This week's mailbag looks back at the devastating news of Wes Welker's left knee injury while also looking ahead to the Patriots' playoff matchup against the Ravens.
A few other topics that came up multiple times:
1. Why can't the defense close out games in the fourth quarter?
2. What do the coaches see in cornerback Jonathan Wilhite?
3. Looking back at Bill Belichick's decision-making in playing Welker and rotating his quarterbacks.
4. Is Laurence Maroney getting a raw deal?
Let's get right to the questions. ...
Q: Hey Mike, do you think Wes' injury will force the Patriots to finally rely on the run? Once again on Sunday, the Pats abandoned the run in the fourth quarter, when they reverted to the shotgun in the clutch. Predictably, it led to the loss. With very few receiver options against Baltimore, it seems as though the Pats will finally have to do what they should've been doing all season long: running the ball. -- Andrew (Washington, D.C.)
A: Andrew, I still think the Patriots will have to rely on the pass to beat the Ravens. That's where the matchups, even without Welker, are best for the Patriots in my opinion. Part of the reason is that the Ravens' front is very hard to move to create running lanes. The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (93.3) and first in rushing average allowed (3.4 per rush). So although the Patriots will need to run to keep things as balanced as possible, I see this as a game in which they'll need everyone in the passing game -- Randy Moss, Julian Edelman, Kevin Faulk and more -- because it is a great challenge to run on this team.
Q: Mike, time for Kevin Faulk -- Mr. Reliable -- with dumps and screens. This guy is seriously underrated. I predict he will have a big run. What do you think? -- Tivey (Concord, N.H.)
A: I think it's a great thought, Tivey. The natural thought is that without Welker, the Patriots will need to lean heavier on Randy Moss. There is probably some truth to that, but in my view, this is a situation where you comb your roster and go through every playmaking possibility and find a way to get each one involved. Faulk is probably No. 2 on the list behind Moss, as I'd plan on keeping him on the field for the majority of snaps. This will be the greatest challenge of playcaller Bill O'Brien's season: how he taps into the different parts of the roster to create some positive movement on offense. I think the Patriots need to get Laurence Maroney back on board, too. They are deep at running back, and those backs need to be big parts of this plan in the passing game.
Q: Mike, the loss of Welker obviously is very impacting and devastating. Do you think it affects the Patriots' chances in the playoffs so much that they can't make it to the Super Bowl or the AFC championship? -- Allie (Fred., Va.)
A: I do think it has a major impact on their chances, Allie. It was going to be tough with Welker. Now it's going to be even tougher without him. I would never count out a team coached by Belichick or quarterbacked by Tom Brady, but it would be a surprise to me if they make it that far.
Q: Hi Mike, the injury to Welker is as devastating, as was Belichick's decision to play him. That was quite unwise, especially knowing the serious consequences that resulted from Brady's injury. It put Welker, the team and organization at quite an unnecessary risk given his critical importance to their playoff hopes in a near meaningless Texans game. The "injuries can happen at any time" reasoning is not good enough here given his importance. Resting players such as Faulk and Maroney and not Welker, who has endured the same big hits, made no sense and put him at much more risk. Once again, Belichick's judgment deserves real examination. What are your thoughts? -- Jake (Vancouver)
A: I respect the point of view, Jake, and I think it's just a matter of opinion. I don't think there is a right or wrong answer. I didn't have a big issue with Welker's playing, as I thought the idea of building some momentum through 15 to 30 minutes was a nice way to go into the playoffs.
Q: Mike, per your comments regarding the QB switches, couldn't it be that Coach Belichick found out what was really happening to Wes Welker at halftime and wanted Tom Brady to get game reps with Julian Edelman with the playoffs in mind? -- Mike Bear (Greenwich, Conn.)
A: That was one line of thinking, Mike, although Belichick said otherwise on his weekly appearance on sports radio WEEI.
Q: Mike, while I still don't quite understand why our best receiver was in for a meaningless game (or Brady and Moss for that matter), hindsight is always 20-20, and I guess injuries happen. Having said that, do you think this is a season Bill Belichick will look back on and learn from? -- Steve (San Diego)
A: Steve, some of Belichick's decisions have backfired, and I think he's the type of coach who goes back over everything, reviews the decision-making process and then takes that information and applies it to future situations. He's a great coach. Even the best coaches don't make the right decisions all the time.
Q: Mike, a really depressing thought here, but I have to ask: If the reports are accurate about Welker tearing both his ACL and MCL, and assuming we are looking at a recovery/rehab period of up to a year, do we have to concede the possibility of Welker not playing at all in 2010? Could you also clear up the rules for me regarding Welker returning next season from a roster point of view? -- Dave G. (Birmingham, England)
A: Dave, it is a possibility that should be considered: the idea that Welker might not play in 2010 if the initial injury diagnosis is correct. At this point, I think it's early to say one way or the other. As for the rules, assuming there isn't a full recovery at that point, Welker could open the season on the physically unable to perform list, so he wouldn't count on the 53-man roster. Any time between Weeks 6 and 9 of the season, the Patriots could start the clock on him. From the time the Patriots start the clock, they have three weeks to make a decision on whether to put him on the roster.
Q: Mike, Welker's injury obviously raises huge questions for the playoffs. But beyond that, what do you see the Patriots doing for 2010? If this is an ACL injury, that means about a 12-month recovery/rehab period at best. Do you see the Pats looking to the draft to fill the void left by Welker, or is there perhaps an unrestricted free agent out there who could suddenly become more attractive to the Pats? -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)
A: I'd say both, Neil. They should look to the draft and free agency and protect themselves in both areas. Given some of the quick returns from rookie receivers this season (e.g., Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Austin Collie), I think that could lessen the team's reluctance to select a player at that position. (Belichick has said in the past that projecting college receivers to the NFL is more difficult than other positions.) At the same time, I think you work free agency as well, and a player such as Deion Branch, if he is available, would be someone I would put near the top of the list.
Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering why Belichick seems to have a different set of standards with his running backs. When Maroney fumbled last week (I know he's fumbled in big spots a few times this season), he got benched for the rest of the game, then deactivated this week. When Fred Taylor fumbles and costs them seven points, he's put right back in the next series (with Sammy Morris and BenJarvus Green-Ellis available). Doesn't this send a bad message to Maroney and others and show a double standard? -- Dan Maloof (Duxbury, Mass.)
A: I see what you are saying on this one, Dan, although one thing I'd caution is that we don't know everything that's happening behind the scenes. On Monday on sports radio WEEI, Belichick said, "We activated the backs we wanted to play." That caught my attention and made me wonder whether there was something about Maroney's practice performance that led to the decision to deactivate him. On the flip side, maybe the Patriots were resting him because they knew they would need him in the playoffs. The other point is what you brought up -- Maroney had lost three fumbles earlier in the season. That was Taylor's first.
Q: Mike, with all of the running backs seemingly healthy heading into the playoffs, do you see Maroney possibly being on the kickoff-return unit? He may add a spark to a unit that has been struggling. -- Mike (Bethlehem, Pa.)
A: Mike, if Maroney has a good week of practice, I'd say yes. The Patriots are going to need all the weapons they have, and Maroney can be explosive at times. I don't think you hold anything back, and I think he's the Pats' best option at kickoff returner. Another concern is at punt returner, where Welker was tremendous. The Patriots will need to fill that void, too (probably with Kevin Faulk or Julian Edelman).
Q: Mike, the Pats' defense looked fantastic for three quarters against the Texans. It gave up only 13 points. Then the fourth-quarter collapse came and went. Isn't the offense's inability to finish drives in the second half the reason the Pats' defense is so gassed at the end of games? -- Steven (Boston, Mass.)
A: That might be part of it, Steven, but there wasn't a drastic difference in time of possession (Texans 31:34, Patriots 28:26). Also, the defense was on the field for most of the third quarter because of Darius Butler's 91-yard interception return for a touchdown. I think you can boil it down to two fourth-quarter plays -- third-and-15 when Jacoby Jones caught a 17-yard pass and third-and-12 when Andre Johnson caught a 15-yard pass. If you can't get off the field in those situations, I think that's solely on the defense, not the offense.
Q: There were two words that came to mind watching Jonathan Wilhite get burned over and over again by the Texans: Duane Starks. If Maroney is going to get benched for a fumble, shouldn't a corner who can't cover also see some extended time on the pine? -- Seth (St. Louis)
A: Seth, Wilhite was the closest defender on the two third-and-long plays on the Texans' first two scoring drives of the fourth quarter. It didn't look good. At the same time, I also saw it as a reflection of a lack of a pass rush. On third-and-15 and third-and-12, you'd like to think that you could force the quarterback to hurry a bit and not give the route a chance to develop that far down the field. But on the whole, I'm with you on Wilhite. He has not impressed.
Q: Hello Mike, although this game was "meaningless," I cannot help but wonder why the Pats keep blowing big leads in the fourth quarter. The same thing happened against the Colts and Miami. We cannot really go for the kill shot, and as a result, we keep losing. What do you think seems to be the issue? -- Bharat (R.I.)
A: I'd boil it down to playmakers. There aren't enough of them on the defense. In situations like the Patriots have encountered in the fourth quarter, they need one player to step up and make a play. It's third-and-15 and third-and-12. Someone needs to pressure the quarterback or sack him. Someone needs to bat the ball away. Those are situations where defenses that can close the deal find a way to make the play. The Patriots haven't done it consistently enough.
Q: Happy new year, Mike! The run defense against the Houston Texans was terrible and was one of the reasons the Pats lost. It seemed like at times they had Mike Wright as their only true lineman in there with Banta-Cain and Burgess. Is that correct? I just feel that without Warren and Wilfork, it will be very difficult to win on Sunday. -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I wouldn't read too much into the Patriots' run defense Sunday in Houston, as the picture will look completely different against the Ravens. I would expect Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren to be back and the Patriots to be in their 3-4 alignment. Against the Texans, they played a lot of sub defense, almost conceding parts of the running game in an attempt to create more favorable matchups in the passing game. When the Patriots were in a base defense, it was a 4-3 look with lighter ends who aren't natural fits in terms of setting the edge.
Q: Hi Mike, just a couple of quick thoughts after the Houston game: Pick a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame for Wes Welker's jersey. No one has represented the team any better. Pick a spot on the healthy scratch list for Jonathan Wilhite. I bet he has trouble covering his grill. I would have to rate the Pats' draft needs as (1) pass rusher(s), (2) wide receiver 3) punter. No surprise that Jeff Fisher jumped to the Colts' defense after they tanked the Jets game and a perfect record. Can you imagine what the leaguewide indignation would be if the Patriots backed into the playoffs like the Jets did? -- John Ford (Walpole, Mass.)
A: Fair thoughts, John, although I thought the Colts faced a Patriots-like backlash for their decision not to chase immortality. I don't think they were expecting such a strong reaction. As for the question, I have come to the conclusion this year that almost everything involving the Patriots seems like a bigger deal than elsewhere. If Belichick was on the competition committee like Colts president Bill Polian, for example, I would think there would have been a campaign to have him removed. Let's call it for what it is: Polian has been good to important people in the media, while Belichick doesn't play favorites. That's one reason the reaction, in my view, always seems a bit sharper when the Patriots are the focus.
Q: Mike, would you sort out who are the personnel for the five linebackers and six defensive backs defense? This package appears to be a good way to utilize agile LBs, and I'm wondering if success of this package changes the draft strategy next year. -- Mark J. (Japan)
A: Mark, the package seemed to take a step back against the Texans. Up front, you usually have Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. In the secondary, it's Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden, Jonathan Wilhite, James Sanders, Brandon McGowan and Brandon Meriweather. With Bodden out of Sunday's game, Darius Butler stepped in.
Q: Mike, since Julian Edelman was converted to WR, does he also take QB reps and prepare to be the third QB for the Patriots? As the playoffs approach, who would play QB in an emergency situation if Brady and Brian Hoyer go down? Isaiah Stanback, Edelman ... Faulk? -- Sameer (New York, N.Y.)
A: Sameer, Edelman's reps come at receiver. The only time he'd go to quarterback would be as part of a surprise package, similar to what we saw in the second Jets game (when he fumbled a snap). I think Stanback would be the likely No. 3 option. If not, perhaps the Pats would promote quarterback Jeff Rowe from the practice squad to the active roster.
Q: What's Bernard Pollard's contract situation? Any way the Pats can sign him and just put him on IR so he won't torture them anymore? -- Brett C. (Plymouth, Minn.)
A: Good one, Brett. I don't think Pollard would go for that plan, but he is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason.
Q: Is the decision to start James Sanders alongside Brandon Meriweather due to a falling stock of Brandon McGowan, or more a result of Sanders' recent high level of play? Sanders was the starter at the beginning of the season, and McGowan stepped in when James was hurt; however, I was beginning to think he had lost his starting job for the remainder of the season, as McGowan certainly has done a respectable job. -- Al (N.H.)
A: I think it's a little bit of both, but the initial change back to Sanders was probably a result of McGowan's missing a few crucial assignments (e.g., New Orleans).
Q: Are the coaches doing something different with Derrick Burgess in recent weeks (such as playing him on the end in a 3-4)? He seems to have shown steady improvement in the past month or so. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Burgess played a bit over the guard against the Bills as a 3-4 defensive end, which was a changeup. On Sunday in Houston, he was mostly an end on a four-man line. I thought he was especially active against the Texans, although there were a few times when it looked as if he struggled in the running game.
Q: Do you really know for a fact that the Browns tried to sign four Patriots practice-squad players to their team, but the players stayed with the Patriots instead? Who were the other three besides Titus Adams? I can't believe that four players making $4,700 per month would turn down a $320,000 minimum-level salary. -- Randy (Cleveland)
A: Sure, Randy. In addition to Adams, the Browns also attempted to sign cornerback Kyle Arrington earlier in the season, but the Patriots promoted him to the active roster. Arrington talked about his mindset at the time. Offensive lineman Ryan Wendell, who was just promoted to the Patriots' roster, is a third player. That is three of the four. Part of the way the Patriots were able to keep them was by bumping up their salary on the practice squad.
Q: Hi Mike, another offseason coming up, and a few more of our starters not offered an extension during their rookie contract. It looks like Vince Wilfork will be finally getting a good payday, but probably with someone else. It probably will end up being one of those Matt Cassel deals -- franchise, then trade for picks. I guess the Patriots may be able to hang onto Logan Mankins and Stephen Gostkowski for another year without a collective bargaining agreement, but the question remains: Why are the Patriots unwilling to offer contract extensions to top players when they are still in their rookie deals? I can see Meriweather and Jerod Mayo becoming free agents in another couple of years, just when they are hitting their peak. -- Woody (Moncton, N.B.)
A: It's a fair question, Woody, and one with an answer that has a few different layers. First, the Patriots have extended some players in their rookie deals (e.g., Ty Warren, Dan Koppen, Matt Light and Richard Seymour), but there have been some noticeable players on the other side of the ledger (most recently Asante Samuel). So it's not as if it's only one way. My opinion is that the Patriots play the leverage game and are disciplined in doing so -- they are less apt to sign an extension before they have to unless the deal is discounted based on what the player might receive on the open market. Warren's case is a good example of this. I think back to the Samuel negotiations, and I think it was a case where had they been willing to stretch their offer a bit earlier in the process, they could have signed him at what turned out to be reasonable dollars for a top cornerback. The challenge is that Samuel had yet to prove himself as a top cornerback at the time those numbers were on the table, so there was a tough projection involved. There is a risk/reward, proactive/reactive, give-and-take element to all these situations. My feeling is that the Patriots are generally conservative -- they'd rather lose a player by being patient than making a big financial mistake.
Q: Hi Mike, would the Pats extend Logan Mankins' contract? Would he get an average of $6 million per year in the next five to seven years? -- Yang (Edmonton, Alberta)
A: Yang, I think the Patriots are waiting to see what happens with the NFL's uncertain labor situation before dealing with Mankins' contract. If there is no salary cap, Mankins is not an unrestricted free agent. If there is a salary cap, Mankins would be an unrestricted free agent, and that's when I think there would be a greater effort to try to consummate an extension. A player of Mankins' caliber would be looking at an open-market value of about $7 million per season.
Q: Mike, what is the contract situation with Wes Welker? How many more years? Do you see him leaving, as he will deserve more money than the Pats will pay according to their value approach to negotiations? -- Jim (Spencer, Mass.)
A: Jim, Welker is signed through 2011, so it seems as if contract negotiations are a bit far off. Plus, his injury complicates the situation.
Q: With the Bills' Jairus Byrd being on injured reserve and getting named a Pro Bowl reserve safety, could Brandon Meriweather get the honor in relief? -- Adam (Amherst, N.H.)
A: I could see it as a possibility, Adam, although I am not aware of anything being made official at this time. Meriweather has had a few noticeable missteps this season, but he's also played more than any other defender. Plus, when you think of the third-down stop he made against the Jaguars, it was a Pro Bowl-caliber play.
Q: Mike, doesn't it bug you that Dom Capers is having such a tremendous year leading Green Bay's defense when he struggled in a much lesser role in New England? Why couldn't he do here what he's been doing there? -- Shirley (Burlington, Vt.)
A: The big difference, Shirley, is that Capers is running his defensive system in Green Bay as the coordinator. In New England, he was the secondary coach, and the Patriots weren't running his system. I think both systems can be successful, and Capers is obviously a very good coach who has good personnel to work with.
Q: Hi Mike, I was just wondering if you had the totals for number of games started for each player, offense/defense. I think that would be a really interesting stat to look at, as I know we've seen many different combinations at all positions. -- Milad (East Bay, Calif.)
A: That is on my to-do list this week, and I'll plan to post that on our Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com. I got sidetracked a bit when a virus knocked me out on the way back from Houston, so things are a bit slower than normal.
Q: Mike, this being the first year of the Pro Bowl being played the week before the Super Bowl, are the two Super Bowl teams and their players given exclusion to the Pro Bowl? Also, great job covering the Tri-Valley League years ago in your other life. -- Erik (Bellingham, Mass.)
A: Erik, Pro Bowl players who will be playing in the Super Bowl won't suit up for the Pro Bowl. That is the tradeoff that the NFL made in moving the game. As for those old Tri-Valley League days, those were a lot of fun, watching Ricky Santos lead the Bellingham Blackhawks to all those football victories.
Q: Mike, how do you recognize when the Pats are using a sub defense? Is it the personnel they use, or where/how they line up, or both? -- Katherine (Boston, Mass.)
A: The main thing is the personnel, Katherine. A base defense would have four defensive backs and seven players up front. When a sub defense is used, one or more defensive backs are added.
Q: Hey Mike, I have two questions: 1) What has happened to Terrence Wheatley? He was a 2008 second-round pick, and I have not heard anything on him this season. 2) Do you think Bill Belichick would ever go after newly unemployed special-teams coach Bobby April from Buffalo? The Bills always seem to have above-average special-teams units. -- Philip Berardinelli (Braintree, Mass.)
A: Wheatley has dipped to the bottom of the cornerback depth chart, playing in only five games this year. At this point, it looks as though the coaching staff feels Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler are better options. As for the special teams and April, his reputation is deserved, as he is an excellent coach. But I don't envision a change there. I think Belichick will stay with Scott O'Brien.