Commentary

Patriots Mailbag: Fourth ... and long

Some final thoughts on 4th-and-2, then moving on to pressing issues moving forward

Updated: November 17, 2009, 6:14 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

There is little surprise as to what topic dominates this week's Patriots mailbag: Bill Belichick's fourth-down call. The Patriots' heartbreaking loss to the Colts starts there.

The first half of the mailbag is devoted to the fourth-down play and other elements of the team's loss to the Colts. There is a lot to digest.

For those looking to move on, the second half of the mailbag focuses on bigger-picture issues surrounding the team, such as rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer and what his strong performance means when Matt Light returns.

On to the questions ...

Q: Tedy Bruschi made the comment that Bill Belichick sent a message to his defense that they won't easily forget. But the defense showed Belichick absolutely nothing in the previous drive. Even if they were in some sort of "prevent", that defensive stand (or lack thereof) was pitiful. If the defense wanted their coach to show them some sort of respect, they should have shown that they deserved it and I'm quite certain that letting the Colts drive 80 yards in a minute wasn't exactly what he was hoping to see. Given the choice between Tom Brady or his defense to ice the game, Belichick made the right call. -- Tim (Atlanta, Ga.)

A: I understand the point of view, Tim, and see both sides of the decision-making process. I don't think going for it on fourth-and-2 is reckless as some have suggested, and as you mention, the defense had given up two 79-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter (in 2:04 and 1:49). At the same time, I personally would have punted the ball away given all the factors involved. I thought the decision to go for it -- when factoring in the results of potentially not making it -- conceded too much to the Colts. The Colts have some inexperienced players who haven't been in those situations before, such as receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, and you never know how they will respond. I would have liked to have seen them have to drive a bit further.

Q: Mike, my view of Bill Belichick's call is that the defense was gassed. How long did they take to score the TD before the winner? Starting the game without two defensive line starters and then losing Tully Banta-Cain and his replacement put the D behind the 8-ball. What do you think? -- Dan (Los Angeles)

A: Dan, I think that was part of why Belichick made the decision. Belichick's feel for the game was probably that the tide had turned toward the Colts' offense. My counter to that would be that the possession before that second touchdown, the Patriots intercepted Manning on the first play. I don't think it's black and white and both sides could make a compelling argument. As for the Banta-Cain situation, and then Rob Ninkovich also getting hurt, I don't think that alone was enough reason to go for it. The Patriots had Adalius Thomas in that role and he is not a bad third option to have. For those who want to see Thomas rushing the passer more consistently, this was the game for that. Results looked so-so in terms of Thomas generating pressure off the right edge. A game like this highlights the disappointment surrounding Thomas.

Q: I don't know about you, but I thought it was the dumbest move Belichick has made in his coaching career. I respect what he has done over the years but this one took me by surprise. -- Tyrin (East St. Louis)

A: I wouldn't go that far, Tyrin. You consider all the factors and a solid case can be made for going for it. I actually respect Belichick's conviction to make the unconventional call -- and aggressiveness in going for the win -- even though I disagree with it. Unlike others, I don't think it was ghastly or a brain freeze or the worst of his career. To compare it to Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in the game seems like a major stretch to me. Hypothetically, let's say he punted and the Colts won -- which wouldn't have surprised many -- most of the discussion would be on how great Manning is and/or how the Patriots' defense had another collapse in Indianapolis. It was a tough spot and Belichick's decision didn't work out. I didn't agree with it, but I sure as heck respect it. He's not afraid to take the heat. It's why I think he's one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Q: Mike, we have no choice but to admit that the Pats are no longer a mentally tough team. Mentally tough teams do not blow huge leads or fail to convert first downs when needed most. The string of big games the Pats have failed to close out keeps getting longer -- '06 AFC Championship, Super Bowl, OT vs. the Jets in '08, and this recent game versus the Colts. These are games lost due to lack of mental toughness and a series of breakdowns at the worst times. This goes for players and coaches. It is sad but true. -- Matt (Simsbury, Conn.)

A: Matt, there is little argument from me in terms of the Patriots' ability to close out some of these big games, and part of that is mental toughness. But I don't think I'd go that far and say that just because of those games that the team (players and coaches) is completely void of mental toughness. This is still a good team that has shown mental toughness. They'll need a lot of it this week.

[+] EnlargeKevin Faulk
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesWere the Patriots a victim of a bad spot on the infamous fourth-down play? Because the Patriots had burned all of their timeouts, they couldn't challenge it.

Q: Mike I've read your stuff for a long time now and am curious why you and others on this site are not looking at the fact that Kevin Faulk had the first down. I'm not saying to scream robbery but at least give some credit to Bill Belichick and the offense in this situation. He went for it he got it and the call was missed. It happens. But he was right in going for it. -- Jae (Pennsylvania)

A: Joe, I didn't think the replay was conclusive to determine that Faulk definitely had the first down. The official ruled that Faulk was bobbling the ball, so he wasn't granted forward progress and it was hard for me to tell on the replay that there was clear possession throughout the process of the catch. I don't think it's clear-cut that Faulk definitely had the first down.

Q: Was Faulk the first option? If so, why, on a team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker? Also, if they had decided to go for it on fourth down anyway, why not two running plays from third-and-2? -- Rob (Ashland, Ore.)

A: Rob, Faulk explained after the game that there is no first or second option on a play like that. They spread the field and it's based on the coverage and what the quarterback sees. As for the second part of the question, I think you are right on. If the Patriots decided on third down that they were going for it on fourth down as well, the proper call on third down is to run the ball and make the Colts burn their final timeout or take it to the two-minute warning. Those are the type of decisions the Patriots pride themselves on because they reflect smart situational football. That's why I believe the Patriots hadn't truly decided to go for it until it was actually fourth down. This was a significant part of their game management breakdown in my view.

Q: Hey Mike, why do you think Brady called that timeout, after coming back from a TV timeout? Whose fault was that? -- Dan (Palm Bay, Fla.)

A: Dan, I asked Brady that question after the game and he said it was a personnel mix-up. The Patriots didn't have the right play-call to match the personnel on the field. That is on the coaching staff. Mistakes like that can't happen in critical junctures of the game like that. The overall game management down the stretch was not good.

Q: Everyone is focusing on Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2. While I too question the decision (after the fact), I think the focus should be on blowing the timeouts that would have given him the opportunity to challenge the ref's call. I'm also curious what this decision to go for it does to the defensive team? -- Otis (Boston)

A: I think this is a great point, Otis. The blown timeouts, to me, are more of an issue than the debatable decision to go for it on fourth-and-2. I think most would agree that it is a terrible breakdown when you are blowing your second timeout after a break in the action. That is inexcusable. And then to have such confusion on whether to punt or go for it -- a decision that was supposedly made on third down -- was also poor. I'm sure Belichick has lost some sleep over the way that went down, because that's on the coaches. Knowing how much time the coaches put into this, it has to eat at them. As for what this does to the defense, I think it's something that should be monitored closely. I respect Tedy Bruschi's opinion and he wrote strongly on this Monday.

Q: I think Bill Belichick should have punted on fourth and 2 and more importantly, I think his defensive players deep down feel that way too. Do you think this will affect them for the Jets game, which is a very big game or will they bounce back quickly? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: I think it can't help but linger a bit, David, but my feeling is that they'll ultimately bounce back and win that game. This was a topic that I wrote about on ESPNBoston.com, how the team's response to this will define its season.

Q: In the aftermath of the devastating loss, I have so many questions but my most pressing concern/question is how much of this loss can be pinned on the lack of a running game? The Pats just can't seem to close teams out like they did during the Super Bowl years. Part of that I think is attributable to not having a defense they can count on to step up and make a play (as is evidenced by needing to go for it on 4th and 2). But I think a big part of it is not being able to grind games out in the fourth quarter. As proficient as the Pats were Sunday, they weren't engineering long scoring drives and taking time off the clock. Nowhere was the lack of running game more apparent than the play calling in the last sequence. If this was '04, on third and 2 Corey Dillon goes up the middle for a first down. The Pats simply don't have that type of back healthy and possibly not on the roster. After that long-winded explanation, my question is -- how do you see the Pats figuring this out as we get into winter football? -- Jeff (Charlestown, Mass.)

A: Fair point, Jeff, as Laurence Maroney's prior goal-line fumble was probably a factor in the Patriots' decision-making in terms of trying to pound the ball in that situation. I can't imagine the confidence was particularly high in Maroney at that time, which might explain why Faulk was on the field. As for what this means going forward, I think the return of Sammy Morris and possibly Fred Taylor will help. Maroney was building momentum leading into the game, but the fumble sets him back.

Q: Mike, I for one have no problem with the call to go for it on fourth and 2. I actually wanted them to. What I don't understand is why Belichick didn't allow the Colts to score, which he had to know was almost as inevitable as the Pats getting the first down. With more than a minute in that situation, I want to see the ball in Brady's hands at the end of the game. Yet I didn't hear a single reporter put that question to Belichick. -- Gooby

A: I heard Belichick talk about this on his regular Monday interview on sports radio WEEI in Boston. He brought up the 2003 goal-line stand when Willie McGinest stopped Edgerrin James at the goal line. His feeling is that you have to make them earn it, and I agree.

Q: Mike, I find it very annoying that so many Boston writers feel the need to attack Belichick at every opportunity. Although I know it was a poor decision in the game I can't criticize because I was yelling at the screen saying go for it. Overall, this is only one game which I would have love to seen us win but I still feel that we are a better team and will beat them in the playoffs. If Belichick ever decided to listen to some of the writers and leave town then we would be losing one of the leagues best coaches and a far as I can tell you can't just find a great coach in the classifieds. -- Mike (New Brunswick, Canada)

A: Mike, I think it's fair game for columnists and analysts to question the coaching decision. The role of the columnist is to be opinionated and spark discussion, and this type of decision is right in the wheelhouse for them. Where I think it goes too far is when it gets personal. It's probably not a stretch to say that some writers who don't like Belichick, Robert Kraft or the Patriots sharpen their knives a bit in situations like these.

Q: I know the questions are coming fast and furious about Bill's decision, but it's time to question another decision, his inability to truly comprehend that Dean Pees is inadequate when it comes to being a defensive coordinator. Bill always says it's his job to put his players in the best possible position to win, so shouldn't the same hold true to Dean Pees? Mike, I think it's time for you to stop defending Mr. Pees, and accept he is part of the problem and not part of the solution. He calls an awful game, and I laugh when the Colts think Bill disrespected their defense, when in reality he disrespected his own defense, which is led by Dean Pees. Mike, isn't time to go in a new direction? -- Howard (West New York, N.J.)

A: I thought the defense had a solid plan against one of the best offensive teams in the NFL, Howard, and my main criticism would be that the Patriots seemed to get away from it late in the game. Overall, though, I don't think this game is on Dean Pees, although the coaching staff as a whole had some uncharacteristic game management problems, more on the offensive side in terms of burning timeouts. My opinion hasn't changed on Pees based on this game. The other point I'd make is that while Pees coordinates the defense, there shouldn't be any doubt that this is Bill Belichick's defense.

Q: Hi Mike, my concern again this week is our secondary. First, why do we always seem to be in a prevent/soft zone style of defense in the fourth quarter of big games? It gets chewed up every time. Also, why was Jonathan Wilhite (who looked really, really bad), our third best corner, covering the best receiver in the game all night? Finally, I have to express my concern regarding our lack of a No. 1 corner. We've come a long way from last year, but until we get a bona fide No. 1 corner, we will continue to lose games in the fourth quarter against elite quarterbacks (especially with clock-stopping Maroney as our feature RB). I think the poor play of the secondary was most likely a significant consideration in Belicheck's ludicrous fourth-down call. Your thoughts? -- Sean (New York City)

A: The Patriots played a lot of man-to-man, Sean, and I think they view Wilhite as their best man-to-man corner right now. That probably explains why he was on Reggie Wayne. I agree with your thoughts on the prevent/soft style zone in the fourth quarter. It looked like the Patriots got away from what was working and lost their edge. The safeties looked like they were playing as far away as St. Louis on a few of those plays. On the No. 1 corner, I think they can win with what they have now and that Darius Butler could emerge in that role in time.

[+] EnlargeSebastian Vollmer
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireSebastian Vollmer was impressive against Colts pass rusher Dwight Freeney on Sunday. Might the Patriots consider keeping him at left tackle even when Matt Light returns?

Q: Like many Pats fans, Mike, I had trouble sleeping after the game. But with the luxury of 24 hours, I'm feeling pretty good. I think Brady is all the way back and that makes him the best player in the NFL. And I'm very excited about Sebastian Vollmer. What's the possibility of moving Matt Light to right tackle when he returns? Nick Kaczur obviously struggled big time versus Robert Mathis. Thanks. -- Paul (Sudbury, Mass.)

A: It was a stunning turn, Paul, and it's easy to overlook how the Patriots had the look of an elite team for 55 minutes. I agree on Vollmer. He was very impressive against Dwight Freeney. I'm thinking it will be another few weeks on Light's return and there is no need to make a decision now. But at this point, I personally wouldn't take Vollmer out of the lineup. As for Kaczur, that was his worst game of the season but he's still a good player. I'd probably ease Light back as the third tackle initially.

Q: Every week, the Patriots seem to have an injury list several times as long as our opponents'. This has been ongoing for at least the past two years. This week, we had 18 players out of 53 on the roster. That's unusual, but we had a lot more than Miami and Tampa Bay and so on. Is this a just case of Bill Belichick playing the system so opponents have to game-plan to take advantage of roster holes, or is it indicative of something else -- like a training staff that is not keeping our players healthy? It would be interesting to see if we have had more players who were DNP-INJ for the last several seasons than the league average. -- Roga (California)

A: The Patriots are as banged up as they have been all season, Roga, although I sensed that this week included a little more of a game-planning element to it. I don't think the Patriots' injury situation in recent years has much to do with the training staff, as my feeling is that the group does a good job with the players' health.

Q: Hi Mike, I was struck by how close Manning and Brady are statistically, but bothered by the inequity of dome games on the stats. I used ESPN's "splits" of Home/Away to calculate QB stats for both their careers through this year, thinking away game stats are a better apples-to-apples comparison of performance. Manning's career QB rating on the road is 91.2, more than 8.2 points lower than his home rating. Brady's career QB rating is exactly the same 93.4 at home and away. In fact Brady's completion percentage and yards/attempt are actually better on the road than at Foxborough. No doubt both are great and this is just a Bird-Magic type debate but do you think impact of home dome stats are valid to the debate of historical greatness? -- Jim (Westborough, Mass.)

A: Jim, I'm not a big advocate of the passer rating statistic to make a comparison. I find the stat is flawed. One example is a simple 1-yard touchdown pass versus a 1-yard touchdown run, and how that dramatically alters a rating.

Q: Mike, everybody's talking about Manning/Brady and who is better. The overall numbers do say Manning for stats, and everything else for Brady. My thought is that people forget that Manning plays in a dome at least nine games per season, and also the numbers that Brady puts up in domes. Brady for his first 5 years as a starter playing in a dome, how would his numbers compare to Manning's? Or, if Manning played in the outside during poor weather, how much would his numbers come down? -- Glenn (Tyngsboro, Mass.)

A: Glenn, I think the dome factor is a consideration that is worthy of being on the radar. Overall, I guess it depends what stats you want to use to measure their greatness. I tend to lean toward the simple ones: wins and Super Bowl championships. Both are outstanding. I think it's fun to debate which one is better, but my feeling is that you can't go wrong either way.

Q: Mike, the front page of Saturday's print edition of the Indianapolis Star cited a Newsday report that the Pats and Colts rivalry is being manufactured by the NFL. Something about a clause in the TV contracts that makes them play every year. Any truth to this story? -- Emerson (Boston)

A: I haven't seen any of the reports, Emerson, but my thought is that it probably noted how the Patriots-Colts rivalry has been an annual part of November's all-important TV sweeps period. The league schedules the game with ratings in mind. While much changes from year to year in the NFL, one of the guarantees of late has been the excellence of both teams.

Q: Yes I know Randy Moss is a great receiver capable of making some spectacular catches, but it's well known he doesn't like to go over the middle. Lately it seems he's also reluctant to go up in the air to make a catch. There were a few times in the Miami game where he could have jumped and tried to catch the ball at its highest point, but instead he tried to let the ball come to him. One of those times resulted in an interception by Vontae Davis. Your thoughts? -- Johnny (Hamden, Conn.)

A: Johnny, one of the things I've noticed with Moss is that he does a nice job tracking the ball and somewhat fooling the defensive back in not moving his hands until the last moment. The idea is that the defensive back will be unaware that the ball is on the way. I think it's a unique style and could sometimes be viewed as Moss not going up for the ball. Maybe he could jump for it from time to time, but I don't think it's a major issue. I think we saw this work in his favor Sunday night on that remarkable 63-yard touchdown catch.

Q: I know the practice squad players are often signed as the sparring partners for practices, not as the prospects for the future. Having said that, I was a bit surprised by the signing of LB Thomas Williams to the practice squad and the promotion of QB/RB Isaiah Stanback to the 53-man roster. Don't they need another RB for the future? -- Mark (Japan)

A: They've looked at a couple of running backs, Mark, and one who comes to mind is Marcus Mason. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a practice squad running back in the coming weeks. The other point I would make is that sometimes a guy like Williams could be brought in with a specific purpose in mind for the game plan that week. I remember it a few years back with a tall, rangy player -- Notre Dame's Brennan Curtin -- whom the coaching staff signed to the practice squad because batted passes at the line of scrimmage would be a big part of that week's game.

Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering when teams can start signing players to future/reserve contracts (not sure if that is the correct term)? I remember they did this a few years ago with Chris Redman and I was just wondering if you think that the Pats my try to do this with players like Kendall Simmons and Terdell Sands? -- Adam (Ontario, Canada)

A: Adam, future contracts don't come into effect until after the regular season. The official date when teams can start signing players to future contracts is Jan. 4.

Q: I've noticed that in some of the midseason All-Pro selections Brandon Meriwether has been selected as a strong safety. It's not that big of a deal but wouldn't Meriweather be considered the free safety to Brandon McGowan's strong safety? -- Nick (Boston)

A: I noticed that as well, Nick, and my feeling is that the safeties shouldn't even be classified as free and strong. With the varied systems that teams play, I'd just pick two overall safeties. If forced to split McGowan and Meriweather, I'd call McGowan the strong and Meriweather the free.

Q: Hey Mike, I have 2 players (Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney) from the Patriots on my fantasy team. I know the Patriots do not let a lot of information about their players be known to the public, especially injuries. But, when do you think Fred Taylor, who has an injured ankle, will be back? And when he returns will he get into a starting role before the regular season ends? How bad is his ankle injury? I didn't think an ankle injury could be this bad unless it is broken. -- Jacob (Ashkelon, Israel)

A: Hi Jacob, my sense is that Taylor probably needs another few weeks before it's even a consideration. I'd tentatively look to the Saints game (Nov. 30) as a breakthrough type of date for him. If he's not close at that point, I think it's going to be hard to keep him on the roster much longer. If Taylor does return, I see it as only a part of a rotation for the remainder of the regular season.

Q: Mike, Junior Seau hasn't played the last two weeks. I remember in an interview a few months back, Seau said he would only return to the NFL for the Patriots because Belichick always has a plan for him. Any thoughts to what plan would be? If Belichick told Seau there may be some games he wouldn't play a snap, I'm surprised that would be enough to get Seau out of retirement. -- John (South Boston)

A: John, I think the plan is for Seau to last the long haul and even at this point, a game in which he doesn't play -- and the Patriots win -- wouldn't be looked at in a bad way. Seau adds leadership in the locker room and depth behind Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. Seau is a team-first guy and I don't think he has any issue buying in.

Q: Hey, Mike I have a question that's a little bit outside of what's going on this season. I came across my old Bledsoe jersey the other day and it got me thinking, is he a Hall of Famer? I looked it up and he's 8th on the list for all-time passing yards, 6th in total completions, and 13th in passing TDs. Those who surround him on those lists are all Hall of Famers. Does he deserve a bust? -- Bernard (Windber, Pa.)

A: Bernard, I'm not a great person to ask on Hall of Fame credentials, but I checked with one voter and was told Bledsoe wouldn't get his vote and he wouldn't have to think long about it.

Q: Hey Mike, great link to the NFL miked up of Belichick. What always amazes me about him as a coach is how simple he keeps his game plans and adjustments for his players to execute. I have always thought the simplicity is what makes separates him from most other coaches. On another note, I noticed how often he was talking strategy to Brandon Meriweather as opposed to other players. Could that be a sign Meriweather is now the "quarterback" of the defense instead of Mayo? Aaron (Trumbull, Conn.)

A: Aaron, I think you've hit on two points that are really good. I notice it with Belichick when he talks to media members. He has an impressive ability to simplify the complicated, or relate it to something that makes it easier to understand. As for Belichick talking more to Meriweather, it's probably a reflection of him being the second quarterback of the defense. Mayo handles the front seven, while Meriweather has the secondary covered.

Q: Hi Mike, I read an article today about how the New York Jets are blaming former coach Eric Mangini about draft bust Vernon Gholston. From what I recall, the Patriots were also very keen on getting him at No. 7 that year (but then we moved down to pick up Jerod Mayo). Do you think that the Patriots (and more importantly Belichick) knew that he wasn't worth the high price tag and just put interest out there so the Jets would pick him up? As another way to stick it up their franchise? Kim (Adelaide, Australia)

A: Kim, deception and smoke screens are seemingly always part of the draft. Since that time, I've come to learn that the Patriots didn't view Gholston as a selection for them at No. 7.

Q: In regards to Vince Wilfork, please tell me we are going to get him signed at some point? How much does a future Brady deal impact getting extensions for other key guys such as Logan Mankins, Wilfork, Meriweather etc.? When do you think Brady gets extended? -- Joe (New York City)

A: On Wilfork, the sides were talking as of a few weeks ago during the bye, which represented some movement in the talks. But the movement obviously didn't result in a contract extension. At this time, I think the business of the season takes precedent over the contract. As for Brady, I see him extended before the start of next regular season at the latest.

Q: I really do not understand the Pats' stance with Vince Wilfork. Seriously, he is versatile, he is durable, he is a player who shows up always. He is the consummate pro in comparison to so many others in the league who have held out, talked, etc. I thought with the trade of Seymour that the Patriots would take care of Wilfork. Just pay the man. -- Rick (Chesapeake, Va.)

A: Rick, I concur with many of your thoughts and I feel Wilfork is worthy of an extension. Yet it's a difficult question to answer without knowing specifics of what both sides are looking for/willing to do. The one thing I would say is that this is the type of situation I would have suggested the Patriots being more proactive with a year and a half ago. I sometimes think the Patriots are conservative in that regard and they end up losing good players (e.g. Asante Samuel) because they don't want to pay top-level prices. These negotiations are all about finding a middle ground.

Q: Mike, kind of a random question: Do the Pats travel by charter on commercial planes or does Kraft own a private plane? -- Jeff (Charlestown, Mass.)

A: Jeff, the Patriots travel by charter to games.

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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