Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Mailbag: Brady, coaching in focus
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
If there is a theme to this week's mailbag, it would be: What happens when Tom Brady does not look like Tom Brady?
In returning from his knee injury this season, Brady has looked brilliant at times (the final drive versus Buffalo in the season opener) and like just another quarterback at other times (the second half versus the Broncos). Brady draws some heat from e-mailers for his performance against the Broncos.
Some other topics that came up this week:
1. A look at the team's passive defensive approach versus Denver.
2. Getting Randy Moss more involved in the offense.
3. Bill Belichick and his staff losing the battle of wits.
4. Joey Galloway and the team's lack of a No. 3 option the past two weeks.
5. A look back at the taunting call on Brandon Meriweather.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been up front about the fact that he hasn't played as well as he is capable of in the early going.
Q: I don't think it's time to hit the panic button, but Tom Brady was responsible for the loss in Denver. If he hits Moss in the end zone during the first half or hits Welker in stride during that final fourth-quarter series, the Pats win. He should have been in the "down" column. This one was on the QB. With that said he's won plenty of big games, so I'm giving him plenty of room to grow post-injury and am confident he plays at an elite level by mid-November. -- Aroon (Orlando)A: I had thought about putting Brady in the "non-star" column here on our ESPNBoston.com Patriots blog, but after analyzing the performance, I thought that was the easy way out. Brady definitely missed that throw to Moss, and there were a few others in which his accuracy was off. But when I looked closer at Brady's performance, I learned that the throw to Welker was more a result of Welker's freelancing than Brady's inaccuracy (see Welker's comments in this piece), and then you look at the team's best offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, not holding a one-on-one block on Vonnie Holliday on the strip sack against a four-man rush. Those were two critical plays in the game in which two of the team's best players not named Brady did not deliver. I also thought Brady was excellent in the two-minute drive at the end of the first half. So to pin it all on Brady, I believe, is short-sighted. No question, he is not himself and I would not make excuses for him, but when you lose a game like the Patriots did it's not just one player's fault.
Q: Tom Brady's performance Sunday was shockingly bad. I had hoped he would come into the press conference and take the loss squarely on his shoulders, where it clearly belonged. Instead he passed it off as 11 eleven guys not on the same page. What I saw was Brady making one bad throw after another, missing open guys. The end-zone throw to Moss in the first quarter is a fairly routine throw for an NFL quarterback. The pass protection was pretty good most of the game. My question: is Brady in denial about how bad he's been this year? -- Tom (Boston)A: Tom, I don't sense that Brady is in any sort of denial about his early-season play, which hasn't been Brady-esque. I also heard Brady, on sports radio WEEI Monday, call himself out for bad throws, specifically the missed touchdown to Moss in the first quarter. I think it's clear that Brady isn't himself at this point, and part of that is a reminder that when you miss a full season and then return to play quarterback in the NFL and in this system, it isn't like riding a bike. I would expect Brady to get better as each week passes by.
Q: Mike, what is up with Tom Brady and his lack of throws in Randy Moss's direction? Many of us cannot fathom how Moss and his freakish talents only have one touchdown this year. No wonder they struggle in the red zone, Brady is throwing to everybody but Moss in the end zone. What happened to the jump balls to Moss in the end zone? Why isn't Moss going deep? -- Patrick (Springfield, Mass.)A: Patrick, in-game statisticians have added a new stat to their work this year, noting how many times a receiver is targeted in a game. It is slightly flawed, because even when a quarterback is throwing the ball away, statisticians pick the nearest receiver and say he was targeted. Still, through five games, Moss has been targeted 48 times, an average of 9.6 times per contest. So I don't think it's a case of lack of throws in Moss' direction, but more the execution of some of the throws. They've tried Moss in the end zone on the jump ball (versus Atlanta) and the connection was off. More than anything, this isn't the same Tom Brady we're used to seeing. From my view, it's hard to imagine that will continue.
Q: Mike, your snap counts indicate that Chris Baker is certainly the primary tight end. However, from a situational standpoint, it seems as though Ben Watson is on the field in bigger situations. I've noticed him in the passing game on third down and in the red zone. Is Watson still the primary TE target of Tom Brady and does that indicate that Baker is still behind with the offense? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)A: Dean, probably the biggest difference that I see between Baker and Watson is that Watson is part of the productive two-minute offense. The two-minute offense has had some big results, with Watson sometimes on the receiving end of Brady passes (three TDs), and that might be why it seems like Watson has surpassed Baker. Other than that, I've seen the two play similar roles, sometimes rotating with each other in the various positional groupings. I don't think Baker is behind.
Q: In one of your blogs you asked the question the question "What is the identity of this offense?" You mentioned that the Patriots don't seem a have a calling card on offense. This seemed to remind me of the Patriots 2001 team that was 5-5 before they found themselves and got hot and never lost again. I know they are much more of a veteran team now on offense than that team but I think we might have a season like that one. Any thoughts about that comparison? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)A: It's going to sound like a cop-out, David, but I really believe the answer is to be determined. The true identity of this club will start to show itself in the coming weeks. The best teams find a way to improve on a week-to-week basis, and I wouldn't count out the Patriots. I've been down that road before, and most often when I start to doubt them, they prove me wrong.
Q: Mike, is Bill Belichick losing his touch? This is the second time in four weeks he has been outcoached by a rookie head coach of a team with an average quarterback, one of which was starting the second game of his career (Mark Sanchez). This would have NEVER happened in years past. -- Shawn (Boston)A: Shawn, I don't think Bill Belichick is losing his touch at all. More than anything, I think the losses to the Jets and Broncos -- and some of the coaching decisions that factored into them -- show how competitive the NFL coaching ranks can be. Belichick won't win the coaching chess match every week, but he still wins them more than most.
Q: Sunday's game was frustrating on many levels. The offense once again looked out of sync. The WRs and Brady are not on the same page and the lack of a solid third wide receiver has been an issue. Do you think another reason why they have struggled is that there is no true offensive coordinator? Or are we all expecting too much from Brady right now and it will come around soon since he is coming back from such a serious knee injury. -- Ben (Chicago)A: I think all the points are valid here, Ben, although I think the Patriots do have a true offensive coordinator but just without the title in quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien. O'Brien is a bright coach who will be in the NFL for a long time, but like anything else, he's probably experiencing some growing pains at times. No one steps into the job and has it aced from day one.
Q: Hi Mike, what happened to the play calling in the second half? Tom Brady was in a nice rhythm in the first half, although he missed a wide open Randy Moss which turned out to be the difference in the game. It seemed like they went away from what was working. They tried to run the ball over and over again on several possessions in the second half with little success. I realize you have to run the ball to keep the defense honest but it took Brady out of his rhythm and he never found it again. Why did they go away from what was working? This is a game that probably should not have been lost; just like the Sox. -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)A: Jim, I think it comes down to the fact that the Patriots' offense is predicated on taking the favorable matchup. I heard Belichick mention it on his weekly radio appearance on sports radio WEEI -- there were times when the Broncos were light in the box against the run, and based on the way the Patriots play, they want to check into a run play when that happens. They did most of the time, but the Broncos were competitive in running situations where there were uneven numbers. From the Patriots' perspective, they need to run it better. So I don't think it was as much about the play call as it was executing those play calls.
Q: Was there a hidden storyline with Galloway being inactive again? I think that Sunday's game highlighted the effect that Galloway had in balancing the offensive attack. Aiken disappeared yesterday, yet few people are as critical of him as they are of Galloway. I don't think it's for lack of getting open for Galloway -- he just needs to catch the ball when it comes to him. He had at least five passes hit him in the hands against the Jets and Falcons. I see those as opportunities. -- Nick C (Rochester, Mass.)A: Nick, I don't think there is a hidden story. My sense is that it comes down to Brady and his comfort level with Galloway. I think it got to the point that Brady didn't think he could trust that Galloway would be where he wanted him, or simply that Galloway wasn't making the plays, and that has led to the deactivation the last two weeks. I think the lack of a viable No. 3 receiver over the last two weeks, however, should lead Galloway back into the lineup. It was apparent to me in the Broncos game when Sam Aiken was matched up against Champ Bailey consistently that it was a tilted field in favor of the defense. I'd be surprised if that doesn't change this week.
Q: Hi Mike, take a look at the replay of the taunting penalty on Meriweather in the fourth quarter and you can clearly see that the ref was throwing the flag before Meriweather taunted. It looks like the ref threw the flag for defensive pass interference, which was a mistake since the pass was tipped. He realized this (or was told by the other refs), so he made the taunting call to validate the flag. Thoughts? -- Roybus (San Francisco, Calif.)A: I thought it was a terrible penalty flag, Roybus. My press box seat was right in that corner and I'll tell you what I saw: One official threw his penalty flag for a late/illegal hit but that flag was picked up because the ball was tipped and the receiver was live. A second official, who was almost under the goalposts in center field, threw a different flag for taunting despite being a good 15 yards away. I'm not sure how he could judge taunting from that distance because it wasn't like Meriweather stood over the player and made an example of him. I thought it was an over-officiated play given the position of the official who threw the flag. Another thought I had is that the official could have put the flag back in his pocket and acknowledged a mistake, but it seemed he was trying to justify throwing the flag in the first place. It made me wonder if he threw the flag thinking one thing, and then switched to another call.
Q: Mike, can you find out why Belichick was yelling at the sideline official after the penalty for 12 men on the field (on defense)? It's unusual to see him yelling at the officials, I'd like to know if it was an incorrect call, or was he upset with something else? -- Chris (Boston)A: Chris, Belichick was furious after a 12-men-on-the-field penalty, and it's my belief that he had good reason to be hot. Per NFL rules, if the offense substitutes personnel, then the officials must give the defense a chance to match up (except for the final two minutes of each half). The Broncos had subbed personnel with 12:20 to play in the third quarter, and the Patriots were matching. But it looked to me like the Broncos quick-snapped and the Patriots couldn't get their players off the field in time. As I understand the rule, that should not have been a penalty on the Patriots. That came on the drive that the Broncos ultimately kicked a field goal, making it 17-10. Because of the chess match in this game, and the constant subbing by both teams, it was a hard game to officiate. I thought the officials missed that call.
Q: I am not going to blame this game on officiating, Reiss, but I do have a question regarding that aspect of the game. It is horrible, and leaguewide horrible. Why won't the NFL hire full-time refs? With the level of complexity of the modern NFL, it is completely unreasonable to ask part-time refs to get it right, and week after week, leaguewide, they don't. -- Stan (Springfield, Mass.)A: Stan, I think the bad calls sometimes overshadow the hundreds of good calls being made on a weekly basis. In general, I think most crews do a solid job in a game that continues to become faster and more physical. Looking back, although Ron Winter's crew took some heat for the Patriots-Ravens game, I think those officials can feel good that their calls graded out favorably when ultimately reviewed, even though the public perception is probably different than the reality from that specific contest. In terms of the part-time, full-time nature of the job, I am not convinced that if officials simply became full-time that we'd see a dramatic shift.
Q: Mike, do you think Moss has lost a step, or are the Pats suffering from the lack of a downfield threat opposite Moss like they had with Stallworth and Gaffney? Brady made a comment to Phil Simms about the QB's "dream" -- when he had Stallworth & Gaffney. Any chance Brandon Tate could make a difference? -- Doug Lee (Branford, Conn.)A: Doug, while Moss might not have the same explosion he had in his prime, I don't think he's lost a step in terms of still being one of the NFL's elite receivers. He can still bring it. In the game against the Broncos, there was consistently a safety being rolled to his side of the field -- usually the offensive left -- which took away most vertical routes. I think we saw that the Patriots didn't have enough ammo on the opposite side -- where Sam Aiken was often matched up against Champ Bailey -- to make the Broncos pay for devoting so much attention to Moss. While I think the Patriots could have worked harder to get Moss the ball, it primarily became a game of working the middle of the field in the short to intermediate areas. As for Tate, I'd just be guessing at this point. My hunch is that he could make a difference in the return game first.
Q: Mike, where in the world has Derrick Burgess been? Considering the assets that the Patriots gave up for him, was this a massive error in judgment? It seems like the one pass-rush move he has is running directly into the right tackle 15 times a game without ever moving laterally. -- CB (Quincy, Mass.)A: Fair question, CB. I think one of the weaknesses that we've seen from the Patriots is their ability to consistently pressure with the four-man rush. That's partly why they traded for Burgess, who hasn't exactly been a feared presence to this point. He was on the field for 34 second-half snaps Sunday after playing just five in the first half. While I can understand how some defenders were tired at the end of the game, that shouldn't have been an issue in his case.
Q: Mike, what is your thought on the Pats' defense? Why doesn't there seem to be any pressure and why are our cornerbacks playing 10 yards off? Also, don't you think Brady has had enough time not to be so off on his targets? This is really concerning me. -- Julie (Los Angeles)A: Julie, on Monday, Belichick made the point in a radio interview that the Broncos were going to more three-step drops and getting the ball out of Kyle Orton's hands quickly, which negated the ability to generate much rush. I think that is something to keep in mind when assessing the pass rush, although I still think the lack of overall pressure out of the standard rush is a concern. The cornerbacks also could have played a bit tighter in an attempt to disrupt the timing of the Broncos' rhythm passing game.
Q: Hey Mike, if the Pats do not get the following, it will be a very long season. 1) Another outside receiver and 2) Someone who can rush the passer. Is Peppers still available? Brady has looked very, very, very average so far, Your thoughts? -- Jazz (Queens, N.Y.)A: I think it's a fair analysis, Jazz, although I think they can still win double-digit games with what they have. I have them winning the next two weeks to go to 5-2 entering the bye. I'm not ruling out Galloway for the other outside receiver. Meanwhile, Peppers has had a quiet start to the season and I don't see him coming to New England. Brady has been average, hence the average record, 3-2.
Q: Hey Mike, I know it's too early to tell, but do you think Pats make it to the playoffs? -- Pats fan (Boston)A: I'd say yes based on the current makeup of the roster and my feeling that the Patriots have traditionally improved under Bill Belichick as the season has progressed.
Q: Do you think the Pats make a play for WR Kevin Curtis? -- Mike Destefano (Parkland, Fla.)A: Mike, I haven't heard any chatter regarding Curtis. My hunch would be no on this one. The trade deadline is Oct. 20, so these scenarios are fun to consider at this time of year
Q: Hi Mike, I am wondering your thoughts on the Patriots' third down (and overall) defense over the last 3-4 years. It is particularly frustrating to watch teams put together long clock-eating drives resulting in TDs. I understand that the defense is based around not giving up the big play, but I feel like it drains (and demoralizes) the defense and keeps the offense off the field for long periods of time. We don't give up a ton of points, but I feel this is in part due to long drives by the opposing team, effectively shortening the game. It seems that we have the talent on defense to be more effective in these situations and overall. Is this a product of the scheme, play calling, or what? How much is Dean Pees on the hook for the performance? I don't remember this happening with Crennel at the controls. Your thoughts? Thanks -- John B (Laguna Beach, Calif.)A: This issue has surfaced the last two weeks, John, when the Ravens (9-of-14) and Broncos (6-of-14) had success on third down. I see it as a mixed bag. I think you nailed the key point, which is the Patriots' priority not to give up the big play. If they blitzed more, they would be more vulnerable to that. Overall, I wouldn't define the Patriots' approach as attack-based but more 50-50. For example, on the final play of the Ravens game, on fourth-and-4, they rushed just three and dropped eight into coverage. But then I think about the Broncos' final play of regulation, when the Patriots brought two extra defensive backs on a blitz and sacked Kyle Orton. Looking back on Sunday's loss, I think the Patriots realize they could have made better adjustments against Denver's short passing game and maybe could have brought their corners a little closer to the line of scrimmage or done something else to disrupt Denver's rhythm. That's coaching-based. Other times, it's about players stepping up and making a game-changing play when in position to do so. If I had to sum up my thoughts, I'd say I think Dean Pees is a solid coordinator who is running Bill Belichick's defense.
Q: Why have DT Ron Brace, OG Kendall Simmons and G Rich Ohrnberger been consistent names on the inactive list? Also, do you think the Patriots regret letting WR Greg Lewis go? BB had such high praise for him and now Joey Galloway has been inactive for two straight games. -- Nick (Santa Cruz, Calif.)A: Nick, Brace hasn't played since struggling with his technique in Week 2 against the Jets. He was in at tackle as part of the four-man line, and Thomas Jones had runs of 9 and 8 yards right into the gap I assume that Brace was responsible for. I am not privy to watching full practices, but it seems to me that Brace will now have to win back the confidence of the coaching staff after those fundamental breakdowns. Simmons is still getting up to speed in the Patriots' system and getting into football shape after not participating in training camp, but with Matt Light's right knee injury looking serious, I'm thinking he could be active this week and possibly help as an emergency tackle. Ohrnberger is a developmental prospect who has hit the weight room hard. Since the more experienced Dan Connolly is ahead of him on the depth chart and the Patriots dress only seven linemen on game day, he gets edged out on the 45-man roster.
Q: Hey Mike, my question/comment is about the team's draft choices from this year, specifically the four second-round choices. I've seen Vollmer and Butler in a few games but have hardly seen or heard from Brace and Chung. To be honest, I would have figured I'd have seen more of the latter duo than the first. I know we're only going into the fifth week of their rookie season, but do you think the team is somewhat disappointed with Brace/Chung at this point? I really expected to see Brace on the field when Wilfork went down, and Chung in the dime packages. I'm not disappointed as of yet, as I know these things take time and they have good players ahead of them. Just curious on your take. -- Art (Chicago, Illinois)A: Art, my take is centered on patience, and I wouldn't read too much into the lack of playing time for Brace and Chung at this point. Every player develops at a different rate, and each position is a bit different. In terms of Brace, he is learning a completely different technique than he played in college. In some ways, it's similar to Vince Wilfork when he was drafted in 2004, as he didn't come in and master that position right away. There were some early growing pains. With Chung, I think he'd be there if not for the surprising emergence of Brandon McGowan, whose experience is a bit more valuable to the defense at this point, and the overall depth at corner. It's actually a luxury that the Patriots don't have to accelerate his learning curve.
Q: Hey Mike, can't they put Fred Taylor on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list immediately? That would at least buy them a couple of weeks for the roster determinations. -- Eric H (East Greenwich, R.I.)A: Eric, that isn't an option for the Patriots. Once a player is on the active roster, they can't be placed on the PUP list. It's either season-ending injured reserve or the active roster, and that rule is in place so teams don't have the ability to stash players. That's why the league has a 53-man active roster but only a 45-man game-day roster, essentially leaving eight spots open for injury considerations.
Q: Mike, would you clarify what IR, PUP and NFL players can and can't do? I know the rule dictates that they are not to practice with the team on the field, but are they allowed to participate in classrooms, or to use training facilities? I'm curious as I would like to see how LBs Crable or McKenzie utilize their time this year to bounce back next year. -- MarkJ (Japan)A: MarkJ, I'd use rookie Brandon Tate as an example. The third-round draft choice out of the University of North Carolina is on the non-football injury list and has been taking part in all meetings, but just can't practice. Players often refer to that as taking mental repetitions. Injured players can also use the team workout facilities, and I've seen Crable around the locker room at times this year.
Q: Mike, I'm as frustrated as anyone with Laurence Maroney's lack of production, but do you think he might benefit from a firm commitment as the go-to back for an entire game? To average 4 yards a carry you don't actually have to carry the ball 4 yards every time you touch the ball. You break a few runs and the defense has to focus on you that much more (and the average comes up). Sometime I wonder if the Pats have been too quick to rotate him out of the game. I'd like to see one game where the team gives him 20 carries to see what he does with those chances. Maybe I just see so much raw athletic ability I have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that he may simply be an NFL underachiever. -- Steven Weiser (Denver)A: I think it's worth a shot, Steven. I've wondered the same thing myself, if the liberal series-by-series rotation has played any part in Maroney's inconsistency. When it comes to Maroney, I'd be willing to try anything. He played in only nine snaps Sunday and his confidence does not seem high, so anything to spark a change makes sense in my book.
Q: Hey Mike, tough weekend for New England. Is it a coincidence or a trend that teams like to unveil some untraditional offense several weeks into the season against the Patriots? -- Jarrod (Rhode Island)A: That was a coincidence in my view, Jarrod, and a solid reflection of the strong coaching of Josh McDaniels. For those who haven't seen it, I thought Tedy Bruschi had an insightful breakdown on why the Patriots struggled with the "Wild Horses" offense, and how it was a case of McDaniels' inside information paying off.
Q: Why don't the Patriots come up with a Wildcat formation using Julian Edelman? He can run in space as evidenced by his kickoff return duties and can also throw the ball with his QB background. -- Dan (West Roxbury, Mass.)A: I wouldn't be surprised if they have it in their playbook, Dan, and are just waiting for the opportunity to bring it out.
Q: Watching the Broncos come out in the Wildcat to begin the game, I am still mystified why defenses don't go after the QB. I'm not talking about taking cheap shots, but hit him hard enough so he goes to the ground. If teams want to play with that stupid offense, they should have to think about it. One QB goes down, that will be the end of the Wildcat. -- David (Miami Beach, Fla.)A: I asked Belichick about this last year and he said a big part of it is not wanting to leave the defense vulnerable in the numbers game. If you devote a player to do that, you are minus a player in the box against the run and not all the gaps can be accounted for, potentially resulting in a big play. I've heard some people say that it wouldn't be a bad thing giving up one big play if it knocks the offense out of the Wildcat, but I think that overestimates the type of damage a jam at the line of scrimmage can have on a quarterback.
Q: Can you ask Tedy why he's not running for Mayor of Boston this year? He'd totally win. Too soon? -- Jules (Boston)A: Let's end on this note. I'll plan on asking Tedy as part of this week's "Bruschi's Breakdown" if he has any political aspirations, to follow in the footsteps of former football players such as Jack Kemp and Steve Largent. I haven't heard him mention that in the past.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.