Keeping Tabs On The Enemy: New England Patriots

I have to be honest, it's no easy task keeping up with everything that is going on with the Colts.  When you have to keep up with all of the other 31 teams, especially the bitter rivals of the Colts, it can consume your life.  This wouldn't be a problem If I was being paid fat cash like Bob Kravitz.  But sadly for me (and my bank account), I'm just some Joe Schmoe writing for a blog.  Woe is me right?

To assist us all in gathering as much information on our rivals as possible, I've recruited the help of someone who can provide us with some insider information: Pats Pulpits head writer, MaPatsFan.

So, how has the offseason treated the Patriots?

The bad news is we didn't make the playoffs.  The good news is we didn't make the playoffs.  For the first time in many years, Patriots fans were left twiddling their thumbs in January, mostly cheering for hated rivals to fail (the Dolphins would fall into this category; certainly not Indy ;-)).  The layoff has given a lot of guys some much needed rest which I consider extremely important for many of our offensive linemen; they went into 2008 training camp in serious trouble.

Overall, Hoodie has made some interesting FA acquisitions that I'm excited to see.  A mix of veteran presence and youth is a good thing; I'm stoked to see how it will turn out.

Explain the free agent acquisitions made thus far and their possible impact or roles going into the 2009 season.

From a general sense, this is classic Belichick.  He was extremely active during free agency and is a firm believer in sprinkling vets into the mix with his rookies.  One of the more interesting acquisitions has been CB Shawn Springs.  Springs and recent Bills' FA acquisition, Terrell Owens, can't seem to shake each other, and have seemingly followed each other around for eight seasons.  Coincidence?  Hoodie says no, but we'd be naive to think otherwise.
 
Another strategy is to create competition along with mentorship.  Longtime Jaguar RB Fred Taylor seems to be made for both roles, specifically for Laurence Maroney.  Maroney's been plagued with injury and confidence problems, something Taylor suffered from during his "Fragile Freddy" days.  His acquisition will give Maroney some valuable mentoring while keeping the fire lit in the competition arena.
 
On the WR front, I have my doubts about Joey Galloway given his age (38), but Greg Lewis seems like a fine addition.  Defenses know enough to neutralize Moss and Welker so it's important to have a third and sometimes fourth look for Brady.
 
S Tank Williams was a 2008 FA, but was IR'd in the preseason, so I'm including him here.  I have high hopes for Tank (how can you not like a guy named Tank?).  A hybrid safety/linebacker, I think he'll be the "lurker" of the defense.  He won't play a lot of snaps, but I'm looking forward to watching him play.
How do you feel about the Patriots' running back situation?  Who's going to be the starter opening day?

I think the starter will be Laurence Maroney.  Given the revelation that he was playing with a broken bone in his shoulder, I think he got a lousy shake last year and was unfairly labeled as fragile.  I'm somewhat ashamed to say I was among those involved in the chastising, but it wasn't entirely without merit given the lack of information (more on that below).  Shoulder aside, Maroney has a tendency to "bounce" off linemen rather than decisively slice through a hole, something Sammy Morris is very good at.  I've been a HUGE Sammy Morris fan, but he's 32 this year; we need Maroney to step up.
 
Kevin Faulk is, well, Kevin Faulk.  It's hard not to classify this guy as one of the most beloved Patriots in recent memory.  Always clutch, he's a scary third down specialist with great hands.  When we had backfield injury trouble in 2008, Kevin jumped in and would do what he needed to do.  Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis (nicknamed "Law Firm" because his name is so long) was a surprise.  Not a star, he certainly grew up fast and got some valuable reps in the process.  I could see him backing up Maroney in the future.
 
Fred Taylor is the wildcard in all of this.  He's got far more downhill/breakaway speed than the rest of the guys; it remains to be seen if he still has gas left in the tank.

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As someone on the outside looking in, the linebacking corps is the biggest weakness of the entire Patriots team going into 2009.  What are your thoughts on that?

That opinion has some merit.  After losing Mike Vrabel in a trade to KC, we seemed weak at OLB.  However, I think Vrabel had lost a step in 2008 and wasn't generating nearly as much pressure as he had in previous years.  We lost Adalius Thomas for a while in 2008 due to a broken arm, so Pierre Woods jumped in and got valuable reps.  It appears those two will be the starters with second year man Shawn Crable (IR'd in 2008) and reserve Vince Redd to round out the young guys.  Tully Banta-Cain was recently signed and is a good acquisition; prior to his 2 year stint with the 49ers, he spent the first four years of his career with New England, so he knows the system.  There's also word that we're going after Raiders pass rusher, Derrick Burgess.  This would stop the neverending "Where's the pass rush" discussions.
 
ILB is another story.  DROY Jerod Mayo is a beast and will only get better.  With Bruschi in the last year of his contract and likely retiring, we need the spot next to Mayo filled ASAP.  Draftee Tyrone McKenzie might have been that guy, but he tore his ACL during the first workout of the season and will be IR'd for 2009.  Second year man, Gary Guyton, saw some reps in 2008, but rookie FA Antonio Appleby will potentially challenge Guyton for snaps (his alma-mater Virginia ran a 3-4 defense under former Patriots assistant, Al Groh).
 
Overall, I would've been fairly satisfied had McKenzie been in the lineup this year.  I'm less satisfied now, but not ready to call in the National Guard.  We're in better shape than last year, as long as we don't have to call in Junior Seau and Rosey Colvin again.
What's the biggest strength of the Patriots going into 2009?

As annoying as this will sound, Bill Belichick and the system he's put in place.  As much injury turmoil as we had in 2008, Belichick seemed to have navigated that pretty well, knocking on the door of an AFC East championship with a team ready for the orthopedic ward.  That being said, losing OC Josh McDaniels and FO star Scott Pioli doesn't seem to have moved us of course too much.  Nick Caserio, Director of Player Personnel and Pioli's replacement, seems to have been groomed from early on.  The same is true of Quarterbacks coach, Bill O'Brien.  Belichick will likely take on more offensive play calling duties, but Quarterbacks coach is usually the launching point for an OC job with the Patriots (same route McDaniels took).
 
As difficult as 2008 was, I believe it gave young guys some some valuable reps and will only add depth and youth to the roster.  Similar to the Colts' 2007 season, many of the reserve guys had to step up and start, giving them what all rookies or young guys lack: experience at an NFL level.
How is Brady recovering?  I think it will be similar to how Peyton came back last season; he'll start of slow, but by the time the playoffs roll around he'll be good to go.

The party line is, "No restrictions."  You guys know how that goes.  A similar mantra was used with Peyton and we all found the situation was worse than was being reported.  The only tidbits we get are from other players who are asked how Tom is doing and they all say pretty much the same thing: Tom looks great!  He's his old self.  I'm not buying it and am looking forward to seeing him during next week's OTA's which usually include the veterans.
I must admit, I had Patrick Chung rated as the best safety, and Darius Butler rated as the best corner going into the draft.  To my dismay, both of those guys were picked by the Patriots.  Did you like the Patriots' draft picks?

I thought the war room did an excellent job of finding value and picking in the right spots.  I was a little dismayed they didn't go after an OLB, but I'll have to have faith and believe they're smarter than me.  Chung will be huge, although it remains to be seen whether or not he'll take on a hybrid safety/linebacker role similar to Tank Williams; word is Chung sometimes struggles in space and works better in-the-box.  That being said, with the more than likely departure of Rodney Harrison, I hope he can pickup strict safety duties.
 
Out of all the picks, Darius Butler is my absolute favorite for a few reasons.  When we sent Ellis Hobbs to Philadelphia, we not only lost a serviceable CB, but we lost one of the better kick return guys in the NFL.  Butler was also used as a return guy in college, so I'm glad we were able to pull that one off.  As a CB, I'd like to see him develop into a ball hawk, something I believe we've missed since Asante Samuel.
 
Interestingly enough, I thought LS Jake Ingram at 198th overall was an excellent value pick.  Long snappers never get enough credit, but if the dude shanks a ball over the punter's head in the other team's territory, the game could be over.

Which rookie will have the biggest impact in the 2009 season?

The on-the-field answer would be CB Darius Butler.  However, CB is loaded with potential talent (vets Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden as well as second year guys Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley).  It remains to be seen how much time Butler will see at CB, but I'd suspect he'll be kept busy with return duties.
 
The less obvious answer is DT Ron Brace; he'll have a HUGE impact on this season, but not for any obvious reasons.  Vince Wilfork is clearly the starting anchor in the center of the front three of our 3-4.  His contract is up at the end of 2009 and I believe Belichick and the FO grabbed Ron Brace for some depth and, maybe more importantly, leverage in contract negotiations with Wilfork.  A young guy gunning for his job could change things for Vince.  Maybe he'll play harder, who knows.
What are your thoughts on the recent allegations made about the Patriots falsifying their injury reports, specifically on the Laurence Maroney shoulder injury?

The homer in me has to say, "Whatever.  Everyone else must be doing it.  It's the Patriots, so they're being singled out."  On the flipside, I'm more than a little aggravated that us fans were led to believe Maroney was "soft".  He took a credibility hit from media and fans alike, myself included.  As it turns out, we owe him an apology.
Were you disappointed when Jason Taylor re-signed with the Dolphins?

From a purely football business perspective, yes.  It means we have to face JT twice a year; Matt Light (in charge of protecting Brady's blind side) is not a happy man.  Taylor's been a beast against us in the past which is one of two reasons I believe Belichick went after him: a) Hoodie respects him as a player and b) take him away from a division rival.
 
From a purely humanistic perspective, no I wasn't disappointed.  If Mike Vrabel were to become available in the next few years, I couldn't see him ending his career in any other place but New England.  It's only fair I apply the same logic to Jason Taylor.  He belongs in Miami and he deserves to end his career there.

Do you want the Patriots to go after Julius Peppers?

If money were no object, an emphatic YES.  Peppers would have to make the transition from 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB, but it's not that much of a stretch.  He's a monster pass rusher, something we've needed for a year or so.  Unfortunately, money IS the object, to the tune of about $16.6 million.  I have no idea why 4-3 DE's are so expensive, but I guess it's an elite club.  Anyway, that's just too expensive.  Many laughed at the Pats for letting Cassel AND Vrabel go, only to pick up a 34th overall.  However, we avoided a $14.65 million cap hit in a shrinking market and picked up Patrick Chung with pick 34.  Let's not forget giving a respected player a shot as "The Man".  I think Carolina should remove the tag; they're tying up a ton of cap space.
Who is the Patriots main competition in the AFC East?

Miami.  Traditionally, they've given us fits, even during the Patriots' golden years.  I think they're very strong and also working off a lot of momentum as AFC East Division champions.  Even with Brady at the helm, I don't think you'll see another 2007 when it comes to Pats vs. Fins.
Do you think Mark "Dirty" Sanchez will be a good QB?  Personally, I think he is overhyped and doomed for failure.

I would agree he's overhyped and I think the Jets are desperate for answers.  Teams like the Patriots and Colts know what the answer is: create a great system with great coaches, fill it with players who "fit", and the rest will take care of itself.  I'm constantly amazed at teams like the Raiders and the Jets who put all of their eggs in one basket (Vernon Gohlston anyone?) and scratch their heads when they can't seem to crack the playoff barrier.  A new head coach, a rookie quarterback...I think this is a "building" year for the Jets and I believe Sanchez will get his first taste of not being a star.
Name one player on the Colts roster you'd kill to have as a Patriot.

Can I have two, pretty please? ;-)  Given the Patriots' need for a strong, young ILB, I'd have to choose Gary Brackett.  Granted, he's an MLB in a Tampa-2 style D, but I don't think it'd be that much of a stretch to move to ILB in a 3-4.  Besides, pairing him with Jerod Mayo would be a lesson in silliness.
 
My number two would be Anthony Gonzalez.  He's young and already tremendously talented.  Putting Moss, Welker, and Gonzalez on the field at the same time would scare defenses crapless.
 
Ok, three: Dallas Clark.  I love the guy, when he's not playing against us, that is.  Of late, NE has rarely utilized their TE's for reception duties, opting for blocking type ends.  Clark would change all that.  There's nothing I like more than a big tight end steam rolling a little defensive back.
Name one player on the Patriots roster you want to see gone.

Third string QB Matt Gutierrez.  Dropped to the practice squad in 2008 behind Brady, Cassel, and O'Connell, he was only elevated because Brady went down.  FA QB acquisition Brian Hoyer looks to be an interesting 'Wildcat' prospect (apparently, he's quite the receiver, too) and I could see the Patriots cutting Gutierrez to clear space for Hoyer.
What area must the Patriots improve on to be better than they were in 2007?

The defensive backfield.  In my mind, the NE defense of 2007 was able to ride the coat tails of a ridiculous offensive season, at least for the first half of the year.  We knew the offense would provide enough of a cushion to withstand a turnaround from most rival offenses.  The second half of the season, the Patriots' offense slowed and our defensive backfield struggled to maintain.  Our D was at the bottom of the list in many categories, yet the team still managed to win games.
 
If we were able to muster a strong defensive backfield for 2009, I think NE would be hard to stop.
What will you do if Brady blows his knee about this season?

Maybe become a Colts fan? ;-)  Seriously, pray Kevin O'Connell has been paying attention.  If he gets some more reps, he'll be pretty darn good.  He's got a rocket for an arm and is extremely mobile.  In college, he had more rushing yards than any of his teammates, even the RB's!  Apparently, his offensive line was so horrible, he was scrambling constantly.
 
Interestingly enough, this question ranks in the "Top 3 Questions to ask a Patriots Fan".  I find it interesting because I believe most franchises didn't think about it much until Brady went down.  Why?  Carrying two starter level quarterbacks is rare.  More often than not, they have egos and want to run their own show, not to mention tying up that much coin with two players (QB's don't come cheap).
Do you still have nightmares from Super Bowl 42?  Because honestly, that was the greatest night of my life.

I didn't sleep for two days.  The last few minutes of that game were some of the most painful minutes of football I've ever watched, no joke.  I try very hard to never pin a win or loss on one play (ex: Tyree catch), which is why I'm somewhat mystified OC Josh McDaniels and Belichick stuck with their original gameplan.  Throughout 2007, they were known for making adjustments at halftime, but didn't do it in the second half.  In the face of an offensive line breakdown, they should've realized Brady didn't have enough time to air it out like they'd done all season.  Instead, moving the chains with Welker and Faulk would've have been the prudent strategy.  Ahh, the "What If's" are endless.
 
That being said, we've been on the winning end of three close Super Bowls, so I know what it feels like to both lose a close one and snatch close ones away from the other team.  I like the latter.
What about the 2006 AFCCG?

La, la, la...NOT LISTENING...La, la, la...BIG FAT POOPY HEAD!!  Salt, wound, rub vigorously.  Ok, we're good.
 
If I take off my Pats fan cap, those last few minutes were a lesson in how to use all of your skills and march down the field.  I've said many times that the hurry up offense is one of the Colts' most powerful weapons and they used it to great advantage on that day.
 
Putting my Pats fan cap back on, I would most likely be unceremoniously tossed out of the "Chowdah Heads of Boston" if I didn't mention four trips to the Super Bowl with three rings and a 2-1 record in Pats vs. Colts playoff meetings (Shake's sharpening his pencil).  Ok, maybe you've made more trips to the playoffs, but whatever.  I have to represent for my fellow fans of Foxboro, right?
The Colts-Patriots rivalry seemed to have lost some of it's luster last season when Brady went down.  Do you think with Brady returning the rivalry will be intensified once again?

No doubt.  A Miami fan made a great point when I pointed out a majority of Pats fans think the rivalry with the Colts is one of our biggest.  To summarize, he felt it was mostly about the two best quarterbacks in the game, duking it out to prove who's the best.  As long as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are playing, Pats vs. Colts will be one of the best games of the year, no question.  The rivalry will be back in 2009 and I think stronger than ever.  Brady will have something to prove: 2007 wasn't a fluke.
Man, big props to MaPatsFan for his time and excellent comments.  Great stuff!

More to come from our other biggest rivals very soon!

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