It's a quick turnaround for this week's Patriots mailbag.
The Patriots turned in one of their worst efforts in recent memory Monday night, a 38-17 stinker in New Orleans. I can't think of another big-stage game that the team executed so poorly.
One thing that stood out to me after the game was that no player was hiding in the locker room. They took the hard questions. I think they were embarrassed by their showing.
The mailbag leads off with some questions from the game -- which includes defensive coordinator Dean Pees' taking some heat -- although I couldn't get to them all. I will try to incorporate some more thoughts on ESPNBoston.com as the week unfolds, as this week is a scramble of sorts.
On a follow-up note, thank you to the readers who sent personal thoughts of Thanksgiving wishes over the last week. They were much appreciated.
Let's get right into the questions:
Q: Is the Patriots' road performance overblown? I look at it as the Patriots being an inch away from winning in Denver and Indy. It sounds more like the media trying to over-sensationalize things with headlines like "Patriots Road Woes Continue." The Patriots have lost all four of their true (i.e. non-London) games against undefeated teams playing at their peak. Just like how the Patriots caught the Titans at the right time, they got the Broncos and the Jets at the wrong time. Of course, it's never the right time to play two current 11-0 teams on the road. -- Brian M. (Foster City, Calif.)
A: Brian, my feeling is that the way the Patriots have played in those road games deserves the scrutiny that has resulted. While the teams they played were hot, you just can't give up a 75-yard touchdown pass, as the Patriots did against the Saints. To me, that has nothing to do with the Saints and everything to do with the Patriots -- a mammoth breakdown that you'd expect from a junior varsity football team, not one in the NFL. I'm not taking credit away from the Saints, who played a great game, but the Patriots couldn't even execute the fundamentals Monday night, and I think the coaches and players have to be held accountable for that. I thought Monday night in New Orleans might have been the most disappointing regular-season performance I've seen in the Bill Belichick era. You just don't expect to see the Patriots not show up with their A-game in a statement-type situation.
Q: Mike, what is your take on Steve Young's comments after the game about Bill Belichick taking some of the starters out? Seems to me that if Brady (or any other star player) was ever to get hurt in the last five minutes of the game (a game the Pats clearly were not going to win), Belichick would have been severely criticized for leaving them in there. -- Shane Behrle (Beacon Falls, Conn.)
A: I had no issues with Belichick's decision. Last week, I made the point that I wouldn't have had Randy Moss on the field in the Hail Mary situation at the end of a game that was already decided. I feel the same way, in reverse, about Monday night. The Patriots were outclassed from the end of the first quarter to the middle of the fourth quarter. There was no sense in continuing to take the beating with 5:24 left.
Q: Hey Mike -- How much longer is the coaching staff going to watch Jonathan Wilhite lose one-on-one match ups? I think he plays competitively but he does not look like a starting caliber corner who should be matching up with No. 1 WR's on the left side of the defense. He looks more like a nickel corner to me based on his size and skill set. At what point do we roll with Darius Butler full time or get Shawn Springs back into the mix here? -- Jonathan (Quincy, Mass.)
A: My answer would be this week, Jonathan. We saw it toward the end of the Saints game, with Wilhite's playing time reduced in favor of Butler. I think the Patriots are enamored with his fluid movements, but at the end of the day, being in position is only half the equation. You have to make plays on the ball. Wilhite hasn't done it enough over the last three weeks, and I'd endorse a change there.
Q: Hey Mike, after watching the D get destroyed again I have to start to question Dean Pees game plans. I just don't see enough from the D. When Romeo Crennel was here, the D would confuse and throw things at the other QB that he has never seen. Just don't see that since Pees has taken over and once Romeo left it seems the D hasn't been as good. Not blaming it all on Pees but I think he should be taking some heat here for it and maybe Bill should look at getting Romeo back. Thoughts? -- Mike (Framingham, Mass.)
A: I'm not as down on Pees as others, Mike. It's my belief that this is Bill Belichick's scheme -- and Belichick's the one making the personnel decisions -- and Pees is more of the overseer. It's easy to say in retrospect, but I think one of the issues Monday night was how the Patriots tried to match up with the Saints' ever-changing personnel. I might have gone with a more simplified approach, thinking that sometimes less is more -- focus on the fundamentals. I almost thought they confused themselves into some mistakes with all the changes, and players looked winded from all the on-the-field, off-the-field movement.
Q: It seems like Belichick has tinkered too much with this team. I understand Bruschi retired, but now it seems worse that we got rid of Vrabel and Seymour. I know we wanted to get younger, but at what cost. Where do you see this defense going? -- Jimmy (Charlotte, N.C.)
A: It's always a tough balance, Jimmy, trying to get younger and remaining competitive. I think the defense actually shows promise in the long run, but as we've seen in two of the last three weeks when the Colts rung up 35 and the Saints 38, it's a unit that is not ready for prime time against upper echelon teams. They have played well against some of the non-elite teams, so all is not lost, but I think most would agree that more alterations are needed if the Pats are to become a championship team.
Q: Mike, do you think Pats have a good shot at the AFC title? Looking at AFC teams, I think the Chargers and Colts will be the ones to challenge the Pats. -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)
A: Alex, right now I'd say no. I see the Colts and Chargers as the elite teams and then a pretty sizable gap. The good news for the Patriots is that there is still time to turn it around, similar to the Cardinals last season. But I think even the most optimistic person would be reaching to say the Patriots look like a championship team right now.
Q: A lot of attention will go to the defense after the blowout against the Saints, but how did the offense get held to only 17 points. Is the Pats offense too predictable? Is Brady not releasing the ball fast enough? What explains the offensive struggles against the Saints? -- Mike (Boston)
A: Mike, three things stood out to me from the offensive performance:
1. Tom Brady's first-quarter interception on the first play when the Patriots were in an empty set after having great success pounding the ball on their opening drive -- which I put on the coaches. Although I thought this would be a spread game, the opening drive changed that, and I think that's where a coach's feel for the game comes into play -- and where the Patriots' young staff on both sides of the ball has had some growing pains this year. It's easy to say in retrospect, but I would have liked to have seen them stay ground-based there based on the early results and continue to impose their will on the Saints.
2. Protection struggles up front, which disrupted the timing of the passing game.
3. The pass-catchers not winning one-on-one battles, thereby forcing Brady to throw the ball into tight spots.
Q: Mike, is Wes Welker a candidate for MVP? If not, who is leading the race at the moment? -- Adam C (England)
A: I think he is a candidate, Adam, but it's going to be difficult to overtake any of the quarterbacks, starting with Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Drew Brees. Some would also argue that Welker might not even be most valuable on his own team, as that would go to Brady, or even Randy Moss. Entering Monday night's game, Welker led the NFL with 79 receptions despite having missed two games. He now has 85, which leads the NFL, and has been remarkable on a week-in, week-out basis. His candidacy will be helped if the Patriots run the table, as the winner often comes from one of the most successful teams but right now I wouldn't put him in the top 5.
Q: Mike, do you see Charlie Weis returning as Patriots' offensive coordinator? Do you think he could come in for the stretch run as suggested by Mike Florio on Pro Football Talk? If so how would that work? The Patriots seemingly have a completely different system. Would he be like a consultant, then promoted to offensive coordinator for next season? -- Brandon (Boston)
A: I think it could happen, Brandon, but at this point I'd classify all the chatter as purely speculative. I have three primary thoughts on Weis:
1. He was on the sidelines when the Patriots completed their undefeated 2007 season, and it was clear at that time he still has a close bond with Bill Belichick.
2. He should have other options in the NFL as an offensive coordinator, so I don't think it's a slam dunk that he'll return to the Patriots if he wants to return to the league.
3. Weis remains close with Brady, and his possible return would make the Patriots better, so all the other details -- in terms of his title and responsibilities -- could be worked out.
Q: Hey Mike, I think it's pretty obvious that the Adalius Thomas signing has been one of the biggest mistakes of the Belichick regime. I noticed recently that his base salary next year takes quite a jump. I'm assuming there are serious salary cap implications if you were to cut him, however. Any idea on what those implications are, and also with an uncapped year, does this make cutting high-costing players almost penalty free? -- Alex (Plymouth, Mass.)
A: Alex, it looks to me like this will be Thomas' final year in New England because of the financial reasons you mention. While Thomas has been playing all three downs in recent weeks because of injuries to others -- and his production has increased -- my sense is that the Patriots view him more of an early-down-only player at this point. Given the salary due to him -- jumping from $1.9 million to $4.9 million -- it wouldn't surprise me to see the team go in another direction, and my sense is that Thomas probably anticipates that. Releasing Thomas would result in dead money on the team's cap, although I am not certain of the exact number. It would be more than $4 million, as I understand it.
Q: Hi Mike: Yet another OL question regarding Matt Light's future. I know you've made the point that Light's unlikely to move to right tackle, for a number of reasons, should Vollmer eventually take over at LT. But I recall that most draft "experts" back in 2001 considered Light a better fit at guard than tackle (something I believe John Hannah -- a genuine expert -- echoed in an interview this year). So I'm wondering: If the Pats can't retain free-agent-to-be Logan Mankins, what are the chances Matt Light moves inside to left guard, playing next to "Sea-Bass" at left tackle? -- Bill (Salisbury, Mass.)
A: Bill, I suppose that is possible, but I'd be surprised if that happens without an adjustment to Light's $4.5 million salary. If the Patriots were seriously thinking about moving Light to guard, I don't see them wanting to pay that money for him at that position, especially with the likes of lower-cost prospects Dan Connolly, Rich Ohrnberger and Ryan Wendell coming up the developmental ranks. Before Monday night, I wasn't as down on Light at tackle as some others were, but I thought he struggled in his return to action. This is going to be an interesting week to see whether the coaching staff will officially turn the job over to rookie Sebastian Vollmer.
Q: My question is a bit obscure but the play of some of the younger quarterbacks in the NFL has prompted it. At what point do the Patriots begin to groom Tom Brady's replacement? Tom says he's got 10 years left, but I just don't see that happening for some reason. I am dreading the day when Tom retires, but I want to be ready for when he does. -- David Fowler (North Carolina)
A: At this point, David, I think the mind-set is more on developing solid No. 2 quarterbacks, as we saw with Matt Cassel and now Brian Hoyer, whom the Patriots are quite high on. I don't think we'll see the Patriots take a Green Bay Packers-like approach any time soon, where they use a high draft pick on a quarterback (Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 first round to eventually replace Brett Favre). Assuming Brady's good heath, I think we're at least five years away from that mentality.
Q: Mike, if you could take the '03-'04 Pats defense against the '07 Pats offense, who would win and why? -- Jarrett (Boston)
A: Jarrett, I'm going with the 2007 Patriots offense. The main reason would be that under the current NFL rules, which are skewed to favor the offense, I think that explosive unit would find a way to move the ball on that stingy 2003-04 defense. Ty Law might finish the game with 10 holding penalties against Moss and Welker.
Q: Hi Mike, why hasn't anyone commented on the decline of Moss's jumping abilities. There have been several games where he should have been able to use his patented leaping abilities to snag more passes. One in particular, the long pass that seemed that Brady over threw him with Revis in pursuit. All he did was stretch out his hand and in my opinion I thought he could have leaped to catch it. Do you think that he saves his body too much for the good of himself? -- David (Montreal)
A: David, a few others have mentioned this and I've generally chalked it up to his style of play. The way he tracks the ball, he almost tries to fool opposing defensive backs so they don't know it's coming, which can sometimes make it look as though he's not putting in the full effort. As for jumping up for passes, I think it's a fair point that Moss can sometimes be more aggressive in that area, as well as coming back for the ball. Monday night's fourth-down play is one example. Maybe it's nitpicking, but he just seemed to drift toward the first-down marker, never coming back to join the fight when Mike McKenzie broke on the ball.
Q: Mike, with Vince Wilfork playing so well, and good nose tackles so critical to a 3-4 defense, do you think that even if the Patriots put the franchise tag on Wilfork that some team might think it would be worth it to sign him and give up the two No. 1 picks? -- Mark Bennett (Seattle, Wash.)
A: I think that scenario is unlikely, Mark. For a team not only to pay Wilfork a contract that could be in the range of $10 million a year but also to give up two first-rounders, that seems outlandish for one player who isn't a top-flight quarterback. I think Wilfork is excellent and deserves everything coming to him, but I just don't see a team -- even one like the Redskins -- making that type of move.
Q: I can't understand the notion that Edelman is mini-Welker. Not that they don't have similar styles and so forth, but people often refer to Edelman as undersized as if he is the same size as Welker. But he's listed at 6-0. I think Welker's listed at 5-9 and is probably more like 5-7, but could Edelman really be that far under his listed height? I just wanted your take because I often hear commentators/analysts commenting on him as undersized, but never mention that he is at least listed at a fairly decent height for a receiver. -- Matt (Boston)
A: Matt, this question is right in my wheelhouse because Welker and Edelman are two of the only players I can look at in the locker room and sort of be eye to eye with. My sense is that the 6-foot listing for Edelman is a bit generous.
Q: Why don't they give BenJarvus Green-Ellis more time? I'd endorse trading Taylor and Maroney -- getting a pass rusher for them -- and giving the ball to Green-Ellis. -- Tom (Denver)
A: Tom, I have had Green-Ellis on for 105 offensive snaps in six games (including penalties), so it's not as though he isn't playing. He's lined up at both running back and fullback. I think the main reason Maroney has seen the majority of time at running back with Taylor and Sammy Morris sidelined with injury is his explosiveness. He is a threat to break a big run every time he touches the ball, and I thought he was one of the few bright spots Monday night in New Orleans. Green-Ellis is more of a thumper. On the second part of the question, in the event the Patriots were serious about moving Taylor and/or Maroney, I don't think they'd get a top-flight pass-rusher in return.
Q: Hi Mike, I have a comment and a few questions. First I thought it was a mistake for the Patriots not to re-sign Jabar Gaffney. He was an excellent third down receiver for them. My questions are: Is Brandon Tate's knee injury career threatening? Do you think the Patriots can get a second- or third-round draft pick for Matt Light? I do believe Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are a great combination on the left side. -- Alan McMahon (Main Line, Pa.)
A: Alan, I agree on Gaffney. I didn't think it was a mistake at the time, but looking back, I do now. The Patriots were willing to go to about $2 million per year for him, but the Broncos upped the ante to $2.5 million per year, and that sealed the deal for Gaffney. That No. 3 receiver spot has been an issue all year, starting with Joey Galloway. On the other questions, I don't think Tate's injury is career-threatening, and I definitely don't see another team willing to part with a second- or third-rounder for Light at this point, with one year remaining on his contract.
Q: Mike, I have not read anywhere about the details of Brandon Tate's injury. Was it the same knee? Was it a tear? -- Steve DiNisco (Newbury, Mass.)
A: Steve, I have not been able to confirm the details of Tate's knee injury. What I hear is that he tore a ligament in his knee and that it is not the same knee he injured at North Carolina, but I have not been able to confirm either rumor.
Q: This year we are seeing many offensive procedure penalties. This did not happen last year (thank you Cassel). Are they just sloppy? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: Mark, the Patriots entered Monday night's game with 11 false-start penalties on the season after committing an NFL-low 10 last year. I think those penalties come back to discipline and focus, and would be classified as "bad football" by Bill Belichick in the sense that they can be avoided. While the Patriots have been a bit more sloppy than 2008, their 10 false start penalties last year were an NFL low, so it was going to be hard to match that feat.
Q: Looking at the Pats players who have been called for penalties, I see that the interior linemen have picked up 16 accepted flags between them. That seems like a high number for just three guys. Would you say that the individual players are at fault here, or is it the nature of their positions that interior linemen are just more likely than other positions to get called for penalties? -- Dan (London)
A: Dan, I think most of it is on the players themselves. Center Dan Koppen, for example, has a few false-start penalties, which is unusual because his hands are on the football ready to snap it. The one area where you might cut some slack is with Stephen Neal's picking up an ineligible man downfield infraction on a screen pass. Sometimes the timing of a play like that can break down and put the guards in a spot where they are doing the right thing but still penalized. That hasn't happened often but should be factored in the analysis.
Q: You left off last weeks mailbag with the possibility of the Pats playing Thanksgiving night in 2010. Actually, they have a 50 percent chance of playing the Lions that day in 2010. Each Thanksgiving, each network gets a game -- therefore an AFC team visits either Detroit or Dallas. This year Dallas hosts the AFC, next year it is Detroit. Lions play only 2 AFC teams at home in 2010, the Patriots and Jets. So there is a great possibility that we will finally have a good Thanksgiving game. -- Johnny K (West Stockbridge, Mass.)
A: Great thought here, Johnny. I hadn't thought that far ahead last week, but you are all over it. Thanksgiving in Detroit -- my wife will be thrilled.
Q: Mike, more a comment than a question. By my calculations, the Pats got Darius Butler, Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and a 2010 second round pick as the ultimate haul for the pick used to select Michael Oher. I think they would do that trade (or more accurately, series of trades) again in a heartbeat. -- Paul H. (Chelmsford, Mass.)
A: Thanks, Paul. First Johnny K, and now you, helping to tighten up my mailbag responses from last week. The question came from an e-mailer who had just seen the movie "The Blind Side" and was curious what the Patriots got in return for the pick the Ravens acquired to select Oher. Here is how it broke down:
1) Patriots trade 23rd overall pick to Ravens for the 26th overall pick and 162nd overall pick.
2) Patriots then trade the 26th overall pick and the 162nd overall pick to the Packers for a second-round pick (41st overall, Darius Butler), a third-round pick (traded to Jacksonville for a 2010 second-round pick) and another third-round pick (83rd overall, Brandon Tate).
3) In trading the third-round pick to Jacksonville, the Patriots received a 2009 seventh-round pick (Julian Edelman) in addition to the 2010 second-rounder.
The one point I would add is that the Patriots had the 40th and 41st pick and announced defensive lineman Ron Brace first, then Butler. So you could take Butler's name out of there and insert Brace's, and that would give the trade a bit of a different look.
So in the end, they got Brace/Butler, a 2010 second-round pick, Edelman and Tate with the currency they picked up from trading the pick the Ravens used to select Oher. That's pretty impressive when you look at it that way.
Q: Hey Mike, my brother and I were wondering if you could explain the Reserve/Military section of the Patriot's roster. Tyree Barnes, Eric Kettani and Shun White are all on the extended Patriots roster. When do these players become eligible and do you see any of them actually becoming productive NFL players? Is this just a showing of goodwill towards the Navy program or do these players actually have a chance to produce after a few years out of the game? -- David and Nate (Princeton, Mass.)
A: I think this is more than just goodwill, David and Nate. The Patriots wouldn't be paying salaries of a few hundred thousand dollars if they didn't believe the players had a chance to help in some form in the future. The short version is that the Patriots own the players' rights when they are no longer obligated to military duty. I don't believe there is any set date for that to happen.
Q: Hey Mike, I just saw where Amani Toomer is probably hanging up the cleats. I didn't even really realize he's not playing for anyone this year. He seems like a better threat all-around to have opposite Moss, instead of those we tried there that failed. Do you think the Pats gave him any consideration previously & would now? I think Moss, Welker and Toomer. -- DD
A: I don't see it with Toomer for a couple of reasons. The first reason I am skeptical is that he hasn't hooked on with a team. Given how many teams could use a veteran receiver, it makes me think that he has little more to offer at this point. Also, it would be tough for him to learn the system at this point, and then you have to factor in special teams, where he wouldn't do much. That's why I think players like Julian Edelman, Sam Aiken and Isaiah Stanback are more valuable at this point when compared to someone like Toomer.
Q: Mike, looking ahead to the offseason, do you think the Patriots would entertain the thought of re-signing Deion Branch -- assuming he's available -- in order to solidify that third wide receiver position? -- Kevin (Boston)
A: Kevin, I'm a big Branch booster, so I'd say yes. The one thing that is important to mention, though, is that I haven't seen him play this season so I don't have a good feeling for how effective he still is.
Q: I see that Kendall Simmons was signed by the Bills. Given the Pats' problems with injuries on the O-line, too bad that he had to be dumped for a spare DB. Did Bill damage the team just to spite Mangenius? -- Pete C. (England, formerly Wayland, Mass.)
A: I don't think so, Pete. I'm sure one factor was that the Patriots have young interior linemen in Rich Ohrnberger, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell (practice squad). Also, cornerback Kyle Arrington, the player the team promoted when Simmons was released, has five special-teams tackles in three games. So it's not as though he isn't contributing.
Q: Mike, I was wondering if you ever got more info as to why Chad Jackson didn't work out for the Pats and Broncos. I know the Pats are tight lipped about these things when they happen but information gets out over the years. -- Hans (Los Angeles)
A: Hans, the main thing was that the physical gifts didn't show up consistently because he was thinking so much on the field. I think Jackson is a good example of a player who didn't play to his timed speed, whereas the flip side is a player like Wes Welker, who plays faster than his timed speed because of his anticipation and instincts. Jackson is currently out of the NFL.
Q: I watched some of the Kansas City game last week and did not see or hear anything regarding Mike Vrabel. Any update? -- Mike Steinberg (Salem, Mass.)
A: Mike, Vrabel is out with a knee injury. Based on his time in New England, my feeling is that it must be significant because Vrabel is one of the toughest players in recent Patriots history.
Q: When the Panthers visit the Patriots on Dec. 13, will that game be broadcast on Fox? -- Jim (Boston, Mass.)
A: That is correct, Jim. When an NFC team visits an AFC team and the game is not Sunday or Monday night, it is on Fox. It will mark the second Fox broadcast of the season; Joe Buck and Troy Aikman called the Sept. 27 win over the visiting Falcons.
Q: Mike, I noticed Darius Butler played fewer snaps against the Jets. Do you think he's in the doghouse a bit because of the pass interference penalty he got in the fourth quarter of the Colts game? -- Dan (Cheshire, Conn.)
A: I don't think that's the case, Dan, as Butler has been the primary nickelback. I think the coaching staff is high on Jonathan Wilhite, although after Monday night, I wouldn't be surprised if that opinion is changed a bit. We saw Butler's playing time increase late in the game, which was a sign to me that the coaching staff wasn't thrilled with Wilhite.
Q: Mike, I was disappointed we lost WR Terrence Nunn off the practice squad to Tampa Bay. He looked good in pre-season (reminded me of Jabar Gaffney) and I wished he had a chance to play with Brady and the first-team offense. Any idea why he couldn't make the regular roster? -- Andrew (Bahamas)
A: Andrew, I think the biggest thing with Nunn is that the difference between vanilla preseason schemes and complex in-season schemes is significant. Also, Nunn was putting up the numbers against second- and third stringers in the preseason, which adds context to his situation.
Q: Mike, I was kind of surprised to hear that the United Football League (UFL) championship was on Friday. I haven't heard or seen a peep out the league in its first year. Can you give us any insight into how the first year went? What about any players who stood out that might be signed by an NFL team for the stretch run? Do the Patriots have interest in anyone? -- Andy (Brighton, Mass.)
A: Andy, I think the strategy for the UFL was to start slow and not make any major mistakes from a financial perspective that would stop it from growing in the future. Dan Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal reported that the league lost $30 million in its first year, which was a bit more than it expected. That makes me wonder whether the UFL is sustainable for the long term. I thought they could have done a better job promoting the league. In terms of players who might be of interest, kicker Graham Gano is one name on the radar. I saw that ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted the other day that Gano was trying out for the Falcons. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk noted that Gano wasn't the only player working out for NFL teams.
Q: Mike, I really enjoy reading your mailbag. My problem is I can't find it on the ESPN website. -- Brian Tassinari (Chandler, Ariz.)
A: I appreciate that you take the time to look for the mailbag, Brian. It is posted every Tuesday, and I make a point to link to it in the blog. It can also be found by going to the top of the site and clicking the "blogs and columnists" tab and then scrolling down to my name. That will list all the stories I've written that week, and the mailbag is always there.