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Ask PFW: Sudden offseason

With the team just 30 minutes away from a trip to Miami for Super Bowl XLI, the Patriots march toward a fourth title in six seasons came to an abrupt end Sunday evening in Indianapolis at the hands of Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy, Adam Vinatieri and the rest of the Colts.

Hey Guys, First off, congrats to the Patriots team & organization for another really good year. Tough ending and being a part of the Pats Nation that has had the pleasure of being spoiled for the last 5 years it's tough to be OK with losing in the conference title game, but in the end it is another pretty remarkable accomplishment to get to even play in that game.Second, congrats to the Colts. That is even tougher to say, but if Bruschi can say it to Manning than we should all be so gracious.Now to my question... do you have any sense of how the Pats will approach the offseason? I.e., do you think they'll be more aggressive than they have been the last two years? Clearly they have needs - I would argue WR, LB, & Safety might be the highest - and they have cap room plus some good draft pick positions. Locking up deals with Samuel & Graham would seem a priority... maybe making a run after Adalius Thomas (I know he might not make it to FA) or Lance Briggs (although probably even less likely to make it to FA) and Drew Bennett (if he comes on the relative cheap) could help add some veteran talent... and then continuing with the success the Pats have had with 1st round picks would be a good start. Your thoughts? Thanks
Eric Warren.

While I don't necessarily have a "sense" of what the team is going to do this offseason, there is no question it's an important year for New England. The team could lose starters and key contributors on both sides of the ball to free agency and/or retirement. The list of needs is relatively long as the roster ages/thins out at linebacker and remains thin at receiver and in the secondary. I think the team is going to have a hard time re-signing top free agents Samuel and Graham, although the franchise tag is a clear but potentially inflammatory possibility with Samuel. Those are all the questions. The answers should come thanks to a pair of first-round picks and reports of approximately $30 million in cap space. My guess is that the team will be active this spring, because it will need to be in order to retool the roster. Was it impressive that the team was able to reach the AFC title game after all the doom and gloom from last offseason? Yes. Is there even more work to be done this spring and summer? That's an even more resounding yes. Whatever happens it will make for a very interesting offseason, even one that came sooner than fans had hoped.
Andy Hart

Please explain this one to me. The Patriots force a punt from the Colts when they are up 34-31 and on the first play Heath Evans gets called for 12 men in the huddle. How in the heck does that happen? They had the whole Colts series to discuss what plays they would run when they got the ball back. Why do you need another guy in the huddle? That is crazy.Becky O'Halloran

That certainly was an unfortunate and costly penalty. My guess is that with Kevin Faulk sidelined due to injury there was some confusion as to which running back was supposed to be in the game at that time. Both Evans and Corey Dillon were on the field and in the huddle and both players reacted outwardly when the penalty was called. Not sure exactly what went wrong, but there was definite confusion in terms of the personnel groupings and which running back was supposed to be on the field in that critical situation. Blame on the players or the coaches on the sideline responsible for keeping track of personnel groupings – either way it was a major mistake.
Andy Hart

Couple questions about how far under the cap are we for '07? Mike Felger on his radio show said $28 million under but I doubt that much. What are the different tags we could use franchise and transition and what are the differences and what happens if someone signs someone with either of those tags? Do you believe we will use either one? Bye, bye Banta-Cain.
John Bucknow

As a regular guest on Mike Felger's radio show on ESPN 890 Boston I feel comfortable asking, why the heck are you listening to anything he says? When was the last time he was right? Just kidding. And for the record, the last time he was right was when he picked the Colts to beat the Patriots.
Anyway, it has been widely reported that the Patriots will have approximately $30 million in cap space to work with this offseason. I don't have access to the exact figures, but that's my understanding. Whatever the exact number is, the team will have plenty of money to work with, although the same can be said for many other teams thanks to the ever-growing salary cap and more practical cap planning that many teams have done in recent years. It will be an interesting spring throughout the NFL free agency period and I expect to see plenty of money flying around. And much like this past free agency in baseball, expect to see some big-money contracts that leave us scratching our heads.
The Patriots could use either a franchise tag or a transition tag on their free agents. They could even use both. Basically the franchise tag requires a tender offer equal to the average of the top five player contracts at that player's position. For example that number for a cornerback last year was reportedly $7.2 million. If the franchise player is then allowed to leave to sign with another team, that team must give his former team two first-round picks as compensation. For transition tags, the tender offer is equal to the top 10 player contracts at a position but only guarantees the players current team the right of first refusal and no draft pick compensation. A team can use each one of the tags once in any one offseason, and can actually use a second transition tag in any one offseason in lieu of a franchise tag.
What does that all mean for the Patriots? I think there is a chance the team will look to franchise Samuel. After that it could look to trade the cornerback to another team, as was the case when New England franchised Tebucky Jones and later traded him to the Saints a few years back. But players and agents generally react in a negative way to the franchise tag. Samuel's agent, Alonzo Shavers, already told The Boston Globe that the tag would not be looked at in a positive light. "Disappointment would be an understatement," Shavers said. "I there would be a slight level of resentment there."
In the end I think the Samuel negotiations will be interesting and wherever he lands he will be making big dollars. Will that be with New England? Stay tuned.
Andy Hart

Do you think the Patriots will take a wide receiver with one of the first-round picks?Stephen Towne

I never eliminate any position as a possibility for what Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli could do at any point in the draft, including the first round. That said, I wouldn't expect the team to take a receiver at either 24 or 28 in the first round. I think the team has too many other needs – including linebacker, safety and cornerback – that would necessitate the high picks. I also think that it's a little too early to totally give up on Chad Jackson as a potential contributor at receiver after the second-round pick's dismal rookie season. Don't get me wrong, I'm not counting on Jackson to breakout next fall after what I saw this year. But if he can bounce back next season, added to a mix of Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and either Troy Brown or another veteran free agent addition, that would be a better corps than the team had this season.
Andy Hart

Did I actually see Bill Belichick get out coached by Tony Dungy? Who came out after halftime with a new game plan and completely ran the other team out of the building? Who was slow to make adjustments on the fly as the momentum clearly swung to the other side? Who mismanaged the clock in the last two minutes and left his QB with no time left to operate? Shocking...I have no other word to describe how I feel. The Patriots with all of this against them, still had a chance to ice the game at the end but could not pick up a first down. I am just.....shocked.Frank Patterson

I am curious what your opinion is of Bill Belichick's clock management at the end of the game. There was about 1:50 left on the clock and the Colts had 1st and ten. After a run, Bill decided to let the clock keep running rather than use one of his three timeouts. After the second down run, after letting an extra 5-6 seconds run off, they called timeout with about 1:04 left. Whether the Colts scored a field goal or a touchdown, the Pats were going to need all the time they could get for their last drive. He thought that saving a timeout was more valuable than saving 40 seconds on the clock? I really am lost on this one....what do you think?Henry Puccio

I said it at the time and I still think that the Patriots use of timeouts late in the game was extremely questionable. I personally would have called timeout after the Colts first down run that you mentioned. Belichick waited until second down and I've heard him say that he wasn't sure exactly how the Colts were going to manage the clock in that situation and that played a part in his own decision. But even after that, and after the Colts scored the touchdown, I thought there was the other questionable lack of a timeout when the Patriots got the ball back. I would have called a timeout after Tom Brady's 19-yard completion to Benjamin Watson. New England didn't and it cost more precious seconds. By the time they got back to the line there was only 0:31 seconds left with the ball at their own 40. That's pretty much near desperation time, even when they used their second timeout following the next 15-yard gain to Heath Evans.
In the end I do think that Belichick – who is generally advised by team football research director Ernie Adams in those situations – made some curious decisions with the timeouts. I thought there were other mistakes as well. While the team clearly ran out of gas on defense, I was surprised the Patriots didn't try to run the ball more on offense and help bleed the clock in the second half. Add to that a curious decision to start little-used inside linebacker Eric Alexander in the team's biggest game of the season and I think Belichick had one of his least impressive performances in a big game during his career in New England. Not surprisingly, that contributed to the Patriots first-ever loss in the AFC title game and another postseason that came up short of the Super Bowl. Plenty of different aspects led to that end result, including an impressive second-half performance by the Colts. Not only was Belichick, and by extension his staff, unable to do enough to overcome the team's wilting play and physical mistakes, they made decisions that may have directly contributed to the loss.
Andy Hart

What exactly did the Colts do so differently in the second half, scheme wise, compared to the first? Why were there WIDE open tight ends and running backs 10-15 yards down the field? Where was the press coverage we saw in the first half? You have stated before about the Colts D that you just don't flick a switch and become the 2000 Ravens. I would say that the same goes for offense. How did the Colts flick a switch and just start ripping down the field so easily? If the Pats were tired, what about the Colts? They have to run up and down the field too. I just don't understand what changed so much in the second half.Kevin Littlefield

I'm not sure the Colts flicked a switch on offense. They have plenty of talent on that side of the ball and have been very impressive for years, even if 2006 wasn't their most impressive regular season. Certainly the Patriots were tired and lost some personnel to injury. But I also think that Manning and Co. began taking what the New England defense was leaving, especially on shorter underneath routes. Indy also did a good job attacking New England's inexperience and weakness in the middle of the field. Alexander had a tough game and his opponents saw that and targeted him late in the game. Add to that the fact that the Patriots were dealing with the flu and cramping on defense after having to travel across the country to San Diego for a mentally and physically challenging game with the Chargers just seven days earlier and I think it all came together to create adverse circumstances for the visitors. That said, New England tried to hold onto the lead it created in the first half and still had a chance to hold on for the win with a few key plays in the last few minutes. This time, though, Belichick, Brady and Co. just couldn't get it done.
Andy Hart

Despite the close loss, I would like to give my appreciation to the Patriots for their great run at another championship. Thank you Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell for your great play down the stretch. Thank you Junior Seau, Teddy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison for being the veteran leaders that you are. Thank you Troy Brown for being one of the most complete football players I have ever seen. Thank you Steven Gostkowski for helping us forget about #4. Thank you Tom Brady for another MVP type performance. Thank you Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick for maintaining this team at such a high level. And of course, thank you PFW for your great coverage throughout the season. You are part of the classiest, most professional team in the NFL. I am so proud of this team. We will be back next year better than ever.
Greg Dzvirko

This is one of many praiseful emails sent in after the tough loss that concluded an impressive season. Many fans were proud of their team and with good reason. The Patriots had a strong season and were literally a play or two away from going to another Super Bowl. After such a tumultuous offseason, that's an impressive feat indeed.
Andy Hart

Congrats to the Pats on a great year. Although Patriot's Nation experienced a disappointing end to the season, I feel the Pats did a nice job this year. The only question I have is why did Dillon only get the ball 7 times and appeared to be on the pine in favor of Maroney? I like the kid Maroney but Dillon was way more effective and I don't understand this philosophy which was the game plan during the season too. What are the coaches thinking not running Corey? Maroney dances around too much and was bottled up while Dillon is a downhill runner and was doing well. All year the Pats did not run Corey enough. I hope we are not seeing the end of the Corey Dillon Era all ready. Maroney is fun to watch but he's not the answer at this point. Dear Coach Belichick, run the ball, give it Dillon! Thanks, great job, and Go Pats!Sgt. Slaughter

What happened to Laurence Maroney over the second half of the season? In summer camp, Belichick was quoted remarking how quick he hit the hole. In the second portion of the season (and against San Diego and Indy) he appeared to be very tentative.Ray Foley

Maroney did seem to dance a bit too much, especially over the second half of the season. I'm not sure he ever fully recovered from the rib cage injury that sidelined him for two weeks in December. His tendency to look for the big play a little too often was one of the knocks on him coming out of Minnesota and I think we saw flashes of that during his rookie season. That said, I certainly also saw a lot of things to like heading into his sophomore year in the NFL. He's clearly the future at the running back position in New England and the future is probably next season.
As for Dillon's carries, as I side earlier I was surprised he didn't get more in the second half against the Colts. But that's a coaching decision and one I can't really pretend to explain at this point. As for Dillon's future, it will be interesting to see if he returns to New England next season. Could he, like Bruschi, assess his career and think about hanging it up? Will he have to renegotiate his contract to a more palatable cap figure to return? And after starting 13 games this season, would he be willing to come back in a likely backup role to Maroney next fall? Those are all interesting questions that I don't have the answer to right now. But I certainly wouldn't pencil Dillon in to the 2007 starting lineup just yet.
Andy Hart

First, thanks to the Pats for a great season. And to us Pats fans, lets show more class than the San Diego players/fans and not complain and making excuses as to why the Pats lost. There were a couple of bad calls and a couple missed ones but lets face it -- the Colts were the better team this year. I will cheer for the Bears though. My questions are, is Bill Belichick going to sign a long-term deal with the Patriots? Also, I have heard that Bruschi might retire this year. And last, what Patriots players' numbers in this era do you think the Pats organization will retire when those players retire? Like #4, #12, #54? And what ones will make the Hall of Fame? My guess is Brady, Belichick, Vinatieri, and maybe Ty Law and Seymour.Jasson Cote

Staying classy, Jasson? I like it. It's also an interesting approach from a guy with a unique name that includes a word in the middle describing a not-so-classy approach. Bravo, to you.
Belichick's contract information is as tightly guarded as it comes. I believe that only two people – he and Robert Kraft – truly know the specifics. They like it that way and I would assume it would continue that way. Regardless, Belichick will be back in 2007, that much we know.
Bruschi commented on a potential retirement after the Colts game and didn't exactly shoot the idea down. After the report earlier this month that he would call it quits at the end of the year, I'm wondering if we have seen the last of No. 54 on the field. "You put so much into the season. The last few years I've been pretty much going year to year," Bruschi said after the AFC title loss. "I'm a little emotional right now so saying anything would be wrong. I just want to sit back and reflect on the season and right now the season is over."
As far as the retired numbers, like most NFL teams the Patriots are moving away from retiring numbers. It's just not practical in a sport where the team needs upwards of 70 numbers each and every season and even more than that in training camp. New England is in the process of putting together a museum, team Hall of Fame and eventually a Gillette Stadium ring of honor. I would say that all the players you mentioned would be in line for recognition in some way. As for actual Pro Football Hall of Famers, at this point I'd say that Brady, Belichick and Vinatieri are in. Law is right on the cusp, but my gut says he won't get in. And Seymour is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career, but it's still too early to say for sure.
Andy Hart

Although the season is over and I'm disappointed we lost to Indy, overall I feel it was a successful year. The Patriots played their hearts out and overcame several stumbling blocks. Congrats to them! I'm optimistic for next year with the cap situation and the two 1st round picks. You guys at PFW will, I'm sure, keep up with the great coverage in the long offseason. My question is: Has Asante Samuel cleared out his locker? What's the timeline on free agents with regards to them being with the team until the free agency period starts? I know he's going to want to test the waters, but, there's still a chance he may return. I think we've got a good chance at retaining some of our other quality free agents like Graham and Banta-Cain. What's your feeling on who we'll be able to re-sign? Thanks for another informative year.Gary Abrams

My gut feeling is that the team will not be able to re-sign any of the three key veteran free agent players that you mentioned. I think Samuel is going to get huge dollars on the open market. Graham has expressed in the past the desire to maybe be a more active player in the passing game, something he hasn't had the chance to do as often in New England's offense. And Banta-Cain could get some feelers from one of the many 3-4 teams in the NFL looking for young bodies at outside linebacker. I don't think he'll cash in, but another team might be willing to offer more than the Patriots are looking to spend on a guy they essentially replaced in the starting lineup in the AFC title game with a guy who'd never started an NFL game.
As for the specific dates, 2006 league year contracts are tentatively scheduled to expire on March 1 with the new league year and veteran free agency to tentatively scheduled to begin the following day. Prior to that, teams have until February 22nd to designate Franchise or Transition players.
Andy Hart

Do you think with the game Caldwell had he will return next year. And with the lack of speed on defense do you think its time for a change from veterans to younger and faster players.Dave Legault

Caldwell will be back as he is under contract for next season and, by the way, is the team's leading receiver. Regardless of a couple drops on Sunday, Caldwell played as well any Patriots fan could have asked this season. Is he ever going to be a game breaking No. 1 receiver? No. But he's a serviceable pro and carried more than his share of the load in 2006. Surround him with some more talent in the passing game and I think he becomes a very good second or third option. That's why Chad Jackson needs to step up and the team needs to continue to add talent at receiver.
There is also little question the team needs an injection of youth and athleticism at linebacker and in the secondary. But you also have to add the right players when you look to add speed, youth and athleticism. Jackson was supposed to bring speed (4.3/40) but it didn't show up on the field. As I've said many times in this mailbag, there are plenty of holes, plenty of areas that need to be added to and upgraded and with plenty of picks and money the team has the resources to get the job done. Now it comes down to execution for Belichick, Pioli and the rest of the personnel department.
Andy Hart

Hey guys, tough day today with the Pats season ending. Question regarding the game. Do you have any insight as to why Heath Evans was utilized in the passing attack in the second half (especially in the forth quarter) instead of Kevin Faulk? Was Faulk injured?Frank T.

Faulk was indeed limited due to injury in the second half. While I don't know the specifics of the injury, it left Evans to fill out some of the roles that would normally be handled by New England's regular playmaking third down back.
Andy Hart

I believe the Patriots had a great season. There is no question in my mind they ran out of gas but that is what happens when you are a 4 seed and play all over the country after a long season. I do not think the Patriots are that far away with the addition of a few good players to improving their seeding. My question is what do you see as the primary need with our two first round draft picks and free agency to improve this team immediately? I see linebacker help in free agency and secondary and receiver help in the draft.Michael Wray

The three spots you listed are clearly at the top of the list of needs. I would prefer to target the defensive needs in the draft by taking a linebacker and either a safety or cornerback with the first-round picks. Watching some of the Senior Bowl coverage this week, people are raving about the talent at linebacker working out in Mobile. A couple guys to keep an eye early on in draft preparation at linebacker include Florida State's Buster Davis and Ole Miss' Patrick Willis. We'll obviously have more in-depth prospect coverage in the coming weeks and months here on as we head off to the Combine and do as much research as possible on the available talent.
But working under the assumption that Jackson can become a playmaker with any consistency, something that's clearly a bold assumption at this point, I feel like you could add a decent wide receiver in veteran free agency who might be better able to contribute immediately next fall. I want to see the Patriots get younger and more athletic on defense in the draft and that means focusing on doing that early on Day 1 of draft weekend.
Andy Hart

Toward the end of the 2nd half in the Indianapolis game, Alexander was playing linebacker and Baker was in the secondary. What happened to our starters? The announcers never mentioned why these guys were playing. Congratulations to the Patriots for a terrific year.Ed Enman

First, Alexander was the starter at inside linebacker in the AFC title game. He started next to Tedy Bruschi, while Mike Vrabel returned to the outside spot and Banta-Cain was sent to the bench in a reserve role. It was Alexander's first career start in the NFL. Later in the game Banta-Cain entered at times on the outside in place of Rosevelt Colvin who battled cramps throughout much of the evening. And Baker had to enter the game in place of Artrell Hawkins who left the game with an undisclosed injury.
Andy Hart

First Id like to congratulate the team for what to me was an intense season. How can anyone deny that a 12-4 record and the two playoff wins don't bode well for next year? Out of curiosity, what is the average temp in the RCA dome and is it possible that Indianapolis pulled their own "Home Field" advantage and turned up the heat knowing that several of our guys were battling flu symptoms? Also w/ regards to the linebacker situation, Barry Gardner who was standing out in preseason before breaking his leg is there any word on his status? Thanks for a great year!!Ray Boucher

I don't know exactly what the temperature is in the RCA Dome but usually Domes are kept somewhere around 65-70 degrees. And I can tell you that prior to the game when the place was empty and even throughout much of the game I thought the building was rather chilly. Obviously the Dome heats up with 60,000 people in it, but I don't think the Colts turned up the temperature to gain an advantage. The press box at the RCA Dome is open to the entire stadium and I never thought it got that warm. And heat rises, doesn't it? So I probably would have felt the high temps up in the box, even if I weren't running around on the field. I usually like to play along with these conspiracy theories (opening the doors in Giants Stadium on kicks, messing with the heat at the Boston Garden, etc.) but I don't think that was the case this time.
As for Gardner, I don't ever remember him "standing out" in the preseason. He's currently on injured reserve and is not under contract for next season. Could he be brought back as a veteran backup/special teamer? Maybe. Beyond that I don't think he's much of an answer on defense and I don't really think we'll even see him this summer.
Andy Hart

What it really came down to was they just didn't want it as much as the Colts. Psychology 101 - a need satisfied fails to motivate, or in this case motivate enough.Arthur Soule

With all due respect good Dr. (I'm assuming you are a Doctor, am I wrong?), I think you are totally wrong on this one. I didn't take Psychology 101, but I don't think desire had anything to do with Sunday's loss. The Patriots gave everything they had. Coaching decisions and adjustments, fatigue, the circumstances of playing back-to-back tough games on the road, overall talent and other issues could all be reasons to point to for the defeat. But desire? No way. The Patriots wanted this game very badly and took the loss very hard. In the end they just, they we're beaten by a better team on that day. And that's basically what Vince Wilfork told me after the game.
"We left everything out there," Wilfork said. "I don't think we have anything else we can give. But in a 60-minute ballgame most teams who make the most plays usually win the game. They did that. They made the plays when it counted. We made plays, but we didn't make enough of them. But you can't be mad about our effort, our toughness or how we competed. You can't be mad about that. The only thing you can be upset about is we were so close but now we're going back to Foxborough with our heads hung."
Andy Hart

After watching stress fest 2007 I am now on the why did we let Branch go wagon. I say we give Seattle their b.s. pick back and let Branch come home. Would he have dropped that ball?
Jesse M.

I just had to put at least one of the negative emails in. I didn't want to include the ones complaining about the officials – mostly ranting, irrational emails that included no actual questions, by the way. And, all I heard out of Patriots fans at the end of the season was how poorly Branch had fit in with the Seahawks and how many balls he'd dropped late in the year. Which is it?
Andy Hart

So this loss stings. A few questionable calls some could argue cost the Pats the game. However, you think this will make them wake up to their offseason moves? And actually keep the players that are needed to win these big games? Maybe this loss is the lesson we have needed to learn for many years.Matt Lawrence

Lets make it two negative emails near the end of this edition of Ask PFW. That shows them, being one play away from the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six years will show them how badly they screwed up the offseason.
Andy Hart

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