I think we hit the right mix this week in the Patriots mailbag.
Parts of the 'bag look back at Super Bowl XLVI and where it all went wrong. Other parts of the 'bag look to the future and where the Patriots go from here.
That splits the difference for those not interested in the disappointing Super Bowl result and those who are interested because it highlights areas that need improvement.
I thought the Patriots gave their followers everything they had this season, and it was clear how much coach Bill Belichick liked this team. We saw a different Belichick in the days leading up to the Super Bowl -- relaxed, engaging and enjoying the moment.
My view is that the Patriots aren't far off from being a contender again in 2012. Let's get to the questions.
Q. Mike, I am bummed out. Just like '07, except it was Mario Manningham this time. However, I cannot understand why New England does not have two top-flight downfield WRs to go with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Any idea if New England will target a top free agent WR like Vincent Jackson or Brandon Lloyd, Pierre Garcon etc., and then add another in the draft? If we had that then the middle would really be open for Tom Brady. Yes, I know we need to improve defense but we need WR's. -- Kevin (Tacoma, Wash.)
A. I agree, Kevin. I think it's a top need, right there with safety and another piece in the front seven. They thought they had something potentially special when they traded for Chad Ochocinco, so I think the intention was good. It was just the execution that was lacking; the Ochocinco experiment didn't work out. I expect them to address it again. I also like the idea of Deion Branch coming back as a No. 2b/3a option. I think he still has value to this offense and locker room.
Q. With two losses in the Super Bowl, do you think the Pats will alter their approach in drafting receivers and pass rushers? Could Josh McDaniels be a voice BB would listen to when they have differing views? -- Mike (New York City ... nowhere near the victory parade)
A. Mike, I don't anticipate the Patriots drastically changing what they do from an evaluation standpoint. Scouting is scouting, and the team's offensive system is well established. So I don't see them going off the board and compromising their principles just to select a position of need. I do think they could benefit from a young receiver with speed and they've struggled to develop one in recent years. On the pass-rushers, I give the Patriots credit for the signings of Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich. All three can get after it.
Q. Mike, the only way I can feel better about this loss is to look ahead to a (hopefully) better year next season. I hope the Pats re-sign Wes Welker, and I think they should go after Brandon Lloyd and Reggie Wayne also (both seem like reasonable options). Do you see this as possible? And are there any defensive backs you think the Pats will target? -- Perry (Newton, Mass.)
A. Perry, I think both Lloyd and Wayne make sense considering some of the history we know of -- Lloyd playing under Josh McDaniels in Denver and St. Louis, and Wayne having earned the respect of Bill Belichick. Finances could dictate how hard the Patriots pursue either option, but it makes sense to me to consider both. As for defensive backs, the spot I'm focusing on is safety and admittedly I need more time to get up to speed on some of the potential options out there who might be available.
Q. Hi Mike. Although greatly disappointed, I was very proud of the Patriots this year and proud to be a fan of this team. The defense is not uber-talented, but played hard in the playoffs and for everyone trying to affix blame to Brady/Welker, they need to remember you aren't sniffing the playoffs without them on this team. Moving forward my major concern is with the receiving corps. Given the lack of front line Top 2 or 3 talent short of Welker and maybe squeezing one more year out of Branch as a 3rd/4th receiver, the Patriots not only lack the talent at the position, but have not found a way to add the talent via free agency (Joey Galloway, Ochocinco) or draft (Brandon Tate, Taylor Price) in the last 3 years. Seems previously productive receivers have a hard time adjusting to the Patriots scheme. Do the Patriots need to simplify just a little bit to help new players assimilate easier? Bill Belichick simplified the defense to get the most he could out of his inexperienced unit, and I think the Pats offense may need to do the same with several new wideouts coming aboard in the next couple of years. -- Kevin (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Very insightful, Kevin. I like the thought and I believe when Bill Belichick ultimately analyzes the offense he's going to prioritize this area in the offseason. The goal will be to add more big-play threats. I don't see the Patriots compromising their system to do so, however, and so that is going to narrow the field. There are only so many receivers who fit, but a good model to look at is the Steelers and what they did in recent years restocking that position.
Q. Hey Mike, after this devastating Super Bowl loss, all I can do right now is try to forget Sunday and look forward to the 2012 season. To start, do you think this is the year Bill Belichick decides to truly beef up the D, whether it be with finally using both of the first-rounders we have this year in the draft or using free agency. We do have a good amount of cap space to have fun with. -- Dante (Minneapolis)
A. Dante, I have no doubt Belichick will tweak the defense and devote some resources to some of the issues that cropped up, starting with the safety spot. A front-seven stud could put them over the top. After doubting the defense in late October of the season, the unit came along further than I anticipated by the end of the season. To me, the compelling question is how a scheme shift back to the 3-4 -- remember this year was a more simplified 4-3 to open because of the shortened offseason -- might alter evaluations of players like Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.
Q. Mike, we should all be proud of this Patriots team. Although they came up one game short, it was a great year. All teams have flaws and easily the Pats' is on the defensive side of the ball. My question is how can the Patriots fix this defense within a year so the Pats can have a dominant offense and defense at the same time and while Brady is still playing at an elite level? -- Dennis (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
A. Dennis, I don't think the defense is that far off and that viewpoint is tied to the continued development of players like Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington & Co. They should all get better. A few tweaks -- a safety, another piece in the front seven and more quality depth -- and I see potential for solid stuff. One area where I disagree slightly is the linkage between the team's offense and "elite level." While we've seen it at times, I don't feel like it was there consistently on Sunday night. This offense has some flaws, too.
Q. During the 2001-04 run, the Patriots had a "killer instinct" in the postseason. Nobody played perfectly, but they didn't make mental errors. Turnovers were forced and recovered by New England. Receivers made the catches. Brady made the right decisions at the important moments. I feel the current Patriots lost that edge. From Rob Ninkovich in the neutral zone, to receiver drops, to 12 men on the field, it just wasn't meant to be. The Giants played very well, but all they did differently was their players executed their fundamental jobs for 60 minutes. Penalties were few, catches were made, and Eli made sound decisions. A little more discipline on the NE fundamentals and we'd be looking at SB number 4 right now... Your thoughts? -- Michael (Crestview, Fla.)
A. Michael, I mostly agree. The reason I add "mostly" in there is that if one of those forced fumbles bounces the other way and the Patriots recover, we might have a different story. Also, the Giants did make a few noticeable errors (e.g. false start on third-and-5 in the fourth quarter), but they were able to overcome them. That Eli Manning to Mario Manningham 38-yard connection was clutch. The Giants made that play, while the Patriots couldn't convert their own version of that play -- Tom Brady to Wes Welker.
Q. Did the coaching staff explain what happened with the 12 men-on-the-field miscue? That was huge. It negated the fumble recovery. How do you make a mistake like that after 18 games during the biggest game of the year? That was a hard one to swallow. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Ashley, Belichick acknowledged the mistake, while also pointing out the Giants had a similar miscue. The Patriots were matching personnel based on who the Giants brought into the game on offense, and it was a situation where they were trying to sub three for three and go from a base defense to a nickel package. Someone's signals got crossed because Antwaun Molden, who was playing in the dime, raced on to the field as the 12th man.
Q. Mike, speaking strictly about Belichick's legacy, there are a lot of people who now question his first three Super Bowls due to the whole Spygate fiasco. But shouldn't the last two appearances quiet that criticism? I mean he is an Asante Samuel dropped INT and potentiality a Welker dropped pass from 2 more championships. Funny how the world would view it if these guys both made two rather routine plays in each game. -- Mike (Leesburg, Va.)
A. Mike, my question is who really thinks like that? If they really do, that is an extremely flawed line of thinking, likely laced in jealousy or meant to incite a reaction of some form. The Patriots went 18-0 in 2007 after the Spygate story broke. That alone spoke volumes in my view.
Q. So obviously the media is going to kill Brady. They'll keep bringing up Spygate and how they haven't won since. My question is, will Tom be able to "redeem" his legacy if he wins another championship? Me being a loyal Pats fan, I don't think this affects his legacy simply because when you look at their roster, it definitely isn't "championship material." They overachieved but people outside of New England won't see it that way. So what's your take on it? -- Frank (Lawrence, Mass.)
A. Frank, I said it before the Super Bowl, how my feeling is that I don't think Brady's legacy is tied to winning another Super Bowl. I think he's already viewed as one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. I also don't really understand the intense focus on legacies while coaches/players are in the middle of their journey. It sort of bugs me, actually. Why does it seem like we want to write the story before it's over? Maybe it's a case of me getting closer to the 40s and wanting to appreciate the journey more than focusing so much on the destination. I have to be honest, I'm not an interested participant in legacy talk until there's a retirement announcement.
Q. Hi Mike, bad decision-making again by Tom Brady cost the team difference-making points and also valuable ball/time control. His preparation, mental abilities and competitiveness mean very little if anything when he is repeating poor decision making skills that inflict added challenges/burdens on the team and high risk consequences as witnessed again. Is there a problem here that needs to be addressed? -- Jake (Vancouver, BC)
A. Jake, I summed up Brady's performance by saying he needed to bring his A-game to help deliver a victory and it was more like a B. I'm not a huge fan of grading performance, but in this case, I think his carelessness with the ball makes it easier to do so. The safety was shocking, because he's such a heady player and usually so aware of his surroundings. And while some might say the interception is like a punt, I lean toward your line of thinking -- it cost the team minutes off the clock, gave the Giants' defense more confidence after they were carved up for 16 straight completions, and simply wasn't a smart football play. I think it was a lapse in discipline. Brady is the type of player who will address it before a coach, but I'd expect a coach to do so regardless.
Q. In the leadup to the Super Bowl I've seen many of the specials regarding the current era of the Patriots. I was struck by a comment Belichick made regarding the Snow Bowl and Super Bowl XXXVI. He mentions that Adam Vinatieri was probably that team's best player and to have the game come down to your best player making a play is exactly what you're looking for. Ten years later an exchange between arguably the two best players on the current team (Brady and Welker) costs the team a chance to win another one. Is there any way we can draw a line and say, for some reason or another, this team is now a lot less reliable in the clutch? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, my first instinct when I read the thought was that they were pretty clutch in the AFC Championship, and there were other games over the year where they were as well (e.g. Dallas). At the same time, that feeling I used to have that a fourth-quarter comeback was a given, or holding a fourth-quarter lead was a lock, has subsided from what I remember it being at other times of the Bill Belichick era. In the end, I think it's probably best to acknowledge that the other guys are pretty good, too.
Q. I am a diehard Pats fan, and I could not sleep Sunday night; having a tough time with the loss. I have a question that no one wants to ask. Brady is turning 35 next year and his contract ends in 2014. Do you truly believe Brady can make another run for us to the Super Bowl or should BB start looking at drafting a QB? What would you draft for the Pats in the offseason? -- Chadi (Chicago)
A. Chadi, I'd say absolutely Brady could lead the Patriots to another Super Bowl championship. Assuming good health, I see him playing another five years (minimum) at a high level.
Q. Hey Mike, do you think Rob Gronkowski being hurt limited the hurry-up/no-huddle offense that we are so used to seeing? Seemed like the Patriots played to the Giants pace more so that dictating their own pace. -- Willy (Boston)
A. Not so much, Willy. I felt like they went a little quicker in that 3 WR/1 TE package, which included Hernandez over Gronkowski, but just didn't stick with it. Sometimes all it takes is a first down to get it going and there were times the Patriots couldn't get one.
Q. Mike, the defense played OK down the stretch, but still had major issues getting off the field on third down. And it showed up again in the final Giants drive. What are the chances that defensive coaching changes will occur? I think Belichick needs more experienced coaches on defense. Matt Patricia and Josh Boyer coaching the secondary is a definite weakness in my opinion. More experience needed there. -- Rich (Reading, Mass.)
A. Rich, I'm going to respectfully disagree. First, I think both Patricia and Boyer are solid coaches. Second, I think we could go back to past years (2008 with veteran Dom Capers as secondary coach) and cite examples where inserting an experienced coach into the position doesn't ensure success. I think part of the issue in the secondary was tied to personnel and instability. My feeling is that with a few personnel tweaks and continuity, the results would improve. Let's not forget it was Boyer who was coaching Devin McCourty during his Pro Bowl rookie season. It's not like he's suddenly a different coach one year later.
Q. Hey Mike, what did you think about the thought process going into letting Ahmad Bradshaw score? I felt they probably should have tried it a play or two earlier, and it seemed like Belichick just thought of it somewhat late, which isn't surprising considering in the first Buffalo game he said he didn't think it would have been the right move. -- Dan (Duxbury, Mass.)
A. Dan, it would have saved them one timeout if they did it, so I see what you're saying. It would have made sense to concede the TD on first down at the 7-yard line. Fair point.
Q. Mike do you think the draft will provide any WR and DB help. Also do you think Sterling Moore can help the Pats in the future? -- Pete (Central Vermont)
A. Pete, I do think the Patriots will like some of their options at receiver and defensive back. It's early to project where certain players at these positions will fall, but from a pure profile perspective, someone like Baylor receiver Kendall Wright could be the type of dynamic threat who could add a lot to the attack. At safety, Alabama's Mark Barron is a prospect I have circled to look at closer. These are just two possibilities in an otherwise larger pool, but I think it gets the ball rolling. As for Moore, I do think he can help the Patriots going forward. I thought he played pretty well in Super Bowl XLVI.
Q. Hey Mike. Disappointing end to a great season. Were you surprised by the many mental errors? The 12 men on the field reminded me of the Indy playoff game (12 men in the huddle) and the Brady safety was very uncharacteristic. Both unfortunately changed the dynamic of the game. What gives? -- Glenn (Boston)
A. Yes, Glenn, I was surprised. I thought the Patriots would play and coach their best game of the season. I was wrong across the board.
Q. Mike, did Giants win, or did Patriots lose? Thank you for 2011-12 season. -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. MarkJ, I don't think it's that black or white. Obviously there were plays that if the Patriots made them, it could have been game over. But that Eli Manning to Mario Manningham 38-yard connection was special. So I think it has to be a little of both.
Q. Hey Mike, I had a thought after the Giants got flagged for having too many men on the field. In end of game situations like last night, doesn't it make sense for the defense to put too many men on the field on purpose? The 5 yards they lose would mean little, while the lost time would really hurt the offense. -- Jack (Quincy, Mass.)
A. Jack, a few other emailers mentioned this, as well. In all honesty, I need to familiarize myself with the verbiage of the rule, but on the surface, it seems like the offense should have the option to decline the penalty and put the time back on the clock.
Q. Hi Mike, what a disappointing end to an exciting regular season and playoff run. I think the natural tendency is to try to pin the loss on one player's shortcomings, but in this case, it seems that the entire team made mistakes throughout. From Brady's intentional grounding to start the game, to 12-men-on-the-field negating Sterling Moore's forced fumble, to Rob Ninkovich getting drawn offside on a key third-down situation, the team just didn't rise to the occasion in the critical spots. Regardless, an exciting year and at it'll be interesting to monitor what they do with their draft picks this spring. -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, I think you captured it perfectly, which makes this a nice one to end on. Thanks to all for the great questions.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.