Patriots complaint department: Take a number
Readers frustrated with play of quarterback, defensive line, secondary
Welcome to the seesaw that has been the Patriots' 2008 season.
Up. Down. Up. Down.
The Patriots were crunched by the Chargers 30-10 Sunday night in San Diego. Big plays were a big part of their undoing.
While the Chargers' first play might have set the tone for the game -- a 48-yard pass from Philip Rivers to Vincent Jackson -- the turning point came in the third quarter. The Patriots had strung together their most consistent drive, operating out of an "empty" set with receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker; tight end David Thomas; fullback Heath Evans and running back Sammy Morris.
But with four chances to punch the ball in from the 1, the Patriots couldn't close the deal. Had the Patriots scored, it would have been 17-10. Instead, the Chargers hit another big play, scored, and it was 24-3.
A 14-point swing, and that's how fast games can get away from teams in the NFL.
It's a performance that e-mailers would probably rather forget. But first, some venting ...
Mike, can you explain why the team seems to have multiple personality disorder ever since losing Brady? One week we get blown out of the water, the next we start looking like a professional football team, and then the next week we lay down for the Chargers (while they were wearing those powder blue uniforms no less!). I realize Brady going down totally changes the dynamic, but, honestly, watching the team this season has been painful at best. Sometimes it seems Cassel is improving, but then other times he has a deer-in-the-headlights look. Frankly, I think it is unfair to the fans for the team to expect us to just accept this subpar play as "it is what it is." I don't think I have enough Zantac to make it through the rest of the season!
Matt, Los Angeles
A: Matt, my explanation would be that Brady is one of the best players in the NFL. Couple that with the knowledge that the quarterback spot is the most important on the field, and it's understandable why there would be a dropoff. Then you add in that Matt Cassel hasn't played consistently since high school -- and in many ways is learning on the job -- and I think that's why you've seen the up-and-down trend. I remember this from the 2002 season -- it was up, it was down -- and that was because the Patriots just weren't a top team that year. They were a middle-of-the-pack club and that's what middle-of-the-pack clubs do, they beat the not-so-good clubs and lose to the better clubs. It's only been five games, but I see these as some early troubling signs for the Patriots this year. There is still time to turn it around, of course, so I wouldn't make any definitive judgments at this point.
Mike, do you think it is now time to pull the plug on Matt Cassel and give someone else a chance? While the o-line seems to have problems, how much of the Patriots' offensive struggles are related to Cassel's inability to find the open man and/or making slow or the wrong decisions. What we saw in preseason seems to be the real deal. The turning point Sunday night was first and goal inside the 2-yard line and no score. Compounded by a poor defensive effort that put the game out of reach.
Mike, Greenwich, Conn.
A: Mike, I have to rewind to fully answer this question. Regular readers of this mailbag know that I've expressed doubts about Cassel's long-term standing at quarterback. In pointing that out, I think as a coach -- once you commit to a decision -- you have to be very careful about making a quarterback switch because there are many trickle-down factors. Is the backup ready? If the backup gets hurt, is the demoted player's confidence shattered and thus he's not even a good No. 2 option? How will the decision, made after five games, affect other players? I'm not sure how Bill Belichick views the progress of No. 2 quarterback Kevin O'Connell, so that's the key piece here. I do think the job will ultimately be O'Connell's; I'm just not sure how soon that will happen. If I had to project, I think Cassel will get another crack at it Monday night against the Broncos, and then we'll revisit after that game.
Why didn't the Pats go after a free-agent QB, or invite some into camp after Brady went down? I'm thinking about someone who can look at the defense, look at more than one target downfield (a man wide-open in the end zone), and throw the ball more accurately? Even a QB rated no better than "good" would be "very good" with this team.
A: I think this is a fair question, Mike. I wrote about this in the Boston Globe back in September after Brady suffered the season-ending injury, although the piece was more geared toward the team's decision in the offseason not to sign a veteran quarterback. When you look at the options out there, though, you see there was not much. Or you had to overpay for marginal talent. The one quarterback I particularly liked was Chris Simms, after he was cut by the Buccaneers. But the Patriots decided not to go in that direction, and I think it was a decision made to throw their confidence behind Matt Cassel. The team also probably views Kevin O'Connell -- a third-round draft choice some e-mailers were questioning at the time of the draft because the team had other needs -- as a developing No. 2.
Mike, with the trade deadline coming up on Tuesday, what are the chances that the Patriots try to pick up a quarterback? I don't mean an additional backup, I mean a veteran like Jeff Garcia that can come in and take the starting job. I see this season going nowhere with Matt Cassel.
A: If there was truly an option, Jeremy, I've always believed that the Patriots wouldn't hesitate to make a trade to improve their team in the short-term and long-term. I just don't see any starting-caliber quarterbacks being available. Then you have to factor in the time it would take that new quarterback to learn the system. If there is a new player for the Patriots at quarterback, I think it will be Kevin O'Connell, not a player from another team.
Why isn't O'Connell in at the end of this Chargers game? Cassel is obviously not getting it done, so let's at least see what O'Connell can do, right?
Joshua, Radford, Va.
A: I agree, Joshua. I would have liked to see O'Connell get that game experience. I assume it was a case where the coaching staff feels Cassel needs the experience as well. Some might argue "why give Cassel the experience when O'Connell is the quarterback of the future?" My answer to that would be that the coaching staff obviously feels Cassel gives the team the best chance to win this year, and at 3-2, this year is anything but over.
Why did they not challenge the Randy Moss catch at the 4-yard line? It looked like he clearly had possession and it was then knocked out of his hand. Do they not have someone reviewing the broadcasts who can alert the coaching staff?
A: Ron, I personally didn't think it was as clear that Moss had possession. When I saw the replay, my first reaction was "no catch". At the same time, given the direction the game was headed, why not take a chance at a challenge? Fair point.
Ty Law has to be an upgrade over what I saw yesterday. Any idea if they are calling him or anyone else for that matter? Also, 20/20 hindsight now says they should have signed Asante Samuel given that we can't stop anything deep and we can't play one-on-one with the big boys.
A: The cornerbacks had a bad game, Cynthia, there is no sugarcoating it. But I'd just caution anyone from reading too much into one performance. As we've seen through six weeks of the season, so much changes from week to week in the NFL. The Patriots got beaten on three big plays, had another long pass interference penalty in the end zone, and those plays were killers. But I don't think that poor performance is necessarily reflective of what we saw in the first four games before this one. I'm not saying the cornerbacks have been great, but they haven't been that bad. I think you can win with these cornerbacks, but some pressure up front would help. As for Law, I have not heard anything along those lines.
Hi Mike, how long will the Patriots continue to put Deltha O'Neal out at cornerback this year? He continues to get beaten for long pass plays. At first I figured he was signed late and hadn't learned the defense, but he continues to be out of position giving up big pass plays. If he should be getting help over the top at left cornerback, it would be Rodney Harrison giving the help and it's hard to believe Harrison is missing assignments and leaving O'Neal on his own.
A: Bert, on those two plays O'Neal was beaten, I believe that was strictly man-to-man coverage. I was curious to hear O'Neal's take, but he waved off reporters after the game. On the first one, his technique/coverage was off. On the second, it was the same story but he seemed to recover better so I also credit the Chargers for making a very nice play -- Philip Rivers to Malcom Floyd for a 49-yard touchdown. O'Neal was kept on the sidelines for two series after those miscues, replaced by Terrence Wheatley. He also spent some time on the bench in the second half. If O'Neal plays like he did Sunday, he'll surely be spending more time on the bench.
A very painful performance to watch. It appears that we're running the same worn offensive plays (i.e. short passes, ineffective run schemes and absolutely no pressure on the opponents by the vaunted front three/four.) I'm still waiting for Dom Capers's schemes to visualize. Delta O'Neal's performance was terrible and he looked liked a rookie and is probably the reason he isn't playing for the Bengals. The injury list is beginning to look like a mass casualty center. Thoughts?
A: My thoughts start with the quarterback spot, Bill. This offense can move the ball and score points, the scheme is good, but a lot falls on the trigger-man. I think what we're seeing is Cassel learning on the job, hence some of the turbulence at times. Remember last week, some e-mailers were saying "Let's give Cassel more time, he looked more comfortable against the 49ers; maybe there is hope here." As for the pass rush, I agree fully. In terms of O'Neal, I don't think anyone was saying he was a shutdown corner when he arrived. Part of the reason he was let go in Cincinnati was financial considerations. If O'Neal would have reduced his salary, my hunch is that the Bengals (now 0-6 and not exactly experts when it comes to talent evaluation) would have kept him. As for the injury list, the Patriots took some hits, no doubt, losing Jarvis Green and Nick Kaczur to right ankle injuries.
Mike, enough is enough with the leadership of the Patriots' defense. It is clear that the defense, as currently constituted, is perhaps the worst in pass defense that the Pats have fielded since their run of dominance began. We keep hearing about all the premier players they have, especially on the D-line, but the results just aren't there -- seven sacks through five games, near the bottom in completion percentage and average yards per catch allowed, at the bottom in forced fumbles (1), etc. My take is that Dean Pees and his staff aren't getting the job done. This is something that probably would have bubbled to the surface last year too if the Pats hadn't played from ahead so often and had needed their D to make plays. Pees is now in the third year as coordinator and the results are getting worse, not better. Clearly this will be a lost year with Brady out, but the Pats need to address their defensive leadership and philosophy in the offseason unless they think they can win with a bottom 3rd defense.
Jay, Weston, Fla.
A: The way I see it, Jay, they have to find a way to get more pressure. It simply hasn't been good enough through five games and I do put some of that on the coaches. But overall, I think Pees is a good coach. What I am starting to wonder is about a conflict between the strength of their personnel and the way the game is played today in the NFL -- they have big, sturdy players whose first priority is often to stop the run, but this is a passing league and they need more pass rush up front. On the final part of the question, I'd disagree that this is a lost year. I see a wide-open race across the NFL, and I think this is survival time. You try to hang around as long as possible and then hope you're playing your best ball in late November and December. Surely, the Patriots haven't done much to inspire confidence on a consistent basis, but I think it's too early to count them out.
Mike, what exactly does Dom Capers do? It was my understanding that he was coming to NE to help the defense. So far, I see nothing different from last year. The defense might even be worse. They put absolutely no pressure whatsoever on the QB. In the SD game and almost every game this year, except for the SF game last week, the QB has a multitude of time to throw the ball. That coupled with the fact the defensive backs play about 7 yards or more off the line of scrimmage almost all the time. I thought he was here to create some pressure packages or something but I see the same old no pressure, off the line of scrimmage, weak defense.
Stephen, Ogdensburg, NY
A: Stephen, my understanding is that Capers leads the individual meetings with defensive backs. So he's focusing on their technique, working to develop their skills, making sure they're on the same page with what the defensive play-call is etc. In terms of his schemes, I'm not sure how much has been implemented in the Patriots' overall attack. I will say this: I think his hiring was a coup, but I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea that it was the most important move for the defense this offseason. While I believe coaching is crucial in this league, the players are the ones making it happen on Sunday. So it's a combination between coaching and players, not one or the other.
Mike, where was the pass rush in this game vs. SD? Philip Rivers had all day to throw, any QB, even Cassel (I think), would look good with all that time. Might it be time we see Shawn Crable activated to help the pass rush? Is it a scheme or talent issue? The lack of a pass rush is making things even harder for the secondary. The secondary leaves too much of a cushion, IMO, why is that?
A: Rob, I think it's a good, educated prediction that Crable will see his first action Monday against Denver. They need more of a pass rush, and perhaps he can deliver that spark in a sub package. Consider this from Sunday night's game: In-game statisticians keep track of quarterback hits, which is when a quarterback is knocked to the ground, and the Patriots had zero in 27 Philip Rivers pass attempts. Some stats can be twisted to prove a point. That's not one of them. Credit to the Chargers for their pass protection, but I find it hard to believe that with the talent the Patriots have on their defense that they couldn't get to Rivers at least a few times.
Hi Mike, just finished watching the San Diego Massacre. Ouch. Thank goodness for DVR. My question is on the allegedly vaunted D line: At what point does their performance earn them the moniker "overrated"? Health isn't supposed to be an issue this year, and yet they generate ZERO pass rush and are porous against the run. This team will sink or swim based on the strength of Seymour, Warren, Wilfork, and Green. They have the ability to cover up a weak secondary (like the Giants did last year) and open up things for their LBs to make plays (which isn't happening either). It just kills me to see Cassel constantly getting harassed whereas the New England defense generates absolutely no pass rush. Oh yeah, and any blitzes they do dial up always seem to get picked up or exploited by the opposing QB. It's frustrating to see -- in the span of one season -- the offensive line disintegrate before our very eyes and the defensive line continue to underperform. If championship teams are built from the inside out then we are [in trouble].
Derek, Monterey, Calif.
A: Derek, at the time I filed this mailbag to our top-notch staff over at Boston.com, I hadn't seen a replay of the game (long flight back from San Diego). So I need to reserve judgment on the defensive line until I get to see more of the game. From watching the game live, it didn't seem like the pressure was good enough and I want to try to find out why. I thought the linemen played the run well enough to win; the Chargers finished with 98 yards on 35 carries (3.5 avg.). If you had told me that before the game, I would have predicted a New England victory. I analyzed the personnel and saw that the Patriots were in a 4-2-5 nickel look for a majority of plays, and it seemed to me that the premise was to ask the four linemen and two linebackers to hold up against the run, with the five players in the secondary in primarily man-coverage on the back end of the field (if Rodney Harrison wasn't playing a linebacker-like role). As for the offensive line, I don't think it's as bad as it looks. When the quarterback holds on to the ball a long time, which Cassel has at times, it can make any line look bad. Other times, the line has broken down. I think the breakdowns are more apparent now because the Patriots are playing with less margin for error.
I am reading this piece about Laurence Maroney and it just seems like his mind is somewhere else besides on the football field. Seems like he may be going through the Vince Young demons, certainly doesn't sound confident in his awesome ability, and if that is the case put Morris and Jordan 1-2 they get better yards anyways! Thoughts?
A: Mike, I don't know what to make of Maroney's comments. From talking to Maroney the last two-plus years, he's a likable guy, sort of a fun-loving, good-natured type, the type of person anyone would like to see succeed. He seems troubled. For his well being, I hope it's simply a shoulder injury and nothing else.
Tom Brady had surgery on Monday, Oct. 6. Was there any particular reason that the Pats' brass waited one month to get that done? They do realize that if he had the surgery done right away, it could have affected Tom's play next season. Now, they have pretty much guaranteed that next year we will be starting with the backup QB also.
A: I'm not totally familiar with the details of Brady's knee condition, but from what I understand, it's a case of allowing the swelling to go down and allowing the MCL to heal. You could have potentially had more damage if he was operated on sooner.
Mike, each week on the inactives you mark a player the "third quarterback". Is that player part of the 45-man active game-day roster and is eligible for that game? Can you please explain his eligibility for that game? Thanks
A: Yoni, the third quarterback is a 46th player. He can come into the game at any time, but if he enters in the first, second or third quarters, that means the first and second quarterbacks are no longer eligible to play. A third quarterback can enter at any point in the fourth quarter and the first two quarterbacks would still be eligible to play.
Mike, I have to ask again. Why do the Patriots never wear their throwback uniforms? I've seen the Jets/Titans wear theirs twice already this season. The Steelers have worn theirs and the Chargers wore their "powder blues". It seems that teams wear these throwbacks every year but that Patriots might wear theirs once ever 10 years or so. I think their old red unis are great.
Stephen, Odgensburg, NY
A: I agree, Stephen. In fact, I'd endorse a switch back to the old "Pat Patriot" uniforms. I just don't think the Patriots are interested in going throwback, and part of the reason might be that it changes the helmets that players wear and so the players don't always like the change. From what I understand, we'll see the throwbacks next year for a game or two when the league celebrates the 50th anniversary of the American Football League. I say we start a campaign to make those throwbacks stick around a bit longer.