Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bard signing raises questions about Varitek, Wakefield

No one, apparently, seems to be wondering about the Red Sox's signing of catcher Josh Bard to a one-year deal. Bard, we all remember, was supposed to be a replacement for Doug Mirabelli as Tim Wakefield's personal catcher; he instead was a disaster and was shipped to San Diego for Mirabelli in a deal that cost the Red Sox reliever Cla Meredith.

It's almost baffling that the Red Sox would sign Bard again, especially to anything more than a minor-league contract or the major-league minimum. We already know he can't catch the knuckleball. And if he can't catch the knuckleball, why would the Red Sox sign him?

Some possibilities:

Jason Varitek, a free agent for whom there seems to be next to no market, could return and catch Wakefield.
This makes some semblance of sense; the Red Sox might have decided that it's not worth having a catcher like Mirabelli or Kevin Cash who provides next to nothing offensively -- particularly since Wakefield is the sort of pitcher for whom you need to score as many runs as possible. But Varitek has only caught

The last time Varitek caught Wakefield more than once in the regular season was 2005 -- and in opponents' 112 plate appearances against that battery, they hit .311 and reched base at a .432 clip. In their 831 plate appearances with Mirabelli catching, opponents hit .237 and reached base at a .290 clip.

Varitek hasn't caught Wakefield more than four times in a season since 2002. It's conceivable the Red Sox could try it again, but it seems an odd thing to do at this point in his career.

Then again, maybe the Red Sox still anticipate trading for another young catcher (i.e. Jarrod Saltalamacchia) and have faith that he could catch Wakefield better than Bard ever did.

Tim Wakefield's days are numbered in the Red Sox rotation.
This is the other one. The Red Sox picked up Tim Wakefield's perpetual $4 million option after the season because it made too much sense not to do so; anytime you can get a useful arm for $4 million, you do it.

But that doesn't necessarily mean he's guaranteed a spot in the rotation, either. As it stands now, there are seven or eight candidates for those five spots, and Wakefield is the only one who requires a catcher with a unique talent -- which apparently also requires a unique inability to hit better than .230 -- behind the plate.

Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka are assured of their spots. The last two spots, though, will come down to Wakefield, Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson and the about-to-be-signed Brad Penny. If Penny is healthy, he's an All-Star-caliber pitcher. If Buchholz shows in spring training he's past the jitters of a season ago, he's capable of making a Lester-type leap. And if both pitch the way they're capable of pitching, there might not be a spot for Wakefield.

What then? Do they put him in the bullpen? Long relief? An ego-bruising trip to Pawtucket? Or does he ride off into the sunset of his career -- and thus make Josh Bard's inability to catch the knuckleball completely irrelevant?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Is Sammy Morris the long-term answer at running back?

Another question the Patriots face this offseason, on top of those laid out here, is how to approach their situation at running back.

Patriots running backs had a spectacular season; the team rushed for more yards (2,135) than it had in any season since 1985. Sammy Morris rushed for 727 yards in 13 games this season and averaged 4.7 yards per carry -- and he memorably ran right over hard-hitting Buffalo safety Donte Whitner on Sunday. Among running backs with as many carries (156) as Morris this season, only six had a better yards-per-carry average.

LaMont Jordan missed two months in the middle of the season but rushed for 97, 78 and 64 yards in his three full games back from injury. He also rushed for 62 yards on 11 carries in Week 2 against the Jets, his last game with more than 10 carries before he got hurt.

Laurence Maroney played in just three games this season before going on injured reserve. Last season, he played in 13 games and started six; he rushed for 835 yards (with an average of 4.5 yards per carry) in that time. It's not far-fetched to wonder if Maroney ever is going to make it.

Morris is under contract for two more seasons. Maroney is under contract for two more seasons. Jordan is an unrestricted free agent.

There are two big questions: Who comes back? Who comes in?

Jordan isn't necessarily a feature back; he rushed for 1,000 yards in 2005 with the Oakland Raiders, but he spent four years as a complementary back with the New York Jets and seemed to be a perfect fit as a complementary back with the Patriots this season. If he's willing to come back on those terms, the Patriots would be foolish not to sign him. If he wants to make the same money as starting running backs, though, the Patriots likely will let him walk.

Maroney might get one last chance to prove himself; then again, this season might have been his one last chance. He might be done as a Patriot. Then again, his salary against the cap ($1.6 million according to this very unofficial source) is less than the cap hit the Patriots would take ($2.1 million) if they cut him after June 1. His contract doesn't expire until 2010. Either way, the Patriots certainly are not going to count on him as a starting running back next season.

Morris is the wild card. The Patriots have to decide this winter and spring if he's capable of being a starting running back on a championship-caliber team or not. He played awfully well this season when healthy; his contribution was a critical part of the Patriots' getting to 11 wins. But he's still going to be 32 years old next season, and the production of running backs can drop precipitously once they hit their early 30s.

The Patriots easily could bring back Morris and Jordan, cut Maroney and keep BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a third running back. But if they don't want to bank on Morris or Maroney, they could go after a running back in this spring's draft and try to find an impact player in the first round. Chris Johnson (first round, Tennessee), Jonathan Stewart (first round, Carolina), Matt Forte (second round, Chicago), Ray Rice (second round, Baltimore), Steve Slaton (third round, Houston) and Tim Hightower (fifth round, Arizona) all had great rookie seasons.

One possible fit for the Patriots? Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy should be available late in the first round; Georgia's Knowshon Moreno and Ohio State's Beanie Wells might slip, too. Iowa's Shonn Greene, coached by Belichick protege Kirk Ferentz, rushed for 1,729 yards this season and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top college running back; he will make his decision about an NFL jump in the coming weeks. He might be a late first-round talent, which is right where the Patriots will be picking.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What do we know about the Patriots?

An interesting discussion unfolded among some of the reporters waiting for the Patriots to return to Gillette Stadium on Sunday night: What have we learned about the Patriots after a 16-game season? What do we know for certain?

The consensus answer: Not much.

This is a team that feasted on the dregs on the NFL: The Patriots won by at least 20 points three times, including back-to-back routs of Oakland and Arizona this month. This also is a team that got its butt kicked when it didn't show up: The Patriots lost by at least 20 points three times, including a 33-10 whipping at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers in a demoralizing game at the end of November.

This is a team with zero quality wins. Technically, they did beat playoff teams in Arizona and Miami, but no one's confusing either of those teams with juggernauts. And with chances to beat other contenders like San Diego, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, the Patriots fell flat. (They did have a chance to beat Indianapolis in the fourth quarter, but that also was before the Colts turned into the steam-roller that might be considered the favorite to win the AFC, particularly if Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger misses time with his concussion.)

All that tells you is that the Patriots were neither terrible nor outstanding.

This also is a team with a roster of players that's difficult to evaluate.

Matt Cassel played great this season, but no one knows (a) how well he'd play next season if Tom Brady wasn't available, or (b) how well he'd play for a quarterback-hungry team like the Vikings once he was out of the Patriots' system.

Gary Guyton was a serviceable fill-in at linebacker for an aging and then injured Tedy Bruschi, but is he really an NFL starter? It's hard to know. Fellow undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis sure looked like an NFL starter for a couple of games, but the fact that the Patriots scratched him for almost the entire month of December has to tell you something.

Is Jonathan Wilhite a contributor or a fill-in? Will the offensive line remain intact? What position is Brandon Meriweather going to play long-term? Tough to know.

About all we know after this season is that Wes Welker is no one-year fluke and that Jerod Mayo is the real deal at linebacker. We know that Stephen Gostkowski is a keeper, and we know that you can win games with Sammy Morris as your best running back. We know that Josh McDaniels is a hot commodity on the coaching market, and we know that Bill Belichick is sensational when it comes to juggling roster parts.

Injuries can be used as an excuse for just about anything. And if there's an excuse for just about everything, it's hard to learn many lessons from this past season.

Pats' depth at running back the difference against Bills

The injured players New England had to put on the shelf for the duration of the season, more than a dozen in all, have been greatly missed.

Two of the injured players who came back, though, were the ones who saved the Patriots’ season.

LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris each missed time with injuries this season; Morris missed three games with a knee injury, and Jordan missed a month and a half with a calf injury. But the two rushed for a combined 214 yards in a rout of the Oakland Raiders and 166 yards in another pounding of the Arizona Cardinals last week.

That meant the Patriots had three running backs, when you throw in the ever-versatile Kevin Faulk, to pound against the Bills’ defense in a game in which neither team threw a pass into the wind in the first half.

The Bills, meanwhile, had Fred Jackson and no one else. Jackson rushed for 103 yards in the first half but almost nothing in the second half as the New England defense seized control of a game the Patriots had to win. Part of it had to do with the score. Part of it had to do with the fact that Jackson, even up against a retirement-home linebacking corps, couldn't do it all by himself.

When the Bills needed to convert on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t Jackson who had the ball. Jackson was barely a decoy. Instead, Trent Edwards missed Josh Reed with a pass into the flat, and with that, the game effectively was over.

But the Patriots had Jordan (38 yards on eight first-half carries) and Morris (29 yards on 11 carries) still fresh and Faulk still available. That paid off in a big way in the second half. Morris finished with 84 rushing yards; he had 55 yards on 13 carries after halftime. Jordan finished with 64 rushing yards. Faulk caught an eight-yard pass for a first down.

The depth of the Patriots' corps of running backs decided this game. How else could Morris have been fresh enough to run straight through Bills safety Donte Whitner on the final play of the third quarter?

This wasn’t just a good season for the Patriots’ run game. This was a historic season for the Patriots’ run game. Not since 1985 had the Patriots rushed for this many yards; not since 1981 had the Patriots rushed for this many touchdowns.

When Tom Brady went down, it felt like the season was over. When Laurence Maroney went down, it felt like the Patriots would have to survive with a dominant pass game (in the hands of star receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker) and a patchwork run game.

Instead, the team won 11 games and would have earned a playoff bid if just one of any number of things had gone their way. And without Morris, Jordan, Faulk and even BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rushed for at least 50 yards three times after Morris and Jordan went down, this team wouldn't have had anywhere close to 11 wins.

Play of the game a punt?

The play of today's Patriots game might have been a punt -- and not even the surprise 57-yarder that Matt Cassel unleashed on third-and-8 in the fourth quarter.

It was the punt that set up the game's only touchdown.

Punting into the wind today was almost impossible; the swirling winds made it difficult even to punt with the wind at the kicker's back. Brian Moorman opened the game with a 13-yard punt, and it didn't get much easier from there. Moorman's second punt was better, but he got it too high and the wind knocked it down after 35 yards.

By the time Hanson had to punt on fourth-and-12 early in the third quarter, he hadn't yet had to punt into the wind. (He'd dropped a 35-yarder inside the 20 in the first quarter, but it skipped off the hands of Leodis McKelvin and into the end zone.) He'd only had a chance to watch what the wind did when Moorman kicked -- and what the wind did when both teams' field-goal kickers tried to take aim at the uprights.

But facing the wind earl in the third quarter, Hanson unleased a low line drive that took a friendly hop and went for 46 yards, turning lousy field position -- Hanson was standing inside his own 10-yard line -- into friendly field position. The Bills had to take over at their own 36.

And the Bills had only made it to midfield when Jarvis Green strip-sacked Trent Edwards to force the game's only turnover. Eleven plays later, including a Matt Cassel designed run on fourth-and-2, the game's most brilliant play call, the Patriots were in the end zone and had a 10-0 lead.

Cassel's run was fantastic. LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris were relentless. But if Hanson shanked that punt from deep in his own end, the entire game might have changed.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Don't overrate Yankees too much

Yep, Mark Teixeira is a great hitter. Yep, Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez form a 3-4 punch in the middle of the Yankees' lineup that rivals anything David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez ever did or were.

Let's keep things in perspective, though. Let's not get too carried away. Let's remember that the rest of the Yankees' lineup is full of players who aren't close to the level at which Teixeira and A-Rod play the game.

Here's what the Yankees' lineup looked like last season on Opening Day:
Damon, LF (34 years old, .303, 17 HRs)
Jeter, SS (34, .300, 11)
Abreu, RF (34, .296, 20)
Rodriguez, 3B (32, .305, 35)
Giambi, 1B (37, .247, 32)
Cano, 2B (25, .271, 14)
Posada, C (36, .216, 3)
Matsui, DH (34, .294, 9)
Cabrera, CF (23, .249, 8)

Here's what the Yankees' lineup likely will look like this season on Opening Day, barring further moves:
Damon, LF (now 35 years old)
Jeter, SS (to be 35)
Teixeira, 1B (to be 28; .308 and 33 last season)
Rodriguez, 3B (to be 35)
Swisher, CF (now 28; .219 and 24)
Nady, RF (now 30; .305 and 25)
Matsui, DH (to be 35)
Posada, C (to be 37 going on 67)
Cano, 2B (now 26)

Is it better?

Yes, Teixeira is an upgrade. But in case you didn't notice, Jason Giambi had a fine season last season. Giambi hit .247, sure, but he reached base at a .373 clip -- and he hit 32 home runs. Teixeira, on the other hand, reached base at a .410 clip. That's the type of upgrade we're talking about. Thirty-seven on-base percentage points. And in power, it's a wash. Teixeira also is, of course, a tremendous defensive first baseman, and that's going to help, but you don't win championships with your defense at first base.

Swisher and Nady likewise will be big contributors for an outfield that otherwise would consist of senior citizens (Damon and Matsui) and youngsters who haven't yet done anything (Cabrera and Brett Gardner). Rodriguez is still Rodriguez; his numbers in 2008 were at least equal to the numbers he had back when he was a young pup in Seattle.

But the rest of the lineup is old and getting older. Jeter has seen his on-base percentage and slugging percentage drop in each of the past three seasons; it was .417 and .483 in 2006 and .363 and .408 in 2008. It's not a precipitous drop, but it's also not a good trend for a guy who's got a lot of mileage on him already. Posada's ability to play catcher every day is so questionable that some assumed the Yankees would avoid Teixeira just so Posada could play first base once in a while.

Yes, there's still the pitching. No matter what some are saying, trading Mike Mussina (20 wins and a 3.37 ERA at age 39) for CC Sabathia (a workhorse who will turn 29 this season) does not represent treading water. The Yankees are a better pitching staff with Sabathia. They're also a better pitching staff with A.J. Burnett than with Andy Pettitte, Sidney Ponson or Darrell Rasner. There's no question about that, no matter what Burnett's injury or attitude history.

But the rotation still is going to include at least one of the young arms and probably two -- Joba Chamberlain and either Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy. Chamberlain had a 2.76 ERA and saw opponents hit .245 against him as a starter this year; don't be surprised if he makes a Jon Lester-like leap this season. But Hughes and Kennedy both bombed, and there's no guarantee they're going to rebound right away. Plenty of overhyped young pitchers have bombed and never made it; just ask the late '90s Red Sox.

Some believe the Yankees spent extravagently to buy themselves the American League East. If you break it down, though, you'll find that the Yankees spent almost half a billion dollars to do just a little more than tread water. They -- unlike the Red Sox -- needed Teixeira just to tread water. The race is far from over. In fact, it's just getting interesting.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As in A-Rod saga, Henry's woe-is-me rings hollow

Here's what Red Sox owner John Henry had to say last night after the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira, a player the Red Sox reportedly had coveted for years:

"From the moment we arrived in Boston in late 2001, we saw (competing with the Yankees) as a monumental challenge. We sought to reduce the financial gap and succeeded to a degree. Now with a new stadium filled with revenue opportunities, they have leaped away from us again. So we have to be even more careful in deploying our resources."

Not so fast, Mr. Henry. The Red Sox offered somewhere in the neighborhood of $170 million. The Yankees won the bidding war with a contract in the neighborhood of $180 million. That works out to about $1.1 million per year over the eight years of the deal.

That's not New Yankee Stadium money. That's Jose Molina money.

It's fun to be the underdog, the team without the overwhelming resources of the Evil Empire. But when you spend $51.1 million to land negotiating rights with Daisuke Matsuzaka, you aren't the underdog anymore. Your cries for sympathy ring awfully hollow.

The Red Sox lost this one. They thought they were calling Scott Boras' bluff, and it backfired on them. It happens, just like it happened in the Alex Rodriguez negotiations in 2003, when the Red Sox got hung up over what amounted to chump change on a payroll north of $100 million. Sure, that one worked out in the end, but we'd look at the deal very differently had Dave Roberts been thrown out at second base.

The Red Sox had a shot then to get Rodriguez and didn't do it -- not because the Yankees have such overwhelming resources, but because they were trying to save $4 million a season.

What's $4 million? It's less than half of what they'll pay Julio Lugo to sit on the bench for the next two years. It's a little more than half of what they paid Manny Ramirez to play for the Dodgers in August, September and October.

The Red Sox had a shot to get Teixeira this week and didn't do it -- not because the Yankees have a new stadium, but because they held a line with Scott Boras to save $10 million.

What's $10 million? It's a fraction of what they paid just to sit down at a table with Dice-K.

“There is really no other fair way to deal with a team that has gone so insanely far beyond the resources of all the other teams,” Henry said after Rodriguez landed in New York.

Fired back George Steinbrenner, “Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston. It is understandable but wrong that he would try to deflect the accountability for his mistakes on to others and to a system for which he voted in favor."

The Yankees are and always will be the Yankees. The Red Sox, though, aren't exactly the Pittsburgh Pirates. Steinbrenner was right then and would be right if he said the same thing again today. Henry can't have it both ways.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Draft picks

Baseball teams never used to care much about draft picks. Free agents were where it was at; if it cost a draft pick or two to sign a pitcher like Kevin Brown or a shortstop like Alex Rodriguez, so be it. Cost of doing business. Whatever.

The pendulum has swung hard the other way, thanks in large part to the Moneyball A's -- as well as the Minnesota Twins and other small-market teams who have built themselves on young talent rather than acquired veterans.

Has it swung too far, though?

Here are a few excerpts from recent Buster Olney columns on, columns surveying the landscape of free agency:

"All but two of the free agents who were offered arbitration turned it down in the hopes of landing multiyear deals elsewhere. But increasingly, it appears that the Jason Variteks and Orlando Cabreras are going to have a difficult time landing deals that match what they might have made in arbitration. "With everything that's going on, and the way the prices are dropping, there's no way I'd give Orlando Cabrera a two-year deal for big money -- not when I have to give up a draft pick," a club official said. "Not a chance." "

"Give the representatives for Francisco Rodriguez some credit, because they jumped at the three-year, $37 million deal at the right time -- partly out of concern that the market for closers was about to plummet for anybody who didn't act right away. Now Brian Fuentes, a Type A free agent, is struggling to find suitable bidders, his market hurt by the fact that any team that signs him will lose draft picks. Wrote here weeks ago that the Rockies had a fleeting hope of eventually re-signing Fuentes for a three-year deal, if his market dragged down his asking price in their range. "

And from a list of teams who might be in the market for Fuentes (in a different column):
"Brewers: He would fit in nicely for them as a closer, but it remains to be seen whether GM Doug Melvin will be willing to spend money on a multiyear deal for a reliever again, and whether the Brewers would be open to losing a draft pick in a year in which they should already get compensation picks for both Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia."

"Braves: Atlanta has had a tough winter getting anyone to take their money. So maybe they change direction and bolster their bullpen with an addition like Fuentes. But again, the sacrifice of the draft pick might be a sticking point."

The rule, as a reminder, is that team that signs a Type A free agent loses its first-round draft pick; the club that loses that free agent also gets a supplemental draft pick. Much of the focus of "Moneyball" was the strategy employed by A's general manager Billy Beane -- he would stockpile veterans about to hit free agency, get what he could out of them, and then cash in on their draft picks when they left. It appears he's doing that again with Matt Holliday.

But the "Moneyball" mantra really was far simpler than that. Beane simply wanted to acquire what was undervalued and discard what was overvalued. On-base guys, college players, pending free agents -- all fell under the umbrella of undervalued, and that's what Beane coveted them.

Draft picks, clearly, no longer are undervalued. And if what Olney writes is indicative of the way major league teams are approaching the offseason, they're almost in danger of becoming overvalued. First-round draft picks are fantastic -- but they don't all yield B.J. Upton or Prince Fielder. They just don't. Most first-round draft picks fail to make even a single All-Star team. Teams find plenty of value in later rounds; Dustin Pedroia was a second-round pick for a Red Sox team, for example, that didn't have its first-round pick that year.

Everything is a trade-off; if you sign Fuentes, you lose your first-round pick. But if you take a look at a couple of recent drafts, you'll see that proven-reliever-for-draft-pick might not be such a bad trade, after all. (We'll use the 2001 and 2002 drafts; they're far enough back that players have had a chance to show what they can do and make an impact at the big-league level.)

Picks 1-5: Four for five. Joe Mauer is the best catcher in baseball; Mark Prior should have been a star if not for Dusty Baker; Gavin Floyd won 17 games for the White Sox this season (not the Phillies, who drafted him); Mark Teixeira is going to make $180 million sooner rather than later. Tampa Bay's Dewon Brazelton was drafted No. 3 overall; his career ERA is 6.38.
Picks 6-10: One for five, barely. Chris Burke hit a big postseason home run for the Houston Astros; he also hit .194 last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Three of the others drafted in this range never reached the big leagues and are out of baseball.
Picks 11-20: Three for 10 -- again, barely. Two of those three are journeymen Gabe Gross and Aaron Heilman. Casey Kotchman, drafted No. 13, still has a chance to be a star despite two rough months with the Braves to finish last season. Three of the others in this range have played a combined 14 seasons at Double-A.
Picks 21-30: Four for 10, and that's if we count Rookie of the Year-turned-flameout Bobby Crosby. Much-hyped Yankees prospect John-Ford Griffin, for example, went nowhere; he's had 23 major-league at-bats with the Toronto Blue Jays and spent all of 2008 at Triple-A Las Vegas. Brad Hennessey is a useful pitcher for the Giants; Jeremy Bonderman remains a success story since rebounding from a 19-loss season; Noah Lowry won 14 games for the Giants this season.
Overall: Twelve for 30 -- but eight for 25 once you get outside the top five.

Picks 1-5: One for five. Yikes. B.J. Upton is a star. He might have been the ALCS MVP had the Rays held onto that 7-0 lead in Game 5, a game in which Upton hit a two-run home run in the first inning. The rest of the list? Bryan Bullington, Chris Gruler, Adam Loewen (who still has a chance to make it with the Orioles) and Clint Everts (who hasn't yet made it past Single-A ball in the Nationals' system).
Picks 6-10: Three for five. Better. Zack Grienke is the Royals' ace, Prince Fielder is one of the game's best young sluggers, and Jeff Francis went 17-9 for the Rockies in 2007 before enduring a rough, injury-plagued year this year.
Picks 11-20: Seven for 10. This is where the real haul comes: No. 12 Joe Saunders went 17-7 last season for the Angels; No. 15 Scott Kazmir is an ace, though not for the Mets; No. 17 Cole Hamels was this year's World Series MVP. No. 13 Khalil Greene (Padres) and No. 14 Russ Adams (Blue Jays) are useful if mediocre middle infielders. No. 11 Jeremy Hermida is a serviceable if not sensational corner outfielder. No. 16 Nick Swisher hit 35 home runs three years ago and might start at first base for the Yankees this season. No. 19 James Loney and No. 20 Denard Span look like they're on the verge of breaking out for the Dodgers and Twins, respectively.
Picks 21-30: Either one or four for 10, however you want to break it down. Matt Cain, Jeremy Guthrie and Joe Blanton both look like they'll be adequate but not sensational pitchers for the next few years. (Cain has the most hype surrounding him, but he hasn't quite taken the leap yet.) Jeff Francoeur still hasn't quite figured it out for the Braves. But that's about it.
Overall: We'll go with 15 for 30 -- and that's with a pretty star-studded haul in the middle of the first round.

What do we learn? We learn that your chances of landing an above-average major league player in the first round of those two drafts was a little less than 50-50. Yes, there was some huge names -- Teixeira, Fielder, Kazmir, Hamels. But once you get beyond those, you're looking at players like Bonderman and Burke and Francoeur and Heilman, players who perennially are trade bait for teams looking to land someone with more impact.

Losing a first-round pick hurts. But let's not pretend first-round draft picks are guaranteed like currency. Yes, you'd pass up a reliever like Brian Fuentes to draft Scott Kazmir. But would you give him up to draft Dewon Brazelton?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jets lose! Jets lose!

The New York Jets opened the door for the Patriots today with their loss at Seattle. Here's how things now look in the AFC East:

1. Miami, 10-5
2. New England, 10-5
3. New York Jets, 9-6
4. Buffalo, 6-8

If the Dolphins win next Sunday against the Jets, both teams would be 9-3 in common games; the Dolphins would have an 8-4 record in AFC games to the Patriots' record of 7-5 and thus win the division title.

The Patriots, then still need some help. But there are ways to get that help. Among them:
* From Jacksonville. If the Jaguars beat the Ravens and the Patriots beat the Bills, the Patriots could qualify as the wild card. That's something of a tall order as the Jaguars have won just once since Nov. 9; they're 1-5 since then.
* From the Jets. If the Jets win or tie against the Dolphins and the Patriots beat the Bills, the Patriots would win the AFC East for the sixth straight season. That might be a tall order, too, given that the Jets have lost three of four and would have lost four of four if not for J.P. Losman's inexplicable fumble a week ago.

There's still a chance. The Patriots absolutely have to win in Buffalo on Sunday, but there still are plausible scenarios that would get them into the playoffs.

"Whatever else happens, happens," Bill Belichick said. "There’s nothing we can do about that. We just have to do what we can do, which was win today and go out there and play well against Buffalo next week."

What the Hoch was going on?

Offensive lineman. Fullback. Master of secrecy.

You need it? Russ Hochstein can do it. He'll block on the line of scrimmage; he'll block out of the backfield in front of Sammy Morris or LaMont Jordan. And if someone -- say, a reporter from your local daily newspaper out of Manchester -- wants to know about how long he's been practicing at fullback, he'll keep his team's secrets under wraps.

"I can't give away strategic details like that," Hochstein said with a straight face. "I'll just say that we work on it."

With the way things went on Sunday against Arizona, it's clear they've been working on it quite a bit. Hochstein lined up at tight end or fullback -- checking in as an eligible receiver -- on more than a few occasions and had a huge role in the Patriots' 183 rushing yards in Sunday's 47-7 rout.

"We wouldn't have had half as many yards if Russ wasn't back there," guard Logan Mankins said -- though Hochstein was sitting right next to him, so maybe he had to say that.

Hochstein said he's not going to catch any passes anytime soon; he said he'd have to hit the JUGS machine and show he can catch the ball in practice before they throw it to him in a game. But the chance to hit a defensive player on the move rather than right out of his defensive stance is reward enough.

"When you're 300 pounds, trying to get running and moving, it's always a better thing for a fat guy," he said.

(He's not just a fat guy, though; when Mankins was asked why Hochstein got to play fullback and the rest of the offensive line didn't get that chance, Hochstein chimed in, "Because I'm so athletic.")

True to the company line -- and his new Master of Mystery persona -- Hochstein professed ignorance when asked why he lined up in the backfield so often on Sunday. It might have been the weather; it might have been the matchup. Who knows?

"We had it in our mind, but that's something you'd have to ask the coaches, whether it's weather-related or the Arizona Cardinals or what it was," he said. "But they asked me to do it and we prepared, and we went out and did it."

There'snow angels allowed

OK, so here's the rule that applies to Wes Welker's snow angel in the first half: A player cannot go to the ground to celebrate a touchdown unless he is praying.

Here's my question: You can go to the ground to pray, but not to make an angel?


The trivia question posed after the first quarter at Gillette Stadium today asked fans to name the Patriots' all-time leading scorer. The answer was Adam Vinatieri. When the answer was revealed on the video boards, a healthy contingent of fans lustily booed. (Side note: When else do we use the word "lustily" besides when describing booing? Is it one of those words like "impeccably," which only really refers to the way someone is dressed?)

Sure, maybe they were booing just to keep warm. But there are plenty of ways to keep warm on a day like this -- throwing snowballs at the field has been one popular way of keeping warm so far, as well as a popular way of celebrating special occasions like touchdowns, first downs or rushes for no gain. I'm still waiting for a snowball to hit one of the Minutemen behind the end zones and for that particular Minuteman to turn his musket on the crowd.

It brings up an idea discussed in today's Sox Beat column, an idea many have discussed during the Red Sox's drawn-out pursuit of slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira -- loyalty.

Namely, do the Red Sox owe any loyalty to players like Kevin Youkilis or Mike Lowell, players who carried them to a World Series title barely a year ago? Are sports just a business in which players are disposable parts like uniforms or ticket stubs? And if teams do show loyalty, can that pay off for them in future negotiations?

Vinatieri was, and remains, one of the most important players in the history of the New England Patriots. There's no disputing that fact. His three most dramatic kicks -- his Snow Bowl kick to beat Oakland and his Super Bowl-winning kicks to beat St. Louis and Carolina -- will never fade away from franchise lore.

Since he signed with the rival Indianapolis Colts, though, he's apparently persona non grata with the fans at Gillette Stadium. He left as a free agent; he was disloyal to the team with which he'd spend his entire career. The end result -- he's booed even when he's not in the stadium, when just his name appears on the Jumbotron.

That's fine. If you believe in sentiment, if you think Vinatieri should have turned down more money to stay with the team that drafted him, that's fine. A pretty good group of Patriots fans seemed to believe that. But that same fan base now seems awfully eager to get rid of Mike Lowell to make room for Mark Teixeira; they suddenly throw sentiment to the wind now that there's a chance to get a $200 million first baseman who might be one of the complete hitters in the major leagues.

Vinatieri did what was best for him; his $12 million contract (with a $3.5 million signing bonus) set up his family for a couple of generations. By signing the in-his-prime Teixeira and trading the aging Lowell, the Red Sox would be doing what's best for them, too. There's no question it would make them a better team.

You either believe in loyalty, or you don't. You either expect your team and your players to treat sports like a business, or you don't. You can't have it both ways.

It's a beautiful day for football

As much as we media members will try to force the snow storyline down your throats today, don't be fooled -- the conditions aren't that terrible. It's football, and it's a beautiful day for football.

Yes, it's cold and it's snowing. But the field actually looks great right now; it was tarp-covered until two hours before the game, and it was freshly plowed about half an hour before the game. Snow gradually is covering it again, but at this point, it looks really good. Winds also are only about 10 miles per hour, which isn't enough to affect all that much.

The ground still will be slick; wide receivers on both sides will have trouble getting too quick of a release off the line of scrimmage, and it'll be tough to hold onto the ball. But both teams have plenty more to deal with than just the elements.

Cowboys can't help Patriots

OK, so here's where things stand after the Ravens' somewhat surprising win over Dallas on Saturday night:

* The Ravens get into the playoffs with a win over Jacksonville in Week 17. If they lose (or tie) that game, it'll be about as bad of a Week 17 choke as we've seen in a while; the Jaguars have completely collapsed down the stretch.

* The Patriots, then, would only be able to get into the playoffs as the AFC East champion. For them to do that, they need the Jets and Dolphins each to lose at least once. The most plausible scenario would be for the Jets to lose at Seattle on Sunday and then to beat the Dolphins at home in Week 17, but any scenario in which neither team goes 2-0 down the stretch would work.

That's pretty much it. The Cowboys could have cleared a smooth road for the Patriots with a win on Saturday night, but it didn't happen. All of New England suddenly will have to be rooting for the Seahawks and Chiefs on Sunday -- one of them needs to pull an upset for the Patriots to have any realistic hope of making the playoffs.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow no advantage for youngest Patriots

The hoodies were out in force in the Patriots' locker room today. With bad weather expected on Sunday, Bill Belichick had his team outdoors and exposed to the elements for their final practice of the week. Center Dan Koppen had a bomber cap with ear flaps under his helmet; special-teamer Ray Ventrone, the first player out on the Gillette Stadium field for practice, looked like the Michelin Man with so many layers on under his white practice jersey.

The easy thing to do this week is to assume that the cold weather is an advantage for the home team. The Patriots, after all, play in cold weather year after year; some of their most memorable wins have come in the snow. Long snapper Lonie Paxton might be best known for the snow angel he performed in the Foxboro Stadium end zone in 2001.

But a good-sized group of Patriots have just as much experience in cold weather as the Arizona Cardinals do. More than half of their defensive players grew up either in California or south of the Mason-Dixon line.

"The guys we've got from Georgia, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Tennessee -- some of the younger guys here aren't exactly from a winter wonderland," Belichick said.

Two of those are former first-round picks Jerod Mayo (from Hampton, Va., and Tennessee) and Brandon Meriweather (from Apopka, Fla., and Miami). The two answered questions together in the Patriots' locker room today; they were joking around at first, but they got serious when the topic of cold weather came up.

"I've been here for a year, so I have a little experience, but not as much as some of the other guys do," Meriweather said. "I'm sure it'll be a little bit (of help), but not much."

Said Mayo, "I've played in cold games, but no snow. It might be a first for me. ... I'm always looking forward to another challenge, and this should be a great one."

Meriweather's best advice for the rookie?

"Dress warm," he said.

Belichick did his best to downplay the elements -- by this time in most players' careers, he said, the idea of flying to the opposite coast or playing in unfriendly elements shouldn't be a big deal at all. And if it snows, it'll affect Matt Cassel -- a native of southern California -- just as much as it affects Kurt Warner.

"These guys have all played in cold weather," Belichick said. "They've all played in these kind of situations. ... I'd be surprised if there's too many players who haven't experienced these conditions. I mean, (Cardinals wide receiver Larry) Fitzgerald went to Pitt. He's probably be in this as much as some of our players."

Wilhite not pressing in new role for Pats

Ashley Lelie, the veteran wide receiver, never turned to look for the ball. He had a rookie cornerback running step-for-step with him into the end zone; there was nowhere for his quarterback to throw the ball over the top.

And when the throw sailed short, intentionally or not, Lelie never turned to look for it. It was the rookie cornerback – a rookie cornerback who had just three interceptions in three seasons of college football – who turned to look for it. It was the rookie cornerback who went up and snatched it out of the air.

“Being a corner, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t waiting for my first pick,” Jonathan Wilhite said Wednesday, back at Gillette Stadium. “I only had (three) in college, so to have my first one my rookie year in the NFL, it’s a blessing, man. I look forward to many more.”

Wilhite had played three seasons of press coverage at Auburn; he spent most of his career jamming wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and trying to throw them off their route. He almost never started a snap six yards off the line of scrimmage, the way he did on this particular second-quarter play against Lelie.

That meant he rarely got a chance to look for the football. It normally was enough to stay step-for-step with the wide receiver and just to get his hands in the way. (He did plenty of that; he knocked down 14 passes in his career at Auburn.)

“It was a way different game plan,” he said. “We pressed every play – everything, we pressed it, so I didn’t get to look at the ball a lot or see the ball a lot or read the quarterback. …

“It’s been a lot different, being able to read the quarterback and play off sometimes and press sometimes, switch-ups and different things you can bring if you can read the quarterback. It makes you a better player, being two- or three-dimensional.”

He didn’t get it right away. It took some time.

He wasn’t even totally prepared after rookie camp and training camp and four preseason games; he still felt like he was on shaky ground when the season began.

“I felt like I really started understanding more toward the middle of the season,” he said, “understanding the game and learning how to be a professional and studying more game film on your own and knowing your opponent.”

He began the season, of course, playing mostly special teams. But injuries have decimated the Patriots’ secondary this season – safety Rodney Harrison and cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley and Jason Webster all have landed on injured reserve.

Veteran cornerback Deltha O’Neal has stayed healthy but been shaky; the Steelers beat him twice for touchdowns in November.

Enter Wilhite, who made his first career start at Seattle two weeks ago.

“He’s worked hard at it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s improved all year. He was a very good player coming out of college. … Fundamentally, he was probably ahead of most players that I’ve coached coming out of college. He had a great college coaching background, so technique-wise he was pretty refined in relative terms.”

Said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, “He’s grown a lot mentally. As far as physically, he had the tools. It’s just about getting in the right mind for understanding the game, and he’s doing a pretty good job.”

But Wilhite still had to figure out the scheme – and he still had to get on the field enough that he could get comfortable playing within that scheme. It didn’t help when he found himself under the weather – weather that wasn’t at all what he was used to.

“I’ve been in the South all my life,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ve been drinking a lot of orange juice and taking calcium pills, Vitamin C pills, trying to avoid things like that.”

But he was healthy enough to make the start against Seattle and healthy enough to make another one on Sunday against Oakland. And he was healthy enough to make the interception that kept the Raiders from pulling within two touchdowns just before halftime.

He took the football with him off the field, of course. Since then, though, it seems to have disappeared. He watched it all the way into his hands during the game on Sunday; he just hasn’t seen it since.

“It’s somewhere; they were supposed to get it to me,” he said, glancing around the locker room. “I’ve got it, though.”

Once he gets it again, though, don’t expect him to let it out of his sight.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ravens loss opens the door for Patriots

Two weeks left, and for as much talk as there has been about the tiebreakers, the scenarios are pretty simple:

First: The Patriots have to win out. Yes, they could lose Sunday and get in -- but the Ravens would have to lose both of their remaining games or the Jets and Dolphins would both have to lose this week and then tie when they play each other in Week 17. It's not happening. The Patriots have to win out.

Second: The Patriots need the Jets and Dolphins to combine for two losses in the final two weeks of the season. One of those is assured; again, the two teams play each other in Week 17. The Jets are at Seattle and the Dolphins are at Kansas City in Week 16. If, for example, the Jets lose to Seattle and then beat the Dolphins, well, the door is open for the Patriots to capture the AFC East.
Second: The Patriots need to lose the Ravens to lose on the road against Dallas on Sunday. (The Ravens also could lose at home against Jacksonville, but we're talking about plausible scenarios here. That's also why we're not discussing the possibility of a Dolphins-Jets tie in Week 17.)

Neither scenario is all that far-fetched. The Patriots already know what sort of fight the Seahawks can put up in their own building -- and the Jets are a reeling team, having lost two straight before J.P. Losman gift-wrapped last Saturday's season-saving win. And the Cowboys are 9-5 on the season -- including 8-3 with Tony Romo under center, and Romo threw a pair of touchdown passes in a win over the Giants last week. Good luck, Ravens., for what it's worth, says the Patriots will miss the playoffs -- thanks to a loss to Arizona on Sunday and despite to a Ravens loss at Dallas. If the Patriots don't beat Kurt Warner and Co., they've sealed their own fate. But even though this is a much-improved Cardinals team, it's hard to imagine a team that let Tarvaris Jackson throw four touchdown passes winning at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Less explosive offense a factor in Gostkowski's first Pro Bowl selection

Stephen Gostkowski didn't need to do much last season. Like punter Chris Hanson, with whom he shares a corner of the locker room, the Patriots' explosive offense meant he didn't have to do much in the way of difficult kicks.

He attempted more than one field goal in just eight of the Patriots' 19 games; he attempted more than two field goals just twice. For the season, he was 21-for-24 in field-goal attempts and 74-for-74 in extra-point attempts -- not once during the regular season did he attempt more field goals than extra points in a game.

This season has been, to say the least, very different.

Gostkowski is 30-for-33 in field-goal attempts and 34-for-34 in extra-point attempts; he has attempted more extra points than field goals nine times already. (He kicked seven extra points in Sunday's rout of Oakland, his highest total of the season by a fair margin.) With the Patriots' offense less explosive and more inconsistent, Gostkowski's field-goal kicking has become all the more important -- hence his first Pro Bowl berth.

"I have had to kick more field goals," he said, "but it's not something you can prepare extra for. You've just got to take the opportunities that are given to you, and when you get them, take advantage of them. That's what I've been trying to do this year. I've tried to do that every year. It was cool kicking 74 extra points last year. That was a blast, winning games like that. But it's also fun when you get to kick three or four field goals in a game and the result is winning by three or by five or something like that. That's cool, too.

"Anytime I have a day where I have no misses or bad kickoffs is when I feel like I'm helping the team, and I just try to be as consistent as possible. I don't go into the season looking at what our offense is and how many field goals I'm going to have to try. I just go out there when they send me."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Just wrong enough

We've been spoiled. We really have.

The Red Sox have won a pair of World Series titles this decade. The Celtics made two whopper trades and suddenly are the best team in the NBA. The Bruins -- the Bruins! -- are on fire. And none of those things even spoiled us as much as the Patriots' run at perfection last season.

We've been spoiled. We're in a new era of Boston sports, and we're spoiled.

This season's Patriots team, though, has brought it all back. This season's Patriots are exactly what Boston sports teams used to be like. Things have gone wrong; the team has fought through it. More things have gone wrong; the team has kept fighting. And unless Dallas beats Baltimore this weekend, things will have gone just wrong enough to keep the Patriots out of the playoffs.

Fighting until the end and coming up agonizingly short. Where have we seen that before?

The scenarios have been well-detailed other places; the Patriots could win out and go 11-5 and still miss the playoffs if Baltimore, Miami and/or the New York Jets don't help them out. (The most plausible scenario is Baltimore losing to the back-on-a-roll Cowboys this week, but a loss by either the Jets or Dolphins this week and a loss by the other in their head-to-head matchup next week would do it, too.)

It would put an end, in some ways, to the extraordinary run of success the Patriots have enjoyed over the last six seasons. Since the last time they missed the playoffs, the Patriots have gone 14-2, 14-2, 10-6, 12-4 and 16-0; they've won two Super Bowls and played in another. They've been undisputably the best football team in the NFL in that span.

Missing the playoffs this season would be agonizing, sure. But look at it this way: Most teams don't make the playoffs every single year. The Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Ervin went 6-10 in 1997; the 49ers of Steve Young and Jerry Rice missed the playoffs in 1991, and with a 10-6 record to boot. Brett Favre's Packers made the playoffs every year from 1993-2004 -- except for back-to-back seasons in 1999 and 2000, when the Packers slipped to 8-8 and 9-7 and spent January at home.

Even the Colts, coming off a 13-3 season and a 10-6 season under rising star Peyton Manning, suddenly went 6-10 in 2001 and missed the playoffs. (The playoffs!)

And things really have only gone so wrong. The Patriots have lost what seems like half their active roster, and they're still 9-5 with two winnable games remaining. They've been dealt every bad break imaginable, and they're still 9-5 with two winnable games remaining. They're so far down on defensive players that we're panicking over the possible loss of undrafted free agent Gary Guyton, and they're still 9-5 with two winnable games remaining.

Things have gone just wrong enough. One more break would have done it.

* If David Thomas doesn't knock over a Colts defender after the whistle -- or if officials are a little more forgiving given the noise in the building -- the Patriots tie that game and are in position to win either in the fourth quarter or overtime;
* If the Jets don't win the coin toss to start overtime, a red-hot Matt Cassel has a chance to march his team down the field before Favre does;
* If Brady doesn't get hurt, or Rodney Harrison, or Adalius Thomas, or Laurence Maroney -- OK, maybe not Laurence Maroney.

One of those breaks goes the other way, and the Patriots probably are sitting at least at 10-4 and a game up on the Jets and Dolphins for the AFC East title.

But those are the breaks. We've stopped getting used to having them dealt against our teams; we've gone from identifying with Chicago and Philadelphia to identifying with New York. This season has just been an abrupt reminder to a spoiled sports region that things really can go just wrong enough.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rushing attack back to normal -- and beyond

Some might have raised their eyebrows at the news that BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- an undrafted free agent who did yeoman's work while Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan were injured -- was inactive today against Oakland.

As it turns out, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels knew what they were doing.

The Patriots rushed for 277 yards in today's game, their best single-game total since 1985. Morris rushed for 117 yards on 14 carries, Jordan had 97 on 12 carries, Kevin Faulk had 45 on six carries, and Matt Cassel rushed for 18 yards on seven carries.

Some notes on the performances of each running back:
* Morris now has run for 100 yards four times in his 16 games with the Patriots; he had one 100-yard game before he came to New England.
* Morris now has scored seven rushing touchdowns, a career high; only Randy Moss (10 touchdowns) has more scores among Patriots this season.
* Jordan rushed for his highest single-game total since 2007, when he had 121 yards as a Raider. His 49-yard touchdown run was his longest since 2006, also with the Raiders, and it was the Patriots' longest rush this season.
* Faulk scored his fifth touchdown (on a seven-yard pass from Cassel); he last scored this many touchdowns was in 2002, when he had seven (including two via kickoff returns).

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jets loss gives Patriots new hope

Here's how things stand among playoff hopefuls in the AFC going into this Sunday:
1. Tennessee, 12-1 (clinched AFC South title)
2. Pittsburgh, 10-3
3. New York Jets, 8-5
4. Denver, 8-5
5. Indianapolis, 9-4 (8-2 in conference games)
6. Baltimore, 9-4 (7-3)
7. Miami, 8-5 (6-4)
8. New England, 8-5 (5-5)

Before the Jets fell on their collective face against San Francisco on Sunday, the Patriots' playoff hopes were looking awfully bleak. Indianapolis has just kept rolling, and Baltimore hasn't shown many signs of letting up, either. (The Ravens do have to face the Pittsburgh Steelers this week and then travel to Dallas the week after; that could change everything.)

But thanks to the Jets' loss on Sunday, the Patriots don't have to settle for a wild card. With just a little bit more help -- OK, quite a bit more help -- they could sneak ahead of the Jets and Dolphins for a division title.

Here's how the AFC East breaks down:
1. New York Jets, 8-5 (3-1 in division games)
2. Miami, 8-5 (3-2 in division games)
3. New England, 8-5 (3-2 in division games)
4. Buffalo, 6-7 (hopeless in division games)

Since the Dolphins and Patriots split head-to-head and, at this point, have the same record in division games, the next tiebreaker is record against common opponents. The Dolphins are 6-1 in those games (Jets, Chargers, Broncos, Seahawks, Rams and Bills twice); the Patriots are 5-2.

If the Dolphins don't stumble against San Francisco or Kansas City, their trip to play the Jets at Giants Stadium might decide the division title. The best part about that game for the Patriots is that one of those two teams has to lose. If the Jets, who have lost two straight, lose at home against Buffalo or on the road at Seattle but then beat Miami at home, the Patriots only need to win out to clinch a division title.

If either the Jets or Dolphins win out, though, there's no hope of the Patriots winning the AFC East -- and they'll become big Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo fans over the next two weeks.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Asked and answered: Junior Seau, Patriots linebacker

The newest (and oldest) member of the Patriots' corps of linebackers jumped right in against Seattle, and he participated in a conference call with media from San Jose on Monday.

Junior, can you talk about the task at hand for you guys going forward? Given the injury situation, what do you guys have to do? What’s the mindset for you guys?
"Basically our mindset is to go out and, honestly, look at film today and take it one day at a time. We’re not going to worry about injuries; it is what it is and the team that we put out on the field will be able to focus on winning that game."

How do you feel today? How sore are you, or not sore how do you feel after your first game in almost a year?
"You definitely use different muscles surfing and packing coolers for volleyball games. There are some fast-twitch muscles that are kind of sore, but other than that I feel good."

Can you go over the task at hand for you guys and what it’s going to take, especially with the defense playing shorthanded?
"We’re definitely going to have to pay attention to details in terms of the scheme. Really relying on the scheme in itself and believing in each other. We’re really going to just have to pull together and that’s what we’re going to do."

Did it feel like riding a bike at all, getting out there and getting back into it so quickly and playing as much as you did?
"Yeah it did. It was definitely a familiar sight. I felt at peace in going in, I really did. Being part of the NFL and back on Sunday it’s something that I live for, and that hasn’t changed."

Was the feel of the locker room the same for you too? The attitude and what you saw from the players, even with the younger players around you?
"Well, it’s a different team. When you say ‘Is it different?’, I expect it to be different. What we have to do is adjust to the team which we have, the players, the character which we are building and we go from there. For us to think we’re going to have the same team, the same attitude, the same mentality that we had last year would be false."

Did you go back to giving the pregame speeches or have they given that honor to somebody else?
"That will never change. That will never change. I definitely love to share the experience in the years which I’ve had and having been down that road before and sharing it with the young guys, it was definitely something that the players were looking forward to. Hopefully I didn’t disappoint them."

What kind of memories does playing the Oakland Raiders bring up from your old days in San Diego?
"Well, they don’t like me. But being part of an organization that played them twice a year with San Diego, it was definitely a tough environment playing in the end zone with the Black Hole behind you and, it’s cheers that you can do without."

With younger guys it’s often not the physical thing that they need to catch up on – it’s the mental thing. In your case, having the experience playing in this system, is it more of a physical thing for you now than a mental thing as far as getting back into the swing of things?
"I’ll tell you what: My experience and my knowledge of the game is so much faster than my 40 time. It really is, and it’s been that way for a good six or seven years. With me coming back, I wasn’t worried about the 40-yard dash or lifting weights, breaking records on the bench press. It was basically just getting the momentum and the rhythm where calls were just second nature in terms of terminology. That’s basically what I did with the two days that I had to experience the game plan."

Before you came back to the Patriots, as you watched them as a spectator at home were you amazed at all the injuries they’ve had this year and their ability to overcome them for the most part?
"It really is a testament to the system and the coaching staff and what they do with the schemes. Obviously being competitive in the National Football League with the injuries which occurred this season, it’s pretty impressive to see that we’re still in the hunt."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Reading between the lines with Rosevelt Colvin

It was interesting on Wednesday to hear Bill Belichick and Rosevelt Colvin talk about the transaction that brought the veteran linebacker back for a sixth season with the Patriots. Colvin has spent the fall shuttling between his family's home in Houston, where he thought he'd be playing this season, and the two UPS stores he owns in his native Indianapolis, and he said he was at peace with that life.

Most players cut from NFL rosters will take any chance they can get to return to the field. Sure, money is an issue, and an opportunity to win is another issue. But few talk about it the way Colvin talked about it on Wednesday:

"This opportunity really is a chance just to get back in for a split-second, to do something maybe unique, one more shot to try to get to the highest level. If it works out, great. If not, I'll definitely be going back home to spend more time with my kids."

Colvin, particularly for a football player, is remarkably well-rounded. He even already has a business networking page at LinkedIn describing his business interests in more detail than his football career. He owns two UPS Store franchises in Indianapolis; he said Wednesday that his release by the Texans gave him a chance to do some hands-on work with employees and customers that he hadn't been able to do since buying the stores in 2004.

He almost didn't want to come back to the NFL. If the Patriots hadn't called, one can surmise, he probably wouldn't have. He got to go to church on Sunday with his family; he got to go to Thanksgiving dinner at his parents' house for the first time in 14 years.

And next fall, he'll be right back at the UPS Stores -- his family will have moved to Indianapolis, and he'll have moved onto his post-football life full-time. There can be no doubt about that. When he says "split-second," it's clear that he intends to play out the season with the Patriots and try to lift his team to an improbable playoff berth. After that, though, it's back to mowing the lawn and spending time with his kids. He doesn't have to make more money; he's got plenty stashed away, and his business interests likely will take care of him for the rest of his life.

It's an unbelievably refreshing look at life. Colvin isn't a football player -- he's a well-rounded man who happens to be really, really good at football, and his loyalty to Bill Belichick and the Patriots is the only thing that could drag him away temporarily from the life he's built for himself.


Belichick, on the other hand, didn't say much about what prompted the move except that his team is shorthanded at the linebacker position. One thing he said, though, stuck out as interesting:

"We kind of got depleted there at outside linebacker. Rosie's been here before; he certainly knows what we're doing, knows the defenses. It's a smaller learning curve with him. We went with some younger players, and I think they did a good job, and it was good to work with them. But right now, we're just a little thin at that specific position."

Look at the use of his past tense when he talks about working with younger players. Pierre Woods, a fourth-year linebacker out of Michigan, inherited a starting spot at outside linebacker when Adalius Thomas went down. Vince Redd, signed in May as an undrafted free agent, was signed to the active roster last week to provide depth.

But a team that needs to win out to get to the playoffs can't just depend on depth. The fact that Belichick brought on board a player who (a) was happy away from football and (b) hadn't played since training camp does say something. Thomas is a veteran player who should pick up the Patriots' scheme quickly; after all, he spent five years in it. He isn't the pass-rusher he was when he led the team in sacks in 2005 and 2006, let alone the pass-rusher he was before the debilitating hip injury he suffered in 2003.

Belichick's team is thin at linebacker. It already was thin before Woods suffered a mouth injury against the Steelers on Sunday. It'll be very interesting to see what happens in the offseason because, based on his use of the past tense on Wednesday, Belichick doesn't appear to see much of a future for Woods and Redd as contributors.

Could someone like USC's Brian Cushing, an outside linebacker with great football instincts, be a target in the first round of April's draft? Who knows?

Welker has moved past hard hit

Wes Welker did participate in practice on Wednesday, three days after he was at the receiving end of a bone-crunching hit from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ryan Clark.

Much has been made of the hit, which came on a tipped pass over the middle in the third quarter of the Patriots' 33-10 loss. A tipped pass normally means defenders can feel free to hit anyone in the vicinity of the ball, but the fact that Welker appeared to have stopped running and that Clark left his feet made the hit look particularly vicious.

The wide receiver, who did not return to the game on Sunday, mostly shrugged it off in a session with reporters on Wednesday.

"It was a football play," he said. "The ball got tipped, and he came in and made a good play."

(That's a contrast from the attitude of his coach, who responded to a similar question on Monday with an abrupt, "The officials called a penalty on the play," which seemed to indicate he thought it was something other than a good play.)

Welker is one of the NFL's best-known small receivers, a player who doesn't mind venturing into the minefield between the linebackers and the safeties despite the fact that most of those players are stronger than he is and could lay him out at any time. He said he's been hit plenty of times before and that he doesn't expect his playing style to change at all.

"It's football," he said. "You're going to get hit a lot. That's the way it is."

Clark had said he tried to reach Welker to apologize. Welker said Wednesday, though, that he hadn't received an apology -- but that he never would have expected one, either.

"It’s a football play," he said. "It is what it is. No sense in crying or whining about it. You just have to keep on moving on and get ready for the next week."

One reporter asked Welker if he saw Clark coming at all.

"Did it look like I saw Clark coming at all?" he said.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Climb for playoff berth gets steeper

Here's how things stand among playoff hopefuls in the AFC after Sunday:

1. Tennessee: 11-1
2. Pittsburgh: 9-3
3. New York Jets: 8-4
4. Denver: 7-5
5. Indianapolis: 8-4 (7-2 in AFC games)
6. Baltimore: 8-4 (7-3)
7. New England: 7-5 (5-5)
8. Miami: 7-5 (5-4)

The Patriots have a couple of options here:
1. Move to the AFC West, where their head-to-head win over the Broncos would put them in position not only to make the playoffs, but to host a first-round game!
2. Win out and get help.

The Patriots would lose a three-way tiebreaker with Baltimore and Indianapolis (head-to-head); they would lose a tiebreaker with only Indianapolis (head-to-head), and they would lose a tiebreaker with only Baltimore (conference record).

They also are on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with New York for a division title; the two teams split the season seriers, but the Jets have a 3-1 record in the division (with home games against Miami and Buffalo left on the schedule) while the Patriots are 3-2 with a trip to Buffalo their only remaining division game.

That means they're effectively two games out of a playoff berth.

Baltimore has a difficult schedule the rest of the way, but it's still hard to imagine the Ravens going 1-3 in December -- not with three of their four remaining games at home. If the Patriots lose at all, though, they'll need the Ravens to go 1-3. (The Colts or Jets likewise could help by going 1-3, but they both have easier schedules than the Ravens.) If that doesn't happen, the Patriots are almost certainly going to spend January at home, on the couch, throwing darts at a picture of Bernard Pollard.

Wow, Ben Watson. Wow.

Football coaches everywhere preach hustle and effort, hustle and effort. That's really what it's all about. Ability can't be taught -- either you can throw a spiral or you can't, and either you can kick a 40-yard field goal or you can't. But hustle and effort is something every coach strives to instill in his team.

There isn't a better example of hustle in the New England Patriots locker room than Ben Watson.

Watson, don't forget, is the same player who chased down Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey in the playoffs three years ago -- Bailey intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the end zone and took it back 100 yards before Watson, who was clear on the other side of the field, knocked him out of bounds at the 1-yard line. That was impressive enough.

But then he did it again on Sunday. Lawrence Timmons intercepted a pass at the Steelers' 10-yard line and took it all the way back -- or thought he'd taken it all the way back, until Watson caught him and dragged him down at the 1-yard line.

Players routinely give up on 90- or 100-yard returns for touchdowns. It's only natural. Who wants to sprint 100 yards if you've got less than a 50-50 shot of catching the guy you're chasing? In both of the above cases, it was late in the game, and just about everyone was out of gas. As Watson said in the NFL Network video linked above, if he'd have dogged it, no one would have said a thing.

No, Watson didn't win his team the game with his tackle on Sunday. He didn't even really prevent a touchdown; Gary Russell scored from a yard out two plays later.

But that's the sort of hustle that goes unnoticed in a million other instances, instances that can win close games. At this point, the Patriots need every win they can get -- and they need every ounce of hustle they can get. Watson has had a rough time catching passes and holding onto the football in recent weeks, but as long as he's hustling like that, there's no doubt the catches will come.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Asked and answered: Richard Seymour, Patriots defensive lineman

Richard Seymour didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday with a knee injury, but he returned to practice on Friday after pronouncing himself ready to go against the Steelers on Sunday. The Patriots will need him -- the Steelers don't give up many points, and that means it'll be imperative that the Patriots get in the face of Ben Roethlisberger and keep Willie Parker from breaking a 60-yard run for a touchdown.

Seymour had something of a down year last year -- he played in just nine games and finished with a career-low 23 tackles with 1.5 sacks. But he's re-emerged as a playmaker this season, getting into the backfield and sending quarterbacks running. Coaches have credited him with 49 tackles (29 solo), seven sacks and 13 quarterback hurries; he has at least one sacks and one quarterback hit in each of the Patriots' last three games.

Ready to go?
"Absolutely. Hopefully, that's the game plan. This time of year, everybody's banged up and not feeling 100 percent. But you go out and you give it your best shot."

It's a big conference game, after Thanksgiving, almost December. What are you thoughts about this game and how it affects playing in January and February?
"You want to play your best football now; this is the time you want to defend your home turf. This is a big game; Pittsburgh is a really good football team, and they do a lot of things well. We have a lot of respect for them. They play the game the way the game is supposed to be played. It isn't like a team that's going to try to come in and trick you. It's a team that says, 'Hey, this is what we're doing -- can you stop it?' That's a challenge, and the guys on this team, we look forward to challenges and playing in tough, physical football games."

How much of a challenge is it to go against Ben Roethlisberger?
"Roethlisberger does a good job ad-libbing, making plays with his legs. He's a strong, tough guy to bring down in the pocket. He can take a broken play and turn it into a touchdown. It isn't like we can go to sleep -- most plays last three or four seconds, but he can get outside the pocket, and you have to be aware of his abilities."

They've had some injuries with their running backs, but it seems like whoever they throw in there is capable of running the ball.
"Yeah, they have a big, tough, physical offensive line, and they do a good job of moving guys up front. Our front seven is definitely going to be challenged this week, and we feel like we've got a good front seven, so man on man."

How do things change when Willie Parker goes out and Mewelde Moore goes in, or vice versa?
"Parker is a guy that has a lot of speed, and he can take any run and hit a home run with it from any point on the field. But both of them do a good job. The other running back is a lot like Kevin Faulk -- real shifty, catches some balls out of the backfield and does a good job for them."

Is chasing Roethlisberger around early in the game something that can catch up to you late in the game?
"A lot of quarterbacks, you can get to them early in the game and sack them or whatever the case may be. He's a guy that weighs on you at the end of the game. Sometimes you see defensive linemen not able to bring him down; he's able to shrug those guys off. Rarely do you ever see a quarterback with that much strength. He's a big, strong guy in the pocket, so we definitely have to wrap that guy up."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Steelers just keep executing scheme

Bill Belichick has a pretty thick file on the Pittsburgh Steelers, dating all the way back to his days as head coach of the division rival Cleveland Browns from 1991-95. Now, Belichick keeps files on every team the Patriots play, but his Steelers file might be the most valuable because, over the years, it has changed the least.

Offensively and defensively, Pittsburgh has played the same general scheme for at least the last decade and a half, Belichick said during his weekly meeting with the media on Wednesday. Be it Kevin Greene (35 sacks from 1993-95), Jason Gildon (a franchise-best 77 sacks from 1994-2003), Joey Porter (60 sacks from 1999-2006) or now James Harrison (24.5 sacks since 2002, including 12 this season), the names change but the scheme -- and its ruthless effectiveness -- does not.

His notes from 1995 on, for example, the Cincinnati Bengals or Jacksonville Jaguars are beyond useless because coaches and schemes have changed so often. But the scheme Mike Tomlin inherited from Bill Cowher -- and the scheme defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau first instituted from 1992-96 and then brought back in 2004.

But Belichick saw some much that was familiar about the way the Steelers are playing this season that he went back to his notes from the early 1990s. Sure enough, the scheme was pretty much the same.

"Most teams have changed eight times since then," he said. "Just out of curiosity, we were talking about it; (football research director) Ernie (Adams) was there in Cleveland, and we were sitting around and talking about it and saying, 'That was the same way they ran it back then, right?' and we went back into our notes, and it's the same thing."

Belichick has collected quite a file on Pittsburgh since his arrival in New England as well; in his nine seasons with the Patriots, he's now had to game-plan for the Steelers seven times, including twice in 2004. Before that, he had to game-plan for the Steelers four times in three seasons (including two playoff games) as the Patriots' defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells.

And while some tendencies have changed -- the arrival of tight end Heath Miller, for example, gave the Steelers reason to employ more three-receiver formations than four-receiver formations -- much has stayed the same.

Belichick emphasized that Pittsburgh's consistency isn't a bad thing; in fact, it's a good thing. That stands to reason, given that the Steelers rank first in the NFL in rush defense, pass defense, total defense and points allowed per game. Harrison has 12 sacks, but LaMarr Woodley has 10.5. Troy Polamalu has five interceptions. Linebacker James Farrior has 81 tackles -- and the fact that he's the only Steeler among the top 30 in the NFL in tackles says something about the way the entire defense has played.

"Watching them play 11 games this year has a lot more impact on what we do than anything that happened back in the '90s or '02 or '03 or anything else," he said. "But I am saying that it's pretty much the same. Harrison is different than Gildon, and Gildon was different than Kevin Greene, and Kevin Greene was different than Greg Lloyd. But they're all 10-sack-a-year guys -- or more. Whoever those players are, they've been able to maintain a lot of continuity in their system even though the players have changed, in some cases, multiple times through the years."

About all that's changed, really, is the handwriting in which Belichick has taken his notes.

"It was better then," he said with a smile.

But Belichick isn't the only one who has noticed the similarities in scheme for which the Patriots have had to prepare every time they play the Steelers.

"Over the years, it's always been a certain style down in Pittsburgh," said left tackle Matt Light, who was informed Wednesday he would not be suspended for his fourth-quarter fight with the Dolphins' Channing Crowder. "They've always been a physical team. I think back to my rookie year, going there and playing those guys -- it was always about going and playing a very physical team that can move around a lot. They'd hit you at every angle. For us up front, it's just a matter of recognizing what they do, trying to get a hat on a hat. It really comes down to the physical side of it and who can outlast the other guy."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Patriots edge closer to playoff berth

Bill Belichick's team kept its playoff hopes alive with its win on Sunday afternoon; with the Colts and Ravens also winning and improving to 7-4 on the season, it would have been an almost fatal blow had the Patriots lost and fallen to 6-5.

Here's how the AFC standings look right now:

1. Tennessee (10-1 overall, 7-1 in the conference)
2. Pittsburgh (8-3, 7-1)
3. New York Jets (8-3, 6-3)
4. Denver (6-5, 3-5)
5. Indianapolis (7-4, 6-2)
6. Baltimore (7-4, 6-3)
7. New England (7-4, 5-4)
8. Miami (6-5, 5-4)
9. Buffalo (6-5, 4-4)

If three potential wild-card teams are tied in overall record, as the Patriots are with Baltimore and Indianapolis, here's how the tiebreakers work:
1. If one team has defeated both of the other two teams, that team is the top seed of the three. Conversely, if one team has lost to both of the other two teams, that team is the bottom seed. The Colts beat the Ravens in Week 6 and the Patriots in Week 9, so that means they now hold the No. 5 seed.
2. Record in conference games. The Ravens are 6-3; the Patriots are 5-4.

But the Patriots do have a leg up on Miami; with the head-to-head series now a split, the Patriots' better record in AFC East games (3-2 to 2-2) puts them ahead, and while both teams still play against Buffalo on the road, the Dolphins also have to play the Jets at the Meadowlands. And Buffalo is 0-3 in the division, which means they're all but done unless they win out and both the Dolphins and Patriots stumble badly.

Because it is relevant, here's what's left on the schedule for the top four wild-card contenders:
5. Indianapolis: at Cleveland (4-7), vs. Cincinnati (1-9-1), vs. Detroit (0-11), at Jacksonville (4-7), vs. Tennessee (10-1).
(That schedule couldn't be much softer. The Browns are 1-5 at home, the Jaguars are reeling and the Titans won't have anything for which to play in Week 17 now that they're no longer undefeated.)
6. Baltimore: at Cincinnati (1-9-1), vs. Washington (7-4), vs. Pittsburgh (8-3), at Dallas (7-4), vs. Jacksonville (4-7).
(That's a little bit more daunting; Tony Romo is back for the Cowboys, and the Redskins are better than their record indicates given how tough their schedule has been.)
7. New England: vs. Pittsburgh (8-3), at Seattle (2-9), at Oakland (3-8), vs. Arizona (7-4), at Buffalo (6-5).
(West Coast swings are never easy, but New England should beat both Seattle and Oakland, and if Kurt Warner's Arizona Cardinals win at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots don't deserve to go to the playoffs, anyway.)
8. Miami: at St. Louis (2-9), vs. Buffalo at Toronto (6-5), vs. San Francisco (3-8), at Kansas City (1-10), at New York Jets (8-3).
(Cupcake city. That's why it's imperative that the Patriots take care of business against Seattle, Oakland and Arizona -- a loss in even just one of those games might drop them behind the Dolphins.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

A night with James van Reimsdyk

Yes, this normally is a Boston pro sports blog. Tonight, though, I'd like to take you to Matthews Arena at Northeastern University, and I'd like to introduce you to University of New Hampshire forward James van Reimsdyk.

First, we'll set the scene. If you've ever been to Matthews Arena, you'll know it's no such thing. It's not an arena. The TD BankNorth Fleet Whatever Other Belly-Up Corporate Sponsor Garden is an arena. The Whittemore Center at UNH is an arena. Even Conte Forum at Boston College is an arena, though it's an arena built with concrete blocks.

Matthews "Arena" is a barn. It's a classic, old-fashioned hockey barn. It looks like it's constructed entirely of wood; the feeling is that you could burn the place down with one well-placed match. (A quick perusal of the building's biography reveals that that has happened twice -- in 1918 and 1948. Who knew?) It's the Cameron Indoor Stadium of college hockey arenas -- the students are loud and all wear red (except for the one in the green Hartford Whalers jersey in the first row), second deck hangs over the ice, and the acoustics are sensational. Even the press box hangs over the ice; if reporters want to see the three feet of ice in front of the penalty boxes and home-team bench, they have to stand up. And so we stood, the entire game, just like the student section at the north end of the barn.

Oh, and the team is good, too. A perennially underwhelming Northeastern team beat New Hampshire by a 3-2 score on Friday night in as entertaining a college hockey game as you'll ever see. That, of course, brings us to the young Mr. van Reimsdyk.

The Northeastern faithful do not like James van Reimsdyk. This they made clear even when warmups began more than a half-hour before the opening faceoff.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

For the uninitiated: This is a classic college-hockey chant -- but it's almost exclusively reserved for the visiting goaltender. It's almost unheard of for a skater to get the "YOU SUCK!!" treatment except maybe -- maybe -- during player introductions. But all through warmups, there it went.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

There's some backstory. First of all, van Reimsdyk is a phenom. The Philadelphia Flyers made him the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL draft two years ago, and he chose to come to UNH; he's the highest-drafted player ever to play for the Wildcats, and no one in the last 25 years has really come close. He's a playmaker with a nose for the net -- a week ago against Boston College, on a 2-on-2 break, he took on both defenders by himself, slalomed right through them, and then left a pass for teammate Mike Sislo to bury. To put it simply: He's really, really good.

More backstory: I wasn't at this particular game, but apparently van Reimsdyk felt as though the Huskies had targeted him during a home-and-home series between the two teams on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. After the final whistle of the second game, the half that was played at Northeastern, a scuffle broke out, and van Reimsdyk ended up being assessed a postgame cross-checking penalty.

Anyway, that was the situation when the game began.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

The student section wasn't content just to heckle van Reimsdyk every once in a while. Nope. They booed him every time he touched the puck. They booed him every time he took a shot. They booed him every time he checked someone in a white jersey. They booed him when he did just about anything. When he took a wild slapshot from the blue line midway through the first period and then took another whack at the rebound, it almost looked like a desperate attempt to shut up the building.

It didn't work. When he absorbed a check from Northeastern's Steve Silva and then wrestled Silva to the ice, the fans booed louder. (To infuriate them even more, only Silva drew a penalty on the play.)

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

But all that was just an appetizer for the second period.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

The fans booed van Reimsdyk as he weaved toward the net for a shot barely a minute after the opening faceoff. He got possession again behind the net, and the fans booed; when a Northeastern defenseman hit him but he retained possession, half the fans booed and half cheered.

And less than a minute later, he found himself wrapped up at center ice with Northeastern's Alex Tuckerman, who had scored the only goal of the game at that point. Referees had to wrestle the two apart to get them to go to the penalty box. The catcalls only grew louder.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

It was van Reimsdyk's way of striking back. If the fans perceived his overtime cross-check as a cheap shot, so too did the Huskies, and they let him know it throughout. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound forward wasn't about to back down, which is why he ended up in a scuffle as often as he launched a shot on goal. And when he and Tuckerman found themselves in a penalty box with a gap in the wall in the back, a gap through which more verbal abuse easily could fly, they let each other have it.

Van Reimsdyk wasn't involved in the next little scuffle, one that was sparked when Drew Muench crushed UNH's Greg Collins from behind, a cross-check that drove the chin of the Wildcats' captain into the ice. By this time, the game felt a little bit like "West Side Story" -- it was only a matter of time before someone got seriously hurt, and there was no way to stop it.

But the matching minor penalties expired just 20 seconds later, and van Reimsdyk came out of the penalty box. Immediately, they let him have it again.

The climactic fight came a few minutes later. Northeastern's Randy Guzior crushed Sislo into the boards, and van Reimsdyk immediately entangled himself with Guzior. He even lost his helmet in the skirmish, which made it easier to see him yelling at his enemies in white.

"It's tough when things start getting out of hand and guys start taking cheap shots at us and we want to stick up for ourselves," he said after the game. "We've got to keep our composure and stay out of the box a little more, but, I mean, it's tough when they're taking runs at you. It's part of the game, and it's part of hockey, and that's what makes it so fun."

The crowd, of course, went nuts.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

While referees sorted out the penalties -- and while van Reimsdyk stood at the UNH bench, his helmet still off -- fans even unleashed another chant at that that's too profane to put in a family-friendly blog. Let's just say it involved a part of human anatomy that van Reimsdyk does not, by definition, possess.

When all was sorted out, van Reimsdyk had himself a two-minute minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct. Funny thing: During the entire 10 minutes, which lasted almost until the end of the second period, he stood along the front wall of the penalty box. Not once did he sit down. Guzior, who picked up a matching 10-minute misconduct, sat sprawled on the bench, his legs apart, totally relaxed. Even with teammates coming and going during an increasingly chippy period, van Reimsdyk never sat down. The kid in the red hoodie and white "NU" hat sitting right in that corner, right behind van Reimsdyk, would have been within his rights to ask for a partial refund because a blue jersey with No. 21 on it blocked his view of the game for a full 10 minutes.

Van Reimsdyk's desperation to get back out on the ice couldn't have been more obvious. He didn't get out of the box until there were less than two minutes left in the period, and as soon as he got out, the chant started up again.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

He got his revenge in the third period. Defenseman Joe Charlebois slid a soft shot in front of the net, and van Reimsdyk curled the rebound around the pads of the goaltender to tie the game at 1. The crowd didn't even have time to boo when he got possession of the puck; all they could do was gasp -- and then unleash another torrent of insults.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

Four minutes later, van Reimsdyk unleashed another shot at the net and immediately exchanged shoves with a Northeastern defenseman who had given him a nudge after the pla.

"van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

He would end up scoring once more, poking home the rebound of a Peter LeBlanc shot to cut the Wildcats' deficit from 3-1 to 3-2 in the game's final minute. It wouldn't be enough; despite a gritty effort, UNH would lose its fourth straight and fall seven points behind first-place Northeastern.

"There would have been nothing better than to get a win, especially with (goaltender Brian) Foster hearing it from the fans and me hearing it from the fans," he said. "We need the points in the standings here to get back into the thick of things, so it definitely hurts to lose a game like that."

When the two teams gathered at center ice for the traditional postgame handshake, van Reimsdyk was right at the front of the line. And when the public-address announcer read off the game's "Three Stars," van Reimsdyk was Star No. 2. The crowd, filing en masse out of the building, booed.

And it wasn't even an exceptional night. For a well-known prospect, after all, a night like that is business as usual.

"I felt a couple of extra sticks, but I expect that game in and game out," he said. "It's nothing too different than what I'm used to."

Here, apparently, is what he's used to: "van Reeeeeimsdyk... van Reeeeeimsdyk... YOU SUCK!!"

Asked and answered: Vince Wilfork, Patriots nose tackle

The Patriots' locker room normally is a deserted place when the door swings open and the media hordes swarm in. It's hard to blame them; answering endless questions about the Miami Dolphins' "Wildcat" offense has to get pretty tiresome. But reporters still need to ask questions and get some responses to share with their readership or viewers, and it can get pretty difficult finding willing players.

Randy Moss, for example, declined several interview requests this morning; when a Boston Globe reporter asked, "Can you help us out today?" he responded with a flat "Nope!" and then completely ignored another entreaty. When a Boston Herald reporter squatted next to his locker to try to talk about it, to tell him they weren't "trying to be a pain in the ass," Moss said, "I don't like talking to the media. It's not in my contract, so I ain't got to do it. I'll give you crumbs here and there, and that's all I've got to do. If I talk, it's going to be after the game on Sunday, and if I don't talk on Sunday, maybe the next Sunday. If I don't talk then, maybe the next Sunday."

Some, though, are endlessly available. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs is one; fullback Heath Evans is another. Both are friendly and personable and set aside a few minutes whenever quote-desperate reporters need them.

Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is another one who generally treats reporters like human beings and gives thoughtful answers even to inane questions. A group of cameras gathered around him at his locker right at the beginning of the open-locker-room period, and he smiled at the group before walking out of the room. A few minutes later, though, he returned with a wise grin on his face: "Y'all thought I wasn't coming back, didn't you?"

He did come back, though. And here's what Wilfork had to say:

Though this week isn't completely do-or-die, does it have a playoff feel to it?
"Yeah, it does. For one, being a division game, and for two, what they did to us last time we played them. Right now, it's a one-game season for us, so we've got to put all our eggs in this basket, and next week will be the same thing. We'll need everybody. This is a tough football team we're facing. We know that. We're going to get their best, and, hopefully, they'll get ours. This week, we've had some good practices and put some good practices together, and we feel good about this whole thing, going down there.

"Hopefully, we'll walk away with a win, but it's going to take our 'A'-game. Anything other than that, I think we're going to walk away with an 'L'. We're going to do everything in our power to try to play that type of game. But it's a challenge. It's a challenge. This is what you live for. Games in November and December determine where you'll be in February and January. We've got our hands full, but we're looking forward to the challenge."

Are you "Wildcat"-ted out yet?
(laughs) "No. I'm pretty sure they have something else brewing up, and we have to do a good job of making sideline adjustments, whatever they may be. They might not, but having the success they’ve had early in the season with it, they’d be a fool not to try run it."

Do you feel comfortable, after a week's preparation, that you will be able to stop it?
"I feel very confident with what we've done in practice. We've covered a lot of ground. Every week, it seems like somebody's pulling something out of their bag of tricks to throw at us, and (the Dolphins) might have something new. At that time, we'll have to go to the sideline and make adjustments. That's going to be real important. But going forward, we're pretty prepared. We're prepared, and I feel very confident going into this week's game. I think my teammates feel the same way."

What does Chad Pennington bring to his team?
"I'll tell you what: Leadership is one thing. He doesn't turn the ball over. He was like that when he was at the Jets, and this team thrives off that -- and when you have two running backs and they're running the ball so well, sometimes they don't need to throw the ball. He has a high completion rate, and anything that's open or in tight coverage, he'll throw to. We have to be ready, and the guys in the backfield have to cover the receivers and go forward from there. But it's going to be tough getting to him because they're doing such a great job of blocking for him. He can identify blitzers and coverages and identify those quick and get the ball out right away. We're going to have to get to him real early and often in this game."

Is there any different feel in this locker room, seeing as how it's November and you're playing kind of a desperation game, as opposed to past years?
"This locker room is still the same locker room it was last year when we were undefeated and the years before when we were winning championships. It's the same locker room; we just have different faces. We're very confident. We have a group of guys who love what they do. You can't ask for anything better than that. We're so used to winning around here that I think the fans and the media sometimes get lost in that just because we have won quite a bit. We have four losses. It's not the end of the world. Sometimes people look at us, and I don't think people look at us like a football team because of the success we've had.

"We know we'll normally go through ups and downs in a season. We're going through them. But it's not the end of the world. Nobody is telling us our season is over. If they do, I'll tell them something, and it's not nice. We're very confident. We know what's at stake, and it's going to start with a win against a tough division game and move forward from there. The week after that, we'll do the same thing. It's tough, but it's NFL football."