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Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Tide turns for Tom Brady

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

It never ceases to amaze how quickly the storylines shift in the NFL.

One week after "Brady Magic" helped produce one of the most dramatic regular-season comeback victories in Tom Brady's 14-season career, the tone of discussion surrounding Brady has changed dramatically in this week's Patriots mailbag.

After Brady struggled in Sunday's 30-27 loss to the Jets, some are wondering if this is the start of his decline as a player.

We'll sum up our answer in one word, with a few extra letters added for effect: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

I thought Tedy Bruschi summed it up best in his weekly chat when he wrote:  "Did anyone think Brady was declining after last week's win over the Saints? This is the way it goes week to week. I understand you have such passion that when you follow these teams, you want immediate answers. But the answer for Brady's performance is this: He didn't play well against the Jets on Oct. 20, 2013. But one week ago, on Oct. 13, 2013, Brady led a magical comeback that had everyone saying 'This guy has a lot left in the tank.' This is the NFL. This is how it goes. And this is why you say it over and over again, but sometimes it's not believed -- FOOTBALL IS A TEAM SPORT. When the offense doesn't play well, you hope the defense does. Or vice versa. Or special teams forces a turnover. … Tom Brady didn't play well [Sunday]. He can play better. What you need to ask yourself is this: Do you think he will play better? I do."

Let's get to the questions:

Q. Mike, are we seeing the beginning of the end for Tom Brady? He is missing wide-open guys on a fairly regular basis, and that has nothing to do with the young guys. -- Deck (Clinton, Mass.)

A. Deck, Brady did not play well Sunday, and that's as far as it goes from this viewpoint. I don't think it has anything to do with any type of overall decline. He made a bad decision on the pick-six, his accuracy was sporadic, receivers weren't getting open consistently, tight ends were missing blocks in the running game, and the offensive line crumbled. It was more than just Brady, but he certainly didn't help the cause.

Tom Brady
While Brady wasn't at his best on Sunday, keep in mind that receivers weren't getting open consistently, tight ends were missing blocks and the offensive line crumbled.

Q. I am not an alarmist, but hear me out, and I make these comments as a big TB fan. Brady has been off all season, in particular with the deep ball (although actually his deep-ball stats were down last season as well). Sure, there have been drops, and timing with new receivers can be blamed for part of it as well. But only a complete homer could look at the game film from each game and not recognize that there are, on a consistent basis, poor throws and poor decisions by Brady. He has consistently overthrown or underthrown on deep passes and at times seems to not even recognize people who are uncovered or wide open (by NFL standards). I know no one better is walking through the door (nor might ever), and I also recognize that the intangibles that he brings are probably unmatched. But we are now seven games into a season. As a fan, what is there that tells me we are not seeing a great QB on the back end of his career, who now simply has decent arm strength and average accuracy and decision-making? -- Keith (Shelton, Conn.)

A. Keith, Brady has created a high standard over his career and I think it's fair to say that standard hasn't been reached consistently this year. At the same time, I look at things a little differently as it relates to the whole "back-end-of-his career" and "decline" stuff. Football is a team game and the quarterback can't do it all himself. The blocking was atrocious in the third quarter on Sunday, creating a situation that would have made life hard for most quarterbacks. The receivers aren't getting open consistently. The play calling, from my view, isn't giving the running game enough of a chance to get going to ease the burden on the up-and-down passing game. This isn't to spare Brady accountability, because I think he'd be the first to admit he can play better, but I maintain that if he's the biggest problem for the team than ultimately it will still be in the championship hunt. Not many were having this discussion last week after he led the impressive comeback against the Saints.

Q. Mike, I am a huge Brady fan. Have been since his first win against Indy back in 2000. I have to say, something is wrong with him -- he is not the same. I know age is a factor, but not really; he is 36, and in today's world that's not ancient. My question is: Do you think the fire is still there? -- Frank (Hudson, N.H.)

A. Frank, I have no doubt that the fire is still there. It's the execution that needs to improve, not just from Brady but from the pieces around him. I'd implore anyone pinning this solely on Brady to go back and watch the third quarter of Sunday's game closely and write down a note next to each play as to why it broke down. Brady would be the reason on a few plays (bad decision on the pick-six), but he wouldn't be at the top of the overall list. It was a mess -- just bad, bad, bad offensive football -- and Brady is far from the only reason why. They couldn't execute simple fundamentals, such as blocking the opponent in front of them. Part of that is a credit to the Jets. They get paid, too. But these players are better than what they showed in that poor quarter of football.

Q. Mike, while I was obviously disappointed that the Patriots lost on a fairly obscure penalty that was called for the first time in NFL history, I can't really complain since it appeared to be the correct interpretation of the rule (similar to the tuck rule in 2001). However, I would be upset if it turned out that this pushing action has occurred often this year across the league, but had never been called. For example, you noted that Chris Jones made the same motion against the Saints last week but the penalty wasn't called. What is your sense on how often it happens around the league? I have to think that in a frenzied field goal defense play, the pushing is not uncommon and in that case maybe the Patriots were unfairly singled out? -- Dave B. (San Francisco)

Bill Belichick
There's plenty of blame to go around for the confusion over the field goal penalty on Sunday.

A. Dave, former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira tweeted that examples of the play happening this season were put on a weekly training tape sent out to all officials. So based on that, we can assume it has been happening around the league, but as for the level, I am not sure. I thought it was clear the Jets did the same thing Sunday, with slightly more subtlety, on Stephen Gostkowski's 44-yard field goal to tie the game at 27. If you're going to call the Patriots, I don't see how they don't call it on the Jets. That is the type of inconsistency that would understandably irk any coach. In saying that, you also can't take credit away from the Jets. They controlled the line of scrimmage and made enough plays in critical situations to win the game.

Q. So Bill Belichick accepted culpability for not knowing the rules on the field goal penalty. But how much of that is his fault and how much of that is the league's? Even reading the rule, it seems vague enough to be open to interpretation, and the NFL gave its interpretation of the rule before the season. So how can Belichick and the Patriots be faulted for following the rule the way the NFL taught it, the way that it wasn't called for a penalty all season, and all of a sudden the league adjusts its emphasis? Mike Pereira said the NFL focused on this call in the refs' weekly video reviews and wanted to place emphasis on calling it, but why wasn't this information passed down to the teams? Why didn't they re-emphasize to teams that it's not just second-level, but any level, players? Easy to blame Belichick, but it seems like the NFL is at fault for mishandling the implementation of the rule. -- John (Arlington, Va.)

A. John, the NFL could have done more in this area, I agree. The words "second level" were used to explain the rule change by vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, and the video examples that were shown to players and media members in training camp, as I remember from watching them, included only second-level pushing. I try to put myself in the shoes of the coaches, who I know with all 32 franchises work extremely hard, and try to be as fair as possible. And in this case, if I were a coach on the wrong end of that call, I'd be irked at the NFL's officiating department and be looking for a little more accountability on its end. Coaches have to get up there and face the music publicly on a daily basis. All that said, the rule as it is written doesn't leave much open for interpretation. It just seems like how it was explained to teams in the process of the rule being proposed, and how it was ultimately written in the rule book and has been enforced, is inconsistent. That ties to another issue: With such a thick rule book, there are going to be situations like that. The last point is that you have to figure these things even out over time; certainly we can think of examples where the Patriots benefited from situations like this.

Q. Sunday's loss to the Jets highlighted the importance of cornerback Aqib Talib. The dude clearly makes a huge impact on the defense, and I think this is most evidenced on third down. Though the Patriots were able to force a few incomplete passes toward the end of the game Sunday, the Jets looked fairly comfortable throwing the ball on third down and converting. Talib's play in the first six games will command big dollars, despite the injury concerns, but with all of the draft picks that didn't pan out at the CB position, I'm really hoping the Patriots pay this guy. I don't even care if his performance this season is credited to the fact that he's playing for a contract. Your thoughts? -- Graham (Quincy, Mass.)

A. Graham, Talib has been their best defensive player this season. He obviously could have helped Sunday, and I don't think one can overstate his importance to the unit. Any contract extension will include some risk for the team from both an injury and off-field perspective (Talib is one strike away from a longer NFL suspension), but based on his play it's a risk worth taking. I wouldn't say it's an at-all-costs situation, because there always has to be limits, but he should be a top priority.

Q. On defense, we get a good unit again, and before we know it, it's gone. Contrary to popular opinion, the offense isn't my worry, as everyone is either healthy or will be healthy soon, but it is the defense? Is last week's defense what we are going to get for the rest of year? Will the return of Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly be enough to accommodate for Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and future injuries? -- Joey L. (New Rochelle, N.Y.)

A. Joey, as Tedy Bruschi said in his weekly chat Monday, this is the way it's going to be for the Patriots, and they are going to have to grind out games in 2013. The defensive performance wasn't as strong as we've seen through the first six games of the season, but in the end I thought the unit did enough to give the team a chance to win. This was a game where I thought the offense needed to step up and carry the day, and that's the unit that mostly let the team down on Sunday.

Talib
The Patriots clearly missed the presence of cornerback Aqib Talib against the Jets. No word on whether he'll be available this Sunday.

Q. Mike, just when you thought our defensive woes from the past few years had ended, a multitude of injuries left our defense in need of more talent again. Are there any trade possibilities for DT, NT or LB available? I would rather improve the defense than grab a new receiver. Your thoughts? -- Greg (San Francisco)

A. Greg, I'm not sure who might be available, but I'd look at a roster like Tampa Bay's to see if there were any possibilities along those lines. They are 0-6, Bill Belichick has a good relationship with coach Greg Schiano, and they are in the opposite conference. But in general, a lot of things have to line up to execute a trade like that during the season. and I'd think it's less likely to happen.

Q. Mike, any chance the Pats entertain trade offers from the Rams or Bears for Ryan Mallett now that they've lost their QBs for the season (or in the Bears' case, an extended period)? I know the idea of parting with Mallett may seem nuts right now, but if the price is right, could you see them pulling the trigger on a deal? -- Brian (California)

A. Brian, as long as they felt they had a viable insurance plan and the compensation was worth it, I could see them doing that. I just have doubts that either of those two things would fall into place.

Q. What's the status of Armond Armstead? Was he projected more as a DE rather than a DT? -- Paul R. (Standish, Maine)

A. Paul, Armstead is on the team's reserve/non-football illness list and is now eligible to practice. As of the delivery of this mailbag on Oct. 22, that hasn't happened yet. He is a defensive tackle, with some flexibility to play different techniques.

Q. When is Shane Vereen returning? -- Paul (Lexington)

A. Paul, Vereen is eligible to return for the Week 11 game against the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 19.

Q. Mike, the contrast between the play calling of the Patriots and Jets was striking, providing rationale for the Jets' lopsided time-of-possession edge. The Patriots again seemed impatient at times and more one-dimensional with too much reliance on the pass and mostly predictable futile long balls, while the Jets committed to the run. -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, the Jets are tough to run on, but I still thought 20 rushing attempts was too low of a number, especially considering six attempts came on one drive (second quarter, ending in Stevan Ridley's TD run). Given the inconsistent nature of the passing game, I think it's important for them to get more out of the running game and give it a chance.

Q. Mike, is there anything more frustrating than seeing the Patriots in a third-and-1 situation rush to the line, run the hurry-up offense and hand off to a back who gets stopped for no gain? It's a drive-killer. -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A. Gary, that was part of the third quarter, which was one of the worst offensive quarters we've seen from the Patriots this season, if not the worst. It looked like a missed blocking assignment by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Tough to pin that one on Ridley.

Q. I'm really concerned about the poor play of Kyle Arrington. The Pats signed him to a 4-year, $16 million deal and, in my opinion, he is underperforming. Any chance the Pats release Arrington if his play does not improve? Is there a chance the Pats sign or trade for a more established veteran who can better cover slot and outside receivers? -- David O. (Atlanta)

A. David, Arrington was demoted after the third series of Sunday's game, as he really struggled against receiver Jeremy Kerley. He's a solid slot cornerback who was asked to do more Sunday, and he was beaten more often than not. In the No. 3 role, I think he can help this team going forward (e.g., the interception of Drew Brees on Oct. 13). It's when injuries hit and he's asked to do more when there are some struggles.