One issue trumps all based on submissions to an overflowing Patriots mailbag this week, and it's the struggles in the passing game, specifically at wide receiver.
This made me think back to the 2007 season and how we're currently at the opposite end of the spectrum. Remember all the talk about the Patriots running up the score on the opposition that year?
Every year takes on a different shape, and through two weeks, the surprise has been that the defense has pulled more of the weight while the offense gets up to speed. The question now is how long will it take for the passing game, and the overall offense, to click?
Q: Since the Patriots are looking a little thin with Danny Amendola's injury time table being unknown, who do you think are some WR the Patriots would consider signing? I know there is a wealth of wide outs sitting on the free agent list and I think there are one or two that could fill in for depth and contribute right away. Names like Devery Henderson, Mohamed Massaquoi, or Jabar Gaffney could fill in to shore up a proven possession receiver and Josh Cribbs or Jordan Shipley would be good for both receiving and special teams. What are your thoughts? -- John (Colorado)
A: John, it probably won't win many points based on the struggles we've seen, but I shared my thoughts on Friday by saying this isn't the time to go out and sign a veteran receiver. Instead, it's a time to further invest in the young receivers because these are the types of growing pains that come with youth; no one expected it to be a seamless transition. A two-games-in-five-days stretch is not enough to make an extreme change. If there was any addition at the position, I think it would have to be someone who has been in the system, similar to when the Patriots traded for Deion Branch during the 2010 season.
Q: Hi Mike, I know that the Pats' WRs made a number of mistakes on Thursday, but I was actually encouraged by their performance. I saw a lot of separation on deep routes for the first time in years. I don't think the Jets were really daring Brady to beat them deep, I think we saw some raw skills flash on the field from [Andre] Dobson and Co. If they can harness those skills a little better, the Pats are going to be a really tough cover for secondaries down the stretch. -- Rory (Minneapolis)
A: Rory, right now, there is an aspect of weathering this injury storm and trying to get by until reinforcements are in place (e.g., Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola). But like you, I saw enough flashes there to think these rookie receivers could ultimately emerge at some point. The mistakes, while plentiful, were correctable. If it was a case of them simply not getting open, that would have been more troubling to me.
Q: Hi Mike, is Greg Salas still on the Eagles practice squad and if so why don't the Pats sign him as a short-term WR solution? -- Kevin (Maine)
A: Kevin, Salas is still on the Eagles' practice squad. When the topic of wide receiver help came up, this was my first thought as well because I think Salas could be an asset. He might not be the bigger, outside type of receiver to complement Julian Edelman, but with past knowledge of the system, I think there is some value there. Also, the Patriots thought enough of the 6-foot-2, 209-pound Salas to give up a 2015 seventh-round draft choice when they acquired him from the Rams in 2012. Now, if they want, they can reacquire him without having to give up a pick.
Q: Hey Mike, almost every other position on the team has veteran leadership except the wide receivers (I do not consider Edelman to be in that category). Any chance Deion Branch is brought back in some form (player or otherwise) so the rookie WR's have someone to talk to and learn from? They seem to be on their own out there and could benefit from someone with experience in this system. -- Glenn (Boston)
A: Glenn, if the Patriots decide external help is needed, Branch would be the likely target from this viewpoint. Great locker-room guy. The question is what he can still offer physically, as his ability to separate in 2012 wasn't at the same level we've grown accustomed to seeing in past years. Veteran Michael Jenkins, who was with them in training camp, would be another option to consider. Physically, he's in a similar category as Branch.
Q: Hey Mike, I heard this past week that several teams (including the Pats) have contacted Brandon Lloyd for employment but he's turned them down due to not being mentally or physically ready to play NFL football. Are you able to get us more info on this? -- Behn (Kitchener, Ontario)
A: Behn, I think the Patriots have moved on from Lloyd. I'd be surprised if he returns.
Q: Mike, I'm totally confused about Amendola's situation. Do the torn adductor muscles have anything to do with the hernia? If surgery is required, would it be for the hernia or the adductors? Please clarify. -- Bo (Sancerre, France)
A: Bo, according to the Fox Sports report on Amendola, the surgery would be for the hernia. The adductors wouldn't require surgery, according to the report.
Q: Amendola ... out for potentially 2-6 weeks?! You mean to say, he's not a reliable player from a health perspective? This comes as a huge surprise to me -- especially since he has NO history of dependability-issues. The fact that Belichick did next to nothing in the offseason to supply Brady with viable WR options outside of Amendola, a known health risk, and three (one undrafted) rookie wide receivers is unacceptable. Oh, I almost forgot, they offered a $2.5 million contract to Sanders, when they could've easily offered an extra million and ensured the Steelers would be incapable of out-bidding them. Losing a TE to a murder charge is without question unforeseeable, but I'm talking about WRs here. Of course, this is a little melodramatic. But, in 2006, the team said never again. And, they pretty much did it again this season, and they did it to a 36 year old HOF QB, who deserves Manning-type targets -- including, Welker. Please calm me with your thoughts on such misguided decision-making. -- Landon (Dallas)
A: Landon, there are a couple of things in play here. The first is the question of whether the Patriots are maximizing this opportunity they have with a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback. I think it's a fair question to ask, as long as we acknowledge that the answer will be determined over time in 2013. I'm not convinced all is lost this year. In the end, I sum it up this way -- two forces collide daily in the NFL: (1) the need for immediate answers and desire to make snap judgments every week; (2) the acknowledgment that a team evolves and develops over the course of the season. So if you're telling me this is what it's going to be for the Patriots in the passing game when it truly counts, I'd agree it's not going to be good enough and we can be critical of their personnel decisions. I just don't know how anyone who attempts to be fair-minded can say that with bottom-line certainty right now. We have to let the process unfold a bit, as the Patriots have given themselves some margin for error with the 2-0 start.
Q: Mike, it almost looks like Brady is trying to force the passing attack to be what it was in past seasons when he had Pro Bowl veteran wide receivers. Meanwhile the young offense seems to work better when they establish the running game and throw high percentage passes. Could the problem be Tom is having trouble adjusting to a different style of offense? -- Gick (Bangkok)
A: Gick, better production from the running game, specifically against the Jets, would have helped settle things down. I think they would agree they need to do better in that area, and it starts with the offensive line. As for the passing attack itself, I have wondered if maybe they would benefit from scaling things back a bit to help the young receivers in this challenging transition. For example, maybe not playing as fast as they have at times.
Q: Mike, with the Patriots' rookie receivers struggling to get on the same page with Tom Brady, we hear a lot of references to how difficult it is for rookies to learn the playbook. People point out all the other rookie receivers who have struggled under Brady over the years, but what about the two TE's (Gronk and Hernandez) who seemed to be productive right out of the gate? Did they struggle early, and we've forgotten about it? Are there subtle differences between WR and TE that make it easier for TE's to pick up the offense? -- Mike Sebastino (Fincastle, Va.)
A: Mike, I would make the point that tight end is probably harder because the player is more directly involved in both aspects of the offense -- running game and passing. Hernandez had 45 catches and Gronkowski 42 in their rookie seasons. They didn't really break out until their second seasons. A blowout loss at Cleveland that year, when the Patriots really turned to them in hopes of seeing the two-TE package break out, is a reminder of how the tight ends had some similar rookie struggles as we're seeing with the receivers this year.
Q: The Patriots running game took a step backwards in the Jets game. I thought some of that was due to the Jets and some of that due to the lack of a strong run blocking tight end. Do you agree? How do the Patriots get more consistency in the running game? They are really going to need to do that to take some of the pressure off the young receivers. -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A: David, I'd start by giving the Jets some credit. That's a good defensive front, and they made it hard on the Patriots. Sometimes I think there can be a little more of a commitment to the run from the coaching staff (e.g., first-and-goal from the 8 versus the Jets when they are throwing), but that's a minor slice of the pie. As for the lack of a strong run-blocking tight end, I don't think that's the main issue right now. It will obviously help when Gronkowski returns, but they just need more consistent play from the starting offensive line. I thought the Saints ran pretty well on the Buccaneers last week, so I think the Patriots can do the same this week.
Q: Hi Mike, I am very disappointed in Brady for his Dan Marino-esque ranting and showing up his young receivers. Maybe the reason the Pats can't develop WRs is Brady's impatience. What if Edelman went ballistic on Brady for overthrowing him by 10 yards when he was wide open for a sure TD? Behavior like Brady's could create a divide on the team and it certainly won't help the confidence level of his 3 rookie receivers. -- John F (Walpole, Mass.)
A: John, there is a fine line here, and I'd agree that Brady needs to walk it carefully. The first thing I'd say is that Brady's emotions come from a good place in the sense that it's his competitiveness and drive to win. You obviously want that. But at the same time, I do believe his actions can make this transition harder than it needs to be for the rookie receivers. So on one side you have the idea that this isn't Tiddlywinks, and on the other we have young receivers whose confidence can be fragile in a situation like this. It's not black and white.
Q: I managed to watch last Thursday's matchup. It seems many who have seen or heard the results are pushing the panic button. However, we can't overlook the Patriots are 2-0 in the division and for the season. Part of that is due to the defense and its continuity. They have a turnover margin of plus-3, they are allowing less than 200 passing yards/game, and opponents are converting less than 33 percent of their 3rd downs. Even though both opponents started rookie QBs, the defense wasn't making the same mistakes as previous seasons. The defensive line generated consistent pressure. While the secondary looked much more comfortable in coverage and (dare I say) consistently looked back for the football. With tougher competition on the horizon, shouldn't Patriots fans be a little encouraged that the defense is improving from 2012 until the offense gets it act together? -- Alvini (Amherst, Mass.)
A: Alvini, one question I have is to how much of the defensive performance was a result of the competition versus how the Patriots' defense played. The bottom-line results were good, but if that was Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who the Patriots see in Week 4, I'm not sure the Patriots win the game as there were some opportunities that weren't seized by EJ Manuel, Geno Smith & Co. So in one respect, I can understand your optimism. In another respect, I think it's fair to say more time is needed to analyze things. This is a week-to-week league and things change quickly.
Q: Hi Mike, I am quite impressed, but not at all surprised, by Julian Edelman's performance. If not for his injury history, I wondered if he would have been back with the Patriots this season. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver)
A: Jake, the way things have unfolded, Edelman has become their most important receiver right now. Edelman has always been talented and shown he could help the team; it was just a matter of staying healthy. This is what I wrote when he re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year deal on April 10, and it still applies today: "Receiver Julian Edelman agreeing to a 1-year deal with the Patriots is a move that is more important to the club than it might initially appear on the surface."
Q: Now that Julian Edelman is one of the 5-6 most important players on the team, and given his injury history, does he keep returning punts? -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Earl, it's an interesting question that you bring up and sort of ties into last year's decision to have tight end Rob Gronkowski playing on the field goal protection unit. Bill Belichick's philosophy has been that injuries happen and football players play football. I think Edelman is a top-of-the-line punt returner and that his value there trumps the "injury protection" you might receive by taking him off the unit.
Q: Hi Mike, I think it's hard to argue with the viewpoint that despite plenty of misses in the draft, Belichick's sustained record of success is pretty amazing. But I worry that the foundations of the team are not as solid as they were a few years ago. My take is that the long series of mis-steps with the secondary will cost the Patriots, but in an indirect way. After all, though we might hope for more playmaking out there, the secondary is pretty decent now. But using so many high draft picks unsuccessfully means that they passed up the opportunity to bring in and groom the next generation of starters on the offensive and defensive lines. To me, that was really the hallmark of the "Patriot Way." -- Dan (Brookline, Mass.)
A: I can see the point, Dan. The struggles to draft and develop in the secondary are well documented. The natural trickle-down effect is that if you invest in one position so much, you're not doing it in others and in the case of offensive line (no draft picks over the past two years) and defensive tackle (no draft picks over the past three years) it is showing up a bit with depth questions. One example came to mind when I was reviewing the Buccaneers-Saints game and a big strong defensive tackle named Akiem Hicks caught my eye. My first thought was "Where did this guy come from?" It turns out he was the Saints' third-round draft choice in 2012 out of little-known University of Regina in Canada. For every Tavon Wilson the Patriots select, they are potentially missing on a player like Hicks. The other thing I'd add is that if we look across the league, I'd say many teams are in a similar situation, so the only thing I'd add to this is to measure the Patriots against their competition and not to an unreasonable standard.
Q: Mike, when are Patriots fans going to realize they can't have a competitive team year after year AND keep every fan favorite under contract? Do they want to be like the Steelers, 8-8 last year, and staring down $125 million on the cap for 2014? They will have to gut their roster: LaMarr Woodley, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons, Ben Roethlisberger each have $10m-plus cap hits next year. For the Pats, it's only Brady, [Logan] Mankins and [Vince] Wilfork. -- Bill Marcellino (Alexandria, Va.)
A: Bill, this echoes the point from last week on how some might look at unused salary-cap space and come to the conclusion that the Patriots are somehow cheap. This is not accurate from my viewpoint. The Patriots are spending the money from a pure cash standpoint at a high level compared to other teams and will use all the cap space by year's end (some of it, but not all, will be rolled into 2014 to account for planning purposes). To me, the question is not IF they are spending it, but HOW they are spending it. If we want to quibble with some of those decisions, I think it's fair game while also keeping the proper context of why they're in business -- to win games, and they win a lot of them.
Q: Hey Mike, was just wondering how guys like Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola get injured in a game, continue to play, but don't play in the next game. Thanks. -- Christian DeLuca (New York)
A: Christian, we see this quite a bit, how the adrenaline of game action can result in a player sometimes playing through injury. Once that settles down in the hour or so after a game, and inventory is taken, the situation can sort itself out.
Q: Hey Dan, with Patriots Nation preoccupied with the issues at receivers, are we forgetting about the Dolphins team that is also 2-0? I have to admit I didn't buy the preseason hype but I am worried now. Very impressive front-7 on D (not just Cameron Wake) and a solid secondary. Two top-notch receivers in Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace. Even [Ryan] Tannehill, the biggest wildcard, matched play-for-play against [Andrew] Luck. I feel the Patriots' playoff chance will largely come down to the two games against Dolphins, and I am really glad we don't see them until Week 7. Your thoughts? -- Anton (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Anton, I echo those thoughts, while adding one more: Their next three games are against the Falcons, Saints and Ravens. Let's revisit after Week 5, but if you're a Dolphins backer, there is reason to be encouraged. Couldn't ask for much more at this point, winning the first two games on the road.