A close cousin of “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one” is “the best way to solve a problem is frequently the most boring.”
OK, fine, that’s not an actual famous, borderline-irrefutable rule of the universe like Occam’s Razor is, but it’s frequently how life works out, isn’t it?
We want to drop a few pounds and the best solution isn’t a superfood supplement or a top secret 12-minute workout, it’s “maybe I need to chill on ordering wings and pizza EVERY week.” We want to save some money and we learn that actually sitting down and making a budget is pretty eye-opening about how much we actually spend on our 38 subscriptions a month. And so on, and so on.
We’re leading up to what’s eating the New England Patriots offense, of course, which as of Week 4 has varied between shades of “....you OK bro?” and “Marley was dead to begin with”. We’ve all been watching the games, but in case you blacked out at one or more points in the past month, here’s the suck, by the numbers:
- The Patriots rank 30th in the NFL in offensive points scored, averaging 13.8 a game. Only the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants are (barely) worse at putting points on the board, which, you know, is kind of important.
- The Patriots have scored six touchdowns in four games. One on the ground, and five via the pass. When you see people doing the weekly roast of the Atlanta Falcons on Twitter, the Patriots have found the end zone the same number of times in 2023.
- If DVOA is more your thing, the Patriots are ranked 19th in offensive DVOA, which almost sounds like “Hey, that’s not as bad as I thought!” until you figure DVOA can also be a nice way of saying “Sure they didn’t score or move the ball that well, but the teams they played were like, REALLY good though.”
- And finally, the Patriots rank 28th in offensive EPA (expected points added) per play. Only the Browns, Jets, Steelers and Giants are worse.
(we’ll revisit EPA later, because breaking it down by EPA per pass and EPA per rush is enlightening, if not particularly “fun” or “good”)
As it always goes, Mac Jones has taken the lion’s share of the blame for the offense’s current state of “Here lies Beavis: he never scored”, followed closely by the receiver corps that seem uniquely ill-equipped to operate a Bill O’Brien spread-and-shred offense. It’s a lot more fun to blame the pass-catchers for everything, what with the whole “Mac needs his Stefon Diggs/JaMarr Chase/A.J. Brown/insert your favorite receiver the Patriots didn’t draft here” thing, but there’s a bigger problem.
The offensive line, which, to be fair, has suffered a slew of unfortunately-timed injuries and a comical lack of personnel continuity on a game-to-game basis, has made it borderline impossible for New England to move the ball in any form or fashion. They can’t pick up yards on the ground when they need ‘em, and every completed pass where Mac Jones doesn’t get tackled in half seems like found money.
As always, there’s nowhere near as many hard stats for offensive line play as there are for almost every other position in football, but there’s enough signs that are all pointing in the same direction that we can make some pretty safe assumptions.
Starting with this: when the Patriots pass, if you average together the Pro Football Focus grades, Sports Info Solutions’ Blown Block percentage, and ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, the offensive line is the literal worst in football.
Pass protection composite ratings through week 4.— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 4, 2023
Wow, what happened to the Patriots pic.twitter.com/1w4y6RGYgK
(since some of Ben Baldwin’s graphic gets cut off, you have to click on the tweet to see the whole thing, but New England is 32nd. No punchline)
Given that at this point we’ve heard “it’s a passing league” even more than we’ve heard the word “unprecedented”, yeah. This is brutally bad for any team, never mind the Patriots, who have largely been able to keep the trenches playing at least replacement-level ball since the turn of the century.
Those EPA per play stats we mentioned earlier? The Pats O-line ranks 26th in EPA per dropback. Their rushing EPA per play is even worse, checking in at 29th. Rather than rattle off the list of everyone who’s better than the Patriots at running and passing, since time is the only real currency we have, here it is in picture form:
And while I don’t have a fun or not-so-fun graphic for this last stat, according to our old pal Evan Lazar of patriots.com, in the last 2 games, Mac Jones was pressured on 41.4 percent of his dropbacks against the Jets and a disgusting 50.0 percent against the Cowboys. It wasn’t just you; Mac had someone in his face, flushing him out of the pocket, or going for a kill shot every other pass play.
So, yeah. It’s rough out there.
Then, compound those apples with some game scripts that have forced the Patriots into playing catch-up early and often in, well, pretty much every game except the Jets game, and you have a recipe for where we’re at right now.
Among the many, many reasons to be frustrated, it’s really a terrible look for first-year offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, who admittedly can’t do anything about injuries, and also has the unenviable task of being the de facto successor to Dante Scarnecchia. Still, though, with Klemm not only spending half a decade in NFL (as a Patriots draft pick, nonetheless) and coming in with a handful of productive NFL players on his coaching résumé, it was fair to expect the line to be at least replacement-level, if not markedly improved from 2022.
That appears to have been too much to ask.
And that’s also how you end up staring down the barrel of a Week 5 game against the New Orleans Saints and thinking “....maybe we can just gut it out until Reilly Reiff comes back?”