For the New England Patriots, the 2020 offseason has been anything but ordinary so far. The team lost its starting quarterback of the last two decades, Tom Brady, in free agency, and will have to groom a replacement to be ready by the regular season opener. Meanwhile, the Patriots — like the rest of the NFL — have to deal with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the cancelation of all on-field practices during the spring workout period.
The impact that Covid-19 will have on the league extends beyond practice routines, however, and will likely also lead to differently-looking procedures over the course of the summer and beyond: training camps will have to take place in an adapted setting; it seems unlikely that stadiums will be packed once (if?) the regular season gets kicked off in September; salary cap projections for the 2021 season paint a bleak picture.
As for training camp, the next major event on the league’s calendar, the NFL has already announced some changes: teams will not be allowed to hold their sessions outside their respective facilities, while joint practices have been prohibited. The first part has no impact on the Patriots — the team has held its camp at Gillette Stadium ever since it opened in 2002 — but the second could very well shape how they tackle preparations for the new season.
After all, the cancelation of joint practices on top of no offseason workouts creates a difficult environment for New England to get Jarrett Stidham ready for his first year as the projected starting quarterback. Accordingly, the Patriots could opt to take a slightly different approach when it comes to the preseason contests in August: the starting offense with Stidham under center might see increased action when compared to years past.
A look at the previous six preseason playing time shares shows us that this could very well be a possibility:
Patriots preseason snap counts (2014-19)
As the table shows, the Patriots have taken a somewhat steady approach to their starting offense’s preseason playing time over the six years that we looked at for this analysis. With one obvious exception that we will talk about in a second, the coaching staff’s approach to preseason snaps for the starters on the offensive side of the ball can be broken down as follows:
- Week 1: Little to no snaps
- Week 2: Increased number of snaps
- Week 3: Regular season dress rehearsal
- Week 4: No snaps
New England followed this guideline through most of its preseasons since 2014, with only minor variations occurring in 2015 (Brady played Week 1) and 2018 (Brady sat out Week 2). The big outlier, of course, is the 2016 preseason — and it could be the best blueprint we have as to how the Patriots will maneuver through a period that is unique not just due to the Coronavirus but also the change at the most important position on the field.
Back then, the team was preparing to start the regular season without its starting quarterback: Brady was suspended for four games due to his alleged role in the Deflategate scandal — a suspension that was reinstated in April and confirmed in mid-July — which is why New England had to get backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, then entering his third year in the system, ready. As a result, the playing time shares for the starting offense looked a lot different than they did in the other years shown above.
Garoppolo played 39 of a possible 67 offensive snaps in Week 1 (58%), followed by 45 of 71 (63%) and 29 of 67 (43%) in Weeks 2 and 3. Brady, meanwhile, sat out the first two games before coming onto the field for 16 snaps (24%) as the number two behind Garoppolo in Week 3 — a game that also saw the starting offensive line play all 45 snaps with one of the two QBs under center. In the preseason finale, Garoppolo was held out as Brady took 39 of a possible 77 snaps (51%).
This year’s situation is not identical to 2016 due to the absence of spring practices, but the preseason that year could still give us an idea of how New England will approach it in 2020. If it is any indication, Stidham will see regular playing time over the first three games before sitting out the finale. Of course, the Patriots’ eventual depth chart — there is a chance that veteran Brian Hoyer opens as QB1 — will dictate how they move forward, but the days of the starter sitting out vast portions of the preseason seem to be over.