Welcome back to the bag, and I hope everyone is having a happy and safe holiday season. This week, we’ve got lots of talk about a certain No. 81 and what happened to him on Sunday against the Panthers. I don’t think he dogged it — he has too much respect for Tom Brady to do something like that unless he was really hurting — but some of you are ready to get him out of here. We also get into some Adalius Thomas talk, as well as the tackle rotation the Patriots employed on Sunday and the future of rookie defensive lineman Ron Brace.
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After about the fourth game, they announced Randy Moss had a hurt back, and he has not been the same. If you remember the first three games when Wes Welker was not in there, Moss was doing all the route-running (and doing a pretty damn good at it, too) and took a beating. It’s clear — Moss is hurt. I don’t give a crap about what the injury report says … they want the rest of the league to still have to scheme for him.
A: I’m not sure Moss is hurt right now, but I think it’s easy to see that he’s not at 100 percent. He was nagged by back problems earlier in the season, but he hasn’t been on the injury report much if at all since then. Whether it’s something physical or mental, he’s clearly not the same receiver who’s posted five 100-yard games earlier in the season, including one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen by a wide receiver in his nine-catch, 179-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Colts. On Sunday, the most interesting element was the sight of Moss on the sideline, sitting by himself — and when Brady came over and started talking to him, he didn’t turn and engage the quarterback. Instead, he simply stared straight ahead. While his mere presence continues to stretch the field and allow Welker to operate underneath, if the Patriots are going to have any chance of doing anything in January, they need to have Moss at 100 percent.
Do you think this is a ploy to get opponents to practice and concentrate on another wide receiver, thinking single coverage for Moss will be enough?
A: No. A defensive coordinator would be foolish not to concentrate on Moss, no matter his condition. Moss should demand attention any time he’s on the field until he calls it a career. His presence alone changes the way defenses operate. “Every game plan that the defense comes up with is trying to stop Randy Moss,” quarterback Tom Brady said on WEEI on Monday. “They all say, ‘OK, well, we’ve got to stop Randy Moss.’ So, it’s not like they don’t have respect for him, when the game plan’s built around stopping him.”
I am a diehard Pats fan, but the days of “In Bill We Trust” are over. So many bad play calls this year. He’s burned almost every great Pats player (Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law and on and on). For the most part what it says is, even if you are the most selfless player, at the end of the season you’re just as expendable. Why would you want to be selfless and work your butt off just to get traded to no-man’s land when Bill is done with you? Bill is ruining this organization with his own ego.
A: Greg, I agree with you on some of the play-calling, but when it comes to making players expendable, I can’t disagree with you more. Simply put, you can’t have it both ways. I don’t think you can truly call yourself a diehard fan if you fail to see the Patriots' most important team-building element — never fall in love with someone. It’s a hard reality, but the Patriots are better at it than any organization. As far as I can tell, there are only three guys Belichick has ever allowed to simply hang around and take up a roster spot without producing much on the field — he would have made the exception for Tedy Bruschi this season if the linebacker wanted to come back, as well as Junior Seau (this year) and Troy Brown (in 2007).
With the return of Matt Light and emergence of Sebastian Vollmer as (arguably) the best two tackles on the team, how does Nick Kazcur continue to stay in the rotation? With the mounting injuries to Brady, keeping the QB upright is THE most important thing if the Patriots want to make a deep playoff run. In your opinion: Is it time to finally take the training wheels off Vollmer and put Kazcur on the bench permanently?
A: Dan, I’m on record as being a big Vollmer fan. (I’m also on record as not being a big supporter of Kaczur.) Vollmer has a big body, great hands and quick feet, everything you want to see in a tackle. (He was nothing short of excellent dominating Dwight Freeney in the Colts game.) That being said, I think the coaches want to bring Vollmer along slowly — they did that Sunday, rotating him back into the lineup after he came back from a concussion. I also think they want to really test his positional versatility at the NFL level. I think if Vollmer finishes strong, he should be considered as a legitimate candidate to start at either right or left tackle next season. Either way, with Matt Light’s contract up at the end of next season, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots settled on Kaczur at right tackle and Vollmer at left tackle for the next 5-7 years. They really like them both.
What is your and the Patriots' opinion of Ron Brace? He looked good in preseason, yet for a second-round pick he hasn't seen any playing time, and players like Myron Pryor, Terdell Sands (cut soon after) and the latest Titus Adams have received playing time over him. Now with Vince Wilfork banged up, could we see him?
A: Joe, Brace looked great in the preseason. I, as well as several other writers, had him pegged as the rookie most likely to make an impact on the 2009 Patriots. But he has struggled to see the field and has been bypassed on the depth chart by a handful of guys, including Myron Pryor. When a rookie has been a healthy scratch as often as Brace (as has been the case for offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger), it leads me to believe that the team really likes him but they don’t believe he’s quite ready yet. Essentially, they think enough of the player that they allow him to take what amounts to a redshirt year, giving him a year to get up to speed in either the physical or mental aspect of the NFL. Belichick and the Patriots have done it with several players in years past (wide receiver David Givens is one player who comes to mind), so it’s not that much of a surprise to see. But if Vince Wilfork is out for any length of time, Brace could be pressed into service sooner rather than later.
This week I saw a wide receiver screen, a throw to the tight end in the end zone and Maroney had 22 carries for 94 yards! All things I’ve been waiting for.
I was pretty happy with the play-calling this week on offense with the lone exception of the fullback draw to Sammy Morris on fourth down, which pretty much never works (not to mention for the second straight week), and other than the subpar performances from Moss and Morris, overall, the play of the offense was pretty good (the Patriots could have blown them out without the turnovers). I saw an offensive line that asserted itself against a pretty physical defense, which ultimately opened up the offense for Brady and the passing game. I loved seeing Ben Watson get involved and screens to Laurence Maroney and Wes Welker. Why haven’t they done that for Moss (they used to throw about five or six WR screens a game)? They should do it to just get him a touch, a feel for the ball. He seems out of sorts lately and dropping too many balls. I’d like to see the Pats throw a few quick hitches and a screen to him, get him involved early, not just throw a bomb to him. I think if the Pats establish a short-ball threat to Moss, then the cornerback will need to play up on him more, making the threat of a deep ball a little easier even with over-the-top coverage of the safety. The use of Moss is predictable and vanilla.
Also, Trent Dilfer after the game said that the Patriots offense is really predictable and I have thought this the whole season — as you know. Lucky for us, Welker and Kevin Faulk make the plays most of the time. I really hope that the offensive coordinator, or whoever is calling the plays, keeps up the running game. I want to see less five-WR sets and more two-TE sets. With all those savvy vets, you can't tell me they can't handle more complex offensive schemes. Look at the Saints and their complex looks, movement and formations, which open up space for receivers; i.e, plays that are designed to create mismatches. I’m not talking about a five-WR set that is a mismatch based on Faulk vs. a linebacker, but a play like a flood that leaves a player wide open or a play that is designed to create confusion for the defense.
I was a lot happier with the play-calling Sunday, but there are a lot of problems with the predictable play-calling this year.
A: Eric, I know you’ve been a big proponent of shaking up the offensive play-calling, and so it was no surprise to see this e-mail pop up in my inbox on Monday. I think a lot of it, however, might have more to do with game-planning than anything else — the Panthers came into the game as one of the worst teams in the league against the run, and so the Patriots were simply exploiting a weakness. However, I do think it was encouraging to see the tight ends become more involved in the passing game — it will be interesting to see if that’s a one-off thing, or if New England continues to use them as pass-catchers as opposed to blockers (my feeling, probably not considering the fact that the Patriots are facing Aaron Schobel, who has more career sacks of Brady than any active player.)
How did Adalius Thomas not work in a Patriots uniform?
When he was signed, it seemed a perfect fit — marrying a smart, explosive linebacker with Belichick’s defensive schemes and a solid supporting cast. Three years and over $20 million later, he’s potentially deactivated for the duration of the season and on the cusp of being bought out just to leave Foxboro. Was this simply a case of a poor evaluation on the Patriots' part in awarding him the contract (and expectations) they did, or were there other issues at play?
Also, should they cut ties (and the Pats are required to carry him on their cap moving beyond this season), are there any conditions, destination-wise, typically associated with a buyout? I find it strange they’d absorb his heavy cap hit while leaving him free to reunite with Rex Ryan in New York.
A: I still shake my head when I think about it. Back when they signed him in the spring of 2007, I remember thinking it could have been one of the best signings by the Patriots under Bill Belichck. A smart, versatile linebacker who can be plugged in either inside or outside is the sort of guy Belichick dreams about, especially in a 3-4. At that point, the possibilities were endless. But I think the expectations and the contract were just too high on a guy who was great when he was surrounded by other great linebackers — as was the case in Baltimore. (Jerod Mayo is a special player, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Thomas’ play has dropped off since veterans like Mike Vrabel and a near-his-peak Rosevelt Colvin are no longer next to him.) The fact that they swung and missed on Thomas is perhaps the biggest and costliest misstep of the Belichick era.
As for financial restrictions, it’s my understanding that you can’t place destination restrictions on someone you buy out. According to the always-reliable Brian McIntyre at macsfootballblog.com, if the Patriots cut Thomas this season and some other team signs him, New England is on the hook for the rest of the 2009 contract. If the Pats cut him at the end of the season and some other team picks him up, the dead money from Thomas’ contract stays on New England’s books, but the Patriots are out from under the rest of the deal.