What’s more fun than comparing one Patriots team to another?
The offense is running up the score on its opponents again? Must be 2007. The defense can’t stop a nosebleed? Feels like 2011. There’s discord in the locker room? Ah, 2009.
Different Patriots teams can take on traits of old teams in the same season. Just two months ago, all of New England was waxing nostalgic for 2007 as the Patriots weren’t just beating teams, they were beating them up.
Now? With the lack of weaponry on offense, one can’t help but meander back to 2006, aka the Reche Caldwell All-Stars. New England’s lone weakness – wide receiver – reared its head at the worst possible time, in an AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts.
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But this offense, for as abysmal as it’s looked for the better part of a month, is still light years ahead of where it was in ’06. The best comparison for this current team, strictly offensively speaking, is the 2013 Patriots, which featured Julian Edelman and virtually nothing else at Tom Brady’s disposal.
Back in the present, we knew the schedule was going to get more difficult for the Patriots after their pseudo-preseason slate in September and October, but who deserves the most blame for what’s happened to New England on offense during this stretch?
There are numerous factors at play for one of the worst offensive stretches in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Here’s a breakdown of who you should be pointing your fingers at:
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The Ravens are peaking like never before; their current 8-game winning streak is their longest since moving to Baltimore in 1996, and Lamar Jackson is the front-runner for NFL MVP. But the Eagles are a mess and below .500, the heat on Jason Garret’s seat for the Cowboys grows hotter by the minute and the Texans had won once in 11 previous meetings against the Patriots. Coming out of this five-game stretch – which concludes this Sunday vs. Kansas City – still unbeaten was a long shot, but that doesn’t mean it had to look like this.
Quibble with a few play calls here and there if you must, but by and large that’s not why the Patriots lost to the Ravens or Texans and struggled to move the ball against the Eagles or Cowboys. In fact, as soon as New England went to a no-huddle approach vs. Baltimore, it looked as though the offense had rediscovered its mojo again – that is, until Julian Edelman’s fumble.
The one play call which truly stands out is New England’s decision to throw the ball on fourth and 1 from the Houston 42 in the third quarter, trailing 14-3, in which Brady dropped back to pass to Mohamed Sanu. Why? Brady converts 82% of his QB sneaks into first downs or touchdowns.
Verdict: 4 percent
Tom Brady had an average of 3.25 seconds to throw on Sunday vs. the Texans, his first game this season with more than 3 seconds to throw in 2019. That’s while working Isaiah Wynn back from a toe injury at left tackle and with New England’s third-string center, James Ferentz, for much of the game on Sunday. Brady was sacked three times, but for the season has been brought down just 21 times – 24th in the NFL, tied with, oddly enough, Lamar Jackson.
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Marshall Newhouse was a serviceable punching bag for fans while Wynn was out, but Wynn gave up one of the three sacks to Brady and allowed him to be hit another time. Across the line, right tackle Marcus Cannon was responsible for 1.5 sacks on Sunday.
Verdict: 5 percent
“Next man up” has been preached in the greater Foxboro area for the better part of two decades now, and there’s no denying the Patriots have been tested by the mantra this season with injuries to two key offensive players: center David Andrews and fullback James Develin.
Andrews has missed the entire season due to blood clots in his lungs while Develin, a Pro Bowler in 2018, has been done for the year since Week 2. Jakob Johnson, Develin’s replacement, is also on injured reserve, which has forced the Patriots to turn to linebacker Elandon Roberts at fullback on occasion.
Receivers Phillip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu and tight ends Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse have also missed time throughout the year; LaCosse was the only one active against the Cowboys, for example.
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Verdict: 5 percent
Collectively, though, the Patriots are tied for third in the league with 18 passes dropped. Throw in the on-going integration of rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers the last few weeks, plus trying to get on the same page with trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu, and it’s apparent that Brady has had better supporting casts in his career.
That doesn’t excuse Brady completing just over 51% of his passes over the last three games, nor does it excuse missing open receivers – like he did with Phillip Dorsett in the back of the end zone against the Texans. The ageless wonder has to be better if the Patriots are going to snap out of this funk.
Verdict: 15 percent
This is where the loss of Develin can’t be understated. With the Brown University alum as his lead blocker a season ago, Sony Michel averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Without Develin, Michel has plummeted a full yard to 3.5 per carry, a figure which is 41st in the NFL among 46 runners currently qualified for the rushing title.
The thing is... Michel has actually been showing signs of life during this four-game stretch for New England. His best outing of the season came against the Cowboys, when he carried the ball 20 times for 85 yards.
Down big against the Texans, the Patriots got away from the run and Michel finished with just 10 carries for 45 yards. It would help Michel’s cause if he could contribute something, anything, as a pass catcher; he has just nine grabs on the season, three over the last four games for 23 yards.
Verdict: 15 percent
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Look back at 2013, Julian Edelman’s breakout season, and what else the Patriots had around him. Rob Gronkowski was injured in Week 7 and didn’t return, replaced by the immortal Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan at tight end. Danny Amendola looked like a free agent bust while Wes Welker helped the Broncos break the ’07 Patriots record for most points scored in a season. Things were so bad by the AFC Championship Game that Brady actually threw a pass to Matthew Slater (they didn’t connect).
What’s different from then to now? Edelman is on pace for his best statistical season since 2013, but the Patriots again failed to adequately replace Gronkowski.
For as promising as Jakobi Meyers has looked at times – he had a career-high 74 yards vs. the Cowboys – the fact remains he’s an undrafted rookie who’s not yet totally on the same page as Brady. Ditto for Harry, the 32nd overall pick in the 2019 draft, who was benched on Sunday shortly after Brady targeted him and was picked off by Bradley Roby.
Verdict: 25 percent
Bill Belichick, General Manager
“I think we all have to do a better job,” Bill Belichick said on a conference call Monday morning, asked if he feels there are enough options for Tom Brady on offense. “So, start with that, see how it goes.”
The reasons for Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, Bruce Ellington, Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon failing to stick on the wide receiver depth chart are numerous. To run through that many names over the course of less than a calendar year, however, begs the question: why were any of those names seen as viable options in the first place?
At tight end, meanwhile, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo have provided roughly zip, zilch and nada in the passing game, while Ben Watson, 38, has flashed on occasion – he had a nice broken tackle on a 23-yard reception vs. Houston – but nothing more. Gronkowski did the Patriots few favors by announcing his retirement near the end of March rather than prior to free agency, but to completely ignore the position in the April draft is peak roster mismanagement.
Verdict: 30 percent