Even with long-time coordinator Josh McDaniels leaving for Las Vegas in the offseason, expectations were a lot higher for the New England Patriots offense than that.
The unit was still led by a young quarterback showing plenty of promise his rookie season, and had some talented pieces at the skill positions and along the offensive line. The belief was that a Bill Belichick-led coaching staff could make things work despite McDaniels’ departure.
And yet, here we are, following a 24-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills that saw the Patriots offense once again fall flat. The unit scored just one touchdown all game, went three-and-out on four of its first five possessions, and never really threatened its opponent.
Once New England went down 17-7 in the second quarter, the deficit already seemed insurmountable.
Now 13 weeks into the season and what is a new arrangement atop the unit — a collaborative effort led, in part, by play-caller Matt Patricia — it is no hyperbole to call the Patriots offense “broken”. The question is whether or not it can be fixed, at least to a degree to become more competitive again.
In order to find an answer, we first need to identify what exactly the issues are. There are five general areas of concern that can be pointed to.
Coaching: When McDaniels left, Bill Belichick turned to old friends Matt Patricia and Joe Judge to lead the unit into its second year with quarterback Mac Jones. What followed was originally described as a streamlining of sorts, with the idea behind being to make the offense simpler in the wake of McDaniels taking his massive playbook to Las Vegas.
However, the process of transforming the unit to reflect Jones’ strengths and preferences — mostly in the deep passing game — has been a rocky one, to say the least. There are a variety of problems reaching from play-design to play-selection, with spacing and timing oftentimes dooming them from the get-go and several plays seemingly not the right fit for what is needed in certain situations.
This all has resulted in a lack of a clear identity. The Patriots want to run the ball and attack defenses vertically in the passing game, but a) have struggled to do the former, and b) just not done the latter at a rate or quality to suggest, “Yes, that is what they are now.” The problem is that at one point, being unable to establish an identity becomes your identity — something that falls right back onto the coaches.
Offensive line: The Patriots entered the season having made some significant changes along their line, with center David Andrews the only starter from 2021 still in his original spot. The unit, which is now coached by Patricia and Billy Yates, fared relatively well early on in the year but the wheels have since come off.
Injuries and inconsistent play up front have hurt the entire offense, with the game against Buffalo a perfect encapsulation of the struggle the season has been so far. Left tackle Trent Brown was still feeling the effects of his illness, the interior saw more change with Andrews returning to the lineup after a thigh injury, and the right tackle spot was manned by Conor McDermott just 10 days after he was signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad.
A lack of continuity has been a major problem for New England as of late. When the blocking works well, as was the case in Week 12 against Minnesota, good things can happen. When not, however, you get a game like Thursday’s.
Run game: This one is tied closely to the offensive line, but it deserves its own mention given that the Patriots, as noted above, want to define themselves via their ability to run the ball.
On paper, they should be able to do that with Rhamondre Stevenson being one of the best backs in the league this season and Damien Harris — when healthy — a strong complementary option. However, even their performances can only take the unit so far; behind inconsistent blocking and a non-threatening passing game it has had a hard time moving the ball on the ground as of late.
Receiving options: Rhamondre Stevenson has been the Patriots’ best offensive player so far this season, but he alone cannot carry the burden of moving the ball. Problem is that the team has few other reliable options, both in the running and the passing game.
The latter in particular is a problem, and has shown up several times in a critical part of the field: the red zone.
The biggest issue I've noticed watching the Patriots' failed Red Zone passes is missed assignments.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) November 29, 2022
Too often players haven't appeared to be on the same page, and it's popped up in multiple games throughout the season pic.twitter.com/wSLynXWyjD
While Mac Jones is actively trying to spread the ball around, only two of his receiving targets have consistently produced positive plays: Stevenson and Jakobi Meyers. The rest of the crew — wide receivers DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor and Tyquan Thornton as well as tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith — have had their flashes, but not enough substance as a whole to lift the unit up.
Mac Jones: When an offense struggles, fingers oftentimes get pointed to the quarterback. Some criticism of mac Jones is valid as well: his decision making and patience in particular have been uneven in his second season in New England, and it appears he lacks the confidence he showcased during his impressive 2021 rookie campaign.
Jones is not the main issue, but he is playing the most important position on the roster. He is part of the main group of problems just like the other four mentioned above.
The question now is: can any of it still be fixed? At least in theory, it can be. The unit, after all, has shown in flashes that it can do all the things needed to work cohesively as one successful unit.
Those flashes were few and far between, though. The running game looked good early on in the season. The passing offense was spectacular for three quarters versus Minnesota. The play-calling was a non-factor in game such as the win over Cleveland.
Doing all that at once and a sustained rate, however, has proven itself a seemingly impossible task for the 2022 version of the Patriots offense.
“We want to win and we’re not doing that,” David Andrews said during his postgame press conference after the Bills game. “We have to find ways to win, whatever that is. Doesn’t always have to be pretty, but you have to find ways to win.”
“You have to win your individual matchup, that’s what’s different about offensive football: it takes all 11 guys operating very efficiently to have a good play — just to have a good play. Not a great play, a good play. You have to have all 11 guys operating efficiently and winning. We have to do a better job of that.”
Given that there are only five games left in the regular season, there might not be enough time to turn get all 11 guys on the same page and subsequently turn the ship around. The same is true for the issues identified above.
The coaching staff won’t see any changes in-season, and will continue to rely on an inexperienced play-caller (Patricia) and a quarterback coach (Judge) in their first year at the job. Meanwhile, the personnel along the offensive line and at the skill positions is what it is as well. While the O-line getting healthier and more reps together could do wonders to the entire operation, there are still questions at right tackle in particular.
As for Jones, he has shown some progress throughout the year. As long as the pieces around him continue to be shaky, however, he will be the same: now in his second year, he is not good enough (yet) to lift everything by himself, even though it seems he very much is trying to.
“I’m going to give it everything I’ve got every week, no matter what. I’ll go until the wheels fall off,” he said after his 22-for-36, 195-yard, one-touchdown performance versus Buffalo. “But I got to be better executing plays. They’re putting us in a good position. We just got to go out there and do it together. That starts in practice, ‘Hey, I didn’t do this right, call me out for it, tell me that I’m wrong.’ If you’re a good leader, you can accept that.
“You can look at the other guy and say the same thing to him that he says to you. The best players in the world at any sport, they have that accountability with their teammates. That’s something that we need to have that’s better. Obviously, the coaches are a big part of it, but it really starts with the players. Clearly, I haven’t done a good enough job of doing my part in that.”
The fact is that the Patriots are now in crunch time and it might be too late to get the offense to reach the full potential it has at times shown. That does not mean that the team will not still try to fix what can be fixed.
“We know what we’re doing wrong and we know what we need to do to start winning and progress in the right direction,” said Rhamondre Stevenson. “It’s a little frustrating but we all know what we’ve got to do. We’ve just got another week of working on it and trying to be better next game.”
Stevenson’s statements were echoed by head coach Bill Belichick on Monday morning, perfectly summing up where the unit is at after Week 13.
“Just keep working through it,” he said. “There’s no magic wand here.”