Last week, bright and early on Monday morning when most of us were working on our second coffee (or, if you’re one of those freaks that starts every day with a 16oz 300mg of caffeine drink with a name like HELLBEAST ENERGY or something, one of those), Bill Belichick was out delivering a State of the New England Patriots assessment on WEEI that contained several lines that’d be hilarious out of context, but spelled out a pretty resigned picture as a whole.
Here’s Bill’s take on making any major changes at this point (what qualifies as a “major change” is certainly up for debate, but nonetheless):
“We need to do what we’re doing better,” Belichick said. “I don’t think at this point making a lot of dramatic changes — it’s too hard to do that. If we can just do, consistently, what we’re doing, I think we’ll be all right.”
“We just haven’t been able to have enough consistency and that’s hurt us,” he said. “It’s not one thing. One time it’s one thing, next time it’s something else. We just have to play and coach more consistently.”
“It’s been a combination of things on every front really — coaching, playing, penalties,” Belichick said Monday on WEEI. “We’ve had some high penalty games and we’ve had some low penalty games. We’ve had some turnover games and then we’ve had some no turnover games, and so forth.
“It hasn’t always been the same problem, or it hasn’t been the same problem on certain plays. Sometimes that’s shifted. And there’s certainly been some plays that haven’t matched up well against the defense when they were called. So, whether that’s the design of the play, or the way it hit against a certain defense, those have come up as well.”
So, like all the tweets and headlines you probably saw, the TL;DR is at this point in the season, you have the guys you have, you have the scheme and playbook you have, and that’s pretty much that. One of those “the only way out is through” type situations.
Now it’d be fair if you’re asking yourself, “Hey wait a minute. Didn’t the Patriots used to be well-known for pulling the E-brake if something wasn’t working and finding a way to make lemonade out of lemons? Like the 2018 playoff run where they suddenly became the ‘78 Patriots that played the kind of HulkSmash football that’d make your uncle that says ‘football is soft now’ proud? Or 2014 when the team started 2-2 and suddenly decided in Week 5 “what if we just stopped playing sloppy ball and losing?”
Or even 2017, when it’s a completely factual statement that the defense played historically badly for the first half of the season, only to advance to the Super Bowl with one of the most iconic defensive stands in Patriots history.
We could go on. You get the idea. It’s been done before. This year, though, the quick fix of “just get better at football, duh” feels like a Herculean task, if not downright impossible.
(As you’ve probably guessed by now, we’re referring primarily to the offense here, because it’s kind of difficult to stack Ws when the defense can hold the mighty Bills to 24 points and the rest of the team can’t even make a competitive game out of that.)
And it’s not entirely because the Patriots offense doesn’t have the dudes, because as we’ve seen in various flavors of flashes this season (and last season), they certainly have several dudes. Those dudes are just locked in, at this point, in a situation where they’re being asked to complete high-difficulty tasks without much, if any, help.
Depending on how old you are, you may either remember Dungeons and Dragons from when every church lady mom in the 80s was convinced it would send us all straight to hell, or for the youths, you probably caught at least the basic gist from Stranger Things. You run into a bunch of monsters and brigands and whatnot, and then you battle ‘em with whatever character you’ve put together, and even if you’re the best-prepared player in the squad, you’re still at the mercy of the 20-sided dice.
The idea of a random collection of characters that all have some strengths and weaknesses and still frequently get skunked when it counts feels like an uncomfortably close analogy for the Patriots trying to score this season, and it also jives perfectly with Patriots front-office alumni Michael Lombardi’s assessment of the the offense:
“To me, when I watch the Patriots, they don’t have an offense. They just run a bunch of plays.”
Sometimes, the most devastating burns are just simple statements of fact.
Mike’s just one guy, though. What if there was a Hall of Fame quarterback that’s played in every offense under the sun that agreed, though?
Spoiler alert: there is.
If you don’t have a spare hour to watch Kurt Warner’s whole breakdown that runs roughly the same time as a Breaking Bad episode, here’s the TL;DR — your eyeballs are right.
They’re running a lot of the same basic concepts, over and over again, and that’d be fine if the Patriots were really good at those handful of play designs, but, um, they’re not. Here’s Kurt again:
“This year, it’s very basic and simple. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. But for a guy like me, I’d be bored to death,” he said. “I’d hate to have the same concepts over and over, even if they’re good quality concepts. I like creativity. I like options as a quarterback. And, they don’t do a lot of that.”
Sorry if this is a Captain Obvious take here, but we’re all thinking it; when the Patriots keep running a lot of the same plays and concepts ad nauseam, it makes this offense preeeetty easy to predict and defend. For all of his quirks that drove us bonkers, Josh McDaniels at least was a firm believer in pre-snap motion, spamming play-action, weird formations, and every other flavor of window dressing that at least made defenses wonder for a split second “....the hell is going on here?”.
This year’s offense more resembles what some coaches like Bruce Arians are famous for: no, not “no risk it, no biscuit”, but the offense being of the mindset that “we run what we run, and we’re going to bet our guys will just execute better than your guys”.
Needless to say, more often than not, the Patriots’ guys are quite simply not better than the other guys. And they’re being put in situations that act like they are.
Like this one!
There were two low RZ decisions that stood out to me when going through these unsuccessful plays:— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 29, 2022
1. Throwing a 50-50 ball to KB when DeVante Parker and Hunter Henry's skill sets align more closely with that type of assignment
2. Throwing a fade from empty on 3rd & goal pic.twitter.com/vrEINAWsKQ
From the same game: it’s kinda hard to punch it in the end zone when instead of anything resembling setting yourself up to succeed, you’re behind the 8-ball from the jump:
Another major issue for the Patriots' RZ offense has been penalties + negative plays forcing unfavorable down and distance situations.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 29, 2022
In these instances, NE has opted for safe throws without a high likelihood of converting or gaining sufficient yardage pic.twitter.com/FpJsQS3J4m
And like we said earlier, running the same ol’ same ol’ is fine if you’re good at it, but there’s still the same mistakes we heard about in camp popping up with alarming regularity:
Impossible to know who was wrong for sure as an outsider, but Agholor was involved in another odd play where he and Mondre overlapped on a low RZ play earlier in the game pic.twitter.com/14DHYCTApG— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 26, 2022
And when Hall of Famers and the analytics nerds both agree that the Patriots’ problems can be traced back to a lack of a cohesive plan, that’s not great.
you think the Patriots offensive staff is bad— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 8, 2022
let me assure you
they're WORSE than you think
NO strategy on early downs
rank bottom-4 in rate of skipping 3rd down + bottom-4 in 3rd down yds-to-go
and no play action
talking more about this on @SportsGrid at 4pm live @BetMGM pic.twitter.com/TsmaX4Q6Pd
Regardless of whether you think Matty P’s collection of plays is any good or not (and to be clear, they’re not ALL bad), they’re not being called in a way that puts the offense in advantageous situations on a down-to-down basis. Again, your eyeball test is right. They’re frequently getting skunked on early downs, which leads to approximately a zillion third-and-forevers, because what they’re calling isn’t conducive to arriving at, say, 2nd-and-manageable. Does it still work sometimes? Sure, but that’s where the D&D analogy comes back; more often than not, even if they do find themselves in a favorable down & distance that they’re well-prepared for, sometimes the dice just comes up snake eyes. Or whatever the D&D version of snake eyes is.
We’ve somehow gotten this far without even bringing up the offensive line, which as recently as Halloween-ish was among the NFL’s finest. PFF had the Patriots ranked as the league’s third-best offensive line despite a few individual mistakes here and there right before the Week 7 Bears game that will go down in infamy.
It is my solemn duty to report that the Patriots offensive line is no longer the 4th-best in football, per PFF.— Goose (@GooseOnBass) October 19, 2022
They’ve gotten better pic.twitter.com/YRhmbh6Hde
Needless to say, since then, due to a variety of injuries, illnesses, and what sure looks like “sometimes nobody looks like they have a clue what’s going on besides David Andrews and Michael Onwenu”, even the plays that the Patriots should be good at are either dead on arrival or they’re forced to take a sack, check it down, or throw it away. Nowhere was this more obvious than the Bills game, where Mac’s now-infamous explosion said what we were all thinking. The play-calling is conservative because the team knows the protection has gone from (no hyperbole, just facts) elite to a borderline liability, and that’s resulted in the offense as a whole simply being unable to keep the chains moving unless Devante hauls in a Larry Fitzgerald-esque jump ball or Rhamondre Stevenson throws more tacklers off him than a Ninja Turtle facing the entire Foot Clan. It’s not exactly a recipe for consistently reaching the end zone.
And that’s what we’re locked into now. A real overhaul is out of the question until the offseason, so for the rest of the 2022, the only choice this team has is exactly what Bill Belichick says: be more consistent, knock it off with the penalties, and execute better. That’s not supposed to be a rallying cry, so much as it’s a “it’s either that, or we get plastered by any team that’s league-average or better for the rest of the season”.
Kendrick Bourne’s suggested fix, meanwhile, sounds better and better every day.
Personally, and I think I can speak for the class here, I would love to know how that ‘scheming it up better’ is going to happen. Cause I’d love for this to end up on Freezing Cold Takes, but, they sure haven’t figured out a way to do it so far.