The Ringer is currently in the middle of “Patriots Week” where they’re publishing stories on how and why the New England Patriots are the greatest franchise in the NFL. It doesn’t hurt that Bill Simmons loves the Patriots (and that The Ringer is now published on the Vox platform along with SB Nation) so you know the content is worth reading.
Not everyone is a Patriots fan, of course, and some have taken it upon themselves to try and poke holes in the greatest dynasty in modern professional sports. Rodger Sherman, formerly of SB Nation, penned a piece called “Five Ways the Patriots Dynasty is Deeply Flawed” and he’s a funny writer so it’s always worth checking out his content.
And despite his humorous approach- Sherman wanted to find facets of the game where the Patriots are below the league average in success rate and laughingly claims he only found five- I decided to dive deeper into his noted flaws to see if his claims were correct.
1. The Patriots struggle to draft offensive skill players early in the draft
Sherman notes that the Patriots haven’t been able to find star offensive skill players in the first four rounds of the draft under head coach Bill Belichick. While TE Rob Gronkowski is an undeniable star and WR Deion Branch was named Super Bowl XXXIX MVP, there aren’t many other players to write about.
The first round picks of Daniel Graham, Ben Watson, and Laurence Maroney all failed to live up to expectations, while the second round includes Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, and Aaron Dobson. Stevan Ridley is probably the best skill player the Patriots selected in the third round. There’s no question that there are disappointments in the first three rounds.
Back in 2011, the Harvard Sports Analysis (HSA) blog wrote about the expected career value of players based upon their draft status. The player selected 32nd overall should be twice as valuable as the average player taken in the draft, while the 94th overall player represented the average player. In other (less scientific and specific) words, the draft averages 94 above-average players each year.
Using the HSA chart, we can compare the value of the players the Patriots drafted against the projected value of a player selected at their draft spot. It’s not perfect, but it’s a fine measure of player value versus draft ranking.
We find that Gronkowski, Branch, and Hernandez greatly exceeded their draft positions, while Watson, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Tate, and James White have all come close to their projected value. It’s worth noting that Watson and Tate earned a substantial amount of their value away from the Patriots, so of 24 offensive skill players the Patriots have drafted in the first four rounds between 2000-2014, just six have provided value at or above the projected level.
That’s an ugly 25% success rate and the flaw is fair.
2. The Patriots have not had a consistently elite run defense
While the Patriots have had individually strong years of run defense, Sherman argues that the Patriots have never been great at stopping opposing rushing attacks at the line of scrimmage. Sherman uses the Football Outsiders defensive line statistics to find areas where the Patriots finish at the bottom of the league.
Using those same statistics, of course, we can actually find a different narrative. The Patriots fielded below average run defenses just twice between 2003 and 2016 (the down years? 2011 and 2013) and ranked inside the top ten in 2004, 2006, 2012, 2015, and 2016.
The Patriots run defense isn’t the same level as the 2000s Baltimore Ravens or the 2000s Pittsburgh Steelers, but it was not below average. Even the 4.10 yards per carry the Patriots have allowed since 2000 ranks a perfectly mediocre 14th.
Still, it’s hard to dispute that the Patriots don’t generate as many stuffs in the running game and it’s unlikely related to game script. The “run stuffs” metric at Football Outsiders looks at the rate of runs that end in zero or fewer yards. Some might argue that the Patriots defense often has greater leads and plays to defend the pass, potentially allowing for more yards at the line of scrimmage.
Using the Pro Football Reference database, we can look at running plays during one-score games. The Patriots run defense stuffs the opposition 17.7% of the time, ranking dead last dating back to 2000.
That’s right. Even the Cleveland Browns (17.8%!) have better at stuffing opposing rushing attacks at the line of scrimmage. Sherman appears to have done his homework.
3. The Patriots defense was not good from 2010-12
The Patriots went 39-9 during these three seasons with two conference championship appearances and one Super Bowl showdown. The defense ranked 25th, 31st, and 25th in yards allowed during these years (and 26th in 2013). From 2010-12, the Patriots allowed 5.82 yards per play, ahead of only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5.86) and the New Orleans Saints (5.85).
And yet the Patriots ranked 1st in takeaways during those three years with 113. They ranked 8th, 15th, and 9th in points allowed. While there’s no way to show the 2011 defense as anything but a dumpster fire, the weighted defensive ratings by Football Outsiders indicate that the 2010 and the 2012 defenses were average by the end of the season.
The “not good” Patriots defense ranked 9th in points allowed over these three years and as far as Bill Belichick is concerned, points are all that matters. I think it’s fair to say that the 2011 defense was atrocious, but the defense wasn’t that bad in 2010 or 2012.
4. The Patriots have not been good at punting
No matter how much Bill Belichick loves punting, the Patriots haven’t had an, uh, elite punter in his tenure. Sherman found that the Patriots ranked an average 17th in net punting, undeniably a below-average ranking.
“My guess is that the Patriots’ net punting averages are sophisticated in a way that the numbers can’t explain,” Sherman writes. “Belichick would not be sold short here. He has earned our trust on this of all things.
“I refuse to give it to him. The Patriots are excellent at everything, and their fans know it. But I will never let them live down the embarrassment of being mediocre in net punting average.”
Net punting is simply how far a punter boots the ball, less however many yards the returnman gains. Since 2000, the Patriots average drive has finished on the opposing team’s 35 yard line, easily the best field position in the entire league; only a few other elite offenses (Saints, Colts, Steelers, Packers) finish closer than the opposing 40 yard line.
But by having the average drive end further than any other team, it stands that there are fewer punting yards to be had. A net 34-yard punt from the 35-yard line yields the same result as a 39-yard punt from the 40-yard line.
That’s why the Chiefs are the only team to force opposing teams into worse starting field position off of punts than the Patriots. The Patriots net punting is less simply due to a field position difference.
And if we want to go further, we can look at the added value of the punting unit through Football Outsiders’ points added model to find that the Patriots punting team has added value under Bill Belichick in all but the following seasons:
2004-06: This is the Josh Miller era, which also includes stints in 2006 by Ken Walter and Todd Sauerbrun after Miller was placed on the injured reserve.
2009: This was the final year of Chris Hanson as the Patriots drafted Zoltan Mesko in 2010.
2015: Ryan Allen was a fine punter in 2015, but the Patriots allowed two scores off of punts to the Eagles and that really hurt the punting unit’s value added.
My thoughts? Other than the Josh Miller era, the Patriots have been an above-average-to-great punting unit, even if it doesn’t show up in the net punting total.