by Scott Benson

The 2006 pre-season will mercifully come to a close tonight when the Patriots travel to the Meadowlands for a curtain-dropping practice game with Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

No matter how good a pre-season goes (and this one’s been goooood), they’re largely equivalent to impatiently checking your watch for a month. Except for the whole Meghan Vasconcellos serving hot dogs thing. Why is that not its own show? We insist.

Anyway, the games need to start counting, and now. Let’s clean our desk off before the regular season begins:

At this writing, Deion Branch and Jason Chayut have a couple of days to kick loose a bombshell contract/trade offer to substantiate their claims and force the Patriots hand. There’s no end of theories on how this will all work out – most favoring the Patriots, at least in the short term. Will Deion Branch find a dance partner in the wee hours? If he returns, will he sign a new deal with the Pats, or will he simply play out his existing deal and head for free agency in the spring?

Scott: As we all know by now, its unlikely that Branch can swing this deal, finding a team that will pay him what he wants AND fork over draft picks to the Pats. Conventional wisdom says Branch returns, hat in hand, ready to accept what now seems like a very fair offer to our humbled holdout. Why do I think it can’t possibly be that easy? It’s not even logical for Branch to play for short money and risk injury in the process, all in hopes of a monster deal on the horizon. That’s exactly why I’m afraid it will happen.

Bruce: Scott, you clearly don’t have a clue. Maybe if you stopped blindly supporting every move that the Patriots make you could see that Chayut is a genius agent and has already lined up several great offers for his client. Teams are lining up to pay a Super Bowl MVP millions and millions of guaranteed dollars. The Patriots bungled this whole situation just as they did they did the rest of the offseason. They’re so cold and calculating (and cheap) with every move that they make that I’m afraid that in the future players won’t want to come here. They messed this Branch situation up, and it might cost them the Super Bowl this season. I hope I’m proven wrong.( This response was brought to you by our good friends at contrarians-R-us. Now back to your regularly scheduled Bruce Allen responses.)

I have no idea what to think. I’m just going to wait it out and see what happens. The offense seems pretty good so far, although as some knowledgeable scribes warned us this week, its only a matter of time before defenses gang up on the Patriots tights ends AND running backs and completely shut down the Branch-less Patriots offense. I still hold out that he’ll get a deal done to stay in New England the next few years. The coaches and his teammates love him, he likes it here, he’s just got the wrong agent to deal with the Patriots.

Greg: I tend to doubt it. My feeling is he’ll be back with the Patriots, play well and re-sign with them at some point. I think he wants to be here and you can see it in his statements and everything you know about him and, at some point, that has to win out over the agent. I would think so anyways.

Reche Caldwell has seemingly done nothing so far with his opportunity in New England, despite the absences of Branch and rookie Chad Jackson (nursing a hamstring pull that has cost him his rookie training camp), which have left a clear field for the former Charger to establish himself with the Patriots. If the pre-season games are any indication, he hasn’t. Most alarming have been a couple of drops (actually, ricochets) that called into question how effective his Jugs training has been. Considering that Caldwell has never caught more than 28 passes as a pro, why should Patriots fans expect he can elevate his game to a new level?

Bruce: Caldwell’s got me wondering if Gary Tanguay actually does know more about football than the container of Cool Whip in my fridge. It is still early, but man, he just hasn’t done anything to inspire confidence that he can be anything more than Donald Hayes redux. I’m patient enough to give him some more time to get comfortable and establish himself. I think more attention is being paid to Caldwell than is actually warranted, and that’s because: 1) He was the team’s first and only real spring free agent signing, right in the midst of the Givens, Vinatieri and McGinest defections and 2) The current lack of depth at the wide receiver position. Had this been another season, his signing probably would’ve been given the attention that say, Tim Dwight or Dedrick Ward received when they were signed. Caldwell should be viewed as a minor signing…a complimentary piece, rather than a huge free agent bust. I think when/if Deion Branch and Chad Jackson ever take the field for the Patriots, the heat will be off Caldwell to an extent, and he might actually get better. If not, I’m never eating Cool Whip again.

Greg: Well, one reason is he’ll likely get more opportunity here. He’s called on to have a bigger role and will, just by pure opportunity whether he plays well or not, most likely get more production. But his drops are somewhat concerning, if also slightly overblown at this point. I still have hopes once he is a bit more comfortable with everything, he’ll be productive….he definitely has talent….and its simply a case of adjustment. I think he’ll put up similar numbers to David Givens when all is said and done because he will get the opportunity to and I see nothing to indicate he is a complete bust as of yet. Lets give him at least a few real games first.

Scott: They shouldn’t. I’m usually one to preach patience (denial?) in these situations, especially with the considerable talents of this coaching staff supporting these players. But this game does not come easy to Reche Caldwell, if appearances count for anything. Even early on, it’s hard to imagine that the player we’ve been watching will become much more than an inconsistent second-team receiver, doing very little to mitigate the absence of the former starters. Problem is, the expectations are higher than that. Of all the years for a receiver like Reche Caldwell to join the Patriots.

The Patriots entered the pre-season with several key position issues to be resolved – the depth (and quality) of the wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back positions, the rehab and return of some key veterans, and whether a rookie kicker can fill the void left by Super Bowl legend Adam Vinatieri. As the pre-season closes, have the Patriots successfully resolved any of these issues?

Greg: I think so, though some tweaking is needed still at receiver. They need Jackson to play and Branch back or they’re dangerously thin. At linebacker, I think things are fine once Bruschi is back….they’re really not that thin there and same can be said at defensive back as they have lots of quality players there. Of course, this has also been a position they’ve looked good at before only to be hit by huge injuries at that area. At kicker, there is simply no way to tell until the regular season comes. He’s made all the kicks, has a good leg….but its impossible to tell how he’ll react to pressure of real games.

Scott: ‘Resolved’ might be a strong word. ‘Addressed’ is more benign and gives me some wiggle room. I’d say with Tully Banta-Cain stepping up on the outside, allowing Mike Vrabel to move inside, the acquisition of Junior Seau and the expected return of Tedy Bruschi, they adequately addressed the linebacker position this month. Belichick says his d-backs have had a good camp, and it is looking like Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and Randall Gay have all stepped up their games. Rodney’s back. But we still don’t know about Eric Warfield and Chad Scott, really, and they’re what amounts to depth. We don’t know whether Harrison may have a setback (God forbid). This one is sounding like a push the longer I talk about it.

Bruce: I think Gostkowski will not be put in many positions to fail this season, especially early on. Come to think of it, how many times last season did the Patriots pass up what we thought were makeable Vinatieri field goals only to go for it (and convert) on fourth down? They seemed to do that quite a bit, and I think they’ll do that again this season, protecting the rookie and allowing him to grow into the job. Linebacker still might be an area to watch. As my good buddy Mike from Portsmouth NH keeps saying, Seau hasn’t been able to stay on the field the last two seasons, and the Patriots general recent record in free agent linebackers isn’t great. (Chad Brown, Monty Beisel) I like Banta-Cain, and have high hopes for him. Barry Gardner has looked better than Matt Chatham did, and Pierre Woods might make the squad on special teams ability alone, which would give him the chance to grow into a linebacker role. D-backs…again recent history tells us that at least three of those rotation guys will be on IR by week six. Let’s hope hammerin’ Hank Poteat is available to ride in on his white horse once again late in the season.

Thursday night is the fourth and final pre-season game. Historically, this is a game played by reserves and players on the margin. What will you be looking for?

Bruce: All I know is that if I don’t see Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Matt Light, Corey Dillon, Ben Watson, Mike Vrabel et all for the entire game, I’ve got my consumer fraud paperwork ready to file.

Greg: Good back up players and no injuries. Guys I’m interested in seeing is whether Jonathan Sullivan continues his progress, can someone come forward at receiver like John Stone or Kelvin Kight and how does Matt Cassel play? Does he improve his play for the fourth straight pre-season game?

Scott: Ten fingers and ten toes. I just want to see them come out whole. The starters won’t be in jeopardy, but the Thin Blue Line of capable backups will be. You drop one or two of those guys and it will screw with your handicap. I’ll tell you what position battle interests me – did you know that Jeremy Mincey is listed (on the Pats depth chart) as the third team defensive end, along with being listed at outside linebacker, the position he was drafted to play? I just thought that was interesting because the second string guy behind Ty Warren is Marquise Hill.

And now, please rise for our Mediot of the Week:

Bruce: Count me as the most puzzled and disappointed individual in New England about the transformation of Mike Felger from competent, insightful reporter down to “Shrieking Panic Monger”. Do we blame it on his radio show and the need to get attention and try to attract listeners to his show by drawing attention to himself? I don’t know what happened to this guy. His articles from the weekend exemplify how far he’s sunk. In the wake of Rodney Harrison returning to the field less than a year after having his knee ripped completely apart, Felger wrote about how the “real” Harrison would’ve made a lot more plays in the game. Did anyone expect the 2003 Harrison to instantly appear on the field? Felger took a feel-good story and tried to inject worry into it – something he’d never have done in the past. While others were saying that the Patriots were shrewd in forcing the issue with Branch, Felger said they bungled it up. Maybe he really believes that, but I think he’s just trying to stir things up and get people calling his radio show.

Greg: There are no idiots in the media. Its sports!!!! We can’t judge them on things like the way they argue their opinions, how they ask concise questions on Randy Moss to Bill Belichick, or how prepare themselves and well-versed they are when going on Tennessee radio about Boston College, or how professional they are, or whether they go on the air drunk. That’s unfair. But of course, its fair game for WEEI to call their callers “nitwits” and blow them up and insult the fans and talk over them even if they’re talking sports. We won’t criticize that, that would actually be consistent!

I kid, I will go with myself (not that I actually qualify as “media”….though I do have idiot covered sometimes)….for an error I made in a GDRV column identifying Barry Gardner as James Darling. I always mixed them up for some reason. Must be an Eagles thing.

Scott: Far be it from me to hammer away at the Patriots-produced pre-season telecasts on WCVB, considering that I come from a time when even some regular-season games weren’t telecast. So the fact that the Pats have a house organ of their own now is much appreciated. But I had to laugh like hell when Don Criqui and Randy Cross (talking over an incorrect on-screen graphic) told viewers last Saturday night that “neither team has had a turnover tonight” just SECONDS after rookie Garrett Mills had coughed up a 4th quarter fumble to the Redskins. Pay attention much? And look, despite my aforementioned admiration for Ms. Vasconcellos, I have to say I’m not a big fan of shrinking the game action down to the size of a small postage stamp in the corner of the screen so that the team can shill for its hot dog line. That was a textbook Red Sox move. Blecch.