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Ask PFW: Overreacting to losses

Fans' questions answered in this week's PFW mailbag.

I now see that this team is not as mentally tough as advertised and not superbly coached either. The moment a key player goes down, like it happened on special teams against the Eagles, the entire group is in disarray. This is coaching. I also find that some coaching calls show a lack of trust in the team, which does not help player confidence either. What do you find in that respect being close to players?

Ben Loritz*

The Patriots, specifically Bill Belichick have been notorious over the years in adapting to injuries, scandals, and other factors to consistently win. It is very rare when the Pats lose, and it is usually due to our defense, or some flunky circumstances. Sure, our offense once in a blue moon [plays terribly], but that is very rare. Even rarer than that is the Pats having bad game plans, or making bad coaching decisions. In my opinion, last week's game [against Denver] was over at the end of the first half when we wasted all that time instead of trying to score. Then after that dropkick [against Philadelphia], I just "knew" that was it. I understand all the injuries, but against the Eagles, I've never seen such a bad game plan from Belichick, nor have I ever seen him so out coached. I mean, the Hall of Fame coach doesn't have many, if ANY of these. It honestly might have been the first time in recent memory, that he got completely out coached. This game hurt worse than the Denver game, because I think BB just saved Chip Kelly's job. Even with the injuries, it seems BB team has been breaking all the wrong records the last three weeks. This team is predicated on "the next man up" mentality, and BB has been a genius putting together  championship teams. Has BB finally been put into circumstances he can't figure out? It's almost comical to say sitting at 10-2 but it seems like he is coaching "desperate" recently. Why can't he seem to put the right players in position to win? Can his fix his game plans, make roster (player and coaches) adjustments, etc. before the top AFC spot slips away? 

Thomas Czernik*

I find these submissions to Ask PFW to be representative of an unsettlingly high number of fans who needed to vent to someone in the immediate aftermath of New England's loss to Philadelphia. The following response, therefore, is directed not just at Thomas and Ben here, but to all of you who wrote in with similar sentiments.

Not mentally tough? That's not what people were saying just a few weeks ago when New England won a really difficult contest on the road against the Giants. Or when this team came charging out of the gates post-DeflateGate and were rampaging opponents. I also saw plenty of mental toughness to come back from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit and give themselves a tantalizing opportunity to tie the game.

The key special teams player I assume you're talking about was co-captain Matthew Slater, who only missed a short time and was back on the field for the entire second half. The special teams were hardly in "disarray" without him. In fact, to disprove your point, Slater was inches away from making the tackle on Darren Sproles right after he started returning his 83-yard punt return touchdown. Slater normally makes those plays. This time, he didn't. And to suggest that his absence in the first half contributed in any way to the unsuccessful onside/pooch kick attempts is unreasonable.

But here are the really ridiculous assertions: Not superbly coached and out-coached.

Not superbly coached?!?! There isn't a team in the NFL that is more superbly coached than this one. Go ahead, name one… just one coach in this or any other league that you'd rather have at the helm of the Patriots. Your list would be a nice round number. Zero.

The fact that New England has had so many consecutive double-digit win seasons is testament to just how superbly coached they are, year in and year out, with new and different players inhabiting the roster, and despite injuries and other adversities. Four Super Bowl wins in 15 years. Routine appearances in the AFC Championship Game. Not superbly coached?!?! Why, because of a few questionable play calls in a loss?

Too many Patriots fans, like this one, have gotten so spoiled by the success of this franchise that they fail to appreciate just how difficult it is to win games in the NFL. If that Nate Ebner pooch kick is recovered by the Patriots, the whole game's complexion changes and New England likely goes on to win and these same fans are writing to us exclaiming what a genius Belichick is and how lucky they are to have the greatest coach in NFL history on their sideline.

Human beings make mistakes. Did Belichick and his staff make some questionable decisions versus Philly? No doubt. Did their players execute horribly for much of the game? Absolutely.

I get it. You're upset because your favorite football team lost a couple of games in frustrating fashion. You have every right to be sad about that, and are well within your rights to lament the current loss of a first-round playoff bye. However, next time you feel the urge to write something as preposterous as "the Patriots aren't superbly coached" or "Why can't Belchick put his players in position to win," do yourself a favor: write it, so you can allow yourself to vent, then take a breath, and step away from your computer. Come back after a few minutes, reread it, and hopefully you'll realize how absurd such statements are and that it would be foolish to share them with the entire world. 

Erik Scalavino*

As of tonight (Monday night), it is my understanding that Joe Judge is still the Patriots special team coach. Uh, why?

Matt Patrick*

Because, thank Heaven, the Patriots are not managed by knee-jerk reactionaries who allow their raw emotions to dictate their business/football decisions. Judge is a perfectly capable coach, having served as understudy to Scott O'Brien for several seasons before being given the reins. His current understudy, former player Ray Ventrone, is now working to become as respected a coach as he was a special teams player for so many years in the NFL. Those plays that failed against the Eagles, the Ebner rugby-style pooch and the more traditional Ebner onside kick, were well designed, if not perfectly executed. The punt return for a touchdown the Patriots allowed? Not entirely Judge's fault. Players have to make tackles, and there were a few of them that were missed on that play. Moreover, nobody's perfect, Matt. Not the Patriots, nor their coaches. Mistakes will inevitably be made. Now, if these problems continue to plague the Patriots week after week, then, yes, Belichick would be right to reevaluate who he has coaching his special teams. But to call for a man's firing after one bad game? Utterly unfair. 

Erik Scalavino*

Where the Patriots caught looking ahead to the Houston game? 

Elena Benitez*

Nope. They just played poorly overall and took the field without several important players. It happens, even to the best of teams, which New England still is. 

Erik Scalavino*

I have been a diehard Pats fan since 1980. I even follow the team during the off-season. I believe I have an insight as to one issue with the Patriots which no one in the media talks about - motivation. I had seen coach BB motivating this team, year after year, game after game, amazed how he found ways to consistently do it, although they were at times lulls in team's motivation and I think this is one of them. I believe there are a number of subtle causes, and each player has his own, but as a collective, I see a team trying to do their job, but for exception of a few players, they do not play with heart, never mind inspiration. I only wonder, if BB has within his toolbox or within him new ways to motivate this team, perhaps even altering his business-like approach? From what I saw during the post-game press conference, his demeanor suggested that he may fall harder on his time-tested methods then invent any new ones. Am I onto something, do you think it is only a matter of getting healthy and doing your job?

Stan Cohan*

The latter, Stan. I have no idea what you're seeing on television, but this team is plenty motivated, week in and week out, believe me. Motivation is not an issue. 

Erik Scalavino*

I just want to say thank you for all the work you guys do. I really enjoy reading this each week. I love my Patriots down here in Redskin country Virginia Beach. My question is: Is there ANYONE we can use to replace Brandon LaFell with? I know last year he struggled and was hurt in the beginning of the year and then started to catch on. Then this year was hurt again and now is back on the field. But it seems like he is not even trying now. The game in Denver he seemed to run the wrong routes or not finish his routes. With the Sunday game fresh in my mind, he did it again. There was a pass to him down the sideline he gave up on which he probably could have caught for a big gain and then the pass to him that he gave up on that was intercepted in the end zone. Is anyone available anywhere in the league that we could replace him with? 

Larry Strykowski*

Thanks for the kind words about us here at PFW, Larry. Again, though, to accuse players of  not giving their best effort is quite unfair in the case of these Patriots. LaFell, in the year-plus that we've gotten to know him a little, is as competitive as anyone on the team, and you sense this whenever he conducts interviews. He's hard on himself when he doesn't perform well, and humble when he performs well. Either way, he always talks to us and is always engaging, which is more than I can say for many other players. The two long passes you mentioned were not cases of his giving up on the play. He may have cut his route short because he saw something different than Brady, but that shouldn't be interpreted as his not caring or trying his best. LaFell is better-than-average receiver, and no, there's not anyone currently sitting on the couch right now who could come in and do a better job. 

Erik Scalavino*

Apart from the special teams shortcomings, it seems the Patriots' biggest failing on Sunday was the offensive line failing to open holes consistently for the running backs (a season-long problem), and protect Brady in the pocket on pass plays. This isn't new and – even when Nate Solder went out – was probably functioning better when David Andrews was in the middle of the line. I know the line has been chopped and changed all season, but do you think Dave DeGuglielmo (in consultation with Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick, and possibly even Dante Scarnecchia) would consider putting Andrews back in at center and move Bryan Stork to guard? There is no way we can win Super Bowl 50 with Tom Brady under so much pressure every game, taking a physical beating in the process. With that, as offensive line decisions affect him the most, does Brady have any input into who is protecting him, and in what combinations? 

David Beckett*

Hello from France. I'm writing just after the Eagles game and of course it had me a little nervous. My major concern is the play of the offensive line. How can it have dropped so much during the course of the season? It can't protect TB12 or open holes for the running game. We can't blame injuries now except for the loss of Nate Solder, so, what? Thanks for the good job. 

David Aubertin*

Just to play devil's advocate.  I would like to see [Sebastian] Vollmer moved back to his true RT position, and (hold your breath) [Marcus] Cannon moved to LT.  Then use a TE or RB to give him help especially on slow developing patterns. Also does it drive you crazy the number of empty backfield plays we call? I'd always have a back in there to help protect Tom.

Phil Salera, Pittsburgh*

The line has had its issues this season, no question. Injuries chief among them. To be fair to them, some of Brady's sacks this season have been his own fault (panicking and running into the pressure, for example) and not that of the line. But yes, mostly, the heat he's felt has been a result of the line not doing its job. More precisely, it's usually been one player (different one each time) who made an error on that particular play which caused the sack. Some of this can certainly be attributed to the lack of consistency along the front five – players playing out of position, backups starting and playing significant time, etc. And as far as the running game is concerned, the line has had its moments, but there's been a lack of consistency there as well, and some of this is due to the diminished capacity of the passing game of late. A fearsome passing attack makes a defense more vulnerable to runs, and vice versa. Overall, however, I've been impressed that despite all the upheaval throughout the o-line, New England has managed to operate as effectively as it has most of the season. Brady is on pace for one of his highest sack totals ever, which is obviously troubling, but now that there seems to be some semblance of a starting five in place – Vollmer at left tackle, Cannon at right, Stork at center, Kline at either guard, with Mason/Jackson at left and right respectively – I'm hopeful that conditions with the o-line will improve over the final month of the regular season.  

Erik Scalavino*

Long time Pats fan (40+ years), I think probably the only one in Seattle (Boston area transplant).  It's tough to wear my gear here, with the "Raider Fans of the North".  I've been cursed at, spit at, etc... Long time listener of the show, I really appreciate the insight (and humor) that you guys bring. Question is, can we still win with the banged up team that's in place and will we get enough players back to be effective in the playoffs?  Tom can't do everything himself (although that trick play was pretty cool). We really beat ourselves with the Eagles only putting up such poor offensive numbers.

Lee Legnon*

Yes, Lee, I still believe this Patriots team is capable of turning around their recent misfortune and repeating as Super Bowl champs. Will it be difficult? Almost certainly, but as key players (hopefully) start to get healthy again, that should help. The big concern now is winning out in this final month of regular season games to give themselves a chance at a first-round playoff bye. Don't give up hope yet. 

Erik Scalavino*

How much do you think the new players recently signed will really help the offense? The new running back signed from Dallas seemed very confident. Signing Johnson to two years shows the Pats seem to really believe he could be good.

Jonathan Gianacoplis*

Tough to say. Both wide receiver Damaris Johnson and running back Trey Williams are small guys in the Wes Welker/Dion Lewis mold, in terms of size. With any luck, they won't be asked to do much, and not because I don't think they're good – they're mostly unproven – but because I'm hoping New England's regulars will be healthy enough to get back on the field soon enough so that these replacements don't have to contribute. 

Erik Scalavino*

Whatever happened to Jonathan Bostic? We acquired him in a trade with the Bears and he was supposed to provide depth at LB and was going to be one of those diamonds in the rough that would contribute to the Patriots in ways that we wasn't able to on previous teams.  I think I've seen him on a few special teams plays, maybe sparingly late in games, but that's it.  Mayo has slowed down and can't cover the horizontal space he used to and gets beat on the edge if he has to run across the field.  I thought that was why they brought in Bostic and he was supposed to be the 2015 version of Ayers or Casillas from last year and contribute right away.  Is Bostic a bust at this point?

Alan Bernstein*

Bostic is exactly who most of us expected him to be – a special teams contributor. He wasn't brought here to be a starter or regular presence on defense. Those linebacker jobs are for Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, even Jerod Mayo, who has looked more lively the past few weeks. Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas were brought in last season to address specific needs due to injuries at those positions and thankfully for the Patriots, both of those guys worked out well. Bostic was brought in for depth and special teams. And that's exactly what he's provided. 

Erik Scalavino*

Would it be possible for the Pats to forfeit the draft this year? We have no first round pick, would it be possible to swap pick for picks in 2017 and keep the money to pay to keep the same players for the 2017 season.

Bob Sears*


Erik Scalavino*


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