Failing to focus
FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots are right in the AFC mix with a 9-3 record, but the tone of most e-mails this week wasn't positive. Fans are concerned with the Patriots' performance of late, especially all those penalties and turnovers.
We'll get right to the e-mails this week ...
I read most of the postgame articles and am dismayed at the repeated admissions by Pats players that they lacked motivation and enthusiasm. It was all too obvious to the viewers, but is usually denied by the players. What is wrong here? Too many previous successes and big bank accounts? I think the terrible officiating can demoralize players when it continually occurs and goes against them. And there does seem to be a majority of the calls going for the opponents. How does Bill get these guys motivated? Are personnel changes ahead? Your thoughts?
David C., Seattle
A: I am at a loss to explain how the Patriots could display that lack of motivation and enthusiasm, especially since this is December and the time when teams need to be ascending to make a Super Bowl run. I do think the team is fatigued and banged up right now -- specifically on the offensive line, in the secondary, and at running back -- and maybe that's caught up to them a bit. Every team is probably in the same boat, so I'm not making excuses for the Patriots. But perhaps that's the reason they lacked the snap in their performance. As for the referees' calls, I thought they evened out and both teams had a few bad calls against them. As for personnel changes, I'm most curious about tight end Benjamin Watson. I wonder if the coaching staff is going to hesitate putting him on the field if he can't hold on to the ball.
I was astonished at the lack of emotion that the Patriots showed during Sunday's game with the Lions. ... So how will the team address this level of complacency? Everyone is aware that if they come out flat and unfocused (10 penalties) in the postseason it may well be a hasty exit. It seems almost counterintuitive, but my sense is that they should loosen up and enjoy the game. Focus and have fun. They still have a chance at greatness but they can't simply show up and expect to have it handed to them. What are your thoughts?
Paul Lynn, Missoula, Mont.
A: Last week, I think coach Bill Belichick delivered a tough message to the Patriots in a Wednesday team meeting. This week, I wouldn't be surprised to see him back off a bit, as you suggest. I think any coach with a finger on the pulse of his team probably realizes there are times to bear down and other times to pull back. The crew in that locker room is a professional group that understands it is not playing well and it comes down to their focus, discipline, and execution. The time for talking about it is over. It's time to do it. So in terms of how the team will address its level of complacency, I expect the leaders in the locker room to step forward and set a tone for the rest of the group.
Do you have any theories on why the Patriots came out so flat on Sunday? It's worthy to mention that this is not an isolated game either as they have had several lackluster efforts this year. I just do not understand the lack of fire on this team especially in front of their loyal fans. I know it is a grinding season but I have never seen a team in the Belichick era have so many games where there doesn't seem to be a heartbeat. I'm pleased they got the win but the team that took the field against Detroit is not going to be around long in the playoffs with that kind of effort.
KC, New Jersey
A: One theory is that it was a natural come-down to face the 2-9 Lions after beating the nine-win Bears in an intense game. But in terms of the emotion and enthusiasm, I think the players' comments after the game might be covering up the more relevant issue: execution. When I went back and watched the game, I almost forgot the Patriots had a 17-play drive in the first quarter. But it ended with a field goal, which sort of felt like a turnover in my book. Had the team scored a touchdown, and put the Lions on their heels early, this talk about emotion and enthusiasm might be moot, because the game could have taken on a different form, with the Patriots in firm control. You always have to play with emotion and enthusiasm, but I think we're missing the point if we're focusing solely on that issue.
Not sure if this is a question or more of a statement. Everybody needs to relax a little. None of the elite teams in the league had stellar games this week. Most of them played inferior teams and barely won, or in some cases, lost. Our team did what it needed to do to win. They also did what they needed to do to not get their heads in cloud nine and relax. Really, with the way this team plays at home verses the road, do we really want home field advantage?
Daniel Campbell, Chesapeake, Va.
A: From a big-picture perspective, I think this is a good point. After the game, I got sucked in a bit, thinking that the Patriots played so poorly that they won't be going far this season. But then you look around and see the Colts, Broncos, Ravens and Chiefs losing -- and the Chargers barely escaping Buffalo -- and you realize there is no one dominating right now. As for home-field advantage, I still think the Patriots would prefer to be home despite the fact they've performed better on the road.
We all know what the Patriots' biggest weakness is right now. Without the turnovers we'd be crushing our opponents. Oddly, I found that Chicago and Detroit have the highest fumble recovery in the NFL (18 and 13 respectively). But whatever the Patriots are doing in practice isn't working. How does a team practice against turnovers?
A: You'll probably get different answers from different people, but I believe it comes down to focus and discipline. Everyone in that locker room knows to keep the ball high and tight and cover the points of the ball, but they are having lapses on the field. It's inexcusable. I think it comes back to the idea that the time for talking is over. Sure, you can practice it, too, but I ultimately think it simply comes down to having better focus in game conditions.
Mike, is it just my imagination, or has Otis Smith recently been haunting the Patriots' sideline?
Adam Carriuolo, Rehoboth
A: Smith is an assistant coach for the Patriots. He was part of the NFL's minority coaching program with the Patriots over the summer and then was kept on in a full-time capacity. Bill Belichick had this to say about Smith: "I think Otis has added a lot to us. He has a lot of experience in this system as a player, similar to Pepper [Johnson] when he came here in 2000. That's something that, whether it be myself, or Dean [Pees], or Romeo [Crennel], or whoever, we've all coached it and we all know it, but we never actually played it like Pepper and Otis have. I think that those guys always can help the players take a perspective from actually playing in the system and executing it out on the field as well as instructing it. I think he's done a good job working primarily with the corners, but the secondary in general. I think that Otis is one of the players that we've had that was one of the best prepared players -- in terms of film study -- for the game and really understanding how to play against different opponents and different players. I think he has tried to and has imparted that knowledge into some of our younger defensive backs."
As a deployed soldier, I enjoy reading your Reiss Pieces and mailbag during the times that I can. How do you think the loss of Eugene Wilson will impact the secondary? He hasn't played much and I see the secondary playing OK right now -- giving up yards, not too many points. I am definitely looking forward to Rodney Harrison's return after I just found out about his loss the other day. Any projection on a return for him?
Mike, Tikrit, Iraq and Providence, RI
A: Hi Mike. Thanks for serving our country, and it's great that you can stay connected to the Patriots while in Iraq. I wish you a safe return. As for Wilson's loss, I still think he was one of the team's best four defensive backs, so I see it as a significant blow even though he had missed eight games. Artrell Hawkins has filled in nicely, but the issue going forward is Hawkins' health, as he looked banged-up to me after Sunday's game. I'm assuming the Patriots have some concern there. Probably more than anything, though, I think the addition of Ray Mickens -- who was signed to take Wilson's roster spot -- will allow Troy Brown to play solely offense, where it looks like he'll be relied on to be the No. 2 option. As for Harrison, timetables are tricky, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's back by Dec. 24, at Jacksonville.
Why do you suck up to Richard Seymour? Sunday's stats against Detroit -- no tackles, no assists, no sacks, no nothing and yet you do not put him in the "down" section in your postgame analysis on your blog. Please.
Douglas Parigian, Lowell
A: When I saw Seymour had no tackles, my first instinct was to put him in the "down" category, but I decided to watch the game again to make sure. Sometimes it's hard to tell how a defensive lineman is playing based solely on stats, especially in the Patriots' system. I wanted to see if the Lions were running away from him (they were most of the time). I wanted to see if he had trouble shedding blocks (he wasn't). I wanted to see if he played the whole game (he didn't and was replaced by Jarvis Green on a few series). Really, there was nothing overwhelmingly "down" about Seymour's performance, and I'd cite three plays that showed his impact in the game despite not showing up in the tackle category: On a first and 10 run in the first quarter for no gain, Seymour stood up left tackle Jeff Backus and held the point of attack; on a first and 10 play in the second quarter, he batted down a pass; on a second and 10 play in the second quarter, he flushed quarterback Jon Kitna out of the pocket, chased him to the sideline, and forced an incomplete pass. I also thought he could have been credited with a fourth-quarter tackle than went to Tedy Bruschi and Tully Banta-Cain. To balance the ledger, I did notice one 5-yard run in the second quarter in which Seymour was blocked one-on-one when he could have made a play.
I don't like Chad Scott that much, but he held Roy Williams to 3 catches for 50 yards. That is pretty good. He got beat on one play, but it's tough to label it a "down" game when you shut down the other team's top wideout.
A: Looks like we see things a bit differently on Scott in Sunday's game. I saw him miss a few tackles, not be in competitive position in coverage at times, and also pick up a penalty. I assume he was still hurting from the groin injury that sidelined him the week before. Much like the Patriots did a few weeks prior in Green Bay against Donald Driver, the team appeared to double-cover Williams a good portion of the time, so it wasn't just one player contributing to Williams's lack of production.
What's your take on the receiver situation now that they have had more time with Tom Brady? I expected a little more from Chad Jackson at this stage of the season -- I accept he has had injuries. Also, has there been any update on Doug Gabriel's situation, i.e. whether his fall from grace is performance related or whether it is something else, possibly discipline related?
A: I see Reche Caldwell as the top guy, with Troy Brown and Jabar Gaffney as 2-3. Gabriel has been bumped down the depth chart to No. 4. Jackson, while injured and still showing promise for the future, has been a disappointment in his rookie season. He's the No. 5 guy now. What I don't see from this group on a consistent basis is separation from defensive backs. I still think a team can win with this group, but from a personnel perspective, I would expect the Patriots to attempt to upgrade at this position in the future. As for Gabriel, I don't know why he's fallen so much out of favor. Just speculating, but I wonder if the coaching staff feels he's playing and practicing as hard as he needs to be. I can't imagine he'd have such a fall on the depth chart based on that one fumble against the Jets.
With all the heat Caldwell has taken, if he keeps it up won't his numbers be very comparable to anything Deion Branch or David Givens has done?
A: Caldwell has 46 catches for 574 yards and 3 touchdowns. Branch had a career-high 78 catches in 2005, while Givens' had 59 in 2005 and 56 in 2004. While Caldwell might approach those numbers, I don't think anyone is suggesting he has replaced Branch. Perhaps Givens to a degree, but not Branch.
With the breakout year that Asante Samuel is having, do you think the Patriots will be able to re-sign him at the end of the season?
Tom Regan, Brighton
A: Right now, if Samuel hits the open market, I would predict he will receive a larger contract offer than has currently been discussed with the Patriots. There is the chance he could receive the franchise tag, which would keep him in New England, but I don't think that will happen. So, to me, the big thing is if the Patriots and Samuel can reach a compromise position before he hits the market. My understanding is that Samuel is currently seeking in the range of $10 million in bonuses, while the Patriots are in the $7.5 million range.
I kept reading all preseason and beginning of the season how the Pats were $10 million-$15 million under the salary cap, and how (or if) they would spend it. Now last week I read an article saying we are currently about $6 million under the cap, which is about the league average at this time. My question is this: What happened to all the money? Thanks again for keeping us informed.
SFC (R) T.J. Beary, Leesburg, Fla.
A: I think the Patriots will spend to the cap when all is said and done. If I had to predict how things will unfold, with the sides not close on an extension for cornerback Asante Samuel, I believe the team will now attempt to make a strong bid to re-sign tight end Daniel Graham to a contract extension. He was just named a captain for the rest of the season, which indicates to me how highly he's thought of by the coaching staff and players in the locker room. Talks are quiet right now, but I fully anticipate the Patriots and Graham's representatives -- Jack and Tom Mills of Colorado-based Ascent Sports Management -- to heat up negotiations before the deadline to use the cap space. On an aside, the agents used to represent Ted Johnson and are known in the business as two of the most reputable folks who negotiate contracts. So to answer the original question, let's wait until the end of the season to see where the cap space goes before drawing a final conclusion. As noted in the question, it's not unusual for a team to have $6 million in cap space right now. And in fact, that number might be a bit lower after the signing of cornerback Ray Mickens on Monday.
If my memory serves me correct, Tom Brady didn't throw a decent spiral until the second quarter. Even after that he was spotty with his throws. He was incredible in the last 10 minutes, but any thoughts on that? Is he having any soreness that you're aware of? Also, why weren't they running in the last three minutes with possession? Brady was great but I'd of thought they wanted to chew more clock? Also, if you have a second, I've been wondering about the smooth helmets verses the ones with the 'ridge' for a couple of years now. Can you comment on the differences? Are the smooth ones being phased out? Thanks!
Greg Raymond, Denver
A: Brady caught fire when the team went to its two-minute offense. Not to take anything away from Brady, but I did notice that most of his throws were short check-downs in the fourth quarter. I thought his best pass of the final quarter was on the two-point conversion to Troy Brown. I thought part of the problem Sunday was poor pass protection. Brady couldn't step up on several throws. On others, he simply underthrew them, and it looked to me like he wasn't getting enough push with his lower body. As for why they weren't running on their final drive, they had just ignited the offense by going to the two-minute package and probably figured it was the best way to sustain the momentum. On the helmets, I'm told it's a player's choice as to what they wear. Here is a web site of the company that makes helmets, and can explain the new ridged helmets better than I can.
The Patriots' running game is fairly solid and I like the combo of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, but is it possible that this two-headed approach is actually causing Dillon to be less effective? Yes, he's getting older, but he's always been the type of back that gets better as the game wears on and he gets more carries. Under the current approach, he doesn't seem to get into a rhythm and actually takes himself out of the game after one or two plays at a time. What's your take?
Matt Stone, Wyoming, RI
A: I actually think the question was answered within the question. The fact Dillon takes himself out of the game after one or two plays tells me he's not in position to be better as the game wears on. Without sounding too harsh, you have to want to stay in the game -- or be healthy enough to stay in the game -- to get better as the game goes on.
What is the difference between encroachment, offsides, neutral zone infraction and unabated to the quarterback? Are these terms interchangable?
Chris Mangini, Woodstock, Vt.
A: Here is a link that explains most NFL penalties. For a quick summary, encroachment is when a player enters the neutral zone and makes contact with an opponent before the ball is snapped; offsides is when any part of a player's body is beyond his scrimmage or free kick line when the ball is snapped or kicked; a neutral zone infraction is when a defender enters the neutral zone before the snap and causes an offensive player to false start; unabated to the quarterback is simply when a player crosses the line and is approaching the quarterback before the ball is snapped.
How do some of the numbers match up this year from last year in the categories the Patriots seem to be struggling in this year, specifically with turnovers and penalties? And I saw in your notes that they are up from last year in takeaways. What other areas (if any) show noticeable improvement? I get the feeling that looking at the numbers the team is up from last year, but the energy and sloppiness we're seeing makes that impression different.
Chris Cenotti, Concord, Calif.
A: The Patriots currently have been called for 71 assessed penalties in 12 games, an average of 5.9 per game. The team had 83 assessed penalties in its first 12 games last year, an average of 6.9 per game. Here are some other comparisons:
This year - 24 (12 lost fumbles, 12 interceptions)
Last year - 19 (9 lost fumbles, 10 interceptions)
This year -- 27
Last year -- 11
This year -- 23.4 per game
Last year -- 21.5 per game
This year -- 13.75
Last year -- 23.5
This year -- 42.1 percent
Last year -- 38.9 percent
This year -- 37.5 percent opponents' conversion rate
Last year -- 42.2 percent opponents' conversion rate
This year -- 30 TDs in 47 trips (63.8 percent)
Last year -- 22 TDs in 39 trips (56.4 percent)
This year -- 9 TDs allowed in 25 trips (36 percent)
Last year -- 24 TDs allowed in 41 trips (58.5 percent)
I was just wondering what the Patriots will do when soccer season rolls around. It seems like it would be much easier to add/remove the lines for football and soccer on grass than it would be on the new FieldTurf. Will they just leave both sets of lines? Won't the field look terrible like that? There must be some way of changing the paint on the field, but I was curious if you knew the answer.
David White, Boston
A: The way it was explained to the media is that the lines are currently removable. There are apparently different types of FieldTurf surfaces -- some have permanent lines, others are removable. So if I heard correctly, the football lines will be removed and only the soccer lines will be visible once soccer season starts.