The 2014 season starts for the Washington Redskins tonight as they take on the New England Patriots in preseason action. The two teams have spent the week in Richmond practicing, scrimmaging, and...talking a lot. Alec Shane from Pats Pulpit contacted me with several questions about the Redskins that he and other readers wanted answers for. I went to our wonderful writing staff to see if they had any questions for Alec, and RunPassScore provided a great list of 6 questions. Below are Alec's answers, and if you're interested in their questions and my answers, you can read them here.
1) It seems like the Patriots are always in transition at running back. If injuries hadn't cut into Shane Vereen's season last year would he be the number one guy, or is he just a change of pace back? Who else should we watch out for on the ground?
While Vereen has definitely carried the load at times, he doesn't quite have the build to be an every down guy. Vereen's strengths lie in his pass catching/route running ability, which makes him a matchup nightmare when Brady motions him out wide. The Patriots run a lot of no-huddle, up-tempo offensive packages, and having Vereen as the back out there for those plays give the Patriots a lot more options. I still say that Stevan Ridley, who is bigger, stronger, and more of a between-the-tackles guy, is in line to be the lead back, as long as he can learn to hold onto the ball. But Vereen makes for a fantastic compliment, and is in my opinion the more likely of the two to stick around next year, as both of their contracts are up after this season.
In terms of backs to watch out for, especially in this upcoming game, keep an eye out for 4th round pick James White. He has been having a fantastic camp and seems to be picking up the playbook quickly, which leads some to believe that he has the potential to be more than just a change of pace guy. He's likely to see the bulk of the carries once the starters come out, and we're all curious to see how he does.
2) Last year's injuries (and the Hernandez situation) played a huge part in the Patriots season, yet they were able to go all the way to the AFC Championship. Is that a reflection of the depth of the roster, a weak AFC East, or Belichick's scheme?
The easy answer is that it's a little bit of all three, but I'm going to go ahead and give Belichick his just due here. No coach in the league is better at getting the most out of the talent available to him and ensuring that his players are always in a position to win. Losing a player like Hernandez, in the manner in which it all went down, would absolutely short circuit some franchises; Hernandez was such an incredible weapon, and one that New England planned to build a future around, that there were definitely some legitimate concerns regarding how to move on without him. However, the Patriots were still able to win 12 games because Bill Belichick has always preached that no one man is bigger than the team, and there is always a contingency plan in place. They ultimately switched from the 2 TE package to more of a 3 WR set, and while the offense struggled at times - our primary receivers last year were rookies and a converted college quarterback - they still found a way to get it done.
Looking back on it now, the season probably ended when Gronkowski went down, as they just weren't the same offense after that. But the injury situation honestly got to the point where it didn't even phase me anymore when another key cog in the offense or defense was lost for the year. Somebody else stepped up and Belichick adjusted the gameplan to maximize the strengths of whoever was able to walk that day. Best defensive lineman down? Switch to a 4-3 in order to get more able bodies up front. Defensive captain and star linebacker gone? Use more strong nickel packages to throw off offensive timing. Lost your anchor along the offensive line? Shuffle guys around to maintain max protection and use a lot of quick-snap mismatches to prevent pressure. No matter what happened in New England, they found a way to make it work, and that speaks to Belichick's abilities. If any other coach had done what Belichick had done last season with his team, he would be Coach of the Year and it wouldn't even be a contest. But since that's simply what Belichick does, he's held to a different standard.
3) Tom Brady is not getting any younger. Are there any signs of him starting to slip from the high standards you are used to? If he is not traded, would Ryan Mallett be an acceptable replacement for Patriots fans?
Brady only threw for 4,343 yards and 25 TDs last season, which were his lowest totals since 2006. His 60.3% completion percentage was his lowest since 2003. So it's easy to look at those numbers and make a case that Brady is finally starting to slow down. However, he also won 12 games again, so if that's his version of slowing down, I'll take it. Much like 2006, when he was throwing passes to Reche Caldwell and an aging Troy Brown, 2013 saw a bunch of rookies, some backup tight ends, and Julian Edelman; that's pretty much it. There were a lot of drops, it took the young guys a little while to get in sync with the pace and flow of NFL level football, and New England was much more committed to the run last season - only eight teams ran the ball more than New England did last year. So I don't know how much weight I'd put into those numbers. I'd be foolish to say that Brady is going to have the same kind of spring in his step as he did ten years ago, but I think I'm going to wait until his play on the field reflects his age before I start taking any of the doubters seriously.
We all know that Brady won't be around forever - he just turned 37 this past Sunday - but as long as he keeps playing at a high level and notches double digit wins every season, it's hard to pay attention to all the "Is Tom Brady's window closing?" discussions that have been happening since around 2008 or so. His window isn't closing any faster than Peyton Manning's, Drew Brees's, or Ben Roethlisberger's is, but he's definitely closer to the end of his career than he is the beginning. And when he does finally decide to hang them up, I honestly don't know if Mallett is going to be the guy to step in. There are sources saying that he's having a fantastic camp and it really coming into his own, but the fact of the matter is that (thankfully) the only time any of us have seen him play is during preseason games, which isn't quite reality. Plus, he's entering into the last year of his rookie deal, and the Patriots are going to have to decide what to do with him once the season is out. My guess is that he sticks around, as rookie Jimmy Garoppolo clearly isn't anywhere close to NFL ready, but you never know. If the right opportunity comes knocking, I can see Mallett playing elsewhere, which means we better pray to the football gods that Brady stays healthy. Based on what we've seen from camp thus far, Garoppolo isn't there yet.
4) Gronkowski is one of the best tight ends around when he is healthy. Do the constant health issues worry you? Who have the Patriots got at tight end, (which seems to be an important position in Belichick's offense), if Gronk breaks again?
Any Pats fan who isn't concerned with Gronkowski's durability hasn't been paying attention. We have all seen the vast difference between New England's offense with Gronk on the field and without him, as he is basically uncoverable and extremely hard to bring down. However, he hasn't shown the ability to finish a complete season, and that's absolutely cause for concern. It's especially worrisome given that the Patriots didn't address the tight end position at all in the draft and the players behind Gronk on the depth chart are Michael Hoomanawanui, DJ Williams, Justin Jones, and Asa Watson - none of whom are in the same league as Gronkowski. Hoomanawanui has proven to be serviceable, but he's not a game changer, and Williams has never been anything more than a journeyman. There were hopes that undrafted rookie Justin Jones could step up, as he's 6'8" and 275 pounds with moldable tools, but he hasn't shown anything at camp thus far that warrants him landing anywhere but the practice squad. If Gronk goes down again, I imagine that most of the work you see out of our tight ends in a blocking role.
5) In Washington we are just starting to get used to the idea of having a franchise QB. Obviously New England has had one of the best QB's in modern times leading their team. Sum up what it has been like with Tom Brady at the helm for the last 1,000 years. Have there ever been any doubts? Also how has his relationship with Belichick been through this period? Has there ever been any situations similar to what Washington experienced with RGIII and Shanahan last year?
I know that I have been trying as hard as I possibly can to soak up every minute of the Tom Brady era while I still can, as he's most likely a once in a lifetime talent who has helped engineer a string of success that is absolutely unprecedented in the NFL today. So many teams come into camp every year with serious questions at quarterback, and we as Patriots fans haven't really had to deal with that since Drew Bledsoe was drafted in 1993, which is an incredible blessing. The only time there was really any doubt as to whether Brady was the guy here was in 2001, when Bledsoe was back from injury and both seemed deserving of the starting job (there were actually more fans than I'd like to admit who were calling for Brian Hoyer over Brady in 2009 when he was a little slow to get his feet under him following ACL surgery, but that's a whole other rant). Other than that, we have entered into every season knowing that a Super Bowl is a very legitimate expectation, which makes for a highly enjoyable year. However, the flip side of having a QB like Brady is that it's hard not to let the expectations this team has created for me cloud my judgment and line of rational thinking. The truth is that (and if there is a more apt NFL equivalent of a First World problem that is going to get me absolutely zero sympathy, I'd love to hear it), when you're a Patriots fan in this day and age, your season is one game long. You either win the Super Bowl, or the whole year was a bust. It's absolutely ridiculous to think that way, but that's the culture that Brady has helped to build. And at the end of the day, I'd much, much rather be in the position I'm in than to be just praying my team makes the playoffs for once.
And as you know, New England plays everything extremely close to the vest, so if there is some kind of rift between Brady and Belichick, I've never heard of it. I'm sure they've had their problems, everyone gets into disagreements now and then but never have they made them public. Good thing too, because when Brady was seen yelling at former OC Bill O'Brien on the sidelines back in 2011 when the Patriots and Redskins met in the regular season, it was in the headlines for a week. I can't imagine what the media would do if Brady and Belichick ever got into it in public.
6) Sum up the expectations around this defense? You have some excellent CB's and an intriguing defensive line. Are there any schematic changes or is it just a case of improved personnel? Is this the piece that was missing last year?
I have a few moles, aka degenerate, unemployed friends with nothing better to do, who have infiltrated training camp and have been attending Patriots practices every day. And from what they are saying, optimism surrounding the defense is sky high. Darrelle Revis looks as good as he has ever looked, Brandon Browner is imposing his will, and there is consistency in the secondary that this team hasn't seen in several years. Having a player like Revis gives Belichick a legit, Ty Law type shutdown corner who can take away an entire half of the field, which leaves Belichick free to do what he does best: dial up confusing coverage and blitz packages to disrupt opposing quarterbacks. When your secondary is an absolute sieve, like it was for the better part of this decade, it makes it hard to really commit to the pass rush and sending extra rushers, as you're liable to get burned through the air. But with Revis (and Browner, as soon as he comes back from suspension), that physical, man-to-man style of toughness that we haven't really seen since the days of Rodney Harrison could very well be back on the table. I'd like to think that 2014 represents getting back to our roots of a stout, intimidating defense coupled with an efficient, fluid offense that is capable of scoring points. That was the championship recipe in the early 2000s, and here's hoping it's a championship recipe this year.
Thanks to Alec from Pats Pulpit for answering all of our questions.