The Patriots are now halfway through the 2008 season—a.k.a. "The Year without Brady"—and resident Pats writers Chris Radez, Ryan Burns, William Berry, and Mike Dussault held an email roundtable to discuss the season thus far.
Matt Cassel is now 5-3 as a starter. With his contract expiring this year and rumors of Tom Brady's rehab not going quite as smoothly as we'd like, what do you think the Pats should do with Cassel? Do you think Cassel is a starting-caliber NFL quarterback at this point?
CR—Matt has done a good job of "driving the bus" in Brady's absence. He seems to be getting more comfortable with the offense, and I do think that he is a starting caliber NFL quarterback.
However, I'm not comfortable with his ability to bring his team back from behind. He seems to get easily flustered and throws errant passes that don't come near their targets. When Matt is under less pressure, his throws look good...but when the game is on the line, his arm stops working. This is something that could change as he continues to get comfortable, but I wouldn't bet the bank on it.
MD—I think this will be one of the biggest stories this coming offseason. Cassel will want to cash in and get a shot to start somewhere, while the Pats will not want to be left with Kevin O’Connell as their No. 1 backup.
I doubt Cassel will sign a one-year deal, but that would probably make the most sense from the Patriots' perspective. My guess is that he walks, and the Pats bring in a veteran QB should Brady not be ready to go.
RB—If the Patriots indeed determine that Brady's knee is not going to be ready for next year, then they have no choice but to re-sign Cassel. I don't see too many teams beating down the door for him if he decides to test the market. The Pats should give him a two-year deal, regardless of Brady's situation.
WB—Let's examine options of keeping Cassel, for the sake of argument. He gets franchised or whatever for one year. Brady comes back and eliminates any doubt over who starts. Even if Brady spends a month like Peyton, getting "right," it is stupid. Now you're backup QB is making more than all but five starting QBs.
Sorry, guys: Cassel is gone after this year. Good luck to him wherever he lands—if it isn't the Jets.
Who has been your biggest surprise Patriot player this year?
CR—This is a toss-up between Brandon Meriweather and BenJarvis Green-Ellis. I know Meriweather was an early-round pick a couple years ago, and we all expected him to do well. But I think he has stepped up and played a big role in giving the defense some direction and leadership. We need as much of that as we can from the younger guys. Brandon has 32 tackles three interceptions at the halfway point.
Green-Ellis probably fits the "surprise" mold a little better, though. With Maroney done for the year—and Morris and Jordan ailing—I'm sure most Pats fans would let out a collective groan at the idea of an undrafted free agent taking on the bulk of the carries. He hasn't done half bad, though, gathering 3.7 yards per carry on 37 carries thus far with three touchdowns.
WB—Cassel—he has not sucked completely, just mostly. That is not fair, I'm comparing him to Brady.
MD—For me, it’s Gary Guyton. He’s an undrafted rookie who got more snaps at linebacker than Tedy Bruschi did against the Colts. Every week, he seems to be playing more and more, and Belichick has given him glowing (by his standards) reviews. For all the talk of how hard it is for a linebacker to pick up the Patriots' complex defense, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for Guyton.
He’s athletic and fast, and along with Mayo, he represents the future of the Patriots' defense.
RB—My biggest surprise has been Jerod Mayo. When he was taken in the first round, no one knew the impact that he would have on this team. He has been an absolute stud and has impressed me by seamlessly transitioning into Belichick's defense.
Who has been your biggest disappointment Patriot player this year?
CR—Ben Watson. I had such high hopes for this guy when he first came to the team, but he's done next to nothing this year. He's been on and off of the injury list, and when he is on the field, he drops passes all the time. He's managed to catch the ball 10 times through eight games and hasn't scored a touchdown yet. Thanks for limiting the potential of my fantasy teams this year, Ben.
WB—Cassel—he isn't Brady.:) Other than that special case? Laurence "Dancing with the Stars" Maroney. Maybe that isn't fair. Maybe next year his "issue" will be cleared up, and he'll be the beast we thought we drafted. I can only go by what I saw, though.
MD—Chad Jackson. No, wait, I guess you actually have to make the team to be a disappointment at this point. I’m going to go with Chad’s draft mate, Laurence Maroney. More injuries, more dancing, see you in 2009.
RB—Without a doubt, Laurence Maroney. He had a chance this year to shake his tap dancing image, but he just cannot stay healthy, whatsoever. I think his time is done in New England.
CR—Kevin Faulk would be my team MVP at this point. He's averaging 5.9 yards per carry on 46 rushing attempts, as well as 25 receptions for 205 yards. Kevin has always been the heart and soul of this team, and time doesn't seem to be getting in his way. He's probably one of the most underrated players in NFL history.
WB—First off, no one has consistently played extremely well, week after week. If that answer is too wishy-washy; weird as it is to say, Ellis Hobbs.
MD—I like Faulk and Hobbs. They are both really vital to the team, but I have to go with Cassel. The Pats might be 7-1 with Brady, but they could easily be 2-6 if Cassel had folded under the pressure of replacing No. 12.
RB—Matt Cassel. The Patriots are 5-3 right now, and I have to say it is largely thanks to Cassel's performance. Sports experts were predicting a five or six-win season when Brady went down, because of Cassel's weak performance in the preseason, but he has shown that he is competent enough to keep the Pats in the playoff hunt.
What do you see as the team's biggest strength? Weakness?
CR—The Pats' biggest strength so far has been depth at running back. I've never seen a team run the ball so efficiently with their starting back out for the season.
The biggest weakness is probably the lack of depth in the defensive backfield. A late edition, Deltha O'Neal, has been one of our better assets out there, and that's not saying much for the credibility of the secondary. Thank goodness for Meriweather and Sanders.
WB—Strength, Matt Cassel. Weakness, Matt Cassel. OK, seriously. When moderately healthy, the running game looks good. Otherwise, the secondary is all rookies and second-year players. (On the "old" defense," but I digress.)
MD—Strength I see is their defensive line. For the most part, they have shut down opposing running games, and when you do that you have a chance to win any game. Seymour, Wilfork, and Warren are the foundation of this team.
I think their biggest weakness has to be pass rush. Vrabel hasn’t been the Vrabel of 2007, and while Adalius Thomas can be a beast, he isn’t one every game.
RB—The biggest strength was running the ball, but that might get weaker if Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan don't come back. Biggest weakness is obviously the secondary, which is why I advocated to re-sign Asante Samuel.
What would you say, at this point, would be the biggest positional need that should be addressed in the offseason?
CR—Apparently, offensive line is a bigger concern than we initially realized. As soon as Tom Brady went down, the sacks starting rolling in, and they haven't really stopped. These guys do what they can, but they're not the best O-line in the AFC, as we all once thought they were.
WB—Um, besides quarterback?:) Offensive linemen would be good. I'd say D-Line, but Seymour does have games where he looks like, well, Seymour. Maybe he'll string a few Seymour-like performances together.
MD—I’d like to see another playmaker in the secondary and maybe a pass-rushing specialist at OLB.
RB—Secondary. Whether through the draft or free agency, the Patriots need to grab another DB or two. I wouldn't mind signing a tight end and getting rid of David Thomas.
CR—I have to be optimistic...What kind of fan would I be if I weren't? I think the Pats will be 7-4 after the next three games, with the one loss coming at the hands of, once again, the Dolphins.
WB—2-1. The loss will be to the Jets, unless bad Brett Favre shows up. It is really hard to sweep your division unless there is a great disparity of ability. With Brady, the Patriots sweep all but the Dolphins. Unfortunately, Cassel is not Brady.
MD—2-1. The Jets game scares me the most. I think Buffalo is too banged up, and the Pats will be fired up to avenge their embarrassing loss to the Dolphins.
What will the final standings in the AFC East be?
CR—Patriots (11-5), Bills (10-6), Jets (9-7), Dolphins (7-9)
WB—Patriots, Dolphins, Bills, Jets
MD—Patriots (11-5), Jets (10-6), Bills (9-7), Dolphins (7-9)
RB—Patriots, Bills, Jets, Dolphins
If you made your own Power Rankings, where do you think the Pats would be ranked right now?
CR—Probably somewhere between 10 and 15. They've got a strong team that's capable of beating anyone at any time, but their inconsistency and lack of offensive firepower brings them down quite a bit.
WB—About the top of the "other" teams. Not great, not dreadful, not average, either.:)
MD—Right around 10. They can play with anyone but could be beaten by anyone on the right day.
RB—I hate power rankings, but I would have to put the Patriots around nine or 10.
What will the Patriots' final record be?
CR—11-5, with losses to the Dolphins and Steelers in their future.
WB—12-4 or 11-5.
MD—11-5, losses to Jets and Steelers.
RB—Since Week One, after Tom went down, I said this team will go 10-6. Prove me right!
Given the Patriots' remaining schedule, and the parity of the AFC, what do you think is the ceiling for them?
CR—I think the ceiling is an 11-5 record, with maybe an appearance in the divisional round of the playoffs. I can't see them advancing past that this year, with the likeliness of facing either Pittsburgh or Tennessee before getting to the the AFC Championship.
WB—Before the season, with Brady, I said 16-0 would be possible. With Cassel, I adjusted that down. I'm sure some will call me a homer, but 12-4. I just don't see any "unwinnable" games on the schedule. (Problem is, I don't see any "unloseable" games after Brady got hurt, either.)
MD—Right now, I say 12-4. They will lose one more AFC East game for sure. The Pittsburgh game will give us a true sense of how good they are. But I think they could win that one. Best-case scenario is they lose one more game, but 2-3 is more likely.
RB—I truly think that they can get a first-round bye, and if they do, anything can happen in the playoffs.
Playoff prediction (if you think they'll make the playoffs, of course)?
CR—We might get past a team like Baltimore or the Jets, but I don't think we're going to make it past the likes of Pittsburgh or Tennessee this year. The inability to close out games will hurt them too much to win a game of that magnitude.
WB—Win Wild Card game (as home division winner) then lose in Divisional round. OK, seriously? In the playoffs, anything can happen.
MD—Win Wild Card game at home as a No. 3 seed, potentially over the Jets. Lose in the divisional round to Tennessee or Pittsburgh.
RB—I think the Patriots will make the AFC Championship Game. The Conference is so weak that I really think this can happen. Yes, We Can!