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Pats Pulpit Fan Questions 1/8/11: First Edition

Welcome to the first edition of Pats Pulpit Fan Questions. This series is similar to a mailbag, but with fewer questions and more in-depth answers. To pose a question, please submit it in the comments for the FanPost "Introducing Pats Pulpit Fan Questions," or in the comments for this article. I hope you enjoy this new feature....

Q: How do you see the Patriots acquiring their quarterback of the future, when Tom Brady is finally done? Will it be a slow process of a couple of years of suckage or will we be able to draft one right away? Also when do you think this will need to be done/When should the team start to focus on looking toward the future at quarterback? - Lakriots

A: The short answer is through the draft, but I'll start with the second part of the question. I think the search for Tom Brady's eventual replacement is currently ongoing, and will continue through the rest of his career. As we saw with Matt Cassel (2005 seventh round), and other recent draft selections like Kevin O'Connell (2008 third round) and Zac Robinson (2010 seventh round), New England is constantly on the lookout for QBs they can groom behind Brady. It would be impossible to find 'another' Brady since Tom is quite possibly the best quarterback of all time. Nonetheless, when he decides to call it quits the Patriots will need a new signal caller.

It was a great benefit having Cassel on the roster to start nearly all of 2008 after Brady was injured, and that year he proved he was ready to be a NFL starting QB. Since Brady had many more years ahead of him, Cassel had to be dealt for the best possible return (2009 second round pick that was used on Patrick Chung). This is all speculation, but had Brady never been injured, it is possible Cassel would not have had the chance to show what he can do, and may have continued as the backup for many seasons, eventually taking over for Brady. This is unlikely because Cassel probably would have taken another offer to win a starting job were it presented once his contract was up, but you never know.

In the case of O'Connell, I think the Patriots saw something in him, and thought it was worth the chance that he could become a great QB, backing up for Brady, then possibly taking over or being traded once his value increased like Cassel. This did not work out, but Bill Belichick felt it was a risk worth taking. He will probably continue to take these risks, especially in the later rounds (Zac Robinson for example), since the potential reward is so huge.

It is difficult to pinpoint when the changeover will take place without knowing how much longer Brady plans to continue his career, and if he will play at a high level for that entire span. I expect Tom to at least serve out the rest of his current contract, which runs through the end of the 2014 season. He will be 37 at that time. Tom loves playing football, and if he is still loving it at 37, I see no reason why he wouldn't sign an extension. It is possible he could play into his forties even. He has never been a particularly mobile quarterback, so a decline in physical tools would not hamper him as much as say a Michael Vick. With the end date of Brady's career such a huge unknown, I don't see how New England can effectively plan for the post-Brady future at this time, so they will likely continue trying to groom quarterbacks behind him until ideally they find a great one who takes the job away from him. If I had to guess at a date, I would say the 2017 season will be the last of the Brady era.

That being said, I would not be surprised if there is a 'caretaker' QB who serves as a bridge between Brady and the future franchise QB. It would take a very fortuitous convergence of circumstances for the younger player to be ready to step up at exactly the same time Brady wants to leave the game. As we have seen from this season where despite a large amount of roster turnover, the Patriots won their division and secured the top seed in the conference, this New England organization doesn't exactly believe in "rebuilding years."

If Brady continues to play at a high level through the end of his career I doubt the Patriots will have a poor enough season to finish with a top-10 draft pick - the traditional way to acquire a franchise QB. Barring a trade for a high pick, the Patriots will likely have to take somebody later in the first round or in the lower rounds, and hope they can coach that player up to franchise QB level. If they do not feel that player is ready when Brady retires, I could see New England bringing in a veteran for a couple seasons to keep the team competitive until the young player could take the reins. This would prevent there being any 'down years.' This seems to be the approach that Cleveland took with their acquisition of Jake Delhomme (although it should be noted that this strategy was not especially successful for the Browns). I am sure that if Bill Belichick is still the coach at that time, he will work hard to improve other aspects of the team such as the running game and the defense so the loss of Brady does not keep the Patriots from being a contender.

To sum up, at this time the variable of how much longer Brady plays makes it difficult to determine exactly when this player will be brought in. I think Tom has at least another five years in him, and possibly as many as ten. I think his long-term replacement will be acquired through the draft, but don't see the Patriots starting a rookie at the most important position in the game, so there may be an 'interim' veteran quarterback in between.


Q: What (or who) makes the Patriots offensive line so good at protecting Brady, and is there a weak link (or side) that teams will try to exploit in the playoffs? - Marima

A: There are a few reasons the Patriots offensive line has had such success protecting Tom Brady, both this season and in the past. A large part of the credit goes to assistant head coach and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Dante has served the Patriots for 26 years, the longest coaching tenure in Patriots history. He is widely regarded as one of the best O-line coaches in the business, and having a seasoned professional who so thoroughly knows what it takes to play on the offensive line in the NFL, and how to get a player there is a huge advantage. I am sure Bill Belichick confers with him when considering drafting a offensive line player, and Dante seems to have a good eye for potential.

Sebastian Vollmer is a great example. He did not start playing football until age 14, and began his college career as a tight end. Vollmer was not invited to participate in the NFL combine, but from reviewing film and discussing with scouts, the Patriots felt he had the qualities necessary to be an excellent right or left tackle. Under Scarnecchia's tutelage, Vollmer was able to start 14 games during his rookie season, filling in for the injured Matt Light and Nick Kaczur. "Sea Bass" is a gifted player, and may have been able to accomplish this impressive feat on any team, but I have little doubt that having an expert coach helped give him the confidence and proper techniques to perform at a high level.

Stephen Neal is a similar story - he was an excellent wrestler in college and did not play football at Cal State-Bakersfield. Scarnecchia helped give him the tools to be a quality right guard for the Patriots. He has started 81 games over has ten NFL seasons, and was part of the offensive line that allowed a team-record (in 16 game seasons) 18 sacks in 2009.

Dan Connolly is another shining example of Scarnecchia's success. Originally brought to the team as a practice squad player, Connolly joined the Patriots active roster for the second time in December 2008.. He was a starter for most of this season, filling in for Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal. Dan is very versatile. He has started at both guard positions, and spent time as a center, tight end and fullback. His athleticism is one of his strong suits, as seen during his incredible record-setting 71-yard kickoff return on December 19th against the Green Bay Packers where he rumbled all the way to the four-yard line, deftly avoiding tacklers and remaining inbounds. Connolly's hard work earned him his current role on the team, and having a coach that prepares you well for the many different positions you may be asked to fill is invaluable.

Another part of the equation is continuity. The Patriots have a core of offensive linemen who have been with the team for a long time. They are used to playing together. They grow beards together. They know the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the squad, and can help out and adjust to make sure the unit keeps Brady upright. Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur have all been with the team since 2005 or before. Offensive linemen are already known for spending a lot of time together as a group, and five years or more of bonding helps when it comes to communication and making adjustments during games. Since they have played with each other and with Brady so long, the line knows how much time they need to give Tom to get a pass off on any given play, and can use a blocking strategy that will provide adequate protection.

It also doesn't hurt that Tom Brady is a well respected leader who often shows the love for his linemen protectors through lavish gifts and compliments during interviews. He has a close relationship with them, and the offensive line shows their respect and appreciation by working their tails off to keep tacklers away from him, and getting scrappy with opponents that threaten his safety during games.

Another reason for the excellent protection Brady receives are the blocking abilities of the Patriots running backs and tight ends. Kevin Faulk does a great job of picking up blitzes, and Danny Woodhead, despite his size, is adept as well. Alge Crumpler is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, and the massive Rob Gronkowski is not far behind him. In 2007 the Patriots had tight end Kyle Brady who was such a skilled blocker that it was almost like having six linemen. It seemed that Brady had ages to throw the ball that year. Having skill players who can also block is something New England values, and it shows. This season the Patriots allowed 25 sacks, fourth fewest in the league, and they have been in the top ten in that category for six of the past seven years.

The final piece of the puzzle is Brady himself. In 2008, the year he was injured, the Patriots allowed 48 sacks, fifth most in the NFL that season. Tom's ability to recognize where the blitz is coming from and adjust the play call to accommodate helps him avoid taking hits. He develops good understandings with his receivers so he knows exactly where they will be, which is an advantage when you need to get rid of the ball quickly. New England relies on a lot of short routes which don't give opponents time to get to the quarterback, and Brady has a good mental clock that lets him know when he's held the ball too long and needs to throw it away. All these things help keep the quarterback on his feet.

Due to the offensive line's reliance on teamwork I don't think there is exactly a 'weak link' or side on this team. Each lineman has weaknesses, for example Matt Light can sometimes struggle blocking speed rushers (who doesn't), and Dan Koppen can occasionally be out-muscled by particularly strong defensive tackles, but the unit usually adjusts to help out one of their members when faced with a tough assignment. Obviously Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer are the newer faces on the line, but I don't think either of them will be specifically targeted by defensive coordinators.

The strategy of sending multiple rushers through the middle has given New England problems at times this year, but I see that as more of a good strategy on the defense's part than a weakness of the offensive line. One might claim that center Dan Koppen is to blame for that, but it is not a particular lineman's fault if there are more rushers than there are blockers available, and rushing five, six or even seven defenders has always been a good (albeit risky) way to get to the quarterback. Defenses will definitely try to pressure Brady in the playoffs, and since the NFL is a copycat league I would not be surprised if teams try blitzing up the middle. However, I think the Patriots will look at all their weaknesses and try to improve in those areas during the two weeks they have to prepare for their next game.

There are many reasons the offensive line is one of New England's strengths, and it starts with drafting talented players with a good work ethic and attitude. Dante Scarnecchia's wisdom and the efforts of the entire coaching staff help prepare players to do their jobs, and the culture of the Patriots encourages them to take pride in their work even at the unglamorous offensive line positions. When teammates trust each other and respect their leaders it helps them be more successful on the field. Linemen see protecting their quarterback as a point of pride, and when you feel that everyone on the team is pulling in the same direction it motivates you to be the best you can. New England will have some turnover at the offensive line positions in the next few seasons, but the system they have in place should ensure that the new players understand their responsibilities and are well trained to carry them out.