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Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Mailbag: Patriots delivering excitement

By Mike Reiss


That sums up the general feeling among e-mailers to the Patriots mailbag. The team's success is a pleasant surprise to many, and it's made the 2010 season an enjoyable one to follow, especially after a disappointing 2009 by the team's standards.

The Patriots have three games remaining -- home versus Green Bay, on the road at Buffalo and home against Miami -- but most e-mailers are looking at the bigger picture and how the team positions itself for the playoffs. That is a luxury that players don't have, and I thought this comment from tight end Alge Crumpler following Sunday's win captured the mental approach of the team:

"The easiest thing for us is to be inside our building, because that's where we're the most focused. We have a good group of guys that understands what it takes to prepare. I like the direction we're going."

Crumpler had a similar comment to Tom Curran of Comcast SportsNet that I got a chuckle out of: "As long as we stay focused on our task and don't worry about anything that's said or written outside, that's all we worry about. Our only source is the Bill Belichick Times."

Q: The better the Patriots do right now the more they scare me. In 2007, it seemed like they got too cocky after going 18-0 to get to the Super Bowl. I remember Tom Brady snickering at some of the pre-game predictions for a low-scoring game (he said something like "You mean we are ONLY going to score 17 points?) in a TV interview. I think that was a big factor in their eventual loss. Do you think Tom will be more victory-tested and stay more grounded than the last time if they continue to play well and blow people out? Do you think their 2007 experience and the earlier loss to the Browns will teach them that anything can happen in this league and the only way to achieve their final goal is to stay humble and work hard and together as a team? -- Jay Na (Mercer Island, Wash.)

A: Jay, this team shows no signs of getting too high on itself, although I do think with so many young players that it is a fair concern.That's why I think the leadership of players like Brady, Vince Wilfork and Crumpler is so important. After the win over the Bears, offensive lineman Logan Mankins explained that the team's Nov. 7 loss to the Browns was a main reason why this team won't get too high on itself. "You just look back at a game like that and that keeps you motivated, where you can never let up and stay practicing hard and lifting hard, studying film," Mankins said. "I think that has helped everyone stay focused on the job at hand."

Q:Hey Mike, when was the last time you remember Coach Belichick hanging out in the locker room that long after a game? I think it's great we get to see/read about his pure excitement after a strong win. -- Bill L. (Fort Collins, Colo.)

A: Bill, it might have been one of the "hat-and-T-shirt games" when they won an AFC East title. Sometimes he will pass through the locker room, but this time was different. I was interviewing Wilfork with a group of reporters and saw Belichick go up to linebacker Jerod Mayo and say something quietly to him. When Belichick walked away, Mayo said out loud, "Hey, the Jets lost!" Belichick then stopped to talk to some reporters and you heard Brandon Meriweather call out for Belichick, who happily turned around and walked back to that end of the locker room to talk with him.

Q:Hey Mike, let's assume for the moment that the Pats secure the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. In your opinion, which team(s), that the Pats could face in the second round scares you the most? For me, it would be Indy followed by Baltimore, assuming both teams advance to the second round. Thoughts? -- Adam Oates (Boston)

A: Adam, I'd start with the Ravens and then go with the Chargers, Colts and Steelers. In any of those four projected matchups, I think it's a major test. The playoffs are going to be great competition.

Q:Hi Mike, the question on the mind of many Patriots fans: How worried should we all be about Devin McCourty's ribs? Also what is the status of the [Ty] Warren and [Ron] Brace injuries? -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)

A: Jim, McCourty told teammates after the game that he didn't think it was a season-ending situation, but that was before he went through tests to determine the actual injury and the severity of what was bothering him. He was in pain after the game. I wouldn't be surprised if McCourty is held out of Sunday's game against the Packers, and perhaps longer, but I see him having a good chance to be on the field in the team's first playoff game.

Q:Mike, I know that the defense is to be credited with improving a great deal this year. However, the offensive success makes it a lot easier to do this. Is it a coincidence that the Patriots' transition from good to great appears to correspond with the return of Logan Mankins? How much credit do you give him for their success lately? Do you think that there is any chance he'll be around next season? It would be nice. -- Jim (Denver)

A: Jim, I view Mankins as the Patriots' best lineman and his presence obviously helps. He's an enforcer up there and brings an attitude to an offense that has struck the desired balance of late. At the same time, I'd point more toward Brady for the team's recent stretch of success. He is playing at an extremely-high level, and when Brady plays like this the possibilities are great for this team.

Q:Hi Mike, what is your take on Eric Moore? It was great to see him make some plays. With [Mike] Wright, Brace, and Warren hurt, the Pats can only fill so many holes before it catches up with them. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, I was impressed with Moore. It looked like his role was straight-forward: rush off the defensive left edge. That was similar to what we saw Shawn Crable do when he played for the team earlier this year. Moore played six snaps in the first half and 15 in the second half and finished with four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. I'm sure the Patriots would take that any week.

Q:Mike,Deion Branch has always been a favorite player to watch since he made a great impression in his first game as a rookie against Pittsburgh. He seems to have found the "fountain of youth" since his trade back from Seattle. Has he spoken publicly since the trade about the "what if" if he had stayed in New England rather than take a few more dollars elsewhere? -- Don (Mansfield, Mass.)

A: Don, Branch has talked about that and his thoughts were basically "no regrets." If there was one piece I'd suggest reading on Branch, it would be Jackie MacMullan's on from earlier this season.

Q: From the beginning of the season through the Colts game, I thought I had the Pats nailed: Good offense but a major rebuilding year on defense, especially after losing two key defensive veterans before the season even began (Ty Warren,Leigh Bodden). I didn't think they could be a championshiop team with all those rookies. Man, I am happily eating my words. To me, you can't ignore what an incredible coaching job Belichick is doing with all of these young players. Do you think he is a front runner for coach of the year? Has he won it before? Who votes for that award? -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Ore.)

A: Tom, I think this is one of Belichick's best coaching jobs, specifically how he's brought the young defense along. Remember all the angst about not naming official offensive and defensive coordinators? Remember the words "bridge year" being attached to the team early in the year? Seems sort of silly now, in retrospect. As for the "official" Coach of the Year award, it is voted on by 50 media members from different media markets, as assigned by the Associated Press. Belichick won the award in 2003 and 2007

Q: Mike, this has been one of the more satisfying Patriots' seasons with their efficient offense and opportunistic defense. I am most pleased with their consistency and they are improving as we progress deeper into December. My question pertains to personnel for 2011 and beyond. With fresh and different faces meeting expectations each week, what happens to the roster when proven performers like Kevin Faulk, Leigh Bodden, Ty Warren, Nick Kaczur, Stephen Neal and Brandon McGowan return? The depth potential makes next season quite promising on paper, but it seems unrealistic to keep everyone. Barring a successful return from injury, who do you project stays or becomes expendable to trades or releases? -- Jonathan (Bloomfield, Conn.)

A: Jonathan, I wouldn't expect all those players mentioned back with the club. Neal, for example, is scheduled to earn $3 million, and that's a lot for someone with his recent injury history. Neal might make the decision for the Patriots by retiring, as that is something he considered last offseason. I think Faulk could be in the same category, while McGowan's contract expires after this season and it's possible he won't be re-signed.

Q: Hi Mike, as the season progresses, 2010 is surprisingly shaping up as one of the Pats' best from a purely personel perspective. They re-signed key players, such as Wilfork. They cut some guys like [Laurence] Maroney, [Randy] Moss, [Jarvis] Green, [Chris] Baker and [Adalius] Thomas who've done nothing elsewhere. They've added some nice veteran contributors, such as Branch, [Danny] Woodhead, and Crumpler. Most impressive, six rookies are making significant contributions -- McCourty, Gronk [Ron Gronkowski], [Zoltan] Mesko, [Aaron] Hernandez, [Jermaine] Cunningham, and [Brandon] Spikes. Unlike some years, there haven't been big misses like Joey Galloway or Chad Jackson. Do you think this year is better than 2007 when they added Moss, [Wes] Welker, [Donte'] Stallworth, Thomas, [Sammy] Morris, [Brandon] Meriweather and r-esigned [Larry] Izzo, Warren, [Junior] Seau, [Randall] Gay, [Troy] Brown, [Heath] Evans and tagged [Asante] Samuel? From a purely personel perspective, can you think of a better year than this for the Pats? -- Kevin (New York)

A: Kevin, I would vote for this year because of how the Patriots have done it -- through free agency AND the draft. The influx of young players, in particular, is what catches my eye. In Belichick's tenure, I can't think of another time in which so many young players have been playing key roles.

Q: Hello Mike, it might be fair to say that a key factor in the Patriots success this year can be attributed to the 2010 draft (McCourty, Gronk, Hernandez, Spikes, Mesko, et al). The draft of the previous few years has not produced the results as expected. This has probably been the significant criticism levied on Belichick since he arrived 10 years ago. To what can you attribute the Patriots success in the 2010 draft? Has there been a change in philosophy? More or better evaluation of talent? Imagine the success the Pats would have had in 2007-2009 had they executed a bit better in the draft and free agent market. I would be interested in reading your thoughts on this. -- John Ratelle (Ashland, Mass.)

A: John, I thought the Patriots missed some opportunities from 2006-2008, but if you look at the entire NFL there weren't too many teams striking it big in those drafts. The quality of those drafts was not as high as 2009 and 2010. So I think that is a big part of it. You look at a team like the Indianapolis Colts, which has a strong reputation for drafting under Bill Polian, and you see a very similar picture for them in that 2006-2008 snapshot. So I don't think there was any change in philosophy in terms of drafting players or evaluating talent. The talent itself was just better.

Q: Mike, is it possible to coach a defense to create turnovers? If so, do some coaches consistently have teams that create turnovers? I believe that turnover differential is a leading way to identify which teams make the playoffs. -- Monte Pearson (Burlington, Mass.)

A: Monte, the Patriots are 10-0 this season with a positive turnover differential and 80-3 since the 2001 season. It's the statistic that probably most correlates to winning and losing. Tedy Bruschi answered this question in a recent "Bruschi's Breakdown" and here is what he said: "Turnovers often occur based on violent collisions and that is hard to simulate in practice. You don't want your players beating each other up before a game. So verbal emphasis is how coaches usually approach coaching a team during the week to emphasize taking care of the ball or taking it away. The usual drills can also be implemented. Have the running back run through a line of defenders while the defenders swipe at the ball. Defensive players practice stripping the ball from each other. I remember times when our offense would be preparing to go up against a ball-hawking defense and we would give players on the scout team $50 every time they got the ball. The guys would be trying to strip at the ball even after the play was over. The defense would get such a kick out of it because it made the offense furious."

Q: I think the Patriots' defense has taken a bigger hit by the media than it deserves. It is easy to say that it is the 32nd ranked defense based on yards (editor's note: The defense, which was ranked No. 32 two weeks ago, is now ranked No. 27). It is also fair to say they give up a lot of points. However, when I look at it, they rank 19thth in opposing passer rating (not a perfect stat, but still useful), and 16th against the rush in terms of yards per attempt. This looks to me to be closer to the middle of the pack when you consider they've had one of the more difficult schedules. It also seems to be getting better in terms of getting turnovers. Your thoughts? -- Brian M (Foster City, Calif.)

A: Brian, I think the best judge for a defense is points allowed, and if you include special teams, the Patriots rank 17th in that category. Yes, this defense gives up a lot of yards and is last in the NFL on third down -- a concern, for sure -- but it also comes up with the critical stop or turnover more often than not. That is part of the unit's identity. So I wouldn't call it the NFL's worst defense. It's a defense that is also getting better as the season progresses and that counts for something, too.

Q: A couple of great catches by Brandon Tate in the Bears game. I know the offense is playing great but if Tate can extend the field a little the Pats may really be unstoppable. Thoughts? -- Bill (New York)

A: Bill, I don't necessarily see Tate and think "stretch the field" as much as I think "Jabar Gaffney." If he can be that reliable third option behind Wes Welker and Branch -- and be explosive as a kickoff returner -- that will go a long way for this team. Tate has rebounded nicely the last two weeks.

Q: I am in by no means defending Brandon Spikes and his use of PEDs. However, I find it strange that a player that gets caught using PEDs gets a four-game suspension for their first offense, while no one has been suspended for the illegal hits that the NFL is supposedly up in arms over. I mean James Harrison has been fined at least four times and is still playing. Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan were ejected and fined for their fight, but did not miss a game. Jameel McClain just about took Heath Miller's head off, but is still playing. If a player automatically gets four games for a first offense regarding PEDs, shouldn't players also get at least one game off if they are fined more than once for an illegal hit? -- John S. (Concord, N.C.)

A: John, I look at the two issues: violating the league's substance-abuse policy and illegal hits. I have no problem with the four-game suspension for a first-time violator of the substance-abuse policy. The NFL has all sorts of programs for these players, especially rookies entering the league, and there should be no doubt about what is allowed and what isn't. It is stressed to players that their bodies are their primary asset, and they need to be careful with everything they put into it -- and they certainly have resources in place should they have any questions (the Patriots won the NFL's annual award for player programs). As for the illegal hits, I agree that a player like Harrison should know there is the possibility for a suspension if a repeated pattern of behavior is there with the illegal hits. I assume the league has done that, although I'd adopt a system that levies heavy fines for the first three/four hits and then goes to suspension if the fourth/fifth/sixth hit is within the same season.

Q: Regarding Brandon Spikes suspension, if he was truly diagnosed with ADD by a doctor and prescribed a prescription drug for it that would make him fail the player drug test, would he be able to get a waiver from the NFL if he approached them beforehand? He definitley screwed up, but it does seem to me that the league needs to allow for exceptions in genuine medical cases, particulalry when it doesn't involve steroids or HGH. What are your thoughts on this, Mike? -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Ore.)

A: Tom, if Spikes was prescribed that medicine by a reputable doctor and that information was presented to the NFL, Spikes would be OK. I'm sure there are players currently in the NFL who have been in that same situation.

Q: I may be wrong, but I thought I noticed Tully Banta-Cain receiving less time in the first half of the Jets game -- I've noticed that he's been victimized by runs to the offensive left side (not setting the edge) and wondered if that was why he didn't receive as many reps until obvious passing situations later in the game. Is he a sub-package OLB at this point? -- Tim (Seattle, Wash.)

A: Tim, I think Banta-Cain remains one of the Patriots' top pass-rushers (he drew a holding penalty on Bears tight end Brandon Manumaleuna), but he has been playing behind Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham in the base 3-4 defense. He can still set the edge when called upon, but that isn't his forte. When the Patriots play a four-man line in a sub package, Banta-Cain is almost always on the edge because the Patriots want to use his pass-rush burst.

Q: Hi Mike, will Stephen Gostkowski be back to his former strength by the start of next season? -- Neel (Acton, Mass.)

A: Neel, I spoke with Gostkowski briefly in the locker room last week. He anticpates that he will be back at full strength next year, although he also knows there is a lot of work to get to that point.

Q: Hey Mike, how many more big-time interceptions does Devin McCourty have to catch for him to be a serious contender for Rookie of the Year? Seems to me he's making a big play (or two!) every week, and yet he isn't too high up there. He's made INTs on Calvin Johnson, picked off Mark Sanchez and Peyton Manning, and leads the AFC in interceptions. He lags behind only one other player INTs - former Patriot Asante Samuel. What more does he have to do? -- Sean (Richmond, Va.)

A: Sean, I have been saying for weeks that I think McCourty should be in the discussion, although I still think the honor will and should go to Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. My main point is that while Suh is a solid choice, there are other good candidates, and McCourty is definitely one of them. Because of the media hype surrounding Suh, others like McCourty seem to be overlooked, regardless of their credentials. I don't think that is right, and that's why I've mentioned McCourty in this regard over the last month.

Q: Hey Mike, I was looking at the numbers you came up with for Patriots tackling and I noticed there is a 13-tackle difference between what ESPN stats have for Jerod Mayo and what you have. Why is this the case? -- Pat M (Los Angeles)

A: Pat, tackles aren't an official NFL statistic kept by the league. The tackle numbers I post are based on coaching tabulations after film review. The tackles on ESPN are compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau. I believe that explains the discrepancy.

Q: In keeping with the "What happened to Randy Moss" theme that keeps coming up: What happened to Adalius Thomas? He seems to have fallen off the planet -- in spite of all the Jets rumors, etc during the summer. -- John (Washington, D.C.)

A: John, the tape apparently doesn't lie. Given all the injuries across the NFL and the need to players to rush the passer, one would have thought that Thomas would have been signed by someone. But when teams turned on the tape from last year and watched Thomas, they all must have not liked what they saw.

Q: Mike, you recently changed your opinion on the possibility of Randy Moss coming back to the Patriots, saying it won't happen. I respect that, but reports were that the Patriots themselves were interested in Randy when he was released from the Vikings. That was of course before this offensive outburst, but wouldn't the team still, perhaps, be interested in Randy if he were to become available? -- Arjuna (Durham, N.H.)

A: Arjuna, I think the way things have unfolded since the Moss trade -- with Branch emerging, the offense finding its groove and the locker room vibe in a good spot -- the Patriots have turned the page on that chapter.

Q: Mike,what do you consider to be the most surprising aspect of the Pats current success? It's interesting that the "experts" viewed the loss of Randy Moss and acquisition of Deion Branch as a net loss. Moreover, the belief was that the Pats would struggle to score. In fact, I believe that the changes made created more diversity out of necessity. The Pats are more balanced and unpredictable. The defense still concerns me given their experience but this team reminds me a lot of the 2001 team. What say you? -- Craig Janney (Boston)

A: Craig, I agree with everything here (while giving credit to local TV/radio personality Michael Felger for his long-held thoughts on the Pats being better without Moss), and I'd add one more thing: I thought the injuries to Warren, Bodden, Faulk and Co. would have a greater affect on the team. That might be the most surprising aspect of this season to me -- they've been able to adopt the "next man up" approach in a year with a lot of young players. Here is a piece I wrote at roster cut-down time wondering if the talent of the roster was strong enough.

Q: Hey Mike, I'll give you the pleasure of making the first two picks in the first round in 2011. Have you entertained any thoughts on this so early on? Realistically, who could the Pats have access to? -- Robert Thomas (Chester, N.J.)

A: Robert, I haven't worked on this area much, so I defer to the Todd McShay, Mel Kiper and those who have studied the college game more. An outside linebacker like Akeem Ayers (UCLA) would seem to fit the bill, and I'd put offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo (Boston College) on the radar, as well. This year's draft -- with the Patriots owning two picks in the first, second and third rounds -- is going to be intriguing from a New England perspective.

Q: Hi Mike,in light of the crazy conditions Sunday evening in Chicago, which is your favorite open weather stadium in the league and why? -- Gary (Cambridge, Mass.)

A: Gary, the first stadium that came to mind was Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Between the rich history and how it's tucked into a neighborhood, it has a great mix of tradition and charm.

Q: Mike, can we talk about Matt Light's beard for a minute? Something that phenomenal should not be kept under wrap. -- Sam (Chicago)

A: Sam, I'm speechless. And to think "Gillette" is Light's home office. I'm thinking there could be a good marketing/sponsor opportunity there.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.