Patriots Mailbag: Too Early to Tell If Pats Are Grooming Josh McDaniels as Bill Belichick’s Successor

Patriots Mailbag: Too Early to Tell If Pats Are Grooming Josh McDaniels as Bill Belichick's SuccessorFOXBORO, Mass. — It's been a busy week in New England, as the Patriots prepared for their playoff opener against the Broncos. But it didn't end there. The week started with the rehiring of assistant coach Josh McDaniels, and that's where we'll start in this week's mailbag.

With Josh McDaniels coming back, do you see him groomed to take over when Bill Belichick retires and in charge to groom Ryan Mallett to become the next Tom Brady?
-Wade (Portland, Ore.)

It's a great question, but I think it's too early to know for sure with McDaniels. I do want to raise some points, though. First, I have to believe McDaniels' football mind is still highly regarded around the league. If the Patriots continue to have some offensive success over the next two or three years — and really, why wouldn't they? — McDaniels will get some calls to interview elsewhere.

From there, let's say McDaniels is offered a head coaching position. If the Patriots are serious about keeping him as Belichick's successor, they'd have to give him a significant raise and potentially name him as an assistant head coach, which is a job title that shouldn't be taken lightly. Remember, Belichick earned that title with the Jets after interviewing with the Raiders in 1998. Bill Parcells wanted Belichick to be his successor.

Anyway, back on point — by giving McDaniels that type of title, Belichick would open himself up to questions about retirement and all that jazz. And what does Belichick hate, maybe more than anything? Media distractions. Of course, the title as his successor could come in the form of a handshake and a wink, but that would still be a risky move on McDaniels' part.

Next, the Kraft family knows they've got a good thing with Belichick, and when he eventually retires, I'd speculate the Patriots will almost certainly stay within Belichick's coaching tree to replace him. So I wouldn't be surprised if Robert and Jonathan Kraft have envisioned someone like McDaniels taking over in the long run, but as I've already detailed, there's a lot that could get in the way between now and then.

As for Mallett, well, that's even more complicated. He's got all the skill in the world, so the Patriots should likely know by his third year if he's got the makeup to be a franchise-caliber quarterback. But his rookie contract expires after the 2014 season — the same year as Brady's current deal expires. If Brady still has some good years left — even if it's only two or three — the Patriots aren't going to get into a bidding war to retain a backup quarterback when another team wants him to compete to be their starter.

With that in mind, unless there's an injury somewhere along the line or Brady wins another Super Bowl or two and just wants to retire on top, I think it's going to be really tough to keep Mallett without giving him a serious financial commitment. As I believed after the draft, Mallett's greatest value to the Patriots could very likely be as a trading chip.

Do you know if the Patriots have a decoy player such as Julian Edelman to run around the field like Tim Tebow does this weekend?
–Jim Mitchell (Taunton, Mass.)

They used Edelman as their primary guy for Tebow on their scout team in Week 15, and he was named one of the practice players of the week as a result. I didn't dig around for that information this week, but I'd be fairly stunned if that changed. They also used Mallett, among others, to replicate other aspects of Tebow's game, but Edelman was the main guy.

Hey, Jeff! Big fan. My question is what do you think of the writer for the Denver Post saying that Bill Belichick has found a way to cheat again by hiring Josh McDaniels because that gives them an unfair edge? It seems to me that Denver already has an excuse for the loss that will probably come to them Saturday night. In what way is hiring McDaniels cheating? Please let me know what you think.
–Chappie (Anderson, S.C.)

Thank you, Chappie. I thought it was a successful attempt by a columnist to create some controversy, even though I believe the notion was lazy and overblown. And get this, legendary Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan once did nearly the exact same thing. Shanahan was the Broncos offensive coordinator from 1985-87 before getting hired as the Raiders head coach in 1988. The Raiders fired him after four games in 1989, and he returned to the Broncos as their quarterbacks coach less than two weeks later. Then, he coached against the Raiders in the same season. So, with that, it would be the definition of hypocritical if the Broncos got ticked off about the turn of events with McDaniels.

Side note: Broncos fans really don't like McDaniels, so I find it amusing that they're getting worked up over this.

Oh, and it's not cheating. It's perfectly within the rules.

Are the Pats as healthy as they have been all year for the Denver game?
–Barry Russell (Lexington, Ky.)

They sure are. Prior to this week, the Patriots held 84 official practices, going all the way back to day one of training camp. You know how many of those practices had perfect attendance? Not a one. This week, they didn't have a single injury-related absence at practice (defensive tackle Kyle Love was the only player who missed a session, and it was for non-injury reasons).

The Patriots should also have safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Brandon Spikes and wide receiver Deion Branch in the lineup. All three missed the Week 15 game in Denver.

The only truly serious injury that still seems to be up in the air involves left guard Logan Mankins, who might be a game-time decision with the knee issue that forced him to miss the regular-season finale.

Hey Jeff, I was just wondering which running backs you think will get the most carries for the Pats. Stevan Ridley has really emerged as a rushing threat the past three weeks, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis has obviously had a down season because of his toe injury. The Pats don't run the ball a lot, but do you think we could see Ridley start Saturday? Thanks.
–Cam (Westwood, Mass.)

Ridley has been the better running back since Week 15 in Denver, and he had 39 carries for 210 yards (5.4 yards per carry) in the final three weeks of the season, which led the team. However, he didn't score during that stretch, and his only touchdown this season came in Week 4 in Oakland. Green-Ellis, meanwhile, had 20 carries for 49 yards (2.5 yards per carry) over the last three weeks, but he did have three touchdowns during that stretch.

It's always dangerous to try to predict who will get the carries on a week-to-week basis, but there's been a pattern developing. Ridley has been the primary back, and Green-Ellis will get the goal-line work due to his dependability.

Jeff, almost every week we hear about this player or that player penalized for hits, celebrations, inappropriate behavior or attire. I'm sure by end of the season there were several million dollars in fines. Where do all these fines go? Charity? Retired players? De Smith's bonus? Or are they just deducted from the player's salary and go back to the player's team?
–B (Boston)

That's a common question. People are always curious about the destination of that money. When the players are fined, the NFL sends them a letter in the mail — commonly known as "the FedEx" by the players — that details why they were fined and where the money will go. That's because players were getting curious about it, too.

The money is distributed to a number of places, but the greatest benefactor is the retired players' fund, so it's a good cause. The money is also donated to charities. Lastly, the money is deducted from their weekly checks, so they can't just withhold the fine out of anger.

Hey Jeff, I was just wondering about some of the iffy moves made by the Patriots last offseason. I know it is a little late to be asking about this, but it seems apparent that Belichick made some not-so-smart roster transactions. I was just wondering if you knew why Belichick would cut Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders when our secondary is struggling for depth and talent already. Same with Leigh Bodden because he couldn't possibly think Antwaun Molden could be better for the team. If you have any info on this, I would really appreciate an answer.
–Ben (Phoenix)

My opinion on these moves really hasn't changed. I had no problem with the decision to part ways with Meriweather, whose development just halted after a pretty good season in 2009. Belichick probably didn't want to deal with Meriweather's unpredictable play anymore.

Bodden, as it turned out, needed back surgery after he was released early this season. I think Bodden was discontent behind the scenes, so I'm sure that played into the decision to release him, but because of the surgery, he wouldn't have been productive the rest of the way.

I always believed it was a mistake to part ways with Sanders, whose best asset was his steadiness. If the reasoning was to unload him because of his $2.8 million base salary, then it was a poor decision in my opinion. The Patriots had plenty of salary cap space, so that excuse is out the window. And I don't agree with the philosophy of cutting a potential backup because he makes more money than the starters.

Sanders didn't really have a good year in Atlanta, and aside from his safety, he played poorly against the Giants in the playoff loss, getting beat deep and taking poor angles in pursuit. Now, that flies in the face about what I said regarding his steadiness, but I'll just speculate that he wouldn't have fallen off as much if he remained in New England.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.