Run and gun
FOXBOROUGH - The memory is vivid and unforgettable because of the poor product on the field.
It was 1992 and I remember making the trek to Foxboro Stadium for a late-season Patriots game against the Colts that meant nothing and was blacked out on local television. The Patriots were 2-10, it was early December and frigid, and I was one of only 19,429 in the stands that day hoping to see one more Dick MacPherson fist pump, one more Irving Fryar touchdown catch, one more big play from tight end Marv Cook, and one more interception by cornerback Maurice Hurst.
The Colts ended up winning 6-0 in one of the more forgettable games in Patriots and, I suppose, NFL history.
I thought back to that game over the last 36 hours as I read some of the emails in the Patriots' mailbag this week. A main theme in this week's 'bag is running up the score, and I couldn't help but think about that day in 1992, sitting on the aluminum benches at Foxboro Stadium, and now realizing how much things have changed for those who follow this team.
I would imagine that the 19,429 in attendance that day in '92 never imagined their team would be under siege for scoring too many points.
In this week's bag, we'll tackle the running-up-the-score issue and delve into Sunday's showdown between the 8-0 Patriots and 7-0 Colts. Should be an exciting week.
On to the questions...
Is Belichick out to pound the rest of the NFL into submission? It seems he is coaching and the players are playing with a huge chip on their shoulder. I am sick of all the running up the score talk, but would it not be detrimental to the team given the big leads they quickly build to ask them to go out in the third and fourth quarter and alter their approach? What do the critics want us to do? I say offer the other team mercy after a 30-point lead. You can do it in Madden, so why not in real life, too? I suppose that would be classless also.
Joe Sawhill, Des Moines, Iowa
A: While part of me believes there might be a minor element of this being the Bill Belichick Vengeance Tour, and the team's players and coaches are playing with an obvious purpose, I don't think that is close to what this is entirely about. Through eight games, the Patriots are just really, really good, possibly one of the greatest offenses ever. They have been on a completely different level and the focus has been on competing hard for 60 minutes. Personally, I didn't have any problems with the team's approach in the Cowboys and Dolphins games. I would have done the same thing. Against the Redskins, some of the decisions - such as the Randy Moss 35-yard pass in the fourth quarter - went in the opposite direction of what I would do if placed in that situation. I wouldn't have had either player on the field at that time.
I'm sick of hearing people complain about the Patriots running up the score. Is the offense supposed to stay on the sidelines or perhaps just decide to stay in the locker room after the half? I think it's time for this generation of the NFL to shut up and play instead of all the crying and complaining that is done. If somebody handed the Patriots a large defeat, the fans and team should commend the other team on a victory and figure out what went wrong, not cry and complain that they were too tough. If teams don't like how the Patriots are playing, maybe they should do something about it on the field. There are a lot of pathetic teams in the NFL and they are headed by a pathetic commissioner. Any thoughts?
Andrew, Tampa, Fla.
A: My thoughts are that if running up the score is the hot topic then things must be pretty boring around the NFL. But I'll play along. There were a few plays in Sunday's game that I would have approached differently than the Patriots did. Leading 38-0 with 12:50 left in the fourth quarter, the Patriots faced a first-and-10 from their own 49 yard-line and Tom Brady fired a 35-yard pass to Randy Moss down the right sideline. Even though the Redskins were stacking the line and were out for blood, I would have run it there with Kyle Eckel and focused more on situational football to drain more of the clock. To me, the long pass seemed to be an unnecessary dagger at that point. Later on that drive, on fourth and 1, the Patriots went for it on a Brady quarterback sneak. I would have had Matt Cassel in the game and kicked a field goal instead. On the team's next drive, with a 45-0 lead, the Patriots faced a fourth-and-2 from the Redskins' 37. Cassel fired a 21-yard pass to Jabar Gaffney on the play. I would have called for a directional punt. As for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, I have no qualms with the job he's done to this point.
What's your take, and what do you hear from players, about the notion of "running up the score"? Personally, I think that's possible only in amateur athletics, especially in college football or basketball, where a ranked team will schedule to play a "Barber" college or some hapless D3 school and blow them out just to boost their rankings. But this is the NFL. This is a league with a hard cap. No team in the league is hurting for resources, equipment, assistant coaches, etc. If a team doesn't want to get blown out, they should quit complaining and figure out what they're doing wrong on the field.
Nick Radley, Syracuse, N.Y.
A: That is the opinion that I've heard from some Patriots players, both in the locker room and on sports radio WEEI. These players are paid to go compete, paid to score points, and paid to stop the opposition from scoring points. The key word being "paid". I see that side of the issue -- professional sports is about competition, and the competition is fierce in the NFL. For those who see the issue as black and white, this is the argument that the Patriots were simply making decisions based on that pure competition. I tend to see it a little closer to the middle, which I guess puts me in the dreaded fence-sitter category. I'm all for competition - I think it's healthy - but I also believe that there are certain times to pull the reins back. Like I said, I would have called a few different plays Sunday against the Redskins.
I'm sure you're getting a lot of email about running up the score. I think that when you're playing at that high of a level backing down will deflate your drive. It's a mental thing. The Pats shouldn't tone down their game. Belichick needs to keep the intensity up because your greatest focus comes when you are under duress. Your thoughts?
Kevin Hollingsworth, Los Angeles, Calif.
A: Fair point, Kevin, and one that I think specifically applies to the defense from Sunday's game. They let down a bit in Miami the week before and I think they wanted to show they could play 60 minutes. I have no issue with that. Right or wrong, I feel a bit differently on the offensive side.
I was convinced that one of the Redskins defensive players was going to take a cheap shot at Brady in the second half. They were clearly ticked off at what they perceived as the Pats running up the score. I can't say I blame them. Throwing the ball down the field and going for it on fourth down when you are up by 5 or 6 touchdowns is asking for trouble. I agree that you can't kneel down with an entire quarter to play, but what the Patriots are doing is over the edge and I'm afraid another team is going to send them a message. Your thoughts?
Rocco Herman, Revere
A: I know what you are saying, but I don't think there are many players in the NFL who would deliberately injure another player. I think there is a bond among NFL players in this regard, as they realize that health is fleeting in such a physical game. Maybe I'm naÃ¯ve, and I suppose in the heat of the moment that anything could happen, but I can't imagine another player going WWE-style with the Hogan leg drop when referee Ed Hochuli isn't looking. On the running-it-up issue, from a Patriots perspective, my hunch is that Belichick feels it's not his place to decide when to turn the "competition" switch on and off. I also think he probably looked at some of the plays where the Patriots were throwing in the fourth quarter and saw a hard-hitting Redskins defense that was stacking the line and figured "if they're no longer playing two-deep zone and are stacking the line, then we should take what they're giving us; if I run a player in there he could get hurt and that's negligence on my part." So when I consider the possible reasons for the Patriots' decision-making - a personnel shortage at tight end, a Redskins defense stacking the line, the minor difference between a 41-0 lead and 45-0 lead by going for it on fourth down - I can see where the team is coming from. I still would have handled it differently, but I don't see it as a major issue. As Belichick said himself, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
I have an alternate theory as to why the Patriots are scoring so many points this year. The team may be out to set every record it can. It seems that you are reporting a new record every week and providing statistics on how close they are to breaking other records. Last year, they were ignored in the voting for the Pro Bowl and in the past, one of the knocks on Tom Brady was that it was the coaching and not the players who won all of the games. It may be that the players are making a statement that they are out to get every record they can in this mad dash to a perfect season. What do you think?
Kenneth Davis, Chelmsford
A: A few other emailers suggested this as well, Kenneth, as one line of thinking is that Bill Belichick wants there to be no doubt that this one of the NFL's greatest offenses ever. My personal thought is that this team, and specifically Belichick, care little about records. They know the team will ultimately be measured by if it wins the Super Bowl.
In looking at your "positional groupings" listed on the Patriots blog for the Redskins game, might I be right that the Patriots would logically have been limited in the straight running plays they would likely use after Kyle Brady's injury? That would leave them with one tight end - and some limitations on the likely formations. The spread plays would have been more likely, and thereby give an impression - to those searching for one - that they were "piling it on" by using pass formations in the tail end of the game.
Frank Dexter, Gulfport, Fla.
A: This is what Bill Belichick was referring to at the end of the game, when he told reporters that the team was forced into certain groupings, and that the team didn't want to be in three-receiver and four-receiver sets that late in the game but had to. The reason, which wasn't given by Belichick, was because of their tight-end shortage. Yet I don't think the complaints lobbed in the team's direction by three Redskins players (Randall Godfrey, Phillip Daniels and Jason Campbell) and members of the media are a result of the formations the team was in, but more on what plays were called. Teams can still run out of three-wide and four-wide sets. The counter argument, and one that a former NFL coach pointed out to me in recent days, is that teams generally prepare for games by running specific plays in practice. The Patriots obviously lost some of their more "conservative" options when Kyle Brady left the game in the second quarter and did not return, and had to go off script a bit. I suppose there is only so much you can do when you're going off the script.
Does all the talk about "going for Brady's legs" from some media outlets and the fact that the Colts defensive coach teaches dirty tactics (as the media has reported, not sure if that is true) like going for players knees scare you at all? This seems to bring it to a different level, above running the score up, no?
A: I haven't heard anyone suggest going after Brady's knees. Columnist Michael Wilbon, in a Washington Post online chat, suggested that if he was playing he would hit Brady with everything he had as late as possible and take the penalty if necessary. But it's one thing for a writer to an express an opinion like that, and another for someone playing the game. I wrote on the Colts' defensive line coach, John Teerlinck, prior to last year's Super Bowl and here is the story that details more about his past.
I don't have a problem with scoring a million points, being from New England, but doesn't it make sense to pull Tom Brady out when it's 38-0 at the end of the 3rd quarter so he doesn't get hurt in garbage time? Also, Maroney should get some opportunities to score. He gets the ball within 10 yards and then gets yanked out to see someone else score. Throw the guy a bone. What do you think the Pats options are at TE? Brady was hurt against the Redskins, Rivers doesn't look like he has good hands, and we don't know when Watson is coming back. Is there anyone available for the short term? Thanks.
Special K., W. Boylston
A: Yes, it makes sense to me to pull Brady when you have a 38-0 lead at the end of the third quarter. I would have pulled him at that point, but then again, I haven't coached in the NFL and won three Super Bowls. As for Maroney, I don't like him as much on the goal-line as Sammy Morris or Heath Evans. He seems to be better between the 10-yard lines then when the defense is packed in tight expecting the run. At tight end, there aren't many options. One name to keep in mind is Brian Jones, who was in training camp with the team this year and thus has some background in the system. Hindsight is 20-20, but it makes you wonder if the team now regrets waiving Garrett Mills - a 2006 fourth-round draft choice - at the end of training camp.
I have read in your recent mailbag that you think the Patriots will use extra DBs to defend Manning. My concern is this will open up the run and we will get gashed like late in the AFC Championship game. How about we stop the run, cover Clark with Adalius Thomas or a safety, and force Manning to beat us with Wayne and Harrison at less than 100 percent. Or would Manning still carve the D up?
Joe Sawhill, Des Moines, Iowa
A: That is a fair concern, Joe, especially after seeing how the Patriots' three-safety look in Dallas did not fare particularly well against the run. I will admit I am conflicted as to how I would proceed. If the Patriots stay with the base 3-4, I am not sure if there is enough speed on the field and if I was wearing a gray hoodie, my concern would be linebacker Tedy Bruschi getting exploited in the passing game, particularly on underneath routes to running back Joseph Addai. We know how quick the Colts can strike through the air, and I see Indianapolis having a passing-game advantage if the Patriots stay in the base. So that's why I favor the use of the extra defensive back, which while lightening the box against the run, better equips the Patriots in the speed department against the pass. I think if I had to choose, I'd still go that route, but I don't feel as strongly about it as I did three weeks ago. I don't see Adalius Thomas as a good matchup against Dallas Clark. I'd rather see Rodney Harrison there.
Two quick questions, Mike: 1) Do you think Light can handle Freeney on his own? And how will the Patriots look to negate Clark?
Glenn Williams, Brighton
A: At times, I think Light will be able to handle Freeney on his own. But all it takes is one play to change the course of a game and Light will most definitely get some help, from tight ends and backs. One thing I've noticed is how effective running back Kevin Faulk is at the chip technique, where he will line up next to Tom Brady in the shotgun and before going out into his route, he'll chip an oncoming defender to knock him out of his rush. I'd expect to see more of that Sunday. As for Clark, I personally feel he's the singular key to the Patriots' defensive plan and right now, I believe the answer to the question is Rodney Harrison, who like he did to the Cowboys' Jason Whitten, will probably be lined up across from Clark, jamming him at the line of scrimmage.
I am a displaced Patriots fan in Oklahoma City right now doing training for Air Traffic Control. My question this week is about the Patriots' pass rush. This week looked very good against the Redskins offensive line, but up until this week it hadn't looked very good at all. I'm worried that if we don't get to Peyton Manning next Sunday we are going to have a lot of trouble against the Indianapolis Colts, allowing Manning to sit back and pick at our secondary. The Colts' offensive line is much better than that of the 'Skins which I think will be trouble for us unless we send blitzes at Peyton. But then if we send blitzes that usually is going to leave a man open that Peyton more often than not is going to find. I do feel our offense can do the same thing, but I believe the Colts' defense is slightly better than ours and that could ultimately decide the game in a close one. Your thoughts?
Seth Figurido, Gloucester
A: Few teams get to Manning. The Colts have surrendered just five sacks in seven games and are the NFL's second-rated team for fewest sacks allowed per pass play. Those stats obviously don't necessarily reflect the times in which Manning has been pressured and forced into a bad throw, which would be a factor. There are different ways to disrupt the timing of the passing game, from knocking receivers off their routes, to pressuring the quarterback, to flooding zones with extra players, and each option comes with its own risk/reward. If you bring the house on Manning, he'll often make you pay with the big play, which is why few teams regularly blitz him. I don't see the Patriots changing course and coming with a steady diet of blitzes.
Tom Brady really got on the OL in the fourth quarter, (someone had a false start down at the goalline). He seems pretty intense this year, even in the fourth quarter (with an outrageous lead)! You see him every day. Is he more intense (preparation) this year than last year? It looks like everyone on the team is acknowledging him as THE LEADER, now more than past seasons. What do you think?
Sheri, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A: For the last 3-4 seasons, Brady has always been the leader in that locker room. I don't see this year as being any different. He's been a key presence in helping establish the culture there because when your star quarterback is also your hardest worker, and a generally humble guy, it helps set the tone.
Would like to get your view on our passing defensive schemes. I noticed during Sunday's game that they took out Adalius Thomas and replaced him with Junior Seau. Makes no sense to me. Adalius was brought in to improve on pass defense with his speed, Seau is slow. What's up with that?
Nick Scalia, Watertown, Conn.
A: There were a few instances where I noticed Seau was in on early downs, playing next to Tedy Bruschi, with Thomas on the sideline. But that seemed to be more the exception than the rule. Overall, Thomas has hardly come off the field in the times I've charted the snaps played by defensive players. In a close game, I would expect Thomas to go wire to wire, with Bruschi and Seau rotating at the weak-side spot next to him. Seau has been coming onto the field in nickel and dime situations and I would expect that to continue. Contrary to the perception of Seau as a downhill-type of linebacker when he came to New England last year, he's shown nice quickness dropping back and moving laterally in passing situations.
Is there any word on the status of Benjamin Watson for Sunday against the Colts?
Jamie Deiana, Hopkinton
A: We should know more tomorrow, Jamie, mainly seeing if Watson is present at practice. Watson has missed the last two weeks of practice with a left ankle injury.
You took the 'Skins getting 16.5 points. Are you a believer yet? The main question I have is this: With Watson out will it matter that we don't have a tight end with reliable hands whom we can count on to catch the ball over the middle against the Colts? Even in the 'Skins blowout this looked like a problem area to me.
Paul Lynn, Missoula, Mt.
A: I was always a believer, Paul, I just didn't think the Patriots would roll as easily as they did against the Redskins. For the last few years I've been talking about how winning in the NFL is difficult, no matter the opponent, but the Patriots are making me look bad. As for Watson, I wouldn't go as far as saying he'd definitely out. Wednesday's practice should be a better indication of if Watson has a chance to suit up. If he doesn't, that obviously hurts the Patriots' offense. He's the Patriots' version of the Colts' Dallas Clark, a player who creates mismatch problems for the defense.
Mike, I'm a little worried about our TE situation heading into the Colts game. Any word on Kyle Brady's injury status?
Adam Kosberg, Los Angeles, Calif.
A: Brady played 30 of the game's first 34 snaps against the Redskins before being sidelined for the remainder of the game. He was dinged - I don't know exactly what the injury was - but it's not considered long-term. I expect him to play Sunday against the Colts. My feeling is that he was held back against the Redskins as much for precaution as anything else.
I noticed that Sammy Morris was listed as questionable for the Redskins game. If he was out I was thinking that they would have listed him as out. Is there any chance, even a little one that he could suit up for the Colts game?
Bob, Lincoln, Nev.
A: I would be very surprised if Morris, who was doubtful leading into the Redskins' game, plays in the Colts game. My understanding on that situation is that the "off" weekend of Nov. 10-11 would be a key time in determining how things would proceed. Morris was expected to be out at least four weeks and they'd see how he was feeling at that time to get a better gauge on his potential return.
Based upon what you saw in Sunday's first game back and Richard Seymour's Pro Bowl past, do you think he can be an important factor in next week's road game in Indianapolis or (1) will he need more time to shake off the rust or (2) based upon the play of Green this year and the overall matchups next Sunday there are other defensive areas that will be much more important in deciding the outcome of the game.
Tom Mangin, Medford Ore.
A: I didn't think it was any coincidence that Seymour's return coincided with the run defense returning to its stingy ways. After surrendering 6 yards per carry to both the Cowboys and Dolphins, the Patriots limited the Redskins to 2.9 per carry Sunday. I had Seymour in for 22 of 57 snaps (includes one play in which there was a holding penalty) and while he didn't show up on the stat sheet, I thought he was a positive factor in helping control the line of scrimmage. There is also the domino effect of not overworking Green. I expect Seymour to start Sunday in Indianapolis and up his snap count a bit more.
Isn't it time to try Gay in the right corner spot and put Hobbs in the slot? Especially with the way the team matches up against the Colts?
A: The Redskins had success picking on Hobbs, but I wouldn't make this switch. I still believe that in the case of Hobbs vs. Gay that Hobbs is the better player. He's also faster and Sunday's game figures to be a lot about speed.
How has Randy Moss done against the Colts in the past? Hopefully it resembles his record against the Cowboys!
Al Struthers, Peterborough, N.H.
A: Flipping through the detailed Patriots media guide and looking at Moss's career stats, he has played just one career game against the Colts, the season finale with the Vikings in 2000, his third year in the NFL. He had one catch for 42 yards and a touchdown at Indianapolis that day. The Vikings finished that season on a three-game losing streak to finish 11-5. Moss was in active for a 2004 game against the Colts in Minnesota.
What happened to Brandon Meriweather? Did he play at all?
A: He played late and was the closest player in coverage when Chris Cooley caught a late touchdown pass. Otherwise, he only played special teams, with fourth-year safety Rashad Baker playing ahead of him in multiple defensive-back packages. My sense is that this is the type of year it's going to be for Meriweather, sort of working behind the scenes and he'll have a chance for a more expanded defensive role next year.
I'm sure you are getting plenty of questions about the Colts matchup. Here's one more. It seems that the Pats' and Colts' matchup on paper very closely. Both teams have a great quarterback, offense, and defense. What do you see as the differences that will count towards the outcome of the game?
W. Yee, Monson
A: It's clichÃ©' but I'd say turnovers will be crucial. The Patriots and Colts are tied for the NFL lead in turnover differential at plus-11. Win the turnover battle, and you have a better chance at winning the game. And I've also bought into the idea that the winner of this game will play the best complementary football - which is a combination of offense, defense and special teams. When two teams are so evenly matched, the weaving of those three elements of the game becomes all the more important.
I know that the Redskins were near the top of the rankings for defense. I was wondering where they sat after this weeks loss to the Pats. I would also love your opinion on whether or not we can take all 4 teams to playoffs this year? (baseball, basketball, football, hockey)
Dean, Abington, Pa.
A: A few categories that stand out: The Redskins dipped to 16th in points allowed per game (they were 3rd entering the game), 17th in passing yards per game (they were 8th), and 20th in first downs allowed (they were 4th). As for those Boston sports teams, I'm no expert, but why not? I'd put all four in the playoffs.
Did I miss Coach Gibbs and Coach Belichick shaking hands? They did shake hands, right?
J.A. Marshall, Indian Orchard
A: They did shake hands, but after watching the game again, I noticed that Fox did not broadcast the handshake. I saw it at the game. It was quick. Few, if any, words were exchanged.
Greetings from the UK where we have just been treated to the Giants vs. the Dolphins! Awful game but it was fantastic to have the NFL in the UK. I hope you all realize now just how big the game is over here now.
My question is this, Robert Kraft was part of the NFL delegation, do you think there is any chance we could another game next year and if so, what are the possibilities it could be a Patriot game?
Peter Williment, London, UK
A: I don't think the Patriots will be in London next year. I think Kraft really wants the team to play in China and is holding out hope it might happen in 2009 after this year's failed attempt to play the Seahawks there in the China Bowl.
I've seen Brady and a number of other QB's make a signal where they interlace their fingers after a play. What is the signal for?
Chris Cenotti, Franklin
A: I believe that is the signal to tell the players to huddle up.