Hindsight is 50-50
There are two distinct viewpoints in this week's mailbag.
Some choose to look at the Patriots' 18-15 loss to the Colts as one of the team's most frustrating setbacks. The reason: The game was there for the taking and the team couldn't pull through in the critical situations in which it is often successful.
Others chose to look at the game as a positive sign because the Patriots went into enemy territory, held the Colts to just 18 points, and controlled the ball with a masterful game-plan before falling just short.
I tend to lean in the latter category myself, as I had predicted a 20-10 Colts victory.
I figured it would be a lower-scoring game, with both teams looking to protect their defenses with a possession-minded style and conservative defensive plan. What surprised me was how Matt Cassel continues to grow at quarterback, and how the Patriots had success moving the ball against a fast, aggressive Colts defense.
Now on to the questions.
I know the Patriots have been blessed with great teams so they haven't had too many losses in recent years, but I'm not sure I could think of a more frustrating regular season loss than the one they had against the Colts. It seemed like Belichick lost his mind (wasting timeouts/dumb challenges/not really trying to pick up a first down on 3rd and long numerous times), not to mention Gaffney doing his best Meriweather stone hands impression. The defense can NEVER make a stop when they need to. I understand the Patriots aren't going to do anything if they make the playoffs, but that is just a god-awful loss in my opinion. Your thoughts?
A: I can see the frustration, Adam, because this was a winnable game for the Patriots. For me, I thought overall it was a very enjoyable game in terms of strategy, game-plans, and flow (2 hours, 41 minutes), as I am trying to remember the last time I saw a game where both teams had just seven possessions and it seemed like the margin for error was so thin. If I had to isolate three things that hurt the Patriots most, they would be in this order: 1) Jabar Gaffney's dropped touchdown pass; 2) David Thomas's unnecessary roughness penalty; 3) The 12-men-on-the-field challenge that cost them a timeout they could have used later. On the flip side, though, I thought the Patriots showed a lot to put themselves in position to win, and there were several positive developments (e.g. Matt Cassel, young players like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gary Guyton stepping up). I wouldn't rule the Patriots out going forward.
Mike, am I crazy or is it OK to be somewhat satisfied after Sunday's loss? Obviously, it was a winnable game and we are used to the Pats not making boneheaded plays. But it was reassuring to see Cassel execute the game plan, avoid mistakes (and sacks!) and the secondary play well against the potentially devastating Manning. I think we are in great position for the second half and a potential number 3 seed in the conference with an outside chance for a bye. Your thoughts?
Ken, New York, N.Y.
A: Ken, this was really a 50-50 type of week in the mailbag, with some expressing frustration from the game, others optimism. I think it depends on if you're a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person. From my view, I thought there were many positives for the Patriots. They won't make much of a difference if they don't build off them, however. Some might reflect on the 2001 season, and how the Patriots lost to the Rams to fall to 5-5, but that well-played game proving to be a springboard to better things. I'm not ready to go there this year, but it wouldn't surprise me if it heads in that direction.
I can't believe that David Thomas had just taken the dumbest penalty of the year. How does Bill Belichick and staff handle something like this internally? How does he address the stupidity of the penalty in the next meeting and does he say or do anything to David Thomas?
Wayne Y., Monson
A: Wayne, I am sure they'll directly address it with David Thomas. They'll ask him what he was thinking, and I assume Thomas will tell them that he didn't hear the whistle, and that he was just playing hard. From my view, it wasn't that Thomas -- one of the most mild-mannered, nicest members of the team -- lost his cool. He just didn't hear the whistle (I didn't hear it either on the TV replay until after the flag was thrown) and also lost his focus of what was happening around him. I think there is a significant difference there.
Hi Mike. I was wondering if you could talk more about the David Thomas penalty. Trying to be as objective as possible, how much time do you think elapsed from when the whistle blew to when Thomas "unnecessarily roughed" the player? Was it less than 2 seconds? If so, is that really unreasonable when all your momentum is already going that way? On a related note, is it really possible for players NOT to hear the whistle. On the TV, there are many times where I don't hear a whistle. So is it possible, down on the field, players just don't know when the play is dead?
A: I thought it was less than two seconds, Cegeon, but more than anything the question I have is: Did the referees blow a whistle at the end of the BenJarvus Green-Ellis run? I didn't hear it. It looks bad on TV slow-motion replays, but to me, if there was no whistle, the time element is inconsequential. Personally, I thought given the way the game was being called to that point (1 penalty for each side) the call could have been let go. Also, if you know David Thomas, he's probably the last guy who would do such a thing.
I hate to single out Green-Ellis because he played a good game, but everyone is focusing on the David Thomas penalty. That play should have never hurt so bad if Green-Ellis would have just dove for the first down. It was the only time I noticed him dancing around with the ball (Maroney style), but he was right at the first down line. If he gets that first down before he starts dancing - that would have been a different game. Your thoughts?
A: Todd, the thing I noticed on the play was a nice force/surge from Colts linebacker Clint Session that stunted the initial progress of Green-Ellis's run. Could Green-Ellis have lunged forward after that? I think he could have. But overall, keeping in mind that I don't know the blocking assignment and it could have been a Patriots blocking breakdown, I credit the Colts more on that play than fault Green-Ellis.
Mike, I don't get it, the Pats are weak in the secondary yet it doesn't appear that they employ many defensive schemes designed to hurry the opposing quarterback. What gives? Is it simply a personnel issue?
A: I think they do employ a lot of schemes to generate pressure, Paul, but the specific matchup against the Colts makes it a bit more difficult to do so. Peyton Manning is tough to pressure because he often gets rid of the ball so quickly. After watching the game again, I broke down the pressure by looking at how many times the Patriots rushed the standard four players vs. how many times they brought an extra blitzer (5- or 6-man rush) or dropped an extra man into coverage (3-man rush). While Peyton Manning wasn't sacked, I did note how many times he was hurried or moved off the spot - meaning did he have to shuffle his feet? - because that often indicates pressure is disrupting the timing of the passing game (some of those decisions can be subjective as the outside linebacker might start with the rush, but then peel out to cover the running back, which in this analysis is not counted as a rush). Here is what I came up with, which wasn't as bad as I anticipated from a Patriots perspective (does not include 2-point conversion):
3-man rush: 10 times, 9 completions, 2 pressures
4-man rush: 16 times, 10 completions, 5 pressures
5-man rush: 3 times, 2 completions, 1 pressure
Mike, It was great to see the Pats on TV out here in Oregon. I generally hate to hear other people say this, but to me this was a game the Patriots could have and should have won. What I mean by that is that the game-plan seemed flawless and overall the Pats looked more in control with a very well executed game-plan, but we just plain shot ourselves in the foot several times (e.g. a dropped pass, a penalty and timeouts). Despite the lost opportunity I feel the best I have all year about the Pats, meaning that with their current personnel and coaching it strikes me that they do have the potential to win the division or at least get a wild-card. But to get there, offensively they need to convert more in the red zone. What do you see as the problem in this department? Is it Cassel (who looks pretty poised out there) or a team problem or what?
Tom, Medford, Ore.
A: Tom, in watching the game over again, I specifically re-winded and re-watched all plays on the red zone because I was curious myself as to what contributed to the 1-of-4 showing there. There were a few different factors (I thought Cassel rushed the second-quarter throw to Benjamin Watson on third down), but if I had to single one out, it would be this: Offensive line play. I thought the Patriots had opportunities in the red-zone but missed some blocks, or didn't create enough traction in the running game when there was a chance for some yards there. For example, people might ask "What are they doing running on third-and-12 from the Colts' 22 in the second quarter?" Based on the light-in-the-box defense the Colts were playing, I thought the run was the right call, and if center Dan Koppen holds his block, I think Kevin Faulk had a chance to pick up the 12 yards and maybe even more. Some credit needs to go to the Colts, too. On the flip side, when the Patriots scored their red-zone touchdown, the offensive line was dominant in the run-blocking game when it was a fair fight (e.g. 6 on 6, 7 on 7 in the box).
Arrrgh! Mike, that was a blown opportunity and a very frustrating game. You would think holding the Colts to 18 points would be a triumph for the defense, but no, I give them a D (again). Wilhite was schooled and abused as he made just about every mistake a DB can make, an there was bad tackling all around. What's worse, I give Belichick an F. An unnecessary challenge (someone should remind him he has a low winning percentage on challenges) and a poor timeout negating an almost certain first down on a 4th and 1 not only left us handicapped in the 4th quarter, it also potentially took points off the board. To me, the most impressive and consistent player on the field for the Pats was Cassel. I thought his accuracy was good, except for the last Hail Mary series. I think it's time McDaniels took the training wheels off and opened up the offense. Cassel has the best skill-position players in the game around him; I think he's ready to take full advantage and stretch the field. What do you think?
Jason R., Melrose
A: Jason, I certainly see some of these points, although I don't grade it as sharply myself. On the defense, they were playing a conservative scheme (cover-2 with the two deep safeties) designed to protect against the deep pass, which left them more vulnerable in the short to intermediate areas of the field. The coaches were asking their inside corners like Wilhite and Mike Richardson to cover man-to-man and those young corners lost more matchups than they won (I thought Wilhite really struggled in the first half). But that's how the Colts put stress on a team; you have to give up something to get something, and I can see why the big play was the target to eliminate. On the coaching, my primary beef would be the challenge on the 12-men on the field. What they would have gained was not enough, in my mind, to warrant the challenge vs. what they would have lost. Sometimes I wonder if the rivalry and seemingly hard feelings between the teams leads to those decisions, the idea of wanting to outsmart the other side. On the flip side, I can see where the confusion was, as the Colts were mistakenly hurrying two players off the field, the 12th and 11th players, giving them just 10 players off the field. On the fourth-and-1, my thought there is better safe than sorry (Belichick also noted the crowd noise factor and concern getting off the ball). One e-mailer asked how I didn't put the coaching in the "down" category on our Patriots blog on Boston.com. I think it's a fair point, and to explain myself, the decision was based on a balance between that failed 12-men challenge and what I thought was a brilliant overall game-plan. As for Cassel and "stretching the field", my answer would be in this specific matchup, it's extremely difficult because of the Colts' rush and possession-style game needed to protect your own defense. I don't agree that longer-developing routes were the way to consistently go in this specific matchup, given the way the game unfolded. They tried a few, and that seemed the right approach to me.
Mike, what's up with the Pats' game-plan vs. the Colts? Cassel had been doing so well in a vertical passing attack, why not even try it, especially with Sanders who is probably not 100 percent? It felt like ages before the first completion to a WR. All credit for this loss needs to go to the coaches and David Thomas. If this loss brings the Cassel critics out again I'm going to lose it, though I wouldn't mind seeing O'Connel out for red-zone.
Ben P., Australia
A: Ben, I personally thought the game-plan was magnificent, going ball-control to protect a vulnerable defense. In this game, my feeling is that to think that the Patriots could have consistently been attacking the deep third of the field against the Colts, with their powerful rush, just isn't realistic. Note that the Patriots didn't run one play-action pass in the game, presumably because they didn't want Cassel turning his back to that powerful rush. So any talk of downfield passing, in my opinion, must be paired with the ability to contend with the Colts' rush. If you send more receivers down the field, you lose something at the line of scrimmage in protection and in that type of possession-style game, if you do that consistently, I think you're asking for trouble. I would also point out that it isn't as if the Patriots didn't try ANY deep balls (e.g. Jabar Gaffney dropped TD) - so they were stretching the field at times. I'd also mention that the Colts rolled a safety to Randy Moss's side a good portion of the first half to take his deep presence away, which is another factor. So, overall, I think the "stretching the field" storyline, which seemed to be prevalent on the TV broadcast, didn't factor in some key elements that contribute to the Patriots' decision-making.
Mike, a very tough loss against the Colts, with every opportunity to win that game and: A) Take sole possession of first place in the division; B) Improve to 4-2 in the conference standings. Plenty of missed opportunities, but the most difficult for me was going for 2 points in the 3rd quarter. Why? That didn't cost them the game, but a potential tying field goal would have been the winning field goal if they had taken the 1 point PAT. Too many what-if scenarios can develop that early in the game; trade field goals, a missed extra point, a safety, all can change the scoring balance. I say always take the 1 point until you have to have 2 points to tie or win. Seemed senseless to try for two that early. Your thoughts?
A: Neil, I heard Bill Belichick's explanation that he felt in a possession-style game going for two was the right call. I can understand that viewpoint. But for me, even before the play failed, I'm an extra-point guy at that point because I feel a failed 2-point conversion can sometimes stunt momentum after a nice scoring drive. I would have kicked the extra point to make it 13-7. I'm just not a big two-point conversion guy unless it's later in the game, primarily because of momentum.
I think BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a diamond in the rough. The guy runs hard and seems to me to be the Pats future at tailback. Your thoughts?
Jason, San Diego, Calif.
A: I agree, Jason. Green-Ellis played a season-high 33 plays Sunday night, and he brings a hard-charging running style to the offense. I thought he was a bright spot. I've heard both Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels mention that Green-Ellis has good vision and patience, and I agree. He generally seems to find the openings and gets what is available to him, and sometimes creates more.
I'd like to know more about Gary Guyton. He was ranked in the top 15 for outside linebackers in the draft and he didn't get drafted. How did he slip through the cracks and what does the coaching staff think of him?
A: There seem to be stories every year in which players slip through the cracks, and it was a surprise to many that Guyton wasn't drafted. He was one of the fastest linebackers in the draft, but some scouts had questions about his lateral movement and in which scheme he would best fit. From a pure on-paper standpoint, I don't think Guyton was initially a prototypical fit for the strongside inside linebacker spot in the 3-4, but his take-on strength is probably better than anticipated, and his speed is more than just straight-line as he's shown he can also be fluid when moving east-to-west. Intangibles were always solid. To any Patriots fan, I'd say don't label him as an undrafted free agent. This guy is coming on strong (snaps played in the last three games: 31, 25, 37) and I think he's shown signs he can be a longer-term viable starter. I think the coaching staff feels the same way. Here is a bit more on Guyton from a not-all-football type of interview last month.
Hey Mike, with the continued loss of players in the secondary (Terrence Wheatley against the Colts), is there any chance of bringing back a player who has familiarity with the team and defense ... Troy Brown? It seems like he would be a good match for all of the youth in the secondary.
John O., Croaker, Va.
A: John, I don't think we'll see Troy Brown, but it seems every week there is also a question on Ty Law. Given Wheatley's left hand/wrist injury, it wouldn't surprise me if Law is more of a consideration today than he was in previous weeks. I don't have any concrete information on that one, it's just a feeling that it wouldn't surprise me if things head in that direction. I've said the past few weeks that I think teams can win with Deltha O'Neal, but I'm starting to question my own judgment on that right now. My thoughts on a possible Law return are also based on the struggles I saw young slot corners Jonathan Wilhite and Mike Richardson have on Sunday night.
Mike, now that that we are halfway through the season, how would you assess the 2008 draft class? What are your thoughts on players who were drafted but are not seeing much playing time or are on the practice squad? Who has a future and who doesn't?
Joe Q., Medway
A: "Very good" is the thought that comes to mind, Joe Q. I think linebacker Jerod Mayo (1st round) is a serious NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. I felt cornerback Terrence Wheatley (2nd round) was coming on before his injury. Linebackers Shawn Crable (3rd round) and quarterback Kevin O'Connell (3rd round) appear to have bright futures to me, while I also think cornerback Jonathan Wilhite (4th round) and kick returner Matthew Slater (5th round) can be solid game-day contributors. Not sure on linebacker Bo Ruud (6th round), but free agent Gary Guyton looks like a big steal, and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis also appears to have an nice future.
Hi Mike, we are at the halfway point in the Pats season. To date, I'd like your opinion on the players who have really impressed during the first half and those who have disappointed somewhat. Also, what do you expect to see in the second half of the season for the Pats? Do you see the Pats winning the AFC East?
Nick M., Montreal
A: Nick, it's not a complete analysis, but off the cuff here are a few players who I feel have been impressive (based on the expectations or my perceptions of them): Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo, Wes Welker, Matt Cassel, Stephen Gostkowski, Adalius Thomas. On the flip side, I would have expected a bit more from Jarvis Green (where are the game-changing sacks?), Laurence Maroney (injury considerations here), Jabar Gaffney (his TD drop comes to mind). As for where things head in the second half, I think the Patriots will keep improving. I'm not sure if that will be good enough to win the division.
Mike, what do you think of the "Curse of the Hoodie"? What is BB's record when he doesn't wear the grey hoodie? When I first saw him pre-game last night, I said looks like we're in for a tough night.
A: Tom, I checked the Patriots' media guide, and there is no statistic of Belichick's record in the gray hoodie (insert chuckle here). But seriously, several e-mailers noted that Belichick opted for the blue jacket, which had them thinking back to the Super Bowl and his choice of red sweatshirt. I personally don't believe in the Curse of the Hoodie.
Mike, is Matt Cassel a free agent after this season? If he is, do you see the Patriots putting a transition or franchise tag on him so they can get some compensation for him or keep him one more year in case Brady has complications? Seems pretty clear Cassel is going to be in demand.
A: Brendan, I don't think the Patriots will put the franchise or transition tag on Cassel. I think they'll attempt to re-sign him, hoping to entice him with a deal that would be structured to reward him if he's starting, and pay him accordingly if he's in the backup role. Whether that's enough for Cassel, who appears to be making considerable strides, I'm not sure. There is still a lot of football to be played that will better determine Cassel's true value.
Hey Reiss, Why do you think Tom would have his ACL surgery performed by a doctor in LA when the team wanted it to be conducted in Boston? How common is the infection he is fighting right now and how likely is it that this will delay his expected return next year?
A: John, I think Brady probably wanted to be closer to his family on the West Coast and it's not as if he went to some walk-in clinic; the Kerlan-Jobe is highly regarded in the world of hospital/orthopedic power rankings. I think the team's top decision-makers respected that. As for how common the infection is, it's rare, according to other orthopedic surgeons. Depending on how much damage the infection has caused, and if they have to do another surgery again, it could delay his return next year. There is also the possibility, albeit a longer shot, that it could end his career.
Mike, I'm a little concerned with Wilfork. He had 2 consecutive unsportsmanlike penalties on one drive in the game against the Broncos and has been developing the rep of being a dirty player. What's his problem? When he speaks he sounds like a pretty good guy, but then you see things on the field that really make a person question his integrity.
Greg, Chicago, Ill.
A: Wilfork was honest with three media members last week when he said he needs to better control his temper after the whistle. I think he realizes he sometimes gets caught up in the moment too much and needs to walk away. From talking with him personally, and watching him the past five years, I agree that he seems like a nice person.
Mike, I'd just like to make a comment on Laurence Maroney, who as we all know is out for the rest of the season. While it's obvious Maroney has been a disappointment I think it's important to define where the disappointment lies. There is just so much bashing of this guy by Boston fans. The disappointment was due to injury not ability, not heart and not effort. Fans forget how capable he could be when playing healthy. I saw a guy as a rookie that was dynamic, speedy and on a couple occasions ran right over a defender, straight-arming him. Yes, Maroney has been a disappointment, but it's due to the hard NFL luck of repeated injuries, something that can happen to even the greatest of players, i.e. Tom Brady. Your thoughts?
Tom M., Medford, Ore.
A: I do think injuries are a big part of it, Tom, and it's only fair to mention those when putting Maroney's struggles to this point in context. However, I do think there is a mental toughness that is fair to introduce into the discussion as well, because players often talk about the difference between being injured and hurt - you play through being hurt, you are sidelined when you're injured. This gets into dicey territory because I don't have enough information about exactly what has ailed Maroney. I do wonder, based on the way things unfolded this season (Maroney practicing on a Friday, missing the next game, then winding up on injured reserve), if the hurt vs. injured question was part of what was happening with Maroney's uncertain status and "issues."
Mike, I believe Rodney Harrison has been the second most valuable Patriot since his arrival. I also believe we can quantify this: Could you please share the Patriots' record both with and without Harrison in the line-up?
Craig N., Wake Forest, N.C.
A: Craig, since Harrison signed with the Patriots as a free agent in 2003, the team is 54-9 in the regular-season with him in the lineup and 8-1 in the playoffs. In games that Harrison has not played over that span, the team is 17-8 in the regular season and 3-2 in the playoffs.
The 49ers recently fired Mike Nolan, he joins a list of a few other NFL head coaches that have been canned this year already. Does it really benefit a team to fire their head coach once the season is underway?
Jarrod, Narragansett, R.I.
A: I don't think so, Jarrod, although there are probably some situations where you could make a strong case as to why it's the right move (e.g. Rams). But the record of interim coaches in recent years indicates that in-season changes seldom produce winning results.