Before I start, a disclaimer: This is not an article about Cam Newton. Once again, this is not about the quarterback. One more time for people in the back: It’s not about who is under center, it’s about the play-calling. I’m sure half the comments will still be about Cam, but, you can’t say I didn’t try.
Now for the reason you came here: Why the New England Patriots can’t realistically compete with the offense looking the way it has recently.
There are many reasons why, but we can start with a really easy one. It’s 2020. The NFL is geared towards teams that can throw the ball down the field. 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago, you could control the clock with your running game, play good defense, and still win championships. You can’t do that anymore.
“But Pat, the Patriots beat the Rams 13-3 in the Super Bowl, so you’re stupid and wrong!”
Good point, imaginary person in my head, but they also scored 41 and 37 points in their other two playoff games, both of which saw Tom Brady throw for over 300 yards, so there. The Patriots want to control the clock and win with their running game and defense, fine, but that simply doesn’t work anymore and makes the room for error across the board that much smaller.
That brings us to some current examples. Most notably, the Ravens, led by 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. Their entire offense is led by the rushing attack. The running game, including Jackson, of course, is so dynamic that it makes defenses focus on it and leave receivers and tight ends wide open. This is great, until you get to the playoffs and play a good, disciplined, team who can slow your run game down. When that happens, your offense is toast, and your QB isn’t good enough to win without the deception. Maybe he will be, but he isn’t right now.
New England has a similar problem. The team refuses to turn Cam Newton loose, unless it absolutely has to. Just look at this graphic showing a team’s early-down pass rate over expectation based on factors such including down, distance, field position and win probability:
As can be seen, the Patriots are least in the NFL by throwing on 10 percent below their expectation. The Ravens, for comparison, are 29th.
Is that because of Cam Newton, or because of his supporting cast? I’m not going to speculate on that, but, whatever the reason, the coaching staff seems terrified of making the passing game the focal part of the offense, especially on early downs. Without the ability to do that, however, you simply won’t stand a chance to win against good teams on a consistent basis — something you need in the playoffs and when trying to get there in the first place.
The Patriots have won four out of their last five games, but let’s look a little closer.
Cam Newton has 545 passing yards in the four wins, including less than 100 in the last two games against the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers. Blame him if you want, but, whatever the reason, it’s not sustainable. Damien Harris is a great runner, and they have a great offensive line, but you simply can’t expect to win the game just running the ball. Teams are stacking the box, and daring the Patriots to throw. So far, they have been unwilling to do it.
I’ve been talking about Bill Belichick preparing for life after Tom Brady by building a great defense and running game for two years now, but you at least have to be able to throw the ball a little bit. You can’t depend exclusively on your defense and special teams to score points and give you great field position. It has worked the last two games, but relying on that happening every week is a recipe for disaster.
So, to sum it up, the Patriots need to be more aggressive.
They may not be confident in their passing game, but they need to start using it more often even in situations where they don’t have to. They need to win out to make the playoffs, and they’re not going to be able to do that running the ball alone. Am I confident that the passing game can take them to the playoffs? No, I am not. What I am confident in, however, is that they won’t get there without it.