Cold exit leads to some hot topics
The Patriots season is over, but the mailbag is full
It's the end of the road for the Patriots' 2008 season, but there should be plenty to keep the mailbag filled over the coming months.
The initial frenzy that comes with each offseason has begun, and here are a few of the hot topics this week.
- Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli is in demand as a top candidate to run a football operation, and the Cleveland Browns are aggressively pursuing him. Why would Pioli leave New England?
- What is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying about the current playoff format?
- Quarterback Matt Cassel and his future.
- Is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels going to interview for head coaching jobs?
- How can the Patriots be drafting behind teams that made the playoffs?
These topics and more led to an overflowing mailbag this week, as it was equally as challenging to sift through the hundreds of e-mails as it was answering the questions.
The plan is for the mailbag to continue being published for most Tuesdays throughout the offseason.
On to the questions.
I'm confused. Scott Pioli is being discussed again for a number of general manager openings. The reports make it sound like a GM spot is a step up for Pioli. He is currently the VP of player personnel for the Patriots. How does his current position compare to a general manager spot? I thought it was comparable, especially since Pioli gets a lot of the credit alongside Belichick for the Patriots' success. Is it the challenge of a rebuilding project for him, or simply more money? If it's just the money, is there consideration on the Patriots' part to giving him a raise/changing his official position to keep him? Would he be a big loss to the organization if he moved on?
A: I can understand the confusion, Chris, and I don't think Pioli is looking to simply be a general manager. He's probably thinking along the lines of a Bill Parcells-like position. A team like the Browns might offer Pioli the chance to write his own ticket and serve in that type of executive role, and that is a step up from his present situation in New England. So from Pioli's perspective, the chance to build something in that type of position must be enticing. I don't think it's about money with Pioli. If it were, he could have left New England a few years ago. I think the Patriots would consider upping his salary to keep him, but it's similar to Matt Cassel's situation in some ways. Cassel presumably wants a starting job (there are only 32 of them), and that is something that the Patriots, assuming Tom Brady is healthy, can't offer him. So, to me, it comes down to how much Pioli wants to take on a Parcells-like position. I think he would be a big loss to the Patriots, and I wouldn't diminish his value to the organization. At the same time, I believe the Patriots have a solid overall program that will continue to be successful.
Several people have mentioned that Scott Pioli would like to have greater control over an organization and that may be part of the reason for him leaving. I understand Coach Belichick has his hands in several aspects of the organization, but how much authority does Pioli have in regards to player personnel and other hiring decisions? I imagine a new job would allow him to hire and fire coaching staff members (which admittedly he probably wouldn't have here), but if he and Bill truly believe in what they say that player personnel and coaching staff members should operate cohesively and as one unit and not separate entities, this would still be the best situation to work in. Having total control over all decisions would run counter to what they have both said as the most optimal working conditions. If he left for the challenge of building another new franchise from the ground up, or simply for more money, that would make more sense, but few people are using that as the reason he may leave.
A: All good points, Kevin, and this sort of plays off the previous question. If I had to sum it up, I'd use the Miami Dolphins' situation as an example of what I think could entice Pioli to leave the Patriots. That job that Bill Parcells has -- executive vice president of football operations -- is a gem. You get paid big money, you hire a general manager and head coach under you, and you are more of an overseer, paid for your expertise in what it takes to build a football team. You put the structure in place, you're not on the road that much scouting, and you're kind of a consultant type. So you take all those considerations into play -- and finances are obviously a big part of it -- and I understand why Pioli would consider something like that. It's not just about total control, but about the whole job package. I think Pioli is in a no-lose situation here. He has a great job in New England, but if the Browns offer him a Parcells-type role with a high salary, it would be tough to turn down.
If Pioli was to leave, and if he takes any coaches from the team with him, who would we have to replace him? And who would we get to replace any coaches?
Darryl, St. Petersburg, Fla.
A: Darryl, I think the top in-house candidate would be director of player personnel Nick Caserio, who was moved from the coaching staff to the personnel side this past season. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the move was made with this possibility in mind. As for coaches, Romeo Crennel's name has been mentioned in past mailbags as a possibility to return. I'm not as certain when it comes to coaching options on offense.
Mike, I read your options about what to do with Cassel, and I agree that the most likely option is to franchise him. However, am I missing something, or are you? Isn't another option to keep Cassel and trade (perish the thought) Brady? Cassel is younger, and far more mobile than Brady, and if Brady could hook up with a West Coast team he could be closer to his family, his girlfriend/fiancee and his son. Am I nuts or just a heretic?
Ed S., Delray Beach, Fla.
A: Ed, I did not include that option in our slideshow on Boston.com, but if I did, I would have put it at zero percent. I don't see the Patriots trading Brady, and don't believe it's a consideration among the team's management team. I don't want to take anything away from Cassel because I thought he had a magnificent season, and I understand the uncertainty surrounding Brady's recovery, but I just don't see it as a legitimate option.
Hey Mike, given the fact that the Patriots will obviously make some off-season moves, especially with Matt Cassel, can you give us an idea of how long the team has before they have to decide if Brady can go in '09 or if they have to go with Cassel?
Tim J., Bangor, Maine
A: Tim, the key date is Feb. 27, which is when free agency begins. By that point, we'll know if the Patriots have placed the franchise tag on Cassel, or if Cassel is an unrestricted free agent. Things can obviously happen after Feb. 27, but that is the first key date in the process because that's when we'll have a clearer picture as to who controls Cassel's rights -- the Patriots or Cassel himself.
I looked at your survey about Matt Cassel's options next year. The single determining factor in my eyes is the health of Tom Brady's knee. He was a low mobility guy to begin with; after a protective brace is added to his gear, he'll probably become even slower and less limber. Despite his lack of mobility, he's won three Super Bowls. 1) Will he be ready? 2) Is the o-line up to the task of keeping him safe? 3) Does he still want to go through the full grind to get back into the role?
Vtbebop, Brattleboro, Vt.
A: I don't know if Brady will be ready, but I do think the offensive line is up to the task and that Brady is as hungry as ever to return. I wouldn't bet against him in that regard.
Mike, with Brett Favre laying a big egg last Sunday, what's the likelihood that the Jets pursue Matt Cassel for their starting QB? If they do pursue him, can the Pats do anything prevent this acquisition?
A: Jeff, I do think this is a consideration the Patriots must keep in mind as they plan their offseason strategy. It would be a tough blow for them to see Cassel, a player they helped develop, land with a hated division rival. The biggest thing the Patriots could do to prevent that is assign the franchise tag to Cassel, or sign him to an extension before free agency begins Feb. 27 (which is unlikely because players usually like to test the market once they get to this point). But if Cassel hits the open market, he could go anywhere he desires.
Mike, any idea how much room the Pats will have under the expected cap for next season? Is franchising Cassel even possible?
A: It is not an exact figure, Mike, but the last time I checked the Patriots were projected to have approximately $20 million of salary cap space, so flexibility should be there. Given that figure, which with some bookkeeping work could rise even higher, franchising Cassel is certainly possible.
It has been mentioned frequently about how using the franchise tag on Cassel will restrict us in free agency. However, how active do you see us being in free agency? It seems like a lot of the team's core "needs" (i.e. corner and youth on defense) can be filled using the draft.
A: Great point, Travis, and one that hit home to me as I went through the team's roster for a piece in Tuesday's Boston Globe. I think the Patriots' free-agent strategy is likely to have a heavy emphasis on their massive 2009 free-agent class (Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Stephen Gostkowski, etc.) rather than going out and signing players from other teams to lucrative deals (unless it's a rare case like an Adalius Thomas). With that in mind, it could lead to some more flexibility to assign the franchise tag to Cassel.
Last week you suggested that the NFL wouldn't change its playoff format because it would still want divisional races (and how teams build to contend within their division) to mean something. Couldn't the league still accomplish this by going back to three division conferences and have three wild cards?
A: That would be one solution, Brian, but I think that opens up other issues of fairness in the process. I thought Boston Globe colleague Adam Kilgore had an interesting comment in his Ravens-Jaguars game story from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding the league's thinking on this topic: "We talked an awful lot about that in the Competition Committee with the membership last year. Frankly, they all felt that winning the division was the No. 1 objective when you come into a season, and that should be the highest priority. I think we'll continue on with that system at least for the foreseeable future."
Mike, I am a little confused by the scheduling process. With the "revolving format" used by the NFL, why have the Patriots played the Colts in the regular season EVERY year since 2003?
Jim C., North Las Vegas, Nev.
A: This was one of the more popular questions this week, Jim. To rewind, when the NFL added the Houston Texans as an expansion team in 2002, it realigned from six divisions to eight. In doing so, the league adopted a rotating schedule format that ensured teams wouldn't go long stretches without facing certain opponents; the league didn't want such long gaps as the Patriots had before traveling to Seattle this year, as their last trip to Seattle had been all the way back in 1993. So the rotating schedule format assigns 14 of the 16 games in advance and they break down this way:
- Six in the division.
- Four in the NFC, with a specific division each year.
- Four in the AFC, with a specific division each year.
The final two spots are filled based on where the team finished in the standing the prior year (e.g. the first-place team in the AFC East plays the first-place team in the AFC South). This is where the yearly contests with the Colts come into play (the Colts played in Foxborough from 2004-2006). Because the Patriots and Colts have regularly finished in first place of their divisions in recent years, they've often been a match when filling out the final spots on the schedule.
I thought the Pats were going to make it all month, so them not making it was quite deflating. But I have to admit, I think the silver lining is that the Pats weren't going to beat the Titans, Steelers or Colts this year, and now the players and coaches can take some time away from the game to recharge and get healthy for next year. Your thoughts?
Jason, San Diego, Calif.
A: I'll agree with one point, Jason, but slightly disagree with another. I do think the extra rest will help the players and coaches, as the shorter-than-normal offseasons have probably contributed to some of the injuries we've seen. Where I'll disagree is the thought that the Patriots weren't going to beat the Titans, Steelers or Colts. While they probably would have entered each game as an underdog, I'm not certain they wouldn't have been the better team for that stretch of 60 minutes, which is all that counts. Their offense was operating at peak efficiency and I could have seen that aspect of their play carrying them to an unexpected victory/victories. I'm not saying it would have happened, but I wouldn't have been surprised at that result.
What a joke! So the Pats get screwed out of a playoff spot when teams with lesser records get in, and to add salt to the wound they still have to draft after those joke teams? That is crazy. It should be that the teams making the playoffs pick in the order of their record, and then the teams not making the playoffs draft according to their record -- the Pats draft 20th. How is that fair?
A: Interesting point, Eli, and one the league might consider adopting based on the inequity of the divisions on a year to year basis. I could endorse that change -- put the playoff teams in draft spots 21-32 based on record, and then have the non-playoff teams slotted from 1-20 based on record. For example, why should the Chargers have the reward of a playoff berth, and still get to pick 16th in the first round, while the Patriots are 24th? I wonder if this situation will change the league's thinking on draft order, and if the Patriots might propose that type of rule change this offseason.
Mike, as the Pats have the San Diego Chargers' second-round pick, and SD is tied with several others at 8-8, where do the Pats pick?
Mike C., Manchester, N.H.
A: Nothing is official at this point, Mike, but the Chargers are currently slotted to be selecting 16th in the first round. That could change if the Chargers make it to the Super Bowl, which would put them in the 31st spot (if they lose the Super Bowl) or the 32nd spot (if they win the Super Bowl). But let's say the Chargers don't make it to the Super Bowl, at 8-8, they would be part of a five-team cluster. The Chargers would pick 16th in the first round, then would bump up a spot in successive rounds on a rotation with those other 8-8 teams. So, I project the pick to be 47th at this time.
Just a question, from Sunday's finale at Buffalo, on why with just over a minute to go in the game the Patriots punted on third down (this was after the Cassel quick kick, which I thought was brilliant)?
Mike, Seattle, Wash.
A: Bill Belichick explained in his post-game press conference that the Bills had rushed 10 players on a punt earlier in the game, creating a protection problem. With this in mind, he wanted to avoid the clear-cut punting situation on fourth down so the Bills -- who have one of the NFL's best special teams units -- wouldn't have a pin-our-ears-back attempt at blocking it. The punt on third down caught them by surprise. It was another example, to me, as to why Belichick is one of the top coaches in the game today. Always thinking.
Mike, your thoughts on whether Eric Mangini will be "punished" for the whole Spygate episode? While he did spill the beans on an illegal activity, there are other shenanigans going on in the NFL. Is there a chance other owners or GMs might have second thoughts because their activities might be exposed?
A: Dan, I think Mangini will find work in the NFL, as he's a solid coach who will probably land somewhere working with the secondary/defense. I don't see him going right to a head coaching spot. When he looks back on things, I think Mangini will probably regret blowing the whistle on the Patriots, but I don't see it costing him a job as an assistant.
Mike, it's obvious that the secondary needs an upgrade, but my question is do they continue to do it through the draft or maybe take a run in free agency? What veteran linebackers do you see returning?
A: I don't think it will be a one-or-the-other type of scenario, Nash, as I'd expect additions to the secondary through both the draft and free agency. In terms of veteran linebackers, I don't see a Junior Seau or Rosevelt Colvin back in the picture (they are free agents), but could envision the returns of Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi (they're signed through 2009).
I love the progression that I saw with the Patriots' young talent. What positions do you see them drafting at this early stage?
Jason, San Diego
A: I'd keep it simple, Jason, and say anywhere on defense. I think Bill Belichick and the coaching staff will look at the third-down and red-zone defense and determine they need more reinforcements. I'd start in the secondary, but also wouldn't rule out defensive line. A linebacker would be No. 3 on the priority list.
Hi Mike, do you know if the Ravens have signed Ray Lewis to an extension yet or is he still set to be an UFA after the season? I remember seeing Bill Belichick seek him and Ed Reed out after the preseason game to shake their hands. Do you think the Patriots would try and get Lewis in to play next to Jerod Mayo next year while Gary Guyton continues to learn the ropes? Keen to hear your thoughts.
A: Ben, Lewis is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on Feb. 27, but I don't see him coming to New England. I don't see it as a fit, because of a combination of financial considerations and my belief that Lewis will remain in Baltimore.
A comment: Randy Moss deserves credit for not rocking the boat this year when the Pats' offense wasn't quite settled early on. It was easy for Randy to be a good teammate in '07 when records were being shattered, but he showed more to me this year, especially when you see how TO's antics helped undermine the Cowboys this year.
A: I don't have much to add to this one, Michael. It's a good point. From a pure media perspective, I was disappointed that Moss hasn't spoken with reporters since the Nov. 30 Steelers loss. I would have been interested to hear his thoughts on the season, playing in Oakland etc. I think we all lose out on that one -- media members, the NFL, and the fans.
Are the Patriots falling backwards as a team? Prospects are not good for next year.
A: I personally don't see it that way, Vince. I see a deep, talented roster that has been one of the NFL's most competitive teams -- on a consistent basis -- since 2001. I think they'll stay on that track in 2009.
With the season over, I'd like to talk draft. I remembered when Maroney was drafted Mike Shanahan was salivating about him. Any chance we can do a "Brett Favre" type trade to the Broncos, where the Pats would receive a thirrd rounder this year and an escalating pick depending on Maroney's productivity in 2010? I personally think Faulk and Sammy Morris and a draft pick are better than Maroney will ever be with the Pats.
A: Interesting scenario, Kevin, and one I was discussing the other day when it was suggested to me that the market for Maroney would be a second-round draft choice. I thought that was really high. I wouldn't be surprised if something like this happens, but at this point, I see the Patriots sticking with Maroney into training camp and maintaining their depth at the position because they aren't sure they can count on him.
[Note: Mailbags will continue to be published on Tuesdays for parts of the offseason.]