The big question from e-mailers to this week's Patriots mailbag is how much to read into Sunday's disappointing 34-14 loss to the Browns.
Is it a sign of things to come? Or just a one-game blip on the radar?
Opinions differ, although there seems to be agreement on one thought: The loss hurts when considering the upcoming schedule: at Pittsburgh, vs. Indianapolis, at Detroit and vs. the N.Y. Jets. When we look back on the 2010 Patriots season, this stretch could very well be the defining part that determines the team's success.
Since 2001, the Patriots have been one the NFL's strongest team after Nov. 1, with a 75-23 record (including playoffs).
Q. Hi Mike I made the same mistake the Patriots made and looked past the Browns. The Pats have some tough teams on paper ahead of them, most notably the Steelers next week. Does a loss against a surprising Browns team, combined with a bad week of practice, carry over into a game with substantial implications? -- Thomas (Boston)
A. Thomas, it can carry over if the Patriots allow it to, but I think they have enough leadership in the locker room to overcome that happening. If anything, I think we'll see a stronger Patriots team this week. That's what Deion Branch promised Monday, when he said, "It's going to be a different team; I will tell you all that right now. It started [Monday]. We're expecting a totally different team."
Q. Mike, with the recent schedule of tough games, coupled with Vince Wilfork's postgame comments regarding the week's practice, is it safe to say that the team took their eye off the ball when it came to preparing for the Browns (who were at home and coming off a bye week, it should be noted)? -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)
A. David, I think that's a convenient excuse and it's my belief that it was less about the practices and more about execution on the field from 1-4 p.m. on Sunday. For example, if the Patriots won that game -- and it wasn't out of reach at the end of the second quarter -- I don't think we would have heard about the bad practices. As Alge Crumpler said Monday, "The bottom line comes to what we do on Sundays. I've had awesome weeks of practice and lost the ballgame, and bad weeks and won a ballgame. You can talk about it any way you want to, but the bottom line is that you have to go out there in those 60 minutes and make it happen."
Q. Hey Mike. This was a bad loss, but it doesn't negate the fact that the Patriots still hold wins against Cincinnati, Baltimore and in San Diego. Not to mention they only have two losses at the halfway point of the season. This is a better team than their showing on Sunday and as good as the record they boast, this is a team that is still composed of a bunch of rookies and second year players. Looking forward, they could easily make a huge statement with wins in Pittsburgh and/or Indianapolis. It's tough to digest this loss, but it's probably the best thing for this team going forward. Do you agree? -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)
A. Alvin, I'm not a believer in a loss being a good thing at this point. But if there is a silver lining of sorts, I think it can lead to a re-focusing among players that will help them in the second part of the schedule. With the Steelers, Colts, Lions and Jets next up, I think the loss to the Browns hurts the team from an overall perspective, because you figure there is another loss or two coming in this upcoming challenging stretch. Most e-mailers seemed to be in agreement with that.
Q. Mike, What does this stinker tell us about the Pats -- pretenders in for a long year or a pothole you'd find on any New England road? -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)
A. Dan, I still think the Patriots will be in contention for an AFC playoff berth, so I'm going to the pothole route. I do think we'll see some more losses along the way, but that performance was uncharacteristic from what we've seen to this point, so they get a mulligan in my book.
Q. Mike, a couple of special teams questions. First, with news swirling that the Pats may bring in either Shaun Suisham or Shayne Graham, what would the corresponding roster move be? Second, thoughts on Jake Ingram and the job he's done to this point? It looked to me like he had a couple shaky snaps to Zoltan Mesko Sunday, one of which led to a punt almost being blocked. -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, if the Patriots bring another kicker in like Graham, Suisham or Matt Stover, I think we're probably looking at an offensive lineman being trimmed to make room. As Bill Belichick said on Monday, you look at the game-day inactive list and that's usually the area where you see a player trimmed (the Patriots have a few linemen there in Mark LeVoir, Ryan Wendell and Rich Ohrnberger). Graham makes sense to me because of a few factors: 1) He has kicked in the league this year, in one game for the Giants; 2) His background is with the Bengals, so he has some familiarity with kicking at challenging Heinz Field. As for Ingram's snapping, I'd say "inconsistent" is the word that sums it up. Miami, San Diego and Cleveland games included bad snaps. It has to be a concern to the coaching staff.
Q. Mike, one thing I don't understand, especially after he cost them 10 points at Cleveland, is why Rob Gronkowski is getting the playing time he is. He plays like a rookie, while Hernandez plays like a budding Pro Bowler. I understand the need to develop young players, but shouldn't Hernandez be in on almost every down? -- Doug (Westport, Conn.)
A. Doug, I think it's a balance -- if you just yank Gronkowski, it could shatter his confidence for the rest of the season and potentially affect his development. I think we've seen that a bit at cornerback with Darius Butler and I don't think that's the best approach. Another factor is that it was the first time Gronkowski has run into those problems. On Hernandez, he really is on the field for most every snap, playing more than any tight end or receiver. So I don't see it as Gronkowski necessarily replacing Hernandez in these situations; they were on the field together a lot.
Q. Hello Mike, ugly game. The preseason loss of Ty Warren was painfully on display Sunday. What can the Pats do the rest of the way to improve their D-line play? Brandon Deadrick and Myron Pryor do not appear to be the answer, and Gerard Warren and Ron Brace have been inconsistent. Also, does the offense have enough game-changing playmakers? -- Stephen (Denver, Colo.)
A. Stephen, the defensive line had a tough day, no doubt about it. But this is where I think some big-picture perspective is important -- that unit has been pretty good this year. Late last month, I read a story in the Boston Globe about how the different alignments along the defensive line have sparked the team. So I think this is one of those cases where you say, "They were pushed around in Cleveland, but that has been the exception more than the norm." As for the offense, I think they miss the presence of Randy Moss and are still finding what works for them on a consistent basis. They need more from their outside receivers, but there are flashes that show this unit that can score points and win games. Those flashes need to become more consistent.
Q. Mike, since Moss' departure, some have pointed to Brandon Tate as taking his place in the deep passing game. I have yet to see a single deep ball sent his way since Randy left. What kind of routes is the Patriots' wide receiver running? I cannot remember seeing so many times where Brady sits in the pocket for 5 or more seconds and can't find anyone open as we've seen the last few weeks. Is it a lack of trust with Tate keeping him from throwing it up like he used to do with Moss once or twice a game? -- Mike Worden (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
A. Mike, the Patriots did have the 65-yard catch-and-run deep pass to Tate in the Vikings game, which came on a broken play. But otherwise, I haven't seen the big-strike shots down the field to Tate either. I think they would benefit from putting one in the plan, for sure. I agree on the second part of the question, as this was something that stood out to me on Sunday -- Brady had time, but pass-catchers were well covered. He was throwing into very tight windows, if there was a window at all. I wrote it down in my notebook: "Patriots not getting open consistently enough, not winning enough one-on-one matchups down the field."
Q. Mike, from where I sit, Tom Brady doesn't seem to have control of the offense. He is standing around waiting for plays to develop and taking too long. He doesn't seem to know where his receivers are and his accuracy is not typical Brady. Am I wrong? Not feeling confident in the offense. -- Topher (Vermont)
A. I think Brady has control of the offense from a knowledge and command perspective, but I don't think he was on his game Sunday in Cleveland -- and there have been other times this season where it's been the same. Brady's trademark is his accuracy and decision-making and those have been inconsistent from my view. At the same time, thinking solely of Sunday, I didn't see pass-catchers getting open consistently enough. After a performance like this, and when factoring in some of the offensive struggles of late and matchups ahead, I think the offensive coaches will consider mixing up some of their packages and trying some new things (e.g. a four-receiver set).
Q. Mike, reading some quotes from Joe Thomas and some other Browns, they said they knew this game was bigger than others because of the bad blood between their coaches and the Patriots. I understand the feud with Eric Mangini, but what's the deal with the other ex-Pats coaches? Didn't they leave by their own choice? -- Decker (Clinton, Mass.)
A. Decker, I don't think it was necessarily about bad blood for those Browns coaches with Patriots ties. I saw Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the former Patriots receivers coach, seek out Bill Belichick and give him an embrace after the game. Outside of Mangini, who I feel burned his bridge with Belichick by recruiting coaches while still on the New England staff and with the "Spygate" episode, I think those other coaches realize how hard it is to beat a Belichick-coached team, because they were part of a Belichick staff and they know how well the Patriots prepare and how competitive they are. Maybe I'm na´ve on that one, but that's the way I view it.
Q. Mike, is special teams coaching an area of concern for this team? In recent weeks we've seen long snapper Jake Ingram struggle with consistency issues, an inability to recover an onside kick vs. the Chargers and now confusion on a muffed kick return. Imperfect player execution on the field is one thing, lack preparation for the unexpected is another. Your thoughts? -- Taylor (Bristol, R.I.)
A. Taylor, after a hot start, I think the Patriots' special teams have been outplayed and outcoached the last three games -- at San Diego, vs. Minnesota, at Cleveland. This was one of the stronger areas of the team before the bye week and they need to get that edge back. I think you are right on with this one.
Q. I hope people don't put too much stock in this game against Cleveland. When you have as much youth as the Patriots do on both offense and defense, these kinds of games will happen from time to time. What concerns me most about this team is a lack of a consistent running game. A bend-but-don't-break style of defense only works when the defense has room to bend. What stands out to me the most all season long is the starting field position we're consistently giving up. And when I look at the failed drives that happened early in this game, I see a third-and-7, a third-and-9, a third-and-5, third-and-15, third-and-12 ... and the pattern in all of those is an early-down run for 3 or fewer yards. Our offense has been feast or famine all year -- either scoring or going three-and-out, and this is a big reason why. I said it during the offseason, but this team needs a running back that can get us more third-and-4 or less situations. No defense can expect to perform well when they're consistently being asked to play on a short field. Thoughts? -- Dom (Arlington, Va.)
Q. Mike, Alge Crumpler seems like either an angry guy or just a protective one. He seems to snap at reporters a lot when they ask things he doesn't appear to like. You don't see a lot of guys in the Pats locker room doing that. What's your impression of Crumpler? -- Katie (Brooklyn)
A. Katie, I see Crumpler as a leader who is protecting his young guys. He was the type of guy this team needed in 2009. I view him as a solid professional. From a media perspective, he is one of my favorite interviews because of his perspective.
Q. Mike, With Al Harris getting released are there any chances he comes to New England? -- Nate (Murrieta, Calif.)
A. Nate, there's always a chance, but I see it as unlikely. I believe the Patriots are going to stick with what they have, and that includes projecting practice squad cornerback Tony Carter into the mix from a long-term perspective.
Q. Hi Mike, the rookies are developing pretty well through these first 8 weeks, which is encouraging. But how will it affect the team down the stretch, when they all hit that "rookie wall"? I don't think many rookies manage to avoid that happening, do they? -- Karen (East Lansing, Mich.)
A. Karen, this is an insightful thought and one that Tedy Bruschi touched on as part of last week's "Bruschi's Breakdown" piece. Here is what he said: "They will. I did as a rookie. Week 10 was when I said to myself, 'Man, we've still got six weeks to go.' Having said that, it didn't alter my preparation. Bill Parcells was the head coach, and there was no way I was going to let him or the team down. Bill Belichick is the head coach now, and he knows these rookies will start to feel it and will sharpen their focus. Fighting that rookie wall is part of the process of turning yourself into a professional football player. I don't anticipate it being a problem."
Q. Where is Julian Edelman? -- Mike (Boston)
A. Mike, I put together a blog entry on this last week and here is the link. With the Patriots shifting to more of a two-tight end offense, Edelman simply isn't seeing the field. For example, he was on the field for nine snaps against the Browns.
Q. Mike, I just saw that Myron Pryor got fined for his hit on Brett Favre. How can the league justify this? The ex-head of officials is on record as saying this was 100 percent legal. It is time for the owners to come together and take away some of Roger Goodell's power to fine. Fines like this will hurt the integrity of the game, don't you agree? -- Rich (Boston)
A. Rich, Pryor is appealing the fine and I think he has a chance to win this one. I thought the hit was legal. Seems like a questionable fine to me. I do think the league has gone a bit over the top in this case.
Q. Hey Mike, what is the deal with Fred Taylor? He's been out for over two months with a toe injury. Let's have a sanity check here: Even if he completely broke it, wouldn't he be working his way back by now, and if it was really that severe of a toe injury, wouldn't we have seen him on crutches or in a boot? -- Paul (Hoboken, N.J.)
A. Paul, I think Taylor's toe injury is a balance issue. Bill Belichick previously said that Taylor had some initial struggles. I thought he'd be back by now. Just a hunch, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see him this week.
Q. Mike, what is your assessment of Gary Guyton so far? Yes, he had the pick-6 in Game 1, but it often seems as though he either reacts late or over-commits. Am I wrong or is it his job to play like a "zone linebacker?" -- Derek (Dallas)
A. Derek, I think Guyton has struggled a bit of late with his tackling and sometimes doesn't react quickly enough to what is unfolding in front of him. He is very fast from a straight-line perspective, but not as fluid when playing sideline to sideline.
Q. Hey Mike, not sure if you have touched on this subject before, but prior to the Browns game, I'd like to commend the Patriots on their ball security this year. Just one fumble through 7 games. Also, have you noticed a good amount of Tom Brady's passes through the last few weeks have been low throws at or below the knees? -- Adam (Santa Monica, Calif.)
A. Entering Sunday's game against the Browns, the Patriots had the second fewest give-aways in the NFL (6), and one of them was a Hail Mary interception. So the ball security had been good up until Gronkowski's costly fumble at the end of the second quarter. As for Brady, I have noticed that the accuracy isn't "trademark Brady" consistently throughout the game. I attributed some of it to the pressure he was facing and receivers not consistently getting open, but certainly, some of that falls on Brady as well.
Q. Hey Mike, you write a lot about the "Big 4" special teams units. This makes me curious about how the "little 2" fit in -- field goal and field goal block units. Are these units not considered part of the big 4 because they don't involve as much running and tackling? If you did count these units, would there be other players with 4 or even 5 special teams responsibilities? -- Brad (Whitman, Mass.)
A. Brad, I think what creates the distinction between the "Big 4" is the running, tackling and blocking required from those units. The field-goal block and field-goal protection units feature bigger players, because there are rushing and protection elements in play. That's why you're more likely to see offensive and defensive linemen on those.
What do you think Woodhead means for Kevin Faulk's future? I was assuming Faulk would be the one running back free agent brought back after the season, but now I'm less certain. I'd hate to see him go to another team, but I don't know if it makes sense to have both if they fill the same role and Woodhead is obviously younger. Similarly, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is making it look a lot less like we'll have to put RB as a top offseason priority. Do you think the Pats are looking at him as possibly a long-term answer for the RB position (though I suspect we'll try to have a rotation if possible)? -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Pa.)
A. Jacob, even before Woodhead arrived, I wasn't convinced that Faulk would be back. So that remains a question to me, and part of it will be tied to Faulk's recovery, as the decision could be made by Faulk himself to shut it down. As for Green-Ellis, he has earned his spot on the team, although I still see the position as a need area from a long-term perspective.
Q. Mike, I've read just about every description of Danny Woodhead's abilities except one that recognizes that the guy is extremely intelligent. Add that attribute to an absolute dedication to improving his skills and the discipline to harness his competitive nature in the service of a team and you have an extraordinary person. He majored in math, not P.E., so, yes, he can learn a playbook in a hurry as well as move that ball. -- Katherine (Chadron, Neb.)
A. Well said, Katherine, and a point that Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears made last week as well. Here is the link to the blog entry that detailed Fears' remarks.
Q. Mike, luckily it has been a while since I have heard anything about Brian Hoyer. How has he been looking in practice? Could he be potentially be the Patriots' QB of the future? If he does well in some blowout games or next preseason, could the Pats trade him away for a draft pick? Would there be interest form other teams? -- Thomas (Boston)
A. Thomas, reporters don't get to watch practice, so this is a tough one to answer. But one thing I would say is that the time to shine for backup quarterbacks is preseason games, because that's when they get their most extensive work in game situations and have to adjust with all the changes on a play-to-play basis. Even in practice, a backup can only do so much. I think Hoyer has accounted for himself very well. I see him as an upper-tier backup who could potentially be viewed as a valuable asset for a quarterback-needy team.
Q. Hey Mike, great job on the "football journey" articles. I have read the last couple, most recently on Jermaine Cunningham (read it here), and they are great. There are so many exciting young players on this Pats team. Is there a link to read some of the others? -- Bill (New York City)
A. Bill, here are the links from this year's "football journey" feature, which runs on Saturdays. They also ran throughout the 2009 season and could find by using the search tool on the blog.
Q. Your comments on the Terrence Wheatley release were way too complimentary. My sons are Colorado season ticket holders and I watched Wheatley for three years in college. I called my sons minutes after he was selected in the second round and exclaimed my surprise at the decision by Belichick and Scott Pioli. This kid couldn't play in college, was always injured, and whoever recommended his selection that high in the draft should be fired. The Pats have made a lot of lousy draft picks but he gets my vote as the worst. -- Carl (Raymond, Maine)
A. Carl, it obviously didn't work out as the Patriots hoped. I'm still not convinced that had Wheatley stayed healthy, it wouldn't have worked out. Just because a player was injured in college doesn't mean he won't turn the corner in the NFL. One of the best examples this year is Chiefs rookie tight end Tony Moeaki, who battled through injuries at Iowa but is one of the most productive first-year players at his position. That's a challenging aspect of scouting.
Q. A few weeks back a question was asked about the kicker being off sides on an onside kick. You said you didn't know the answer to that but you'd check it out. What did you find out? -- Allen (Rochester, Wash.)
A. Allen, the kicker was not offsides in that situation. Just like you see a holder on some kickoffs when wind is in play, those situations do not result in an offsides penalty.
What is "the practice squad injured list"? Is that injured list for practice-squadders? Do they reach an injury settlement and release them? -- Jason
A. Jason, the practice squad injury list is similar to injured reserve. In this case, receiver Darnell Jenkins will remain with the team. Otherwise, teams would be abusing this rule all year.
Q. With the Raiders' success this year a lot of people are asking if the Patriots should have taken a 2010 pick from Oakland instead of the first in 2011. Could the Pats have gotten Oakland's 2010 first-round pick or would they have gotten Oakland's 2010 second? -- Seymourfan (New York City)
A. As I understand it, the Patriots had the choice -- the Raiders' 2010 second-round pick or their 2011 first-round pick. So the '10 first-rounder wasn't on the table.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.