There will be plenty of time to delve into what areas the New England Patriots could target to improve their roster for 2014, and this week's mailbag starts the process.
The team's season ended with a 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game and most of the objective analysis has come to the same conclusion: The better team on that day won. The Broncos deserved it.
My viewpoint is two-fold:
Stepping back and looking at the big picture. What the Patriots accomplished in 2013 was remarkable and should be commended. To advance to the AFC title game is no easy task, especially with all the obstacles they overcame.
Zeroing in and focusing on what went wrong in final game. I still expected more from the team in the AFC Championship Game. If you would have told me beforehand that the defense would hold the Broncos to 2-of-6 in the red zone and give up 26 points, I would have liked the Patriots' chances. It certainly wasn't pretty on defense, but I thought the unit made enough situational stops to give the team a chance to win. It was the offense, specifically struggles along the line and quarterback Tom Brady's shaky long ball, that hurt most from this viewpoint.
So let's get to some of the questions, knowing that there is plenty of time to still get to those that aren't answered:
Q. Mike, I know I should be thankful for the long-term success the Patriots keep having, going to the AFC Championship Game three years in a row, etc. However, the losing is getting old. Brady isn't getting any younger and his game seems "off" the deeper they get into the playoffs. What do the Patriots have to do this offseason to become dominant again? Watching Peyton Manning throw to a top-tier receiving corps Sunday was painful. -- Dave L. (Charlotte, N.C.)
A. Dave, I'd start with the thought that it's hard simply to get there and the days of dominance, for anyone, are over. As for what the Patriots have to do, the first key to me is what happens with Aqib Talib in free agency. I view him as the key piece in the team-building process. I'd also think the team will look hard at adding a tight end. There are questions as to when Rob Gronkowski will return and how long he'll stay on the field when he does, so getting more of a pass-catching presence at the position makes sense to diversify the offense. In the best-case scenario, you have Gronkowski and the new player. In the worst-case scenario, the new player carries things until Gronkowski is ready and then they become a potent tandem in the mold of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The other position that maybe is slipping under the radar a bit could be center. Ryan Wendell (free agent) had a real tough time against Terrance Knighton in the AFC title game and I'd be curious to know how they view Wendell's overall body of work. Overall, I see a lot of quality pieces when everyone is healthy. I expect the Patriots to be right back in the championship hunt, and as guard Logan Mankins said in the immediate aftermath of the game: "Someone once asked me if I'd rather not get to this point than lose it. I'll take these games every year. We'll come out and we'll swing every year and we'll try to get here. If we lose, we lose, but we'll give our best."
Q. Hi Mike, I think the Patriots are finally at the crossroads of the Tom Brady era. It is clear the window on Brady is closing, and if this team ever wants to get a fourth ring with him they are going to have to take the extra step this spring. Yes, they are going to have to re-sign Talib, Julian Edelman and LeGarrette Blount first. But management must sign some key free agents, too. Just getting the injured players back (I have doubts about Gronkowski's return), getting some young talent in the draft and re-signing their own FA is not enough to get this team to the next level. The disparity in talent between teams like the Broncos, 49ers and Seahawks as compared with the Patriots is evident. So Mike, do you think the Pats make one final push and try to get those playmakers? Or do they continue to bottom feed on the FA talent pool content to signing players like Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wisc.)
A. Paul, I have little doubt that the Patriots will be aggressive, but I think they'll also be smart. As we've seen, simply spending the money isn't often the answer. I'll point to Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace and former Texans safety Ed Reed as two of the most recent examples. My feeling is that you build the majority of your core through the draft, hope to extend their contracts whenever possible, and mostly supplement in free agency. So while I know there will be a lot of focus on who might be brought in, I think it's almost more important to look at receivers like 2013 second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, 2013 fourth-round draft choice Josh Boyce and others in terms of their projected development. Sort of similar to Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower this year.
Q. Hi Mike, do you think the Patriots will offer to extend Devin McCourty this offseason? Along with Aqib Talib, I think McCourty had a great season and played a large part in solidifying the secondary. -- Adam M. (Framingham State)
A. Adam, I share your viewpoint that locking up a combination of McCourty (signed through the 2014 season) and Talib (scheduled to be a free agent on March 11) would be smart business for the Patriots. The one thing to consider is timing. Because McCourty has one more year on his contract, there isn't the same sense of urgency from a time perspective as someone like Talib, running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Julian Edelman. So that could come a bit later in the offseason or even during the 2014 regular season.
Q. Hi Mike, some analysts were talking about how Seattle brought in three D linemen this year, how Denver brought in a key D linemen and a few other players. Why can't the Patriots do something similar? Are the Patriots' personnel people that bad? -- Pete (Central Vermont)
A. Pete, the Patriots didn't have a great year in free agency, with veterans Adrian Wilson and Leon Washington not panning out. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly looked like a good pickup, but he was lost to a season-ending injury on Oct. 6. I think the Patriots have a solid personnel staff but even they would probably agree that 2013 wasn't their best work on the pro side. No team gets it right all the time.
Q. Hi Mike, I wanted to ask you a question about the Wes Welker hit on Aqib Talib. Like many, I thought it was a brutal pick play, but don't think that Wes intended on hurting anyone. I think it was one of those situations where he was a little too fired up and took things a bit over the top. However, with that said, I think that is the case in many situations where are player sits in the locker room and maybe wishes they did something a little differently because someone got hurt. Intent doesn't necessarily define a dirty play as much as the result does. Very seldom would I think a player purposely tried to hurt someone. My question to you is, with that play being such a huge play in the game and the Talib injury being talked about continuously throughout the broadcast, how is it possible that it was never properly analyzed by the broadcasters? They never talked about it as a missed penalty, which it most certainly was. Never talked about the question of intent by Welker. Hardly ever showed a replay to the point I had trouble coming to a conclusion because I didn't have any information. Was that intentional, or just very poor analysis? Either way, they did a terrible job from a fan perspective. -- Mark (Philadelphia)
A. Mark, I can only speak for myself on this one. I noted it immediately in halftime thoughts and that is important to me because I believe in accountability and I felt it should be have been penalized. I will say this, when you're watching a game live, it's easy to miss things. And everyone is watching in a different way; for example, I chart snaps and in doing so sometimes I pick up the play late. I usually try to clean that stuff up on film review.
Q. Mike, regarding your post on the Welker/Talib hit; you're right. It is a judgment call, and by the way, the best coach who has ever existed in the NFL "judged" that it was a deliberate attempt to remove a player from the game. And that coach doesn't say anything, ever. I realize you're not the type of reporter who stirs up trouble, and I respect you for that. But the Broncos won in despicable fashion. They targeted our best corner and faked injuries so their pass rushers could rest after Brady and the offense would pick up a first down. None of those players sat out the rest of the game. Seriously. Please watch it again and count the number of times they slowed down the game by being 'injured'. They effectively took our running game out of the equation once they ripped our Talib-less secondary and made us play catch up. There's nothing the Broncos showed that made me think of a classy champion. They were the better team, and they should have just let their play win the game. Thoughts? -- Nate (Ohio)
A. Nate, I was curious about the Broncos' injuries and if that was a tactic to slow things down. And I respect the differing viewpoint on the Welker hit; as we can see at this point, there are numerous opinions on this one. I'll just boil it down to this: I thought the better team on that day won. The loss of Talib hurt. The "injuries" of Broncos players who later returned were perhaps some gamesmanship. But for a Patriots team that overcame a lot this season, I thought there were still opportunities to make the plays and win the game. I give credit to the Broncos for making them.
Q. Mike, why don't the Patriots go no-huddle the whole game, and what were they thinking with Shane Vereen instead of Blount on the 2-point conversion? -- Josh T. (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
A. Josh, depth at receiver might have been an issue with the lack of no-huddle. As we saw, rookie Aaron Dobson was obviously limited with his foot injury, playing fewer snaps than Julian Edelman, Austin Collie and Danny Amendola. Also, the environment was probably a factor -- very loud, making it tougher to pull that off. As for the 2-point conversion, Tom Brady was in the shotgun, similar to plays in that situation we've seen the Patriots run with success with Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead, who are similar backs to Vereen.
Q. Were you surprised that a "game-plan" coach like Bill Belichick, who attacks an opponent's weakness, was apparently overruled by the rhetorical storm of the Patriots' new running attack? The clear call in Denver was to throw on that defense, not to run on it -- much like the game in Minnesota a few years back -- but we didn't do that until we had to and by then it was too late. -- DeansDesk (Rumford, R.I.)
A. Dean, it was a 3-0 game late in the first quarter and the Patriots had a great opportunity in the passing game -- Tom Brady to Julian Edelman for a 40-yard bomb. Brady had the time after a strong play-action fake. Edelman had the separation. To me, it was less about choosing the run over the pass, and more about executing when the opportunities were there in the passing game. That play really hurt.
Q. Mike, obviously a disappointing way to end the season. However, it seems like a common theme from the last few playoff losses popped up again and that is the D's inability to get off the field on third down. Obviously health played a part in that this year, but how do Pats stop this trend? More playmakers? More plays from playmakers like Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich? -- Eric (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Eric, I might be in the minority on this one, but I thought the defense did enough in terms of making situational plays in the red zone and on a few third downs to keep the game close. If you told me before the game that 26 points would be surrendered, I would have thought the Patriots win it. Another playmaker never hurts -- everyone covets a top pass-rusher -- but I look more to the offense for the struggles in the game. Scoring 16 points is just not good enough. It starts on the line and with quarterback Tom Brady.
Q. Mike, there is a lot to unpack in regards to Sunday's loss. Is Brady's struggle with the deep ball due to a lack of chemistry with his wide receivers or arm strength? Will the Patriots lay out some cash and infuse this team with more skill-position talent? Is this the end of an era or is there hope that we can nab one more big one to cement the Brady/Belichick legacy? Who is mostly likely to return: Edelman, Talib or Blount? -- Jeff (Canton, Mass.)
A. Jeff, on the deep ball, I'd focus solely on Sunday's game because I'd have to look at every deep pass to have a more definitive answer. What we saw Sunday wasn't about talent or chemistry with receivers. Both Julian Edelman and Austin Collie were wide open and, as Brady himself said, those are throws he has to make. So I think Brady will ultimately discover a breakdown in mechanics (it looked to me like a footwork "malfunction" as he re-set following the play-action fake). As for the skill-position talent, I think we'll see some changes, but remember: With Julian Edelman scheduled for free agency, simply paying to retain him would likely prohibit any other major moves. That's why the development of younger receivers like Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce is just as important. Finally, this isn't the end of an era and it's a cloudy picture right now in free agency. We need to learn more about Talib's injury, first and foremost.
Q. Mike, with his lack of availability and low production (especially in the AFC title game), can Danny Amandola be considered a bust for 2013? -- Bert (Norwood, Mass.)
A. Bert, simply based on production, it was a disappointment. I think we'll soon find out that Amendola was playing through a badly injured groin for most of the season. He probably should have been on injured reserve as he looked like a different player after his remarkable performance in the season opener when he aggravated his existing injury.
Q. Seriously, how are Kyle Arrington and Steve Gregory even in the NFL? Do the Pats try to upgrade from both of them this offseason? Any chance Vince Wilfork restructures his deal to lower his cap hit? -- Bobby (Boston)
A. Bobby, I thought Arrington played competitively against Wes Welker on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. It wasn't perfect (the third-down play on the Broncos' long scoring drive stands out), but I don't understand the shot here. When playing in the slot in the sub defense, which the Patriots were in 67 percent of the time this season, he's generally solid. As for Gregory, he's not the most physically gifted safety, but his smarts are an asset that helped the defense. I think the team's intention entering the season was to have him in more of a rotation after they signed veteran Adrian Wilson, but when that didn't work out Gregory's value to the team increased. I wouldn't be surprised to see the team attempt to do something similar in 2014 with the safety spot, projecting Gregory as more of a sub player. As for Wilfork, he has only one year left, so any restructure would have to come at a sacrifice -- maybe lowering the $7.5 million base salary and earning the rest of it through bonuses. I'm not sure what the thinking is on both sides, team and Wilfork, on that one.
Q. A key theme that emerged from this Patriots season is the impact of significant injuries to both sides of the ball, both of the season-ending variety as well as the nagging-type in-season variety (to players such as Talib, Vereen, Gregory, Dobson, etc.). Can you provide some insight into how the team adjusted to the new CBA rules regarding offseason workouts this past season (stretching back to last March's OTAs) compared with seasons past, and whether you think changes to the strength and conditioning program (or coaches?) should be considered going forward to prevent the number of injuries to key players? -- Phil V. (Fall River, Mass.)
A. Phil, I don't know of any specific changes they've made training/conditioning-wise, but Bill Belichick is on record with his viewpoint that the limited practice time doesn't put the players in the best position to be ready to play football. I've kept tabs on some other teams this year and one thing that stood out this year was that the Eagles were one of the NFL's least-injured teams and part of that might have been tied to first-year coach Chip Kelly's outside-the-box approach. Maybe Belichick looks into adopting some of what Kelly does.