1) First thing's first: What the heck happened to the Patriots at home against Miami two Sundays ago? That outcome seemed simply unfathomable. Was it an aberration, or a sign of cracks in the façade and an indication of things to come for New England?
Jon Scott: The "wildcat" offense that the Dolphins used took the Patriots by surprise, but it shouldn't' have. They saw some of it in the past, but didn't do a good job of adjusting to it. Ronnie Brown is a much better back than advertised. The Dolphins are a better team than the national media has pegged them as. Just because Miami went 1-15 didn't mean they were horrible, just that they couldn't' finish. They've found that way to finish, while the Patriots seem to have lost it.
Cracks in the armor began a couple of years ago when the Patriots defense began the season in the bottom third of the league. After a few weeks they got things sorted out. When Tedy Bruschi returned, the defense improved dramatically. Bruschii is getting older along with Harrison and Vrabel. They will need to correct their mistakes, including bad tackling to get back on track.
2) So now the obvious question: How much do the Patriots miss Tom Brady? How different a team are they without him? Can they still be an elite team without him? What are the Patriots finding out about themselves without Brady at the helm?
Jon Scott: Without Tom Brady, the offense just isn't in any kind of groove. Brady's ability to check off to the third or even the fourth option has made the team better. The offensive line doesn't have to hold their blocks as long on blitzes. With Matt Cassel under center, the line has to hold blocks longer, and that has been a problem.
The defense has been exposed early, and without Brady to bring the team back when they're behind, opponents will continue to exploit those weaknesses. Can New England win? Sure. Are they elite? No. I predicted a 12-win season based upon improvements in the division and some holes I saw in the preseason. That estimate has been revised to 10 wins on the top end with Cassel running the show.
3) What's the story with Matt Cassel? Can the guy get the job done, or do the Patriots need to start thinking about other options at quarterback? Is there a feeling now that the Patriots should have been better prepared for the loss of Brady with a veteran backup, or is there confidence that Cassel can pick up the slack? How long a leash does Cassel have before the Patriots consider playing their other QBs?
Jon Scott: Matt Cassel isn't Tom Brady and we all know that. What was expected from Cassel is to run the offense as it was designed and to be efficient. Part of his struggles were evident in the preseason. Cassel's lack of production was so severe many - including us - thought he would be the odd man out in the quarterback rotation. Instead the team kept Cassel over Matt Gutierrez.
Part of Cassel's struggles stem from an unimaginative offensive system. Josh McDaniels isn't Charlie Weis, and though the Patriots scored more points than any team in NFL history last season, that was before teams had time to study how to defeat the scheme. It was going to be hard for Brady and Moss to repeat their success, but now with Cassel running McDaniels' offense the challenge is even greater.
Cassel needs to progress through his reads faster and he has to be more accurate with the football. He can do those things, but McDaniels has to help him. The Patriots success came from the Shotgun, something they've moved away from. If Cassel is to succeed, they're going to have to try more shotgun formations to give Cassel enough time to see the field. Otherwise, you're probably going to see Gutierrez or rookie Kevin O'Connell sooner rather than later.
4) The Patriots were awesome last season. It definitely was one of the greatest season ever by a NFL team. But the games got closer at the end of the year and into 2008, and the Super Bowl loss was a definite comedown. How much does losing the big game and having it tarnish the perfect season linger within the Patriots? Is this a team that has to worry about the infamous Super Bowl hangover?
Jon Scott: The Patriots have worked hard to put last year behind them. Tedy Bruschi told me that he doesn't consider the effects of the Super Bowl hangover an issue because that was last year and they're working on building the team for this year. Bruschi also wouldn't take the bait on the hangover issue.
The veterans on the defense won't let the team dwell on the past, but they're also not in a position to fix things immediately. While 16-0 will be something that few, if any, teams ever accomplish, losing the Super Bowl was big. Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau could have retired on top last season had the team won. Now they're back because they have unfinished business, and when you talk to them, that's the mindset.
5) How good is this team now? Is it even still a playoff team? The AFC East suddenly doesn't look like a cakewalk anymore, and it will be tough in that conference for two playoff teams to come out of the division. Entering the second stage of the season, are the Patriots still the team to beat in the AFC East?
Jon Scott: I predicted the Bills were the team that was going to give the Patriots the most trouble in 2008. The Jets and the Dolphins had a lot of changes and would take time to get going, but the Bills have a Patriot-like blueprint and they're blue-collar tough.
With Brady out, the Bills became the immediate favorite to win the division. I'm not buying the Jets will win with Hall of Famer Brett Favre and all the new faces in New York until I see it. I've seen Favre make too many mistakes, and I think Mangini's magic (if that's what you ant to call it) has worn off. He's a Patriot knock-off and it shows in their defense.
It will be tough for the Patriots to make the playoffs. I think it comes down to a tiebreaker for them, which is why division games are so important. The Dolphins game showed how vulnerable they could be.
6) We caught Randy Moss's act during his two seasons here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the guy is a dog. Flat out. Great talent, lousy attitude, questionable work ethic. That was his MO out here. How has that changed in New England, or has it? Moss is a frontrunner, so obviously everything went well last year when he was setting records. But how do you expect this dude to handle some adversity? Are there any signs that he'll quit on the team or become a detriment if things start getting tough? What's your take on Moss and his attitude?
Jon Scott: On the pregame show leading up to the Dolphins game, Charley Casserly pointed out how Moss was talking plays off already. He showed poor blocking techniques and half-hearted effort. Casserly insinuated that Moss's attitude could become a real problem if the team isn't winning and Cassel doesn't start getting the ball to him.
The same thing was said of Moss last season when Ron Jaworski pointed out the same issues. Jaws got blased in Noston for the comments becayse he only showed some of the plays, while ignoring the many times Moss sold out on blocks to help make the play.
Is it being lazy, being a "dog" as you call it? I'm not sure. I think Randy does some of it because he is a star and he can get away with it. Other times, I think it's a strategy.
Dolphins DB Renaldo Hill wasn't buying the lazy concept either. Hill said on SIRIUS NFL Radio last week that Moss would use that tactic to lull the defense to sleep and then blow past them for a big play. Hill knows as he was on the Dolphins defense that was carved up by Brady and Moss last year. In the first game Moss caught 4 passes for 122 yards and a pair of scores, one a one-handed over the shoulder TD reception between defenders.
7) After the shocking loss to Miami, the Patriots conveniently walked right into their bye week. How much did that help the team to have its bye and regroup right after a game like that? Or did it help? Would it have been better to get right back on the field the next week to right the wrongs of that game and take away the bitter taste? How much does that bitter taste linger into this week?
Jon Scott: The Pats were shocked at the blowout. While they won't admit it due to the measured comments they make to the media, it was obvious the team had no solution for the Dolphins game and desperately needed to focus on fixing the problem.
While the team said they wanted to get back on the field to get the taste out of their mouths, the week off helps the coaching staff and they need all the help they can get. McDaniels needs to generate some offense without relying on Cassel to elevate his game to Brady-esque proportions. Dean Pees needs the defense to learn how to tackle again, unlike what they did against the dolphins. And Bill Belichick needs to find a way to game plan better overall so the team doesn't get into trouble without a solution to fix it.
8) Which brings us to Bill Belichick. Is that guy a genius or what? Can you briefly summarize what he has meant to the franchise? I know a lot of people give Belichick a lot of credit for that powerhouse the Patriots have put together in New England, and I'm one of them. Does he deserve all that credit? Is he the New England version of Bill Walsh, who definitely deserved all the credit for what he built in San Francisco?
Jon Scott: We're about to find out if the success New England has had is all Bill Belichick or if Tom Brady is the true magic behind the Patriots' rise to the top. The thing about Belichick is that he's willing to give everyone credit when the team wins and take responsibility for the consequences when the team loses.
Lots of people have adopted the slogan "In Bill We Trust," but that loyalty is grounded in the basis that the team is winning. The New England fans base has forgotten what it's like to have a team that loses more than it wins. Losing isn't character building for the fans it's painful. When the Patriots were getting blown out of the Miami game, fans headed for the exits in droves with most of the fourth quarter left to play. I think if you see the Pats season go down in flames you're going to see a lot of empty seasons in Foxboro despite the fact that Bill Belichick will still be on the sideline.
Is Belichick as good as Bill Walsh, I'm not sure. He's deserving of credit, but he's more Walsh-like than another legend of the game. If Belichick shows he can achieve similar success without Brady, then you have to give him credit for being one of the best ever, much like Walsh.
9) A good example of Belichick's coaching and preparation is that the Patriots have won five consecutive games coming off bye weeks. How much better of a coach is Belichick when he has two weeks to prepare for an opponent? How much of advantage is that for the Patriots this week against the 49ers? Is there something to Belichick's fine record coming off byes, or is it just that the Patriots usually win most of their games anyway?
Jon Scott: The Patriots have won 6 out of their 8 bye week games during Bill Belichick's tenure in New England. The two times the team lost, New England missed the playoffs and won less than 10- games overall.
To say Belichick can make adjustments is probably an understatement. The team uses the extra time to break down the season to that point and to fix some of the problems the team has. The issue facing them this season is that the Bye week comes so early. There isn't really enough game tape to study to correct all of the issues on defense, and more importantly, not enough film on the remaining opponents.
10) Nobody in today's NFL has done much better at evaluating talent and assembling personnel than the Patriots. But New England has taken some hits in recent seasons, losing talent such as Asante Samuel, among others. There's always going to be turnover in the NFL, but can the Patriots keep the dynasty going? Or have we seen the zenith of it, and now New England will come back to the pack? What needs to happen for the Patriots to remain at their current level for the rest of this decade and into the next? Or can they?
Jon Scott: The Patriots ARE well known for their personnel prowess, but a lot of the credit goes to hitting on their top picks while finding reclamation projects (Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison) that panned out. The Patriots also had their fair share of failures that didn't work out (Monty Beisel, Chad Brown, even Fernando Bryant this season).
The winning continues despite losing players like Ty Law, Deion Branch, Asante Samuel, Adam Vinatieri, Damien Woody and Willie McGinest because they're just single components of the whole. With Brady under center, the offense has seen running backs like Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith come and go. The team has won with players like David Patten, David Givens and Troy Brown at receiver. It's not that the team needs first round talent to win, heck Brady is probably the best example of that being a sixth-round draft pick himself.
If the Patriots are to remain atop their division, or at least be competitive in it, they need an influx of talent at positions that they've tried to build via free agency or late round draft gambles. They're going to have to draft a receiver, more offensive linemen, a safety and even another defensive lineman.
Depth is key. As long as Scott Pioli and Belichick continue to add key pieces to maintain talented depth behind the starters (Seymour, Bruschi, Harrison, Brady, Moss) then they should be competitive for years to come.
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Jon Scott covers the Patriots for PatriotsInsider.com. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Jon has covered the NFL since 1995 and has been a guest analyst on the NFL Network, ESPN radio and Sporting News Radio among others.
Craig Massei covers the San Francisco 49ers for SFI Magazine.
MORE: Don't miss Part 1 of this Q&A where Craig answered 10 questions about the 49ers as they prepare to host the Patriots this Sunday in San Francisco.