Calling out the coaches
Mailbaggers second-guess Bill Belichick and his staff after brutal loss
This week's Patriots mailbag is one in which e-mailers felt the need to vent.
There are different losses in the course of a season that produce varying emotions, and what unfolded Sunday in a 24-23 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle has ignited the overall frustration level among many followers.
Areas under fire include:
1. The secondary
2. Bill Belichick and his struggles to build a better defense
3. Josh McDaniels' play-calling
4. Tom Brady's late-game performance
Let's get right into it...
Q. Mike, please, be objective. The secondary is awful. The Patriots have devoted so many resources to fixing it and it is still awful. I have lost confidence that it will ever be a good unit. Are all of the players legitimately awful, or is coaching an issue? I think it is the latter. Something is seriously wrong. Too many bad players have passed through the secondary and I am not impressed with any of them. Also, I feel that many players have regressed the longer they have been in the system (Darius Butler, Devin McCourty, Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung, etc.). Please give me a reason to not give up on the pass defense. -- Sami (Boston)
A. Sami, I don't think we need to sugarcoat it, as the disappointing results are there for everyone to see. Specific to the Seattle game, the defensive backs have to play the ball better. On the Seahawks' go-ahead touchdown pass, it's just a costly mistake by an inexperienced player in Tavon Wilson in what appeared to be a simple coverage. In a perfect world, the Patriots would have had starters Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory in the game at safety, but injuries are part of the game and every team deals with them. The Seahawks also had young players in the secondary, and they played the ball better on a more consistent basis as part of a more aggressive scheme. After a game like that, and considering the personnel struggles in the defensive backfield in recent years, it's only natural to ask, "Why can't the Patriots do that?" They haven't and Bill Belichick takes the accountability for that. As for a reason not to give up on the pass defense, it's simple: There is a lot more football to be played. The Patriots couldn't stop the Steelers in a similarly frustrating game last October, and many of the same questions were being asked, and they ended up in the Super Bowl with a chance in the fourth quarter to win another ring. It needs to get better this year. I think it will get better this year. We'll see how much better and if it remains an Achilles' heel to their championship hopes. I understand why followers would have their doubts.
Q. Hi Mike, I won't pretend to have any answers to why this secondary continues to be one of the worst in football, but I will tell you one thing that's not the problem -- talent. There is plenty of talent in that secondary to build an average or above-average backfield. We've seen every single guy that played Sunday (short of Nate Ebner) make plays at some point during their NFL careers. We've seen Ras-I Dowling blanket Brandon Marshall, Patrick Chung shut down good tight ends, Sterling Moore break up passes with the AFC Championship on the line, and Devin McCourty cover just about everybody that came near him for 17 games in 2010. We even saw Terrence Wheatley cover Reggie Wayne once. All of these guys have talent. It's a matter of consistency, and somewhere between drafting/signing them and putting them out on the field something is going wrong. Thoughts? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)
A. Tim, there has been a significant investment made in the secondary since 2007 -- two first-round picks and four second-round picks, as well as a lucrative contract for didn't-pan-out-after-one-year free-agent signee Leigh Bodden -- and not much in return. You'd expect it to be better. Belichick is accountable for the inability to build a unit that produces better results. In some cases, I think it's a talent issue (e.g. Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler). But I don't think that's the only reason for such spotty results at the position, and it makes me wonder if perhaps the scheme, and what the players are asked to do, isn't bringing out the best in them. I will say this: I don't think the issue is position coaches Josh Boyer and Brian Flores. These guys are good coaches.
Q. Mike, I feel Bill Belichick is an overrated coach. It is not because of one lost game, the Patriots' secondary has been an issue for the last four years, and it is still the worst in the NFL. If he is a mastermind of defense, how come it is still not fixed? I feel he really needs proven coaches to support him, instead of hanging with a bunch of unknown guys. -- Mark (Boston)
A. Mark, I understand the frustrations about the defensive backfield. We've been talking about it, on and off, since the 2006 AFC Championship Game. That said, let's not go overboard. Bill Belichick is widely viewed as one of the best coaches in the NFL, and I feel quite certain that after he retires, we'll be longing for these days when a double-digit win season was the expectation and anything less was a disappointment. At the same time, Belichick is not perfect and he owns the struggles in the secondary. As for his position coaches, these guys are good. It's not on them. In 2008, the Patriots had respected veteran coach Dom Capers as their secondary coach and the unit still struggled. This is a bigger issue than a position coach.
Q. Mike, I have been a Patriots fan for over 30 years and have a great deal of appreciation for the job Bill Belichick has done. However, the defense and particularly the secondary has been awful for several years (ask Eli Manning), yet it seems like Belichick gets a free pass from the media. Why doesn't the media ever call him out or question him on the long-term failure of the defense rather than just the latest setback? -- Ron L. (Ohio)
A. Ron, without jumping too deeply into the role of ombudsman, I feel like Belichick gets his fair share of scrutiny, and I'm not here to sugarcoat the struggles to build a better defense, which have been consistent in recent years. I think it's a fair question to ask: Why haven't the Patriots been able to turn a more decisive corner on defense? Having the chance to experience the intensity of other media markets in the past 10-plus years, I'd put this one in the top five in terms of scrutiny, but one thing that has helped Belichick in this regard is the shine of those three Super Bowl rings (2001, 2003 and 2004) and a consistency of winning games that is unrivaled in the salary-cap era. That's a powerful kryptonite when critics start firing away.
Q. Russell Wilson seemed to be having a field day on his deep passes. Pats nation sounds like a broken record complaining about our pass defense. If you had to point to one specific problem with our secondary on Sunday, would you say the problem is personnel, scheme or technique? -- Sherm (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
A. Sherm, that was a tough spot to have rookies Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner as the safeties at the end of the game (they were in because of injuries to both starters and possibly even reserve Sterling Moore). Both might be solid players in years to come, but this was their sixth career game and to count on them as the last line of defense was asking a lot. These are the growing pains that often come with young players, as Wilson's technique was way off on the TD. There are plays to be made on the ball in various occasions (e.g. Kyle Arrington on the first two drives; Devin McCourty in the second half). They just have to make them.
Q. Mike, it is so frustrating to the average fan to watch the Patriots take the ball out of Tom Brady's hands when they are trying to close out a game. Trying to run time off the clock when your ground game is not working was so futile. Why did they do this on Sunday? -- Neil P. (North Branch, Mich.)
A. Neil, I don't think the overall game management was up to the high standards that Bill Belichick has set in the past. I believe the sequence you are referring to was with 3:02 remaining when they had back-to-back runs of 1 yard by Stevan Ridley, which led the Seahawks to use their first two timeouts. The Patriots had the clock in mind, but my greater criticism on game management actually came on the previous drive. The Patriots led 23-17, it's first-and-10 on the New England 47, and there was 4:56 left. After runs of 6 and 9 yards, the Patriots went pass-pass-pass there (incomplete, intentional grounding, 9-yard completion on third-and-20) . . . Not very smart from a clock-management perspective, as the Seahawks got the ball back with 3:56 left. The better situational-football play there would have been to shorten the game with at least one run on first down, seeing if the Seahawks burned their timeouts. If they didn't, run it again on second down and shorten the game even more. If they did, maybe you try a pass on second down. Instead, the Patriots made it easy for them.
Q. Mike, I think you're way off base criticizing the pass/run balance in the Seahawks game. I think we'd both agree the Patriots have always been, with remarkable success, a "game-plan" offense. They don't attack every defense the same way. Seattle is, if not the best, certainly among the top three run defenses in the NFL. I don't think the idea that the Patriots could have had more success in the run game if they were just more persistent makes sense in light of this fact. Secondly, the Patriots actually moved the ball rather effortlessly in the game, and were it not for a few uncharacteristic mistakes by Brady in the red zone, they would have put up a lot more points. And let's be honest, if Brady could take back those two egregious red-zone plays, we wouldn't be talking about how the Patriots should have run the ball more. Don't you think people are only bringing up the pass imbalance because of the final result? Everything else indicates that a pass-heavy attack was actually the smart game-plan versus a run defense that's been nigh-impenetrable all year. Like Logan Mankins said earlier this week, if the run game isn't working, there's no need to keep banging your head against the wall. It just seems reactionary to argue that sticking with more runs against the best run defense in the NFL would have produced better results. -- Qu (Ann Arbor)
A. I think you make some great points, Qu. As a reporter and analyst, my feeling is that it's a good thing to ask yourself "Is this opinion based on the result of the game/play, or a more thorough examination that factors in all circumstances as to why the decisions were made?" As I re-watched the game from start to finish on Monday, a few thoughts stood out to me:
1. Of their 26 rushes, 11 of them were for 2 yards or less. Not good production. A few negative runs early in the third quarter really hurt them and that supports the thinking of being more pass-oriented.
2. But they did have a few good runs in there (Brandon Bolden for 13 in the second quarter; Danny Woodhead for 12 in the fourth quarter) and that's where the persistence thought came in, specifically in the pass-pass-pass sequence with 4:56 left. That's my biggest criticism when it comes to the run game and how it tied in to some questionable decisions from the coaches. Given the benefit of time to review things, which the coaches don't have at the time, I didn't think that was smart football.
3. Look at the Giants-49ers game as an example of persistence in the running game. The Giants had 11 rushes for 23 yards in the first half (when they led 10-3). They finished with 37 rushes for 149 yards. I understand the thinking by the Patriots' coaches, but I just felt they conceded a bit too much ground in that area on Sunday.
4. No question, the Patriots' red-zone struggles changed the complexion of things (one touchdown in six trips). As they got close, they seemed to flip-flop between an aggressive and conservative mindset. There didn't seem to be much flow.
Q. Mike, I don't think I have ever seen a team with the lead use its timeouts on defense like the Patriots did in Seattle (other than to ice the kicker). What do you think that says about Bill Belichick's confidence in their ability to protect a lead, and could that message have factored into their play? -- Evan (Needham, Mass.)
A. Evan, the Patriots called only one timeout on defense in the game, and it came right before the 2-minute warning in the fourth quarter. It was because the defense had a substitution mix-up and had 12 men on the field, which is inexcusable. I don't think it had anything to do with confidence; it had to do with organization and communication. I'm sure no one feels worse about it than the coaches, who I think generally do a great job. That's on them. No one's perfect.
Q. Hi Mike, what do you think about the last play of the second quarter? Why don't you kick the FG and take the points? Why do you think Belichick took that choice? -- Ricardo (Bogota, Colombia)
A. Ricardo, those points ended up being the difference in the game, and I thought that entire sequence -- which included letting 10 to 15 seconds tick off before calling a timeout after a first-down completion -- highlighted some overall questionable game-management decisions by the Patriots. The feeling here was that the right decision was to kick the field goal. The Patriots, with the ball on the 3 with six seconds remaining, felt like they could run one more play. They did something similar in Week 3 against the Ravens and it was successful, so give Bill Belichick credit for consistency. The big difference to me is the score and game conditions. The Patriots could have made it a two-possession game at that point (one step closer to taking the crowd out of it), and on a rainy day against a strong defensive team that is offensively challenged, I decisively thought that would have been the right decision. In Baltimore, it was still a one-possession situation. I think it's a good football debate.
Q. Mike, to pick out one specific play that really hurt us yesterday, let's talk about Brady having that intentional grounding at the end of the first half. The play cost us 3 points. This isn't the first time this happened -- the Super Bowl also saw Brady have a costly intentional grounding. Are we not protecting well enough, are receivers not where they are supposed to be, is Brady just not executing? -- Alana (Newton, Mass.)
A. Alana, on that particular play, it's on Brady. He knows the time is limited and that a quick decision must be made. He just has to throw that ball closer to a Patriot. He held himself accountable and no one is harder on himself than Brady. Once the Patriots decided to take that risk and run one more play, it's on Brady to avoid the one mistake that can't happen. He didn't. My thought: Why even take the risk?
Q. Mike, I like to consider myself a pretty level-headed football fan, but the more I think about the loss to Seattle, and all of the other games that the Pats have lost in a similar fashion, I'm really starting to get concerned about Tom Brady and this team in general. Is Brady done being a clutch QB? Are the Pats done? Talk me off the ledge! -- John R. (Stoneham)
A. John, don't jump off that ledge. The Patriots aren't done. Look around the AFC, and no one is running away with things. The conference is down this year and I still believe the Patriots will be there in the end. They'll get better. The question is, can they improve enough between now and then to beat the best teams? It's fair to have concerns on whether this secondary can limit a top passing attack. As for Brady, he's still one of the best in the game. Everyone has an off day, and Sunday in Seattle was one of the sloppiest games we've seen him play in recent memory. We haven't seen the same late-game magic from him on a consistent basis as we did in prior years, but I can't think of too many other quarterbacks I'd rather have leading the huddle in today's NFL. I still believe it's in there.
Q. I'm writing this while I'm still a little angry over the loss on Sunday and I can't put it into words how frustrating it was to watch. New England seems to be able to get ahead but never to hold the lead. Look at the two Super Bowls against the Giants, as well as this year's losses to the Ravens and Seahawks. Can this trend be stopped? I really hope this lights a fire under the Patriots because it's really hard to watch them being physically and mentally beaten like they were by the Seahawks. -- Nick (Montreal)
A. Nick, I sense similar frustration from other emailers as well (perhaps you've picked up on that vibe if you're read to this point in the mailbag). The Patriots used to be known as great finishers, but they haven't been able to capture that ability to rally in recent years on a consistent basis. I'll just say this: When you're talking about players like Brady, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins and Jerod Mayo, among others, it's a prideful group that is going to give you everything they have. If they don't succeed, it won't be because of a lack of effort.
Q. Mike, it seems like the Pats are having trouble closing games out in the fourth quarter. In your opinion, is this more due to poor execution (Brady missing passes, WRs dropping passes, lack of pass rush, DBs missing everything) or scheme and coaching? Have the Patriots been changing their play-calling both offensively and defensively in the fourth quarters of games? Thanks. -- Sean (Hudson)
A. Sean, I don't think it's black and white. It varies from game to game. But to simplify it, when looking at the three losses this season, there have been a small handful of plays that have determined the outcome in the fourth quarter. Make the play, you win. Don't make the play, you lose. In the end, I think it's about the individuals rising up in the critical situation to make those plays. The Patriots, who have prided themselves on this in the past, haven't done that enough this season.
Q. As Belichick says, it's on to the Jets. The Jets are ranked 18th in total defense but 31st against the run. You would expect the offensive game plan to be more balanced. Do you think that will happen? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A. David, whenever the Patriots go up against a Ryan-coached defense, one of the things that comes to mind is disguise. Brady annually calls this one of the toughest games to prepare for. I'd expect more balance this week, and also a tighter operation from the sideline to the field. I think the Patriots are a better team than they showed Sunday in Seattle in one of the more frustrating losses for them in recent memory.
Q. Hi Mike, any word on Brandon Lloyd? If he is out next week, how might that affect the offense? The Jets have had success shutting down the middle of the field in the past, and Lloyd would be very handy in that situation. -- Nathan (Melbourne, Australia)
A. Nathan, Lloyd returned to the game for the final two plays after the apparent shoulder injury on the final drive. But he did go for tests after the game and I'm not sure of the results. I watched him walk out of the stadium and he wasn't showing any emotion; I wouldn't read anything into that. I think the sting of the loss was also painful.
Q. Hey Mike, to me the inconsistency of the offense has been in part when they use backup linemen. I have little faith that Sebastian Vollmer will ever be 100 percent this year. Do you think the backups can improve over the next couple of months? I know Dante Scarnecchia is amazing, it just seems this year there is steep drop-off after the starters. -- Devin (Lowell)
A. Devin, I think they are thin there, specifically at tackle. I do think we'll see improvement from the backups, but I agree, it's a noticeable drop-off, mainly from a consistency standpoint, when players like Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins aren't in there. Both those players are very tough. Overall, I don't think the offensive line is one of the primary issues facing this club at this time. They are getting good play up there from this view.
Q. I'm wondering why Dan Connolly would get any reps at fullback given the thin nature of the offensive line and his history of head injuries. In addition, the defensive back play is alarming and the recent track record for player development at that position is even worse. At some point doesn't the coaching need to come under some fierce scrutiny? -- dbates (Ipswich)
A. I think they are both fair points, although I'd just say that if we're going to lodge complaints against the Patriots' coaching staff, I'd ask anyone to point out a coaching staff that has it all figured out. The Patriots, like everyone else, aren't perfect. But when you match them up against their peers over a long stretch of time, it's hard to argue with the bottom-line results. Maybe this isn't the best week for consumer confidence after a disappointing turn of events in Seattle, and the struggles to develop talent in the secondary is real, but who else would you really want? On Connolly, I'm uneasy about that as well. They dressed eight linemen Sunday in Seattle and I also wondered if it would be smarter to call on one of the backups in that type of power fullback role.
Q. Hi Mike, when I watch the running game (common to Stevan Ridley and Brandan Bolden) what I notice is that it seems like they run through friction. I think the observation is that they are often able to avoid getting squared up and are able to get the forward lean. In the past I remember this when Curtis Martin was running for the Jets, so many of those 3-yard runs turned into 13-yard runs because the tackler couldn't square him up and stop his forward progress. -- Ned in NC (Greensboro, N.C.)
A. Ned, one of the things we talked about after our podcast last week was Bill Belichick's comment about how the real good running backs don't just get what is blocked for them, but they are able to get more on their own. So your observation is a good one. It wasn't the best day for the running game on Sunday in Seattle, but I still thought there were flashes.