This is how fast things can change in the NFL.
Three weeks ago, following a disappointing 30-10 loss to the Chargers, quarterback Matt Cassel had doubters wondering if he should lose his starting job.
Today, following back-to-back wins over the Broncos (41-7) and Rams (23-16), Cassel has turned some doubters into boosters who are now wondering about his long-term contract situation.
Thats where this weeks mailbag unexpectedly starts.
Hey Mike. Although Cassel is no Brady, I think he is doing an OK job for a backup, and he seems to be getting better every week. If I remember right, Cassel is in his last year of his contract? Does that make him a restricted free agent or an unrestricted one? Given that he is doing decent for a backup QB, do you think the Pats re-sign him or let him walk?
A: Andy, Id say Cassel is doing a better-than-OK job. I think he deserves a lot of credit for his performance over the last two weeks, and for staying cool under pressure. Consider this statistic: There are 12 teams that have had to call on their backup quarterback to either start or enter a scoreless game in the first quarter this season. Of those 12 teams, only four have a winning record (Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, New England). To me, that says that when teams have to call on a backup quarterback, it usually means trouble. That the Patriots are 5-2 is a credit to Cassel, the other players around him, and the coaching staff. Cassel becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season, as players are granted unrestricted free agency after four accrued seasons. Given the uncertainty surrounding Tom Bradys injured left knee, and Cassels performance to date, I think the Patriots will attempt to re-sign him.
Hey Mike, Cassel has certainly improved and if this continues can you comment on what you think the interest will be for Matt in the free-agent market? He would certainly be an upgrade in a place like San Francisco or Kansas City. I have a hard time thinking the Pats would want to pay big money for a back-up and Cassel probably wants and deserves the opportunity to start somewhere. If he does sign with another team, do the Pats get compensation?
Pete, Sante Fe, NM
A: The Patriots would not get compensation, Pete, unless they placed the franchise or transition tag on Cassel. I think that is highly unlikely. As for Cassels value on the market, I think the analogy that a sports agent once told me rings true: backup quarterbacks are a lot like stocks. Cassels value is currently rising, just as Todd Collins value was rising last year when he helped lead the Redskins into the playoffs. But like stocks, things can downturn quickly, and thus I think its too early to place a definitive value on Cassel. If the season ended today, though, I believe he would have played himself into the $2-3 million per year range as a top backup. Hes currently making $520,000.
Mike, I'm happy the Patriots keep winning and have as of late been reading positive writings about Cassel, but am I missing something? He still looks like hes no better than a backup. Yes I know hes giving it his all but hes still painfully slow reading defenses and finding his open receivers. Unless I'm wrong, if they make the playoffs it will be a one-and-done because I don't feel that SB quality radiating from Matt. I feel bad even writing this but I've watched the Pats for years and had the same feeling about Grogan (used to love watching Grogan-Morgan and Craig), Eason and Bledsoe. What are your feelings about this?
Gregory, Portsmouth, N.H.
A: Gregory, I think Cassel is currently proving me wrong. I have written that I doubt his long-term status as the starting quarterback. I do think Kevin OConnell will ultimately be groomed for the No. 2 job, and Tom Brady, assuming good health, will naturally be back in the No. 1 spot. I thought OConnell might be pressing Cassel by this point, but Cassel has answered the challenge. Looking around the NFL and the lack of quality quarterbacks, hes taking steps to put himself in position to have a longer-than-I-anticipated career in this league. Id say the odds are longer that he could lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl, but all it takes is one look around the NFL to realize anything is possible this year.
If Matt Cassel continues to improve, the Patriots should have a relatively successful season (relative to losing the NFL MVP). But to really make noise going forward, don't you think the secondary needs to improve just as much if not more? Deltha O'Neal probably isn't the answer, so at least one other corner will have to step up his game for the Patriots to be a factor should they make the playoffs.
A: Scott, I think a team can win with ONeal, but I do agree on this one overall, as the secondary and overall pass defense looks like its quite vulnerable. While I think a free agent like a Ty Law or John Lynch could help, Im not sure I could envision the results being that much better. In the end, I think the Patriots are going to have to rely more on generating pressure with four, five and six rushers to help the secondary on a more consistent basis.
Hi Mike, injuries have really hit the Patriots hard this season, but I have to feel good about what I'm seeing. Against the Rams, the d-line looked as good as I've ever seen it. The greatly overrated Richard Seymour seemed to have his best game in a long time. And despite our great receivers having the dropsies, Matt Cassel didn't appear shaken, he was poised and confident. While I don't see this team as a Super Bowl contender, what I am seeing is cause for optimism, don't you think? This team looks capable of overcoming great levels of adversity, and to my great surprise, Matt Cassel seems to be up to the task.
A: I would agree ScottE. Through seven games, I would say what the Patriots have done to this point is commendable. Im sure Bill Belichick privately feels good about the fact that the wins are still coming even without the teams best player (Tom Brady) and other significant injuries. That, to me, is a sign of an overall philosophy and system that works. As much as possible, the Patriots treat the 53rd player on the roster and eight practice squad players the same as they do the first, second, third and fourth players. They coach them all hard, and generally know the type of player that can succeed in their system. Like you, I have been surprised at Cassel to this point. I credit him for handling the adversity and pressure the way he has. I believe others would not have been as up to the task.
Hey Mike, Im wondering if you could shed some light as to whether the rumors are true regarding the Patriots being irked about Tom Brady not going to a specialist they recommended in Boston for his knee operation. Instead, Brady opted to have the operation done Oct. 6 by a Los Angeles clinic as his family wished. My question is: Isnt there something in the athletes contract to mandate them going to a doctor of the teams choice? After all, it is in the teams best interest for the athlete to get healthy and I would assume they would choose the very best. It just seems surprising that Tom and his family made the decision of where to get the operation and who performed it.
A: The information I believe to be true is that the Patriots would have preferred that Brady had his surgery here in Boston. At the same time, I think the teams high-level executives respect Bradys decision, so I dont believe the teams high-level executives are irked. Per the collective bargaining agreement, players are allowed to choose the doctors of their choice.
Mike, in the last two weeks Richard Seymour has looked like a different player. He has been much more reminiscent of the dominant force that he was early in his career. Is it an issue with improving health, good matchups or something else?
A: I thought Bill Belichick had some interesting things to say about Seymour on his regularly scheduled appearance on WEEI on Monday. Health and having a full offseason to build a foundation is a part of it, which has allowed Seymours natural talent to shine through. WEEIs Pete Sheppard asked Belichick about Seymours performance against the Rams, and this was Belichicks response: I think a number of Richards pressures came from being able to win on his first step. Getting off on the ball and getting his pads down and getting good leverage on the blocker, and gaining an advantage within one step. A lot of that is initial quickness, takeoff, timing and leverage.
Hi Mike. The front seven seemed to come to life in the second half of the Rams game. All of a sudden they seemed to get pressure on the QB and they were still playing well against the run. When this happened, the secondary, as depleted as it was, began playing solid. This really seems like the key to helping/fixing the secondary issues. The question: did they start playing it different in the 2nd half? Were they bringing more people to get the pressure? Or did they just start playing better?
A: Tony, I dont think it was just the second half. I thought the Patriots started to generate more pressure from the second quarter. To my surprise, when I reviewed the game over again, some of their best rushes came with the standard four defenders. For example, second-quarter sacks by Adalius Thomas and Richard Seymour after the Rams advanced to the New England 23 yard-line came out of a four-man rush. But Thomas sack of Marc Bulger later in the second quarter came on a six-man rush. The Patriots mixed their pressure throughout the game. In the end, I think the results improved when the defenders started winning more one-on-one battles.
Mike, just curious for your take on the strategy at the very end of the Rams game. The Pats took a knee three times in a row before punting it back to the Rams with, I think, around 25 seconds remaining. Obviously it worked out and the Rams would have been hard-pressed to score in that situation, but why take a knee there rather than run a couple of plays and try to pick up a first down to really end the game?
A: In that situation, John, I would have done the same thing. As a coach, you are obviously weighing the risk/reward. The ball was at the Rams 37 yard-line with 1:08 remaining and the Rams had two timeouts remaining. Kevin Faulk already had 13 carries at that point in the game and, as a coach, I would have been concerned that he was entering a point where he could have been prone to fumbling. Rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis had not been in that situation before, and I wouldnt have chanced it. Instead of having two ball-handling situations the center/quarterback exchange and the quarterback/running back exchange I favored the idea of reducing the margin for error.
Mike whats your take on Randy Moss's overall play so far? The critics seem to pick apart every little thing he does to create a little controversy, but I think he's been a leader and a deserving captain. But you watch tape of every snap so how about a grade?
A: Dan, Ive charted that Moss has been on the field for 87 percent of the teams offensive snaps, which is more than any other skill-position player. In terms of his production, there are times in which Ive felt he could have made a more aggressive play on the ball. It also wouldnt surprise me to learn he is dealing with an undisclosed injury, because Ive noticed more defensive backs catching him from behind this year. On the flip side, I think hes come up with some big plays in critical situations, and while he hasnt aced every blocking assignment, hes been a willing and effective participant in that aspect of the game. Overall, I think his performance this year has reflected a solid No. 1 receiver.
Hi Mike, for the first time in quite a while, the D-line looked like a group of first-rounders. Where has that performance been? Did the coaches free them up to attack the backfield in this game? Also, Vrabel seems to be quiet this season - I don't recall any sacks, strip-sacks, touchdowns. How has he been playing in your view?
Ned, Greensboro, NC
A: Ned, my feeling is that the defensive line probably showed up more because of quarterback sacks, but this group has been good-to-very-good even before Sundays win. Even against the Chargers, when there was little pressure, I thought they did what was asked of them by limiting the run game. As for Vrabel, Ive been surprised to see him coming off the field in some nickel packages, as I wouldnt expect to see the team-leader in sacks last year with 12.5 heading to the sideline in passing situations. I wonder if hes bothered by a nagging injury. I think he has been very effective at setting the edge in the running game, using his strength to string runs to the sideline as others fill in to make the tackle.
Hi Mike. Ben Watson has been invisible this year. I feel the lack of production from the TE can be directly attributed to Matt Cassel's lack of ability to see the entire field and to completely move through his progressions. Watson, although underachieving, was always a matchup nightmare because of his physical tools. What have you seen? Is he running routes differently this year or being held in to block? I know he was injured but that has been the case in each of the last 2 years and he has still been productive. Why is the TE just not an option in this offense?
A: Its interesting, Steve, because I agree that Watson has been generally invisible in the passing game (7 catches, 70 yards). But I think hes made strides as a blocker, and as it turns out, he probably adds more value to the team in that role. This week is probably a good example, as the Patriots will probably need to help tackles Matt Light and Mark LeVoir/Nick Kaczur with edge rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Its part of the reason tight end is probably my favorite offensive position on the field, because it involves the passing and running games, so a good tight end can stay on the field at all times. While Id say that Watson does not always look fluid in pass patterns and catching the ball I think his work in the running game and in pass protection, which is much easier to overlook, has been very good the last few weeks. Watson has been held into block this year more than in past years.
What is the status of the running backs going into this week? Morris' injury has never really been disclosed and I do not even remember seeing a play where he limped off. Upon further review Jordan's injury didn't seem that serious either. Is their any word on when either might return? Lack of disclosure is one of the biggest downsides of being a Pats fan. (The upside to that, of course, being our opponents know as much as we do)
A: Dwayne, I think youve hit on one of the most pressing questions facing the Patriots this week. Its going to be awfully difficult for them to go into Indianapolis with three healthy running backs (Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Heath Evans) and win. I dont have any information regarding their official status. My hunch is that Jordan is going to have a better chance of playing than Morris.
Mike, a spate of injuries have hit the Pats running game, most recently Sammy Morris' knee injury in the Denver game. Can you explain the league policy and the Pats' policy regarding disclosure of the nature of a player's injury? If a player gets hurt on game day, what is required of the team as far as telling the league the extent of the injury? With Rodney Harrison's injury, the news was out immediately. But almost a full week has passed and there is no news regarding Morris' injury beyond "(knee)". All we know is LaMont Jordan has a calf injury. Are teams allowed to be secretive about the extent of a player's injury or does the league require some level of detailed disclosure?
A: Mark, I wrote about the NFLs usage of injury reports in the Boston Globe back in 2006. On game days, teams announce players status when they are knocked out of games.
Do you have any sense for which rookie the Patriots like the most in the defensive backfield? It seems they made a big push to improve there through the draft, and haven't seen much in the way of results.
A: Pete, it looks to me like fourth-round pick Jonathan Wilhite is ahead of second-round pick Terrence Wheatley at this time. Thats a bit surprising given both players draft status, but Wilhite was part of the teams initial nickel package Sunday against the Rams, while Wheatley was further down the depth chart.
Hey Mike, what are the early returns on the Patriots' young secondary? It appeared that Mike Richardson, Terrence Wheatley, and Jonathan Wilhite all got significant minutes against the Rams. Did they look competitive out there or do they look overmatched? Also, does the Patriots defense look faster to you without Harrison, who many say had lost a step?
A: Will, I thought the young secondary played exactly the way one might expect from young players some flashes of excellence, some breakdowns. I didnt think they were necessarily overmatched. Wilhite looked like he didnt drop deep enough in zone coverage on Donnie Averys 35-yard catch in the first quarter, and also didnt turn on Keenan Burtons 27-yard gain in the second quarter. I didnt notice Richardson and Wheatley as much. As for the speed of the defense, I do think Meriweather improves that area. But they miss Harrison in other areas such as physicality and versatility.
What's the story with Shawn Crable? I mean for a 3rd round pick shouldn't he have more tackles then Lonnie Paxton at this point? I thought he looked OK in preseason as a pass rusher. I've seen him on the injury report only this past week. So is this guy softer then a roll of Charmin or is there something else keeping him from suiting up? Either way, not much of a first impression.
A: Stu, Crable has been inactive for every game this season. Id say its a combination of a stocked depth chart (Adalius Thomas, Mike Vrabel and Pierre Woods ahead of him at outside linebacker), special teams (players like Ray Ventrone and Kelley Washington have more value), and what I would presume to be the coaching staffs view that he still needs some more time. I dont think hes soft. Since starting to cover the Patriots in 1997, Ive seen rookies develop at different rates, but I think its too early to say anything definitively regarding Crable.
Hey Mike. I know its a little early, but what is the Pats draft status for next year, meaning do they have any extra picks, or any round where they don't have a pick? Also, what exactly is a "pass defended" stat that has been showing up lately? Certainly it doesn't mean how many times someone's been thrown at; is it how many passes that were knocked down?
A: Jim, the Patriots have an extra second-round draft choice next season, from the San Diego Chargers. The Patriots acquired that selection in a draft-day deal this year when they traded a 2008 third-rounder to San Diego and as part of the deal received the 2009 second-rounder. The Chargers selected running back Jacob Hester of LSU. The Patriots also have the standard one selection in every round, 1-7. There is the possibility of the team receiving more picks when compensatory selections awarded to teams who have a net loss of compensatory free agents are awarded in the spring. On the second part of the question, the pass defended stat, that is how many passes were knocked down.
Mike, an obscure rules question for you. On the second to last play of Sunday's game against the Rams, you'll recall that the Patriots punted with 19 seconds left. Hall caught the ball in the end zone, and dithered for a while, looking for a chance to break out. Eventually the Pats coverage team caught up with him, and pushed him out the back of the end zone. Why was this a touchback, and not a safety?
A: Andrew, Rule 3, Section 38 of the NFL rulebook reads: A touchback is the situation in which a ball is dead on or behind a teams own goal line, provided the impetus came from an opponent and provided it is not a touchdown. The key word is impetus.
Greetings Mike. Are there any teams that haven't played at Gillette Stadium yet?
A: Sunday marked the Rams first-ever appearance at Gillette, which opened in 2002. Arizona, Atlanta and Carolina are the teams that have yet to play a regular-season game at Gillette. Arizona and Carolina have played at Gillette in the preseason.