Monday, January 19, 2009

Patriots Off-Season Questions

It's that time of year again, boys and girls, the 2009 off-season. And the fact that "that time of year" came a little bit early for the Patriots means they have more work to do this year than they've had in a while.

So here are the five most important off-season issues.

1. The first defection, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels

Who can blame McDaniels, the Broncos offered him top dollar for a first time head coach and he takes over a team with a talented young quarterback and with an owner absolutely committed to doing whatever it takes to win. I don't actually think McDaniels is mature enough as a coach to succeed in Denver, but I'd do the same thing in his shoes. And who knows, he might be the first of the Belichick assistants to do something after leaving the fold.

She big question in Foxboro is, how will the Patriots replace Josh. The sort-of frightening answer seems to be that Bill Belichick might take over play-calling and/or become more involved in the offense. The last time he did this was in 2005, and the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since.

BB needs to forget about this plan. He should hire an OC (and a defensive coordinator, for that matter) who he trusts, help both of them with game plans and strategies during the week, and then let them do their jobs on game day. That's how he ran things with Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel and it worked out pretty well. And I think it's about time he returned to that formula. I don't see any other head coaches diagramming plays on the sideline during the game, and he shouldn't either.

He's got enough to worry about on Sundays to be dealing directly with the minutiae that his coordinators should handle. So he needs to hire a real OC, and if he doesn't have enough faith in Dean Pees, he should fire or demote him and hire someone he trusts.

2. The second defection, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli

This one could be either a devastating blow or not much trouble at all. It is unlikely to land somewhere in the middle. Pioli and Belichick helped build the Patriots into a model franchise, making scrap heap players into starters, finding the right kind of players to fill in for the many injured, and maneuvering around the salary cap like no team before.

But let's be blunt; even though these two excelled in their early drafts, that wasn't the case lately. It might have been because Thomas Dimitroff (former director of player personnel) wasn't up to snuff, but there were virtually no impact players drafted from 2005 to 2007. However, after Dimitroff went to the Falcons, the 2008 draft was a return to form under new director of player personnel, Nick Caserio. They nabbed the defensive rookie of the year (Jerod Mayo), two other surprise contributors (Gary Guyton, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis), and several other players who showed real potential (Jonathan Wilhite and special teams standout Matthew Slater).

And please do not get me wrong; I wish Pioli was staying and I'm very grateful for his invaluable role in the Patriots success. His move to Kansas City could be the biggest blow to the Patriots since Weis and Crennel left after the Super Bowl XXXIX win. But I feel better about Pioli's departure knowing that Caserio is his likely successor than I would have felt if Dimitroff was.

(Note: I won't go over the Brad Seeley or Dom Capers departures. This entry is only about the *important* changes for next year -- sorry boys, you just don't qualify.)

3. Questions about the quarterback position

So Matt Cassel had a great year and now he's due to be a free agent. And according to some reports, all-world QB Tom Brady's rehabilitation from knee surgery is well behind schedule. So what's a playoff contender to do? Well, if Brady's healthy enough to start by the end of September, then you can play just about anyone at quarterback and you'll have Brady for 12 games. That means either trading Cassel or letting him go.

But if Brady isn't healthy enough to start until late-October, you have to keep Cassel around to start the season, and here is how you can do that:

A) Use the franchise tag on Matt Cassel, which will pay him about $14 million in 2009.

B) To free up space under the salary cap, ask Tom Brady to take a pay cut and renegotiate his contract. After all, you've asked dozens of players to do the same thing "to help the team" over the years, and Brady praised some those players for their selfless actions. So it would look a little bit hypocritical if Brady refused to do the same -- especially since he was paid $10 million for a lost 2008 season and his choice of a family friend to perform his surgery could cost him part of 2009.

If the Patriots try to do this, it will be an interesting dance for Brady. He's always said the right things about "team first," and his public perception was always aided by that. But this might be the first time the rubber really hits the road for Brady, and I hope he does the right thing if the Patriots come a-callin'.

4. Getting players re-signed.

Only Matt Cassel is a major contributor among the 2009 free agents. There are some second-tier or backup players on the list: Heath Evans, Jabar Gaffney, Chris Hanson, Rodney Harrison (who hasn't finished a season in a while), and Lonie Paxton. But overall, not a lot of risk to the core of the team should these players leave.

The real issue is the 2010 free agent class. And there is a major caveat in that area -- the 2010 season could be played *without* a salary cap. That's because the collective bargaining agreement with the players makes that an uncapped year if the owners opt out of the agreement, which they are almost certain to do.

I'm sure the Patriots have much smarter financial people on the case than me, so if you don't see at least four new contracts for Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Stephen Gostkowski, Kevin Faulk, Logan Mankins, and/or Stephen Neal (all 2010 free agents), then you have to conclude that the Patriots expect the uncapped year to work in their favor. Because those guys are the heart of their team, and losing them next off-season would devastate the franchise for years.

So keep an eye not just on the new players they bring in but on which of current players are re-signed.

5. What to do about injuries.

It's an annual rite of passage with the Patriots, the long (in the tooth?) list of injuries every single week. For a few years I've suggested changing the strength and conditioning coach/program, but the Patriots have stayed with Mike Woicik and haven't significantly altered their program.

So not wanting to beat my head against a wall, here is my new suggestion to them: stop beating up your starters so much! The Patriots starters play special teams, defensive starters are in on offensive plays, and starters play just about every down until a game is out of hand.

So how about rotating your backups with the starters from the second series on. Maybe having starters play in only *one* phase of the kicking game (e.g. play on punt coverage but not on punt returns, kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, or field goals). Or perhaps eliminating the participation of defensive players on offense. Richard Seymour's original knee injury happened as a blocker on the goal line, and I think other teams are onto the whole Mike Vrabel thing anyway.

The Patriots still have one of the most talented starting lineups in the NFL. And they should do whatever it takes to maximize the number of those starters who can still play at the end of the season.

And that concludes my list of the burning off-season issues. And even though it's only five items long, it will be a great accomplishment if they can solve three or four of them.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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