A wide range of questions as the Patriots playoff chances narrow
The margin for error has thinned for the Patriots in their pursuit of the playoffs.
At 7-5, the team would not qualify for the postseason if the regular season ended today. So looking ahead, the Patriots pretty much need to win their remaining four games to clinch a berth. There are other scenarios, but it looks like a longer shot that the team could clinch with a 10-6 record.
With the playoff chase intensifying, this week's mailbag has a little bit of everything, shining the spotlight on the defense, offense, special teams, and overall personnel. It's a nice changeup from the last two weeks, when it was mostly Matt Cassel chatter.
On to the questions.
This Patriots' defense is awful. I can't remember the last time I saw a team initiate a hit on a ball carrier and continuously give up another 3-5 yards after the hit. Watching the loss to the Steelers, while thinking of the proud defenses of the Super Bowl run, is like a cruel kick to the
A: Jan, I can understand where you're coming from in some respects. The Patriots' defense has had a tough year in two key categories -- third down and red-zone -- and struggles to generate a consistent pass rush. In terms of Sunday's loss, however, I didn't think it was as much on the defense as it was on offense and special teams. But overall, when I look at the defense, I see a strong starting defensive line (Warren-Wilfork-Seymour), a linebacker group that is in transition, and a secondary that is overmatched at times - specifically at left cornerback (Deltha O'Neal). They need more playmakers and I'd expect that to be a top priority this offseason.
Mike, I believe that the Patriots offense' has developed to the point where I believe it is Super Bowl quality. The defense is another story. I believe it is time that the defense put away its bend-but-don't break passive philosophy and begin to play more aggressively. The old philosophy isn't working. It is bending but also breaking. The defensive backs need to challenge the receivers more and eliminate the large cushions they are giving them. What do you think?
A: I thought the Patriots pressured more with extra rushers against the Steelers, and the results were mixed, so I don't think simply bringing more heat will solve all the problems. There were other times that the cornerbacks were assigned to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage instead of giving a big cushion, and again, the results were mixed (Deltha O'Neal badly missed a jam that almost led to a Santonio Holmes touchdown). So I guess I'd sum up my thoughts this way: In theory, it sounds like a great plan to take some more risks and one I'd endorse, but I haven't seen anything that would lead me to believe the results would be much different. As coaches often say, you have to give something up to get something, and it seems to me the Patriots are a bit reluctant to bring the heat more regularly for fear of giving up the big play. I can understand why.
The Pats are in the mid-20's as far as payroll. Why don't they spend some $$ and shore up the defense? After all they are making money hand over fist with three Super Bowls, numerous playoff appearances, Patriot Place. If it was the Sox or Bruins, people would be calling for heads to roll. The high-flying offense of last year masked the problem and to boot they let Asante [Samuel] walk. Your thoughts?
A: I don't know exactly where the Patriots rank in terms of total salary payout this year, Brian, but on the whole I don't think there is a lack of commitment from ownership in that regard. Sometimes the salary numbers fluctuate from year to year, and I think part of that is due to longer-term planning. For example, I think a portion of the team's current decision-making is currently dictated by the longer-range forecast that 2009 is a huge year in terms of big-name players with contracts expiring (e.g. Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Stephen Neal etc.). I'd also point out that throwing money at a problem isn't always the answer. If it was, the Raiders would be leading the AFC this year.
Mike, I admit that when the Patriots let Asante Samuel walk last year, I was not that concerned. I guess I just figured the "system" would prevail. However, the secondary seems to be the weak link with this defense and it amazes me they have not been exposed even more then they already have. In hindsight, should they have ponied up the cash to keep Samuel or was it the right call in the long run?
KC, Cranford, N.J.
A: KC, my feeling is that the Patriots' primary error was not identifying Samuel as an ascending player and locking him up in 2006 or early 2007 before his price rose to astronomical levels on the open market. That's a big part of the personnel game - knowing when to be proactive and reactive - and what makes that aspect of building a football team challenging. It's hard to know when to pull the trigger, and when to hold off. No one across the NFL bats 1,000 in those situations, and the Patriots still are better than most in my opinion, but I thought they missed it with Samuel. It is with this in mind that I think the Patriots and representatives for Vince Wilfork should currently be working on a deal, before the same situation unfolds.
Mike, having played defensive back in college some years ago, I have a general understanding of pass coverage. That being said, I don't understand the consistent separation opposing receivers get from the NE secondary. Zone coverage is one thing, pass rush and receiver quality is also a consideration, but NE defenders are nowhere in sight at catch. A quarterback has a defined time normally to throw a pass and the defender should have an internal clock which should allow closer coverage to a receiver as time passes. Help me out here. Has defensive paranoia set in?
Charlie, Bedford, N.H.
A: Charlie, I see two main parts here. The first is being in position to make the play, which entails getting in and out of breaks sharply, having the necessary speed and quickness to stay with receivers, playing the proper technique/leverage etc. The second is having the ball skills, so if the ball is delivered in the area, you can make a play on it. I think the Patriots' cornerbacks have generally struggled in both areas. From this past week, Deltha O'Neal turned in one of the poorest performances I've seen from a Patriots cornerback in recent memory, as I counted five times that the ball was thrown in his direction and he wasn't in position -- or even the same zip code -- to make the play. He was beaten deep a sixth time, but batted the ball away when it was thrown late and behind intended receiver Nate Washington. My hunch is that Bill Belichick got sick to his football stomach when re-watching O'Neal's performance Monday morning, because it wasn't competitive. O'Neal was rounding out his cuts, and playing with poor leverage and technique. With that in mind, I wouldn't be surprised if O'Neal sees his playing time reduced in the coming weeks.
Can you comment on [Ellis] Hobbs's play thus far? A couple of weeks ago you praised him for his willingness to speak to the reporters after the game, but putting that aside, what's your view on his performance and (if you know) the coaches view on his performance so far?
A: Ed, my first thought with Hobbs is "maximum effort." He gives you all he has. In terms of execution, I'd say he's given up more plays than he's made at cornerback. The long ball at the start of the second half against the Jets on Nov. 13 comes to mind as the type of play that upper echelon corners make more often than not. But the one thing I'd say is this: If I'm a coach with the personnel the Patriots currently have in the secondary, I'm sticking with Hobbs because I know he's emptying his tank for me throughout 60 minutes of action. Looking ahead, however, I think cornerback is the team's top need.
It seems as if the defensive backfield may be the weakest part of the Patriots' defense. What happened to Dom Capers? I have not heard of any reference to him in the media and it seems he has not had any significant influence on this struggling unit.
A: Jonny, Capers remains the team's special assistant/secondary coach, and this situation is another reminder of the necessary mix that must be struck between coaches and players. While Capers's addition was touted as a coup by many (myself included), even the best coaches are going to have trouble if they don't have players. Vice versa, some less-than-stellar coaches can sometimes look better when they have top players on the field. A little bit in both areas - coaching and players -- can go a long way. I think the Patriots' personnel in the secondary, specifically at cornerback, is not where it needs to be.
Mike, from my vantage point, it looks like we need some more speed on D (especially a speed rusher). With that said, it looked like Gary Guyton was out there a bit than in the past. How did he look to you and how many snaps did he take in replacement of Bruschi/Vrabel?
Alvin, Bangkok, Thailand
A: Greetings in Thailand, Alvin. I had Guyton on the field for 47 of 69 snaps (kneel-down at the end of the first half not included; 2 penalties included). He was part of the team's 3-3-5 nickel package, which was used more than any other grouping, as well as the 2-3-6 dime. He also came on for Pierre Woods at outside linebacker in the base 3-4 when Woods went out with a mouth injury. Bruschi remained the main option at inside linebacker in the base 3-4 alignment, playing 35 snaps, while Vrabel was part of every personnel package. That's a lot of playing time for Guyton and he seems to account for himself well. He looks like a rising player to me.
Mike, do you know the reason the Pats have not brought in any role-playing vets off the waiver wire. Guys like Colvin, Seau, or Law (now with Jets) who could help in the interim. It seems like they are just going with what they got and they totally dragged their feet with Law, who I think could have made a difference this year. I don't have a problem with that, but why not bring Colvin in just to help out. He can rush the passer which I have not seen done for weeks with our defense because they barely have a pass rush.
Jamie V., Trumbull, Conn.
A: Jamie, I think it's a good question and one that highlights the never-ending balance teams try to strike between the short-term picture and long-term picture. The Patriots have seemingly made a decision to go young -- thinking long-range -- and that means an investment in players like rookie outside linebacker Vince Redd, rookie inside linebacker Gary Guyton, and young cornerbacks Mike Richardson and Jonathan Wilhite. Players like Colvin, Seau and Law would be one-year stop-gaps, while the youngsters could develop into longer-term options. Those can always be tough decisions, but the crux of it, I believe, is that for every older player you bring in, it could stunt the growth of the younger player. I happen to think Law would have helped, but otherwise, I like the approach the Patriots have taken.
What's your take on Vince Redd being added to the active roster? Also, do you think we will see him in some sub packages or is he just a special teams ace, like Eric Alexander. What's the update on Adalius Thomas? How's his injury progressing?
Psi, Winston-Salem, N.C.
A: Redd did not play on defense in the team's 33-10 loss to the Steelers, as Gary Guyton was the top backup at outside linebacker. Redd played seven snaps in the base 3-4 at the end of the Dolphins game, in mop-up time, the prior week. His development bears watching, but I don't think there are any definitive answers at this point. Redd has been integrated into the special teams mix, playing on the punt return and kickoff coverage units against the Steelers. I am not sure about the progress of Adalius Thomas, but the fact he has yet to be placed on season-ending injured reserve leaves open the possibility that he could return.
Mike I am at my wits end in trying to understand the decision to put Matthew Slater in as a kickoff returner in a must-win game, during a total downpour, when we were losing but still in the game. Who makes that decision? Is it Belichick, or the special teams coach? Does Belichick have to OK the decision? I cannot understand the thinking, and have never been so frustrated with a coaching decision as this. Maybe you can provide some insight that I am missing.
Raymond G., Osceola, Ark.
A: Raymond, my understanding is that the decision would be made by special teams coach Brad Seely, but Belichick has the headset on and he's aware of those decisions and could always veto it. In this specific case, primary returner Ellis Hobbs had been battling cramps and was throwing up on the sideline, so he wasn't available. Slater is the top backup returner -- he had nine returns on the season entering the game -- so it's natural that he'd get the call. I think the variable that could have led the coaches to consider another option -- the wet, cold weather -- is a fair point to bring up. Given that Slater is a rookie from UCLA, he hasn't had any game experience in those conditions at this level. That's a bit of a tough spot to put him in.
Hi Mike, I attended the game in person and it's even more evident live that speed rushers just kill the Patriots' tackles off the edges, as we saw on Cassel's fumbles. I don't want to take anything away from Matt Light, because I think he may be the best offensive lineman on the team since Bruce Armstrong, but is the problem that's he's just too slow for the likes of James Harrison, Joey Porter, and Dwight Freeney? If so, are there tackles out there in college or in the NFL that are a little faster that could help spell guys like Light and Kaczur against speed rushers, especially in personnel packages where there is not a TE to help out?
A: Matt, there is no question that Light struggled on the two strip sacks, and those plays sort of define his performance. But after watching the game over again, I actually thought he won more one-on-one battles against Harrison than he lost, but the ones he lost had devastating results. I actually think center Dan Koppen should draw more attention for a costly sack surrendered to Casey Hampton on a second-and-1 at the start of the third quarter because that was a play in which the Steelers rushed only three defenders and Koppen had help from his guards. That was a killer play. But I think because Light is on the outer edges of the field, and it's easier to see his matchup, he takes more criticism. I'm cutting Light some slack because while I think he struggled on the two strip sacks, I thought he was pretty solid on the other 65 plays.
Hey Mike, can the Patriots pull out someone from the injured reserve list such as Shawn Crable to help out the linebackers? Also, how realistic are the Patriots' chances of making the playoffs, because know they are one game behind the Jets and one game behind Baltimore and a game in a half behind the Colts because the Colts beat the Patriots so they would win the tie-breaker?
A: Jorge, once a player is placed on injured reserve, he is lost for the season. So Crable could not come back to the active roster. As for the Patriots' chances of making the playoffs, I still believe that if the Patriots win their remaining four games -- at Seattle, at Oakland, vs. Arizona and at Buffalo -- they'll be in. But at this point, they'll also need some help.
Mike, a few years ago the league started more strictly enforcing the illegal contact by defensive backs. Now it seems like the pendulum has swung the other way with all the picks being run by receivers to interfere with a DB in coverage. Are these pick plays being used more or are we just being shown them more on TV? Any chance that the rules committee will look at this in the future or will Bill Polian not allow that as long as he has a pass-oriented team?
TC, Nashua, N.H.
A: I could envision this becoming a "point of emphasis" this offseason, TC. Usually what that means is that there is a rule in the rulebook that the NFL would like to see enforced a bit more strictly. Those can be challenging calls for officials because you have to judge whether receivers are simply "creating traffic" or intentionally setting a pick. I believe most every team has some type of element in its offense with those traffic/picks, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if we see some more policing of it in 2009.
Mike, I know this isn't the type of Patriots performance we are used to and there are a few glaring holes in this team. However, I feel that there is one hole that no one has touched on and it is the attitude factor. Yesterday after the hit on Wes Welker, no one got in Ryan Clark's face. Whether the hit was legal or not is not the point. A defender just lit your teammate up and the offense did nothing about it. It was like the Patriots were scared. I think it just proves what kind of leader Tom Brady was. Had that happened when Brady was in there, I am positive he would have gotten in Clark's face, then made sure to embarrass him the next play. It's easy to have that killer instinct when you are undefeated but now they need it more than ever. I think of all the bad things that have happened to the Pats this year, and that made me the most upset. By not reacting to the hit the Pats gave the Steelers the attitude edge for the rest of the game and it showed. Your thoughts?
A: I think it's a good point, Dave, all around. Thanks for bringing it up.
Hi Mike, do you think the league will look into the hit on Wes Welker? If the league and the commissioner in particular were serious about protecting defenseless players, I think they should. But knowing the anti-Patriot bias by the league I doubt that they would. Also, what are your thoughts on the play that put Derek Anderson out of the game (and the season)? I thought the Colts player went for his knee. Why did not draw a penalty? I thought you cannot hit the QB below the knees?
A: The NFL will definitely look at the play, as they review every play of every game every week. The question is if they will levy a fine and I think they will. As for the hit on Anderson, I actually haven't seen it at this point.
My question is does the coronation of Matt Cassel now end? I felt people were forgetting about Tom Brady a little prematurely. I know this loss can not by any means be placed solely on Cassel, but he was making a lot of the mistakes we saw early in the season. Holding onto the ball too long, taking what I call Eason-sacks by putting his head down and falling to the ground, and throwing behind receivers. I think our success is due to a mediocre league this year -- there are so many weak teams in the league it's not hard to see how we won seven games. So the question is, do we make the playoffs? What do you see in your crystal ball?
Phil, Branford, Conn.
A: Phil, I thought Cassel came back down to earth after two strong performances, although as you pointed out he wasn't the sole reason for Sunday's loss. In terms of his play, I thought it was one of his least accurate games and that his decision making was shaky. The across-the-field throw to Randy Moss in the end zone -- immediately after Moss's drop in the second quarter -- was one throw that comes to mind when pointing out that Cassel wasn't the steady quarterback we'd seen the prior two weeks. As for the playoffs, I'm going to put the Patriots in at this point. I could see them winning their remaining four games and getting the necessary help (e.g. the Ravens losing) to quality.
Regarding the possibility of the Patriots franchising Cassel next year and then trading him to another team, would the other team be required to pay the 1-year franchise amount before re-signing him, or could they immediately negotiate a long-term contract with Cassel so they wouldn't have to take the big salary cap hit in year one? I seem to remember there being some sort of restriction on how many times a player can negotiate a contract in a single year.
Bob K., Cambridge
A: Bob, as long as Cassel doesn't sign the one-year tender offer from the Patriots, the team acquiring him won't have to worry about that. If Cassel signs the tender, he could still negotiate a long-term extension with the team acquiring him. The rule I believe you're referring to is that a player can't renegotiate/restructure a contract twice in a calendar year. Technically, the deal with the new team would be the first renegotiation/restructure.
I am very surprised not to see Tom Brady, the No. 1 quarterback in the NFL, on the sideline providing moral support to the Pats and "coaching" and advising Cassel. Is there something in NFL rules that preclude Brady from being on the sideline? If not I'm disappointed for I would expect him to be the No. 1 cheerleader.
Frank Z., Colorado Springs, Colo.
A: Frank, this was a question that a few others e-mailed as well, noting that injured Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman was on the sideline Nov. 23 in a Sunday night San Diego-Indianapolis game. Brady's top priority has to be getting his left knee better, and I personally don't feel it would help him to be standing on the sideline. We know he's been around Gillette Stadium working out, and talking to players like Matt Cassel, so I think he's certainly showing his support behind the scenes.
Hi Mike, so much has been made about maximizing Cassel's value by franchising him and making a deal with a team for high draft pick. However, that franchise tag usually is designated around the time of free agency correct? If the Patriots are looking to upgrade a suspect at best defense, they may want to have some cap cash available at the start of free agency instead of trying to pry a draft pick out of a team needing a QB. I believe draft picks are a team's lifeblood, but I'd hate to see the Pats potentially pass up the opportunity to upgrade their defense with some free agent help because they have significant cap money tied up on a guy they intend on trading. With first round $$$ out of whack for unproven players, it may be more prudent to spend money on mid-range proven free agents instead of hoping for a high pick that may not pan out anyway. I'm sure controlling where Cassel could go would be optimal (keep him away from the Jets), but losing out on upgrading the "D" because you are cap tied would be less optimal in my opinion. Note: If there is significant time to make a deal between franchise tagging a player and the start of free agency, then I'd reverse course and say franchising Cassel may be worth the risk.
A: I think you just nailed the potential dilemma facing the Patriots, Kevin. The Patriots would have to make sure they had the salary cap space available and it could restrict their other moves. That's why, in the end, I think it would be unlikely that the Patriots assign the franchise tag to Cassel. It would give them two quarterbacks with salary cap charges of around $28 million total, which would account for about a quarter of the team's $123 million salary cap. That type of decision would seemingly run counter to the team's philosophy of spreading the wealth and having a strong middle class on the roster.
So after Josh McDaniels is inevitably hired as someone else's head coach, is Charlie Weis invited back to be the offensive coordinator (he's going to be out of work pretty soon)? It would make sense, bring back someone Brady trusts, and allow time to bring in and groom more assistants for when Weis is given a second chance at head coaching somewhere.
A: Every week, it seems, there have been questions about Charlie Weis possibly coming back to New England. My thought is that if Weis is out at Notre Dame, he'd first explore other head coaching opportunities. In the event those head coaching opportunities don't surface, I could see Weis being welcomed back by Bill Belichick in New England.
If Romeo Crennel is let go by Cleveland, do you think the Patriots would sign him to be defensive coordinator/asst to head coach?
Adam, Portland, Maine
A: Adam, my thought would be similar to Charlie Weis's situation. I believe Crennel left on good terms with Belichick and the Patriots and he'd be welcomed back in the event he couldn't land another head coaching job.
Mike, just got done reading your 'Rerouted receiver' article on David Givens. I know it is a huge long-shot that DG could return to the NFL, but if it is possible, do you think the Pats will sign him and give him a shot?
A: Eric, one of the things that David Givens said in our interview is that his agent, Brad Blank, had recently contacted the Patriots and said "If David is ready, his first call would be to you." I think that would be a great story, and the Patriots would strongly consider it if all the pieces fell into place. It's a long shot at this point, as Givens is walking with a limp and has not been able to run since the surgery.
Last week there was a question that said that the drafting of Belichick/Pioli was killing this team. That was the most ridiculous statement of the week. Out of their nine first round draft picks, eight of them were still starting for the Patriots this season. How many teams have been able to keep that many of their first rounders? Maroney is the only real bust of the group -- sounds like good odds to me. Your thoughts?
A: Todd, I think the Patriots' drafting has been better, or on par, with the rest of the NFL. I think it's important to add in the context of how the rest of the teams in the league are drafting, as no team hits on all their picks. When I look at the Patriots' first-round selections, and stack them up against the rest of the NFL over the nine-year Belichick/Pioli tenure, they are right up at the top of the league. Pioli should probably get more credit than he does, not flak. If I'm the owner of the Detroit Lions, Pioli would be my first call when I'm looking to hire a general manager this offseason.
Mike, I know it's early to start draft talk but what do you see as their needs ranked one through four? To me, the most glaring need is defensive backs, especially durable, fast, athletic CBs. Next three positions would be RB, ILB and O-line.
Unclealfie, Tustin, Calif.
A: I'd put cornerback and safety atop the list, as you can never have enough of them in today's spread-the-field NFL. I think those stand out from the rest, and after that, a lot will depend on the value of the players available, as I could see them filling needs across the board.
Mike, I for one am delighted with the news about the Patriots playing in London. I mean, look on the bright side. It's an away game, so we're not giving up home advantage. And London in October will be closer in climate to New England than to Tampa. And distance-wise, it's really not a huge deal farther to travel either. Plus, the Pats are the best-supported team over here. My view -- this is great news for the Pats brand, and it won't harm our chances of picking up the W in Week 7 next season. Your thoughts?
A: Ben, first and foremost, I'm glad that the Patriots' game in London won't cost the fans in New England a home game at Gillette Stadium. In terms of competitiveness, I don't think it's much of a factor one way or the other. The Giants won the Super Bowl last year and they played a regular-season game in London. On the plus side, it puts the bye week in the middle of the season, which is ideal. On the negative side, I hear the field out there is not good, which could contribute to more of an injury risk. Some have asked about tickets to the game, and when they go on sale. I don't have that information at this time, but will hope to have an answer next week.