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Patriots Mailbag: Fallout from 'The Return'

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With the Pats now 1-3, an unpleasant and somewhat expected record for a rebuilding team, what would be a realistic end to a season? Maybe five more wins and building the core of a next season's team? Ross Rashkov

Most teams that start a season with a rookie quarterback – this one included – are likely not going to contend for the playoffs. On occasion, you have outliers (Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers comes to mind), but odds are just against it, as we've seen year in and year out. It's the reality of life in this league.

The primary focus should be on developing that young quarterback, making sure he's protected well enough each week to allow him to learn the offense and get comfortable both with his teammates and what his coaches are asking him to do. Sure, a winning record would be wonderful, but the more important barometer is how well the rookie improves from week to week.

Thus far, we've watched Jones improve from spring practices through training camp and the preseason and now over the first month of the season. If he can stay healthy and continue to play the remainder of the schedule, I have no reason to believe that this upward trajectory will change. I'm encouraged by what I've seen of Jones to this point. My expectation is that he'll get better by year's end, and that will bode well for his and the team's future. Erik Scalavino

Watching [the Buccaneers] game, I wonder if it's time for the coaching [staff] to start moving away from the risk-free football philosophy that the Patriots have been renowned for over the years. On a couple of occasions, taking the risks can be advantageous especially in this era of football where the best teams do so regularly. I recall a 4th-and-2 just inside Bucs territory (from memory it was just before the half) where we punted the ball back and then obviously the decision to let Folk attempt the FG instead of going for it at the end. The better teams such as the Ravens, Chiefs, Bucs, even the upcoming Chargers would all take these risks. It's not as simple to say the Pats don't have the talent to take these risks because how can these guys prove they are capable if not given the chance. Often your biggest risk is not to take one. Could it be that taking these risks might just elevate the play of [Nelson] Agholor, [Jonnu] Smith, [Hunter] Henry, [N'Keal] Harry to another level if the reins are set free? Pete Cristo

Question for you, Pete: Were you as concerned about this conservative approach on offense two decades ago when Tom Brady was just getting started? If not, then you have no reason to doubt the coaches today. They're not asking Mac Jones to do anything more or less than they asked Brady to do back then, and TB12 had the benefit of an entire year as a backup in the New England offense before he became the starter. Rookie quarterbacks need time to develop, and in each of these first four weeks, we've seen offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gradually unveil new and different elements of the playbook for Mac Jones as he gets more and more comfortable running this offense.

You're well within your rights to nitpick any particular play or plays you want from each game – in this case, the 4th-and-2 decision to punt from the Tampa Bay 44-yard line, as you mentioned, or electing to have a kicker on a hot streak try to win the game for you – but to suggest that you know what other teams would do in similar circumstances is absurd. Good teams are often just as risk averse as any other team, depending on the situation (weather conditions, time remaining in a half, injuries, etc. … it's a long list to consider). You're right in that sometimes, risks must be taken, but taking too many of them too often is just as, if not more dangerous.

My advice to you: Be patient with this young, developing squad, and be thankful your favorite team made it an entertaining game against the reigning Super Bowl Champs and the best quarterback of all time. Erik Scalavino

Mac Jones (10) drops back in the pocket against the Buccaneers.
Mac Jones (10) drops back in the pocket against the Buccaneers.

What do you think about the Mac Jones Hype Train? Is it over for now? Artie Wirth

Far from it! If anything, it's just pulling out of the station and is only going to pick up more passengers as this season and his career progresses – assuming his offensive line can fix its obvious pass protections problems. Jones is absorbing too many vicious hits too frequently for my liking and I worry that this will eventually take its toll on him physically. But what I've seen from this impressive young quarterback thus far is encouraging for the long-term future of the Patriots. Jones is not the reason the Patriots have lost their three games this year. In fact, he's one of the main reasons they've been competitive at all. Erik Scalavino

It seems to me that Mac Jones has shown the ability to protect the ball when he is not under duress. His completion stats are great for such a young player. So far, the coaching staff have not trusted him in game winning situations. Do you think he should be trusted to win close games in the closing minutes or does he still need more time? Thanks for all your opinions they are appreciated. David Fogg

Your vision is clearly a bit … Fogg-y, David. While I agree with you that Jones has looked impressive when he isn't being besieged by blitzers, he's had but one real game-winning situation. Let's recap:

In the opener – his first-ever NFL start, keep in mind – the Patriots were driving for a go-ahead score in the waning minutes. The natural thing to do in that situation is run down the clock, which the Patriots attempted to do. It ultimately didn't work out, as running back Damien Harris fumbled, but it was the right course of action. In Week 2, New England blew out the Jets, so, there was no opportunity for Jones to prove himself at the end.

Week 3 against New Orleans, Jones helped get New England within one score late in the game. Immediately thereafter, the defense couldn't get a necessary stop to get him the ball back. The Saints scored again and draining enough clock to make it virtually impossible to mount a realistic comeback. Even so, Jones moved the offense into scoring position before throwing an interception on a desperation heave toward the end zone with seconds remaining.

That brings us to this most recent game, Jones' first true game-winning situation. Down two points and facing 3rd-and-3 from the Bucs' 37-yard line, the coaches put the ball in Jones' hands, asking him to throw. His pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage, so, the Patriots asked reliable kicker Nick Folk – he of the 36 consecutive successful field goals – to do his part. Again, it didn't work out in the end, but the coaching staff's thought process cannot be argued. They made the logical choice each time, and every time, Jones was given an opportunity to showcase himself.

Obviously, they trust him enough to run the offense or they wouldn't have made him the starter. He's played four games in the NFL. FOUR! Yes, he needs more time to develop, but he also needs more games in which to have an opportunity to win. Erik Scalavino

[The Patriots are] 1-3, last year 2-2 [after four games]. What did $160M [in free agent spending] buy? Ken Klien

Earlier this year, Ken, I had a patch of lawn in my yard that was mostly dirt. So, I went to the store, invested in some expensive grass seed, and spread it around when I got home. Next morning, when there wasn't a lush carpet of green grass, did I whine and complain that I wasted my money? Of course not. I watered it. A couple of times. Same thing the next day, and the next, and the day after that, and so on, until, after about 10 days, I started seeing results.

When a couple of weeds started taking root, I yanked them out immediately to give the good blades of grass room to flourish. By month's end, you'd never even know where the bare patch was, that's how seamlessly the new grass had blended in with the old.

When New England went on its historic spending spree this past offseason, it did so knowing full well that previous clubs that spent hundreds of millions on free agents almost never made the playoffs that same year. Teams that have that kind of money to spend are generally in dire straits record- and talent-wise. They're generally not Super Bowl contenders who are a player or two away from winning a title. And not every player they signed is going to work out, but if enough of them work out, you'll be in good shape long-term.

Just like the grass in the yard, rebuilding teams like New England require time and patience to grow. What did the Patriots buy this offseason, you ask? A solid foundation for their future. Erik Scalavino

The Patriots offensive line approaches the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots offensive line approaches the line of scrimmage.

What can the Patriots do with the defensive personnel we currently have to improve enough to stop offensives from at least scoring touchdowns. Is it a personnel scheme or a defensive formation issue? Or is it that the personnel are just coached to play cautiously and not give up big plays? Or is the defensive just not talented enough without a shutdown defensive back like Stephon Gilmore? Thank you. Kendal O'Brien

Probably a combination of all the above. Seems like the coaches are still trying to determine exactly which combination of new and returning players are best suited to line up with each other up front on a regular basis – allowing, of course, for changes based on game plans each week. One player in particular that I'm encouraged by is rookie D-lineman Christian Barmore. He appears to have great potential to be a fixture on this defense for a long time.

And hey, as banged up as New England was at linebacker and the secondary, the group did a great job of limiting the Buccaneers to just 19 points Sunday night. It wasn't a perfect performance defensively, but it helped make for a much more competitive game than many of us (raising my hand!) predicted. Erik Scalavino

When the Patriots signed Trent Brown and Joe Thuney signed with the Chiefs, I thought that they would move Brown to left tackle and move Isaiah Wynn to left guard. That would keep Mike Onwenu at right tackle, where he played well last year. So far, that right tackle has been a nightmare with Brown out. Brown was great at left tackle his last stint here and even though Isaiah Wynn looks good at that position, he is more athletic and would be a benefit as a pulling guard. It would make that left side on the O-line dominant. What are your thoughts? John LaFond

I feel like the single biggest problem on the Patriots performance to date is the play of the offensive line. Much of the criticism is directed at the tackle position, specifically Brown's replacements and Wynn's lackluster play. My suggestion: Bench Wynn, put Brown (as soon as he returns) at his old left tackle position, move Owenu back to right tackle and put Ted Karras in at guard. Thoughts? Fitz Read

The offensive line has been a major and surprising disappointment thus far, considering that many of us expected this group to be one of the team's strengths this season. Brown's calf injury, which came during the first drive of the season, has proved severe enough to limit him in practice and prevent him from playing in a game ever since. While Brown's replacements – second-year players Justin Herron and Yasir Durant – haven't been spectacular, the right side of the line isn't the only issue. New England has had protection issue from left to center to right and is having great difficulty run-blocking. Perhaps it might make some sense to experiment with a new combination, as you both suggest. As we saw against Tampa Bay, Karras finally saw some playing time (nearly 50-percent of the snaps on offense), so, perhaps the coaching staff is getting the same sense we are. I wouldn't be stunned to see a new offensive line starting five this coming weekend in Houston. Erik Scalavino

Rhamondre Stevenson (38) scores a touchdown in a Patriots preseason game.
Rhamondre Stevenson (38) scores a touchdown in a Patriots preseason game.

Any updates on James White's injury? I have not been able to find anything. Is no news good news? Patty Flynn

Sadly, Patty, the Patriots placed White on their injured reserve list on Friday night. Based on the way White was carted off the field and subsequent media reports confirming the worst, it looks like the reliable co-captain has played his last game this season. What White's future with the Patriots will be is just too early to tell, but I wouldn't expect to see him back on the field this year, at least. Erik Scalavino

Is tight end Devin Asiasi injured, or just not getting any playing time? Howard Robinson

No, Asiasi has been a healthy scratch for each of the first four games this season. Obviously, the Patriots invested heavily in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, both of whom produced touchdowns against Tampa Bay. So, it's not as if those two aren't going to get their share of reps on offense. It's a bit of a mystery, though, why a healthy Asiasi, in his second year, can't at least be active on game days. He appeared to have a strong spring and summer, but it looks like he's a victim of a numbers game at the moment. Just not enough spots for him to make the 48-man game day active roster.

Meanwhile, Smith and Henry are slowing beginning to emerge and consistent targets in the passing game. It's not going to be obvious every week, as Smith's showing against the Saints demonstrated, but again, integrating new players – even experienced ones like Smith and Henry – isn't a process that can be rushed. New England's tight end position, though, is in a much better place top-to-bottom than it was a year ago. Erik Scalavino

Where's the rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson? Timothy Murphy

Similar to Asiasi, Stevenson has been languishing on the game day inactive list as a healthy scratch. After his exciting preseason performance, Stevenson saw action early in Week 1 against the Dolphins, but ever since he coughed up the football in that game, he's seemingly been persona non grata. My sense is that there's more to his absence than a lingering punishment for that one miscue, but during the regular season, we in the media are not allowed to watch full practices the way we are during training camp. So, it's almost impossible to gauge how Stevenson is developing – or not – and thus ascertain why he's not yet been given a second chance. Erik Scalavino

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