The 2019 New England Patriots are similar in a lot of ways to the team’s 2018 version, especially on the offensive side of the ball: the unit has been unable to get into a rhythm passing the football for much of the year and does not get consistent contributions outside its top few playmakers like wide receiver Julian Edelman and, at least during Sunday’s loss against the Houston Texans, running back James White.
But just like the 2018 Patriots, who lost back-to-back games last December before suddenly flipping the switch and making a championship run, the team’s 2019 version is not doomed to failure come playoff time. Yes, things look dire now but New England actually has the blueprint to getting its offense back on track — something coordinator Josh McDaniels pointed out during the NFL Films documentary Do Your Job earlier this year.
“One of the things that I’m so thoroughly impressed with Bill on is his ability to adapt and evolve,” said McDaniels when discussing last season’s turnaround. “If you keep holding to what you’d rather be — no-huddle, spread formations, 34 points a game — then you’re probably end up regretting a lot of things at the end of the year. What are we really good at? What’s the most consistent part of our team offensively? And then you commit to it.”
Last year, the Patriots answered those questions by shifting into a ground-and-pound mentality heading into the playoffs. The plan worked well and in combination with some solid defensive play helped New England win its sixth Lombardi Trophy, as the offense averaged 162 rushing yards per contest while playing a tempo-controlling game. This year, however, the circumstances — in large part due to the personnel — are different.
So what are the Patriots really good at in 2019? And what is the most consistent part of their team offensively?
13 weeks into the season, the two questions are hard to answer considering that the team shifted its identity numerous times already this season: New England started off well in the passing game, but the departures of Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown and the trade acquisition of Mohamed Sanu changed the face of the unit. On Sunday, only Edelman and White were consistently on the same page as quarterback Tom Brady and it showed.
The running game, meanwhile, has struggled for most of the first half of the season with starting center David Andrews, left tackle Isaiah Wynn and fullback James Develin as well as his replacement Jakob Johnson on injured reserve. Recently, however, it was slowly coming back to life again as the return of Wynn to the lineup has tremendously helped the offensive line’s overall communication and chemistry particularly in run-blocking.
Judged by this and the recent performances of a passing offense that is not in sync outside of Brady’s connection to his go-to-guys Julian Edelman and James White, it is not hard to see that at least at the moment the running game is what the Patriots are doing best. It may not have always been pretty over the last two weeks, but the return of Wynn created some momentum on the ground both against the Dallas Cowboys and even the Texans.
Does this mean New England is due a transformation similar like the one we witnessed at the end of last year’s regular season? Not necessarily, because a lot depends on whether or not the chemistry between Brady and the rest of the pass catcher group — wideouts Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers; tight ends Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson — keeps evolving and how the blockers up front continue to develop.
It certainly is possible that Sanu in particular could turn into an X-factor, even though he did not look like it on Sunday while getting eased back into the mix after missing last week’s game due to an ankle injury. But if the Patriots can get some more consistent production out of him like they did against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9, the entire offense and its aerial attack could change its character once again to incorporate more passing.
The signs of such a development are not yet there, though, and the game in Houston certainly did not qualify as an encouraging step in the right direction. This means that the search for an identity continues — something Brady also acknowledged on Monday during his weekly appearance on WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show: “We’re trying to do the right thing. Sometimes people have it figured out early, sometimes you have to figure it out as you go.”
Last year, the Patriots did figure it out and it led them straight to a Super Bowl title. There is no guarantee that a repeat performance is possible given the current personnel and its struggles, but if the team follows its 2018 blueprint and finds out what the offensive strengths truly are, chances are good that the offense at least becomes a serviceable unit again capable of complementing one of the best defenses in the league.