The off week has passed, the Patriots are back to work, and there is no shortage of questions flowing into the mailbag.
One of the hot topics of the last week was comments made by former Dolphins coach Don Shula in the New York Daily News. Shula, who coached the NFL's last undefeated team -- the 1972 Dolphins -- said there should be a mark next to the Patriots' record should they go undefeated. He later softened his comments. Not sure where Shula was coming from on this one.
Here was the Q&A from Bill Belichick on Shula, when asked by Pete Sheppard on WEEI's "Patriots Monday" programming.
Q: Did Don Shula's comments hurt you in any way?
A: I've known Coach Shula for a long time. He and my dad went back when they were in Ohio and long before I was around. I knew Coach Shula when I came into the league in '75 when he was in Miami and I was in Baltimore, and his kids Mike, and of course Dave was the head coach in Cincinnati when I was in Cleveland. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He was a guy that I really looked up to in Annapolis when he was with the Baltimore Colts as the head coach there. I have nothing but respect for Coach Shula, his career and what he accomplished. He's entitled to his opinion."
While Shula dominated the discussion last week, I sense a shift this week. E-mailers to the 'bag seem quite interested in the Colts and what is happening with Peyton Manning, and how it relates to Tom Brady.
So we'll start there this week.
I am wondering why when Peyton Manning struggled on Sunday night. The broadcasters kept on saying it's because he was missing Harrison and Clark. I know why they said it, but I'm not sure I get it. I mean, yes, they are great targets, but I would think that the pedestal that Manning has been put up on would allow him to adjust and put together a better performance. I hope the last couple of games has shown that Brady really is the better QB, due to the fact of what he accomplished (3 Super Bowl wins) with less-talented wide receivers overall than what Manning had at his disposal last night. What do you think? Am I wrong? I guess overall I just got sick of listening to those announcers using this excuse over and over again.
Travis Lawyer, Brattleboro
A: I sense that this Manning-Brady issue is hot right now, because the tables have turned. Manning doesn't have his regular stable of targets, and Brady is throwing to his best arsenal ever. The results have shown Brady is outperforming Manning. Do we now look at Brady's performance last year -- when he had Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell, and Bam Childress as his receivers in the season opener -- in a different light? Do we now look at Manning's career -- in which he's had terrific talent around him in which to throw -- a bit differently? I'm not going that far, but I do think it's interesting fodder for discussion. I would strongly argue with anyone that suggests Manning's performance was anything but poor Sunday night. Brady made those receivers around him better, and now let's see if Manning can do it with lesser talent. From an analytical seat, I'm willing to give Manning more than two weeks before making a final call, but I do feel comfortable saying that Brady's performance last year is more impressive when I watch Manning's struggles over the last seven quarters he's played.
What's your read on Adalius Thomas' lack of production? Injured, not "getting it," other?
Mike, Peterborough, N.H.
A: Thomas has been credited by the team's coaches with 45 tackles, ranking fourth on the club. I'd also factor into any analysis that Thomas' presence has allowed Mike Vrabel to play exclusively outside and those results have been impressive. But that is not to overlook that Thomas' impact hasn't been as great as I would have anticipated. I don't think it's a result of him not getting it. My hunch is that his ankle, which he injured against the Browns on Oct. 7, is limiting him. If he was running better, and regardless of the change in defensive tactics, I think he would have been on the field for more than 3 of 10 series - or 19 of 65 snaps -- against the Colts.
With this week's game moved to the Sunday night NBC game, do you think next week's game against the Eagles (also on NBC) will be moved to either 1 p.m. or 4 p.m.? I know the Pats are attracting a lot of national media attention, but I've never seen a team play the Sunday night game two weeks in a row. On top of that, they play on Monday night the week after that. Any info on this?
A: The Patriots-Eagles game will remain a night game on NBC. It was possible that the NFL/NBC could have opted out of the game -- similar to what happened with the Seattle-Chicago game this week -- and picked up another Patriots game down the line (vs. the Jets or Dolphins). But the NFL/NBC did want to roll the dice that the Patriots could possibly lose before then, so they're taking the safe route and taking the next two games. To me, this is a reflection of the NFL/NBC realizing how big of a story the Patriots are at this point that they would go back to back on NBC, then have them on Monday night Dec. 3 for a three-game stretch of prime-time appearances.
If you were the Bills, how would you be coming at the Pats on Sunday night? They look like they have developed into a tough team; any sense of how they are better than they were when the Pats faced them early on?
Jim Sailer, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A: The first thing I would do is toss a few Red Bull energy drinks in the direction of ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay and tell them to get after it and harass Tom Brady. The Bills have a solid pass rush -- and can often get there with just four players -- and Schobel and Kelsay are the motors that make it go. If they can get to Brady with the pass rush, they have a chance. On offense, establishing some semblance of a running game is crucial to stay out of obvious passing situations. If I can do that, I am lining up Lee Evans to the offensive left and testing Ellis Hobbs throughout the day. Evans is a dangerous threat and I'm going to make him a centerpiece of the game plan. Overall, the Bills are better than the team that came to Gillette Stadium on Sept. 23 because they have better players. Cornerback/return man Terrence McGee and linebacker Keith Ellison are two impact starters who didn't play that day. And don't discount the confidence factor. With four straight wins, they are playing with more confidence, which can go a long way.
How do you think the Patriots will use Chad Jackson now that he's been activated off of the PUP list? Do you think he'll be used to give Moss a break, so Moss doesn't become fatigued before the postseason? Or will he be used to fill a role on special teams?
Alvin Gayles, Boston
A: I don't think Jackson will be used to give Moss a break. The Patriots want Moss on the field -- he's played 84 percent of the snaps -- and he should be on the field because he dictates defensive coverage. In the early going, I see Jackson working into the mix slowly, as part of one or two positional groupings as a No. 4 or 5 receiver, and on special teams. I don't see him surpassing Moss, Wes Welker, or Donte' Stallworth, but his presence will allow receiver Kelley Washington to get some more work in a tight-end like role, which is important because the Patriots only have two tight ends on the roster.
Is it conceivable that the Pats could use a 4-wideout spread with Chad Jackson in the mix against a team like the Steelers to get even more speed on the field?
Bevan Manson, Santa Monica, Calif.
A: Certainly, and it makes sense because the Steelers are traditionally one of the toughest teams to run against. I have charted the Patriots using the four-wide package on 44 of 593 snaps (13.4 percent) this season, with the most prevalent usage coming in the games missed by tight end Benjamin Watson. In those games, the Patriots altered their two-minute offense package to include four wide-outs instead of three wide-outs and Watson.
In your opinion, how do you see Brandon Merriweather coming along?
Mike C., Smithfield, R.I.
A: I see him coming along slowly. I don't think that is a cause to sound the alarms, as I would point out that Ty Warren had a similar start in 2003 and he's emerged as a top NFL player. But I did take note that Meriweather was the seventh defensive back on the depth chart in the Nov. 4 win over the Colts, with four-year veteran Rashad Baker playing ahead of him. I also noticed he was no longer on the kickoff return unit. So all in all, not much impact from Meriweather, other than his 10 special teams tackles, which rank second on the club.
Evaluate the last two Pats drafts. I don't see much coming from either one?
Sanford Bernstein, Iselin, N.J.
A: When I evaluate the 2007 draft, I include receiver Wes Welker (acquired for second- and seventh-round picks) and receiver Randy Moss (acquired for a fourth-round pick). I include Welker and Moss because those are strategic decisions by the Patriots to trade out of what was a weak draft. I also include the fact that the Patriots picked up additional picks for 2008 from San Francisco (first round) and Oakland (third round), both of which look like sound deals. So while the players drafted by the Patriots haven't done much at this point - I would expect Meriweather to challenge for a starting role next year - I still rate the Patriots highly for their work. As for 2006, I would grade it a "B" at this point. While running back Laurence Maroney (first round), receiver Chad Jackson (second round) and tight end David Thomas (third round) have had some injury problems and been inconsistent on the field, the team found its kicker of the future in Stephen Gostkowski (fourth round) and has developed two nice youngsters in defensive lineman Le Kevin Smith (sixth round) and safety/returner Willie Andrews (seventh round). The final grade will depend on how things turn out with the top picks, and right now it's too early to tell due to the injuries.
Mike, I strongly disagree with the folks who say Laurence Maroney is turning into a bust. I thought he was an incredibly exciting player in his rookie season; every time he ran the ball, part of my brain was chanting, "don't get hurt, don't get hurt". He's obviously been slowed by injuries this year, but I still think he's got star potential. My theory is that the Pats offense is simply heavily biased in favor of the passing game this season because of how well it's working. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Maroney's performance this year and his prospects for both the rest of this season and beyond.
Eric O'Connor, Portland, Ore.
A: Some of the thoughts on Maroney surfaced, I think, because people saw how effective fellow 2006 first-rounder Joseph Addai was with the Colts. Even accounting for the injuries, I'd say Maroney has been slightly disappointing to this point. Yet by no means do I think bust should even enter the discussion.
As great as Jarvis Green has been, do you think the Pats will experiment with a 4-man line, or just use him to strengthen the rotation?
Michael Sheehan, Jenners, Pa.
A: The Patriots used the four-man line for the first time against the Colts but I see them sticking with the 3-4 for the rest of the way. I'm sure they'll mix in some four-man line with Green, but I don't expect to see as much of it as we did in Indianapolis. As for Green, even though he doesn't start, he still plays close to starter levels because he'll rotate in and also is a regular on third down.
I like seeing Bruschi playing and would welcome him back next year. I think he still has enough in the tank. Do you think he should retire? Is Woods or Alexander ready to step in? Has he indicated his plans? The same goes for Seau.
Tom Williams, Vernon, Conn.
A: Bruschi, who is in the final year of his contract, has consistently said the same thing: he takes stock of where he is at the end of each season and then makes a decision. As for Seau, I am not sure where he stands at this time. In terms of Woods and Alexander, I would say no right now. The fact they haven't seen much playing time with the regular defense -- and that their preseason performance was OK -- leads me to believe they are not ready to step in.
Our beloved Pats already hold a two-game lead (plus the first tie-breaker, head-to-head) over the Colts and should soon have a three-game lead (plus the tie-breaker) over the Steelers. I expect the Patriots to go all out for 19-0, but do you see any chance Belichick would instead maximize the value of the 49ers' #1 pick? If they lock up the AFC's No. 1 seed before Week 15 (Jets) or Week 16 (Dolphins), shouldn't Belichick give his team two extra bye weeks by making sure Brady, Seymour, Moss, Thomas, Samuel, Harrison, etc., all "miss" the flight and giving Matt Gutierrez and his scout team all the snaps? Beyond avoiding injuries and resting up, shouldn't we WANT to lose to improve our draft position by saddling each of our two main rivals for draft position with an extra win? Shouldn't Belichick avoid the film room those weeks and tell Gutierrez to start throwing INTs if there's any chance we'll win?
James Lavin, Stamford, Conn.
A: I look at it through a different lens on the draft picks. To me, a top five pick is less valuable than a selection in the 10-32 range because of the over-the-top rich bonuses and guarantees that must be part of that contract. I think the system is warped and that teams picking at the top of the draft are at a disadvantage because of this. Here is a story that I wrote on the subject in April.
Because I believe the Patriots share in this thinking, I think it would actually give them more motivation to win -- and thus keep teams picking ahead of the 49ers in that position -- than to rest top players.
Mike, we have the 49ers 1st-round pick in '08, correct? As we stand today, and hoping that the 49ers continue to lose at the pace they are, we should have a top 5 pick. Assuming that holds true, what do you think we'll go for with said pick? Best available athlete? RB, LB, WR?
Jeff Candage, Daytona Beach, Fla.
A: Assuming the Patriots keep the pick -- and I would think they would work hard to trade down -- my choice would be defensive line. If you're forced to pay the ridiculous prices at the top of a draft, where the value is generally poor, you might as well put it on the line and hope you get the next Richard Seymour. Considering that Seymour and Vince Wilfork have contracts that expire after the 2009 season, this is the direction I would go without even knowing if there is a player worthy of consideration.
My question goes back a week to the Colts game. One thing that didn't seem to get much attention was a very conservative play-call by McDaniels on a third-and-short that may have cost them four points. Even though it was clear the Colts and Bob Sanders were stacking the line, and the situation begged for a play-action pass, he ran Maroney wide for a loss that forced a field-goal try. I think McDaniels has done a great job, but I felt that was an odd time to get conservative, and it could have cost them the game. What do you think?
A: Fair point here, Vincent. Just like players have plays they'd like to redo, I think you could put that play-call into the category as one that McDaniels would like to redo. It was third-and-1 from the Colts' 14 with 3:04 left in the third quarter, and the team went with a jumbo 3 TE/1 FB/1 RB package. Right when that unit came on the field, I turned to my colleague Christopher L. Gasper and said something to the effect of "don't think they're going to be able to overpower them here.'' Maroney went left and was brought down by Bob Sanders for a 2-yard loss. The play was one of just two in which Randy Moss wasn't on the field.
If -- and it's a big IF -- the Pats had lost against Indy, would you have said that it was the result of poor coaching (not to mention the refs)?
Bob Moore, Boston
A: I wouldn't have said it was a result of poor coaching. I thought the defensive plan was superb. Offensively, things weren't as smooth but you have to give the Colts credit for dictating that as their rush was immense. I thought the refereeing -- particularly the pass interference call on Ellis Hobbs and the missed holding call against running back Kevin Faulk -- was poor.
Now that all the teams have had their bye week, which team has played the toughest schedule to date? By my count the Pats have beaten 6 teams with winning records including two of the top 5 teams in the league. Has anyone done better than that?
Rich P., Collierville, Tenn.
A: I see where you are coming from, Rich, but I don't buy into the "strength of schedule" stat based on a team's record. I believe what makes a schedule tough is when and where you play games, as much as which team you play. One example I would use is the Patriots-Bengals game from earlier this year. Because the Bengals are now a disappointment at 3-6, based on the strength of schedule stat, I am supposed to discount the Patriots' victory over Cincinnati from Oct. 1. But I was at that stadium, and it was an intense Monday night crowd and the Bengals -- who were 1-2 at the time and looking for positive momentum with their off weekend coming following the game -- were ready to pounce in the second quarter after intercepting Tom Brady. But the Laurence Maroney-less Patriots answered and pulled it out for what I feel was one of their best wins of the season. So when assessing tough schedules, I guess I look more at situations like that than records of teams. Because of that, I'd need more time to assess every team's schedule in that regard to gauge the toughness-of-schedule stat.
Pierre Woods was one of the stars of training camp. Are there any plans to rotate him in at LB?
Andrew Edwards, Chicago
A: Don't think so, Andrew, unless there is an injury. I think he's the second layer of depth at this point, meaning that if the Patriots were to rotate players into the mix, it would be Junior Seau coming on at inside linebacker, and Adalius Thomas moving to the outside. Woods has been effective on special teams as his 11 tackles lead the club.
Mike, I was wondering how much players on the practice squad typically make in a season.
A: The usual salary for practice players is $79,900 for the season, but the Patriots take things to a different level with some players they feel are worthy of more. Defensive lineman Santonio Thomas, for example, is being paid $285,000 even though he's on the practice squad. That $285,000 is what he would make on the active roster. Receiver Bam Childress is another example; he is making $150,000.
If a player is on injured reserve does the NFL still count that toward their retirement and free agent status (to become unrestricted)? Does being on the practice squad count towards retirement?
Aroon Acharekar, Orlando, Fla.
A: Injured reserve yes, practice squad no.
How does the practice squad work? Is there a limit to the number of people on the practice squad? Are they counted as part of the salary cap? Do people often move up to the active roster from the practice squad?
Jonathan Hodgson, Cambridge
A: Teams can keep eight players on the practice squad. Those players are counted against the salary cap. It is common for players to move from the practice squad to the active roster, such as defensive lineman Santonio Thomas with the Patriots. There are also restrictions as to who is eligible for the practice squad. A player like Troy Brown, for example, is not eligible. Eligible players can not have appeared in more than eight games in a season, and can not have spent more than three seasons on a practice squad in the past.
Believe Can you tell us what the NFL policy is on "throw back" uniforms. We have seen some especially gaudy versions this year. Steelers, Eagles and Jet/Titans just to mention a few. When and what uniforms can the teams wear according to the NFL? Do you know if the Patriots will wear the classic red coats with "Pat the Patriot" helmets at all this season? I think it might be a fitting gesture to wear them against either the Dolphins or the N.Y. Giants at season's end when we break Miami's streak (against them) and/or to transcend those old time NE football fans who were Giant lovers in the early years of the Boston/N.E. Patriots. Capping an undefeated season in those old threads could certainly weigh special in the minds of us more mature (read: older) fans. What's your take?
John Tronti, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
A: If I recall correctly, the NFL is quite strict on this, and teams must "apply" well in advance regarding their intentions to wear a "third" jersey. The Patriots have chosen silver - not the Pat Patriot throwback -- as their third jersey, and I believe they can wear them up to two times in a season. I know for certain that the team is bringing the Pat Patriot throwback jersey back in 2009 - for at least one game - as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the franchise. As for my take, I would endorse the termination of the silver jerseys while making the Pat Patriot throwbacks the official third jersey of the team.
Are they putting the Patriots' final game of the season on the NFL Network and not national TV? I am really disturbed that they would put this game on the NFL Network. The only people can see this game is if they subscribe to the NFL Network. Am I wrong about this? Can you please explain?
David L. McCormack, Nashua, N.H.
A: The game will also be broadcast on WCVB-TV in Boston (Ch. 5). This is a big issue for the NFL and I'm going to be watching it with curiosity to see how they handle it. Because the penetration of the NFL Network is not as great as the league hopes for, it's possible that the Patriots could be going for a historic 16-0 regular-season record and not as many viewers -- nationally -- could watch it.