Fans upbeat after Patriots beat up Broncos
FOXBOROUGH -- This comment from cornerback Ellis Hobbs caught my attention after the Patriots' 41-7 win over the Broncos on Monday Night.
"In the four years that I've been here, I've never heard Bill [Belichick] say, 'Go out there, cut it loose, and have some fun out there.' We were jumping around, slapping each other, this and that. That's a great feeling out there. That's a great look out there. We had fun tonight."
I could sense that energy, passion, and purpose from the opening coin toss, when the Patriots won the flip and linebacker Tedy Bruschi yelled into referee Al Riveron's microphone: "We deferrrrrrrrrrrr!."
Riveron seemed stunned at the energy-filled response. I think I saw him laughing.
Thanks to some early turnovers and a smash-mouth running attack - and some inept Broncos play - the Patriots turned that emotion into positive results on the field.
Now, at 4-2, they're one game back of the Bills in the AFC East, and face a Rams team Sunday in a much-tougher-than-it-initially-looked type of game.
Last week at this time, the mailbag was filled with concern following the Patriots' 30-10 loss to the Chargers. This week has a much different tone.
On to the questions
I'm a long-time Rodney Harrison fan. Having blown out my own knee once, I have to say on replay his injury looked ugly. I wish Rodney all the best but I fear the worst. Given the likelihood that No. 37 is lost for the season, who moves to safety, Brandon Meriweather? Other than the San Diego game (when the whole defense played awful), he seems to be coming right along. His offseason catching drills certainly have paid dividends. Also, with Rodney out, what will the Pats' nickel and dime packages look like?
Bruce M., Warwick, N.Y.
A: Bruce, I'd concur with your thoughts. Rodney Harrison is one of the nicest, most respectful players in the locker room. When we talk, it's often not about football, but about family and friends, and faith. As for who moves to safety, I think we'll see Brandon Meriweather there. He's been the first defensive back off the bench through six games, and even has mixed in for some snaps with the base defense. He looks like he's really coming on, and his presence will make the Patriots faster on defense. The nickel package will obviously change, and choosing solely from players on the present roster, I'd say Lewis Sanders and Jonathan Wilhite would be the top options as the fifth defensive back.
Do you have any news about Harrison's injury?
A: Jeanne, I have not heard any definitive news about Rodney Harrison. After the game, coach Bill Belichick said: "It doesn't look too good." I assume it's a season-ending situation. (Update: My colleague Chris Gasper is reporting that Harrison is out for the season with a torn right quadriceps.)
Mike, any chance we'll see John Lynch back in a Patriots' uniform?
A: Rob, I do think we'll see Lynch back with the Patriots. Here is a recent ESPN.com piece from Rick Reilly that details some of Lynch's thoughts as he's dealt with life without football so far this season. The key to me is that Harrison played so many roles for the Patriots, from safety to linebacker, to emotional leader. I think Lynch has a similar skill set, and his time in training camp gave him some background in the system. As both parties said at the time of his release, the door was open for his return.
Mike, is it just me or is Jerod Mayo a very serious contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year? Obviously, being a Pats fan, my opinion is biased, but in all honesty, I cant think of any other rookie that has been playing as well as Jerod. The guy was ALL over the field Monday night. I am very impressed. Kudos to the Patriots for drafting a jackpot linebacker. In a year where the 'D' hasn't been very consistent, Mayo has been a diamond in the rough. And as for voting for him in this season's Pro Bowl ... well... guilty.
Lucas O., Salvador, Brazil
A: Lucas, I certainly think Mayo has to be at the forefront of the discussion. I'd call him one of the leading contenders. Entering Week 7 NFL action, the following defensive rookies had started every game for their team, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Mayo, Brandon Carr (cornerback, Chiefs), Glenn Dorsey (defensive tackle, Chiefs), Brandon Flowers (cornerback, Chiefs), Charles Godfrey (safety, Panthers), Lawrence Jackson (defensive end, Seahawks), Tyrell Jackson (safety, Vikings), Chris Long (defensive end, Rams), Dwight Lowery (cornerback, Jets), Curtis Lofton (linebacker, Falcons) and Keith Rivers (linebacker, Bengals). We now know Rivers is out for the year. Obviously, starting doesn't mean the player is necessarily productive, but it can be a good indication of one's value to a team, and how fast a rookie is coming along.
Mike, did the running game improve this week because Stephen Neal was back in the lineup or because Denver's defense is horrible?
Jim C., Seminole Fla.
A: I'd say a combination of both, Jim, with me leaning more toward the latter explanation if I had to choose one or the other. Neal did not start but rotated into the game for a few series at right guard. Meanwhile, Denver's defense is just awful. They were playing a 3-4, but don't seem to have the personnel to do it. That made it easier for the Patriots linemen to move them off the ball, turn them, and create running lanes. In the end, credit needs to go to the linemen, tight ends, fullbacks and receivers for making those blocks, and the runners for taking advantage of the open spaces, but I also think it's important to keep in mind the team on the other side of the ball as well.
What's the status of Sammy Morris?
A: Ed, I did not see Sammy Morris in the locker room after the game. He played 24 of 33 snaps in the first half and his final play was his 29-yard run on fourth-and-1 to set up Randy Moss's 1-yard touchdown. I just reviewed the play and didn't see anything that stood out from the play-ending tackle he absorbed from Broncos safety Calvin Lowry.
Hi Mike, with the recent injury of Maroney (out), Sammy (knee) and LaMont Jordan (knee), do you see Cassel needing to throw a lot more? Faulk plus Green is not the answer to our running game. Another question, assuming the "worst" - if we win one lose one from now on, do you think 9-7 can get us in?
A: Alex, my answer to the first question would be "not necessarily." I think between Faulk, Heath Evans and Green-Ellis - and a controlled short passing game that in essence serves as a running game - they could get by for a short period of time until Jordan is ready to return. I also think a lot will depend on each individual matchup. For example, the Rams - who come to town Sunday - are surrendering 5 yards per rush over six games this season (30th out of 32 teams). Based on that statistic - and I'd point out that I haven't seen much of the Rams at this point - it appears they are a team that can be run on. As for the second question - if 9-7 would get the Patriots into the playoffs - I just don't think anyone has the answers right now. The NFL is as wide open as it's ever been, with so much changing week to week, that I think it's impossible to project at this point. I know that there are a lot of TV shows and analysts who have opinions on that kind of stuff, and it seems like I'm taking the easy way out on the question, but I bet if we made a tape of the "expert" comments from week to week, it would be revealing how much the commentary is off base based on the ever-changing nature of the league.
With Maroney on IR and Jordan and Morris banged up, are there any free agents that the Patriots may go after?
A: This is always tricky, Joe, because there are only so many spots on the 53-man roster. A lot will also depend on the severity of Morris's injury. At this point, I'd say that any running back addition would likely come on the practice squad or in the form of a player like Kyle Eckel, who would add value by playing on special teams.
It was a great win. Even though Cassel's numbers are not Tom Brady's numbers, do you think he is managing the game well?
Darryl, St. Petersburg, Fla.
A: Darryl, I give a lot of credit to Cassel. While he holds on to the ball too long at times, I think the fact he's 4-2 as a starter (I'm counting the Chiefs game because he entered a scoreless game in the first quarter) is something that should not be overlooked. He's obviously a work in progress, so based on the expectations, I think he should be commended at this point. One area where I would give him credit is being able to block out the doubters and avoid the temptation of riding the highs and lows, which shows his mental toughness. Entering Monday night's game, 12 NFL teams had called on a backup quarterback to either start a game, or enter a scoreless game in the first quarter. Eight of those teams have losing records in those situations. So I think it's clear that when teams have to go to their backup, it's usually bad news. That it hasn't been for the Patriots is a credit to Cassel, the rest of the players, and the coaching staff.
I have a question regarding the large number of sacks the Pats are giving up this year. While much has been made of Cassel holding onto the ball too long, might some of this be due to a failure to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage? Brady always seemed to be making adjustments and pointing out defensive players who should be blocked. I have not noticed Cassel doing this and often defensive players seem to go unblocked.
A: I'm sure this is a factor, Kevin. I'll defer to Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who is considered one of the game's best offensive minds. Here is what he told New England reporters about Brady, which I think ties into Cassel: "We all know what Tom Brady has done and what he has meant to the Patriots and the National Football League in general. [Facing] Tom, you could never make the right call. Tom would get you in protections with the long [snap] counts. No matter what blitz you had he would be able to redirect the offensive line to the right blitzer. If you did get a guy free, he would know where his third or fourth wide receiver was. That just takes some time. One of the reasons he is arguably the best in the game is just how he has played and how many games he has won. It takes quarterbacks time. That just doesn't happen over night. Matt [Cassel] will just keep on getting better and better as he experiences the offense."
Mike, what has gotten into the Patriots defense? They looked awesome, getting good pressure on the QB, stopping the run, and creating turnovers. Where has this defense been all year?
A: Rob, I think it starts with energy, and that's where a player like Tedy Bruschi adds more value. I could tell that the players were focused on cutting loose and having fun, playing with a purpose and passion, and Bruschi sort of led the charge there. I thought the defense actually struggled a bit early, but ball-hawking from Lewis Sanders and Ty Warren helped create two early turnovers, which were big. On the whole, the Patriots alter their defensive game-plan from week to week, and they had a good plan this week (more pass rush), with good execution. And it helps to have a Jerod Mayo in the middle of the defense. He'll make any 'D' look a lot faster.
Do you remember the days when a win like the one last night would be the lone highlight of our season? Yet "fans" were leaving early to beat traffic! Would it have been so bad to stay and support the Pats best performance in a very difficult season? If they are so concerned about getting home early, why go to a MNF game? Give the tickets to someone who CARES! I can see why the players get a little ticked off. They lose big, the stadium empties. They win big, and the "fans" get bored and go home early. Kraft needs to look into figuring out a way to let the real fans get back into Gillette. Also, why not call Ty Law and play him at safety? He may not be a shut-down CB anymore, but he knows the system, can still cover RBs and TE, and is not afraid to hit?
A: Dan, I'm not going to get on the fans on this one. Those night games are tough for those waking up to get to work the next morning, and the traffic coming out of Gillette is often gridlock. I've watched several other games this year, with various different teams, and it seems to me like that scenario with fans leaving is commonplace at the end of lopsided games. As for Law, I think a more likely option is John Lynch. He would probably come at a price more suitable to the Patriots' liking, and also is more of a pure safety/linebacker, which is the role the Patriots would be looking to fill.
Hi Mike, sending regards from Slovakia. I'm almost always on Coach Belichick's side but I have a question regarding their ability to draft players for the offensive side of the ball. While I recognize that draft is inexact science and there's a 50-50 chance you can draft a bust player even in the first round I just haven't seen anything from recent drafts. I discount Logan Mankins because he's playing the line, but from the "creative" players drafted in recent years nobody stands out for me. You name it: Laurence Maroney, Chad Jackson, Daniel Graham, David Thomas, Ben Watson, Bethel Johnson, Garrett Mills, Justice Hairston, P.K. Sam just to name a few. You could argue health issues (Maroney, Thomas or Watson) or not enough time for development, but the truth is BB and Scott Pioli have seemingly no problem recognizing and drafting a defensive player who can contribute immediately (Mayo, Merriweather) or are stalwarts of the D and stars of the NFL (Seymour, Asante Samuel, Wilfork), but need to trade for offensive players (Moss, Welker, Dillon) or sign them as free agents (Morris, Jordan, Gaffney).
Lubos M., Bardejov, Slovakia
A: Nice to make the long-distance connection from Slovakia, Lubos. I think it's a fair point, although I'd a few thoughts. First and foremost, their overall success rate in the draft is probably the same - or even better - than most teams in the NFL. The way I look at it, you want to get productive starters out of your picks in the first three rounds, and anything else is a bonus. Based on that thought, and focusing solely on offensive skill-position players - they've certainly had their misses over nine drafts - such as Laurence Maroney, Chad Jackson, and Bethel Johnson. I'd say the only true hit with an offensive skill-position player in the first three rounds is Deion Branch, and some might put Benjamin Watson in there. David Thomas could still be, too, but more time is needed to assess him. In an overall analysis, we obviously wouldn't overlook linemen like Matt Light and Nick Kaczur, but since the question is solely about skill-position players, they don't qualify. In the end, I'd say you've hit at the one area that the combination of Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli has not consistently filled through the draft.
Now that Maroney is out for the year, I hope you will stop dancing around the question of whether this guy is a bust. He is a BUST in capital letters. He can't carry the load, he gets hurt and I for one am tired of seeing the excuses people make for him. With all the great backs in this league, he stands out as a completely lackluster performer. He is probably the ONLY back in this league that has to have a back-up cast of thousands. I bet if Sammy Morris hadn't got hurt last year Morris would have out-gained Maroney. Don't let the door hit him on the way out!
Fred T., Washingtonville, N.Y.
A: Fred, are you saying I danced around the question like Maroney dances at the line of scrimmage? I'm not willing to go bust at this point, but I'd say he's surely a big disappointment. I see Maroney coming back to camp next year and having one more chance, as he has a reasonable salary, so there's no need to cut ties now. The Patriots probably won't count on him from a roster-building perspective - they'll presumably draft or sign another back -- so anything they get would be a bonus. If he doesn't cut it by next July, I'll join you in the BUST category.
Let's have a little faith in the Pats. I agree with some of the other comments about Maroney being overrated and a disappointment. But on the whole, our division is not that strong, and our team may hopefully stop feeling sorry about losing Tommy and finally come together as the season progresses. Don't jump ship yet anyways. Your thoughts?
A: Laurent, based on the topsy-turvy nature of the NFL, I don't think any team with a winning record at this point should be jumping ship. The way I'd sum up my thoughts on the Patriots is this: Long way to go. We're seeing how special Brady truly was. They're 4-2 and still in the race. Teams need to keep chopping wood and position themselves to be playing their best come November/December. It's going to be an uphill climb, though, because teams calling on a backup quarterback are usually in trouble, so the Patriots are fighting a strong current. If they ultimately do post a winning record and make the playoffs, it would be a great reflection on the team's overall talent and coaching in a wide-open NFL.
Mike, are we witnessing the end of the Patriot dynasty? Yes, I know, at least I hope, Brady will return next year but suddenly we seem like a very ordinary team at practically every other position. The secondary is mediocre at best and how many years does Rodney have left in the tank? Our highly touted D-line can't generate any pass rush or stop the run. With one exception, our LBs are all on the downhill sides of their careers and our O-line is getting manhandled every week. After 3 years I think its fair to say that Maroney is a flat out bust and the rest of our backfield are third stringers on contending teams. Will we have one pro bowler this year? I doubt it. Have we become yet another "rebuilding" team?
Al, Tustin, Calif.
A: This question from Al came in before the 41-7 win over the Broncos, but my answer wouldn't be different based on the result. When Brady was lost for the season, my feeling is that it pulled the Patriots back down to the pack. They're still a good team, but no longer the elite team in the NFL. I wouldn't say they're rebuilding this year. I'd call it a sustaining year. And based on what I see across the NFL, when you have a combination of Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli running the football operation, you're in good shape. These guys know what they're doing. The Patriots have solid players, solid coaches, and an owner who gets it. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, how many can say that? Not many.
Mike, can you explain to us the advantage the team receives from placing a player on season ending IR? Does this free up cap space or just open up a roster spot?
A: Jim, the main advantage is that it frees up a spot on the 53-man roster. There is no salary cap relief in most cases, such as Laurence Maroney's.
Hi Mike, while this is a business question, it's still a football question. Channel 5 in Boston is showing the ESPN game, so why is another channel showing ESPN? Is this a local access deal? Do they pay ESPN, is it only if the game is sold out? And does this affect our access to the Thursday night game on NFL Network against the Evil Empire?
A: Kimberly, when a game is on cable, the home team has the game broadcast on over-the-air television so fans who don't have cable aren't shut out. The same is true for a road game.
Can you explain why Tony Gonzalez would decline a trade to Buffalo? Why would he want to stay with the Chiefs? Is it about $$, playing time, comfortable surroundings? It clearly was not about winning.
A: I'm not totally familiar with the Gonzalez situation, KCfan, but from what I read I don't think he necessarily wanted to stay with the Chiefs. He just might have crossed a team or two off his list. In the end, I don't think Chiefs GM Carl Peterson was going to trade him because he didn't have the leverage in the situation. I know one team that was in talks with the Chiefs had the feeling it was a long shot that a trade would be consummated for Gonzalez based on the way the discussions were going.