By: Russ Goldman
On the weekend their is a Boston radio show that is gives you truly objective and balanced discussions on the New England Patriots. The Bertrand and Gasper Show airs on 98.5 The Sports Hub between 8 AM-11AM EST on Saturdays.
Marc Bertrand along with co-hosting this show is a sports anchor weekdays giving live sports updates during the Felger and Massarotti Show on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Chris Gasper along with being a co-host is a Boston Globe Sports Columnist.
The day before a Patriots game their isn’t a better show to get you ready for each match-up. I asked both hosts the same ten questions about the Patriots. They range from their thoughts before last season began, up to the NFL draft and beyond. The hosts have not seen how the other has answered my questions. Will they agree or have completely different opinions on the Patriots? It is time now to find out as we are “Talking Patriots with Bertrand and Gasper.”
Before last season began what was your prediction for the Patriots?
MB: I predicted that the Patriots would finish the regular season at 11-5. After I made that prediction Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden were both placed on IR and I said they may be a 10-6 team due to those injuries.
CG: My prediction was 10-6 and AFC East champions. I felt they were the best team in a very tough division. They obviously exceeded my expectations record-wise. My basis for that prediction was two-fold. On the plus side, I felt that Tom Brady and Jerod Mayo had both been affected by injuries in 2009 and were capable of playing better. They did, as Brady was the league MVP and Mayo led the league in tackles.
On the negative side, I had real concerns about the pass rush, run defense and whether Wes Welker would be the same returning from his torn ACL. He was close enough. The pass-rush was still disappointing, and the Patriots ranked 30th in the NFL in pass defense last season. However, the run defense was sound, and the Patriots were able to negate their pass-defense problems by accumulating turnovers. The Patriots led the NFL in interceptions with 25 and forced 38 turnovers, second in the league.
Tom Brady was widely criticized by many media members for not being a constant presence in the off-season program in Foxboro? Did you have concerns about his play before the season began?
MB: I absolutely had concerns about his play because in 2009 he never quite looked 100%. He had a great statistical year that season but anybody who has watched every game of his career saw that he was still adjusting to coming back from the knee injury. However, none of my concerns were related to his commitment to off-season training with or without the team. I have never been one to believe that an OTA or mini-camp is going to make you better during the playoffs and that is when Tom Brady has recently failed.
CG: No, I thought this line of thought was ridiculous. If there is one guy on the Patriots whose work ethic is above reproach it is Tom Brady. He proved that off-season theory to be utterly absurd with the season he had (36 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, NFL-record 335 passes without a pick) – one of the greatest ever by a QB. This team has more pressing issues than playing Where in the World is Tom Brady in the off-season.
Were you worried about the fact that the Patriots did not name an offense or defensive coordinator before the season began?
MB: Yes, my biggest concern was that Bill Belichick was creating an environment that lacked people willing to question him or bring new ideas to the table. When the Patriots were winning Superbowls they did it with some very intelligent and capable coordinators.
Those coordinators were not afraid to tell the head coach that his was wrong or that something needed to be changed. I think Belichick values that kind of working atmosphere but started to get away from it. If you have ever seen an NFL film with the Giants of the 80’s, you have seen Bill Belichick tell off Bill Parcells. Having open communication is not a foreign concept to Bill, but I think his coaching staff was a little thin last year.
In terms of running the offense, Bill O’Brien was better in 2010 than he was in 2009. I also think he improved after the trade of Randy Moss. Randy Moss’ abilities can easily seduce a play-caller into sending the ball his way more than it should be sent his way. Randy Moss’ attitude in the locker room could likely intimidate a play-caller into doing the same. We know that Randy Moss was traded after an incident with Bill O’Brien. I don’t think it is unfair to speculate that a combination of Moss’ ability (perceived or real in 2010) and attitude affected Bill O’Brien and because of it, Bill Belichick decided to trade Moss.
O’Brien had a very impressive college coaching career before coming to the Patriots in 2007. He didn’t take over a major position until 2009 when he became the quarterbacks coach. This is when we assume he started calling plays and so he is judged on it. (Unfairly or not) I think that the offensive play calling job is one of the hardest in football. One former NFL player recently told me that if you put on a headset during a game it sounds “like a 911 call”. It is a very fast-paced job that requires a lot of focus. I think having a vision for a complete game is required heading into it.
So, do I think Bill O’Brien is great? No, but I think he has proven that he is capable of doing the job at the NFL level. That doesn’t mean that he is good enough to help the team win a Superbowl. He has done a poor job in the playoffs and that showed against the Jets. Bill O’Brien is the architect of the “Drive to Nowhere” during which TV cameras caught Belichick yelling at him to speed things up.
CG: Defensively, I was more surprised that coach Bill Belichick didn’t bring in a veteran defensive voice to help him run the defense and provide a different perspective. I wasn’t surprised that after not doing that he didn’t name a defensive coordinator since he basically filled that role on his own. I found it more disconcerting that Bill O’Brien didn’t receive the offensive coordinator title after his first season as the primary play-caller. That bucked the Bill Belichick/Bill Parcells tradition, and made me wonder if Belichick was sure that O’Brien was the guy. Obviously, O’Brien proved he deserved the job with the work he did in 2010. Only the record-setting 2007 Patriots (36.8) averaged more points per game in franchise history than the 2010 version (32.4).
Were you surprised how the defense progressed during the season?
MB: Yes because I thought they were going to be awful. In terms of yardage they were, but being able to make timely stops was huge. I still think consistency is a problem for that unit. They still have player needs on that side of the ball that I think will get better with players returning from injuries and possibly through the draft as well.
CG: No, I consistently said from the beginning of the season that this defense will be better in December than it is in September. With all of those first- and second-year players contributing and Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden out for the season, it was going to take some time for the defense to coalesce.
Moss looked unhappy against Miami, and was traded following that game. (FILE:Icon/SMI)
The Randy Moss trade seemed to be a turning point in the Patriots season. At the time did you feel the trade was a mistake?
MB: I felt that if Randy Moss had been traded something very serious had to have happened behind the scenes. I also immediately thought that there had to be some kind of corresponding move that they had already been working on. I didn’t feel that it was a mistake, but I felt that it was an admission that the Patriots didn’t expect a lot from their team this season. I figured that without Randy Moss the team would probably lose 1 or 2 extra games and would likely miss the playoffs. I was expecting mediocrity the rest of the way, but I viewed the Randy Moss trade as a necessity.
CG: To me the turning point was the Miami game, when the Patriots stopped forcing the ball to Moss. I understood the reasoning and rationale for the trade. I had even predicted that Moss could go rogue back before the start of the season due to his uncertain contract situation. What bothered me though was that after the trade people acted like Moss had never done anything while he was here. They made jokes about not needing the deep ball. Whatever you want to say about Moss – and I still feel he checked out of the Carolina game in 2009 – he was incredibly productive while he was here (50 TDs in 52 games). It wasn’t his fault that the Patriots lost Super Bowl XLII. If the defense holds he has the winning TD. He made some very poor decisions this season, and he had to go. It was a brilliant move by Belichick to bring back Deion Branch, who was revived playing with Brady. Maybe the lesson here is that with the Patriots it’s not about who is catching the ball, but rather who is throwing it.
The Patriots ended the season 14-2. Do you think the season was a failure because they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs?
MB: Well, I think success is relative. The Patriots clearly exceeded my expectation of a 10-6 season, but does my original expectation in August decide whether or not they succeeded? Had they went 10-6 and met my expectations; I still would have been calling this season a failure. With Tom Brady and Bill Belichick a 10-6 Patriots team is usually a team that didn’t reach their goals.
In the end, the 2011 edition were much better in the regular season than I thought they would be. Over the course of that regular season they proved that they were better than anybody in the NFL. When a team reaches that point, expectations change. I repeatedly said throughout December that if the Patriots do not win the Superbowl they will have failed. I believe that to be true. For a second straight year they choked in the playoffs, and this season they didn’t have any excuses.
CG: Absolutely not. Most people regarded last season as a bridge year to 2011. The team retooled on the fly and went 14-2, winning the last eight games of the regular season. Was the ending to the season disappointing? Sure because our expectations changed during it. But to label it a failure is off base in my opinion. The post-season was a failure, and it’s remarkable that the Patriots have now gone three seasons without winning a playoff game. But viewed singularly, last season overall was a big step in the right direction, especially with the development of players like Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
One of the biggest off-season issues for the Patriots will be Logan Mankins situation. Who do you think is to blame for the impasse with him not having a new contract with the Patriots?
MB: I don’t think I have enough information to place blame solely on one of the parties involved. I do think it is unfortunate that the Patriots insisted on Mankins playing out the final year of his rookie deal. I understand that it is well within their rights to do that as part of what I believe is an unfair collective bargaining agreement. It is hard not to feel that the team hasn’t been jerking around one of their best players. However I think Mankins’ actions during this situation have been less than admirable. We have learned that Mankins believed a brand new contract was on the horizon after he had a conversation with Robert Kraft. When he did not receive a deal to his liking he called out Kraft and demanded a trade. That was not the best way to handle what was still a negotiation between him and the team. Mankins said at the time “Right now, this is about principle with me and keeping your word and how you treat people.” (Insert joke about Matt Cushman telling Jerry Maguire “What you do have is my whole word, and it’s stronger than oak.”) In September, ESPNBoston reported that both sides were ready to sign a deal similar to the seven-year, $56.7 million deal that Jahri Evans signed with the Saints. Apparently the deal fell apart over the lack of a public apology. This led to Mankins continuing his holdout. I have already stated that I think the CBA is unfair but Mankins signed his name on a contract and is a part of a Union that signed a contract with the NFL. He was quick to call out Robert Kraft for supposedly not owning up to his word. What about legal contracts? Are those not applicable in Logan Mankins’ world? A lot of people want to make Mankins out to be some kind of hero for standing up for what he believes in. If you do the math, Mankins believes in losing a lot of money. His orginal tender of $3.16 million was cut to $1.54 million and then he only played in 9 games. Mankins was paid $815,294 to play last season. He missed 7 games and lost more than $2.3 Million and in my opinion he proved nothing. When the league returns, there will still be a franchise tag and Logan Mankins will still be under the control of the Patriots.
CG: I think it’s more on the Patriots. They took a risk by telling Mankins to wait a year for a new deal. He could had squawked and held out in 2009. He didn’t. He waited—and risked injury doing so. Then the Saints overpaid for Jahri Evans (seven years, $56.7 million) and the market changed drastically for guards in 2010. The Patriots balked at paying the new market rate, somewhat legitimately so. But a changing market is the risk of waiting to do business. Mankins, who comes from a small ranching community in California where business is done on a man’s word and a handshake, felt his trust had been betrayed and spoke out. At that point, it went beyond money and became more about principal. I’m not sure if Mankins will re-sign with the Patriots strictly on principal at this point.
The Patriots have been criticized for their approach to contract negotiations with players. Do you feel this criticism is justified and why?
MB: I think it is a fair criticism. I understand that they have the right to hold players to rookie deals, but when they have what is clearly a star player (Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins) I often wonder why they take that route. The price will always go up when it takes longer to get a deal done. It certainly has alienated players at times and I think it hurts when it comes to getting a long-term deal secured to keep players with the Patriots. However I do not believe the Patriots are cheap. The Patriots love a good deal, and they have been the best of finding players who can fit into their system and come at a good price. The only time the Patriots not spending money has aggravated me was in the Asante Samuel situation. Samuel was a quality player that they let walk away due to their value system and it hurt them for the following 2 seasons on the field.
CG: Yes. Part of the reason is that they seem to have a philosophy of making guys wait for their deals, unless they can convince them to sign a team-friendly contract a la Ty Warren’s. That’s fine, but often what happens in the meantime is that the price goes up because other less fiscally-responsible teams inflate the market, which happened with Mankins and Deion Branch back in 2006. Has there been one high-profile contract situation where the Patriots made a player play out his contract and then got him for less than what they were originally offering him in a new deal the prior off-season? Perhaps, there is, but I can’t think of it.
Furthermore, you risk alienating the player either temporarily or permanently because he is unhappy with his contract situation. This has happened with Mankins. It happened with Asante Samuel in 2007. It happened with Vince Wilfork in 2009 and affected the locker room that season. There were reports from Michael Silver that Tom Brady was frustrated with his contract situation over the summer before signing his extension in the fall. You can go back to Ty Law’s contract contretemps in 2004 and Richard Seymour’s brief holdout in 2005; and there was acrimony. It just seems players have to bang their shoes on the table to get a new deal that isn’t team-friendly.
What are the Patriots needs going into in this year’s draft?
MB: The Patriots need impact players no matter what position they play. If the Patriots can somehow get the same production out of their rookies this year as they did last year they will win the Superbowl. I know that a lot of people would like to see outside linebackers or a defensive end be a high priority. I really don’t know how soon a rookie can make a major impact at those positions within Bill Belichick’s defense. As I always say, the Tom Brady window is closing and the time to win is now. I would love for the team to draft a running back within the first couple of rounds. I also think the team needs to address the offensive line considering the turnover that might have to happen there. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the team selects a cornerback or safety sometime early in the draft as well.
CG: The No. 1 need is outside linebacker/pass rusher. It’s been that way for a while. NFL scouts will tell you the lifeblood of a 3-4 defense is the outside linebacker position. Those are your playmakers in that defense. They have to be. The Patriots need to upgrade that position beyond the Eric Moore’s and the Rob Ninkovich’s. But the Patriots were in the sub-package so often that even a pass-rusher who does not fit the traditional 3-4 OLB mold might be worth a look.
After that I’d say offensive line. Stephen Neal has retired. Matt Light is a free agent. Mankins’s situation is tenuous, and Dan Koppen is entering the final year of his contract. Then I’d go defensive line and running back. I know most people don’t see running back as a need. But the Patriots didn’t have a single rushing play of 40 yards or more last season. I think Danny Woodhead is an excellent third-down back and BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a great season, even if he did fatten up his numbers a bit on the Bills, who had the worst run defense in the league. The Patriots would benefit from a home-run threat for Brady to hand off to.
Do you think we will see a season of football in 2011?
MB: Yes. There is no doubt in my mind that the NFL will play a full season in 2011.
CG: I do. I think there is simply too much money at stake for both sides to miss the entire 2011 season. It’s easy to posture and litigate in March, April and May, but when it gets to late August and September the players are going to want to be getting paid and the owners are going to want the revenue from games. The owners wanted an 18-game season to help their pockets. It’s hard for me to imagine them accepting no season at all or a diminished season of between eight to 12-games this year. The players have traditionally folded in these labor situations the longer they drag on. Maybe we lose a game or two to the labor struggle and end up with 14 games, but I can’t see fewer games than that.
I want to thank Marc Bertrand and Chris Gasper so much for answering my questions. This Saturday they will be doing their “All Draft show” live from Foxboro. I would highly recommend listening as they will be breaking down who the Patriots had picked in the first two days of the draft, and also looking forward to the final day.