This week's mailbag has a receiver-like feel to it.
I view this as an exciting time to be following the Patriots because I believe the team is going to have to reinvent itself on offense. It is somewhat similar to 2008, when quarterback Tom Brady was injured and Matt Cassel took over; the Patriots tweaked things but still found a way to move the ball and score points.
I expect the Patriots to go back to playing offense the way they did from 2002-2005. It's too simplistic to say that's why the team traded for Branch, who starred from that time, but I do believe that's a part of the thinking. Watching the Patriots adjust on the fly, which challenges the coaches and players, is something that has annually been impressive in reporting on this team.
Elsewhere in the mailbag, there were quite a few inquiries on the defensive playtime stats from the Week 4 win over Miami. I was late getting them together because of the short week and then the Moss trade. They are now posted on our Patriots blog.
Overall, this is shaping up as a big week for the team, with the Ravens coming to town. With a win, the Patriots could put themselves in the discussion with the NFL's top teams.
Hey Mike, three quick questions. I noted that you said compared to acquiring a third-round pick for Randy Moss, giving up a fourth-rounder for Deion Branch was a bit rich. But if you take Moss out of the equation, do you think it was a fair deal? Also, given the history of No. 83, any chance Wes Welker gives it up or does Branch move on? Finally, where can I send my check for the bring-Romeo-Crennel-back campaign? -- Randall (Kyle, Texas)
A: Randall, I still think a fourth-rounder for Branch is a bit rich, although I understand why the Patriots made the trade. Given the in-season timing and the alter-the-offense-on-the-fly approach without the vertical threat of Randy Moss, Branch would have more value to the Patriots than most teams because of his knowledge of the system. This further represents a philosophic offensive shift of sorts in my view. At the end of the day, that's why you accumulate all those chips, so when an opportunity presents itself to improve the team you strike it. I think another key here is Branch's contract. My hunch is that there could be a multiyear type extension that accompanies this move, which would add another wrinkle in analyzing the trade. As for Branch's jersey number, I don't see him back in No. 83. That's Welker's. On Romeo Crennel, I understand where you are coming from. Watching the Chiefs a bit on Sunday, it brought back memories of the old Patriots defenses. He is a very good defensive coordinator.
Q: Mike, I'm very confused by the Patriots acquiring Deion Branch. I can respect his legacy in New England as much anyone, but is he really the type and caliber of receiver that could be considered value-added to this receiver corps? I'm hard pressed to believe that he and Brady could pick up right where they left off, much like the Brady-Welker connection we've grown to love. Why wouldn't we go out to find a faster and/or bigger deep threat ... or just wait to use one of our picks next year on AJ Green or something of the sort? -- DavidC (Phoenix, Ari.)
A: Fair questions, David, and I think there are a few reasons why Branch is the right choice for the Patriots. First, it would be risky to go with the current group at receiver for the rest of the season, because in the event of injury the offense could be handcuffed. Given the recent injury history of Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, I think it's smart business to add another layer of depth. As for Branch, I think what we're seeing is a return to the way the Patriots used to play offense and with that, Branch had greater value to the Patriots -- especially during an in-season trade -- than perhaps any team in the NFL. The fact that Branch can step in and play immediately is huge. There is no benefit of an offseason to get acclimated. I think that is another huge part in analyzing this trade and why simply acquiring any receiver just isn't as realistic. I thought we saw that show up a bit Monday night with the Vikings and Moss, as Moss couldn't be part of the two-minute package because he wasn't fully up to speed in Minnesota's system.
Q: Mike, just a media question on this one. Do you think it's possible that Charley Casserly's report is untrue? It seems he and Belichick do not see eye-to-eye and this report seems to be of the ax-grinding variety. Doesn't it seem like Tom Brady and even Randy Moss would be above the type of behavior described by the report. Respected football reporters seem to have refuted the report, what is your position? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, my general position is that I don't like reporting on others' reports. I'd rather invest my time toward something more productive. Obviously, there are some situations that dictate otherwise and this was probably one of them, even though I am a bit stubborn when it comes to my new least favorite headline, "Report:" Specific to the Casserly report, I have my doubts about its accuracy, but don't feel extremely strong about it.
Q: Mike, what do you think of this scenario: Moss and the Pats can't agree on a contract extension. Moss sees the Pats give Brady a long-term deal. Moss sees his stats decline this year, knows he needs a big year to justify big payday. Moss becomes increasingly disruptive about his own stats and situation to the degree that the Pats trade him to avoid a total future meltdown by Moss. -- Chip (Wilton, Conn.)
A: Chip, I think that sounds like a very plausible scenario. It meshes with what I wrote the day of the trade.
Q: Mike, I have to believe that Belichick trading Moss means that it had to get done, and sooner rather than later. However it didn't have to get to this point. Didn't they know that contractual uncertainty is something that Moss wouldn't be able to handle well? Part of management is dealing with different personalities and I think that the Patriots were not as prepared as they should have been (just like the Red Sox with Manny). -- Robert Hoog (New York, NY)
A: Robert, I can't disagree. My only counter would be that Moss wouldn't have been the first player to publicly complain about his contract and then go out and deliver a big year. So it wasn't a completely far-fetched thought that Moss might be motivated and produce big. In the end, it seemed the future uncertainty distracted Moss more than it motivated him and that could have been something the Patriots could have better projected. With a changing offense in which Moss wasn't likely to produce big numbers -- something that was tougher to project in July when the tight end development was a bit more of an unknown -- it quickly became clear by Weeks 3-4 that it had the potential to be toxic.
Q: Mike, everyone is bemoaning the loss of Randy Moss for what I'll call his "threat" factor on the field, and as a result, his impact on opposing defenses. Here's my answer to that and I wonder if you agree: Any player that emerges as a threat will get the attention of the opposing defense. Be it Hernandez, Tate, Gronkowski, or anyone else. If one of these guys is consistently getting open and scoring, the opposing defense is going to change the way they cover him. At that point the field opens up for Welker, Woodhead and Co. (not to mention the running game). If anything, the Pats now have the advantage of catching defenses off guard because of their "no name" offense. -- Al Struthers (Peterborough, N.H.)
A: Al, I see what you are saying. One area that I think can't be overlooked is how Moss' vertical presence opens things up/clears things out for underneath receivers like Welker and Co. We saw it Monday night in Moss' first game with the Vikings, as he cleared things out for Percy Harvin on Harvin's touchdown catch-and-run. I don't see the same type of presence currently on the Patriots, so they'll have to adjust and change the way they play.
Q: I heard on the radio that the Patriots staff believes the team is better off without Randy Moss. The hosts said something like Tom Brady was going away from the game-plan during games and trying to force the ball to Moss to keep him happy. Is there any truth to that? Also, do you know anything about what Troy Brown and Bill Simmons said about Moss not talking to any teammates or staff members on the plane ride home from Miami? -- Ryan (Boston)
A: Ryan, I think the Week 2 loss to the Jets had an element of that to it. Brady targeted Moss 10 times in the game, completing just two passes, and I thought it disrupted the rhythm and flow of the offense. When you have a receiver like Moss, I can understand a quarterback feeling like he has to keep him involved and I felt like Brady was living with a little bit of that burden. We saw a change over the next two games and I think that's when the situation really started to build in terms of Moss' departure. As for the plane ride, I have not been able to substantiate those stories to the level that I'd feel comfortable reporting it.
Q: Hi Mike, my initial reaction to the Moss trade was frustration because I think they should have gotten more than a third-round pick, let alone give up a seventh-round pick along with Moss. It seems to me like they could have gotten much more. Minnesota was in huge trouble before they got Moss. They are clearly in "win this season" mode given the age of Favre. Given that there isn't a salary cap this season, saving the $5 million-plus that was left on his salary from this season shouldn't have been a huge factor. Was that the best they could do? -- Steve (South Boston, Mass.)
A: Steve, I was initially surprised at the compensation as well. Once I learned of some of the things that went on behind the scenes -- such as the halftime heated exchange with playcaller Bill O'Brien -- I think the timing made it such that the deal had to get done within a few days. That wasn't the only reason he was traded, but I don't buy it wasn't a factor in the final decision-making process. Given the way things were escalating, and the need to move quickly, it was sort of similar to the Matt Cassel trade in my view. In short time, you see what market develops and take the best you can get. Holding on to Moss was no longer an option -- the potential risks outweighed the rewards -- so the Patriots really didn't have the leverage.
Q: Hi Mike, since you probably aren't getting any Randy Moss questions, I thought I'd send you one. Do the Vikings pick up the tab for the remainder of Randy's 2010 contract, and if so, does that money revert to the Patriots as additional cap room funds for this season? -- Bill
A: Bill, the Vikings pick up the entire contract in the trade. There is no salary cap this year, so the Patriots don't get any relief in that respect. What they do receive is some extra wiggle room on their budget.
Q: Hi Mike, since the Vikings had a bye in Week 4, Randy Moss will end up playing 17 regular season games this year (barring injury, of course). Do player contracts or the CBA address this possibility? If Randy does get an extra game check, who's responsible? Or does he just have to play 17 games on a '16 game' contract? -- Andrew (Somerville, Mass.)
A: Andrew, I was curious about this myself and Andrew Brandt of the National Football Post wrote a nice piece on it. I'll link it here.
Q: Mike, I'm confused. Randy went from being upset over having no contract in New England to being supremely happy and content in Minnesota ... still without a contract. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Why couldn't he just play the year out -- like he promised he would in NE -- and then deal with the contract stuff instead of demanding a trade so he could go to another team, still without the "appreciation" he apparently craves? -- Lexi (Ottawa)
A: Lexi, I think Moss saw the direction the Patriots' offense was heading and realized it would hurt his market value. There were probably going to be more games like Miami, where he went without a catch. In Minnesota, he'll be more of a focal point. That is my sense of what Moss was thinking.
Q: Hi Mike, reading your "football journey" on Aaron Hernandez, he said when he played in high school he wanted to be a receiver but his high school switched him to the TE position. Is it a possibility that he could be more of a receiver for the Patriots? -- Charles Smith (Boston, Mass.)
A: Charles, I view Hernandez as a hybrid tight end/receiver type. In a lot of ways, the Patriots do use him as a receiver, not necessarily to threaten the deep third of the field like a Randy Moss does, but in other ways. I'd expect that to continue.
Q: Mike, given your recent report concerning the halftime "outburst" between Randy Moss and Bill O'Brien, how huge was Brandon Tate's kick return to begin the second half? This, in retrospect, might have been a season-saving moment with things looking bleaker than anyone realized. -- Clark (Washington, D.C.)
Clark, I think it comes back to something we talked about a lot last year. The Patriots needed more playmakers and they certainly have one in Tate. He is explosive with the ball in his hands.
Q: With Moss gone does that mean we'll be seeing more of Taylor Price? The kid has potential and did some good things in the preseason, right? -- Justin (Harrisburg, Pa.)
A: Justin, my sense is that Price might need more time behind the scenes. If the Patriots felt he was ready, I wonder if they would have traded for Deion Branch. Here is a blog entry on Price, with comments from director of player personnel Nick Caserio.
Q: Mike, there has been a lot of discussion regarding Logan Mankins needing to play another season in order to gain another year of accrued service in order to become an unrestricted free agent. However, Mankins already has five years of accrued service. I was under the impression that if there is no new collective bargaining agreement (and no lockout) that players in 2011 will need five years to become an unrestricted free agent rather than the six they needed in 2010. In addition, if there is a new CBA, I can't imagine the NFLPA agreeing to change that status from four years all the way to six on a permanent basis. Can you please clarify? -- John (Braintree, Mass.)
A: John, more than anything, this is a case where Mankins would be protecting himself regardless of what the rules might be. It might be six years to become an unrestricted free agent. It might be five or even four. No one really knows and there are no guarantees. So by coming back in Week 10, it gives him the best chance to control his future regardless of what the rules might be.
Q: Hey Mike, I've heard a lot of people say things like, "This is a bridge year because the Pats don't have a Super Bowl-caliber defense." While I understand the frustration with the defense, I keep thinking back to last year when the Saints' defense got lots of turnovers, but I'm pretty sure was in the bottom third of the league in most statistical categories. I still think this Pats team is ultimately an 11-5 football team, and a very formidable playoff opponent for any team. Thoughts? -- Zack (Somerville, Mass.)
A: Zack, I don't believe in the "bridge" year, especially given the current makeup of the NFL. Anything can happen right now, and I could envision the Patriots beating anyone, and losing to anyone. That's sort of the way it is right now. I still believe the Patriots will be in the playoff mix and we'll see how they're playing at that time.
Q: Hi Mike, my glass-is-half-full approach to the Moss situation is this: The Pats were good before Moss, and they will be good after Moss. They simply will not be as exciting. I still see the Pats as Super Bowl contenders. Do you agree with this? -- Matt (NYC)
A: Matt, it's hard for me to say Super Bowl contenders right now. It's so early. But it wouldn't surprise me. I think this offense is going back to the way it used to play pre-2006/2007, and I can see that change sparking them to do some special things.
Q: Hi Mike, I'm not sure about the long-term but just for the game against Baltimore, I actually think this will help us not having Randy Moss. My thinking is that no teams right now have film on what our offense will look like sans Moss and I feel this will work to our advantage in the game against the Ravens. Your thoughts? -- Michael (Springfield, Mass.)
A: Michael, I think there may be a little something to that, but I'd balance it out by saying most defenses are going to be pretty pleased they don't have to game-plan for Moss. Even in his 13th year, Moss remains a receiver that dictates coverage.
Q: The pass rush has been slightly better then last year but has still been inconsistent. The Patriots have had a decent pass rush in the first half against the Bengals and Jets and a good pass rush against the Bills and Dolphins in the fourth quarter. I think the secondary is taking to much blame and it will he harder for them to improve if the Patriots don't play better team defense. Who individually do you think is capable of rushing the passer better as the season goes along that isn't doing it now. Do they have enough talent at OLB and DE? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I don't think the pass rush has been the big issue for the defense. In fact, for all the questions this offseason, it's been better than I expected. I think Tully Banta-Cain is the team's best pass-rusher off the edge, and Mike Wright is a top rusher from an inside position. We should see Jermaine Cunningham improve as the season goes on -- he's already shown up a bit -- and I think Rob Ninkovich could help more in sub packages if given the opportunity. I think they do have enough talent to pressure quarterbacks.
Q: Mike, do you know what play the Pats were going to use on the 2-point conversion before the penalty. It looked like a Julian Edelman wildcat formation. Do you think that's something we might see later in the season? -- Ken (New York)
A: Ken, it looked to me like the old direct snap to the running back, which used to be a staple with Kevin Faulk. A key on that is timing and the Patriots were just a bit out of synch.
Q: Mike: Danny Woodhead is only signed through 2010. Is he an exclusive rights free agent or a restricted free agent next year? -- Jim Keddy (Kennebunk, Maine)
A: Jim, a lot will depend on the new rules of the collective bargaining agreement. One thing is almost certain: Woodhead won't be an unrestricted free agent, so that greatly increases the odds that he will be back in New England.
Q: We get a bang out of national broadcasters' pronunciation of Chadron. Locally, it is pronounced SHAD-ren, not Chad-RON. But we're all excited about Danny Woodhead. -- B. Waxler (Hot Springs, S.D.)
A: Maybe Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, the top CBS team that will broadcast this Sunday's game, will read this. Woodhead is off to a strong start, and he shared his football journey with ESPNBoston.com on Saturday.
Q: Mike, when you wrote for the Globe, I seem to recall that within a day or so of a game you would have posted transcripts of entire post-game press conferences and interviews, rather than just selected bits. Now it seems that neither you nor the Globe do that anymore. Why is that? -- Keith (Shelton, Conn.)
A: Keith, I think our approach is that there is so much information out there these days, we're better serving our readers by filtering out what we feel is the most important stuff. If interested in the full transcripts or videos, I suggest visiting the team's site, Patriots.com.
Q: Can you get all of your media friends to pick against the patriots every week? I like the team's attitude better when they are the underdog. -- Nick (Santa Cruz, Calif.)
A: This one made me laugh, Nick. I wish I had that type of influence. Predicting games is a challenge and you just try to go with the best information you have possible. I'll be picking the Patriots plenty of times the rest of the season, for sure.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.