Commentary

Second straight loss brings questions

Belichick under fire from a frustrated fan base

Updated: December 8, 2009, 2:29 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Frustration among e-mailers to the Patriots mailbag seemed to be boiling over this week after the team's 22-21 loss to the Dolphins.

Topics in the mailbag included:

1. Is Bill Belichick outsmarting himself?

2. Thoughts on offensive playcaller Bill O'Brien and defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

3. Tom Brady and forcing the ball to Randy Moss.

4. What can be done to improve the pass rush?

5. The case of the disappearing tight ends in the passing game.

6. Breaking down the rookie class.

There was quite a bit of venting, so this week's mailbag is a bit longer than the norm. Here goes ...

Q: Mike, I'd love for you to really look at the possibility that Belichick has outsmarted himself this season. The decisions he has made have backfired from the tactical on the field -- going for fourth downs instead of kicking and playing conventional ball -- to his strategy with regard to the personnel moves he has made on this team that show that it's not anywhere near the Patriots teams of old. He thinks he can do anything and get away with it. It's almost as if there is no one to check his ego and be his confidant on the sideline. He also seems to be suffering from the drain of coaches who have moved on from the organization. I also think this lack of a real offensive coach is hurting Brady and the offense especially toward the end of the game when they can't respond to the adjustments the other teams make. What are your thoughts? -- Terrence (Maynard, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeSome key coaching decisions made by Bill Belichick in the past few games have not worked out, and he's hearing it from Patriot Nation.

A: I think questioning some of Belichick's decisions and the scrutiny he's received is fair. I didn't like the fourth-down decision against the Dolphins and said so before the result of the play. My feelings were that because the Patriots don't seem to respond favorably to dramatic momentum swings -- which had been apparent through 12 weeks -- I wouldn't have created a possible momentum swing on fourth down and instead would have settled for the three points to make it 17-7 at that point. As for another part of the question, I respectfully disagree. I don't think this is about Belichick's ego or a power trip. Not at all. Those who don't like Belichick or have an agenda against him are probably taking joy in the skid and might try to sell that, but I wouldn't buy that line of thinking. He's made some personnel mistakes (e.g. Derrick Burgess), but he's far from alone in that area. Every team makes them, and I think Belichick thinks things through and makes decisions he feels will help the team win in the short term and long term, and his percentage of hits is still at a high level when compared to his peers. I do think it's fair to point out he's suffered from the drain of some coaches who have moved on.

Q: Going for it on fourth-and-1 at the end of the first half was the game-changer against the Dolphins. Even worse was the play call on fourth down -- no deception, no imagination. These once-upon-a-time gutsy calls are now looking like foolish calls. They used to work because the offense did the unexpected. Now everyone knows what the Pats are going to do. Are they really suffering from poor coaching and poor playcalling more than lack of execution? -- Leslie Fenn (Albuquerque, N.M.)

A: Once the decision was made to go for it on fourth down -- which I disagreed with before the snap -- I didn't have a problem with the play selection. Sammy Morris is probably the Patriots' best short-yardage runner, and it is power on power, 1 yard needed. The Patriots have been successful in those situations, with that play, in other games. The one specific play call that had me scratching my head was a third-and-6 run to Kevin Faulk in the fourth quarter. Although it's possible that the Patriots checked into that play based on the defensive look, that decision was still puzzling to me. In terms of the question -- poor coaching/playcalling versus execution -- I think it's both.

Q: Don't want to harp on the fourth-down calls. But would it be possible to see the number of times the Pats have gone for it on fourth down for the past two or three seasons and what the conversion rate was? -- Nick (Santa Cruz, Calif.)

A: Nick, here are the Patriots' stats on fourth down in Bill Belichick's 10 years as coach:

2000: 13 of 26 (50 percent)
2001: 7 of 17 (41.2 percent)
2002: 9 of 20 (45 percent)
2003: 6 of 14 (42.9 percent)
2004: 4 of 10 (40 percent)
2005: 13 of 17 (76.5 percent)
2006: 16 of 20 (80 percent)
2007: 15 of 21 (71.4 percent)
2008: 17 of 22 (77.3 percent)
2009: 8 of 16 (50 percent)

Q: Hey Mike, we all know that the current Patriots team is far removed from the ones that won the three championships and even the record-breaking squad of just a few years ago, but most fans seem to still have faith in Belichick and Brady. At what point is it fair to start asking if the best days are behind both of them? Belichick has made a series of poor decisions (even aside from his fourth-down tendencies, which I don't mind), and Brady can't seem to recapture the days of hitting open receivers every time, especially in the clutch. At this point I think I'll be surprised when they actually do manage to pull out a close win. I think there was a question in there somewhere. -- Matt (Westborough, Mass.)

A: Matt, I still think Belichick is one of the best coaches in the NFL and Brady is one of the top quarterbacks. They have hit a tough skid at this point, but I can't imagine a better combination going forward for the Patriots. It's sort of the same thing I would have said if I were covering the Titans this year. When they were 0-6, you heard chatter that maybe Jeff Fisher would be fired. I think Fisher is an excellent coach, as has been proven six weeks later with how the team rebounded. Sometimes I think it's easy to get caught up in the moment, but in situations like these, I think it's important to look at the big picture.

Q: The Patriots are 1-5 on the road, with losses in each important game the team has played this year. Is the ride over? -- Stephen (Denver)

A: I don't believe the ride is over, Stephen, although you can't argue with the bottom-line results this season. To this point, based on the high expectations the Patriots have set and the inconsistent way they've played, the five losses have been disappointing. It's going to be tough for the Patriots to turn things around, but I still think they'll still be in the upper tier of the NFL going forward. They still have the pieces to build around in my view.

Q: Hi Mike, I'm tired of the whining about missing Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour. Those guys were on the team in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants and the epic collapse against Indy the year before. If one guy had made one play in either game, the Pats would've won. Belichick turned over the defense because those guys were no longer getting it done. When you look at the current defense -- Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo, Tully Banta-Cain, Brandon McGowan, Brandon Meriweather -- there is talent there. You could argue they are not a great defense, but they have the potential to be a good defense. This is also the first time in a long time when they aren't missing several players at this point in the season on defense. You are very patient when it comes to assessing players and coaches, but how can you defend coordinator Dean Pees at this point? Pees may have a nice résumé, but at some point you need to recognize it's just not working. When there is enough talent to get the job done, and there is but it's not getting done, you need to make a change. -- Doug (Newton, Mass.)

A: Doug, I think you make a good point on Vrabel, Bruschi, Harrison and Seymour from an on-the-field standpoint. However, I do think their leadership and know-how is missed in the locker room. As for Pees, I think he is a good coach, teacher and communicator, and I don't think the struggles of the defense are because he's not planning effectively or is calling a bad game. I remember when he took the job how players seemed to like his expertise and delivery after a season in which they had Eric Mangini as coordinator. I also think it's important to point out that Pees is running Bill Belichick's scheme. If the Patriots were to make a change, I think it would solely be with the idea of having another voice for the players to hear. It would not be because Pees isn't a good coach, but because sometimes a change can spark a unit in the right direction and create a new sense of urgency.

Q: Mike, I think the Miami game and all the other second-half meltdowns showcase the lack of a true offensive coordinator, and that the immense skills of Moss and Wes Welker have become something of a crutch for Brady, as he no longer finds the tight end or running back as a third option. Everyone is sniffing out the bubble screens and underneath routes to Welker. So where is the wizardry and "one step ahead" that made the Pats so much fun to watch? Whether it is Weis or someone else, they need a real offensive coordinator to start 2010. -- John (Charlottesville, Va.)

A: John, I'd sum up my thoughts this way: I think Bill O'Brien is going to be a successful coordinator in this league for a long time, but it's only natural that he's experiencing some initial growing pains on the job. I think your thoughts on the offense are fair, and it has shown at times this season, as the Patriots' coaching staff is young in NFL years. I'd also point out that sometimes Brady is changing the play at the line of scrimmage based on the look that the defense gives, so it's not as simple as the play call coming in and then Brady running it.

Q: Sadly, the second-half struggles continue. My impression is that the Pats were so desperate to get an early lead they showed all of what they prepared for offensively in the first half and the opponent can adjust by halftime. No surprise look or play in the second half means the opponent can easily defend. The Pats need to hide some plays for the second half. Your thoughts? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A: I see it a little differently, MarkJ. I don't think it's anything specific about emptying out the playbook in the first half as compared to the second half, but more a mindset. When you have a chance to bury an opponent, you have to deliver the knockout punch. I think Brady nailed it. It's about mental toughness. Certain players on the team don't have enough of it right now.

Q: Mike, do you find it difficult as a journalist to ask tough questions around the Patriots? I'd imagine that you run the risk of being shut out by Belichick & Co. if you're too persistent. Sometimes, it seems like no one will ask Bill relevant questions because they're afraid he'll stare them down and blacklist them for the rest of the season. Plus, if you're too critical, the accessible players may be wary of giving you anything to work with. -- Michael Bishop (Canada)

A: I don't feel that way, Michael. Belichick, in my experience, treats most reporters the same. He understands there will be critical questions, and my feeling is that all he asks for in return is for fairness. From my own experience, I'd use an example from last season when Matthew Slater had a kickoff bounce off his face mask against the Steelers. I wasn't afraid to ask him the question in the postgame news conference: Given the elements, had you considered putting someone with more experience back there? I thought it was a tough, critical question. As far as I know, Belichick did not blacklist me for it.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesWas Tom Brady trying to force the ball to Randy Moss on Sunday in Miami?

Q: Mike, since when does Tom Brady start forcing throws? In the B.M. era (Before Moss), he would have been smarter, and they would have taken a field goal and won the game. Since he has Moss (and I don't think it's a bad thing) he seems to take more chances and not play smart football. What are your thoughts? -- Carroll (Charlotte, N.C.)

A: Carroll, specific to Sunday's loss in Miami, I thought Brady might have been forcing the ball to Moss on that interception to get him involved. Brady might have been thinking that Moss was about to check out of the game. If that is the case, it's a big mistake and a big problem. I thought Moss could have showed better effort to break up the end zone pick.

Q: Hi Mike, does Randy Moss disappear against the better teams? New Orleans, on paper, had a secondary ripe for the picking, yet Moss was relatively ineffective. Mike McKenzie? Is Moss hurt? Has he lost it? -- Chip (Wilton, Conn.)

A: I think it would be unfair to Moss to say he disappears against better teams -- just look at his massive production in the Indianapolis game -- but I've started to wonder about his toughness after taking some hits or not seeing the ball for a long stretch of time. It seemed as though that early low hit that Darren Sharper delivered on a low pass from Brady really affected Moss in that Saints game, and he was frustrated against the Dolphins when the ball wasn't coming his way because of a steady diet of double-teams.

Q: You've been praising Laurence Maroney the past few weeks (which given his fumbles and fairly low yards per catch, I don't understand), but honestly, it seems as if the lack of a consistent running game is absolutely killing this offense, particularly in the red zone. The third-and-2 and fourth-and-2 against the Colts should've been runs, but they weren't because the Patriots can't pound the ball. They throw regularly inside the 10 because they can't pound the ball. It's remarkable how pedestrian any team can become when you're predictable. Two questions: Can Fred Taylor make a difference this season, and should they be looking to draft a guy like Toby Gerhart (who looks like a touchdown vulture waiting to happen) in the spring? -- Domenic Giandomenico (Washington)

A: Domenic, I think Taylor can make a difference both on the field and in the locker room. I think his hard-charging running will immediately benefit the offense, and his professionalism in the locker room will help the team respond better in times of adversity. As for Gerhart, I don't know enough about him at this point -- on and off the field -- to have a decisive answer.

Q: Mike, what's the best way to resuscitate the pass rush? I think everyone conceded it would take a year to recover from the Seymour trade, but with the only effective rusher this season being Banta-Cain, where do that Pats go to improve this season with only four games left? And as far as next season, would you expect them to fill the need via draft or free agency? -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)

A: Neil, I'd like to see them give Adalius Thomas a chance to rush the passer a bit more, specifically on third down. That could be one solution. Another possibility is going back to the four-man line and hoping that Mike Wright gives you some push from one of the interior positions. He showed some nice quickness in that role earlier in the season. The tough part in doing that, though, is that you are changing your entire scheme for that one purpose, and how does that affect you in other areas (such as run defense)? As for next season, I'd start with the draft as the primary vehicle for improving the pass rush. A fresh set of young, explosive legs would be a big help.

Q: Hey Mike, I'm curious why, with all the talk about Charlie Weis possibly returning to the Patriots, we haven't heard anything about Romeo Crennel ever coming back? -- David Patterson (Boston)

A: Crennel is laying low, David, as he has been recovering from hip surgery. He plans to coach in the NFL next year, and I would think his return in some capacity is a possibility that shouldn't be overlooked.

Q: Mike, Do you know how the Patriots' use of their tight ends ranks compared to the rest of the league? For the life of me, I don't understand why Chris Baker and Ben Watson aren't more involved in the passing game. With both Moss and Welker drawing double-teams, it seems as if throwing to the tight ends could be one way to make defenses pay. I thought Watson looked open on the interception to Moss against Miami. -- John (Lunenburg, Mass.)

A: John, through Week 12 of the NFL season, the Patriots had targeted their tight ends on 46 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. Only the Cardinals had targeted their tight ends fewer times. I hope to go back through the game and chart how often the tight ends were staying in to block as opposed to releasing into pass patterns. We know from the official game book that Patriots tight ends were targeted only once in the game.

Q: Mike -- Jerod Mayo: Still struggling to get back to 100 percent after the MCL injury, or just simply a sophomore slump? He has not been the playmaker we all thought he would be this season. -- Cory (Lexington, Mass.)

A: Fair point, Cory. I'll say sophomore slump. Mayo had talked during the offseason about trying to take his game to a new level with game-changing plays. We haven't seen many of them.

Q: Halfway through the season, the Patriots' secondary was markedly improved from the last campaign. Brandon Meriweather was looking like the best safety in the league, Leigh Bodden had redeemed his career, Darius Butler and Pat Chung looked like great picks. Now we're at the point where Chad Henne and the Miami Dolphins are passing 50 times a game and winning. Where did it all go wrong? -- Abe Medoff (Washington)

A: I'd pinpoint the Colts game as the start of some of the struggles we've seen. I also think Brandon McGowan is not playing at the high level he was earlier in the season. When I look at the individual parts of the secondary, I see talent and a group that can grow into one you can win with. But it has hit a rough patch and has to find a way to dig out by making some plays. A little more help from the pass rush would be of great assistance as well.

Q: What is wrong with Shawn Springs? I know he was injured, but he has been inactive for four weeks now. Jonathan Wilhite isn't bad, but he has been playing poorly lately, and I think needs to take a seat. -- Nick (Santa Cruz, Calif.)

A: Nick, I wish I had the answer on Springs. He's been on the injury report with a knee injury, but it listed him as having full participation last week. My interpretation of that is that his absence isn't injury-related. I wrote last week that it would be a good time to get him back into the mix, and after what we saw in Miami of the coverage, I feel just as strong about it this week.

Q: In the Patriots' loss to the Dolphins, the last pass play by Brady that was intercepted, the Dolphins defender tackled Brady at the knees. I thought the new rule instituted for this season made going for a QB's knees a penalty. None was called, and none of the announcers made note of it. How would you describe the lack of a call in this situation? -- Bert (Norwood, Mass.)

A: Bert, defenders can make a normal tackle low on the quarterback, but officials will throw a flag if there is forcible contact. I'm including an old piece I wrote about the topic, with an explanation from referee Terry McAulay.

Q: Do you think the injuries on the offensive and defensive lines have hurt their in-week preparations and affected their cohesion during games, especially in the second halves after the opposing coaches have had chances to make adjustments? -- Rick Walker (Medway, Mass.)

A: It can't help, Rick, but I wouldn't blame their poor performance on that. Every team is banged up at this time of year.

Q: Hey Mike, is it just me, or are the criticisms of Wilhite awfully similar to those of Ellis Hobbs III when he played for the Patriots? It seems both are/were always in position but couldn't make a play on the ball. That said, who would you regard as the better between the two, and what can Wilhite do to fix this? -- Imran (Los Angeles)

A: I guess you could say there are some similarities between Wilhite and Hobbs, although I think Wilhite is a notch above Hobbs at cornerback. In terms of Wilhite and what he can do, the first thing is not to get down. That was one scouting report on him coming out of Auburn; that he would sometimes get down on himself when things didn't always go the way he hoped. On top of that, I'd say working on ball skills and turning back toward the ball in practice are good places to start.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Wheatley
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonTerrence Wheatley has been passed on the depth chart by other defensive backs.

Q: Mike, why has Terrence Wheatley disappeared from the mix as a potential starting cornerback? Before breaking his wrist as a rookie last year, he was coming on strong much like Wilhite. Has he regressed at all, or is he suffering from a crowded situation? -- EG (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A: EG, it started in the offseason when Wilhite passed him on the depth chart, and I thought Wheatley had struggled at times in the preseason. So in that sense, I guess you could say there was a regression. But the crowded situation is another part of it. The Patriots signed veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs in the offseason and drafted Darius Butler in the second round. Bodden and Butler are ahead of Wheatley on the depth chart, while Wheatley has been active over Springs in recent weeks because of his special-teams contributions.

Q: I mostly agree with your trade rankings, though I personally like the Bill Belichick trade on the top, and the Drew Bledsoe trade next. -- MarkJ (Japan)

A: Thanks for reading MarkJ, as that was a piece I put together late last week on the 69 trades made in Bill Belichick's tenure with the Patriots. Because the piece was based on deals that Belichick made, I couldn't include the deal that brought Belichick to New England. I had the Drew Bledsoe trade in the mix -- the Patriots getting the first-rounder for him and essentially turning it into Ty Warren -- but felt it just missed the cut. Maybe it would have been my No. 6.

Q: OK, Mike, let's get your late-season grade on each of the Pats' 13 rookies (including quarterback Brian Hoyer). No fair going incomplete on healthy players! -- Waterboss (San Diego)

A: I'm not a big report card type of guy, Waterboss, in terms of giving out grades. I'd use an example from last week as one reason I feel that way. I'm sure a lot of folks probably gave Brandon Meriweather an "F" against the Saints because of what looked like a busted coverage on Devery Henderson's 75-yard touchdown grab. It sure looked like Meriweather's breakdown, but you later learn it wasn't. So instead of giving grades to the rookies currently on the roster, I'd classify them into one of a few different categories: exceeded expectations, met expectations, yet to meet expectations:

Exceeded: Receiver Julian Edelman, quarterback Brian Hoyer, long-snapper Jake Ingram, defensive lineman Myron Pryor, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer

Met: Safety Pat Chung, cornerback Darius Butler

Yet to meet: Defensive lineman Ron Brace, offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger

Q: Is Dan Koppen too small to handle large nose tackles/defensive tackles? -- Jack Dwyer (Leesburg, Fla.)

A: I think it's a fair question, Jack, and at times I'd say "yes" and other times "no." I know that sounds like I'm sitting on the fence, but I've watched Koppen perform at a Pro Bowl level at times while at other times look like he was easily handled. It's not always solely about size at that position; technique and leverage are also part of it.

Q: Mike, if your suspicion of Brandon Tate having a ligament tear is correct, do you foresee him being available for training camp, or could it be another one-year recovery, with a six-plus week stint on the physically unable to perform list? This is an important question that could affect the roster and upcoming draft, so hope you can give your best guess. -- John (Wellesley, Mass.)

A: John, my best guess is that Tate is looking at a nine-month-type situation, which puts him healthy right around the start of training camp. From a team perspective, I think the smart approach is to plan as if Tate will not be there because an element of the unknown is always involved with some aspects of rehabilitation, and especially with a player who has a prior history with the injury.

Q: Hey Mike, this has probably already been pointed out, but how about a "you never know" story on Patriots losses this season: (in order) Jets, Broncos, Colts, Saints. The Patriots already avenged their loss to the Jets. Assuming they were to run the table and get the No. 2 playoff seed, they could possibly host the Broncos, then travel to Indy, and then possibly face the Saints in the Super Bowl. Now that would be the ultimate revenge tour. -- Jason Picone (Portland, Ore.)

A: Jason, I'm wondering if we should reserve rights to the book title "Patriots Revenge Tour" right now, as that stretch of games -- and possible victories -- would make for a tale to remember. I'd have to search a little harder to see if that has ever happened before. But I think you'd agree, right now, it's hard to say this team is ready to win a Super Bowl. But I guess that's one great part of the NFL; the champion isn't crowned right now. If it was, the Arizona Cardinals of 2008 would have never been in the Super Bowl. I keep reminding myself they got blown out in the snow at Gillette Stadium in the second-to-last week last season, but they caught fire at the right time.

Q: How much has the poor drafting in recent years along with the loss of a first-round pick for Spygate lowered the talent level on the current team as compared to the Super Bowl teams that went 14-2? -- Jim (Spencer, Mass.)

A: I think the Patriots have been hurt a bit by the 2006 draft, as this would be the year that those players would be hitting their stride in their fourth year in the system. For example, the struggles to find a No. 3 receiver might not be an issue if Chad Jackson had panned out. Other than Laurence Maroney (first round), Stephen Gostkowski (fourth round) and to a lesser degree Pierre Woods (free agent), the Patriots have little to show for that draft. I'd also add that not hitting on any late-round picks in 2007 hurts the depth a bit. The final thought I'd have on this one is that although those drafts weren't the Patriots' best work, from an overall perspective, the team's drafting under Belichick still stacks up favorably when compared to the league's other 31 teams.

Q: One thing that bothers me about the Pats chatter lately is that a lot of people seem to think that trading Vrabel and/or Seymour was a mistake. The theory is that the defense would be substantially better with one or both of those guys playing this year. But both Seymour and Vrabel are old and injury-prone. If you don't believe me, look at how they have fared this year. Neither has set the world on fire with his new team, and both have missed time due to injuries. Can't we just admit that the real problem with the defense is not the players the Patriots lost, but that the players they brought in to replace them are just not particularly good? Derrick Burgess has done nothing, and Shawn Springs is washed up. Had either Burgess or Adalius Thomas panned out as a monster pass-rusher, the defense would be exponentially better in my opinion. -- Tim (Washington state)

A: Fair points, Tim. I don't think anyone could honestly say -- the Patriots included -- that Seymour's presence alone wouldn't make the defense better. Yet you balance that with the impressive chip you received in return (2011 first-round pick), and I still think it's the right trade for the Patriots. Knowing what I know now, which includes Seymour's sack total this season (four) while not playing a pure two-gap style, I'd still make it because of the first-round pick in return.

My thoughts are a bit different on Vrabel. I think they miss his toughness. I've been surprised at how often Adalius Thomas gets hooked at outside linebacker against the run. Vrabel seldom got hooked. He was one of the toughest players in that regard, and I think he would have helped this team as an early-down player, not to mention his leadership in the locker room. So I would have kept him, especially because it wasn't as if the compensation was overwhelming to trade him. On the new Patriots, Burgess has been a disappointment, and I don't know what to make of Springs because he hasn't played of late. I still think he could help this team.

Q: Hey Mike, can you explain to me the reasoning behind the rule that you must bench the starter and backup QBs if a player designated as the third QB enters the game before the fourth quarter starts? Additionally, as far as third QBs go, how can someone like Ronnie Brown get snaps under center and not be considered a QB? -- CK (Somerville, Mass.)

A: CK, in the end, it comes down to this: Teams are allowed to dress 45 players on game day, but realizing that a squad would be paralyzed if it lost its top two quarterbacks, the NFL allows clubs to designate a third quarterback as their 46th player. That's why there are restrictions that come with the third quarterback. In the case of Edelman against the Saints, the decision was made in part because of his health. Edelman's forearm injury probably made him a borderline contributor in the game -- maybe he could have helped on a punt return -- so this at least kept him as an option on a one-shot type of situation.

Q: Mike, is it my imagination, or has Tom Brady lost some of his fire? This season he seems to be executing like a technician and not as emotionally attached to the game. If I remember correctly, Drew Bledsoe started off similarly and degenerated into a pocket passer/technician, which heralded his demise and Brady's rise to greatness. I would like to see him return to the sandlot style and motivator we have seen in the past. -- Matt (Warner Barrack, Bamberg, Germany)

A: Matt, I haven't noticed that Brady has lost his fire. If anything, I have felt that his passion for the game has been reignited this season after missing last season with the serious knee injury. I don't believe he's missed one practice all season. Maybe it doesn't always look that way during games, but I think Brady is as committed and passionate as he's ever been.

Q: Hi Mike. Is it just me, or are the referees calling more penalties this year? I've seen quite a few holding, false-start and block-in-the-back penalties this year that seem to be very questionable. I think it detracts from the game. What do you think? -- Frank (Leominster, Mass.)

A: Frank, according to ESPN Stats & Information, officials are calling more penalties this season. There are an average of 14.3 penalties per game this season through Week 12, while there were an average of 13.9 penalties per game through Week 12 last season. Looking further back, there were an average of 17.8 penalties per game through Week 12 back in 2005. So that gives some context to the stats.

Q: What is the Patriots' record when they wear the throwbacks? -- Chris (Richmond, Va.)

A: Chris, the Patriots are 5-3 with their throwbacks. They were 2-1 in 1994, 1-0 in 2002 and were 2-2 this season.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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