The New England Patriots are set to face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI and the Patriots offense looks very different from the offense that won Super Bowl XLIX. In fact, if you go back and look at how the Patriots reached the Super Bowl under head coach Bill Belichick, you’ll find that the offensive players have been different every single time- other than QB Tom Brady, of course.
2001 Patriots offense
Leading rusher: RB Antowain Smith (1,349 yards from scrimmage)
Leading receivers: WR Troy Brown (1,290 YFS)
Smith led the Patriots with 1,349 yards from scrimmage, while Brown ranked second with 1,290. WR David Patten posted 816 yards from scrimmage and no other Patriots exceeded 360 yards on the year. In fact, other than Brown (1,199 receiving yards) and Patten (749 receiving yards), WR Terry Glenn (204 receiving yards) was the only other player to produce more than 200 receiving yards on the year and he only played 4 games for the Patriots.
It was a different world.
2003 Patriots offense
Leading rusher: RB Kevin Faulk (1,078 YFS)
Leading receiver: WR Deion Branch (814 YFS)
Smith (642 rushing yards) barely edged out Kevin Faulk (638 rushing yards) in rushing yards, but Faulk added 440 receiving yards and led the team with 1,078 yards from scrimmage, so I’m going to give Faulk the edge. Branch ranked second on the team, with Smith in third.
In a change from 2001, where Brown, Patten, and Glenn were the only players to record 200+ receiving yards, an incredible seven players (Branch, David Givens, Brown, Faulk, Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria, Bethel Johnson) broke the barrier.
2004 Patriots offense
Leading rusher: RB Corey Dillon (1,738 YFS)
Leading receiver: WR David Givens (874 YFS)
Branch only played nine games and the Patriots featured different rushing and receiving leaders in each season of their 3-of-4 Dynasty stretch. After prioritizing Brown as a slot receiver in 2001, and spreading the ball around in 2003, the Patriots leaned on Dillon to carry the offense in 2004.
The Patriots showed a flexibility to change on offense, while ensuring that a strong defense always took the field. Sound familiar?
2007 Patriots offense
Leading rusher: RB Laurence Maroney (951 YFS)
Leading receiver: WR Randy Moss (1,493 YFS)
Randy Moss put together the greatest season by a modern era wide receiver as the Patriots put together the most efficient offense in NFL history. Wes Welker (1,209 YFS) and Donte Stallworth (709 YFS) added serious production as the Patriots scored at will for much of the year.
Maroney definitely didn’t live up to expectations as the 21st overall selection of the 2006 NFL Draft, and he was greatly overshadowed by later running backs selections like DeAngelo Williams (27th overall), Joseph Addai (30th overall), and Maurice Jones-Drew (60th overall).
But can I go to bat for him for a second?
Maroney played three relatively healthy years for the Patriots (he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 2008) and averaged 65.4 yards from scrimmage per game and 915 yards per season. That’s not the production you would want, but he wouldn’t make the top 10 list of worst Patriots draft picks under Bill Belichick.
Maroney contributed more yards from scrimmage (3,275, including playoffs) in a Patriots uniform under Bill Belichick than Stevan Ridley (3,222), Shane Vereen (2,383), or BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2,573). LeGarrette Blount (3,566) just passed Maroney this year.
So we can talk about poor value- and that would be correct- but Maroney was a valuable contributor to the offense when he was around.
2011 Patriots offense
Leading rusher: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (826 YFS)
Leading receiver: WR Wes Welker (1,599 YFS)
The Patriots shifted from the spread offense in 2007 to a two-tight end approach, as both Rob Gronkowski (1,329 YFS) and Aaron Hernandez (955 YFS) outproduced Green-Ellis. Welker was playing on Rookie Mode this year, though, and outproduced them all.
This was also the year with Deion Branch was the Patriots #2 receiver since Chad Ochocinco didn’t live up to expectations.
2014 Patriots offense
Leading rusher: RB Shane Vereen (838 YFS)
Leading receiver: TE Rob Gronkowski (1,124 YFS)
Like Faulk in 2003, Vereen (391 rushing yards) actually trailed Jonas Gray (412 rushing yards) in rushing yards, but Vereen added 447 receiving yards and his 838 yards from scrimmage far surpassed Gray’s production.
Gronkowski, Julian Edelman (1,066 YFS), and Brandon LaFell (966 YFS) outproduced Vereen during the regular season as the Patriots had one of the most balanced offenses I’ve ever seen. Having a productive tight end, slot receiver, and outside receiver was magic for the Patriots passing offense.
Vereen, Jonas Gray (419 YFS), Stevan Ridley (360 YFS), and LeGarrette Blount (299 YFS) ranked 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th on the team in yards as the Patriots juggled players to find a runner that worked.
2016 Patriots offense
Leading rusher: RB LeGarrette Blount (1,199 YFS)
Leading receiver: WR Julian Edelman (1,163 YFS)
If the 2014 Patriots offense was the most balanced offense we’ve seen, the 2016 Patriots offense provided the most depth. The Patriots had three rushers than could produce (Blount, Dion Lewis, James White), two tight ends that could dominate the game (Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett), and a solid group of receivers that could step up at any time (Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola).
So when the Patriots lost Gronkowski for the year, or when Lewis was unavailable for the first half of the season, the Patriots had a whole array of players that could step up as the Patriots morphed from a power rushing attack to a two-tight end attack to a spread attack and back to a power rushing attack on a drive-to-drive basis.
The Patriots have boasted a different leading rusher and a different leading receiver in each of their seven Super Bowl runs because of the Patriots willingness to adjust to the talent on the roster. The Patriots had a slot receiver in 2001 Troy Brown, before spreading the ball around in 2003, and power running in 2004. They featured a more dangerous spread in 2007, before turning to two-tight ends in 2011, and a traditional X/Y/Z receiver offense in 2014.
And now the Patriots have a chance to win another Super Bowl with another group of players. The offense features elements from all of the prior teams, but might be most similar to a vastly superior version of the 2003 offense.
Blount and Lewis have taken the place of Smith and Faulk. Edelman, Hogan, Mitchell, and Amendola are improvements over Branch, Givens, and Brown. Bennett is a step above Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria.
Add in an improved Tom Brady, the fact that the Patriots have the #1 scoring defense in the NFL for the first time since....2003, and that the Patriots are going for their second Super Bowl title in three seasons and the comparisons make sense.
All that’s left is for the 2016 Patriots to deliver home the title like their 2003 counterparts.