Commentary

Losing trust in Belichick

Frustrated fans are questioning his draft-day decisions, recent roster cuts and more

Updated: November 8, 2011, 4:39 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots' personnel, and the person ultimately responsible for signing players, is in the crosshairs in this week's mailbag. The Patriots' second straight loss has stoked fiery passion from many. The Patriots are 5-3 and in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East. For some franchises, that would be cause for celebration. Not here.

The bar has been raised high, and given the way the team's 24-20 loss to the Giants unfolded -- with backups struggling on defense on the final drive -- it has some questioning Bill Belichick and his team-building approach.

Let's get right to the questions:

Q. Mike, at what point does Bill Belichick take a hard look in the mirror and change things up? His defense is getting torched and his picks on defense are constantly not panning out, leaving us with the Browns, Moldens and Adams' of the NFL world. In short, a lot of mistakes on draft day have left the Pats woefully short talent-wise in relation to the number of high draft picks over the last four years. I have been one to always drink the Belichick Kool-Aid but this is three years in a row of poor defense with no end in sight. -- Ken (Long Island)

A. Ken, I sense your disappointment in many of the other e-mails to the Patriots mailbag. I think what is most frustrating for many is that these defensive issues are the same things we've been talking about for the last few years, and when you have one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL hitting his mid-30s, you want to maximize that opportunity to win championships with him. All that said, I'm a Belichick booster. I can't envision a better coach coming in here now and leading the Patriots to better places than Belichick. At the same time, I do think it's fair to scrutinize his work with the defense and ask hard questions. The game has changed in recent years -- it's more passing -- and with that I think defenses have to adjust. You look at a team like the Houston Texans, which brings in Wade Phillips to coordinate their defense this year, and they basically go from last in the league to first, and ask the question, "Why is it taking so long here?"

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireSome say Bill Belichick is losing his touch in evaluating talent and making roster decisions.

Q. Mike, I get that personnel decisions are hit-and-miss around the league and the Pats have made some good decisions here and there, but can we at least say that maybe a real general manager might have us in a better position to succeed than a single voice who has no real challenge to his authority? Can you envision a scenario where Bill Belichick would actually admit there is a need for someone who might have seen the value in Brandon Meriweather over Sergio Brown, or any rush end/outside linebacker over any number of the second- or third-round picks we've wasted recently? -- Kevin (Novato, Calif.)

A. Kevin, I've seen it the other way in the 1990s -- with a triangle of authority between vice president of player personnel Bobby Grier, head coach Pete Carroll and salary-cap guru Andy Wasynczuk -- and those types of set-ups lead to different types of issues with internal conflict. I wouldn't advise going that route. With Belichick, I don't think it will work with someone picking the players for him. That's a recipe for disaster in my view and would be the beginning of the end. I don't think anyone wants that. What I would propose is hiring a consultant like Jimmy Johnson, someone Belichck truly respects, and just getting another voice/outside viewpoint in the room.

Q. I think the Patriots' lack of depth is killing them, which is a bit of a surprise for a Bill Belichick team. Center Dan Connolly goes out and Ryan Wendell is driven back into the pocket on numerous occasions; Patrick Chung goes out and Sergio Brown draws an interference call; Tracy White is asked to cover a tight end at the end of the game. And let's not get into the lack of receivers after Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. I remember earlier in the year you mentioning how the late-round picks seem to not be sticking with the team. Now we see the effect of poor drafting in late rounds. Thoughts? -- Mark (Astoria, N.Y.)

A. Mark, I think they have depth in some areas (e.g. defensive line, running back) but are thin in others (e.g. safety, cornerback). What I think is frustrating to some is that the lack of depth in those areas is self-inflicted because it is a result of the team's decision-making (e.g. cutting players like Leigh Bodden). I think the drafting can be better, but I think it's too simplistic to look solely at that aspect of it. I think this idea that you draft a player and he immediately becomes a contributor is off the mark. You still have to develop the player and put him in the best position to succeed. I think that's an area the Patriots can look at themselves and ask the question, "Are we doing everything we can to be successful with young players?"

Q. Mike, Tracy White and Sergio Brown? I don't blame them in the least because all they should be responsible for is making a tackle on special teams. To have them on the field at a critical juncture speaks directly to the personnel decisions of one William Belichick. If James Sanders is still here, Sergio Brown is covering kicks and not wide receivers. And White bites on run when everyone knows the Giants are passing, because he is a special-teamer and not an NFL-caliber LB. Both of these guys were set up to fail by the gambling personnel maneuvers and miscues of BB. -- John F. (Boston)

A. John, I think some of the recent personnel moves warrant scrutiny. The release of safety James Sanders, for example, didn't seem to be well thought out. Overlooking an edge rusher at the top of the second round is another question that seems fair to ask. And I also wonder if the system is helping young players maximize their potential. To me, those topics are on the table for discussion. At the same time, let's not forget the team is 5-3 and still in the hunt. It could be worse. It could be 1990 all over again.

Q, At what point will the media finally step up and call it the way everyone sees it? It would appear the media is afraid of insulting the great defensive mind of Belichick, but that's your job. The Patriots have the worst defense in the league and cannot be counted on to dominate a game or consistently stop other teams who are passing the ball with ease against the Patriots' defense like they are a college team mismatched vs. a pro team. To hear the media blame Brady and the offense for not scoring over 30 points a game shows how spoiled we all have become. Stop deflecting the obvious; Belichick is great, but this defense is the worst he has ever put onto a field by far. -- Steve (Palm Beach)

A. Steve, I think it's fair to say it starts with Belichick. Here is a piece from after the Steelers' loss that says that just.

Q. Mike, do you think that the dynasty is over and that Tom Brady and the offense will get back on track against the Jets? -- Mangesh K. (Herndon, Va.)

A. Mangesh, the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season but they remain one of the NFL's better franchises/teams. I don't think dynasty is in the discussion right now. As for Brady getting things back on track against the Jets, based on what we've seen from both teams in recent weeks, it's hard to invest in the Patriots right now because they're just not playing good complementary football.

Q. Is it simple to say that our problems come down to lack of a deep threat wide receiver to stretch the field and that we still have no pass rush and a defense that can't make a play when it matters? I don't see how this can be fixed in-season and I'm starting to feel that if we are lucky enough to make the playoffs, we'll be bounded out in the first game like last year. Thoughts? -- Dave (Charlotte, N.C.)

A. Dave, this team does look similar to the clubs that were one-and-done in the playoffs the last two years. I think that's why there is currently some disappointment among e-mailers to the mailbag. The same issues we talked about over the offseason, and the offseason before that, are still there. It's understandable why some are asking "Why?" The main counter to that line of thinking is that there is still time for a turnaround and unpredictable turn of events around the league. The real season doesn't start until after Thanksgiving.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireIs there something wrong with Tom Brady? Considering his recent struggles, it's a reasonable question.

Q. Hi Mike. While I'm not ready to hit the panic button just yet, Tom Brady doesn't seem right to me. His decision-making seems a little off. Should we be concerned? -- P (Westport, Mass.)

A. I agree with the thought that something doesn't seem right. I wouldn't be surprised to learn he's dealing with some type of injury or sore arm. I think it's only natural to have concern.

Q. Hi Mike, I think the most troubling thing about the Patriots play this season, and particularly in recent weeks, has been a lack of discipline and a habit of taking some "dumb" penalties - particularly false start and delay of game penalties. Is it me or does this seem to be more prevalent this year? If it is, what do you suspect is causing the team to lose its focus? P.S. - It stinks to be a Pats fan in Manhattan this week! -- Rob (Borough of Manhattan)

A. Rob, particularly the last two games, I don't think the Patriots have played air-tight football. That has led me to the thought that right now, this looks like a poorly constructed team playing bad football. They show flashes of excellence on offense, defense and special teams, but can't put them together. That can always change. On the construction of the roster, I see a growing number of players who basically do one thing and they're not doing at a high enough level to make a big impact (e.g. Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman). Roster spots are precious and that lack of production hurts when you're overseeing a team.

Q. Mike, the momentum matchup going into this weekend clearly favors the Jets. What do you think are the keys for the Pats being mentally prepared to win in a hostile environment against a team that seems to be finding its rhythm? -- Eliott (Mass.)

A. Eliott, I think this topic ties into the answer directly above. The mistakes need to be cut back considerably. This includes turnovers, missed field goals, poor decision-making in the return game, running out of bounds when the smarter play is to stay in-bounds, etc. They need to get back to playing "Patriots football" -- smart, tough, complementary, and rising up in the critical situations.

Q. Mike, I can't help but disagree with you making Chad Ochocinco as part of your "3 Down" in the Patriots blog. I thought that 4 out of the 5 balls that went his way were badly thrown by Tom Brady. After Tom's interception, I could see Chad was fired up and wanted to get the train rolling. I blame the blown opportunities more on Brady then Ochocinco. I don't feel comfortable with the lack of a deep threat and this porous defense. Your thoughts? -- Mike B. (Washington, Vt.)

A, Mike, when I made that snap judgment after the game, it was with the mindset of the Brady-Ochocinco connection not being where it should be at this point. Part of that is on Brady, and I agree that it looked like there were missed opportunities Sunday with Ochocinco. I don't sense a comfort level with Brady when it comes to Ochocinco; it seems like it's being forced. That's what I was thinking of when that decision was made. As for the lack of a "deep threat," I think it would obviously help. I understand the thoughts on the defense.

Q. Mike, this offense has been struggling and one of the big points that people are talking about is the lack of a deep threat. My question is if it's time to bring back Randy Moss? He knows the offense, he is familiar with Tom Brady, and maybe these teams would have to stop using the bump in run. Is this a possibility? Has Moss been staying in shape? Is the baggage worth it? Lastly, do we have other options? -- Harry (Bloominton, Ind.)

A. Harry, I'm not sure Moss can do it anymore. If we knew it was the 2007 version -- both in terms of physical skill and commitment -- I could see it as a consideration. But the player we saw last year in Minnesota and Tennessee was not the same Moss circa 2007. I do think a bold move like that would almost be like lighting a firecracker in the middle of the locker room -- and part of me thinks it could be a spark -- but in the end I see the risks outweighing the rewards.

Q. Mike, all up to and around the draft you vehemently fought that the Pats didn't need a WR who could stretch the field. Based on the last few weeks and the offense's inability to create plays versus man coverage on the outside, would you care to change your stance? Watching the Patriots on offense, they seem slow compared with some of the other teams such as the Packers and even the Steelers. As more and more teams take away the throws between the hashes, how are the Pats going to combat this with nobody who can make a play on the outside? -- Eric (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Eric, I wouldn't change my stance. I thought by investing in the youth they already had in Taylor Price, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, the answers might be in-house. I'm not convinced that still isn't the case when it comes to Price, whose development was stunted by the arrival of Chad Ochocinco.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm tired of hearing people complain about Chad Ochocinco when they should be complaining about Deion Branch. He's the starter. Where's his production been? -- Mr. Lee (Cranston, R.I.)

A. Branch's production has been volatile. He started strong, with 15 receptions over the first two games, but has amassed just 17 over the last six contests. We know the trust he's earned from quarterback Tom Brady, but it seems as if his physical skills aren't at a level where he can be counted on to gain consistent separation on a week-in and week-out basis. That might explain why the Patriots integrated a third option into the mix a bit more than they had in the previous two games.

Q. Mike, Sergio Brown said he was surprised by the pass interference called on him. Why is he on the field when he doesn't know what pass interference is? He ran into the receiver with his back turned before the ball arrived, which is a perfect example of the penalty. On another note, last week we questioned whether this secondary was good enough to win a championship. This week the question is whether this secondary is good enough to make the playoffs. Thoughts? -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)

A. Jim, I'm going to fire up my best Jim Mora voice. "Playoffs? You want to talk about the playoffs? Playoffs?" They're just trying to win a game. On a serious note, we know Brown was on the field because safety Patrick Chung needed to go to the sideline to have an injury checked out. And Josh Barrett might have also been dealing with an injury. But I think your point is why would Brown even be an option regardless if he doesn't understand that's pass interference. His comments don't reflect well on the coaching, if he really meant what he said. As for the Patriots and the playoffs, I still think the team will be in the mix in the end.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesThe fact that Albert Haynesworth wasn't in the game Sunday when it was first-and-goal from the 1 with the game on the line raises questions.

Q. Mike, I'll admit, it has been incredibly frustrating these past two weeks watching the team lose close games. However, I think too much blame is put on the D. I thought the effort Sunday was the best it's been all season. There was pressure at times and the secondary played reasonably well given it is a patchwork group. The Giants won because they made spectacular plays down the stretch, not because of Sergio Brown. I may be delusional but I get the sense that the defense is bonding under all this scrutiny. Thoughts? -- ECF (D.C.)

A. There was definitely improvement when it comes to the trouble spot of third down, so that was a positive. But I think you have to close that door. It's the situational football that Bill Belichick often talks about. Those are the moments that the Patriots usually own.

Q. With regards to Haynesworth, he and Pepper Johnson got into a heated exchange after his last play. They were separated by Shaun Ellis and Jerod Mayo and then an extremely animated Belichick. I sit right behind the Patriot bench and in all my years there (season-ticket holder), I've rarely seen Belichick that upset with a particular player. -- Craven (Rhode Island)

A. Thanks for the detail, Craven. Pepper Johnson is a fiery coach and I've seen him get into it with others over the years. But it makes sense that the sideline encounter between Johnson and Haynesworth contributed to Haynesworth not seeing the field again. I respect Bill Belichick wanting to keep that in-house and not call a player out publicly by saying it was part of a "rotation," but I think this is one where we can be almost certain that's not the complete truth. At the least, Haynesworth's 6-foot-6, 350-pound frame is valuable when it's first-and-goal from the 1 with the game on the line. But Haynesworth wasn't even on the field in that situation.

Q. Mike, recently you've talked about trying to "get the running game going." Well, isn't the answer to give Stevan Ridley the ball more? He's averaged about 6.5 yards per carry. He's a home-run threat, so while he might not gain 3 yards on every run, he will break a big one if you give him the chance. Thoughts? -- George C. (Brookline, Mass.)

A. George, for an offense that is struggling to find its groove, I think one possible solution is to look within and try to get playmakers on the field in situations for them to shine. Ridley qualifies. He looked like he was on the rise after a strong performance at Oakland on Oct. 2, but he's played only 25 snaps over the next four games (four vs. the Giants). So any momentum he generated has been slowed. One X-factor is that we don't know if Ridley is struggling with plays in practice. If so, that would be a reason to limit his action.

Q. Mike, after reading the blog post about Brian Waters speaking that this is a good football team, I got the impression that he's quickly becoming a presence in the locker room. What do you make of that? Secondly, where is the veteran presence on defense? Where is the good old Tedy of today? Do you think that might be something we're missing to bring this defense together? McCourty, Mayo and Wilfork are great players, but I just don't see them stepping up like a Ray Lewis and simply willing the D to a win. -- Peter (Virginia Beach)

A. Peter, I think Waters has been a great free-agent pickup. I don't know if I'd call him a locker-room presence as much as a true professional whose example is as powerful as anything. I think a rookie like Marcus Cannon really benefits from being around someone like Waters. As for the defense, I don't think the lack of production is tied to a veteran presence to keep everybody together. I think it's a good veteran group. More than anything, I think it's more a talent question. Are they good enough?

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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