Despite win, some fans still on the fence about Pats
FOXBOROUGH -- There are a few balls in the air for the Patriots as they enter the final two weeks of the regular season.
The wheels continue to turn on the personnel side, where the team is managing a banged-up roster. We're also keeping an eye on any contract talks, as the deadline to use this year's cap space is approaching at the end of the calendar year. And, of course, there is still a division race to follow, as the Patriots look to hold off the Jets.
The Patriots clinch the division with a win in either of their remaining two contests (at Jacksonville, at Tennessee), or one Jets loss (at Miami, vs. Oakland).
There were considerably fewer e-mails to the mailbag this week, which I've noticed to be a trend over the course of the season. When the team loses, the mailbag fills up quickly. Wins usually result in fewer e-mails.
Yet that doesn't mean fans are sold that Sunday's 40-7 win over the Texans has solved all the team's problems. On to the questions ...
Fortunately, most people are taking this win with some perspective. This was the Texans and our offense was still awful. Yes, Corey Dillon played OK and so did Kevin Faulk, but we still don't have a legitimate passing game and we are not dominating enough or frankly, committed enough to the run to be able to get away with our terrible passing game even in the next couple of games, let alone in the playoffs. I haven't seen this many dropped passes in five years. The organization should be ashamed of the group surrounding Tom Brady right now and the "we'll-do-it-with-tight-ends" offense has been a joke. The team had 2 of 6 red zone efficiency. Also, 2.8 yards per rush. And they were 7 of 17 third downs. Against the Texans? I'd call it a wake-up call on offense. Play like that against the Jags and it'll be a long day. This was nothing but a scrimmage and Jacksonville is a tough, physical team that will not lay down. The Jets are still breathing down our necks and you still don't know what you're going to get from this team against a playoff team. Do you think I'm too pessimistic?
A: Seems a little bit pessimistic to me, Mardak. While one big win over the Texans doesn't rectify what has ailed this team, I do think it's a step in the right direction. As for the offense, I thought the receivers generally struggled, with Jabar Gaffney, Troy Brown, and Kelvin Kight all dropping what I felt were catchable balls. I felt Reche Caldwell, on the other hand, was a bright spot as four of his six catches moved the chains on third down or fourth down, and he also drew an important pass interference penalty. As for the red-zone offense, that has been excellent over the course of the year, so Sunday was the exception in my book. The rushing offense was inconsistent, as I feel it's been for much of the year. And 7 of 17 on third down actually isn't too bad. A lot of teams would take 41 percent in that stat.
Is there enough time for Vince Wilfork, Rodney Harrison, Ben Watson, and Laurence Maroney to be ready for our wild-card playoff game? Do you think this team has enough durability to play three games in the playoffs?
Danny Ferraro, Gloucester
A: Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But that's assuming there is a wild-card playoff game. Nothing is clinched yet. If those players didn't have a chance to play in a potential playoff game, I think they would be on injured reserve right now.
This Pats win has much less to do with the inability of the Houston Texans to compete and far more about the Pats' inability to play consistent football. Offensively, this team does not show up to play to the best of their ability on a consistent basis.
Scott, Mont Vernon, NH
A: I thought the offense was just OK on Sunday. Part of that might be a result of being without their top playmaker, Laurence Maroney, and one of their top pass-catchers, tight end Benjamin Watson. Another part is that the receivers haven't been particularly productive. That's why I think we'll continue to see the integration of rookie Chad Jackson, because I think he can really help this team once he gets some more confidence/chances on the field.
I don't get why our offense gets so much gruff from the fans. Everyone wants us to go back to the Charlie Weis offense, but if you look back at some of the Weis offenses they aren't any better than this one. If you look at the 2003 offense and we currently score more points per game, get more yards per game. The only area we are really struggling, and I know this is a huge area, is our turnovers on offense. Yet, everyone wants us to fire Josh McDaniels. The fact of the matter is that this Patriots defense is giving up the fewest points per game in Patriots' history. If we can stop the turnovers, why can't this offense be as effective as either the 2003 or 2001 offense? Yeah, we don't have the receivers, but we have a lot of non-WR weapons and our running game is clearly better than it was in 2003, even without Maroney playing the last few weeks. Thoughts?
Rob Quint, Quincy
A: Here are some comparisons: In 2003, the Patriots averaged 21.75 points per game. The team currently averages 22.9 points per game. In 2003, the Patriots averaged 314.9 yards per game. The team currently averages 328.3 yards per game. In 2003, the Patriots finished the year with 23 turnovers. The team currently has 27 with two games to play. I think the numbers back your point, and it's a valid point that I happen to agree with. As I said before, my top criticism of the offensive play-calling has been sticking with an area that works during a game, such as the running game. It's sort of a feel thing that numbers can't always illustrate. I thought the Patriots did that well on Sunday against the Texans. And I also think Josh McDaniels is an excellent coach.
Of all the injuries the Patriots have sustained this far, I think the loss of Vince Wilfork is the most detrimental to the team's chances going forward. I've noticed that, without Wilfork, opposing offenses have had a lot more success running up the middle. While the Pats were keying on the pass once they got up big on the Texans, they still let Ron Dayne run for almost 100 yards on 5+ yards per carry. I'm worried that Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, a far superior back, will completely shred us next week. Are you as worried about the Pats run defense as I am? Any idea when Wilfork might be back?
Jason Payne, Brooklyn, NY
A: I agree that the Texans had some success running up the middle, and the loss of Vince Wilfork contributed to that. As for Wilfork's timetable for a return, I don't have any concrete information on that. My initial sense is that he's still at least one week away from returning. I also wouldn't be surprised to see the Patriots turn to a 4-3 defense Sunday in Jacksonville, to meet force with force against the physical Jaguars. The health of the team's personnel at linebacker would also factor into that decision.
How do you see the Patriots secondary matching up against the Jaguars' tall receivers? With the Jaguars' running backs both being injured in Sunday's loss to the Titans, do you think the Jaguars will look to exploit the size difference even more?
Glenn Williams, Brighton
A: I'd look for this to be something Jacksonville targets in the red zone, as they did against the Titans when Matt Jones caught a jump ball for a score. And the Jaguars do throw the ball up there and let their receivers go up and get the ball. But all in all, there is more to the game than simply being big or tall. Technique and leverage is a part of it as well. So while the Patriots' corners might give up some height to the Jaguars' receivers, I don't see this as the significant mismatch that the tale of the tape might indicate.
It's always good to not hear about the kicker (it means he's not making mistakes). I noticed that early in the year a large percentage of Gostkowski's kickoffs were going in the end zone. Also his field goal kicks were pretty low. It has been a lot better recently, but his kickoffs don't go in the end zone as frequently. Have they been working on his height more, thereby reducing some of his distance? This Sunday he seemed to have some of that distance back.
A: Conditions are probably the greatest factor in Gostkowski's kickoffs. As it gets colder, it's harder to nail that ball into the end zone, but Sunday was a "balmy" 52 degrees, which was unexpected for Dec. 17 in New England. As for Gostkowski's stats, he now has 11 touchbacks on the season. Also, his strong leg has helped the Patriots to a No. 5 ranking in opponents' average drive start, which is the 25.3 yard line. He is 17 of 21 on the year in field goal attempts, and certainly looks more comfortable now than he did at the start of the season.
Please cut through all the noise. Why was Doug Gabriel released? He was not the only one fumbling (Watson, Dillon, etc.). He also seemed to be picking up the offense and Brady was finding him. My sense is something happened not related to football and Belichick let him go. He doesn't just give a fifth-round draft choice away.
A: From what I understand, Gabriel wasn't putting the team goals before his personal goals, and thus was let go. He just wasn't fitting into the Patriots' way of doing things. I don't believe the fumble alone wasn't the only reason Gabriel let go, it was probably just as much about how he responded after that.
If the worst thing happens and the Pats end up in a tie with the Jets, who wins the division? I believe the first rule is a wash as we spilt the series against them, what's the second rule?
Cynthia Pleach, Canton
A: If the Patriots lose their remaining two games (at Jacksonville; at Tennessee), and the Jets win their remaining two games (at Miami; vs. Oakland), the division title would go to the Jets based on their superior conference record.
Ken Walter's resurgence is remarkable. He must be an excellent holder, as Gostkowski has been perfect since his return. And his punting is credible, if not great, as well. Here I thought that former No. 13 (now No. 15) had been run out of town for good. What's behind his dramatic return to form?
Pete Clark, England
A: Walter had a pretty good game Sunday. He had shoulder surgery in October of 2005 and he felt that helped him on his drop, which is a key technique in punting. He previously said he's driving the ball as well as he has in the past.
I'm an "original" Pats fan and had 50-yard-line seasons tickets from 1960 until we moved South in 1973. I keep hearing that the Pats were something like $30 million under the salary cap. Is that even close to being true? And if so, why didn't they use some of that spare cash in picking up some good free agents in positions they knew would be a problems, such as wide receiver, linebacker, etc?
Ron Lane, St. Augustine, Fla.
A: The Patriots are approximately less than $6 million under the salary cap, which is around the league average. Team president Jonathan Kraft previously explained that some of the space would have gone to receiver Deion Branch, and was also there for the possibility of signing Ty Law. Neither situation worked out, so the team was left with some space. I've said all year that I thought the space would be used by the end of the year, most likely going to a contract extension for a player the Patriots hope to retain. There are only a few weeks left to see if my prediction is accurate.
Is there a chance the Pats will sign Sam Cowart? Can he still play? If so, would they play him inside so Mike Vrabel can go back outside where he can be even more effective? Also, how much longer do the Pats have to spend the $6 million left on this year's cap money? It would be helpful to try to wrap up someone (Asante Samuel, Daniel Graham, or Tully Banta-Cain) before next year when they will have more cap room but must address many positions including linebackers, defensive backs, and certainly wide receivers. They can't go into next year without fixing the receiver position.
Jim Curley, Seminole, Fla.
A: The Patriots had Cowart in for a workout at Gillette Stadium this past Friday, so I'd say there is a possibility they could sign him. But even if they did, I would imagine it would solely be for depth/emergency purposes, not as a starter. It would be hard to rely on a player who hasn't suited up for a game this year or been on a practice squad for much more than spot duty. As for how much longer teams have to use this year's salary cap space, the date is either Dec. 29 or Dec. 30. Time is running out.
Where do the Pats rank in the NFL this year with regard to total payroll?
James Keddy, Kennebunk, Maine
A: I don't have the up-to-date numbers, but as recently as a few months ago, the team was in the lower end of the league, in the mid-$75 million range.
More of a comment here, Mike. In Bill Belichick's six years here, the team has finished exactly 17th in the NFL in points allowed three times. In those years, they missed the playoffs twice and were 1-1 the 2005 playoffs. Contrast that with Belichick's other three years, when the defense finished sixth, first, and second in points allowed. After each of those seasons, the Patriots were Super Bowl champions. The lesson here: offense sells tickets and keeps fans happy; but Belichick with a great defense is a dangerous man. And it might be a bit early to write off the Patriots' Super Bowl ambitions (as some media and fans have done). As of today, the Pats stand second in the NFL in points allowed.
Scott O'Neil, Chelmsford
A: If the Patriots are to make a run to the Super Bowl, I think the defense will be the key. The return to health of nose tackle Vince Wilfork is also going to be crucial, as is avoiding any other injuries. The team's depth is thin.
I didn't see Vrabel anywhere on the field, yet no one has said anything. Do you know his status?
JB, Brookfield, Ill.
A: Vrabel played into the third quarter of Sunday's game and appeared to be OK during the action. After the game, he was seen limping in the locker room, but it's difficult to tell if it was a long-term type of situation.
Every week I look for Deion Branch to accomplish something with the Seahawks, and I think he has in two weeks so far this year. Otherwise, I feel that at $39 million over six years, he is little more than a salary cap problem. Agree/disagree?
Walter Waitt, Chicago
A: I haven't seen much of Branch this year to give an informed answer on this, but I'm told the Seahawks feel he's been worth the investment. Branch has 45 catches for 626 yards and four touchdowns on the season, but I don't think you can accurately reflect a receiver's value solely on those stats. I'd cite the Patriots-Lions game as one example, as the Patriots double-teamed Roy Williams and held him to three catches, but that opened up opportunities for Mike Furrey (nine catches that day). So it's hard for me to say what Branch's overall impact has been in Seattle. I hear he's become one of the Seahawks' top five popular players, and has been extremely well received among teammates.
Why don't the Pats go to the no huddle offense more often? Brady looks very comfortable and in control when he can spread out the field and get into a rhythm.
A: I look at the no-huddle offense as a change-of-pace option that is good in doses, but not regularly. The Patriots like to manage the game -- focusing on complementary play between the offense, defense and special teams -- and the no-huddle offense can put a lot of pressure on the team's own defense because drives can end so quickly. I think the no-huddle offense is like a changeup pitch in baseball -- you keep it in the arsenal to keep batters off balance, but if you throw it too much, opponents are going to catch on to you sooner or later.
Although the Pats' on-field and coaching performance this season has been lackluster, including uncharacteristic fumbles, penalties, poor play calling and so on, I really feel the fault lies with the strategic managing of personnel. As a fan, I marveled and then reveled in the idea, so often praised by football pundits, that the Pats "have a winning system that players can be fluidly plugged in and out of regardless of talent", but I think that well is dry now. I don't expect us, or even want us, to be the Yankees and buy every talented player on the market, but when you let players like Branch and even David Givens go in the prime of their careers, what exactly is your plan? Draft more talented but bottom of round 1 or 2 college players, teach them the system while allowing their mistakes and eventual growth, and once they excel let them go and start all over again? I don't get the point, especially considering the Pats are $10 million under the cap. Sadly, I thought after last season's painful loss to Denver, we were still ascending. I don't know any more. We suddenly seem like the late 1980s/early 1990s Celtics.
Fielding Melish, New York
A: The Patriots are 10-4, marking the fourth straight year they've posted 10 or more wins. Based on the difficulty of sustaining success in the NFL, that's a remarkable achievement in my opinion. I think the team made a few big-ticket mistakes on the personnel side -- Adam Vinatieri and Deion Branch come to mind -- but every team has made similar mistakes. As for the Patriots' long-term plan, it is to consistently compete for championships on a yearly basis, with no limited "windows of opportunity." I haven't seen too many teams do that better than the Patriots since 2001.
My question is about the new turf. After several weeks, how are the players feeling about it? And even more stupidly specific: When anyone goes down hard, it looks like gray dirt is kicked up. What is that?
Brian Snedeker, Glendale, Calif.
A: Every player that I've spoken with about the turf feels it has been an upgrade over the old grass. As for what is getting kicked up, I believe what you are seeing are small rubber granules, which is a part of the FieldTurf technology.
Any idea why Sunday's game wasn't in HD? I called right after kickoff and almost immediately got a recorded message saying "If you are calling about the Patriots game please be advised that the network isn't broadcasting in HD". Guess they got a few calls on that. Thanks.
Mike Tavis, Stow
A: I'm told that the top three CBS broadcasting crews have their games broadcast in HD. The broadcasting crew at the Patriots' game wasn't a top-three crew.
No questions, Mike, just a note to say I appreciate the posting of player quotes on Boston.com following Sunday's game. Thanks.
John Gray, North Conway, NH
A: The Patriots' media relations staff, which is headed by Stacey James, makes it easy to post those quotes. They transcribe all those comments then e-mail them out to media outlets. That makes it easier for us to deliver the information to you.