Ben Volin: We Have Questions, He Has Answers

This week, we at Inside The Pylon were lucky enough to have Ben Volin of the Boston Globe answer some questions for us. And he really, really answered the heck out of these questions.

Volin is the national NFL reporter for the Globe, which he joined in the spring of 2013. A graduate of Emory University with an MBA from the University of Florida, Volin previously spent eight years at the Palm Beach Post, where he covered the Miami Dolphins and Florida Gators. You can find him on Twitter at @BenVolin.

 Q&A with Ben Volin

Chuck Zodda: The Patriots defense struggled in Week 1 before bouncing back against the Vikings.  How much of those struggles are related to personnel versus scheme and how much was the heat?

Ben Volin: The Patriots refuse to admit it but I think the heat played a major factor in their second-half collapse. And the Dolphins deserve credit. First of all, I know for a fact that they’ve been building their roster for the sole purpose of beating the Patriots for two years now. And since the game was in Week 1, new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had six months to scheme up that win.

That said, the offensive line issues became apparent in that game. The Dolphins’ defensive line is much, much better than the Patriots’ offensive line. And so are the defensive lines of the Chiefs, Bengals, Bills and Jets, the next four opponents. Strap in for some ugly football.

 

Mark Schofield: Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

This season the Patriots are now 0-6 on “opening drives,” i.e. either the first drive of the game or the first drive of the second half. Against Miami they went three-and-out (with a blocked punt) and a fumble. Against Minnesota they went 3-and-out and 6-and-out, and yesterday they went 3-and-out each time. Is this something the coaching staff and/or players are aware of and concerned about? Is this simply luck, or a matter of preparation and execution from the opponent? Any thoughts?

Ben Volin: That’s just an awesome observation, Mark. That sequence in the Raiders game was supremely disappointing. Instead of finishing the first half with a touchdown and starting off the second half with a score, they kicked a measly field goal and then went three-and-out.

I don’t have a concrete answer, just a theory. I think this team is doing a lot of reacting so far on both sides of the ball – see what the opponent shows you early, then adjust and try to figure it out. The Vikings game was a good example of that. The Patriots aren’t trying to dictate much right now, especially on offense – just taking whatever the defense is giving them. The result is a lot of ugly 16-9 ballgames.

 

James Mastrangelo: The tackles, especially Nate Solder, joined the rest of the offensive line in struggling on Sunday despite the expectation that they would be the line’s strength. To what extent, if any, was this due to them being concerned about having to help the weaker interior, or was it simply poor play on their part?

Ben Volin: I think Solder’s footwork in pass protection is really messed up right now. He’s getting beaten badly at least once every game, and it’s not just on the same move. Sometimes it’s to the outside, sometimes to the inside. I wonder if he misses the communication he had with Logan Mankins. This unit really needs to play Bryan Stork at center and Dan Connolly at guard. And new OL coach Dave DeGuglielmo is definitely on the hot seat.

 

JohnnyK (Austria): Have you ever asked BB a question where you knew you’d get a 3-word answer and a stare down?

Ben Volin: Absolutely. Back in March at the Owners Meetings in Orlando, we had an hour-long media session with Belichick that was basically our only time to talk to him from the start of free agency until the draft. So I think around 30 minutes in I realized that we hadn’t yet talked about Gronk, arguably the team’s biggest star and most important player outside of Brady.

I knew I wasn’t going to get any sort of real answer from Belichick, but felt an obligation as a reporter to ask, “Do you have any sort of timetable or progress on Rob Gronkowski’s rehab and when he can return to 100 percent?”

And Belichick just looked at me with this blank stare, said, “Did you really just ask me that?” and let it hang there for a few seconds. We all had a good laugh about it later and I took some good-natured ribbing on Twitter. Frankly, I’d rather he give me this answer than some generic, “he’s taking it one day at a time” cliché. It at least shows a little human emotion.

The funny thing is I ran into Bill the next day, and told him I wasn’t trying to put him on the spot or anything. He smiled and said, “C’mon Ben, you know I’m not going to answer that question.” Bill is a normal and pleasant guy to be around when he’s not in a press conference setting. What he does on the podium is mostly an act.

 

David R. McCullough: The “shadow roster” is a term used here to denote the near-constant shuffling of players on and off the practice squad, back-end of the 53-man roster, and (semi-) retirement (including released veterans like Deion Branch).

1. How does the Patriots’ handling of these roster spots differ from the way it was done in Miami and throughout the league? Is this unique or something all teams do in some form?

Ben Volin: I’d say the Patriots definitely do the bottom-of-the roster shuffle more often than most teams. Belichick and Caserio are pretty shrewd about keeping 55 or 56 guys for a 53-man roster. At the same time, it’s not that unique. Every team is constantly churning the bottom of the roster. The Patriots just maybe do it with a little more frequency than other teams.

2. Who among released veterans is ready and “waiting by the phone” in case of Patriot injuries?

Ben Volin: The list is long, and unfortunately Belichick isn’t sharing his notes with me (not yet, anyway). But the Patriots are very good about trying out a ton of guys on Tuesdays and sometimes Friday, and always have an Emergency List of at least 4-5 guys at every position to call upon in case of injury.

 

Richard (Richmond, VA): Hey Ben, appreciate the time. Regarding team building and looking ahead, I’ve got a question about the offensive line. They have Vollmer signed through 2016, but Solder and Cannon are only signed through this year. Considering how much they appear to like Fleming, do you see them flipping Vollmer to LT and inserting Fleming at RT next season and letting Solder go? Cannon will likely be highly sought after as talented young OTs don’t often hit the market. Do you think the Patriots would be willing to pay him premium tackle money to play OG? If they’re starting Vollmer, Fleming and Stork at OT and C, that leaves a lot of financial resources to pay the OG spots; will they use some of it on Cannon or to address other needs?

Ben Volin: Yeah, big changes are coming to the offensive line – that became clear when the Patriots used three draft picks on OLs (although Jon Halapio didn’t turn out to be much). Actually, Solder is signed through the 2015 season – the Patriots picked up his fifth-year option in the spring, and it is fully guaranteed. And we know Stork and Fleming will be around.

Everyone else, though, is in trouble. Marcus Cannon is in the last year of his deal, and I could see them re-signing him to be the top backup/swing tackle. But I think he’s being exposed this year at left guard, and I’m not sure he’s a long-term starter. Dan Connolly is in the final year of his deal, and frankly I’m shocked he survived the offseason. But he’ll probably be gone after this year. Ryan Wendell was signed for two years, but realistically it was probably a one-year deal. And while Vollmer is signed through 2016, he’s not safe. He’ll have $3.5 million in dead money next year, which isn’t totally prohibitive, especially if they make him a post-June 1 cut and split that $3.5 million evenly over two years. Actually I can very well see the Patriots cutting Vollmer next year and going with Fleming at right tackle (they drafted a tackle for a reason, right?).

So next year I could see Solder at left tackle, Stork at center, Fleming at right tackle, then fill in the two guard spots with either Cannon, Devey, Kline, a rookie or a free agent.

 

James Mastrangelo: Gronk is clearly at less than full speed. Are there any conversations going on about his rate of progress and projections for play going forward?

Ben Volin: Yeah it’s obvious that he’s only running at around 75 percent right now. It also looks like he’s actively avoiding contact on contested balls, and it doesn’t look like the Patriots are sending him deep down the seam right now (similar to the play where he hurt his knee last year), which I think is a reason the Patriots have had so much trouble stretching the defense and pushing the ball down the field. That said, I give Gronk all the credit in the world just for being back on the field right now. It’s a real testament to his work ethic that he’s even playing. And defenses are making sure to bump and whack him every time he comes off the line of scrimmage. He’s getting pounded out there.

Josh McDaniels said on Tuesday that the Patriots are working Gronk back slowly and just trying to get as much as they can out of him. Right now, it’s about 35-45 snaps a game. Hopefully by the end of the year he can play a full game, or close to it. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. Gronk probably won’t be “Gronk” until 2015.

 

Eagleeye9184 (NH): Do all/most NFL franchises either employ or have relationships with local law enforcement and the FBI?  How much do they monitor players away from team facilities?  How much information is made available to them when an off-the-field incident occurs?  I’ll hang up and listen.

Ben Volin: Definitely. Every team employs ex-cops and has very close ties with all of the various law enforcement agencies. They also have relationships with some of the popular bars, strip clubs, etc. I can’t even imagine how many incidents go un-reported and are kept quiet by teams, police, etc. I think the relationships between team and police are even cozier in communities where the football team is important to the local fabric – Buffalo, Green Bay, New Orleans, for example, and yes, even here in New England.

The security folks don’t spy on players, but they know what’s going on, too, mostly by calling around to the bars and clubs. Someone in the Patriots’ organization surely knew Hernandez was up to no good, though I doubt they knew he was capable of murder. And I find it utterly impossible that the Ravens didn’t know exactly what was on that video tape within days of the incident. There’s too much at risk for teams not to do their homework on this stuff.

 

David R. McCullough: If Ryan Mallet starts a game for Houston this season, the Patriots will have had 1/8th of the league’s starting QBs on their roster at some point in the Belichick Era (Brady, Cassel, Hoyer).

1. Do you think this is a “skill” on the part of General Manager Bill Belichick?

Ben Volin: No. Cassel stinks – he’s had one good year since leaving New England, and now he’s done for the year with a broken foot – and the Patriots don’t get credit for Hoyer, because they let him go and kept Mallett. Bet Belichick wants a mulligan on that decision.

2. What is your opinion of the trade return for Mallett?

Ben Volin: Sounds about right. Mallett might end up being a decent quarterback (I never saw it). But he didn’t play a legitimate down of football in three years. And being “groomed” by Belichick and Brady doesn’t have the same cache that it used to (just ask Chiefs fans). This notion that Mallett was going to fetch a nice return on the trade market was absurd. He’s Just A Guy. At least the Pats got a seventh-round pick for him instead of dumping him for nothing.

3. In your opinion, was the intent to trade Mallett in place before/during/after the draft or was it a result of how Garoppolo performed in training camp/pre-season?

Ben Volin: The intent to move on from Mallett was in place before the season. That was obvious when they drafted Garoppolo in the second round despite having several other needs. The only decision to be made was whether to get rid of Mallett before the season or just let him walk away in free agency. Once Garoppolo proved that he could handle himself at this level (probably the second preseason game), the decision was easy to get rid of Mallett.

 

Chuck Zodda: Danny Aiken has been shaky as a long-snapper after being cut and resigned before the season. At what point does Belichick look to replace him?

Ben Volin: Literally week-to-week. Aiken is hardly a lock to last all season. If he has another major mishap, he could be gone. The life of a long-snapper.

 

Tyler (Maine): Why haven’t the Patriots been able to surround Tom Brady with an elite receiving corps in recent seasons? Lack of focus in this area, difficulty of the Patriots system, bad luck, or what?

Ben Volin: They completely whiffed on the Welker/Amendola swap, so they’re stuck with Amendola for at least this year. And Dobson and Thompkins don’t have a great grasp on coverages and alignments, which makes it hard for them to get on the same page as Brady.

That said, I think a lot of it is on the offensive line for not protecting Brady (40 sacks last year), and on Brady for not doing a better job of incorporating the other players into the offense. Danny Amendola had 85 catches one year for St. Louis. Brandon LaFell had like 45 catches and 650 yards every single year for the Panthers. Now they come here and all of a sudden they’re bums? Tim Wright caught 54 passes as a rookie for Tampa Bay, and now he’s a bust in New England? If the offense is too complicated for these guys, then maybe it’s time to dumb it down.

 

Tony C (Los Angeles, CA): Who will the Pats’ starting OL be over the second half of the season after things shake-out? In this vein, Devey looks terrible to most SoSH observers and grades out terribly, as well. What do the Pats see in him?

Ben Volin: Devey is Belichick’s new Steve Neal – his diamond in the rough that he’s going to mold into the next great offensive lineman and prove everybody wrong. That said, Devey has terrible footwork in pass protection and is getting pushed around badly. I think the time has come to put this pet project on hold until next year.

I’d move Dan Connolly to right guard and play either Ryan Wendell or Bryan Stork at center. Everyone’s ready to anoint Stork as the starting center this week, but the kid played 15 snaps. I bet he’ll start this Monday against the Chiefs, but let’s see him play a few games before giving him the starting job for good.

 

lambeau (CT): Is there a problem with Dobson, or is he just rounding into playing condition?

Ben Volin: Yeah I think Dobson is someone who definitely would have benefitted a lot from working with Brady all offseason, and missing the entire offseason program with a foot injury really set him back, both from a conditioning and a mental preparation standpoint. I don’t think he’s picking up the nuances of the offense quickly enough. The offense is really demanding, and I’m not sure that he can handle everything they’re throwing at him (pardon the pun).

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