The sudden changes of the NFL season are once again remarkable.
Last week, the main topic of the mailbag focused on the Patriots' offensive struggles and quarterback Tom Brady. This week, the offense is back on track and the primary focus is playoff positioning.
Then you look around the league and see teams like the Saints and Vikings, who at one point looked unstoppable, struggling as they make it toward the finish line. You also wonder if the Colts are flirting with disaster with the way they handled Sunday's loss to the Jets, which could be Bill Polian's biggest backfire in his time in Indianapolis.
The Chargers are hot, having won 10 in a row, but I think it's a wide open situation in the playoffs. That should make January exciting for football fans.
As I went through the questions and comments to this week's mailbag, there were quite a few from the piece on Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin. The questions and comments ran the gamut. Some thought I lost my mind. Others were in agreement. I read them all and appreciated the dialogue.
Happy new year to readers of the mailbag, and I look forward to continuing to deliver the mail on Tuesdays throughout 2010.
Q: Hi Mike, reading Tedy Bruschi's comments and a few other journalists as well, they seem to think the Patriots should rest Brady and a few others in Week 17 to get them healthier. But Week 17 will provide a solid chance at the No. 3 seed. What do you see the Pats doing in Week 17? -- Nick (Montreal)
A: Nick, I think a key consideration is not knowing when the first-round playoff game will be played. Because it could be on Saturday, Jan. 9, that potentially sets up a short week of preparation and I believe that is a significant factor in the decision-making process when looking at the big picture. In the end, here are a few thoughts I have on resting certain players: 1) You can't rest them all because on a 53-man roster, there aren't enough backups at each position so I think the topic is less about "resting starters" and more about managing the roster; 2) I don't expect to see any injured players, such as defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (foot) and Ty Warren (ankle), playing in the game; 3) I think the best approach is to play the healthy starters and assess as the game unfolds. My feeling is that it couldn't hurt to play another good 15 to 30 minutes of football with the starters before making some alterations.
Q: Hey Mike, I know that the Pats have locked down a playoff spot, but I don't understand the impression that they can approach the last week as a bye. Aren't the Pats still fighting with Cincinnati for the 3rd seed? Is there no competitive advantage to be gleaned from being the 3rd seed rather than the 4th? -- Jonah (N.Y., N.Y.)
A: Jonah, the Patriots are battling with the Bengals for the third seed but my feeling is that this is similar to 2005. That was when the Patriots went into the finale against the Dolphins and could have been the No. 3 or 4, and they still pulled quarterback Tom Brady after one quarter because the advantage between 3 and 4 wasn't that big of a deal. In fact, you could have looked at it and determined that the 4-seed was a better spot.
Q: Mike, looking at how the divisional round of the playoffs, do you believe that the Pats would be better off traveling half way across the country to play the Colts versus all the way across the country to play the Chargers? Might Belichick think the same way? Could this factor influence who Belichick plays and rests week 17 versus the Texans? -- Rob Black (Brookline, Mass.)
A: I actually feel like the 4-seed is the better spot for the Patriots this year because it would pair them with the Colts in the divisional round. I think that is a better matchup for them than the Chargers at that point, assuming they get there, and I sense a feeling in that locker room that players would like the opportunity to avenge the regular-season loss. I suppose that could be a factor in the way that Belichick approaches the finale, but the way I see it, the Patriots have little control over their seeding. Even if they lose, they could end up as the No. 3 seed if the Bengals -- who could manage some of their key players and reduce their playing time -- lose to the Jets later that night.
Q: Mike, I was concerned by the Pats' benching of Laurence Maroney in this week's game against Jacksonville. Despite the goal-line fumble, I feel like Maroney has really started to emerge, and we saw a lot of his capabilities on that first drive. Do you think that Maroney will be a significant factor for the Patriots in the playoffs? More importantly, do you see him in a Patriots uniform next year? -- Ivan (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
A: Ivan, I think Maroney will have a chance to rebound this week in Houston. If he goes through the game fumble-free, I think he'll be part of the playoff mix in some form, although probably not near the goal-line. I thought Tedy Bruschi's point was well taken: "Coaches say that when you carry the ball, you hold the fate of the team and the entire organization in your hands. If you can't be depended on to take care of the ball, the organization and team can't count on you. … Maroney may get lost in the shuffle the rest of the year, or at least until the coaches re-establish confidence in him."
Q: Do you remember when Kevin Faulk could be depended upon to fumble the ball in a critical spot in a game? It seems like Laurence Maroney is getting in that same place now. Any chance that Faulk can help him get out of this habit? Maroney seems to have picked up his running game in the last several weeks, but the fumbles are killers. -- Andy M (Hinesburg, Vt.)
A: That's a good point, Andy, as Faulk had some significant struggles with ball security earlier in his career, but now he's one of the team's most reliable players with the ball in his hands. He's also one of the leaders in that locker room. My general feeling is that Faulk would do anything to help the Patriots win, so if Maroney was willing to take some veteran advice from him, that would only help.
Q: Hi Mike: Looking realistically at the postseason, it is at best a two and done for the Pats. If the team wants to move forward, a change in philosophy and personnel is needed. Where would you start? -- John Ford (Walpole, Mass.)
A: John, I don't think anyone would be surprised if the Patriots win their playoff opener and then bow out in the next round, but I don't think it's a foregone conclusion either way. I believe anything can happen, especially when you see the struggles of some of the other NFL teams of late. If the Patriots play the way they have shown they are capable, I think they could make a deeper run. In terms of the personnel and a possible change in philosophy, I think one topic from last week is a good one to bring up again: Maybe lessening the standard for late first-round draft picks. I think a team like the Patriots wouldn't pick a defensive player in the first round unless the prospect was graded as a three- or four-down player. But when you look at someone like Clay Matthews, who possibly would project only as a two-down player in their system (third and fourth down), maybe that's a case where you relax your standard because of the pass-rush explosion he could provide in sub packages (which are used about 50 percent of the time).
Q: Hey Mike, any idea which date and time the Pats home playoff game will be on the 9th or 10th? If not, please give an educated guess and also tell us when the NFL usually makes the announcement. -- AJ (Hartford, Conn.)
A: AJ, the NFL should make that announcement on Sunday night or Monday morning. NBC has the two Saturday games (Jan. 9) and I'd think they would lobby hard for the Patriots as their AFC game of choice over Cincinnati. So with that in mind, and my belief that the TV rights-holders have influence because of the exorbitant money they pay to the NFL, I think the Patriots will be playing Saturday.
Q: Mike, last week, in response to a question about the Patriots regaining their edgy attitude, you mentioned that you don't foresee that happening because you get a different vibe in the locker room this year. Would you elaborate a little more about that vibe? -- Matt (Canton, Conn.)
A: Matt, I interpreted the question last week on whether the team could possibly come together and play the no-respect card like it has in the past, regaining the type of edge that was often seen in the locker room with players such as Rodney Harrison. My feeling is that I don't see that type of edge being regained this year, because it's a different vibe in there. I don't see this group of players being motivated by the no-respect card; I see them more as realists. Prior to last week, I also didn't see them as unified as I remember other teams being, but perhaps that is changing after Sunday's 35-7 win over the Jaguars, which could be the type of performance that shifts things in a new direction.
Q: Hey Mike, do you think that Randy Moss has shown that the critics were wrong? Is his recent surge proof that he really was dogging it a few weeks ago, or is this all just part of the typical variance in any given season that's been blown out of proportion? -- Matt (Westborough, Mass.)
A: I'll pick the latter scenario, Matt. The performance against the Panthers wasn't a good one but I don't think it was as much about effort as just poor execution at times.
Q: The Jaguars game was one of my favorite games I have ever been to, and it was because of the Randy Moss interaction with the fan wearing a mask. To have everyone laughing and cheering, and chanting "Randy! Randy!" I've never seen anything like that happen before, not even a Brady chant. It was really nice to see, especially considering Randy's last game at Gillette was a clunker. It was special for Patriot Nation to show an immense amount of support for him. -- Jarrod (Conn.)
A: Jarrod, I made the point that the Moss interaction with the fans was one of those moments you never forget, sort of like Tedy Bruschi scoring a touchdown against Miami, throwing snow in the air, and then the whole stadium throwing snow in the air in unison. Certain games will stand out in the memory bank for their uniqueness or as seldom-seen-before occurrences, and I think the "Moss mask" game is one of them. You can see video of Moss and the fan at Patriots.com.
Q: I personally didn't like Indy benching QB Peyton Manning against the Jets in the second half. First, it was a robbery from fans. Second, handing out the Jets a win gave a huge impact on the wild-card race, which is as hot as we have never seen. -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: I'm with you, MarkJ, but for slightly different reasons. I just don't agree with the philosophy from a momentum perspective. My feeling is that things in the NFL are so fragile (e.g. New Orleans) from week to week that you can get knocked off the tracks quickly if you suddenly lose your edge. I would have played through when considering that the Colts will have a bye to rest their players on the opening weekend of the playoffs. I also think the players wanted to go for 16-0 and now you create a situation where there is a divide between players and management. I understand that Colts president Bill Polian didn't want to risk injury, which goes back to an experience he had in 1999 with losing linebacker Cornelius Bennett in a meaningless finale, but I think this decision could come back to haunt him because every year is a bit different.
Q: Hi Mike, I was glad to see the tight ends, both Baker & Watson, incorporated into the passing game a bit more. However, what are your thoughts on the third receiver? To me, it looked as though Edelman reclaimed that role. I don't recall Aiken being targeted at all. Your thoughts? Can Edelman hang in as the third receiver? -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)
A: Neil, that was one of the significant things that stood out to me in this game from a personnel standpoint -- Julian Edelman taking more snaps as the No. 3 receiver. He was the primary No. 3 option, with Sam Aiken pushed to No. 4. I think that is the best fit for the team at this time as they did some good things out of that three-receiver set both running and passing.
Q: Mike, with 7-8 minutes left in the game and the Pats in a comfortable lead, why didn't we substitute Brian Hoyer for Brady and give our backup more experience? Brady looked on-target most of the game and there's no reason to risk injuries. Also, any idea why we are still not throwing to our other receivers (like Aiken and Watson) more often, or throwing more screens and out-of-the-backfield throws to Faulk? I am concerned that our offense will become too predictable to playoff-bound teams. -- Brendan (Nashua, N.H.)
A: Brendan, I think the Patriots have struggled in the fourth quarter at times this year so I didn't have a problem keeping Brady in there, especially given the way they were pounding the ball. I thought it was the type of decision that played into what the day was all about -- building momentum, cleaning up areas that had previously hurt the team, and creating some hope. I think Hoyer will get some time this week for experience. As for the passing game, I think the screens are effective against certain teams and the Jaguars, who play a lot of two-deep coverage, aren't necessarily one of them. I don't view them as a big rush-up-the-field, penetrating type of team, which are the defenses that usually are most vulnerable to screen plays. Overall, I thought Sunday was a step in the right direction when it came to targeting different players and having more diversity on offense.
Q: Mike, can you venture a guess as to why the Pats haven't signed Wilfork? Doesn't the price to re-sign Wilfork go up every day? It seems that they will franchise him next year then let him walk. If that wasn't the plan why wouldn't they have signed him? What do you think the chances are that Wilfork will be a Patriot after next year? -- Mike (Natick, Mass.)
A: Mike, my sense on this one is that Wilfork is seeking a contract that the team isn't willing to offer, or depending on your viewpoint, the team is offering a contract that Wilfork doesn't deem appropriate market value for a player of his caliber. It's difficult to analyze these situations without knowing the specifics of offers from both sides. I would agree that as Wilfork gets closer to free agency, the leverage shifts toward his side. The one trump card is the franchise tag, and I think that situation could turn for the worse if it heads in that direction. I'd like to think the sides could work it out, one way or the other, before it reaches that point.
Q: Mike, is it media bias or coach speak that prevails when getting an honest assessment of how a player did on game day? When a journalist goes out of his way to tell you how bad a player played (Randy Moss and Ron Brace two recent examples) while the coach goes out of his way to praise the player, who is telling the truth? It seems both have their reasons for people to believe their story. I only have the eyeball test without the benefit of game tapes. -- Rob (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Rob, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle as I see it. Sometimes a coach will try to pump up a player to keep his confidence up, or simply won't want to call out a player in public (e.g. Laurence Maroney and his goal-line fumble). Other times, a media member might be trying to make a name for themselves or have a specific agenda they want to promote.
Q: You defend Bill O'Brien's play calling by stating that there has to be a learning curve. But, the Patriots with Brady and Moss are not the Rams, the Raiders, the Browns -- they can win now. So, shouldn't it have been on Belichick to go out and get a proven offensive coordinator who would not be learning on the job? It isn't O'Brien's fault that he isn't quite ready to be calling plays for a top team, it is Belichick's fault for putting O'Brien and the team in that position. -- Andrew Gordon (Boston, Mass.)
A: I understand the point, Andrew, but I'm not sure a proven offensive coordinator would have necessarily produced more consistent results to this point. That proven offensive coordinator would have had to come in and learn the Patriots' system and there is no guarantee how that would work out. In a lot of ways, I think it's similar to a team signing a free agent versus developing a player in the system. There is more risk in projecting the free agent into the system.
Q: In the past couple weeks, Ron Brace has either started or played the majority of his snaps in the first quarter, then not again. Why? This week he started, played on the opening series, then sat. Last week was pretty similar, right? Any idea the logic with that? If he's not "getting it" as well as some of the others, why not let him get some experience when the Pats are up big? Also, if he's not playing well, why is he starting? -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)
A: Rick, I'd say that Brace isn't as far along with his technique as Myron Pryor or Mike Wright and that's one of the first reasons his playing time was so limited Sunday against the Jaguars. I asked a scout about the difference between Brace and Pryor and he explained that Pryor plays with more of a flat back, which is something to keep in mind. As for why he started against the Bills, I think the injury situation was a big part of it as the Patriots were without Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Pryor that day. In terms of why Brace isn't in the game more in garbage time, probably a big part of it is that opponents are throwing the ball and thus the Patriots are in a sub package, not their base 3-4 alignment in which Brace plays.
Q: Mike, lots of good stuff to talk about from this game, including solid defense, a balanced offensive attack, and protection for our pocket QB while mixing in some creative play calling (something I've criticized all year, to be fair). I'm surprised, however, that more people aren't talking about the importance of Dan Connolly as a blocking fullback on short yardage situations. We've lamented all year how many drives have been stalled because of our inability to pick up key first downs on the ground -- think of the fourth-and-2 pass to Faulk at Indy -- yet Connolly was a one-man wrecking crew. His block on Sammy Morris's run opened up a hole the size of the Ted Williams Tunnel. How key do you think this is going to be as they enter the playoffs? Any chance they try to mold him into a dangerous weapon a la Mike Vrabel? -- Steve (San Diego, Calif.)
A: Good point, Steve. Connolly was on the field for 16 snaps as a lead-blocking fullback, with the signature play that 55-yard run by Morris. The biggest thing to me is that you want to feel like you can pick up a yard in a critical situation and if you can do it running, it's the preferred route. I think Connolly's performance builds some positive momentum in that regard. I'd classify him more in the Russ Hochstein mold than Vrabel.
Q: I've noticed Kyle Arrington leading the way on special teams pretty much every week. Wondering if you have seen him practice in the secondary? It may be late to find a fill in for Jonathan Wilhite now, but does Arrington have a future in our secondary? -- Patrick (Salt Lake)
A: Patrick, this has been very impressive to me as Arrington now has 15 special-teams tackles in seven games, which is a terrific pace. He is really playing well. Because of this, Arrington is making himself more valuable as a fourth or fifth cornerback than someone like Darius Butler or Terrence Wheatley, which means his practice reps should increase on defense. I'm not sure if he'll make the grade on defense at this point, but the opportunity is certainly there. As for Wilhite, I think he's settled in nicely as a slot corner, with Shawn Springs holding things down on the outside.
Q: Hey Mike, I saw Darius Butler on the inactives list this past Sunday. I'm hoping it was due to injury and not just poor play but I didn't see him on any injury report or such. Is he the odd man out with Shawn Springs back in the rotation? Or is he injured? And if so, when will he be back? -- Greg (Westwood, Mass.)
A: Greg, Butler is not injured. Instead, I think what we've seen is that the coaching staff has scaled back its defensive rotation from eight players to six, and Butler and Pat Chung are Nos. 7 and 8 right now. Part of the reason Butler wasn't active was special-teams considerations, where cornerback Kyle Arrington has been a madman. Another part is the re-mergence of Springs. All told, this is one of the hard parts about putting together a 45-man game-day roster and factoring in special teams.
Q: Mike, like everyone else, I have noticed the lack of a true third option at the receiver position. Did the Pats put too much faith into the Galloway addition? Also, would you happen to have the hits/sacks in relation to dropbacks for the Pats this year? -- Kevin (Pensacola, Fla.)
A: I would say so, Kevin. I think it's fair to call the Joey Galloway signing a mistake and that ties into Jabar Gaffney's free-agent situation. Gaffney ended up getting $2.5 million per season from the Broncos. It sounded to me like the Patriots were extending themselves to the $2 million per year range and knowing what they know now I wonder if they would have upped the ante for Gaffney. As for hits/dropbacks, I went through each statistical game book to see how many hits quarterback Tom Brady has taken this season and here is the breakdown based on in-game statisticians' tallies: 63 hits in 554 dropbacks.
Q: One comment is that I loved the offensive line play. I do believe that it was the first time the combination of Light, Mankins, Koppen, Neal and Vollmer have ever played together as a unit. I believe it is their best lineup and certainly the results speak for themselves. I like Gary Guyton but I thought he had a rough game being pushed around big time, almost to the point of being on your "down" category. What did you think? -- Gary T. (Alexandria, Va.)
A: I'd agree, Gary. It looks like this is the team's best line combination right now. As for Guyton, I thought he did some positive things in terms of pressuring quarterback David Garrard with two hits on him. I didn't notice him as much in the run game, although the Patriots' overall performance was solid.
Q: Hey Mike, I think a major problem this year has been the lack of production out of the special teams (mainly kickoff return). Ellis Hobbs was consistent with 30-yard returns, but now Slater is just not getting the job done. Also, Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs have not been as far as the beginning of the year. I don't know if it is just been poor weather. -- Glenn (Quincy, Mass.)
A: I think this is a good point, Glenn, as the Patriots' kickoff return team has struggled to help generate good field position. Entering Sunday's game against the Jaguars, the team ranked 31st in the NFL in terms of average drive start (23.6 yard line), which means they are making it harder on themselves in having to drive a longer field. I'm not sure why they've struggled so much -- maybe it's the new wedge rule, or simply the player who has the ball in his hands not being as good as Hobbs. It's probably somewhere in the middle. Other than the kick return struggles, and Maroney's goal-line fumble, it was hard to find many negatives in that performance against the Jaguars on Sunday.
Q: Mike, it seems like since the departure of Corey Dillon, we haven't had the guy to be a hard-nosed runner. Sammy Morris has been decent but he'll be 33 by the time next season rolls around. Looking forward to the draft, is there any chance the Patriots might use a late second-round pick on a hard nose runner like Toby Gerhart out of Stanford? -- Ryan (Lake Elsinore, Calif.)
A: Ryan, hope all is well in Lake Elsinore. I remember attending a Storm minor league baseball game there a while back. I do think the Patriots will add another running back in 2010, but I'm not sure whether it will be in the draft or free agency. Specific to Gerhart, I don't know enough about the overall talent level of the draft to have a good feel for when he might be selected.
Q: Mike, is there now a consensus that this has been a rebuilding year for our Foxboro heroes, and that next year the project will continue with 2011 being the year they are geared up to be dominant again? It seems to me that BB & Co. truly keep the long term in sight and are muddling through, sans excuses, this year until he can rebuild the team with the type of guys that work for him. It's my belief that he wants the Pats to be the first "Team of the Decade," for two decades straight. In a "body of work" sense I think this year may be his greatest accomplishment if he indeed does go on to rebuild the Pats as another dominant team. 11-5 in a rebuilding year sounds pretty fantastic to me. What do you think? Should I remove my rose colored glasses or do we have a unique coach who consistently keeps one eye on the future while focusing on the present? -- MachiasMark (Machias, Maine)
A: I don't sense that consensus, Mark. I think Belichick built a team that he felt could compete for the Super Bowl this year, but at the same time, was injected with some much-needed youth. This is one of the most challenging parts of the NFL -- how do you keep adding young talent to the roster, but still compete for titles? You can't keep bringing back the same players year after year. The change is more noticeable this year on defense, and perhaps they made one too many changes (Mike Vrabel comes to mind). But I think you've hit on something -- Belichick is that rare coach who is able to see and execute decisions with both the short-term and long-term picture in mind. Part of that is the job security he's earned.
Q: Your colleague Chris Mortensen reported that the rookie wage scale won't be implemented until 2012. If that is the case, can we call the Seymour trade a mistake, as they will likely trade down from a top 5 pick. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, I think that report changes the context of the Richard Seymour trade a bit, making it less attractive from the Patriots' perspective. I'll still hold out final analysis until we see what the Patriots do over the next couple of seasons and with that draft pick. As for Seymour, I think I've been pretty consistent with my thoughts on that one. I don't think anyone is saying the Patriots are a better team without him, but given some of the things that were happening with that situation, it seemed clear the marriage was going to end after this year. So to get a first-round pick, I would have still made the deal. I'd also point out that Seymour has four sacks this season, all coming in two games, and he's been held without a sack in each of the past eight games. I know that sacks can be a deceiving statistic, and clearly a player like Seymour opens opportunities for others, but I expected a few more quarterback takedowns given he was no longer playing in a two-gap scheme. I tend to lean toward the thinking that his departure and its impact, while significant, has been a bit overstated.
Q: Mike, what about Terrell Owens as a third receiver next year? While he may have been a distraction to other teams, he plays hard, shows up, and wants to win. The Pats have history with "troubled players" (e.g. Moss and Dillon). -- Jeff Evaul (Topsfield, Mass.)
A: I don't see that one, Jeff. Although I've come to learn that nothing is a surprise any more, I just don't see the fit with Owens in New England. Every time I think about changing my tune on that one, I hear him blaming the scheme and putting himself above the team. I'd say it's too risky to bring him to New England given their approach on personnel.
Q: With all of the press Michael Vick received for being the Eagles' winner of the Ed Block Courage award, I was curious to see who the Patriots' recipient was this year. -- Skip Donald (Conway, N.H.)
A: Skip, the Patriots' winner of the Ed Block Courage Award this year is quarterback Tom Brady.
Q: Hey Mike when [the team] lists a player like Moss or Brady as missing practice but not for injury-related issues what does that mean? Are they getting the day off? Are they at the facility or do they really have the day off? -- Rich (Plainview, N.Y.)
A: Rich, generally that means the player is at the facility but simply isn't practicing.
Q: Do you think that Wes Welker should be mentioned in the MVP race? -- Charles Merisma (Georgia)
A: Charles, I think Welker should be mentioned as the Patriots' MVP, but I don't think I'd pick him for NFL MVP. To me, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is the runaway NFL MVP this year.
Q: Hi Mike, do you have any initial thoughts on the 2010 schedule? It's nice having the Colts come here after three years of going there, and it seems like the Pats may have an advantage in their NFC North matchups, getting the Vikings and Packers at home, while traveling to Chicago and Detroit. -- Matt G. (Boston, Mass.)
A: At first glance, it looks like a tough schedule to me, Matt. In recent years, though, I've been more of a believer that when you play a team is just as important as who you play. So I think the best analysis will come in April when we get the actual dates of the games.
Q: It appears that the Pats have a tough 2010 schedule. I noticed that the Lions are on the schedule. Do you think we will see the Pats play on Thanksgiving 2010? -- Adam (Portland, Maine)
A: It appears to be a strong possibility, Adam, and I'm bracing for the fallout here at home. I've already prepared my wife that we could be spending Thanksgiving in Detroit next year. With this in mind, I feel like I'm starting 2010 backed up deep in my territory facing first-and-20. Maybe a trip to the Super Bowl, assuming the Patriots get there, would help me dig out of this situation.