Bill O'Brien and the New England Patriots, take a bow.
That is the underlying theme of this week's Patriots mailbag, as e-mailers are generally thrilled with what the team -- and specifically the offense -- accomplished in Monday's 45-3 dismantling of the New York Jets.
O'Brien, who doesn't have the title of offensive coordinator but calls the plays, has taken quite a bit of heat from e-mailers in the past. No longer. He is on top of his game.
Monday's result puts the Patriots in a prime position when it comes to the playoffs. Win their remaining four games -- at Chicago, vs. Green Bay, at Buffalo and vs. Miami -- and they are the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, earning a first-round bye and ensuring that the road to the conference title comes through Gillette Stadium.
Q: Mike, that was one of the most impressive offensive playcalling performances I recall ever seeing: multiple groupings and substitutions, excellent mix of pass and run, and a few out-of-the-norm plays all contributed to keeping the Jets' D off balance the entire game. Going forward, what type of team do you see giving the Pats the most trouble (on both sides of the ball)? -- Antti (Finland)
A: Antti, I agree on the offensive approach. I think playcaller Bill O'Brien, who has been a good coach from the first day on the job, has found a groove and the players are executing extremely well. The mix is working. As for what type of team could give the Patriots trouble, the first thought that comes to mind is the Ravens. That's a team I wouldn't want to face in the playoffs. I'd also stress any team that takes care of the ball, and complements its offense with a physical defense, has the best chance of beating New England. The Patriots are 9-0 when they win the turnover differential this season and 79-3 since 2001. Those are some powerful stats.
Q: Hi Mike, I was curious to find out that the Jets had 152 yards rushing on "Monday Night Football" with a 4.9 average. Watching the game it did not occur to me that they had so much success rushing. It is puzzling also that they rushed 31 times given the fact that they were playing catch-up since the 1st drive of that game. What is your view? -- George Black (Athens, Greece)
A: George, I think this is a case where the final statistics don't completely reflect what took place in the game as the Patriots were almost daring the Jets to run at certain times when putting six or seven defensive backs into the game. The Jets hit a few big runs, such as a 14-yarder on their first drive, but I never felt as if the rush defense was a main issue.
Q: Hey Mike, I think the biggest difference in this team over the last few years is the underrated play of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The fact that he always gets positive yards and never fumbles makes Brady very effective on play-action. He is the perfect, no-nonsense style of runner for this team. -- Bill (New York)
A: No arguments from here, Bill, in terms of the approach that Green-Ellis brings. He's a physical runner, which nicely complements the passing attack. It sort of reminds me of Corey Dillon in a sense. Not saying Green-Ellis is Dillon -- that's not the case -- but I like that type of runner. He might not rip off a 50-yard run at any moment, but he'll pile up those 4s, 5s and 6s and generally keep the offense moving forward.
Q: Hey Mike, quick question and opinion on Josh McDaniels. Have we seen the last of the Patriots' hot coordinators jumping ship to head coach another team? It seems as if the past four coaches who've left didn't do well and were fired from their jobs leaving the organization in worse shape than when they started. Is the true value in teams obtaining the services from the front office of the Patriots rather than the sideline? Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are doing extremely well by constructing teams to win in the Patriots' image instead of re-creating the personality and coaching strategies in New England. McDaniels, Mangini (once), Crennell and Weis all failed in that regard. All of them also were impulsive in their roster/salary cap management (except Weis on the salary cap front) which led to major talent drains. Is it safe to say that the coaching staff in New England is safe for a while? Thoughts? -- Phillip (Boston)
A: Phillip, this makes sense to adopt that line of thinking based on some of the struggles of McDaniels, Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. The next challenge might be more with a position coach, such as Pepper Johnson, being wooed as a coordinator candidate by another team.
Q: I know you have written before that you could see Josh McDaniels coming back to the Patriots if Denver fired him. But is there any chance he could come back this year in some sort of adviser position? -- Chris W (Chestnut Hill, Mass.)
A: Chris, I'd be surprised if it happened this year.
OK, so we're 12 games into the season. I think it's safe to say that Devin McCourty has been worthy of the No. 27 pick in the draft. He has a team-high six interceptions and should be worthy of Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration. I don't like to use the term "shutdown" for corners, but with the extensive playing time do you think that he will develop into an elite corner? -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)
A: Alvin, that was the one theme that stood out to me in the postgame locker room. Vince Wilfork and other defenders pointed to McCourty and how well he is playing, with six interceptions and overall consistent play. When you get that solid play, it can start to tilt the field a bit because quarterbacks will be less likely to challenge that side. Said Wilfork: "As a rookie, he's probably playing the best in the league at his position, hands down. I'd put him up against any corner that you throw at me. He is a helluva football player and he's going to get better and better."
Q: Hey Mike, my old roommate and I fight all the time because he sees Jerod Mayo as a "star" linebacker, someone you build your team around. I see him as a great tackling machine but nothing more (strictly on the field stuff, he could be a great locker room presence and a calming influence to the younger guys, but that isn't in play here). He tackles like he was made for it but he isn't a playmaker; on Monday Night Football I knew Mayo wasn't going to make that pick in the first quarter because that isn't his modus operandi. Don't get me wrong, he is a great player and I want him on the team for all of those intangibles I listed earlier but I just haven't seen playmaking abilities out of him yet. Thanks. -- Zack (Shutesbury, Mass.)
A: Zack, I wouldn't put Mayo in the "star" category -- more big plays are needed -- but I do think he's the type of player to build around. He plays every snap. He's smart. He's a sound tackler. So I think it sort of splits the difference between the two lines of thinking. I can think of 31 other teams, regardless of system, that would love to have a player of Mayo's caliber. At the same time, I don't think Mayo is yet in the discussion with the elite/star middle linebackers.
Mike, what was the last time, if any, that the Pats had zero defensive penalties? -- Ron (New York)
A: Ron, I'd have to look closer, but the cut-off date is Oct. 26, 2008, when they defeated the Rams 23-16 and didn't have a single penalty in the game.
Q: Mike, please update the status of Taylor Price. Is he the 2010 Chad Jackson? He supposedly possessed all the intangibles that make a great receiver but he has not seen the field. -- Ben (Highland, Ind.)
A: Ben, I think it is way too early to be making any type of final analysis on Price, the team's third-round draft choice (90th overall). I view this as a true "redshirt" type year for Price, who was coming from a much different offense in college at Ohio and also fell behind in the spring from not being able to participate in practices. I expect him to make a significant leap in terms of his knowledge and ability to execute the offense over the offseason -- as well as contribute on special teams -- and figure he will be competing for a top role in training camp.
Q: Mike, I think Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio deserve some serious kudos for their player personnel philosophy. Many Patriots fans have been critical of the Patriots not retaining key free agents and trading back in drafts. But take a look at the Colts, who do the opposite and pay huge dollars to their marquee players and always stay right where they are in the draft. The Colts simply don't have the depth to survive their injuries and if you look at their roster, they don't have half the infusion of young talent the Patriots have. Your thoughts? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)
A: Kartal, I think this is a topical point to bring up because the Patriots generally focus on a stronger middle class as part of a depth-based philosophy. I think Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio would agree that they aren't perfect -- they have made their fair share of mistakes (e.g. Chad Jackson, second round, 2006) -- but what I give them credit for is an overall consistency with their approach. They have a philosophy they believe in and stick to it. You hear a lot of media-based chatter about how the Patriots struggled in drafts from 2006 to 2008. I think that is fair -- they missed some opportunities -- but I also think it's important to add NFL context. The Colts also struggled in those years, as did most other teams, but that point is often lost by those who are focusing only on the Patriots and not on the entire NFL.
Q: Mike, the defensive backs selected outside of Devin McCourty over the last few years drafts have shown no ball skills whatsoever and consistently are not turning their heads around to find the ball on the deep pass, end-zone fade, etc. They are always looking at the defender and not reacting to the ball in the air. Are the Patriots scouts, DB coaches and Bill Belichick to blame for picking players without this critical skill set, and what are they doing to improve this deficiency? -- KC (Palm Beach, Fla.)
A: KC, ultimately it falls on Belichick. He has the final call on the players. While it is a collaborative effort in terms of gathering information on prospects, no player is drafted without Belichick checking off on it. I don't think players like Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler and Pat Chung came into the NFL with the reputation of not turning their heads to find the deep ball, but players always need to be refining their technique. I think it's harsh to say they have no ball skills whatsoever, but clearly they can improve.
Q: Hi Mike, your Pats/Jets panel raised an interesting point on why Danny Woodhead was cut by the Jets: McKnight was a fourth-round pick and Woodhead was an undrafted free agent. Even though Woodhead was the better player, the draft pick won out. One point of criticism for the Pats has been their drafting, but they have had no problem cutting draft picks and keeping undrafted free agents who are performing well. -- John F (Walpole, Mass.)
A: John, I think this is true to an extent, although I can't remember the last time the Patriots cut a fourth-round draft pick in his rookie season in favor of a rookie free agent. I still think a fourth-rounder gets a "free" year in this system 99.9 percent of the time. But I think we could point to examples one year later -- such as the Patriots keeping rookie free agent Dane Fletcher and cutting 2009 third-round draft choice Tyrone McKenzie this year -- as something that reinforces your point.
Q: The Pats extended Danny Woodhead's contract during the season. I feel that BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in a similar situation, and locking him up for another few years should be a top priority. Any chance they work something out during the season? Would it take much more than the $425,000 signing bonus and roughly $600,000 base salary? -- Jerry (New York)
A: Jerry, there has been no movement toward an extended contract with Green-Ellis at this time, according to a source familiar with that situation. I would anticipate the sides revisiting that at the end of the season. One reason Green-Ellis might want to wait is that the free agency rules could be changing in a new collective bargaining agreement and without knowing what they might be, he could leave money on the table with an extended deal. Woodhead was comfortable doing so, but it looks to me like Green-Ellis is not at this time.
Q: If you rewind back to 2006, the Patriots have no experienced wide receivers, and Brady and Belichick have to coach up Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and an assortment of others. Lots of injuries and defections. Brady is able to get the Patriots to the AFC championship game and nearly wins it. Every week the Pats don't use any excuses, but play with who they have. This year, The Colts are the ones with injuries and changing personnel. Yet they are 6-6, are always moaning about the injuries, play most of their games indoors, and will struggle to make the playoffs in a weak division. Manning does not look great, and it is understandable. Yet Brady overcame similar adversity, contract squabbles and injuries four years ago by leading his team to the brink of a Super Bowl. Explain again why Manning is considered better than Brady in the long run? I think this year should show that under adversity, Brady has been the better quarterback based on ever-changing teammates and weather conditions throughout their respective careers. Has this season changed your view on this debate? No question Manning is fantastic, but I think this year shines a microscope in areas that just haven't been seen beforehand -- and provides another perspective. Thanks as always. -- Allyn W (San Rafael, Calif.)
A: Allyn, I'm not counting out the Colts just yet; they sweep those final four games and they're in the playoffs. At the same time, I think it's a fair point. I have been curious to see how Peyton Manning would respond in a 2006-type Patriots situation and he's having a tough time with it. Injuries are no excuse. Every team deals with them at varying levels and it highlights the importance of building depth, and it sure looks like the Patriots do a better job of that than the Colts.
Q: Mike, the Patriots' offense in general, and Tom Brady in particular, have been playing with a bit more swagger and confidence lately. How much do you think the return of Logan Mankins has contributed to that? It is obvious that he brings some attitude to the game. -- Enjoythegames (Cleveland, OH)
A: The main thing I think Mankins brings to the Patriots is an edge. He pushes the pile. He is not going to wait to get pushed; he'll push first. He plays with a mean streak. I see him as their best offensive lineman. On a related note, it caught the eye that the player media members most often compared to Mankins -- Saints offensive guard Jahri Evans -- has been flagged for six holding penalties, two false starts and one illegal use of the hands penalty this season. I haven't seen much of Evans this season, but seeing those penalty totals makes me wonder if the Saints feel he is still worth that big contract.
Q: Mike, I know that Logan Mankins and Patriots are not talking contract this year, but I really wonder how this will play out come season's end. I assume the Patriots will put the same offer on the table that they nearly agreed to early this season. First, do you think enough bridges have been built that he would come back? Second, do you think another team will offer a Jahri Evans type deal to Mankins? -- Jon Ritzman (Barnstable, Mass.)
A: Jon, it is my belief that the Patriots will continue to let Mankins know they are interested in having him back and that their offer is still on the table. The other factor to consider, and this is something that has been dissected in past mailbags, is that the franchise tag could be in play. I could see another team stepping up to offer Mankins a big-money type deal on the open market, but see the odds as much longer if he is in a franchise-tag type situation.
Q: Mike, I can't think of a time when the future for the Patriots looked brighter. They are 10-2 with dozens of talented young players locked up for relatively small dollars and another stockpile of draft picks. I see no reason why this team will not be elite for the next decade. I know Brady cannot play forever, but how long do you think Belichick will be at the helm? If Brady has 4-5 years left in him, do you see Bill Belichick sticking around for our next QB? -- Micah Pierce (Cambridge, Mass.)
A: Micah, I view it in the five- to eight-year range for Belichick but that is just a hunch. He is 58 years old. I've always put both Belichick and Brady in the same sentence, figuring that they will wrap things up together, however long that may be.
Q: Hi Mike: Thanks for all the great analysis and reporting. With Branch's return to the Patriots, there have been several stories about how his intensive practice work with Brady in their early days contributed to their uncanny ability to be on the same page. Branch has both physical ability and 'football intelligence', but surely those were maximized by the extra time put in with Brady. How much do you think that Brady's current limitations in practice (missed days, and presumably limited numbers of throws) are slowing the development of a similar rapport with Tate, Edelman, and perhaps Price? -- Danny (Boston)
A: Danny, it can't help as we've been reminded over the years by Brady himself that practice is where improvements are made and how players get better. But I think the main thing is that the foundation is built in the offseason/training camp and then once you get into the season it's more game-specific work. So at this point of the year, I'd say the impact of not having Brady at some practices doesn't hurt as much as it would in training camp.
Q: Am I confusing the coverage packages or has Patrick Chung been playing more snaps at third corner in nickel and other coverage packages then he has at safety recently? Is that more a product of injuries, a disappointing season from Darius Butler, or poor safety play from him in the team's eyes? I think Chung has a chance to be special at that safety spot, so I am curious. -- Finn (Norwood, Mass.)
A: Finn, you are on the money with Chung's role. He has been the third safety of late, often playing the "star" position over the slot receiver. I think there are a few factors involved with that decision: 1.) I think Chung's knee is bothering him more than he's revealed; 2.) His presence as a fifth defensive back, in theory, makes the Patriots stronger against the run, as well; 3.) James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather have earned their extended playing time of late.
Q: Hi Mike, with so many draft picks upcoming, what do you hear about the strengths of the graduating class, in terms of being high in any particular areas, such as linebackers, running backs, etc? -- Doug Stone (Winchendon, Mass.)
A: Doug, this is still a bit far off on my radar. I took a quick glance at Mel Kiper's most recent Top 5 seniors at each position (Insider content) and thought there was some interesting stuff to digest.
Q: Mike, with an open roster spot, the Patriots brought in OLB/DE DE Eric Moore. I am wondering why they didn't bring a player like Shawn Crable or even Tyrone McKenzie (although an ILB) back instead? The Patriots have already heavily invested in both players (3rd round picks) and cut them before allowing them to reach their potential. It is doubtful that Moore will ever even play, so I would think it more beneficial to use the roster spot in order to see what a younger guy could potentially develop into just by being in practices. Thoughts? -- Josh (Decatur, Ga.)
A: Josh, I think the Patriots gave Crable an extended look in that Steelers game and decided it was time to move on right now. On McKenzie, it just didn't make sense to bring back an inside linebacker who would be No. 5 on the depth chart who the coaches felt didn't provide special-teams value. Moore adds depth on the line in sub-rushing situations, so they'll work with him for now and see if he can help them. I wouldn't think his roster spot is locked in.
Q: Mike, who do you think the most improved player is this year on the Patriots? I can see some votes for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Dan Connolly, Kyle Arrington and others, but I think the play of James Sanders has been underappreciated. A lot of people were calling for him to be waived in the offseason given his salary ($2.3 million) and many pundits did not have him making the roster. He has been a rock in the secondary making big plays at big times. Thoughts? -- Pete (Santa Fe, N.M.)
A: Pete, Sanders is a good choice. I'd personally lean toward Connolly. I remember Bill Belichick saying that he thought Connolly would help the team a few years ago, but that's when he had his problems snapping in the shotgun in preseason. I wondered where his career would head from that point, but he's worked through those issues and made himself into a valuable member of the team, filling in at both guard spots and playing extended snaps.