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Pound it or Sling it: Are the Patriots a running team now?

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Let’s check the numbers!

NFL: New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

How many times did we hear it last year: the Patriots zig when everyone else zags and turned into a team that RUNS THE FOOTBALL?

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I feel like the answer is somewhere around “if this was a drinking game, we’d all be singing karaoke by halftime”.

The take basically wrote itself: after dropping a couple first-round picks on Sony Michel and the soon-to-return Isaiah Wynn, extending Shaq Mason for a cool $50 mil, and acquiring Trent Brown, who is every inch as tall as LeBron James and weighs as much as 1.5 LeBrons, and the Patriots were primed to throw it back to the Corey Dillon days while everyone else in the league tries to hang with the Chiefs. Right? They even used a fullback! A lot! On 36.3% of their offensive snaps, to be exact!

Oh, almost forgot about Dwayne Allen’s run-blocking. Daniel Graham would’ve been proud.

Here’s the deal though: here at the Pulpit, we like our takes like we like our guacamole: fresh and served with a plate of tacos. So is this whole idea that New England plays smashmouth big-boy power football now in the all-time passing era still legit? Was it legit last year? Was it ever legit in the first place?

Fire up the Mythbusters theme song and let’s dig in.

Since the Patriots have had roughly 800 running backs and almost as many receivers over the last several years, we’re going to stick to the years since Josh McDaniels took over as offensive coordinator in 2012. That’s admittedly a bit arbitrary on my part, but the thinking is that seven seasons from 2012-2018 and 10 games of 2019 *should* give us a big enough sample size to see if there’s some patterns here, and that’s also a long enough time frame for the team to have evolved from the arguable peak of the two-tight-end offense to present-day. It also keeps our research, to the extent that goofing off on stats pages constitutes “research”, pretty firmly in the era when basically every NFL team had figured out that passing the ball is king, both in terms of efficiency and looking rad on TV. Cool? Cool.

As with all great stories, let’s start in the middle:

2012 Season

  • Pass play percentage: 57.03%
  • Run play percentage: 42.97%
  • Running backs: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden

Like we said a minute ago, this team was still very much rocking the two-tight-end offense that almost nobody in the entire NFL had an answer for. Prime Gronk and Hernandez basically broke the NFL’s collective brain into having to prepare for everything, and then still being prepared for almost nothing. And WTF are you supposed to call on defense with those guys, Wes Welker at the height of his game, and a platoon of running backs that all can catch too?

Speaking of those running backs, this was also the year that Stevan Ridley played out of his freaking mind - 1,263 rush yards, 12 scores, and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

2013 Season

  • Pass Play percentage: 57.92%
  • Run Play percentage: 42.08%
  • Running backs: LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen

After having a beast mode season in 2012, Stevan Ridley developed a nasty case of the fumbles in 2013, got himself benched, and eventually lost his starting gig to LeGarrette Blount. What’s crazy about this is the offense looked almost completely different - Welker famously left town to get paid, Danny Amendola signed, Julian Edelman did what everybody thought Danny was here to do, and the other two receivers were second-round pick Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who wasn’t even drafted. Gronk also only made it through seven games after returning from his arm injury saga before a brutal (but legal) TJ Ward hit tore his ACL and MCL. Weirdly enough, the play-calling split between runs and passes stays freakishly similar to 2012 at pretty much a 60/40 split. Let’s see if this continues!

2014 Season

  • Pass play percentage: 59.59%
  • Run play percentage: 40.41%
  • Running backs: LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Jonas Grey, James White

We all know how this season went. Frankly, it should’ve won Best Picture too.

Third time’s the charm though, and for the third season in a row, despite the tear that Brady went on post-Kansas-City-Barbecue, we’re still within roughly 1% of the same run-pass ratio.

2015 Season

  • Pass play percentage: 65%
  • Run play percentage: 35%
  • Running backs: LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden, Steven Jackson, James White

Finally, a curveball! The ‘15 squad avoided Tom Brady’s suspension and proceeded to do exactly what Jules in Pulp Fiction says when he quotes that badass Bible verse, until, well, everybody on this team except Gronk (!!!) somehow managed to get hurt. That injury list includes Lil Dirty himself, who was nothing short of spectacular in 2015 and actually racked up more receiving yards than rushing yards before going on IR, the usually-reliable LeGarrette Blount, stalwart left tackle Nate Solder, and fullback James Develin. All this to say, when so many of the cogs in the run game are either banged up or on Injured Reserve, Brady had to put this team on his back, and they were still knocking at the door to go to back-to-back Super Bowls

2016 Season

  • Pass play percentage: 56.41%
  • Run play percentage: 43.59%
  • Running backs: LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis, James White

We came, we saw, we have the t-shirts. By the time Brady got back in Week 5 from his mandatory vacation all the way through the playoffs, the 2016 Patriots were just on a completely different level than the entire rest of the AFC. More importantly: our run-pass ratio is right back where it was from 2012-2014.

2017 Season

  • Pass play percentage: 59.78%
  • Run play percentage: 40.22%
  • Running backs: Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White, Brandon Bolden

Not going to lie, this one’s surprising, given that it felt like the entire second half of every game this year was Brady needing to play hero ball after the defense let up so many late scores. And while the ratio here’s a little heavy in favor of passing, it’s still, as you probably noticed, quite close to every season besides 2015.

2018 Season

  • Pass play percentage: 54.91%
  • Run play percentage: 45.09%
  • Running backs: Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Jeremy Hill (and Cordarrelle Patterson, sort of!)

This is supposed to be it, right? The year where Bill flips the switch and turns the Patriots into a throwback ground and pound IT’S CLOBBERIN’ TIME Super Bowl champ?

I mean, sort of, but not really? The 2018 Pats weren’t usually plastering other teams to the tune of 42-10, thanks in no small part to Julian Edelman getting himself suspended and Josh Gordon eventually being frozen out of the offense towards the end there, but to say they “changed their identity” or adapted some brand new focus on the run game seems like kind of a stretch when, based on the percentages, they’re only calling a few extra run plays every 100 plays compared to almost every other year with Josh McDaniels at the controls.

This package ruled, though. Just pure “You know what we’re doing. We know that you know. Go stop it”

Phew, all caught up! Which brings us to this season, and 10 games in, here’s how it looks:

2019 Season (so far, obviously)

  • Pass play percentage: 60.71%
  • Run play percentage: 39.29%
  • Running backs: Sony Michel, Damien Harris, James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden

Wait WHAT. The highest passing % since 2015? And that’s *with* the defense scoring at a literally unprecedented rate in the first half of the season and blowing teams out, meaning (one would assume) plenty of time to run the ball and run out the clock later in games?

Obviously, we’ve got more football to be played this year, but by now you’ve probably noticed that these splits between runs and passes are really, really similar year to year, with 2015 again being the exception. And it doesn’t really even matter who the backs are - whether by coincidence (unlikely!) or Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick consciously crafting game plans to keep enemies honest and keep them guessing (much more likely!), the team’s almost always in that range of passing between 55 and 60 percent of the time and running the ball the rest of the way.

Also, for once procrastination has worked out in our favor because of this little stat that came out yesterday: not only are the Patriots throwing more compared to how many run plays they are, er, running in 2019, there’s this. Passing league, right?

If that shakes out, that’d be the sixth season in his career when TB12’s thrown over 600 attempts; the most recent of those being his 2015 and 2013 seasons we were just reminiscing about.

One thing’s for sure though: next time you hear someone talk about the Patriots morphing into a run-first team now, you’ll know better. And knowing is half the battle!