Despite win, plenty of questions
What an eventful week to be following the Patriots.
It started with an unexpected loss to the Dolphins, then four players' being sent home from a Wednesday morning meeting, then Adalius Thomas' bringing up "The Jetsons," and it was capped off with a win over the Panthers in which the dominant story wasn't the final result but instead Randy Moss' effort.
Covering the Patriots is never dull.
Put it all together, and it once again creates an overflowing mailbag.
Q: Hi Mike, gutsy performance by Brady and Welker this past Sunday. Randy Moss, on the other hand, has looked completely disinterested and his effort of late is very disappointing to say the least. Where do you feel his frustration originated from and what would cause him to play so soft? Is there an injury we're all unaware of here? -- Nick D (Hopewell Junction, N.Y.)
A: Nick, I agree that Moss looked disinterested, and it seemed as if his frustration was boiling over. It was not a professional, all-out effort. The anti-Welker, if you will. My feeling is that you need to look closer into Moss to understand who he is when things like this happen. I don't think he is the type of player to quit. He cares deeply about football and he is sensitive. I think the main thing to understand about Moss, from my view, is that overcoming adversity isn't as easy for him as some others. He's human, too, which sometimes might be hard to grasp because his skills are so extraordinary. We all have weaknesses. I think it's fair to hold Moss accountable for what was his worst performance as a Patriot. At the same time, I thought the overreaction to what took place Sunday was media overload.
Q: Mike, two things: 1) Look back at the Seahawks/Vikings game after Moss's metermaid incident. The same thing happened. Moss dropped about four touchdown passes because of the incident the prior week affected his psyche. Same thing here. He's not quitting; he just gets affected by incidents and media. He's fragile emotionally as Tony Dungy says; 2) Why doesn't the media bring up the fact that Randy Moss was displeased with the headlines during the week. Instead of the four players being named it was "Randy Moss and three players sent home". Isn't this what Kevin Faulk said, but in your column you totally left this part out. But I guess you have to sell what earns for you. -- C2 (Los Angeles)
A: I share the opinion that Moss didn't quit but simply couldn't overcome the frustrations when things started going the wrong way. There is a big difference. As for Faulk's comments, the parts that were included in the piece that ran on ESPNBoston.com were how much he said Moss was affected by Belichick's decision to send him home, how Moss cares deeply about football and is misunderstood, and how Patriots players have no issues with him. To be honest, I didn't include the part about media coverage because I thought it was way off the mark. The way I saw it, Adalius Thomas had all the headlines, not Moss. It wasn't even close. In retrospect, perhaps those comments should have been in the piece because they show the sensitivity of Moss.
Q: Mike, even if Randy Moss doesn't run every route the way he should as has been discussed after the Panthers game, doesn't he still force corner and safety help coverage from the defense and open up areas of the field for Welker, Watson, etc.? I'm not defending him, but putting the overall offense in perspective. -- Bert F. (Norwood, Mass.)
A: Bert, I'll turn the floor over to Panthers linebacker Jon Beason for this one. After the game, I asked him about Moss, and this was his response: "The thing about being great is that as a defense you say, 'We have to take that guy out of the game.' A lot of times he's going to get doubled or have help over the top, a lot like our special guy, Steve Smith. I know it's frustrating for him, but you have to go to other guys, and other guys made plays."
Q: It seems to me that a large number of Brady's INTs have been throws intended for Moss. I wonder what that percentage is and what we can glean from that? -- Joel Bishoff (Sherman Oaks, Calif.)
A: Joel, the ESPN Stats & Information team notes that eight of Brady's 11 interceptions have come on passes intended for Moss. In terms of what we can glean from that, I think the best approach would be to go back and look at each interception before coming to any final conclusion. The initial instinct is to say that he may be forcing the ball to Moss, but I'd want to look at each pick before saying that.
Q: Mike, I have three questions: 1) Will this team be in the market for some marquee free agents next year? 2) When will we know for certain what the rules are regarding a salary cap? 3) With Adalius Thomas most likely out the door, and Sebastian Vollmer most likely passing Matt Light on the depth chart, it seems like finding the funds to sign Wilfork won't be an issue. Am I wrong about that? -- John (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
A: John, a lot will depend on whether the right player is available, but my general feeling is that marquee free agents are not always the answer, for a variety of reasons. Adalius Thomas is one example. As for the cap, we should know by late February or early March, which is the start of the free-agency period. It is possible, however, that there could be an extension on the decision and a free-agency delay. On the Vollmer/Light situation, I don't think it's as much of a slam dunk as I once did. Light has played very well the last few weeks, and I wouldn't write him off at this point. Wilfork would be my top priority. I feel like I've been pretty consistent on this one. He deserves everything coming to him, and the closer he gets to free agency, the price only goes up.
Q: Hi Mike, it seems a safe bet now with everything that has gone on that Adalius Thomas will not be a New England Patriot next year. Do you think that they might be lucky enough to get a second round pick if they were to trade or would it be a third round pick or even lower? -- Damian Moran (Offaly, Ireland)
A: Damian, I think it would be a late-round pick, if that, mainly because of his high salary ($4.9 million). I don't think a team would give up a high pick and take on that salary based on what they see on film.
Q: Adalius Thomas inactive? That's a big deal. Hopefully, you'll be able to give us some more details and reactions. -- JB (Atlanta)
A: JB, I think Tedy Bruschi put it best: Three players who were late turned the page, and one had more trouble doing so. The coaches and some players obviously felt they couldn't depend on Thomas after seeing the way he responded to the situation. I'm not putting it all on Thomas -- one could make the point that maybe Bill Belichick should reach out to him and smooth things over (assuming he didn't already) -- but that's the way it looks to me.
Q: Will this team get anything out of Adalius Thomas for the rest of the year? Also, given the big financial commitment relative to the on-field return, is this the worst move of the Belichick era? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, I take my cue from Tedy Bruschi on this one because he's seen these type of situations unfold behind the scenes as a player. He says it's all a matter of responding and showing the necessary commitment throughout the week. If the coaches feel that Thomas does that, I think they would play him. I don't think it's a given that he's done. Given the financial commitment, I think you could call it the worst free-agent signing, but one point I'd make is that I didn't always think Thomas was used in a way that helped him thrive.
Q: Mike -- I have to disagree with Bill Belichick's handling of the lateness of the 4 guys -- and the proof is in the results. If he wanted to penalize them for being late, fine, no argument. But it should have been done in-house -- either a fine or extra laps, whatever. Instead he opted for a public humiliation of sending them home. Thomas was angry enough to mouth off, leaving him of the roster and the team without a pass rusher. Moss was clearly in the doldrums for Sunday's game. These guys are not only professionals but they also have a public image which they must maintain for the good of the team or their own future careers. To trash that image only leads to dissent and resentment. -- Alan (New York)
A: It's a fair point, Alan, although I am assuming that it wasn't Belichick or someone close to him who made this a public story. If he did, I'd agree with you. But my sense is that wasn't the way it went down.
Q: In regards to Belichick sending the four players home, what you wrote on Gary Guyton -- "He should be one hour and 3 minutes early instead of 3 minutes late" -- is foolish. As usual, every forecaster had it wrong. They said it would rain. To punish a player for being three minutes late in extreme conditions is stupid, not discipline. Why everyone bows to Belichick that this is a great idea is beyond me. He has uncharacteristically made big mistakes coaching this year and this is another. He is risking alienating Moss and key D players for something trivial while instead they need to come together to win the division. -- Joe (Foxborough, Mass.)
A: Joe, I respect your opinion and I don't think there is a right or wrong answer here. I have a few thoughts to pass along:
First, on Guyton, the point I was making is that a player in his second year should be arriving early and staying late because of where he is at that point of his career. Second, we don't know everything that goes on behind closed doors, so understanding the context of decisions is difficult. On that Monday, Belichick had urged the players to arrive early, stay late, and show more commitment to one another. When this happened two days later, I think he felt he needed to show that his words meant something. I'm not sure that would change one's opinion on the decision, but I think it's something to consider.
Third, I think it's fair to criticize Belichick for some of his decisions, and I've done that this season, most recently for going for it on fourth-and-1 against the Dolphins. On this particular decision, without knowing everything that goes on behind closed doors, I think it's tough to come out strongly one way or the other.
Q: How would you assess the overall performance of the offensive line? Injuries obviously play into it, but this seems to be a down year overall based on the lack of a consistent running game, pressure on Brady, and short yardage situations. The continuity on the line, back-ups and coaching were always a hallmark of this group. Wondering if age/injuries have caught up. Two years ago, Mankins was being penciled in as a All Pro. Now I wonder if he'll be allowed to walk in FA without much fanfare. -- Scott Cooley (Centerport, N.Y.)
A: Scott, I'd say the line is not as consistent as it has been in the past. More penalties, too. The fourth-down, short-yardage struggles stand out as well. I still think Mankins is the best player on the line; while he is tied for the team lead in penalties, I put him in the Daniel Graham category. Those are the type of players I would want on the team -- tough, physical, athletic, and nasty at times.
Q: Mike, what's the deal with Ron Brace? The Patriots drafted this guy in the second round, and he hasn't seen the field except for a few plays and has been beaten out by the likes of Myron Pryor, Terdell Sands (cut soon after) and now Titus Adams. Is this guy going to see the field or is he a bust? -- Joe
A: Joe, I think it's way too early to bring out the word "bust" when it comes to Brace. Health should be factored in to the analysis. I also think rookies develop at different rates, especially players on the defensive and offensive line, where strength and technique is often a big jump from the college game. It's disappointing that Brace hasn't yet made a big mark, but I don't think that means it won't happen in the future.
Q: Mike, while watching the Patriots' first half on Sunday I thought that maybe Belichick had lost this team for the first time in his Patriots tenure. They looked extremely sluggish and only a handful of players showed fight (Welker, Maroney, Wilfork, Brady, Sanders etc). But I am very encouraged with the quotes I read from Belichick on Monday sticking up for Moss. There is no better way to get your team on your back then to stand up tall for them in the media. I am hoping those comments will show the team he still has their back and they will get back to Patriots football. Do you think Belichick was close to losing this team? -- Matt (Boston)
A: Matt, when I watched the first half, I thought I had taken a trip back in time to the Dick MacPherson era of Patriots football. I didn't necessarily think Belichick had lost the team, but I thought the team itself had lost its edge. I looked at some of the personnel on the field and asked myself, "Do they have enough to get it done?" Turns out they did that day. I still wonder whether they will on a consistent basis coming down the stretch and possibly into the playoffs.
Q: Hi Mike, with the exception of the deep pass to Steve Smith on Sunday, the Panthers did not move the ball well against the Patriots' defense. Most of this is being attributed to Carolina's ineptitude rather than any improvements in the Patriots' D. Did you see any positive signs on the defensive side of the ball that us Pats fans can cling to as we enter the home stretch? Or was it all Carolina? -- Matt B. (Wilmington, Delaware)
A: I did see some positive signs, Matt, but I believe they should be kept in context. The Panthers' offense was the worst I've seen this season -- they couldn't even get lined up at times -- and that shouldn't be overlooked. I was surprised the Panthers stuck with Matt Moore at quarterback. I think A.J. Feeley would have given them a better chance to win. As for a few of the positive signs for the Patriots defense: 1) I thought James Sanders added stability and a calmness to the secondary; 2) Four tackles for a loss; 3) The re-emergence of Shawn Springs; 4) Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green giving a maximum effort and helping anchor down against the run.
Q: Hey Mike, I know Ben Watson and Chris Baker aren't elite pass-catching tight ends. However, with the Pats offense becoming somewhat predictable, why doesn't Bill O'Brien call some tight end screens? I used to love the play where Brady faked a quick pass one way and then rolled to other side for a screen. It worked so well with Daniel Graham. I think the Pats could take advantage of Watson's speed. The more options Brady has, the more dangerous this offense becomes. Your thoughts? -- Ian (Manchester, Conn.)
A: Ian, Tedy Bruschi was calling for the tight end screen this week as well. One of my all-time favorite plays from covering the Patriots was the Graham tight end screen in Atlanta -- a tremendous mix of speed, power and determination. It looked to me that while the Patriots didn't call tight end screens against the Panthers, they did make a concerted effort to get the ball to Watson, especially when there was a linebacker in coverage.
Q: My question/comment this week pertains specifically to Bill O'Brien and his play-calling. It was not lost on me that Bill Belichick spent a lot of time on the sidelines right next to O'Brien this week. I remember in the fourth quarter there was a drive when I was saying, 'OK, here we go, conservative play calling again', and then they snapped out of it. I do think one of their issues is coaching on offense. I have to think if Charlie Weis wants to come back here, with all the weapons he would have and the "coaching up" that needs to be done after taking a step back this year, he will come. Your thoughts? -- Chris (Natick, Mass.)
A: I think the Belichick observation is a good one, Chris. I noticed it too. He had the play sheet in his hand and seemed more involved. I thought O'Brien called a good game Sunday, with some nice changeups (e.g., Faulk running behind a lead-blocking fullback). He is a young coach in this role and is still growing. There have been some growing pains, for sure, but I think he is smart and a good coach. If Weis wants to come back, it would be a coup for the Patriots. At the same time, I think they can get where they want to go with O'Brien.
Q: Mike, I really enjoy your mailbags, but why can't you just admit both offensive and defensive coordinators stink? They don't make second-half adjustments and neither call an unpredictable/effective game plan. -- Peter Harris (San Diego)
A: Peter, I wouldn't write something that I don't believe to be true. I think it's too easy to point the finger at defensive coordinator Dean Pees and offensive play-caller Bill O'Brien. These guys are good coaches, teachers and communicators. They make mistakes like the rest of us, but I think this idea that you could put someone else in there and the results would change significantly is well off the mark.
Q: Watching the game in person on Sunday, does it appear that Brady isn't stepping into his throws? He seems to be using all arm, no leg drive at all, especially on the interception. Thoughts? -- Jeff (Natick, Mass.)
A: Jeff, I wrote the same thing as part of my halftime analysis. His mechanics looked different to me, which I speculated was a result of injuries. It would be interesting to hear the opinion of someone who has played quarterback in the NFL.
Q: Hey Mike, why did the Patriots come out with so little energy against the Panthers? Fox sideline reporter Tony Siragusa said, "This is the flattest game I've ever done." I thought after two losses the Patriots would come out of the gates on fire. What's plaguing the team's mindset? -- Ahmed Al-Salem (Syracuse, N.Y.)
A: Ahmed, my view of it was that they had a banged-up quarterback who was mustering all the energy he possibly could just to be out on the field. Defensively, they didn't have a player step up to provide a big play, which can sometimes provide a spark, so it was a performance in which the Patriots looked like they didn't have a pulse at times. That's why you have to tip your cap to Wes Welker. He single-handedly brought life to the Patriots and that stadium in the third quarter. I'm running out of things to write about Welker -- I've already called him the Patriots' most valuable player and the best trade acquisition of Bill Belichick's 10-year tenure. Now, rookie receiver Julian Edelman calls him the Rocky Balboa of the Patriots -- he keeps taking big blows and gets back up. What else can be written? The guy is just remarkable.
Q: I like the contract extension of Rob Ninkovich, as he has been a solid backup LB and a superb special teamer. With a possible exile of Adalius Thomas, do the Patriots expect him to play more defense this season? I'm afraid this might wear him down, especially after we witnessed the rise and fall of safety Brandon McGowan. I understand that playing at the top level for the entire season is a very hard work, and you cannot count too much on less experienced players. -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: Mark, Ninkovich was the top backup at outside linebacker behind Pierre Woods and Tully Banta-Cain on Sunday, and came onto the field as a defensive end/pass rusher in a 4-2-5 nickel package. He was on the field for 17 of 58 snaps (two penalties included). That seems like his role at this point.
Q: Hey Mike, I'm wondering if anyone is going to report on the Patriots running game against Carolina? All this week I've been hearing the Patriots are one-dimensional and teams are starting to play the pass and figure them out. However, against the Panthers, the Patriots ran for 185 yards. Brady passed for 192. You can't get much more balanced than that. -- Brendan Sandall (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
A: The running game was solid, with Belichick making the point that the team had its most success on outside runs in some time. One factor to consider is that the Panthers are not a good run-stopping team. They entered the game ranked 26th against the run and 30th in average yards per carry. I think the positive thing for the Patriots is that they showed they could exploit that. Laurence Maroney, who has quieted his critics, has seemingly turned a corner. He is running very hard, punishing defenders at times. The Bills rank last in the NFL against the run, so it's time to pound it again.
Q: I was happy to see the Patriots offense get some balance in the game against Carolina. They need to get back to basics. Run the football and keep the defense honest. I think they have gotten too pass happy in recent times. Run the ball, control the clock, low risk passing plays -- that used to be the game-plan. Your thoughts? -- Neil (Southington, Conn.)
A: I think it's a very good point, Neil, especially given the health of Brady. As Belichick said in his Monday press conference, at this time of year in the Northeast, you have to be able to run the ball.
Q: Hey Mike, my biggest question to you why is there so much being made of the Pats defense failing when the offense can't put enough points on the board? -- Jorge (Mexico)
A: I guess it's just a matter of perspective, Jorge. I think both units are struggling a bit. One concern for the offense is that the points per game have declined over the last three weeks. For a unit that averaged 28 points per game, they have put up 17, 21 and 20 in each of the last three weeks. I'd say that's not a good sign at a time when teams want to be building momentum in December. The defense hasn't exactly inspired much confidence either.
Q: Hey Mike, love the mailbag. Why do you think Vollmer is not starting? Do you anticipate Belichick making any coaching staff changes in the offseason? -- Oleg (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Oleg, I thought the offensive tackle rotation in Sunday's game was interesting. I broke it down on our Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com, and even though Vollmer did not start, he played more than Nick Kaczur. While Kaczur's fourth-quarter shoulder injury must be factored into the analysis, what this tells me is that the Patriots believe they have three starters at offensive tackle. It's a nice problem to have. As for the second part of the question, Belichick usually tweaks the coaching staff each year, so I'd project that to be the case once again. It's difficult without knowing which coaches have contracts that expire.
Q: I am interested by the Patriots' safety situation after this season. What happens to Pat Chung? He was our top draft pick this year, and I'd hate to see him become a glorified special teamer. At the same time, the Pats are pretty well stocked at safety with Meriweather, McGowan and Sanders. So what do you see happening at safety? I personally like Meriweather at free safety and Chung at strong safety, with Sanders coming in for sub packages and McGowan on special teams. -- David Fowler (Upton, Mass.)
A: David, as with the offensive tackles, I think these are good problems to have, assuming each player keeps improving. I think all four can have important roles because defensive backs are like pitchers in baseball -- you can never have enough of them in the pass-happy NFL. I could see McGowan's being more prominent in the game plan in a week when the Patriots play a big-time tight end. Or if the Patriots feel they need more of a veteran presence to settle things down, it's Sanders. I think Chung shows promise, and I could envision him in there as well.
Q: Mike, when you look at successful teams these days, they all can bring pressure on opposing quarterbacks, often times without blitzing. The Patriots' defensive philosophy seems to have always favored the big body D-linemen that tie up the offensive linemen instead of having D-linemen that are quicker and attack. Is Belichick's defensive philosophy outdated for today's NFL, or is it just talent that is lacking? If it is philosophy, is Bill even capable of changing the team's approach? -- Mike Cusack (York, Maine)
A: I think this is a compelling topic, Mike, and I'll call myself out on this one for being a bit wishy-washy in the past. My feeling is that the scheme is good. In the end, it's up to management to get the right players in there to implement it. You look at the quicker, attacking defenses, such as Carolina's, and they don't always hold up against the run. I wouldn't want a defense like that -- too easily overpowered, as we saw Sunday. I favor the big, physical approach, with a mix of an attacking style. The Patriots attack more than people realize -- entering Sunday's game, they ranked 13th in the NFL in terms of blitzes, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but don't have the results to show for it. That's why I think we'll see an offseason focus on bringing in multiple players in the front seven to bolster the pass rush.
Q: Mike, I am wondering what happened to Tom Brady's ability to spread the ball out to different players on the field as he did in all three of our Super Bowl seasons. It seems as if after 2007 Brady is only recognizing Welker in short yardage situations and is forcing the ball to Moss in red-zone situations. Ben Watson and Chris Baker are both excellent pass-catching tight ends. Whatever happened to Faulk in third down situations? Sam Aiken seems like a decent receiver. Welker and Moss are both in the top three for receivers in the NFL. Some may look at that and see that as a good sign, but I disagree. Could Brady's inability to spread out the ball be the cause of his second-half woes and his inability to put the game away? -- Derek Seligman (West Springfield, Mass.)
A: Derek, I chatted with ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer about this last week, and he says the offense has become simplistic and has lost some of its multiplicity. I'll defer to his expertise on that. I think part of it is that the coaches can do more to get some of those other players involved, and it seemed that Sunday against the Panthers was a step in that direction. I thought one of the best calls of the game was a screen for Laurence Maroney. I think he can help the Patriots in the passing game. In the end, it's about the players and capitalizing on their strengths.
Q: Hi Mike, how come Laurence Maroney does not return kicks and is not involved in special teams? He has done a nice job in the past returning kicks. Also, Welker does well with punt returning, but I'm afraid he will get hurt. He is too valuable as a receiver to be returning punts. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, I think the Patriots must have read your e-mail before Sunday's game, because they had Maroney back returning kickoffs for the first time in a while in hopes of sparking that part of their game. The biggest thing with Maroney back there is subjecting him to more big hits. The same concerns you have for Welker on punt returns is what the Patriots are thinking with Maroney on kickoffs.
Q: Red Zone, Red Zone, Red Zone. I know Bill Belichick said "stats are for losers", but so are the Pats red zone stats. Can that be fixed by the playoffs? -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)
A: Dan, the Patriots rank 23rd in red zone offense (26 touchdowns in 54 trips, 48.1 percent) and 26th in red zone defense (opponents have 17 touchdowns in 29 trips, 60.7 percent). I think they have shown some improvement there in recent weeks, so I'll take the glass-half-full view. While many would probably say "you are what you are" at this point, this one is a little different. The return of veteran running back Fred Taylor could also help.