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MMQB Mail: Pats retool, barely miss beat; K.C. defense's secret weapon

FOXBORO, Mass. -- The Patriots went 16-0 in 2007 and led the NFL in scoring. Following the 45-3 skunking of the Jets here Monday night, they're 10-2 in 2010 and lead the NFL in scoring. And of the runners and receivers on the team, only one of the key guys is the same: Wes Welker.

You can look it up. Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk have given way to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead in the backfield. (Morris is still on the team but averages one carry per game.) At tight end, Ben Watson, Kyle Brady and Dave Thomas are gone from 2007; Alge Crumpler, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are in. At wide receiver, Welker, Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney were the go-to guys three years ago, and it's Welker, Deion Branch and Brandon Tate now.

Output of all the new, non-Welker pieces on Monday night: 331 rushing/receiving yards, five touchdowns.

The turnover of this team reminds me how Bill Walsh, after winning Super Bowls in the 1981 and '84 seasons, retooled the 49ers. He drafted or traded for Steve Young, Charles Haley, Jerry Rice, Tom Rathman and Steve Wallace in a two-year span, beginning on draft weekend 1985. Bill Belichick, first with Scott Pioli and now with Nick Caserio, uses the draft heavily to rebuild while not falling out of contention, and he's dealt vets Richard Seymour and Randy Moss for first- and third-round picks. The Patriots may have been shortsighted with impact player Seymour, because they don't get to the quarterback nearly enough now, but it's a plan that's served the team well as it's stayed a Super Bowl contender every year.

Three things haven't changed much -- Tom Brady, the overriding influence of Belichick and the offensive line. The unit has lost starters Nick Kaczur and Stephen Neal to injury this year, and Logan Mankins missed two-thirds of the season in a contract dispute. But Matt Light's been a mainstay at left tackle and Dan Koppen a rock at center.

"The one thing Bill Belichick told me when I first visited here,'' injured running back Fred Taylor told me in the Pats' locker room, "is they had a line that had been together five or six years, and that was going to be a solid part of the team. When you have number 12 [Brady] and a brain like Belichick's, face it: You can throw almost anyone in there and you'll be productive.''

Sure looks that way now.

***

On the firing of Josh McDaniels:

This is not about the interim-coach thing; interims Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier are a combined 5-1 since rescuing floundering teams. I think this is about the embarrassment of a franchise -- the endless losing (the Broncos are 5-17 since McDaniels' 6-0 start) and the fact McDaniels apparently tried to sweep the Spygate II thing under a rug to protect his friend and Broncos videographer Steve Scarnecchia.

The losing was bad enough, the kind of losing owner Pat Bowlen hadn't seen in years. But the fans hated McDaniels (in part because he was misunderstood, in part because some around him in the Denver front office thought he was too much of a know-it-all for a young coach), and Bowlen felt the deep anger coming from the fans. The illicit videotaping of a practice was one final straw, and the other was the indignity of losing to the Rams at home and to the rival Chiefs, feebly, on the road.

I'm not saying McDaniels didn't do enough to get fired. What I am saying is the Broncos could one day look back, when McDaniels matures, and feel they lost a good coach. (Call me crazy, but I could see Bob Kraft, after Bill Belichick retires, giving McDaniels the kind of shot he once gave a tarnished Belichick in 2000.) Remember how Belichick was run out of Cleveland in the mid-nineties? Turns out he wasn't so dumb after all. I wouldn't say McDaniels is Belichick-smart. But I would say he's a very bright and bold coach who's not afraid of change. Those are the kinds of coaches who break the mold and win in the NFL.

***

On the Chiefs defense:

There's been quite a focus on the Kansas City offense as the Chiefs have built a two-game lead in the AFC West, and for good reason. Matt Cassel (19 touchdowns, one interception since Oct. 1) has developed into a very good decision-maker and downfield thrower in his second season leading the Chiefs. Jamaal Charles has become one of the best five backs in football, and Dwayne Bowe, even after being goose-egged by the Broncos on Sunday, has a ridiculous 13 touchdowns in his last eight games.

But the Chiefs' defense also has been significantly improved this season. K.C. held five foes to 20 points or fewer last year. In 12 games this season, the Chiefs have held eight teams to 20 or fewer. One big difference is the pass-rush, and what I'd call sack differential. They're protecting their own quarterback well, and bothering the opposing one just as well.

Outside linebacker Tamba Hali, whose sack output has risen from 8.5 in a full season last year to 10 so far this year, attributes the sack gain to Joe Kim, a Taekwondo instructor retained by the Chiefs to work on martial-arts moves the defenders can do to keep offensive hands off them as they try to rush. That, plus speed. On Sunday, Hali beat one of the best left tackles in football, Ryan Clady, around the corner to strip-sack Kyle Orton and recover the ball.

"Joe's taught us a lot of techniques to beat any guy,'' Hali said. "Martial arts can be a valuable tool to get off blocks. I also think [coach] Todd Haley has done a great job changing the culture around here. There's a great togetherness here. We work out together all year. We push each other. There's a desire to be great here, and it's really helped us.''

***

Now for your mail:

• AGREED. "I can't believe the stance Kansas City coach Todd Haley has taken on what happened on the Chiefs sideline against Denver. Tackle Barry Richardson shoved special teams coach Steve Hoffman very roughly and then essentially punched Hoffman with an open hand in the middle of his chest... and Haley says it's "good thing" because it shows his team "really cares." Would Haley have said the same thing if it was he, rather than Hoffman, that got shoved? Is that kind of action an in-house matter or is it something the NFL office can address/punish? To me, that was just a step below hitting an official.''-- Tim, Olathe, Kan.

That's something that has to be handled in-house, and I agree with you 100 percent. It's just bad form to allow a player to push an assistant coach and to get away with it. My hope is Haley handled it with some punitive action against Richardson behind closed doors Monday. Anything else, and I think he loses respect from his coaching staff.

• NO ONE KNOWS -- YET. "With what you've gleaned from your NFL sources on the matter, why would you say they think Cam Newton is likely to work out any better for them than two other big, big-game one-season-wonder college QBs, namely JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young? Is it a simple matter of hope ever springing eternal; or is there something special going on that gives Newton a better chance of making the NFL grade?''-- Jane, Wintersville, Ohio

I don't think NFL people have studied Newton enough to know that yet. In fact, I know they haven't studied him enough to know. Whatever you hear as "NFL sources say Newton will be drafted,'' I would take with a mountain of salt, because no team will know enough about him in early December to make any sort of definitive decision. The one thing Newton has is excellent accuracy in a new offensive system, which is a good sign. But until you examine his background closely, find out whether he's a fit for the offense you run, and find out what kind of worker he is, it's all a guess as to where he'll end up in the draft. My guess is the top 10 of the first round.

• STRANGE BUT MAYBE TRUE. "Is there another QB in the league that can make the play Big Ben did when Suggs had him for a potential sack in the fourth quarter? That might have been the best incompletion ever.''-- Jay Rymniak, Pittsburgh

Roethlisberger has a knack for making plays like that because he's so strong and he doesn't get flustered when large men are about to cream him. As shocked as I was that Eli Manning didn't go down on a sack on the David Tyree Velcro catch, that's how shocked I was that Roethlisberger somehow stayed on his feet long enough to throw an awkward incompletion.

• GOOD POINT. "I noted that you questioned the FOX decision to choose the Cowboys game this past week as their main game. I agree that it should not have been the main game. However, how can you justify NBC's decision to have the Cowboys as the Sunday night game this next week? Hasn't the country seen enough of the Cowboys this year (and the Vikings too for that matter)?''-- Mike, Provo, Utah

Appreciate your point, and it's not a decision I make. But in a prime-time game, all the networks will use a slightly different approach centered much more around ratings than which two teams might make the best games. If you have the most compelling player in football right now (Michael Vick) on one side, and the ratings-magnet Cowboys playing much better on the other, that's not a bad draw, and I think it probably will be a pretty good game.

• THANK YOU. "Your column is excellent. I read it every time. I admit, I sometimes read it to see how pithy you can be in saying that the Redskins (my team) are bad. I am writing to see if you can shed light on this sentence regarding Shanahan's decision to rebuild or not to rebuild the franchise around McNabb ("It's a tough call because McNabb looks mostly old and ineffective."). To this Skins fan, it is not a tough call at all. What's the argument for sticking with McNabb for another campaign? Thanks.''-- Jeffrey Penn, Freehold, N.J.

The logic would be that Shanahan may look at his team and decide he has so many holes that he can live with McNabb for two or three years and try to build around him.

• MY FAULT. "As a Seahawks fan, it would have been nice to see a mention of the Seahawks putting up Walter Jones' retired number during the game versus Carolina. Considering he was snubbed out of the NFL best 100 show.''-- Eric Lachaine, Seattle

Well, you make a good point. I should have acknowledged Jones in the column. My error. The late games often fall through the cracks for me because I'm on the phone for much of them, reporting for the Sunday night show on NBC. But that's no excuse for missing the Jones event.

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