It's time for Kraft to get involved
Owner has been bridge-builder before; he should do so again to end ref debacle
There are a few percolating issues surrounding the New England Patriots this week following Sunday night's disappointing loss to the Ravens.
The officiating is one of the big ones, and let's call it like it is: It stinks.
If you're a Patriots follower, it's fair to request an explanation from owner Robert Kraft as to why things have unfolded this way. I wondered what Kraft was thinking as he watched Sunday night's loss to the Ravens, because he was essentially wearing two hats -- influential NFL owner who protects the best interests of the league, and Patriots fan who saw first-hand his team getting victimized by overmatched officials.
The optimist in me wanted to believe it might have been enough for Kraft to have added motivation to serve as a bridge-builder between the league and its regular officials -- just like he did with players.
Regardless, let's also not fall into the trap of blaming the game on the officials.
The Patriots had their chances to win Sunday night and didn't come through. The officials made it harder than it had to be, but as Tom Brady said on Boston sports radio station WEEI, that's not why they lost the game.
And that's where this week's mailbag begins.
Q. Hey Mike, lost amid the ongoing officiating drama and other high-profile stories is a disturbing trend for the Patriots. They are 1-3 in the their last four games and all three defeats have been gut-wrenching affairs that hinged on the Patriots failing to execute in critical situations. In the Super Bowl, the offense couldn't get a decisive score or run out the clock and the defense couldn't stop the opponent from doing just that. Ditto against the Ravens. Against the Cardinals it was special teams that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It's well-documented that the Pats have no one besides Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Vince Wilfork left over from their championship years. Are we watching growing pains or are these young players learning to expect to lose in clutch situations? -- Jon (Los Angeles)
A. Jon, certainly some growing pains as teams have to prove they can win in those critical situations. This is part of the foundation of Belichick's program, focusing on situational football and players rising up in the critical situations. They aren't winning those situations right now. From the 7-minute mark of the fourth quarter to the final gun on Sunday night, the Patriots lost to the Ravens in that area. The Cardinals game and the Super Bowl had some similarities, as well. While some unfortunate calls by the referees made it more difficult for them than it had to be on Sunday night, there were still plays to be made and the Patriots couldn't make them.
Q. Like most other fans (including Ravens fans, I'm sure), I found it extremely frustrating to watch Sunday night's game because of the officiating. I wonder if the NFL didn't make it worse by warning the coaches in advance not to complain. If I'm a substitute referee, that gives me a certain license. Hence all the penalties resulting in first downs. It also seems to me that it's the NFL's responsibility to put qualified refs on the field, and the league is shirking it. It's a total cop-out to fine players and coaches for pointing out what's obvious to every fan watching. Roger Goodell is the one who should get fined for failing in one of his principal responsibilities as commissioner. -- Bo (Oakland, Calif.)
A. Bo, I don't blame the replacement officials. They're doing their best despite being put in a very tough situation. If we're going to start somewhere, it's the 31 owners who have decided that the league is OK proceeding down this course. Obviously that group includes Robert Kraft and, like everyone else, he should be held accountable and it's fair for Patriots fans to ask him for an explanation as to why this is the best thing for the league. If Kraft or any other owners can't see the product is suffering, I'm not sure what it will take.
Q. Mike, I just finished watching the end of the Green Bay-Seattle game. It's official now. The replacement officials have now definitively cost teams two games in consecutive nights. The NFL is now akin to professional wrestling. Disgusting. -- Alan (Boston)
A. Alan, I watched it and had the same thought. Of all the commentary on the game, I thought Steve Young's thoughts on how this has lessened the NFL brand was what hit home most to me. That NFL shield is supposed to stand for something great, but this game brought it to WWE-type levels. I don't hold the replacement officials accountable. They're doing their best. They've just been put in an impossible spot by the NFL's owners. What a disappointment.
Q. Mike, At what point do you think Mr. Kraft will get with the other owners and work a deal to bring back the refs? After Week 3, it is apparent that the replacement refs are getting more coverage than the players which is not good for the NFL product. Since Goodell is about protecting and growing the product I would think this is not what they had in mind. -- Peter (Richmond, Va.)
A. Peter, my feeling is that it has to happen right now. ESPN.com columnist Jackie MacMullan wrote something along those lines after the Patriots' loss to the Ravens on Sunday night and I'd echo those thoughts. There is a time in any negotiation when one side has to swallow its pride and fold its hand because it's not working out. That time has come for the NFL, and if the owners don't see it, shame on them.
Q. Reiss, we are all sick and tired of these replacement refs, but I also understand the business side of the negotiation. What we don't hear much about, and is frankly what is inexcusable in this unfortunate situation, is just how ill-prepared the NFL was for this impasse with the refs. This lockout was by no means a surprise event, and the NFL's replacement strategy has been terribly conceived and executed. At a minimum, they should have started training these guys many months earlier than they did. I just hate that this is dominating the headlines . . . Boy do we need a BIG rebound game this weekend. -- Don (Atlanta, Ga.)
A. Right on, Don. The NFL has no one to blame but itself. The owners didn't get to where they are today because they are dumb. But boy, they don't look too smart right now.
Q. Mike, I think it was easy to see that the plan for Rob Gronkowski this week included a lot of staying in to block. It occurs to me the team could have used Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui a bit more and used the two tight end sets in order to get Gronk a little more involved in the passing game. I guess my question is, what is the advantage to going back to the predominant 3-receiver set if arguably your best receiving target is then minimized in the game plan. Your thoughts? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I'd want to look a little closer at how often Gronkowski was kept in to block. I re-watched the game, but didn't lock in on that aspect of it. My guess would be that it was closer to 50-50 and part of that is game plan specific based on the Ravens' defensive style of play. As for why the three-receiver attack is the choice, it's all about putting your best skill-position players on the field as much as possible. Of their 82 snaps (including penalties), 60 were run with three receivers and 22 had two or more tight ends. So they still ran some multiple tight end packages, but they obviously felt like the third receiver was a more meaningful weapon than the second tight end.
Q. Hi Mike, My question is about Rob Ninkovich. It looked like he was getting manhandled most of the night. Why not more Jermaine Cunningham? Or even Trevor Scott or Jake Bequette? -- KB (Hyannis, Mass.)
A. KB, we know Ninkovich has played 168 of a possible 202 snaps (including penalties), while Cunningham has played 60 and Scott 25. I could see those numbers coming closer in alignment in the coming weeks. I thought Ninkovich had a nice rush late in the game, but overall, you'd have to give the edge to rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele in that one-on-one matchup. Ninkovich also lost containment as an edge-setter on one run around right end.
Q. Mike, I actually thought the Pats played a pretty good game all around considering they were at Baltimore. For me, the one thing that stood out was the porous pass defense. I knew we had shaky DBs, but I had really high hopes for Ninkovich, Jones and our LBs creating pressure. Clearly, when we rush four we are just an OK pass rush team, but why not bring the blitz more? Those DBs need Hightower, Spikes and Mayo to help bring the pressure. -- Benny (Harrisville, N.H.)
A. Benny, in retrospect, a strong case could be made that the Patriots could have blitzed more. They just weren't able to disrupt that offense enough. I think the main reason they stayed with the standard rush was to protect against the big play -- both in the passing game with Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta as well as in the running game with Ray Rice. It's always a balance -- if you rush more, you leave yourself exposed more on the back end.
Q. Mike, all preseason and during the first few games I have watched Steve Gregory throw shoulders and not even try to use his arms to tackle. Sunday night, Dennis Pitta jumps right over Gregory for the touchdown. I just don't understand how Bill Belichick can be playing a safety who is so unsound on the fundamentals. Back in the day, I saw the same kind of sloppy play from Brandon Meriweather. Please get the story and find out for us how this can be happening. -- Norman (Malden, Mass.)
A. Norman, the coaching staff has lauded Gregory's smarts and leadership, so I think it starts there. They value his presence and ability to be a settling presence on the back end of the defense. He's shown solid instincts at times -- as evidenced by his first-quarter interception on Sunday night -- and is a willing tackler despite being self-described as undersized for the position. Like anything else, it's not always perfect, but those are some of the things the coaching staff likes in Gregory.
Q. Hey Mike, love the blog keep up the awesome work. How long do you think before Tavon Wilson unseats Steve Gregory in the starting lineup? Gregory has looked pretty pedestrian on the field and has had two noticeable negative plays/flags that have really cost. Meanwhile Wilson seems to have a knack for being around the ball and being in position to make big plays. -- Richard (San Diego, Calif.)
A. Richard, through two games, Gregory had played 105 of 129 snaps while Wilson was on for 60 of 129 snaps. Wilson had rotated in sparingly in the base defense, but on Sunday night in Baltimore, we saw the Patriots stick with Gregory and Chung as their starting safety pairing as all of Wilson's snaps came at the "money" position in the dime defense. I thought Tedy Bruschi said it best in last week's Patriots podcast when he noted how the coaching staff will play those who are most deserving, regardless of contract or draft status, etc. I think a team needs three safeties, regardless, so I don't see Gregory being phased out. But we could see those numbers come maybe a little closer in alignment in the coming weeks if Gregory misses tackles like he did on Dennis Pitta's touchdown catch-and-run on Sunday night.
Q. Mike, I like the return of Deion Branch, and I think most Pats fans expected it once Aaron Hernandez was reported out for a month or more. However, I question the signing of Kellen Winslow. Not because of Winslow, but because New England has been signing tight ends like crazy all offseason, and they had even looked at Winslow. So how does signing Winslow now improve the Patriots when the other guys currently on the roster at tight end were apparently better choices when they worked Winslow out before? If Winslow was the best available choice for a tight end available when one of the starters goes down, why wasn't he on the roster instead of a guy like Daniel Fells who hasn't played a snap through the first two games? -- Charlie (The Pennsylvania part of Pats Nation)
A. Charlie, there are a couple of factors in play here that I think explain the team's decision-making with Winslow. First, Fells' health situation was a bit unexpected. When they signed him, I don't think they were planning on not having him available for parts of training camp and the first two games because of a pre-existing shin injury (he made his debut on Sunday night and played five snaps as part of the three-TE package). I think that situation was what led the team to sign Michael Hoomanawanui. If Fells is fully healthy, I don't think Hoomanawanui is here on the active roster. Then when Aaron Hernandez was injured, the team was looking for more of a productive, versatile, receiver-type of option and I think Winslow fits that mold better than Fells and Hoomanawanui. Winslow played four snaps in his debut Sunday night as he integrates into the system.
Q. Mike, I know I'm going to sound like a fantasy nut, but do you see the Patriots keeping Winslow next season so we have the tandems of Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez and Jake Ballard/Kellen Winslow? Both sets of TE pairings are similar in attributes. At the same time Hernandez and Winslow could play wideout in certain schemes with Gronk and Ballard on the line. With such an emphasis now on the TEs and run game, is this at all possible? Know Bill likes to WOW people and feel like this could do it. -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)
A. Matt, we know Winslow is signed to a one-year deal. I think the possibility of his return in 2013 would be contingent on his production with the Patriots, and how that affects other teams' view of him. If Winslow produces big, I think it's going to be hard for him to return and want to play as a No. 3 option when there are No. 1 or No. 2 options potentially open elsewhere. As we saw this year, any team could have signed Winslow and didn't. But the Patriots have boosted the careers of other players in this type of situation, leading them to exit the next year (defensive end Mark Anderson comes to mind as a most recent example). We'll see if Winslow follows that path. I think it's too early to say.
Q. Do you have any information on Deion Branch's salary? It would be interesting to learn if he is getting the same per game compensation as the contract he signed during the offseason. -- Ron (New York City)
A. Ron, it is the same contract, with a $925,000 base salary. Branch had already received a $250,000 signing bonus, and $150,000 workout bonus, from his previous contract with the team. So, at this point, Branch loses two game checks out of the exchange and the chance to earn some additional money in performance-based incentives.
Q. I was thinking that this current receiving corps could really use a guy like David Givens from 2004. Seems like the Pats haven't had a physical do-it-all receiver since he was here. He was clutch, always converting third downs and came up big in the red zone. Do you agree? -- Sam (Burlington, Mass.)
A. Sam, the main thing that comes to mind when looking at the Patriots' receiving corps is how the tight ends, when everyone is healthy, are affecting what the team might be looking for at the position. With a commitment to playing with the two tight ends, which I view in part as a renewed commitment to the running game, the coaching staff seems to be looking for more of an outside presence at receiver. Givens would certainly fit in that criteria. I think they view Julian Edelman (5-foot-10, 200) in that mold a bit, as well, although he doesn't have the same size as Givens (6-foot, 215).
Q. Come On Man! Leave Welker alone. This is pure BB. There has to be something real to tell us about than this nonsense about 83. -- Bill (San Diego, Calif.)
A. Bill, I just don't see the conspiracy theories here, and after Sunday night in Baltimore, my hope is that this media-driven storyline simmers down a bit. I could be off the mark. But I just don't see Belichick doing anything that would sacrifice his team's chances to win.
Q. Mike, this "Welker" situation in the press has got to stop. I feel it is really blown way out of proportion. Anyone who compares his early-season production to last year, and doesn't mention his 99-yard touchdown catch in Miami, is unprofessional in my view. -- Ken (Long Island, N.Y.)
A. Ken, I don't see it as much about analysts comparing Welker's production as noting his shift in role. It was surprising to see Julian Edelman play more than him in the Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. That is interesting to me, and considering the financial implications in play (the more opportunities Welker gets, the better position he puts himself in to cash in next year), I understand why it's notable. Yet notable versus major storyline is a big difference and I agree that it was blown out of proportion. I think that's one of the unfortunate parts of the media landscape these days: We drive one story into the ground, and then move on to the next one without revisiting what was such a "big deal" the week before. This is a classic example. I said it last week, and I believe it even more now: This was more of a media-driven thing than a pressing football issue. This offense is evolving under coordinator Josh McDaniels and there has been more of a focus on the running game, and that's why Welker's role in two-receiver sets has been altered in my view. We can debate whether that's the right decision, but can we finally put the conspiracy theories away?
Q. Hi Mike, my question is about the Welker situation. Don't you feel that the Pats should be showing Welker a lot more respect? This guy led the league in receiving, and has been the heart and soul of the team for years, putting the team first coming back from a knee injury much sooner than expected. If it was any other star receiver benched when healthy for a special teamer with very little experience at wide receiver, this would be one of most highly criticized coaching moves of the decade. Welker is one of the best in the league, and he deserves to be treated that way. To try to justify starting Julian Edelman by saying he's been playing well in practice, is so disrespectful to someone who's been on a Hall of Fame pace since joining the Pats and was a key member of two Super Bowl trips and a 16-0 season. Thoughts? -- Joe (Medford, Mass.)
A. Joe, when it comes to respect, I assume Belichick has addressed potential role changes with Welker privately and explained why the team has taken this approach. To me, that's where the respect comes in, and Welker -- or any veteran player who has contributed like he has -- absolutely deserves that in my view. As for actually altering the role, I don't find that disrespectful. That's Belichick's right and, from a player's perspective, that's what it means to be part of a team.
Q. Hey Mike, I had a question in response to your comments about Welker's playing time reduction not being a punishment. Belichick obviously thinks Edelman can come close to matching Welker in the short term. It's the long term that he's looking at with the move. Besides keeping Welker fresh and aiding Edelman's development he has now put a bit of fear into the next guy that has the franchise tag looming over him. I don't believe Belichick would reduce playing time for a player at a serious risk of W's turning into L's but if a player even THINKS that could happen to them it's all the more incentive to sign your multimillion dollar deal while its available. Thoughts? -- Christian (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Christian, I see the viewpoint and perhaps that's a residual effect of the decision. But I just don't see it driving the decision. I think the business and football decisions are legitimately independent of each other.
Q. I'm curious your thoughts on Welker. This feels like the Randy Moss situation. Three things come to mind when comparing the two situations. The contract and reduced role are the two obvious ones. The third is the media situation. Moss spoke quite a bit about his contract in the media. Welker did this earlier in the preseason. They could have just pulled the franchise tag off of him but the Patriots are an intelligent organization and know he has value. I know he probably won't bring back much more than a fifth-round pick, at best, but do you see this happening at some point? -- Eric (Albany, N.Y.)
A. Eric, I'd be surprised if the Patriots traded Welker. I think part of it is that it will be difficult to find a trade partner. The other part is that I think Welker still has big-time value to them, especially now that Hernandez is out with an injury for the near future.
Q. Mike, on the heels of the loss to the Cardinals, the Patriots released Greg Salas and Lex Hilliard. I see this as a message to McDaniels about the way the offense should run. While Belichick may appreciate the insight McDaniels has on certain players, the addition of Winslow and Branch, and outright release of Salas, suggests that Belichick has been unimpressed by some of the additions who have previous connections to McDaniels. I'm curious if you have a sense of how involved Belichick is in the day to day operation and personnel groupings for the offense? -- Mike (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Mike, my understanding is that Belichick is intimately involved in this aspect of the offense. He'll empower his coordinators to draw up the best plans, but at the same time, challenge and/or overrule them when he sees fit. I do think Belichick has empowered McDaniels, as evidenced by some of the personnel moves with players who have past connections to McDaniels, but I felt the recent moves (e.g. Salas release) was more a numbers crunch based on the Hernandez injury than Belichick decisively pulling the reins back on McDaniels in that area. They did bring Salas back on the practice squad.
Q. Mike, you know I've been a big BB fan and that my motto has always been "In Bill we trust." While I always defer to his personnel moves (it was he that made the brilliant move of resurrecting the careers of Rob Ninkovich, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter last year), is it now OK to raise an eyebrow at some of his moves this year? This is not reactionary, but when you look at the body of work: giving away millions in guaranteed money to guys he cuts; bringing in 11 receivers to create competition only to end up thin at the position. Thoughts? -- Tom (Boston)
A. Tom, I think it's fair. They've had some personnel misfires this year, but the one point I'd make is that no team is perfect. The main area that I think the Patriots can be held accountable in is with Jonathan Fanene. If they feel like he didn't fully disclose his physical condition that ultimately led to his release, that's unfortunate for them and perhaps they can recoup some of the signing bonus money. But for an organization that prides itself on dotting all "i's" and crossing all "t's," it's surprising that they would target a player who potentially wouldn't disclose his physical condition. I view that as a breakdown in the scouting process. Something didn't add up on that one.
Q. Mike, how many times have you seen the Pats lose two in a row? You are going to regret your pick of the Ravens. -- Del (New Jersey)
A. Entering Sunday night's game, the Patriots had lost two in a row just three times since 2003. There was the Colts-Jets back-to-back losses in 2006, the Saints-Dolphins back-to-back losses in 2009 and the Steelers-Giants back-to-back losses in 2011. When making the pick, I didn't focus as much on history as this specific matchup because I didn't think history would have much to do with deciding the winner. That game could have gone either way Sunday night. In my view, you can't fault anyone for picking either team leading into it.