Did the Patriots “water down” their offense for QB Jimmy Garoppolo? someone asked New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after Sunday’s 23-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
“We ran what we thought we needed to run to win,” Belichick scoffed. “I don't know what you're talking about. We try to put a game plan together and come down here and win, and that's what we did.”
Without going into actual Xs and Os, the offense seemed pretty similar to years past. LeGarrette Blount ran the ball well enough, although the Patriots used some more end-arounds with Julian Edelman than usual. Garoppolo attacked all levels of the field in the passing attack, but there were clear differences with past years since Rob Gronkowski unable to play.
The Patriots averaged 5.5 yards per play (YPP) on offense, which is not significantly different from the 5.7 YPP in 2012, 5.4 YPP in 2013, 5.5 YPP in 2014, and 5.7 YPP in 2015.
In 2015, Tom Brady threw 24.9% of his passes in the middle of the field for a 10.0 yards per attempt (Y/A) rate; Gronkowski was responsible for roughly a third of this production. Garoppolo threw 21.2% of his passes in the middle- not a real difference in rate- for a mere 5.6 Y/A, a clear indication of how much the offense missed Gronkowski.
But Garoppolo compensated with an exceptional performance on the sidelines. Garoppolo completed 77% of his 26 passes to the outside for 8.7 Y/A, compared to 2015 Brady who completed 64% of his sideline passes for 7.0 Y/A.
Some should point to the ineffectiveness of LaFell in 2015 as a reason for Brady’s numbers, but when LaFell was at his best in 2014 Brady actually averaged 6.6 Y/A on passes to the outside. The introduction of Chris Hogan on the outside has changed the offensive calculus for the offense by providing a player that can, dare I say it, take the top off a defense.
Brady has never averaged 8.7 Y/A to the outside over the course of a season, peaking with a 70.5% completion rate and 8.1 Y/A to the outside in 2007 and 69.1% and 8.0 Y/A in 2010, so I would expect Garoppolo to regress in the coming weeks, but I still think the performance is worth noting.
Especially because Garoppolo’s effectiveness to the outside wasn’t necessarily due to dumping the ball off to running backs. 23.1% of Garoppolo’s passes went to James White, but Brady dumped the ball off to running backs 20.2% of the time in 2014 and 25.2% in 2015. Garoppolo was moving the ball to his receivers.
The return of Gronkowski should improve the effectiveness of passes on the inside, but Garoppolo’s success without Gronkowski is a terrific sign for the offense moving forward. Passes to the inside open up opportunities on the outside, and vice versa, so look for the offense to ascend to new heights in the coming weeks.
So the question of whether the Patriots watered down the offense doesn’t really apply here; the regular offense was not possible without Gronkowski. Instead, Garoppolo was able to produce with the pieces given and show flashes of ability against a stellar defense that hint at greater potential when Gronkowski returns to the line-up.