FOXBOROUGH -- Are the Patriots built to win in cold, nasty weather?
Following the Patriots' 20-10 victory over the Jets, it was the most prevalent question in this week's mailbag. E-mailers saw chinks in the team's potent passing attack and are wondering whether that means there's trouble ahead.
Otherwise, it's a mixed 'bag this week. Some fans noticed that Tom Brady seemed to be forcing passes in the direction of receiver Randy Moss, while others see poor tackling as an ongoing concern. Individual performances of players like Kelley Washington and Adalius Thomas were noted, while some are looking ahead to the draft.
On to the questions
It's great that we won the Jets game, but it sure looks like winter weather will not be an advantage to this version of the Patriots' offense or special teams. What will Indy do to the Pats at Gillette if they meet in the playoffs? Do you think that this group of receivers knows how to get open in bad weather? Is it time to insert Mr. Troy Brown?
Myron Wolfe, Toronto
A: I would not disagree that the weather played a part in some of the Patriots' struggles, but I think it's a cop-out to blame the struggles of the passing game solely on the conditions. Some credit needs to go to the Jets, their plan, and their execution. Tom Brady's interception, for example, had nothing to do with weather. He was pressured on a corner blitz, rushed his throw, and made a bad decision. So all in all, I'd say the passing offense had an off day, which happens in the NFL. I don't think the one game overrides 13 other pretty good ones. I've seen the Indianapolis offense struggle at times too. I do think this group of receivers knows how to get open. As for Troy Brown, I expect to see him on the field Sunday.
This game demonstrated that being high on pass offense does not help in snow and rainy weather. It was a very close game. More than many of us expected it to be. What adjustments have to be made on offense to make the pass offense work? Do you see this team going 19-0?
Rajesh Sharma, India
A: I wouldn't view the pass offense through this one game, but instead through the entire 14-game stretch. And the pass offense is arguably the best in the history of the NFL. So I wouldn't adjust a thing. As for the 19-0 prediction, I would lean in that direction. I wouldn't bet against the Patriots at this point, although I think the playoffs are going to be tougher than some might anticipate.
How much of a factor was the weather vs. Brady playing for stats? I know it is very bad Patriots Nation etiquette to question the play of Tom Brady, but it appeared to us that he was trying to force the ball to Moss rather than throw to the open man. We saw him throw the ball in Moss's direction numerous times when he had other receivers uncovered. Your thoughts?
A: I went through Brady's 28 pass attempts and 13 of them went in Moss's direction. With just five catches by Moss, the completion percentage was far from ideal. I thought there were a few plays that went in Moss's direction that should have gone elsewhere. I think this is a fair critique of Brady's play against the Jets. While the weather hurt the passing game at times, I didn't feel as though it was the overriding factor for what I felt was Brady's worst performance of the season.
The tackling of the special teams and defensive backs is starting to worry me a lot. Particularly the DBs -- since they can't really cover anyone, they are forced into open field tackling situations frequently and rarely get a guy down without help. This often results in 2-3 yard gains turning into 7-8 yard gains, making it hard for the defense to get off the field. Why could the Jets pass at will, but the Pats couldn't? -- same weather, so don't cite that as the reason. The reason is that the Jets' DBs were more physical and ours are soft and give so much cushion that pretty much every QB we play against looks great -- Feeley, Boller, and even Pennington! We need better DBs!
Eric DeJong, Pittsboro, N.C.
A: I don't think the DBs need to change, but their focus and discipline do. This is a talented group of DBs that can tackle better. That being said, while I think the weather is a cop-out for explaining the struggles of the team's offense, I do think it was a factor for some of the tackling struggles.
Call me old-fashioned, but do you think that tackling is a lost skill in the NFL? These days DL seem to take on the ball carrier way too high around the shoulders and get run over. DBs try to cut the legs out from under the runner and are not always that effective. Way back when, players were taught to "wrap up" the ball carrier by tackling the runner's legs or by planting one's face mask in between the numbers and then "wrapping up." Are these techniques even taught anymore?
Steve Warner, Lander, Wyo.
A: Coaches talk about how tackling can erode because it's hard to practice once the season begins, as practices most often aren't held in pads. You don't want to bang too much during the year. So those skills are harped upon in training camp -- but as the season progresses, it's more challenging to make it a focus.
With all the additions through free agency and trades this past year, the one deal that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle was Kelley Washington. His special teams play has been becoming more noticeable with each week. Is this the role that he was signed to play or was it a matter of trying to carve out a spot because of WR depth?
Scott Cooley, Centerport, N.Y.
A: The Patriots always planned on Washington playing a prominent role on special teams, which made him the ideal fit as the fifth or sixth receiver on the roster. I seem to remember Washington being a hot topic back in training camp when it looked like he was struggling at receiver, so I wouldn't say he's been lost in the shuffle, but I think he's more noticeable now after his blocked punt against the Jets. That was a real nice play, beating a one-on-one block and timing his block perfectly.
Adalius Thomas had a huge game. Was it the weakness of the Jets' line or is he just coming into his own as a Patriot in Week 15?
Wayne Catalano, Carmel Valley, Calif.
A: If forced to choose one, I'd pick the latter. There was nothing in the weakness of the offensive line that contributed to Thomas stripping tight end Chris Baker and forcing a big third-quarter fumble. Thomas was extremely active in finishing with nine tackles, 1.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. It was probably his best game as a Patriot.
With Donte Stallworth sliding down the depth chart, why doesn't he get any reps in the return game? You'd think with his ability to break tackles and run in the open field he'd be successful while also spelling Hobbs, Welker, and Faulk for their more prominent roles.
A: One thought is that there is more to returning than breaking tackles and running in the open field. First, there is catching the ball. Then there is vision to see the openings. Stallworth hasn't had much experience in this regard -- he has 8 career kickoff returns and 18 career punt returns -- and I think it's a little late to experiment with it at this point.
Dear Mike, I would like to know if you think some people, fans and media alike, are going overboard in accentuating the negative aspects of the recent Patriots victories. Each week that they don't blow out the opposition, the entire team is dissected. Personally, at this stage I'm a lot more encouraged by the positives that I see: for example, the performances of Richard Seymour and Adalius Thomas this week. Maybe I'm just too optimistic, but I have no worries about this offense firing on all cylinders when they need to down the road. Your thoughts?
A: I generally don't focus on this aspect, but one thing that surprises me is when the comments regarding the Patriots aren't placed in context with the rest of the NFL. Every team struggles (e.g. Dallas loses to Philadelphia this weekend) or doesn't always operate at peak efficiency in wins (e.g. Indianapolis at Oakland this weekend). It's part of the NFL; it's almost impossible to have your A-plus performance every week. In that respect, I think the Patriots' accomplishments to this point seem to be underappreciated by many.
I know as fans we often think ahead to playoff matchups. Are you as concerned as I am about how the Pats match up with the Colts in a possible AFC Championship game? Granted the Colts would have to play in Foxborough, but this seems to be a tougher version of the Colts than in past years, one based on balanced offense, a good running game, and a solid defense.
Jim Gilhooly, Nashua, N.H.
A: I wouldn't characterize my feelings as "concerned," but I would agree that the Colts are the biggest threat to the Patriots. I said late last week that I think that game is a pick 'em and I still feel that way, mainly because I think the Colts' offense can give the Patriots a lot of problems. And I agree, I think the Colts' defense has played the Patriots as tough as anyone has over the last year.
Other than losing Brady to injury, losing Kevin Faulk would be most costly to this team. I think he is generally appreciated by Pats fans, but I think his true value gets overlooked. I strongly believe that the Patriots would have won the Colts playoff game last year if Faulk was able to play the second half. What are your thoughts?
James Genovese, Howell, N.J.
A: I agree that Faulk is valuable, although I wouldn't put him second on the list behind Brady. I'd reserve that spot for the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Mike Vrabel. The reason I'd pick Moss and Welker over Faulk is based on playing time. Faulk has played in 42 percent of the team's offensive snaps, while Moss (87) and Welker (69) lead all skill-position players except for quarterback Tom Brady.
How do you think Meriweather has played this year and do you think it was a mistake not taking LB David Harris with that first-round pick, as he is playing well for the Jets.
A: Meriweather has been just OK, but I think it's too early to say it was a mistake to select him over Harris or Jon Beason, another linebacker I thought would be a great fit in New England. I envision Meriweather challenging for a starting job next year. Overall, I believe more time is needed to accurately assess the draft.
Mike, I can only come up with 20 players who have scored a TD this season. Those players are Tom Brady, Maroney, Evans, Eckel, Morris, Faulk, Moss, Stallworth, Welker, Gaffney, Kyle Brady, Watson, Vrabel, Wilson, Andrews, Hobbs, Colvin, Samuel, Thomas and Cassel. Do you know who the 21st player is?
A: The player who is missing is cornerback Randall Gay. He had a 15-yard fumble return for a score against the Browns on Oct. 7.
Stephen Gostkowski broke the NFL single season record for PATs made in a season. How come it is not getting any press? It was not on the list of records that the Patriots could set this year. He has made 67 PATs without any misses.
Matt Corbin, Albany, N.Y.
A: So many records to keep track of, Matt -- this one must have slipped under the radar. It might be because the PAT is sort of an afterthought unless it is missed.
In your Monday chat, the question was brought up about the possibility of Jason Taylor being a Patriot next year. Just to follow up on that, do you think this is probable? What are the ways the Pats can pursue him? Perhaps giving up a couple draft picks (like we did for Welker)? Also, do you think it'd be worth it? Taylor is a terrific player in my mind and though he's a bit old he still has a lot to offer. What do you think?
Dennis Ramdass, Boston
A: There is no doubt in my mind Taylor is still an excellent player in this league and can help any defense. That being said, I don't see the Dolphins cutting him and I definitely don't see them making any trade with the Patriots. So all in all, I'd say it's unlikely.
Now that San Francisco won a fourth game, the pick we have from them has dropped a couple places. We are now more likely to have a pick between 4 and 9 in the first round. Dallas won't trade for that pick as Jerry Jones has said he would want to draft Darren McFadden and he'll go in the top two. No one will want to trade for a top ten pick if it isn't in the top two. Do you agree that the Patriots' only options are to draft Lauranitis if available and Malcolm Jenkins if he isn't?
Russ Kupperstein, Olympia, Wash.
A: No, I wouldn't go that far at this point, Russ. So much can change from now until the draft -- there is still the combine process and interview process -- that it's way too early to lock in on one or two players.
The Pats linebackers are an experienced group and appear to be favorites of Belichick's, but they are remarkably slow and getting older. Any plans to add some youth and speed to that group?
A: I do think there are plans, and this highlights one area of player evaluation that I hope to explore in the future. My question is why college linebackers aren't more making the cut in the Patriots' talent evaluation. It comes to mind because the Patriots had their choice of top-rated linebackers after Patrick Willis in the most recent draft and passed in the first round. It seems to be a position in which Belichick has often preferred experience, and if he's been willing to go with youth -- such as with players like Jonathan Vilma and Ernie Sims -- those players have been off the board before the team picked.
I'm wondering who gets chosen to do the postgame press conferences? Obviously the QB will probably answer some questions, but a first-year guy like Moss? Do some of the more "established" Pats, a la Vrabel, Bruschi, not want to do them? Is there a financial incentive?
Alex Lanstein, Cupertino, Calif.
A: A lot of it is based on demand. Another factor is the comfort level of the player. All decisions are made by the team's media relations department, with no real criteria other than Tom Brady always holding a press conference. Moss, for example, prefers being at the podium if he's going to do anything at all. And as more media members cover the Patriots, I think you'll start to see more press conferences because it's more accommodating to the overflowing press corps.
Wow, a 1 p.m. game. How unusual! Seems like the team had very few 1 o'clock games (5 by my quick count) this season. What effect does not playing at 1 have on the team? Seems like they were very tired after 3 prime-time games and a late 4 o'clock game. Do you agree? Also, does it mess with your schedule?
A: I thought Tom Brady was candid with his remarks on this after the team's three prime-time games: "It's a long season and I think there's moments when you feel a little drained and moments when you feel really reinvigorated. When you give everything you've got and it's Monday, Tuesday morning at 4 in the morning you are drained. " So yes, I thought the Patriots were tired after the three prime-time games. As for us writers, we generally prefer the 1 p.m. games because there is less deadline pressure.
Will the Pats be wearing their throwback jerseys this season? I see many other teams have already done so.
James Genovese, Howell, N.J.
A: Not this year. The Patriots are scheduled to wear the throwbacks in 2009, as part of the 50-year anniversary of the franchise.
Please settle an argument. Who were the starting cornerbacks for the Patriots in the Super Bowl against the Eagles? When Samuel's contract comes up the Patriots, can we say we won a Super Bowl with the likes of Randall Gay, Hank Poteat, and a very young Asante Samuel. I think we started Gay and Poteat. My friend says Gay and Samuel. He is usually right.
A: Your friend is right again, it was Gay and Samuel.
What is the meaning of the 91 in a circle on their helmets?
A: The 91 is in memory of late teammate Marquise Hill, who died in a Jet Ski accident this offseason.