Let's not lose sight of the big picture.
That's the main thought that comes to mind after the Patriots opened the 2012 season with a convincing win on the road against the Titans, yet one of the dominant storylines coming from the game was Wes Welker's limited production and reduced playing time.
Welker is part of the story, given his contractual status and failed negotiations with the team this past offseason, but when it becomes the story, it seems to call for some perspective. This shouldn't be about Welker as much as it was a reflection of a well-coached team spending seven months preparing for a game and acing the test.
Welker was once called the "heart and soul" of the Patriots by quarterback Tom Brady. His season is off to a slow start (3 catches, 14 yards), but would anyone really be surprised if he put up big numbers on Sunday against the Cardinals? With one reception, Welker becomes the franchise's all-time leading receiver.
Welker's production is where this week's mailbag leads off, but the overall bag is filled with several other topics, so here we go …
Q. Mike, I understand its early and Wes Welker said all the right things but I would just find it hard to believe that Julian Edelman has done enough to unseat Welker as even a part-time top slot receiver option. I understand the team has moved away from their three-receiver look for the majority of snaps, but we're talking about the most productive receiver on the team for five years running. Has Welker lost a step or two since last season or is it something else? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I'd put the Welker situation in the "something to monitor" category in the coming weeks. I think it's too early to make any definitive judgments, but I did find it notable that his playing time was reduced compared with what we saw on a consistent basis in 2011.
Something isn't adding up here, and, if I had to make an educated guess, it is tied to what kept him out of practice in Tampa on Thursday, Aug. 23. Welker made the trip to Tampa and was suited up for a full-pads practice Aug. 22, and I think something happened that day.
Other reports have noted that a personal issue Welker was dealing with (a death in the family) kept him out of preseason action, and that might have been the case for the Eagles game, but I think that was separate from what went down in Tampa (my educated guess is a concussion). My sense is that the Patriots were easing Welker back into the mix Sunday based on whatever went down in Tampa and how it affected Welker's preparation to assume a full-time load in the opener.
Q. Hey Mike, as you pointed out, Welker only played 64.2 percent of snaps Sunday (with minimal production), versus the 89.2 percent he played last year. Is Belichick checking out what this team would look like without Welker? I'm thinking we could see him dealt for an early-round pick. The team could bring back Deion Branch or Jabar Gaffney to split the voided 40 or so snaps with Edelman (and use the acquired pick to draft a wide receiver). There are lots of teams around the league with young quarterbacks who could use a sure-handed veteran and locker room leader (Carolina, Indy, Cleveland … St. Louis has all sorts of picks from the previous draft). I'm a huge Welker fan, but I think the Patriots should try and get maximum return since it seems unlikely that the two sides will come to an agreement. Am I reading too much into this reduced role? It will be an interesting story going forward. -- Dylan (Dallas)
A. Dylan, I agree that it will be interesting going forward, but also think this is reading too much into things. First, I don't see another team in the NFL acquiring Welker for a draft choice and paying him his $9.5 million salary. Overall, I still think Welker's value to the Patriots is greater than to any other team in the NFL, and I think the team wants him and Welker knows his best fit is here with Brady and this offense. I believe that he'll still be here after the 2012 season and that, if Sunday is any preview of what is to come, Welker will be making less than the $9.5 million he is this season. For Welker's sake, I just hope that he didn't leave too much money on the table in recent negotiations and that he received good leadership and advice from his representatives.
Q. While I respect and enjoy your work covering the Pats, I think you're making a real big deal over nothing when it comes to Welker after just one game. As we both know, this team game-plans for each matchup. Some weeks will be bigger than others for production. With the addition of Brandon Lloyd, the tight ends being the beasts that they have become, and with Stevan Ridley having a little breakout … I think you might be able to start using the words "balanced attack" more in your stories this year. The ball is going to be spread around a lot more than in past years and that will cut into Welker's targets, but is that really a bad thing? -- Jonathan (Punta Gorda, Fla.)
A. Jonathan, I think you are right on when it comes to balanced attack, which can only be seen as a good thing from a Patriots perspective. As for making a big deal over nothing regarding Welker, I really don't feel I've done that. All I did was point out a fact -- Welker's playing time was down from the norm and it could be reflective of a shift away from the Welker-centric attack we've seen in recent years. With that, I file it in the "something to monitor" category. I think what happens is that sometimes one piece of information is picked up in various outlets and it spreads to the point that it becomes a big deal and some perspective is lost. That is something out of my control.
Q. Watching the game Sunday and the Pats' run defense, I found myself wondering can the Patriots be too good at defending the run? Will teams just attack our pass defense with a few runs to keep the pass rush honest? -- Steve (Sudbury, Mass.)
A. Steve, I don't think a team can ever be too good at defending the run. The idea of being able to make an offense one-dimensional is a very powerful thing for a defense. The first thought that came to mind was a team like the 2006 Vikings. I remember the Patriots preparing for them and basically conceding the run and just airing it out. The Vikings weren't good enough against the pass to capitalize, but I think this Patriots defense can be better against the pass than that unit.
Q. Mike, a nice win Sunday, but can we hold all the accolades and not put Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and the defensive backs in the Hall of Fame just yet? Our run defense was stellar, but the reality is we played a quarterback making his first NFL start without his No. 1 receiver. I'd imagine Bill Belichick game-planned to take away the run and tried to force Jake Locker to beat us with his arm, so let's keep things in perspective. Also, do you think Logan Mankins' decision not to tell the medical staff about his injury in any way was a material breach of his contract and or be frowned upon by the Pats? -- Tom (Boston)
A. Tom, I'm all for perspective. And I think everything you wrote is fair. My one challenge is that even if Belichick drew up a game plan to take away the run, it still needed to be executed. So the players deserve the credit. A lot of coaches draw up great plans, but if there aren't talented players to carry it out, it doesn't mean much. As for Mankins, I don't think anything like that is in play here. Mankins is a tough guy, and he just figured football players play through pain. My sense is that he didn't even realize the severity himself at the time.
Q. Mike, if Dan Connolly is going to miss any significant time with his "head injury", I wonder if it might be sensible to bring back Dan Koppen to play center and slide Ryan Wendell over to right guard. Feels better to me than throwing Marcus Cannon in the mix. Also, is there any medical procedure that would be as painful as watching Shane Vereen's career rot before our eyes? -- Glen
A. Glen, the Patriots appear to have dodged a bullet with Connolly, with The Boston Globe's Greg Bedard reporting that Connolly passed all concussion tests after the game and shouldn't miss extended time. Meanwhile, Koppen has agreed to a one-year deal with the Broncos. So I think if Connolly is sidelined, the answers the team is most likely to turn to are already in-house in the form of Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald. Both played last year in emergency situations, and the Patriots won games with them in the lineup. As for Vereen, he's been impressive when healthy, and I think we're a long ways off from him not being around.
Q. Hi Mike, what a difference a year makes. A bona fide running game, play-action passes, a deep-threat wide receiver, a fast/young defense that had one and should have had two picks … encouraging progress all around. They had some soft coverage on a few series but the D as a whole played well. Rob Ninkovich, however, did not look good to me at all and I would not be shocked if he starts losing more snaps to Jermaine Cunningham. It seemed like he got swallowed up on the end and generated little pressure. Am I nitpicking after a big W? -- John (Walpole, Mass.)
A. John, I've seen Ninkovich play better. I thought Titans right tackle David Stewart was able to get his hands on him often and neutralize him. Cunningham, in limited snaps, had the better game. I could see that potentially earning Cunningham more time, but I also wouldn't use the one-game sample as an overall reflection of Ninkovich's work. He is also a good player who is going to help this team win games in 2012.
Q. So Mike, does Sunday's game plan show a newfound belief in having a relatively balanced offense? Or did the Patriots game-plan to exploit a Titans weakness? The Titans are not exactly the 1986 Bears or 2000 Ravens against the run. -- Dave (Clarksville, Tenn.)
A. Dave, I'm going to be cautious from reading too much into one game in this regard, as I do think part of the approach Sunday was solely based on this specific matchup. But one thing I'd say is that we've seen a heavy commitment to the run in training camp, which is reflected, in part, in the attention the team has paid to the fullback position. So it's at least trying. At the same time, we can recall many games in recent years when that balance was struck but it wasn't sustained in future games. So I think the Patriots are still in a prove-it type of situation: Can they keep doing it over the course of the season when they want to?
Q. Hi Mike, I have said it before, the Super Bowl-winning Pats were a run/play-action team. The Super Bowl-losing Pats were a run-and-gun video game offense. Can Ridley's performance Sunday instill hope that the team will stick to the run when needed? Can't beat the good D's in January/February if they don't have to honor your running back at least a little. Or will Brady/Belichick get influenced by so much payroll in guys that catch the ball, not run the ball? -- Dean (Rumford, R.I.)
A. Dean, I think this will vary from week to week, but I do sense a big commitment to run the ball under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Something tells me this could carry throughout the year, but it's understandable why some might say "I'll believe it when I see it."
Q. Mike, we should all be encouraged by the Pats' ability to stop the run. The front seven's performance against the Titans was phenomenal and I think we'll see much more of that this season. Unfortunately, it looked like the same old secondary to me. The Pats will play with a lead most of the time, which will put pressure on opposing offenses to resort to the pass to catch up. What is it going to take for the Pats to get a legit secondary? New personnel? Coaching? -- JB (Dallas)
A. JB, I think they can win with this personnel in the defensive backfield. The group obviously could have played better Sunday, as some of the same issues from recent seasons cropped up at times. But my overall point would be that, although the Patriots' secondary struggles at times, how many true shutdown secondary units are there out there? Offenses are moving the ball in the NFL, and I think that context is especially important when talking about the Patriots' unit.
Q. Mike, in watching Ridley on Sunday, I was impressed and felt that the Patriots have their No. 1 back. While watching him run, it seemed to me he absorbed a lot of hits at the end of his runs, unlike say a Corey Dillon in the past who gave as good as he got. Did you see it that way too and would the Patriots be best served by limiting his snaps for his own health and availability at the end of the season or would you let his role grow? -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)
A. Joe, I'd be surprised if Ridley maintained that pace through the regular season. I think a big part of it will be tied to whatever the game plan is that week and, to a lesser degree, the health of Shane Vereen to help assume some of that load. Belichick noted that Ridley did a nice job gaining some additional yards after initial contact Sunday, and that stood out from this perspective. Ridley makes the Patriots more explosive at the position.
Q. Like you, I think Marcus Cannon is best suited for guard, not tackle. So why did the Pats play him at tackle in the preseason? I think they realized they'd potentially have two openings on the right side after 2012. Playing Cannon at tackle allowed Bill to evaluate whether they'd need to draft/acquire a tackle or a guard in the next offseason. Personally, I think their best offensive line in 2012 will be LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Connolly, RG Marcus Cannon, RT Sebastian Vollmer. -- Greg (Boca Raton, Fla.)
A. Greg, I think a big part of Cannon's work at tackle was based as much on need as the fit at the position. With Vollmer sidelined in the preseason, the next option would have been former practice squad player Matt Kopa at right tackle.
Q. Mike, you need to rethink your Zoltan Mesko comments from the "3 up, 3 down" blog post after the game. He had four punts on which the Titans offense started on their 18, 10, 20 and 10 yard line. That's great field position for the Patriots. The premise of having three up and three down for a game is flawed. I would have gone with six up. -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)
A. Paul, the inclusion of Mesko sparked debate, and I respect that. Those "3 up, 3 down" posts after the game are tough because you're going off an initial instinct, not a thorough film review, and I always try to note that at the time. In this case, I don't feel like I swung and missed on Mesko, whose stats were deceiving, in my view. Yes, the first punt went out of bounds at the 18, but it was a mishit 28-yarder on a plus-50 attempt in which an opportunity to pin the Titans inside the 10 was missed. He also powered through a punt for a touchback, which was unlike him (just three all of last season). Some might say that's a harsh grader of punting, and part of it might be that Mesko has set a high standard, but I didn't feel as if that was his best day.
Q. Hi, the special teams looked impressive in the first game. I know the Pats worked a lot on special teams in the camps and preseason. Are you surprised by their performance and who looked the most impressive? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Ashley, rookie Nate Ebner caught the eye, playing on each of the "Big 4" units and totaling a team-high two tackles.
Q. Since I was at the game I thought I might have missed this and I am not really sure what they said during the broadcast. When we crunched Nate Washington over the middle and he dropped the ball (Patrick Chung returned the drop) and the refs let the play continue. After the play the ref said the play is under review. My question is, who challenged the play? Did Tennessee throw the challenge flag? I did not see one on the field. I know we review all scoring plays but are we reviewing all turnovers as well? The game seemed so slow in person. -- Tommy (Nashville, Tenn.)
A. Tommy, all changes of possession are also automatically reviewed. In this case, the NFL's replay assistant called on a review of the plays in question, not the Titans.
Q. Mike, can you explain the rule that allows players placed on injured reserve to return later in the season? Does a player have to be designated to return or can anyone on IR be activated when the time is right? What if Wes Welker was injured next week where he's projected to miss 6 games, would they not be able to use it on him? -- Gary (Cambridge, Mass.)
A. You have it correct, Gary. A team can use the "designated to return" designation on only one playe. The player has to be classified in the "designated to return" category when placed on IR. The Patriots have already used it on tight end Visanthe Shiancoe
Q. Brian Waters has become a holdout. Why not trade him to the Bengals, who lost two starting offensive linemen, for a mid-round draft pick. Pats get a pick, Waters gets money, and the Bengals get an anchor for the line. What do you think? -- N. Armon (New York)
A. First, I think the Patriots want Waters to play for them. They could use him. Second, reading between the lines, I think Waters has his heart set on playing closer to home in Texas. If he were traded to the Bengals, there is no guarantee he would report, and I would think that would make any team considering acquiring him hesitate on giving up an asset.
Q: There have been reports that Waters is not playing with the Patriots in part because the team wants to cut his salary by $500,000 to the veteran minimum so they can reduce his cap number. As a team, how close to the cap number are they? Doesn't $500,000 seem like a small amount compared to the lost bonuses the Patriots gave out to Jonathan Fanene, Spencer Larsen and Jabar Gaffney, who are no longer on the team? Don't both sides look stubborn in their stances in this dispute? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A. David, as I understand it, the Patriots would be happy to pay him the $1.4 million if he decided to show up and play right now. The cutting of salary to reduce the cap number -- which was something Waters reportedly agreed to because the deal was structured so he could make more money on a game-by-game basis -- isn't why Waters hasn't reported. Let's not cloud the issue here. The bigger issue is Waters having a tough time leaving his wife and kids in Texas.
Q. I grew up in Hawaii, and Hoomanawanui is a family name on my mother's side. You might find this helpful at some point in writing about Michael: in Hawaiian his name means "to be patient" -- sometimes a good trait to have as you're watching your career develop with a new team. -- Thomas (Natick, Mass.)
A. Thanks for sharing, Thomas. Neat stuff.
Q. Hi Mike, for the first time as a fan of the Pats for over 25 years, I am able to go to a home game vs. Denver in October. I will be arriving Saturday afternoon. Any thoughts on what to see? Is anything open (re: Hall of Fame on Sunday)? Would really appreciate your thoughts and ideas. Will be staying in Boston but have wheels to get to Foxborough. Thanks! -- Doug (Vancouver, British Columbia)
A. Fantastic, Doug. It sounds as if you'd really appreciate a trip to the team's Hall of Fame, which is right at the stadium. I'd put that at the top of the list, and I'd go on Saturday to avoid the crowds on game day (sometimes the Hall is open before/after the game, but not all the time). From a Patriots perspective, that's the main thing to do.