The stage was already set when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed last spring, which means that the announcement in March only seemed like a formality: the NFL will be moving to 17-game regular season format beginning in 2021.
The 17-game season is a complex and controversial topic — from revenue, to player safety, to quality of the on-field product — and also one that has the potential to re-write the league’s history books. Standards established during the 16-game era between 1978 and 2020 will no longer be relevant, after all, as players are given one additional chance to add to their numbers and bolster their statistics.
While NFL records are bound to fall maybe as early as this year, there is a chance that the New England Patriots will also soon have new leaders in some of the different statistical categories.
With that in mind, let’s dive into 21 different volume stats — efficiency numbers will not as drastically be impacted by a 17th game being added to the equation — to find out which are in danger of being broken during the league’s inaugural 17-game campaign.
Passing yards: 5,235 (Tom Brady, 2011). The 2011 season saw passing numbers explode, with three quarterbacks throwing for over 5,000 yards. Among them was Tom Brady, who still holds the Patriots record with 5,235 of them. While it is possible that the record gets broken one day — it would take 308 passing yards per game — it seems highly unlikely that it will happen in 2021. Cam Newton, if he holds onto the starting gig, has a better supporting cast around him but he also has never throw for more than 300 yards per game in a single season. It would be a major surprise if that changed this year.
Passing Touchdowns: 50 (Tom Brady, 2007). The passing touchdowns mark, set by Tom Brady in 2007, falls into the same category as the passing yards record: it is theoretically possible, but based on Cam Newton’s track record and performance in 2020 it seems highly unlikely he will be able to reach that plateau and break Brady’s record.
Interceptions: 27 (Babe Parilli, 1964; Drew Bledsoe, 1994). Initial instinct might say “yes” given that Newton threw more touchdowns than interceptions last season, but it again seems unlikely this record will fall. There are three reasons for that: 1.) The Patriots’ offensive approach built around ball security; 2.) Newton’s interception numbers both throughout his career and in 2020; 3.) The Mac Jones factor (he’d be inserted into the lineup if Newton was on track to throw more than 27 interceptions this season).
Rushing yards: 1,635 (Corey Dillon, 2004). No matter if Cam Newton or Mac Jones is named the starting quarterback, the Patriots are projected to feature a run-heavy attack. While this could be bad news for Corey Dillon’s franchise record 1,635 rushing yards, New England’s recent running back by committee usage makes it unlikely that one of the backs averages the necessary 96.2 yards per game to set a new mark.
Rushing touchdowns: 18 (LeGarrette Blount, 2016). LeGarrette Blount found the end zone 18 times in 2016, but his record is one that could be broken this year. Just look at it from this perspective: even with defenses selling out to stop the run, Cam Newton still scored 12 touchdowns in 2020. While increasing this output by 50 percent will be difficult, it certainly seems possible.
Receptions: 123 (Wes Welker, 2009). Jakobi Meyers led the Patriots with 59 receptions last season, and there is a chance that 2021’s leader will not register significantly more than that. After all, New England lacks a true go-to guy in the mold of Wes Welker and has built a broad receiving arsenal during the offseason. While plenty of capable pass catchers are on the roster, they are not expected to challenge Welker’s 2009 season.
Receiving yards: 1,569 (Wes Welker, 2011). Take everything that was written under “receptions” and also apply it here. The Patriots will likely take a committee approach to spreading the ball around via the air, making it unlikely that one receiver will average more than the 92.4 receiving yards needed to out-gain Wes Welker.
Receiving touchdowns: 23 (Randy Moss, 2007). No receiver in Patriots history has come close to breaking Randy Moss’ receiving touchdowns record set in 2007. Even Rob Gronkowski’s historic 2011 season did not challenge the Hall of Famer: he scored “only” 17 TDs. A Patriots pass catcher outscoring Moss seems highly unlikely, despite New England’s massive upgrades at the receiving positions this year.
Fumbles: 13 (Tom Brady, 2006): Tom Brady owns dozens of Patriots records, including the dubious honor of being the single-season leader in fumbles. It seems possible his 13 in 2006 could be surpassed this year after Cam Newton fumbled six times in 2020, but the fact that Mac Jones is waiting in the wings likely means that Newton wouldn’t even get the chance to fumble 13 times. The same goes for other players and their respective replacements as well.
Sacks: 59 (Tony Eason, 1984): The Patriots are projected to have one of the best offensive lines in football this year and are teaching their quarterbacks to rather throw the ball away than risking negative plays like sacks. The team giving up 60 of those will therefore not happen barring a breakdown of colossal proportions.
Punt returns: 52 (Dave Meggett, 1996). Over 21 games during his first two seasons in the league, Gunner Olszewski returned a combined 40 punts. While it seems likely he surpasses his single-season high (20) this year, Dave Meggett’s franchise record seems out of reach: given that Olszewski was the best punt returner in football last year teams would probably prefer kicking away from him than risking ling runbacks.
Punt return yards: 608 (Mike Haynes, 1976). Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Haynes averaged an utterly ridiculous 43.4 punt return yards per game as a rookie in 1976. Olszewski’s single-season high is 21.6. Haynes’ record is safe, even though Olszewski would “only” need 35.8 such yards per game in 2021.
Punt return touchdowns: 2 (Mike Haynes, 1976; Irving Fryar, 1985; Troy Brown, 2001). Three times in Patriots history have players returned two punts for touchdowns in a single season, and Olszewski tying this mark after almost doing so last year — one touchdown was called back due to an illegal block penalty — certainly seems possible. While breaking it will be a challenge, it certainly could happen as well with one more game on the schedule.
Kickoff returns: 48 (Stephen Starring, 1985). The Patriots as a team returned 31 kickoffs last year. With teams incentivized to go for touchbacks, especially against as good a special team unit as New England’s, the mark set by Stephen Starring in 1985 will stand the test of time this season — and likely beyond as well.
Kickoff return yards: 1,281 (Ellis Hobbs, 2008). With fewer opportunities come fewer chances to gain return yards. As a result, Ellis Hobbs’ 1,281 set in 2008 will likely remain the high-water mark for at least one more year.
Kickoff return touchdowns: 3 (Raymond Clayborn, 1977). Same basic category as above, same basic result. Raymond Clayborn’s franchise mark getting broken in the NFL of the 2020s would be a major surprise.
Punts: 103 (Shawn McCarthy, 1992). For as bad as New England’s offense looked for much of the 2020 season, it still only punted the football away on 55 occasions. In order for Jake Bailey to break Shawn McCarthy’s team record of 103 punts per season, he would significantly increase his punts per game: from 3.1 last year to 6.1 in 2021. Is it possible? Sure. Will it happen? No.
Scoring: 158 (Stephen Gostkowski, 2013). Nick Folk has proven himself a reliable presence at kicker for the Patriots, but for him to break Stephen Gostkowski’s scoring record from the 2013 season he would have to outperform the best season of his career by quite a bit. In 2007, Folk averaged 8.2 points per game. For him to break Gostkowski’s mark, he would have to score 9.4 points in each of New England’s 17 contests this year.
Defensive interceptions: 11 (Ron Hall, 1964). One of the records more likely to fall is the interceptions mark set by Ron Hall all the way back in 1964. Hall picked off 11 passes, and for one of the Patriots’ DBs to best that mark they would have to register 0.7 per game. J.C. Jackson had 0.6 last year, when he led the team with nine INTs. Jackson or another cornerback — Stephon Gilmore being the prime candidate — intercepting three more throws is certainly possible.
Sacks: 18.5 (Andre Tippett, 1984). Andre Tippett’s 1984 season was outstanding, and it would take a near-otherworldly effort from one of the Patriots’ current pass rushers to best his 18.5 quarterback takedowns. Given that New England is generating pressure more through scheme and roster depth than individual contributions it seems unlikely that this will happen.
All-Purpose Yards: 2,444 (Mack Herron, 1974). No player in Patriots history has come close to breaking Mack Herron’s 2,444 all-purpose yards and somebody doing it this season would be a major surprise. New England has some high-quality players on its roster, but nobody appears to be in a position to post similar numbers, with Gunner Olszewski’s 849 leading the team in 2020.
As can be seen, only a handful of records can realistically be broken by the Patriots this season: punt return touchdowns and interceptions are the most likely to fall, but even they are not guaranteed to be broken just because of the NFL’s switch to the 17-game format.