Bring on the Broncos. That is the theme of this week's Patriots mailbag, with much of the focus looking ahead to Saturday's AFC divisional-round playoff game.
One of the big storylines this week is the return of coach Josh McDaniels and how he might be able to help. We cover that from multiple angles and more:
1. Confident, businesslike vibe in the locker room.
2. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio and his future in personnel department.
3. How Josh McDaniels' presence might affect the players drafted by Patriots.
4. The future at receiver -- Brandon Lloyd?
5. Too tough on Belichick?
Q: Wow, this seems a lot like last year heading into this game against a team that we crushed weeks before. Last year they had a huge let down game and blew it. What is the feel in the locker room? Are they overconfident? This Broncos team looked much better than the one we played just weeks ago. -- Fletch (New Hampshire)
A: Fletch, the four days we were in the locker room last week, I saw a group of players extremely focused. Things shift into a higher gear at this time of year. One of the main things I took away is how last year's experience still resonates, with players talking about how they realize how quickly it can be taken away from them. I think we'll see a solid performance Saturday night. This team is tough.
Q: Hi, Mike. The game against Denver has "trap game" written all over it, especially as New England beat Tebow and the Broncos pretty handily the last time they met. As much as I believe Belichick will have the Pats mentally focused, there has to be the possibility of a lurking complacency. In a way, I was hoping for the Steelers. I guess I'm worried that the Pats might "play down" to their opponent -- they seem to do better if they're playing a team that's beaten them prior than vice versa (see, for example, the Jets and Ravens in previous seasons). Irrational nerves on my part, most likely, but I'd be grateful if you can calm them! Thanks. -- Whatever4 (Boston)
A: I think the key thing to do is focus on the body of work and what this team has proved over the course of the 16-game regular season. To me, they have been pretty consistent in approach where they're not playing up or playing down. I don't think they'll get complacent. Bill Belichick won't let them. The leaders in that locker room won't let them.
Q: What's the status on Logan Mankins, Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer? We are going to need them to protect Brady against Dumervil, Miller and the interior pass rush of the Broncos. -- PauliThePatriot (The Netherlands)
A: Pauli, with Light playing in the season finale, he should be ready to go for this one. Mankins and Vollmer remain question marks at this point. I think Mankins would play with one arm if they'd let him.
Q: Mike, with the addition of Josh McDaniels to the coaching staff this weekend, it raises the issue of employment contracts. In particular, I am surprised that NFL teams do not have non-compete agreements in place that would prohibit a scenario in which a playoff team hires a non-playoff team's former coaches during (and for purposes of game-planning for) the postseason. While it may be a stretch, the Pats could have just as easily brought in Todd Haley this week (formerly of K.C.) to better understand the Broncos' shortcomings before next week. Do you know whether non-competes are legal among NFL coaches? If so, are they prevalent? -- John Spinnelli (Hull, Mass.)
A: John, what makes the McDaniels situation unusual is that the Rams let him out of his contract. (ESPN.com NFC West reporter Mike Sando had a nice blog entry explaining why.) It wasn't as if McDaniels' contract expired after the season and he could jump to another team because of that. Usually, the contracts of coaches extend through the Super Bowl to avoid situations like this. But if a coaching staff is fired, that opens up what we saw in 2009, when Paul Pasqualoni was let go as Dolphins defensive coordinator and landed on the Cowboys' staff for the playoffs that year.
Q: Hey Mike, I hope we are still chatting all the way to Indy! I have a bad feeling about the Josh McDaniels hire before a big playoff game. Seeing Bill O'Brien's recent rants on the sidelines has been good for this offense. Why should we believe that he and McDaniels will be on the same page and not cause a stir amongst the staff and players? Also, let's get the talk going about the crowd getting involved this weekend. The Pats are gonna need a 12th man especially if Tebow brings his 12th man. -- Dylan (Ocean City, N.J.)
A: LOL, Dylan, on the last line. As for McDaniels and O'Brien, they used to work together, they like each other and they have too much respect for Bill Belichick to have any kind of ego clash. Here is a comment from Belichick on Monday: "They're very good friends. They had a good working relationship here, and I don't see any reason why that would change. I think they've both very comfortable with the situation, I've talked to both of them and we're all just looking forward to trying to pull together as a staff and do the best job we can for preparing our team for this Saturday's game."
Q: Mike, you made the comment if it was up to you, you would not let a coach join a different team for the playoffs as has happened with Josh McDaniels and the Patriots. But is this really any different from signing a player recently cut from an upcoming opponent who then provides all kinds of useful information? The Jets and Patriots have both done this. -- John (Dallas)
A: John, most emailers disagreed with me as well. Let's start with this: There is no league rule against it, so my opinion really doesn't matter. My point was that something doesn't feel right about it when a coach jumps from one team to another in the same season when a firing isn't involved. In the end, I think this situation was a bit unique -- the Rams allowing McDaniels out of his contract, the Patriots having their offensive coordinator get hired at Penn State, the past background between McDaniels and the Patriots, etc. It was all aboveboard, and we probably won't see something like that too often. I don't think it's a major issue.
Q: Hey Mike, I like the idea of Josh McDaniels eventually taking over as head coach for Bill Belichick, but why would he stay that long as offensive coordinator just waiting for Bill to leave? Seems like another opportunity somewhere else would definitely come up by then. -- Dan (Duxbury, Mass.)
A: Dan, I think Josh McDaniels is extremely smart and knows there are a few plum head-coaching jobs in the NFL, and one of them is right here. Maybe it doesn't unfold that way, but after having his family in New England, Denver and St. Louis in the past four years, I could envision him looking for a little bit of stability in terms of location for the next couple of years. He gets that here.
Q: Hey Mike, I believe Nick Caserio staying here in New England is a big win for the Pats, but will go mostly unnoticed in the future. When Scott Pioli was here for the final few years of his tenure, there were a few of the worst drafts we have had in the Belichick era. Caserio and Belichick though have hit pretty well on the last two drafts and not having to search for another director of player personnel should help the Patriots continue to gather young talent that has been contributing immediately. Just curious on your thoughts on the matter and how important it actually might be. Thanks. -- Mark (Allston, Mass.)
A: Mark, I am impressed with Caserio. We talk to him weekly on conference calls, and I listened to him speak last year at the Patriots Hall of Fame and came away with the impression that he was smart and confident and has absorbed the teachings of Professor Belichick over the years. I am probably a little aggressive with this thought, but when Bill Belichick ultimately decides it's time to go coach lacrosse instead of the NFL, a Caserio-McDaniels pairing as GM-head coach makes a lot of sense. They are the best of friends and have learned from the best. Specific to McDaniels, I think some of the experiences he had in Denver will make him a better head coach the second time around, perhaps with some similarities to Belichick and his time in Cleveland.
Q: Now that Josh McDaniels is back in New England, what impact do you think this has on our draft strategy next year? Do you think he will push for an explosive player at WR? Or do you think the approach to the draft will be more focused on our secondary? -- Elliot (Narragansett, R.I.)
A: Elliot, I don't see McDaniels' presence having a major effect on the draft strategy. I think the team would make the same decision if he wasn't here. I do think a more explosive option at receiver is going to be a priority in some form of the team-building process.
Q: What's the possibility of Randy Moss coming back to the Patriots next year now that former coordinator Josh McDaniels is reuniting with the team? I think it would be a great fit, especially since Deion Branch is getting old and our receivers can't beat tight man coverage. -- Matt (Syracuse, N.Y.)
A: Matt, I think it's over between the Patriots and Moss. If it didn't happen this year, I view it as less likely next year.
Q: Are there any rules that would prohibit Josh McDaniels being on the sideline this season if necessary? -- Dan (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A: Dan, there are no rules that would restrict that, if that's what the Patriots want. My guess is that McDaniels will be up in the coaching booth, if he's present at all.
Q: Hi Mike, great to see Josh McDaniels back with the Patriots. I know people seem to be saying he's "returning in shame" to rebuild his brand, but watching the Broncos, I couldn't help but think he might be the best example of the lack of patience described by Adam Schefter here displayed by owners and GMs with their coaches. The defense was solid in Denver and, after watching Decker, Tebow and Thomas, it seems to me that Josh should have been given some more time to let these guys develop under him. I realize there's a lot that goes into personnel decisions, but he seems to have hit on offensive picks (whether or not Tebow was a reach).Thoughts? -- grandjordanian (San Diego)
A: I don't get why anyone would say Josh McDaniels returns in shame. I find that ridiculous. He's a good coach and a good man. As for McDaniels' time in Denver, I think it was too much, too soon for him, and from what some say, the culture of that organization was not in a healthy place. I think the change was probably best for all involved. Some of McDaniels' draft picks are certainly paying off now. That speaks well for his acumen in that area.
Q: On Welker's potential contract for next year: I think we're a significantly worse team without him, but what range do you think is acceptable to sign him? I know Fitzgerald just signed a $120 mil contract, and it seems guys like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Steve Smith are in the $60 million range with their 6-7 year contracts. Am I out of line thinking that I'd be okay signing Welker to a 6-year $75 million deal? -- William C (Worcester, Mass.)
A: William, I think Welker would take that happily. I'd be surprised if the Patriots are willing to go there. My projection would be closer to a $10 million per year average.
Q: Trying to stay in the moment and prepare for [Tebow] this weekend. So ... Brandon Lloyd wants to follow Josh McDaniels and Reggie Wayne's contract is up in Indy. Deion Branch's contract is up, and Chad Ochocinco is not coming back. How productive could a 2012 Pats offense be with Welker, Lloyd, Wayne, Gronkowski and Hernandez? Brady could put up '07 numbers, especially with Ridley showing some real explosion. That scenario would allow the Pats to compete with the Saints and Packers as far as number of weapons. Now all we need is a defense that can be about middle of the pack. Thoughts? -- Base (Falcon Land)
A: Base, the defense is middle-of-the-pack if you look at points allowed; it finished the year 15th in the NFL in that category (21.3 average). But I see your point. Like a lot of things, cost is a consideration. Not sure they'll be able to fit all three receivers in there, but we know about Lloyd's affinity for McDaniels and how much Belichick respects Wayne. So as we think about the 2012 season, and possible free-agent targets, put a check mark next to those names. As for Deion Branch, I could still see him back. Ochocinco, not as certain, as he's due to earn $3 million and 15 receptions this season doesn't represent the value the team generally seeks.
Q: I think the Patriots need to make a change on kickoff returns and I would try Devin McCourty. Do you think the Patriots will make a change from Woodhead as the main kickoff return man? Who would you go to? -- David N.
A: David, the kickoff-return unit has been a disappointment, finishing the season ranked 29th in the NFL. The Patriots almost certainly will look for some more explosiveness in 2012, and that might have been why they had Johnnie Lee Higgins in for a workout last week. To me, Julian Edelman looks like their best option. I don't think they'd want to expose McCourty's shoulder to those extra hits.
Q: Can we please get rid of the statement about how the Patriots didn't beat a team with a winning record (which refers to a team's record at the END of the season)? It is one of the most misleading statements that doesn't reveal what the team's record was coming into the game or say how the team was playing at during that time. How about this stat: The first team the Pats played with a LOSING record was K.C. in week 11. Overall they faced 6 teams with a losing record at the time (KC, Philly, Indy, Wash, Mia and Buf). How about using that stat. -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)
A: Well said, Eric.
Q: Mike, I am beginning to think Bill Belichick may know what he is doing after all. Yes, this season has been very ugly defensively. However, while watching the Steelers-Broncos game, I kept saying that I didn't like Polamalu playing so close to the line because it made them susceptible to the deep ball, the only way Denver seems to have success throwing at all. The winning play showed how well that strategy worked. Then ESPN analyst Eric Mangini mentioned that BB had played a lot of Cover 3 to limit those types of plays. I just think BB deserves some credit, because he seemed to have a better strategy on this one than the great Dick LeBeau. Maybe we have been a little too tough? -- George C (Brookline, Mass.)
A: George, my sense is that some of the frustration directed at Belichick isn't so much about the X's and O's as it is personnel. But let's not overlook the context of it all -- which coach would you rather have than Belichick? He'd be No. 1 on many lists around the NFL.
Q: Mike, on your blog, some have commented that the crowd noise is not as loud as in a lot of stadiums. You have been to a lot of stadiums, some enclosed and some like Gillette that is somewhat open. Is it loud enough at Gillette Stadium? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I've heard Gillette Stadium get really loud, but in terms of consistent noise and support, I'd put it in the lower third of stadiums I've been to. The gold standard for me is actually Seattle. We were there in 2008, and it was the end of Mike Holmgren's run as head coach, in December, and they were out of the running. Still, that place rocked. To me, that really felt like a home-field advantage.
Q: Hi Mike, it seems like all we hear is about how bad the Patriots defense is and how it's their Achilles' heel. Meanwhile, two of the top NFC teams have equally suspect defenses, but it seems they're seldom brought up as liabilities. Do the local media in New Orleans and Green Bay pick apart their D in the same way our scribes do? Or are the Pats just more under the microscope because of our recent playoff blunders? Or is it something else? -- Eric S (Carlisle, Mass.)
A: Eric, I think there is probably a little more negativity here than those places. If I had to guess why, I think it's a combination of how high the bar has been raised here, and how sports talk radio often sets a big part of the agenda in the region. A better authority on the differences between New England and Green Bay would be Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe, as he previously covered the Packers and now he's the NFL writer here at the Globe.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.