The New England Patriots have built their dynasty not just on savvy personnel moves, elite coaching and Tom Brady, but also on bold decisions. Those decisions also manifested themselves in the team’s offensive play calling: the Patriots were never afraid of making unconventional and aggressive calls if they felt they would help them win a game. Not all of those situations worked out in their favor — see: 2009’s 4th-and-2 call in Indianapolis — but the approach as a whole served them well over the last two decades.
2019, however, was an outlier from the team’s perspective. Compared to years past, the Patriots’ offense was among the most conservative in football when judged by its fourth down aggressiveness. As data compiled by NFL analyst Ben Baldwin of The Athletic illustrates, the unit coordinated by Josh McDaniels was less inclined to make the aggressive play over the first 29 minutes of each half (the final one is excluded from the aggressiveness score) than other teams in the league.
All in all, the Patriots therefore finished the season as the fifth most conservative offensive team in league:
This ranking differs from the previous seasons: between 2010 and 2018, the Patriots fielded the fifth most aggressive offense in pro football, with a go rate of around 26 percent. In 2019, on the other hand, Josh McDaniels and head coach Bill Belichick left their offense on the field for just around 19 percent of fourth down plays — the first time since 2010 that the club ranked below the league average in aggressiveness, and its lowest number since the 2012 season:
As can be seen, the Patriots became more aggressive on fourth down every year between 2014 and 2018 — a development that stopped during the 2019 season, however. The question is now this: Why did New England’s willingness to keep quarterback Tom Brady and his supporting cast on the field last year decrease? There might be two closely connected reasons for that:
1.) New England’s defense was among the best in the league in 2019, and repeatedly showed that it could win its matchups on any given down and no matter the situations it found itself in. Putting trust in the unit to get the ball back was therefore no illogical decision.
2.) New England’s offense was up-and-down for much of the 2019 season, and struggled especially after its Week 10 bye. Brady and his receiving corps — one that was plagued by injury and inconsistency both of the personnel and its performance — repeatedly failed to get on the same page, making fourth down attempts a somewhat risky proposition.
Heading into 2020, the new question related to fourth down aggressiveness is whether or not New England’s offense will return to its normal levels. With second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham projected to take over Brady’s role as the starter, such an approach might make sense in order to try to essentially steal possessions from the other team. There is at least some reason to believe that that could happen, even though it is mostly tied to historical precedent more than anything else.
In 2002, Brady’s first full year as the Patriots’ starter at the quarterback position (and the earliest data is available), the team was tied for eighth in the league in fourth down aggressiveness with a rate of 25 percent. The circumstances back then were somewhat similar to this year’s: the Patriots fielded a young and somewhat inexperienced passer, and — at least on paper heading into the season — had one of the better defensive units in the league to work with.
That said, the comparisons between 2002 and 2020 cannot go much farther than that considering that a) Brady already had 17 career starts on his résumé entering the season, and b) the rule book did not favor the offense as much back then as it did nowadays. Putting these factors into account, and looking at the Patriots’ current roster in relation to its projected strengths and weaknesses, it does not seem likely that Josh McDaniels’ unit will suddenly return to being among the more aggressive in the league again.
Instead, New England might opt to use the same conservative approach in 2020: try to rely on the defense to win its battles, rather than risk anything with an offense that might suffer some growing pains with Stidham at the helm.