- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots' disappointing playoff loss to the Jets fills this week's mailbag, with some fans already looking ahead to the offseason and some of the challenges ahead for the team.
There is plenty to digest and scrutinize.
One thought to pass along is that even though the Patriots' season is over, the mailbag will continue to publish each Tuesday. I appreciate the many great questions that are sent in.
So let's get right to it this week ...
Q: Mike, I think the Pats have lost their identity, and year after year it kills them. When we won Super Bowls, it was with an offense that was better than average and could score when we needed it and a defense that was big, tough and intimidating and could stop anyone. For four years we have been an offense-based team that gets exposed against good defenses in the playoffs. I don't want to be the Colts. Are my real Patriots ever coming back? -- Old School (Boston)
A: I think they could with a few reinforcements on defense. I see a solid nucleus on defense, starting with Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty -- three players any team would love to have. Add a top pass-rusher and some help up front -- and cornerback Leigh Bodden returning to full health and his previous level of play -- I could envision this defense being very strong next season. Those are some significant "ifs," but I don't think it's that far off.
Q: Hey Mike, the Pats are 0-for-3 in their past three playoff games, with two being at home. All of them were terrible losses. They have been outcoached and outplayed each time. With the exception of Jacksonville in '07, their last several playoff games have been mediocre. Brady has not been Brady in the playoffs for years. What do you think the problem is? I know every year is different, but when this happens over and over, it feels more like a systemic problem. -- Devin (Lowell, Mass.)
A: Devin, I think it's only natural to link the past three losses and wonder whether there is a systemic problem. I personally don't fully buy it. It was sort of like after Week 2 this year, when the Patriots lost at the Jets, and many were saying, "Same old Patriots, can't win on the road." Then they won six of their final seven road games of the season. In the end, it comes down to execution on that day. However, if you forced me to pick one area, I'd say the common link I see is that the offensive line has struggled in all three of those playoff games.
Q: Mike, I was a doubter of the Tom Brady/[quarterbacks coach] Bill O'Brien combination and what was produced early this season. Then after the Randy Moss departure, things really started clicking. So the question is: How much was the result [Sunday] because of the Jets' scheme and execution and how much was because of a bad performance by Brady? Early on there were many times Brady had significant time to throw but couldn't find a target. Then later in the game, his throws and timing were off. What specifically did the Jets do to throw TB off so much? -- Larry (Isle of Palms, S.C.)
A: Larry, those receivers were covered very tightly. Brady obviously wasn't at his best, but I think the biggest part of it was that his receivers weren't open, forcing him to hold on to the ball longer than he wanted to. The Jets played a heavy coverage plan, and Tedy Bruschi broke down some of the things the Jets did well in his Bruschi on Tap column. The biggest play that I think Brady can be held accountable was on his first-quarter interception; that was a huge play in the game that set an early tone, and it was all on him. There is no gray area there. With a screen pass, there is only one place to go, and when Calvin Pace flashed in his throwing lane, Brady should have thrown the ball away or eaten it. I think you have to give credit to the Jets' scheme and execution as well.
Q: Hey Mike, entering the offseason it doesn't seem like the Pats have a lot of free agents who need sizable contracts except for the likes of Logan Mankins and Matt Light, and a possible extension for Wes Welker. Being that they don't have to throw a lot of money at key contributors like they had to last offseason, do you think maybe the Pats should pony up the big money for Mankins while they are in position to not have to cough up a lot of money to other key free agents? I'm not sure they want to tempt fate for a second offseason in a row given Mankins' strong stance last season, and I'm afraid playing hardball again will result in the end of Mankins' career here in New England. Also, do you think the Pats will lock up Light for a few more years? He loves playing for the Pats, and I don't see him making contract talks difficult with any sizable demands. -- Bill (Manchester, N.H.)
A: Bill, I agree that the Patriots don't have a lot of free agents-to-be who will be looking for big-bucks deals. Basically, it's Mankins. I think Light could command a nice deal as well, but it presumably would be shorter in length, so that's a different dynamic. As for the Mankins situation, I think the Patriots should be aggressive in their attempts to re-sign him, even more so than they were in 2010. In the end, it will be a two-way street with both sides having to give a little. I also see Light back.
Q: Mike, tough loss no doubt, but the future looks a lot brighter. We went into this season thinking the Jets would rule the AFC East and the Pats should be happy rebuilding at 10-6. It turned out much better than that. So my question is that the Patriots seem to be "stuck" with six picks in the first three rounds but will be limited by the depth of their talent on the lower end of their roster. I see the Patriots moving potentially up in this year's draft to get better talent on OL/DL, or out to next year. Moving up is not generally the Patriot Way, but it seems to me that a little disruptive talent at DL next to Wilfork could make the Patriots unstoppable in 2011. Do you agree? -- Justin R. (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A: Justin, when I look at the Patriots' needs, I have a pass-rusher, defensive line, offensive line and running back as the top areas right now. I don't think it's a given that they will move up in the draft, but I'd envision that they would have a range they'd be comfortable going up to if the right player falls there. They certainly have the chips to maneuver around the board or trade into future years.
Q: Mike, I feel like this is the most poorly coached game of the Belichick era to date. There were major mistakes in every phase of the game -- failed fake punt, Brady's turnover, [Alge] Crumpler's drop, the game-killing long fourth-quarter drive, the defense not stopping [Mark] Sanchez when it counted. Do you think the Pats were a "smoke and mirrors" team this year that just got exposed? -- Marc (Boston)
A: Marc, I don't think the Patriots were a smoke-and-mirrors team. They played a brutal schedule and beat every team that is still alive in the playoffs. That counts for something in my book. I agree on the coaching. Not Bill Belichick's best day. A tough time for that to happen.
Q: Mike, when the Patriots face an opponent where their game plan doesn't fit, or the opponent does something they didn't expect, there seems to be a lack of ability to adjust and counteract. The Pats didn't have an answer for the Jets after halftime, and it was the same in the Cleveland game and the first Jets game. Were they outcoached? Is the loss of so many coordinators and coaches the reason for the inability to read and react? -- Chip (Wilton, Conn.)
A: Chip, I think it's fair to say the Patriots were outcoached. As for the inability to adjust, I don't necessarily see it that way. Although I think the coaching fell short, I view the second half less about adjustments and more about execution and a lack of urgency. On the Patriots' first drive, they had a third-and-1 from their own 46-yard line and couldn't pick up a yard. To me, that's not about an adjustment. It's about losing the battle up front and the opposition outexecuting you. In the fourth quarter, I didn't like how the offense waited so long to snap the ball. I would have liked to have seen more urgency.
Q: Hi Mike, it seemed like the offense once again couldn't make the proper adjustments against the Jets' defense. Even the announcers mentioned it on more than one occasion. I remember a lack of adjustments was a big knock on Bill O'Brien's play calling last year too. Is it time to look outside the organization for an OC, or do you still think the job is O'Brien's? -- Sean (Hudson)
A: Sean, I believe O'Brien is a good coach and is deserving of the offensive coordinator's job. Sunday wasn't his best day, and that happens to every coach. I think sometimes we look for people to point the finger at, and O'Brien seems to be a frequent target.
Q: Obviously the clock management on the long drive is getting all the press, but what about the field goal drive? They're in field goal range with 2:45 or so to go, why not either kick immediately or take three quick end zone shots then kick? Needing a FG and a TD with two timeouts left, why not take the easy score and save your biggest asset, the two-minute warning? Instead, they throw underneath passes (a first down gets you nothing there), end up burning the two-minute warning and are forced to onside kick. Has there been any explanation on this strategy? -- Andy (San Diego)
A: Andy, the ball was at the 18-yard line with 2:30 remaining. No matter what you decide -- whether it's to attempt a 35-yard field goal on first down or try to score a touchdown -- I think the one thing that has to happen is that you need to get to fourth down before the two-minute warning. The Patriots failed in that area, and I think that's bad situational football. Tom Brady's 1-yard pass to Wes Welker on third down looked like a bad decision by Brady. He would have been better throwing it away and saving clock.
Q: Hi Mike, not to pile on the players, but is Patrick Chung really allowed to make that punt call? It was the turning point in the game and changed the whole complexion of it. I realize there were other bad plays, but going in at the half down 7-3 with the ball in the third puts the team in reach of the Jets. Where is the coaching on that play? Where is Coach O'Brien telling Chung to make sure the ball is punted? -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)
A: Jim, I'm skeptical of the explanation as well. Although Chung needs to catch that ball, I find it hard to believe that he had the authority to do that on his own.
Q: Mike, one thing that troubles me is do you think the relationship between Wes Welker and the team has been damaged this past week? I understand the Patriots' philosophy, but I think the timing of the discipline left a lot to be desired. Your thoughts? -- Neil (North Branch, Mich.)
A: Neil, I'm not sure on this one, but it's something to keep on the radar, as Welker's contract is set to expire after the 2011 season. My hunch would be that it's nothing that can't be overcome if it's an issue with Welker at all. As for my opinion on the decision to bench him for the first offensive possession, I thought Belichick's intentions were good but felt the execution fell short and created a situation that could lead Welker to be embarrassed. I thought it could have been done differently.
Q: Why was Alge Crumpler seemingly the number one TE on Sunday? Any reason you can give to why Aaron Hernandez just fell off late in the year and never really played much after the Jets MNF game? -- Dan (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)
A: Dan, it was a little strange seeing that unfold with Crumpler. Hernandez was on the field for 24 of 80 snaps (including penalties and the 2-point conversion). In terms of playing time, Rob Gronkowski led the tight ends, followed by Crumpler, then Hernandez. I think the reason we saw Crumpler as a frequent target was that the other options were all covered so tightly and he was Tom Brady's third, fourth or fifth read. As for Hernandez, his hip injury was a factor at the end of the season, and it's also my belief that Brady wanted to see some more precise routes from him.
Q: It was a disappointing loss but not totally unexpected. It seems like Rex Ryan had his players extremely motivated for this game from Dennis Byrd's speech, lack of respect, etc. Patriots are always on an even keel. Do you think that harms the Patriots when it comes to the playoffs when it is winner take all? I can see the Patriot approach working during the long season, but I think they need more passion in the playoffs. Your thoughts? -- Neil (Southington, Conn.)
A: Neil, I've thought about this passion, and although I think the Patriots should closely study what they've done entering the playoffs the past two years -- and consider changes -- I'm less about the passion and more about the execution when it comes to the Patriots in the playoffs. Players are human and they will make mistakes, but the key is to limit them. When you get a costly interception, a costly drop in the end zone, a botched fake punt, and then can't jam and tackle on a 58-yard catch-and-run, I just see that as bad football more than anything emotional-based. The Patriots came out and moved the ball well on their first two drives. They killed those drives with their own mistakes.
Q: Hi Mike, As much as I'm loath to admit it, the better team won Sunday, so good for the Jets for coming up with a strong game plan and executing it so well. (Sorry, threw up in my mouth a bit there.) Are you surprised the Pats didn't go with the no-huddle offense more often? Seems during the season that using it helped them get in a rhythm when they were sputtering on offense. It's a tough way to end a season, but I have to think most Pats fans are more optimistic at the end of this season than they were after the Ravens debacle a year ago. -- NBP (Calgary, Alberta)
A: I was surprised we didn't see more consistent no-huddle in the fourth quarter. The Patriots needed a spark, and Julian Edelman was one of the few players to provide it for them. In retrospect, I would have tried to create some more opportunities for him.
Q: Looking ahead to next year, could you list all the players whom the Patriots put on IR during the year this year and if you project them to return? -- Cole Wiegmann (Iowa)
Safety Josh Barrett
Cornerback Leigh Bodden
Defensive lineman Ron Brace
Running back Kevin Faulk (free agent)
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski
Offensive lineman Nick Kaczur
Safety Bret Lockett
Safety Brandon McGowan (free agent)
Offensive lineman Stephen Neal
Defensive lineman Darryl Richard
Defensive lineman Ty Warren
Defensive lineman Kade Weston
Cornerback Jonathan Wilhite
Defensive lineman Mike Wright
Q: Mike, just wondering when you are going to apologize to Mike Westhoff? You called him classless for saying the Patriots also do a wall on punts, and now there is video of them doing exactly that. In fact, Westhoff went out of his way to say that the Pats weren't doing anything wrong, when the video clearly shows they were. I think you owe a 30-plus-year NFL coach with Westhoff's character an apology for your biased comments. -- Steve (San Francisco)
A: Steve, I thought Westhoff's comments were ridiculous, whether the Patriots were doing it or not. I stand by what I said 100 percent because I think it's amateur hour when one team is in hot water and it tries to drag another team into it. It reminded me of elementary school, and the NFL obviously agreed because it fined the Jets $100,000, in part because of those comments. I'll be the first to say that if the Patriots were doing something illegal, they should be penalized for it, and that's up to the game officials to do. As for Westhoff, you talk to most anyone in the league, and they'll tell you he's an excellent coach. I thought he did himself a disservice with his remarks.
Q: With three of the top 33 picks in the draft, do the Pats continue to replenish the roster as they did this year, or do they instead reload by trading two of them to a rebuilding team that has a special player? Arizona and Larry Fitzgerald are the examples that come to mind, but I'm sure there are others. -- Richard (Ashland, Mass.)
A: Richard, I'd be shocked if the Patriots traded one of the picks for a special player, let alone two. I think they'll either make the picks or move them around in some fashion.
Q: Mike, how do the Patriots walk the line of defining their needs by what they saw for 16 games vs. what they saw in ONE game. If it's what the Jets "did," doesn't that suggest not looking too closely at the single playoff stinker? -- Deans Desk (East Providence, R.I.)
A: I remember Bill Belichick talking about this last year after the blowout loss to the Ravens in the playoffs. The best thing to do is take a step back and don't make any big-picture decisions this close to the game, and that helps strike a better balance. Last year was a good example. The Patriots had problems at defensive end in that playoff game, but it wasn't as though they made that a top priority in the offseason.
Q: Hi Mike, Well, it was a disappointing loss, ending what was overall a year that exceeded my expectations. One question from the game: Did you see in the pregame when Brady appeared to be "sniffing" a cup and then passed along to someone else? Do you know what that was all about? -- Jared (Granville, N.Y.)
A: Jared, Brady was asked about that on sports radio WEEI on Monday, and it's an ammonia capsule. I've read articles in the past that touches on the risk of this and remember some players saying it sharpens their focus before a game, gets them locked in. Brady explained it as something that Patriots quarterbacks and receivers do before games.
Q: One of the things that surprised me about the play-calling in the fourth quarter of the Jets game was the limited amount of carries BenJarvus Green-Ellis got. A lot of Danny Woodhead's run were between the tackles. Wouldn't Green-Ellis have been more suited to those kinds of runs? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, it was a big Woodhead game. When I counted up the snaps played, it was 58 for Woodhead and 19 for Green-Ellis (including penalties). The main reason I think it was Woodhead was for pass-protection purposes -- he's a better pass-protector than Green-Ellis -- and the Patriots were in their three-receiver package and could tap his versatility as a runner and receiver while playing from behind.
Q: Some have suggested that the Pats would definitely be searching for a Randy Moss-type receiver with one of their high picks in the draft. With Welker, [Deion] Branch, [Brandon] Tate, [Taylor] Price and Edelman all signed, I don't see a surefire receiver in college who would step in and replace anyone. When the true game-changers come along (Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Crabtree), everyone knows about them. I haven't heard of any surefire stars this year, and I don't see the Pats using a top pick on a wide receiver. Thoughts? -- Taylor (Boston)
A: Taylor, I'd be surprised if the Patriots go receiver. I'm thinking beef and nastiness up front -- offensive and defensive lines -- or a dynamic pass-rusher. I think this needs to be one of those drafts where the Patriots focus on toughness at the line of scrimmage.
Q: Mike, all four teams this weekend that had the better pass rush won their respective games. While I know this is only one component of defense, it does make the opposing QBs uncomfortable. Sanchez played a solid game, but one wonders how things might have gone if the Pats could sustain a pass rush against him. Do you think this performance will stir the Pats into drafting a pass-rusher this year? -- Paul (Rochester, N.Y.)
A: I do, Paul. I think the biggest thing Bill Belichick has to consider is whether he's willing to use a late first-round pick on a pass-rusher who might project to play only on third down. Ideally, a team wants its first-rounder to be able to play all three (or even four) downs, but I think those standards can be loosened if you think you have an explosive edge rusher who could help your sub packages. The Patriots were in sub packages more than 50 percent of the time. The way I look at it is that the Patriots were willing to pay Tully Banta-Cain a generous contract to fill that type of role, so why wouldn't they consider a first-round pick in that type of role?
Q: Hi Mike, I was just curious now that the season is over, how often you will be updating the blog? -- Billy (California)
A: Billy, the plan will be to keep the blog updated throughout the offseason. We could run into some problems if there is a lockout, but for now, there should be no shortage of things to analyze and report, especially when it comes to the draft.
Fans want to know what happened versus the Jets and what the offseason holds.