Offseason questions dominate mailbag

The Patriots' season came to a stunning end with a 33-14 playoff loss to the Ravens. It was ugly.

So where does the team go from here?

That is the theme of this week's mailbag. The topic of leadership is also addressed.

One of the common questions I hear at this time of year is how Patriots coverage will be affected by the team no longer playing. My answer is that football season never ends -- we'll have plenty to write about in the team-building process.

So my plan is to continue to file weekly Tuesday mailbags here on ESPNBoston.com and also continue our weekly Thursday afternoon chats. I will also be following the ins and outs of all things Patriots.

Thanks to all for a great season, and let's keep it rolling as we head toward the 2010 season.

Q: Just curious on your initial thoughts for next year? I know it's early and so much can happen, but I just took another look at the teams the Patriots are playing next year (AFC and NFC North plus other AFC division winners) and considering how many needs the Pats have for next year, this is the first time in a while I don't have very positive feelings going into a new season. How about you? -- Jason (Livingston, N.J.)

A: Jason, I tend to be an optimistic type. I'm positive about the Patriots' franchise heading forward as long as Tom Brady is the quarterback and Bill Belichick is the coach. I always start there, because I think the successful franchises need the top quarterback and coach, and I believe the Patriots have that as a foundation on which to build -- even if both didn't have their best seasons in 2009. The Patriots obviously have work to do, but I like the ammunition they have (first-round pick, three second-round picks) and think some personnel and scheme adjustments will position them to once again be a contender in the AFC.

Q: Looking back on this year, the Pats had a lot of potential and came up short. What do you see the Pats doing in the draft, free agency, and updating a coaching staff that seemed to struggle? -- Nick Andrews (Albany, Ore.)

A: When I look at the Patriots' offseason plans in the draft, free agency and on the coaching side, I think it starts with addressing Brady's contract. To me, that's the first domino that has to fall when planning for the team's future, and then I'd try to hammer out an extension for Vince Wilfork. After that, I'd focus on the pass rush and physical toughness in the front seven. Other than the Brady and Wilfork possibilities, I don't expect big splashes in free agency when it comes to signing players from other teams. I project the Patriots, at this time, to use free agency to supplement their young core. As for the coaching staff, I'd think that Belichick will make some changes in some form, maybe with the idea of veteran voices added to the mix.

Q: Hi Mike, with the revelation by Tom Brady that leadership was a problem on this team, it appears that there was no one in the locker room to police the likes of Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, and Derrick Burgess. Where do the Pats go from here? Do they remove the problems or attempt to add positive leadership through free agency as they did in the past with players like Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison? It's obvious the team won't succeed when some players don't give 100 percent and others speak out when they shouldn't. It's clear that the coaches can't police the locker room; they can only discipline it. -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)

A: I have a little bit of a different view of what Brady said, and I think the leadership angle has been a bit overplayed. I think they had enough leaders in the locker room -- from Brady, to Kevin Faulk, to Logan Mankins, to Junior Seau, to Vince Wilfork. More than the lack of leaders, I just don't think it was the right mix of 53 players. I didn't get the sense that all 53 were pulling the same oar at times. When you put together a 53-man roster, not every player is going to be a leader, but they have to be willing to follow the leaders. I didn't always get that sense from being in the Patriots' locker room.

Q: I don't buy the whole lack of leadership issue. Everyone says there was too much turnover on defense, and not enough veteran presence. My response to that is in 2007 they had Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison, Seymour, Asante Samuel and Adalius Thomas (when he was still good), and they still couldn't get it done. I don't know what the problem is, because I will agree with a Jerod Mayo quote that "on paper" the defense looks as good as any, but they just don't do it on game day. Maybe it is that they don't have any playmakers. DeMarcus Ware, Charles Woodson, Terrell Suggs are guys that make plays every week and force turnovers. Gary Guyton, Ty Warren, James Sanders don't do those types of things. Your thoughts? -- Jarrod (Conn.)

A: I think you're on to something, Jarrod. I tend to lean toward your line of thinking on the whole leadership issue. When a season ends as abruptly and disappointingly as the Patriots' did, I think people look for quick answers and the leadership angle was convenient. The Patriots obviously lost some leadership in the locker room and I'm not saying it's not a factor, but I think to say that's the story of this season is off the mark. I think they had enough leaders; more so I think it was about the wrong mix of 53 players. I see a difference in those two thoughts. As for the playmakers, I'd say "right on." Once again, we saw too many third-and-longs converted. Those are the situations that stand out to me where a top pass-rusher or top defensive back rise up. Also, maybe I'm too harsh, but that was a Pro Bowl safety and former first-round draft choice (Brandon Meriweather) that couldn't bring down Ray Rice on what could have been a 10-yard gain but turned into an 83-yard touchdown on the opening play of the playoff game. That's disappointing, in a critical situation, for a player who is counted on as one of your best on defense. There is nothing about leadership that led to that play.

Q: This is a pretty open-ended question/observation. First, it seems like some people are too quick to throw dirt on the Patriots' grave. I recall the Jets beating the Colts 41-0 in the first round of the 2002 playoffs. The following year, the Colts made it to the AFC Championship. Also, San Francisco won three Super Bowls after the Giants smoked them 49-3 in the '86 playoffs. Anyhow, it seems to me that there are four (not mutually exclusive) explanations for the Patriots' woes this year: 1) Bad chemistry; 2) Injuries; 3) Poor coaching; 4) Poor "grocery shopping." Plus, while I don't think that the game has passed Bill Belichick by, I think that the quality of the coaching and the personnel in the league is better now than in 2001, so it's tougher to out-scheme the opposition. I'm curious about your thoughts as to the relative importance of each of these, and how you think the Patriots will respond. -- Ethan Corey (Newton, Mass.)

A: I really like these thoughts, Ethan. They are insightful and I think hit on some of the key breakdowns from the 2009 season. First, I won't be throwing any dirt on the Patriots' grave. I don't think this team is far off, and I think with some tweaks they'll come to training camp a better club than they were at the end of 2009. I agree on bad chemistry. It wasn't the right mix, and I think overall better communication could help get management, the coaches and players on the same page. On the injuries, I'm a little less inclined to go there, only to say that I thought the timing of Wes Welker's injury took a lot of wind out of their sails and that Brady seemed to struggle through his ailments and it affected his play. The coaching wasn't as good as we've seen in years past. As for the grocery shopping, I think it was a "par" on the NFL's golf course. There were some noticeable hits (e.g. Tully Banta-Cain, Leigh Bodden) and some noticeable misses (e.g. Joey Galloway, Alex Smith). I thought the Richard Seymour trade sent a tough message to the locker room, and in the end, if they knew where the Adalius Thomas situation was heading they probably wouldn't have traded Mike Vrabel.

Q: Does the franchise face the risk of paying for past performance with Tom Brady's impending contract? Is there any gas left worthy of a record-setting contract? -- Mike (Annapolis, Md.)

A: I do think there is some risk here, Mike, but I really don't see any other option for the Patriots. You have to bank on Brady at this point, and if I'm Brady, you have to be thinking about cashing in because this could be your last big deal. The one concern I'd have from a management perspective is that Brady was pretty beat up in 2009 and it naturally gets harder to recover as you get older. I think the team needs to build more around him to protect him, and that could include everything from personnel to a philosophical scheme change. We've seen quarterbacks play at a high level into their 40s and it's an investment I'd still make with Brady.

Q: Mike, one thing I noticed this season versus years past was Tom Brady's unwillingness to throw the ball away out of bounds. A few times this season in the face of pressure Brady flung the ball over the middle at the last second and ended up being intercepted. I also noticed him forcing balls on receivers when he sat in the pocket too long and had a few interceptions that way as well. I seem to remember years ago that in those situations Brady would take the safe route and heave the ball out of bounds instead of forcing something. Have you noticed this? Why such a change? Are there any stats that back this up? -- Roy (Orono, Maine)

A: I have noticed this, Roy, and in fact it was one of the thoughts I shared on our Patriots blog Tuesday morning. I thought Brady's decision-making in some critical situations was poor, which is uncharacteristic of him. I do want to go back and review the whole season before coming to that conclusion but that is my first instinct. I have heard Belichick and Brady say that accuracy and decision-making are the two most important things for a quarterback and I felt Brady didn't play up to the standard he'd set in the second area. Brady had said he developed some bad habits, perhaps due to injuries, and I think his lack of being comfortable in the pocket contributed to this.

Q: Mike, for the benefit of those of us who don't work in the Patriots' front office can you briefly explain what the "uncapped" year means, especially now that the Patriots' position (they have freedom in signing free agents) has been clarified after the Baltimore debacle. In a normal capped year, you might expect the Pats to dump high-priced vets such as Thomas and Light, but in 2010 presumably this will put strain only on the Kraft bank balance not the salary cap? -- Paul (Sydney)

A: Absolutely Paul. Barring a change by late February/early March, teams won't be operating under a salary cap in 2010. With that comes some new rules. Here are a few of the key ones:

1. The final eight teams from the 2009 playoffs won't be able to sign a free agent unless they lose one.

2. Players must have six accrued seasons to become a free agent, not four as it would be in a capped year. That affects players like kicker Stephen Gostkowski (four years) and Logan Mankins (five years), who would otherwise be free agents. Those players would become restricted free agents.

3. Teams would have an extra transition tag, in addition to a franchise tag. The tags are designed so teams have a vehicle to keep their top players.

4. There will be no salary floor that teams must spend to.

You are 100 percent correct on higher-ticket players like Thomas and Light. The salaries would only put strain on the Kraft bank balance and not the cap (which would no longer exist) -- although with an unhappy player like Thomas you also have to consider the impact of the locker room chemistry. The one thing I'd say is that I don't expect the Patriots' "value-based" approach to change, cap or no cap.

Q: Hey Mike, I'm a big Randy Moss supporter, but I still cannot get over this whole "safety over the top" excuse for his lack of production. Every good receiver in this league with speed sees "a safety over the top" but their teams find ways to get them the ball. Does Reggie Wayne see deep safety coverage? Yup. How about DeSean Jackson? Sure does. The Patriots far too often seem content with running Moss deep and playing the 10 on 9 game instead of finding ways to frustrate the deep safety coverage by running Moss on more crossing routes, posts and in-cuts. Don't they realize that the more balls Moss catches underneath will actually create more chances for him deep once the safeties get tired of tackling him in front of them? -- Jonathan (Quincy, Mass.)

A: Good point, Jonathan, and one I agree with. I watched this area of the game closely on Sunday, and I thought the Patriots conceded too much in this area. Yes, at times, Moss was triple-teamed. One time I saw linebacker Terrell Suggs move outside and jam Moss, at the same time that cornerback Domonique Foxworth was in the area, with Ed Reed over the top. My first thought was, "Shouldn't the Patriots be using more motion to get Moss free?" My initial reaction is that this is an area the coaching staff could have utilized more adjustments.

Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering if there is no cap for 2010, does any of the rules for the uncapped year stop a team like the Patriots from re-signing someone (like Brady) to a contact that has a huge base salary in 2010 so the cap hit will be less in future years. -- John (New Ipswich, N.H.)

A: That is entirely possible John, and could be part of the strategy of NFL teams as they won't be handcuffed by a cap. My personal feeling is that we won't see it that dramatically, but some contracts could be structured in such a way. I actually think we'll see owners spending less, not more, in an uncapped environment.

Q: Mike, how do the "exit interviews" work with players on the team before they head into the offseason? Does someone (Bill Belichick?) sit with each player still on the team's roster and discuss expectations for the upcoming season and how they should approach offseason conditioning, etc.? -- Andy (Brighton, Mass.)

A: As I understand it, Andy, the team met as a whole at 10 a.m. Monday and then players headed on their way. The coaches still need time to get things together in terms of a full-season analysis, so those meetings can come later in the offseason, or even at the start of the offseason program in March. The general message now would probably be to take care of themselves, spend time with family, recharge the batteries, and we'll climb the mountain together again in March.

Q: Hey Mike, in your recent article "Evaluation process begins for Patriots," you mentioned at the end that Tully Banta-Cain is a free agent. Didn't the Patriots release him in October so they could re-sign him to a long-term deal? Isn't he signed through 2011? If he wasn't re-signed to a long-term deal what was the point in releasing him? -- William Verman (Charlotte, Vt.)

A: William, I think you are right on it. The point of releasing Banta-Cain in October was to have the opportunity to re-sign him before the free-agent period. He couldn't have signed an extension under the one-year deal under which he was playing, so they released him and quickly re-signed him with the idea of a long-term deal. The sides had reached agreement on an extension, but something came up before it was finalized and now Banta-Cain can become a free agent.

Q: Mike, the playoff loss and this season in general were so frustrating that I cannot help but start looking ahead to 2010. We know that the team will look very different next season, but regardless of other moves I think re-signing Vince Wilfork is a top priority. I just don't see how they can assemble a championship-caliber defense without him. What do you think the Patriots' top three personnel needs are, and which spots do you see being filled via free agency vs. others that can be addressed in the draft? -- C.C. McCandless (Little Rock, Ark.)

A: C.C., I'd start with Wilfork, as well. I like the idea of him being the foundation of that front seven on defense, and then filling in some pieces around him both in the draft and free agency. In terms of top personnel needs, I'd rank them this way: 1) Pass-rusher; 2) Defensive lineman; 3) Receiver/running back. I see most of the improvements coming from the draft and mid-level of free agency. I don't anticipate a big free-agent splash at this time.

Q: I noticed that a very small percentage of responders to the ESPN question about the Patriots' need for improvement listed a third receiver. I guess most fans, like me, agree that Edelman was one of only a few Pats players who showed up to play against the Ravens. Several of his plays could be on everyone's highlight reel. But I think the Pats may need two more WRs at least to start the season. Is Moss done as a productive player? Will Welker return in 2010? -- Otis (Boston, Mass.)

A: Otis, I think the answer to the question will be tied to whether the team continues to run the three-receiver offense as its base. They were in it about 55 percent of the time this season and at times they seemed to become predictable. Maybe they change it up. If they don't, I agree that two more receivers would be on the radar to add to this roster. In the ideal world, I think Sam Aiken is a No. 4-5 guy. I think you would open next year with Randy Moss and Julian Edelman as the top guys, with the hope that Brandon Tate could be in the mix. Still, I think you want to protect yourself with at least two more options there. As for Welker, that remains an unknown at this point. I think the team's best approach would be to plan as if he won't be there until the middle of the season.

Q: I heard the announcers say that Ray Lewis had commented that he knew the plays the Pats were going to run based on the defense they would show and he figured this out by watching their tape. My question is: doesn't this demonstrate that our offense is way too predictable and one-sided? Doesn't the responsibility for this fall on the offensive coordinator and isn't it time to think about getting a good OC instead of sticking with Bill O'Brien? -- Flip (N.H.)

A: I do think there was an element of predictability to what the Patriots did at times, Flip, and yes part of that falls to the coordinator. But I'm of the belief that Bill O'Brien is a good coach who experienced the standard early growing pains on the job. I wouldn't give up on him, but I might help him with some more personnel and the possibility of tweaking the team's scheme.

Q: Hi Mike, looking back, I was trying to think of what group I was most disappointed in. People will probably differ on this, but I think it was the linebacker corps. I know Jerod Mayo got hurt early on, but even when he came back he was pretty average. I don't know what happened with Thomas and the coaches, and Burgess was obviously a bust. You could argue that Banta-Cain was our best linebacker, but he strikes me as kind of one-dimensional (good rusher, struggles in the run game). Do you have any thoughts on what we can expect going forward? Do you think Mayo will bounce back next year and assert himself on and off the field? Should we expect a lot of turnover among the LBs? I was also wondering what your plans were this year with regards to covering the draft and the offseason. Do you have plans to do anything new now that you're with ESPN? Can we still expect daily blog entries over the offseason? -- Gus (L.A.)

A: I think this is a fair thought on the linebackers, Gus. On the inside, Mayo had talked at the start of the season about creating more big plays but we didn't see many of them this year. I also think the coaching staff will have to ask the question as to whether Gary Guyton is a full-time starter or more of a No. 3 guy. On the outside, they didn't have that trademark toughness. I concur on Banta-Cain as a one-dimensional rush-type, while Thomas was inconsistent and too easily hooked on run plays. Overall, the linebacker group -- so long the heart and soul of this defense -- was just OK this year. I expect changes there. As for here on ESPNBoston.com, I'm sort of in clean-up mode right now and catching my breath from the season. But we plan to keep covering the Patriots and NFL all the way through to training camp. We'll keep the lines of communication open, and this mailbag will still publish every Tuesday and I'll chat every Thursday.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.