Keeping an even keel
FOXBOROUGH -- Less than 24 hours after the Patriots beat the Bengals, 38-13, players were back in the Gillette Stadium locker room. Tight end Benjamin Watson summed up the Patriots' current mindset.
Reporter: Nice win.
Watson: "It was. But you know, we don't think about that too much around here."
Reporter: How can you not?
Watson: "We'll look at the film, feel good about it for a short while, but we move on quickly."
Reporter: It's almost like you're fighting human nature ...
Watson: "That's one of the things the coaches do a great job of around here. After a bad loss, things never get too low. And after a big win, things never get too high."
To me, this is one of the defining characteristics of Bill Belichick's seven-year tenure with the Patriots. His teams play with a steel-minded focus, never swayed by the results of the past week, however good or bad they may be.
This past Sunday in Cincinnati was obviously one of the good days.
A couple of picked-up pieces before getting to the questions:
* A few e-mailers asked about comments made by Bengals players after the game, specifically from quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, both of whom felt the Bengals should have beaten the Patriots. I didn't hear the context in which those comments were made, but I wouldn't make too much of them.
* An e-mailer suggested moving a weekly Patriots chat on Boston.com to a day other than Tuesday, because there is some redundancy between this mailbag and the chat. Seems like a good idea, so the plan is to chat Friday at noon. Thanks for the suggestion, and hope to see you there.
On to the questions ...
With the great performance on Sunday, is it now safe to say the Pats are once again among the top teams in the AFC? Their ranking had been slipping a little. A bounce-back performance like the one against the Bengals really shows how good a team really is.
Dan Sullivan, Andover
A: I wouldn't go that far. I'd say a performance like the one against the Bengals shows how the team could be an elite team on a consistent basis. At the same time, a performance like the one against the Broncos shows the team can slip fast. So the jury is still out, as it should be at this time of year, because I believe teams evolve over the course of the season. At the end of the day, I believe the thing that matters most is what teams are elite toward the end of the season. If I take anything from Sunday's game, it's that the Patriots could be of elite status when it truly matters.
Should Patriots fans be worried about rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski? It seems that right now his ineffectiveness is being overshadowed, but as we know, field goals are critical in the playoffs.
Casey Kittredge, Tampa
A: I'd certainly put Gostkowski's performance in the concern category at this time after he had field goal attempts blocked against the Jets and Broncos, and then badly missed a 48-yard attempt against the Bengals. One thing I'm keeping in the back of my mind is that Adam Vinatieri struggled early in his rookie season of 1996, with two misses and one block in his second game, and then misses from 47, 44, and 43 in three of the next four games. Had the Patriots pulled the plug on Vinatieri at that time, arguably the greatest clutch kicker in the NFL might never have surfaced.
I noticed that you listed Gostkowski in the "down" category after the win over the Bengals. How can you do that? All his kickoffs were excellent, with the Bengals starting near their 20 yard line. Let's give the kid some slack.
Dave, Londonderry, NH
A: Gostkowski's kickoffs were tremendous (7 total, 6 in end zone, 4 touchbacks), but my feeling is that there is more to rating a kicker's performance than just kickoffs. The 48-yard field goal was missed badly, and that was the overriding factor in the "down" rating.
Obviously Gostkowski is having problems kicking field goals to this point. One thing he does do well is kickoffs. I am wondering what the average starting position of opposing teams now is compared to Adam Vinatieri's average last year? Do you have statistics on a team's propensity to score based on the length of field they need to cover after a kickoff?
Zach Goldberg, Pompano Beach, Fla.
A: Opponents' average starting point after kickoffs is the 21.2 yard-line, which ranks Gostkowski and the Patriots' coverage unit as the fourth-best group in the league. The team has had 18 kickoffs in the first four games of the season and Gostkowski has driven 14 of them into the end zone, with six touchbacks. Through the first four games of 2005, opponents' average starting point after kickoffs was the 25.7. The team had 19 kickoffs in the first four games of the 2005 season and Vinatieri had driven seven of them into the end zone, with two touchbacks. I don't have any statistics as to a team's propensity to score based on the length of field they need to cover after a kickoff, but my hunch is that the less yardage teams have to go, the more often they score.
I feel the Pats are a much more dominating team on defense when they play the 4-3 (overall, they dominated the Jets but gave up too many big plays). I'd much rather see more of Jarvis Green out on the field and less of Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin. I know Bill Belichick loves the 3-4, but you got to play the game with the players you have. Do you agree?
William Hughes, Bainbridge Island, Wash.
A: I like the 4-3 for the Patriots right now, because I think the defensive line is one of the best in the NFL. That said, it's hard to argue with the results of any formation they've played. The Patriots are tied for seventh in the NFL for fewest points allowed, so whether it's the 3-4, 4-3, or the 4-2-5 we saw at times against the Bengals, the production has been solid.
I thought coming into the season that rookie tight end David Thomas would make much more of an impact. Is he hurt?
Scott, Londonderry, NH
A: Thomas, who has played in all four games and has totaled one catch for 29 yards, isn't hurt. His primary contributions have come on special teams as he's been bumped up the depth chart after season-ending injuries to coverage players like Mel Mitchell and Tebucky Jones. Because the Patriots have two fine tight ends ahead of Thomas in Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, there hasn't been much opportunity for Thomas to play regularly on offense. His most extended playing time came against the Jets when the Patriots ran 25 plays out of three tight end formations.
How is Reche Caldwell doing after the hit he took Sunday?
Larry D, Allentown, Pa.
A: Caldwell walked through the locker room on Monday and said he was feeling OK. I don't think there will be any long-term effect that will keep him off the field.
What do you think goes into the staff's thought process on deciding if Kevin Faulk or Troy Brown returns punts? Is there a rhyme or reason to the rotation?
A: Specifically in the Bengals game, I think Faulk was given all duties because Brown was playing both offense and defense. On the year, Faulk has fielded 11 punts and Brown four. Last year, Brown was often called upon for punts deep in Patriots territory (while Tim Dwight handled other punts), but I haven't specifically noticed that this year.
What do you think of the Pats bringing in Vinny Testaverde for a workout last week? I don't think the Patriots should sign him. Your thoughts?
Eric Hal, Washington, DC
A: I didn't read too much into the workout, because I think more than anything it's smart business. When you only have two quarterbacks on your active roster -- as the Patriots currently do with Tom Brady and Matt Cassel -- smart teams like the Patriots have an emergency list ready in case one of those players is injured. Testaverde was one of a few quarterbacks to be worked out by the team, and I'm sure the Patriots are hoping that a move isn't necessary. I don't think the workout was at all a reflection on Brady or Cassel, just standard operating procedure for teams with only two quarterbacks on their active roster.
It seems like every year the Pats' defensive backs are banged up. This is getting old. Are the injuries serious? Also, I watch the Patriots religiously every weekend and it seems Asante Samuel is victimized by pass interference calls that do not appear to be pass interference on slow motion camera. Is pass interference something the coach can challenge? I think Samuel is a good corner who is getting victimized by shoddy officiating. It began in the playoffs against Denver and seems to be carrying over into this season.
Chris W, Portland, Maine
A: You're right, the Patriots have had a bad string of injuries at defensive back the past two-plus seasons. At cornerback, the Patriots had six different starters in 2004, five in 2005, and three so far this year. At safety, the Patriots had five different starters in 2004, eight in 2005, and three so far this year. Wish I had more information on the injuries to cornerback Ellis Hobbs (wrist) and safety Eugene Wilson (right hamstring), both of whom missed Sunday's game in Cincinnati, but unfortunately I don't. The pass interference against Samuel in the Denver game in Week 3 was indeed a mistake, according to the NFL's officiating review in that game. The pass interference against James Sanders in that Broncos game also was a mistake, and should have been offensive pass interference, according to the NFL's officiating review in that game.
What is going on with Chad Jackson? Hamstring? Maturity issues? Trouble learning the system? Sports Illustrated's Peter King has mentioned Jackson's maturity issues in print. I assume that the Patriots did their due diligence prior to selecting him (plugs from Urban Meyer, worked him out in Foxborough). Do the Patriots have another Terry Glenn on their hands?
Bob Pothier, Newport Beach, Calif.
A: Most of all, from what I understand, it's his hamstring. There could be maturity issues, but I'm not aware of them. I am now aware of the fact that Jackson's hamstring tightened up on him prior to the Broncos game. Before that, I was assuming he was a healthy scratch, as I probably read too much into comments from Bill Belichick.
What's the inside scoop on Randall Gay's hamstring injury situation that landed him on injured reserve? He's been a player that I thought had a ton of potential, and looked awesome his rookie year ('04). Is there something we should read between the lines?
Justin White, Bolton
A: My read on Gay's situation is that it was bad timing. Had the team not had injuries to safety Eugene Wilson and cornerback Ellis Hobbs last week, there was a chance the Patriots could have waited 6-8 weeks for Gay. But instead, they had to make the move to create a roster spot. I think Gay has proven he can be a valuable addition to any team, but the big question now is if he can stay healthy. He is a restricted free agent after the season.
What is the current buzz in the NFL about the Pats' salary cap position (now that it is pretty clear that the money is probably not going to be used for new players this year)? Where do the elite NFL teams stand on the salary cap -- have most teams already spent up to the limit at this point?
Jeff, Arlington, Va.
A: As of late last week, the Patriots were approximately $10 million under the salary cap. I believe only three teams -- the New Orleans Saints (3-1), Arizona Cardinals (1-3) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2) -- had more salary cap space. I'd also point out that two teams -- the Falcons (3-1) and Dolphins (1-3) -- have the least amount of salary cap space (less than $1 million), so simply using the space doesn't necessarily ensure success. As for what the buzz is around the NFL, no one that I have spoken with has referenced the salary cap space as a sign that the Patriots aren't aggressive in putting together their team. What they usually refer to instead is total payroll. The Patriots' total payroll is in the lower end of the league at this time after being in the Top 10 the last two years, although I don't believe that was the team's intention.
I have a burning issue regarding the Patriots. Now maybe someone answered this before and I missed it, but the Pats being approximately $10 million under the cap is very upsetting to me. Is there a trading deadline ahead in the NFL or has it passed? If it hasn't passed, hopefully the Patriots are trying to work something this way. Any evidence of this? And also can any or all of this cap space be absorbed by accelerating money to present players this year to create cap room for next year? The idea of wasting this cap space does not sit well with me. I thought the organization was about winning not about penny-pinching.
John Payne, Brookline
A: The NFL's trading deadline is Oct. 17, although it's rare to see a flurry of deals like we see in baseball. Part of that is because the deadline is so early in the season, so teams aren't really in the "seller" or "buyer" category. As for the salary cap space, I sense that there is a growing misconception that the Patriots' space is a reflection on them not being committed to winning. The real figure we should be looking at is total payroll. The salary cap is just a bookkeeping figure and, thus, it's possible that the Patriots could have spent more than many teams and still have the most salary cap space.
Why is it that all questions pertaining to Deion Branch always seem to blame the Patriots organization and not spending money, and don't seem to put any onus on Branch himself?
Reginald Mendes, Woonsocket, RI
A: It's an interesting thought, Reginald. I think one theme in this mailbag since the Branch situation began was that the negotiation was a two-way street. It takes two sides to get a deal done. It's not all on the Patriots. It's not all on Branch. I think both sides are accountable here. As for the questions regarding the situation, I didn't go through them all to see which side seemed to take more hits. If I had to guess, I would agree with your assessment that the team took more hits than Branch did.
One follow-up from the Week 3 loss to the Broncos. Can you explain the difference between the two "offsetting" penalties on punts in the game? On the first occasion, there were two penalties on the Broncos and one on the Pats, the refs said the penalties offset, and the Broncos re-kicked. On the second, there was 1 penalty on each side, so the penalties offset, but the play stood. What determines whether the play stands or they re-kick? I'm also curious why a 2-to-1 set of penalties is considered the same as a 1-to-1 set, in that they both offset. Can you fill in the blanks for me?
Rob McDonagh, Medway
A: I checked with a league official on this one, Rob, and on the play in which the Broncos had two penalties and the Patriots had one, I was told the Patriots had the option to take the ball at the spot of the Broncos' second foul. Instead, the Patriots elected to replay the down, which gave them a chance to block the punt again, but ultimately cost them yardage.
I have learned never to question Belichick over the years, starting with the trade of Drew Bledsoe, the release of Lawyer Milloy etc. Clearly, Belichick and Scott Pioli have a great system. I am wondering, though, since they are approximately $10 million under the salary cap, why not at least look at Charles Rogers? I would include Corey Bradford, David Boston and others. Seems they could really get Rogers on the cheap since he is begging for a job at this point.
Peter Fleming, Richmond, Va.
. A: I wouldn't hold off questioning Belichick and Pioli, despite their solid track record. Every team is going to make mistakes, and while the Patriots often deserve the benefit of the doubt, they aren't perfect and acknowledge that. As for players like Rogers and Boston, I'm not sure they would represent an upgrade to the players already on the roster. They have "big" names, but I'm not sure the perception matches the reality with them (and 31 other teams also don't have an interest). Admittedly, I don't know much about Bradford, who could be a fit.