Crisis of confidence
Fans have plenty of questions after Miami disaster
FOXBOROUGH -- Sunday's 21-0 loss to the Dolphins stoked the passions of Patriots fans, as the mailbag was loaded with questions and comments this week.
Following the loss, some fans are questioning the team's coaching. Others feel it's a lack of talent, and are aiming their wrath at the front office. Those focusing on the product on the field wonder why the Patriots keep turning the ball over, and are also curious what happened to the offensive line.
Essentially, it comes down to this: the Patriots appear to be heading in the wrong direction and have three games to turn things around heading into the playoffs. They should make the playoffs, yet they don't want to enter the tournament playing like this.
Quarterback Tom Brady's resolve was as strong as ever on Monday, saying that the team was going to keep scrapping. The team's fans are scrappy as well, as evidenced by this week's sampling of questions and comments.
It is clear that injuries have made the secondary vulnerable and made the linebacking corps dangerously thin, but it now seems that the offensive line, a purported strength of the team, is also very suspect and porous, especially since all three division rivals defend the Patriots in the same way: with blitzes and a relentless attack. My question is, Mike, is the offensive line now a top priority, especially at left tackle where speed rushers seem to beat Matt Light with regularity? A burner at wide receiver may not matter if Brady has no time to throw, which is the case right now.
Jim Rhodes, North Haven, Conn.
A: Although none of them are on the injury report, the offensive line is a banged-up group right now. I think the coaching staff is concerned with how the line is holding up physically from the grind of the long season. I also think the players are talented enough to make this a solid line, but the production has been too inconsistent over the course of the season. I don't see adding a lineman becoming a top priority, because I believe, in the long-term, this line still has what it takes to get it done. The only way I would change my tune is if that rare opportunity presented itself to add a franchise type of left tackle, which I don't think will be an option anyway.
Our offensive line is nearly dysfunctional. The Pats have a talented quarterback and exceptional running backs. Deion Branch was hurt a lot and we still won. That's a poor excuse. The offensive line doesn't even touch some defenders. The talent should be there. Is it lack of coaching or is it lack of focus? Matt Light lacks talent, so why not have a running back help him before going out? They are disorganized.
Jeff Blanchard, Sarasota, Fla.
A: I'm not going to defend the performance of the offensive line on Sunday. That was not its best effort, there is no doubt about that. But I do think this is a bit extreme. Matt Light has played in the NFL for almost six seasons, and while he hasn't been dominant, you have to be a pretty good player to last that long at left tackle. He had a tough game on Sunday, as did the rest of the linemen. I also think it's important to note that part of the performance was tied into the inability of receivers to get open consistently.
Although the O-line didn't play well Sunday, and will get the majority of blame for the beat-down the Dolphins delivered, I think the problem runs a bit deeper. It seems the Patriots really struggle against defensive teams that display a great deal of speed. When you can't stretch the field because your best receivers from a year ago are elsewhere, it amplifies the problem against speedy defenses that can play the majority of snaps inside a 15-yard area. Chicago used speed to allow the back 7 to fly around the field and create turnovers, while Miami utilized their speed to pressure the QB from every angle. Denver also has a quick defense that has looked pedestrian the last few weeks, but gave the Patriots a lot of trouble earlier this season. The previously much maligned Cowboys O-line doesn't look as bad with a mobile QB like Tony Romo instead of Drew Bledsoe. Do you think our O-line would protect a little better against fast defenses if there was some speed on offense to stretch the field and take away some of the aggression of a quick defense.
Kevin Forbes, Natick
A: I agree with this, and I'd add that I don't think it's just speed and stretching the field. It's separation as well. When I think of speed and stretching the field, I think of someone like Bethel Johnson. I don't think he'd make that much of a difference right now. But I believe it's the separation aspect that is key, having a playmaking threat that defenses must respect in all areas of the field who can effectively create space between himself and the defender, giving quarterback Tom Brady a window in which to throw in a short amount of time. Of all the receivers on the roster, I think rookie Chad Jackson is the only player who could truly fit that bill, which is why his rookie season, derailed by injuries, has been a disappointment. It's also why, as the season has reached this point, I've found myself wondering if the Deion Branch situation was more crippling than I initially anticipated. I've been consistently saying that I think the Patriots can win with this group of receivers, and now I'm starting to question myself on that thought based on the body of work.
I guess you can blame some of the Pats' bad losses (Jets, Dolphins) on the players, but I think much of the blame has to be placed squarely on the front office and the coaching. The front office didn't do anything this offseason to add any big players and they let too many big ones go. Do we all think that the Pats best defensive back, Asante Samuel, is going to be with the team after this season? Puh-leeze. I guarantee he walks because of Kraft's cheap pockets. Just as Kraft resurrected the organization, he will bury it just as quick when his best players become free agents. Maybe Brady should ask to be traded just to send a message to him. Plus, I know this may sound insane, but I think Belichick and his play calling has been very off this year. And when it has worked, he rarely sticks to the plan (spread offense, sticking with the run). I'm worried that he can't win the big one without Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, similar to the way Bill Parcells has never won the big one without Belichick. I don't believe in McDaniels as an offensive coordinator ... yet. Do you believe in any of this and where do you think the future of this program is going? Do you see the Pats active in the upcoming offseason?
Doc, Phoenix, Ariz.
A: On the free agency front, I don't agree, because I'm not a big believer in paying big bucks on the open market. Look at Cleveland, which went on a huge shopping spree (center LeCharles Bentley, left tackle Kevin Shaffer), and how did that work out for them? Arizona, with Edgerrin James, is another example of how simply spending it isn't always a solution. I also don't know how someone could call Kraft cheap given the contracts recently paid out to Tom Brady and Richard Seymour. The Patriots were in the Top 10 of payroll two of the last three years. On the flip side, I am questioning my original thinking on the Deion Branch move because of two factors -- 1) No one on the receiving corps creates separation like Branch; 2) The market is going to continue to grow, so Branch's deal wouldn't have strapped the team on the cap and would still have represented value for a No. 1 receiver. And I also felt strongly from the start about the loss of kicker Adam Vinatieri, and still feel that way today. On the coaching front, I think it's fair to say some of the play-calling has been off this year. But I do believe this coaching staff is one of the best in the NFL, and feel strongly about that. As for the offseason, the Patriots have two first-round picks and will have cap space, so I would expect them to be active (not Browns-like, though), focusing on linebacker and defensive back.
We have all heard the debate of whether a loss could be good or not, so how about it? Was this a good loss in the sense that maybe it will wake up the Patriots organization? I remember this debate two years ago when Brady chucked up the game-losing interception at the end of the Dolphins game going into the playoffs. After that game, it was nothing but efficient play from our Pats that led to Super Bowl win number three.
Eric Payne, Seattle
A: I don't buy into it, Eric. Perhaps the Patriots will turn things around, and the game will be a wake-up call, but I don't see it as a good loss. It was a bad one on all fronts -- the execution was off, more turnovers, more penalties, and injuries to Benjamin Watson and Vince Wilfork. By this point of the season, I think teams start to show exactly what they are -- as Tom Brady recently pointed out -- and right now the Patriots are an inconsistent team. One of the wrinkles here is that there is still time to turn it around because they will likely be in the playoffs, and the optimistic fan will point out that running back Laurence Maroney and safety Rodney Harrison could return, which would help both sides of the ball. But based on the body of work at this point, I don't think too many people will be picking the Patriots to go far into the playoffs right now. Just too inconsistent at this point.
After Sunday's loss to Miami, it's obvious the Pats will be unable to finish as the second seed in the AFC. Is this team capable of winning three games against the best teams in the league to reach the Super Bowl? With the injuries, penalties, and turnovers is it possible? How bad are the injuries?
Jim Curley, Seminole Fla.
A: The injuries are a tough read, and I don't have any concrete info on that. My sense is that Wilfork's is more serious than Watson's. As for if this team is capable of winning three straight games, based on the body of work we've seen so far, I'd say the answer is no because I don't think the Patriots have put together three straight A-grade efforts. The team has to hope that its best football is ahead of it, and anything is possible in the playoffs, as the Steelers showed last year. But right now, even the most optimistic fan has to be a bit concerned.
In previous Super Bowl years, the coaching staff and game-planning received so much credit for the Pats' success. Many NFL types believed the 2001 Super Bowl game was the greatest coaching job ever. This year the coaching staff is not receiving enough criticisms. I understand the players have to execute, etc. However, there seems to be no effective half-time adjustments and the game-planning is nonsensical. I am tired of hearing that without Branch the team cannot stretch the field. Branch was not on the 2001 team; moreover, that 2001 team was not as talented offensively as this year's team. Time to face the music -- this has been one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of this regime.
Michael W. Phelan, Baltimore
A: I'm a believer that this coaching staff is one of the best in the NFL, and statistically, the defense and offense are better in more categories this year than they were last year. That being said, my criticism of the offensive coaching would be in the "feel" category, which I'd define as sticking with an aspect of the game that seems to be working that day. For example, in Sunday's game, I thought the running game was a pleasant surprise. When it was clear that it was going to be tough sledding throwing the ball, and it was going to be a major field position game, I would have committed more to the run and tried to win ugly. One example came on a second-quarter possession that had advanced from the New England 4 to the New England 30, with four runs a key factor in digging out of bad field position. Then, on first and 10, there was an incomplete pass to Troy Brown. On second and 10, Brady was sacked. I remember thinking at that time "why go away from the run?" While I'm sure the staff was managing the snaps taken by Corey Dillon -- who is no longer a 20-carry type of back -- I thought this was one area that the coaches could have altered their approach in the game.
Doesn't it now seem that the only catalyst for the Patriots on offense is Laurence Maroney and that turnovers will prevent any team from going beyond the first round of the playoffs?
Jordan, Rio de Janeiro
A: Maroney is the team's most dynamic offensive player and its top playmaker. Without him, and then without leading receiver Benjamin Watson for much of the second half, the Patriots were playing minus their top threats and it showed. I think Maroney has been the offensive MVP this year, and Sunday clinched that for me. As for turnovers, there is no question that the team isn't going anywhere if it keeps turning it over like it has. I do think that problem is correctable.
What's your understanding of Bill Belichick's contract status? Is this his last season under contract? And would there be any shred of truth to the rumors of Belichick going to the Houston Texans? Thanks for any light you can shed on this subject.
A: In January, the Boston Globe published a story with comments from owner Robert Kraft that somewhat touched on this subject. In the story, it was reported that Kraft said any representation that 2006 was the final year of Belichick's contract would be untrue. I don't think there's anything to the talk of the Texans. As for Belichick himself, my feeling is that he's in this with the long-term in mind. I don't think he's looking to get out.
I have two questions: First, isn't it a little strange that Junior Seau was put on injured reserve? Couldn't he have come back and perhaps played in a cast for the playoffs? Second, and this is more of a statement than a question but I am looking for a yea or nay from you on it -- don't you think with his versatility and sacrifice for the team, year in and year out, that Troy Brown deserves some kind of special recognition? I firmly believe that the year that Branch got Super Bowl MVP it really should have gone to Brown. Two-way players like him just don't exist in the NFL anymore. He really is something special.
Bikerdude, Raleigh, NC
A: Seau told the San Diego-Union Tribune last week that he had such a severe break that a plate needed to be inserted into his right arm. So I don't think he could have made a return. As for Troy Brown, owner Robert Kraft has essentially already given him special recognition, saying publicly that Brown has a job in the Patriots' organization for life -- should he decide he wants to work for the team -- once his playing days are over. I do agree that Brown's two-way play makes him a most unique breed in today's NFL, although I wouldn't go as far as to say he should have been the Super Bowl MVP over Branch in that Super Bowl win over the Eagles.
Personally, I think Ty Warren has had the best year for the Patriots on the defensive side of the ball (it can be argued Samuel as well). He seems to make significant contribution game after game. I am guessing Seymour's reputation and the fact that two guys from the same defensive front are unlikely to be selected will hurt his chances but that being said, any chance he gets Pro Bowl consideration?
Brian, Charlotte, NC
A: Warren doesn't have the name recognition as Seymour, and I think it's also unlikely that fans/coaches/players will check off two players from the same team at the same position. That being said, I do think Warren deserves strong Pro Bowl consideration, even though he's essentially a two-down lineman, coming off the field in most games on third down. Sometimes, the way these things work, it takes one year to get the name out there before you break through. Because a lot of the vote is based on reputation, I think Warren is unlikely to get the nod.
You may have answered this already, but I would like to know why we don't hear more from Corey Dillon? Does he not trust the sports press or not like them? I have a lot of respect for what he has done here, but he seems like he is cranky a lot of the time. How is he dealing with the mental challenges of the last few years of his career where one's body is often not as agile as ones mind?
A: Dillon does seem to have a contentious relationship with the press, which probably traces back to his days with the Bengals. The next time he speaks at length, perhaps he'll shed some light on that. Dillon did one recent interview with the Providence Journal, so he hasn't been on complete shutdown, and he seems to be more approachable in recent weeks. Hopefully, we can deliver more on this subject in the future.
What do you think about the possibility of the Pats going after LB Adalius Thomas in the offseason? He's been very productive for the Ravens the last few years and has tremendous position flexibility, something Belichick and Pioli covet. I know the Pats aren't traditionally big free-agent spenders, but Thomas seems like a guy the team would make a hard run at.
Will Van Dorn, Washington, D.C.
A: I would certainly put Thomas, a seven-year veteran, on the radar should he hit free agency. I would think the Ravens will exhaust all efforts to re-sign him, though, so I wouldn't project him to be on the market. I do expect the Patriots to make linebacker a top priority in the draft and free agency, and Thomas would be on the list should he be an option.
How much under the cap will the Pats be next season. Who are going to be unrestricted free agents?
Chris A., Martinez, Ga.
A: The cap is projected at $109 million. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently published a list of teams and their projected cap space, and the Patriots had the ninth-most space, at $30.4 million. As for who will be unrestricted free agents, the crop is expected to be thin because teams will have so much cap space to extend players whose contracts expire before they hit the market.