, match after that.
Raymond Berry, Abilene, Texas
A: I thought the blocked field goal was more of a game-turning play, as it would have been 3-3, but the Broncos turned around and scored to make it 10-0. I didn't have a problem with the Patriots going for it on fourth down instead of a pooch punt. The Patriots had the Broncos pinned inside the 20 four times in that game and they couldn't keep them in there anyway.
The Pats looked absolutely flat on offense Sunday night for the better part of three quarters. They looked out of synch and seemed clearly rattled by whatever Denver was doing on defense. My question is, what exactly is it that Denver does on defense that is so unique or different that it has derailed Tom Brady and Co. time and time again over the past several years? And what exactly was the logic of not kicking a field goal with a minute to go and staring at 4th and 1 on the 20? Granted a win was still a longshot, however they seemed to play out that drive as if it were a preseason game.
Rick Delello, Lansdale, Pa.
A: The Broncos have one of the fastest defenses in the league, and I think that's what has beaten the Patriots. Whether it is blitzing or closing quickly on plays, the Broncos always seem a step ahead of the Patriots. I thought this year would be different because the Patriots might be able to power past Denver, but the New England running game was a major disappointment on Sunday night. Bill Belichick said earlier in the week that you beat speed by getting on those players and not letting them move. The Patriots didn't do that on Sunday night.
The last two games (Jets, Broncos), it seems as though the Patriots' failure to re-sign their star players is really taking a toll. No Ty Law and the current cornerbacks are getting burned. No Adam Vinatieri and we can't kick a field goal. No Deion Branch and no deep threat in the current receiver corps. Why did the Patriots let these proven vets go, especially given the fact that they are reportedly way under the salary cap?
Fitz Read, Tenafly, NJ
A: There is no doubt that if Law, Vinatieri and Branch were on the team, the Patriots would be a better club. But it's not that simple. The Patriots made competitive offers to all three players, but the players signed elsewhere. So did the Patriots let them go? Or did the players decide they wanted to be elsewhere? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Also, if the Patriots had signed Law, Vinatieri, Branch, McGinest and David Givens to the contracts they received this offseason, they'd be over the salary cap right now. I'm not sparing the club accountability, because I'm sure it could have done some things differently. But I've always believed that negotiations are two-way streets and that you can't pin it solely on one side.
I know you are an upbeat management type and as such eschew the panic button, but it does seem fairly obvious the Pats have dropped out of the elite group of teams and into the second tier, wouldn't you agree? I have zero confidence we can beat the Seahawks or Bengals right now. We need both a shutdown corner and a No. 1 receiver. Scott Pioli needs to step up to the plate and cherry pick one of those teams starting out at 0-5. Would K.C. give up Law if they were 0-5? Would Detroit give up Roy Williams if they start 0-6? Do we have anything to trade besides draft picks? Maybe we could get a 10th round pick for Marquise Hill (just kidding, but that's the worst pick in recent years). But a specific question, has Mike Wright progressed to the point where between him and Green, and hopefully Sullivan, the Pats would consider trading Ty Warren for a top flight corner or receiver?
Laurie Herron, Calgary
A: Not sure what I did to be considered an upbeat management type. I just try to be fair and not initially overreact on many of the situations that come up over time. Because I remember hearing that the Patriots had lost their mind when they traded Drew Bledsoe in the division for a first-round pick. Then I remember hearing their run of success was over after Lawyer Milloy was cut. Then I remember hearing that they couldn't stop the run when nose tackle Ted Washington wasn't re-signed, or that the offensive line would struggle without Damien Woody. There are several more examples, and it seems to me that many are focusing on the next problem, and never going back to close the book on the last problem, or acknowledging that those problems were overcome. Anyway, I would agree -- that after three weeks -- the Patriots aren't an elite team right now. I don't think that means they can't reach that point by the end of the season, because I believe teams evolve over the course of the year. I'd use the Steelers as one example of that. They were 7-5 after 12 games last year. I'm not sure too many people were saying they would be Super Bowl champs at that point. As for trading for players, I don't know if someone like Law or Williams would be available. I don't think the Patriots would trade Warren.
The Broncos' defenders looked to be a lot faster than the Patriots. Any chance Pierre Woods will see some playing time? He looked very fast in the preseason.
Pat Sullivan, Palmyra, Va.
A: I agree. The Broncos were about two steps faster all night, it seemed. As for Woods, he's been inactive the last two games since Tedy Bruschi returned. With Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Tully Banta-Cain the top three outside linebackers at this point, I don't see Woods breaking through at that position right now unless something happens to one of those players.
What free agent wide receivers will be available next season?
Chris Aufiero, Martinez, Ga.
A: The list doesn't include many big names. Looks like the best receiver whose contract expires after the 2006 season is Tennessee's Drew Bennett.
What is going on with the field conditions? Painted dirt in September? How could this happen?
Joe Rajunas, Santa Fe, NM
A: It probably comes down to overuse, with other sports and non-sports related events such as concerts (the Rolling Stones played there last Wednesday) held at Gillette. One player from an opposing team mentioned it's the worst field he's played on over his seven-year career.
Do you think Patriots ownership is ready to answer the big question? Why have they have NOT done everything possible to build a championship team, and currently have lots of salary cap (some estimate up to $11 million)?
Eric, Atkinson, NH
A: I'm not sure what ownership could have done differently, except perhaps put in a new playing field. The team made what I felt were competitive offers to players within their team-building structure, and those players received more elsewhere. Maybe the team could have been more proactive in some negotiations, but it would be another thing altogether if the team didn't make any offers at all. One point that I would make is that aligning the team's salary cap space with a lack of a commitment to winning is a shaky connection. The team could adjust a few contracts tomorrow and all of its salary cap space would be accounted for. If anything, total payroll would be the better gauge and the Patriots' total payroll is a bit down this year, in the lower end of the league. The last two years, however, the team's total payroll was in the top 10. I don't see that as a lack of commitment.