Of Junior concern
FOXBOROUGH The Patriots personnel at linebacker is the hot topic in this weeks mailbag. With inside linebacker Junior Seau lost for the season, fans are curious how the Patriots will proceed.
One area that surprised me is how the 17-13 victory over the Bears was viewed differently by a seemingly good number of people. Some felt it was a great game. Others looked at it as sloppy. I fell more in the first category, as this was a game that had a lot of sudden turns and solid defensive play.
At 8-3, the Patriots are in position to compete for one of the AFCs coveted first-round byes. The Colts (10-1), Chargers (9-2), and Ravens (9-2) all have the edge at this time, but with five games remaining, the race is still on.
On to the questions
Yeah, our D looked good against the Bears, but I've seen little commentary regarding the loss of Junior Seau, who now part of a long list of defensive casualties. I fear this aggregation of injuries takes our D from Super Bowl caliber, to another exit in the AFC Championship. What do you think?
Mac, Lebanon, NH
A: Seau had become a key cog in the 3-4 defense, playing inside linebacker, mostly on first and second down. Losing him will hurt, and will likely result in Mike Vrabel moving to inside linebacker next to Tedy Bruschi, and Tully Banta-Cain moving into a starting role at outside linebacker opposite of Rosevelt Colvin. In terms of depth, rookie Pierre Woods becomes the top backup on the outside, while I think Eric Alexander and Don Davis become the top backups inside. While the loss of Seau will sting, I think the team can still win with this group. Id also expect some type of roster addition, although the free-agent crop (Orlando Ruff, Jamie Sharper, Rocky Calmus) is thin.
With the loss of Junior Seau, do you figure the Pats will take advantage of the team's depth & skill on the defensive line and go to a 4-3 more often? Otherwise, Vrabel figures to spend the majority of his time on the inside with Banta-Cain moving into the starting lineup on the outside; but why would this require Colvin to move to the left side? Is Banta-Cain only comfortable on the right?
Johnny Boston, Washington DC
A: I still think the Patriots will be a base 3-4 team, although I would expect they will indeed spend more time working out of the 4-3, as personnel might dictate a change to that if more injuries hit at linebacker. As for why Colvin would move to the left side, my feeling is that most teams run the majority of their running plays to that side, and you want your best outside linebacker there. Thats why I think Colvin would play there over Banta-Cain.
Once Seau got hurt it seemed the defense became immediately softer against the run. How do you see Seau's injury affecting the run defense? Also, considering Asante Samuel is putting a fine season together and considering that the Patriots really cannot afford to lose talent in the secondary with linebacker being a glaring concern in next years draft, don't you think at $6 million under the cap that they toss him some bonus money now and get him signed? What are your thoughts?
Chris W, Portland, Maine
A: There was definitely an adjustment period for the run defense, but I think that was to be expected given that two players were in new spots Vrabel moving to the inside and Banta-Cain entering on the outside. Bill Belichick often talks about the fits in the running game, and that is when all the players are working in concert to account for all gaps. Given those changes, I felt they would need some time to get their feet under them. I would expect improvement in ensuing weeks. As for the salary cap, I had the Patriots with about $6.4 million worth of space last week. Thats close to the league average. I think the Patriots are interested in retaining Samuel, but like everything else, the negotiation is a two-way street. I think Samuel would like to be in the range of $10 million in bonuses, while the Patriots are probably in the $7.5 million range. That doesnt seem like an insurmountable gap. On a side note, one of my pet peeves is when the topic of contract extensions comes up after a player has a big game. There were several e-mails about Samuel this week, but I didnt see any the two previous weeks when Samuel played soft on Jerricho Cotchery (6 yard reception on second and six) at the end of the Jets game when the Patriots couldnt get the ball back, and when he missed the 35-0 win over the Packers due to lingering knee pain. I think its easy to look at one performance and think big bucks, but a players value should be assessed on the whole body of work, not one game. Im not dismissing Samuel, who I think is a solid player. Im just dismissing the idea that he should be paid elite money based on one performance.
I understand that Junior Seau is out for the season, but would the IR rules allow him to come back for the postseason? Are players on IR eligible for Super Bowl rings if their team wins?
Elizabeth Hinkelman, Westford
A: The IR rules mean that the player is out for the entire year regular season and playoffs. Players on IR are eligible for Super Bowl rings.
Tough injury for Junior Seau. He had really helped their rush defense. I hope they can find someone to fill in. I really would prefer Mike Vrabel stay on the outside. Do you see any chance of Seau coming back next year? It looked like he still had a lot of life left in him as a player.
Jim Curley, Seminole, Fla.
A: I wouldnt rule out a Seau return. One thing Ive learned from watching Seau and Rodney Harrison operate in recent years is that they never say never. I think the Patriots would consider bringing Seau back, depending on other free-agent additions and draft choices.
The win over the Bears was very gratifying, but there were two things that have me concerned: 1. Tom Brady once again overthrew and missed a wide-open receiver streaking down the left sidelines toward paydirt. 2. Corey Dillon was truly pathetic in almost every category and threatened the game with his 4th quarter fumble. Tom has had more poor throws this year than I remember, either from under/over throwing with seemingly poor "feel". Have you noticed that? Is this Dillon's swan song? Luckily for Corey, they went on to win the game, but I can imagine that Bill Belichick is quite steamed at Corey. Did anyone on the Patriots talk about how Dillon performed?
Bob Southard, Manchester, NH
A: That throw to receiver Chad Jackson reminded me of something Brady had said earlier in the year that he had been working hard on his follow through so his long throws drop into the hands of his receivers, not sail past them. That throw did sail, and Im sure Brady wishes he could have that one back (although I think Jackson should have caught it anyway). But on the whole, I think Brady has been especially sharp the last two weeks, and was especially remarkable in the fourth quarter on Sunday. As for Dillon, he had 11 carries for 40 yards, with most of the yardage coming on a 26-yard run. So that meant he had 14 yards on his other 10 carries, including a fumble that simply cant happen at that point in the game. It wasnt his best performance. Yet his performance wasnt a hot topic of discussion after the game.
Given the proficiency of the Patriots front seven to stop the run, why don't more teams spread the field with four or five wide and attack the injury-depleted secondary? Sure, most QBs in this league aren't capable of doing what Brady did against Minnesota, but why not give it a try when you are gaining less than three yards a carry?
A: If teams went to four or five wide, that would mean that the defensive line and rush linebackers would have opportunities up front against single blocking. A lot of teams dont want to take those chances against Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Mike Vrabel, and Rosevelt Colvin. Also, the spread requires the ultimate cohesion, with the offensive line, quarterback and pass catchers all on the same page. Its not an easy offense for a lot of teams to run, although the Patriots often make it look easy, and I think a lot of that is because of Bradys excellence.
Does the league keep stats on coachs challenges? It seems to me that the Pats lose more of their challenges than they win. Sunday's challenge of Bernard Berrian's deep catch over Samuel at the end of the first quarter was a prime example. It looked pretty definitive from the replays. Why would Belichick throw the challenge flag in that situation? Is he willing to burn a timeout to try to change momentum?
Chris Warden, San Francisco, Calif.
A: Entering Sundays game, the Patriots were involved in three challenges this season, and one call was overturned. The league average entering last weeks games was 33 percent on reversals. As for Belichicks challenge, Im sure he figured there was some doubt and it was a 47-yard gain, which changed field position. So he deemed it worth the risk to challenge.
Why was Chad Scott out last week? Can any of the backup linebackers pick up the ILB spot well enough to get Vrabel back outside? And finally, what will it take to get Lance Briggs on the Patriots next year?
A: Scott injured his groin last week and was questionable for the game. As for the linebackers, I dont see any of the backups taking over the inside spot on a full-time basis, allowing Vrabel to move back outside. What I could see is a rotation in which Don Davis or Eric Alexander might play a series or two, which would allow Vrabel to move outside and give Tully Banta-Cain a short breather. As for Lance Briggs, Im with you, that guy is a solid player. Hes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and is represented by deal-making agent Drew Rosenhaus. Assuming Briggs makes it to the market, I see him falling in line for a big pay day that would be a bit higher than what top linebacker Will Witherspoon signed with the Rams in the last offseason 6 years, $33 million, $9 million in bonuses.
It was a great win despite negative comments by many of the national media. The fact is that in their three Super Bowl winning years they had many ugly wins like this. A concern to me, however, is their clock management. A former strength, the last couple of years they have struggled in the two-minute drill and running out the clock. Two plays come to mind. At the end of the first half Brady runs for 1 yard and rushes to get the next play off when he should have thrown an incomplete pass to stop the clock. But worst of all was Reche Caldwell running out of bounds on a reception with 3 minutes left. Where has the clock management gone?
Dave W., Poland, Maine
A: Id agree that Caldwells play was most egregious, just not a heads-up play and he seemed to realize that right after it happened. Bradys, on the other hand, I dont think is as clear cut. The Patriots were at midfield, there was 1:10 left, and the team had two timeouts. I dont believe thats an automatic spike, and had no problem with them trying to run a play. The passing play broke down into a running play, and thats where Brady should have thrown the ball way instead of running. Because of that, the Patriots had to burn a timeout. So, in the end, I think youre right the teams situational football hasnt been as sharp as weve seen in the past, although I wouldnt say its been that way the last few years, only the last week.
I have a bone to pick with those who relentlessly trivialize what the Patriots have accomplished this year. They keep on harping about the Patriots are benefiting from a patty-cake schedule and the questioning the quality of their wins. I am not naive enough to think that New England should be tops in the power rankings because they have been spanked at home by both Denver and the Colts. However, to suggest that New England is lucky because of their schedule is wrong.
Shariq Tariq, Little Rock, Ark.
A: Youve hit on two points that usually light a fire under me quality wins and power rankings. I just dont buy the arguments some made in recent weeks that the Patriots hadnt beaten a team with a winning record. That totally dismisses what I think is one of the most crucial points of every season when and where you play a team. I remember that Week 4 game in Cincinnati and how many were predicting the Patriots demise against the 3-0 Bengals. And now, because the Bengals struggled through a middle stretch of their schedule, that win isnt a quality win? Give me a break. Ditto for the Vikings, a team hosting its first Monday night game in five years that had just beaten the defending NFC champion Seahawks to improve to 4-2. So because the Vikings have since slipped, that win doesnt look as good. Please. I still believe its hard to win in this league, no matter the opponent, but this idea of quality wins is just ridiculous to me. And as for power rankings, is there anything more meaningless? The only power ranking that matters is the one that shows up Feb. 5, the day after Super Bowl XLI is played. Thanks for letting me rant. I feel better now.
The officiating of the Pats/Bears game was as bad as it gets. At least two bad interference calls against the Pats that should have even gone the other way and a blatant face guarding infraction that resulted in a no call. Does the NFL league office review all the games automatically or do coaches have to request a review of specific questioned calls and does the NFL have a mechanism to punish bad refs for their blunders. The bad calls could have cost the Pats the game.
A: The NFL reviews every game, although if a team wants a specific explanation for a call, it should request it. Id be interested to hear the NFLs explanation for some of those pass interference calls. It seemed quite inconsistent to me some of the calls that were made seemed like clean plays, while some that werent made (Ellis Hobbs in the end zone on Bernard Berrian) probably should have been.
Isn't it a little chintzy for you to be listing Latrell Hawkins/Ellis Hobbs as being "down" for their interference calls, since everyone from Joe Buck/Troy Aikman to our own local media guys can't believe the calls, and indeed if you look at them in replay at least one of the calls should've flat gone the other way? On a related topic, how much worse can NFL officiating get before they address the problem? The zebras are trying too hard to insert themselves in the games.
Tony, Contoocook, NH
A: Youre probably right, Tony. After watching the game again, I shouldnt have had Hawkins in there as a down performer. I dont think that was interference. But I would leave Hobbs in the down category. I thought those calls against him were correct, and in fact, he probably got away with one in the end zone. As for the refs, I think they generally do a great job. But it does get frustrating when you see the inconsistency of the pass interference calls like we did on Sunday.
What has happened to the Patriots' screen passing attack? I don't think I've seen more than one screen pass in the last three games. 2. Wouldn't it make more sense to have two different penalties on pass interference: one for blatant pass interference and one for "touch" interference. The first would be the same as now. The second would be only 10 yards from scrimmage. This would eliminate huge penalties caused by horrendous calls against innocent DBs.
Joe Scarpato, Marlborough
A: Not sure what to tell you on the screens, Joe. I know theyre still in the game-plan, but for whatever reason, the Patriots feel they havent been the right calls, or the opponents have done a nice job taking them away. As for the pass interference suggestion, the problem I see is that it leaves too much room for interpretation on what is blatant and what is touch. While I dont like the current rule, I think this suggestion would actually create more problems.
Ty Warren is having a MONSTER year. They guy is blowing up plays all over the place. When does his contract expire and do you see the Pats getting a deal done ahead of time? I say hand him the remaining cap space for 2006. He's earning every penny.
A: Warrens contract is scheduled to expire after the 2008 season. Given that amount of time, I wouldnt expect any negotiations to extend Warren for at least one more year. From a management perspective, the Patriots would be setting a dangerous precedent by extending a deal three years before it was set to expire.
Hey Mike. You don't have to include this in your mailbag but I would really like to know what "props" are, as in, give them their props. I see that expression used frequently by writers and fans but no one will answer my requests for an explanation. How 'bout giving this 67-year-old an explanation? When you give an athlete his "props" what are you giving him? Thanks!
Paul, Hampton, NH
A: In giving out props, youre basically giving a player credit, a tip of the cap, an acknowledgement of a job well done. In short, you're giving the player, "proper respect."
It seems Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick both eschew the need for a No. 1 receiver. Deion Branch wasn't a No. 1 and I agreed with their decision not to pay him as such. Still, he was Brady's go-to guy and Tom has seemed lost without him. Clearly, the hope is that Chad Jackson can elevate himself to at least a No. 2 receiver level by next season. But it also seems clear that the Gabriel/Gaffney/Caldwell trio is best slotted in the 3-4 roles. And Troy Brown can't last forever. I don't see a No. 1 receiver out there on the free agent list and although there are 4-5 potential No. 1s in the upcoming draft I don't see one dropping to the Pats pick (28-32?). Plus we have much greater needs -- safety, corner and linebacker. So here's the question. Do you see any chance of a trade possibility? For example, with Jarvis Green solid, Mike Wright emerging and Marquis Hill ostensibly still having potential, would you endorse something like Ty Warren to Arizona for Larry Fitzgerald? I know Ty is a great player and much valued, but you have to give up quality to get quality. Brady has 5-7 years left. You gotta give him a go to guy.
R. King, Calgary
A: I dont see a trade like that happening. The question is based on the assumption that both teams would do it, which I just dont see. As for free-agent receivers, Tennessees Drew Bennett is a No. 1 who is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season. And as for the draft, you never know who might emerge. Marques Colston was the 252nd pick this year, and he leads the Saints with 54 catches. Im not saying hes necessarily a No. 1 with Joe Horn (36 catches) in that lineup, but his production has been No. 1-like. So I just dont think its as clear cut as presented here.
Are the Patriots wearing their throwback uniforms this year?
Hommy Colon, Springfield
A: The Patriots are scheduled to wear their third jersey which is the silver one in their Dec. 17 home game against the Texans.
Did I see Otis Smith on the Patriots sideline during the Chicago game?
Derek, North Reading
A: Yes, Otis Smith is an assistant coach with the Patriots. Hes working with the defensive backs along with Joel Collier. Smith was part of the NFLs minority coaching program over the summer and was retained in a full-time capacity when the season began.
What is the logo on the field? I am "Mr. New England" out here in California, but I have no idea what that logo is or what it stands for? I can't even find it on the Gillette web site.
KdogWC, Walnut Creek, Calif.
A: That is a bridge and lighthouse, which is the logo for Gillette Stadium.