Coming off back-to-back blowout losses, the New England Patriots are left searching for answers. The most pressing might be this one: Where do they go from here?
Sitting at 1-4 and with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread already, things have to improve quickly. The Patriots are aware of that, obviously, and after Sunday’s 34-0 defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints claimed that the plan was to “start all over again” in order to right the ship.
How exactly that process will look like was left open for speculation; there is a chance the team itself does not know it at this point in time. However, based on the last two games — that loss to the Saints was preceded by a 38-3 beatdown versus the Dallas Cowboys — nothing can be ruled out in an attempt to salvage a season the Patriots appear to be losing hold of.
“We need to make some improvements on where we are, so we will see what all that entails,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Monday. “Haven’t gone into it yet, but we will.”
Belichick’s words were ominous: change is coming. The question is what it will look like, especially in regards to an offense that has not scored a touchdown in 34 offensive possessions and is at the center of New England’s disappointing start.
Obviously, all discussion about that unit starts at quarterback.
Third-year passer Mac Jones began the season relatively well, completing 81 of 125 pass attempts for 748 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions over the first three games of the season. Despite his supporting cast having its fair share of issues — a mix of injury, performance and inexperience — Jones was possibly the team’s best player on that side of the ball from Weeks 1 through 3.
Then, in Week 4 against Dallas, the wheels fell off. Jones looked good on the opening drive, but with the team down 7-3 appeared to throw everything he was supposed to be as a player overboard in exchange for playing “hero ball”: he made bad decisions, did not see the field well, showed little feel for the pocket, and generally looked spooked by a potent Cowboys pass rush. Jones ended the day with three turnovers, including two that were returned for touchdowns.
The game against New Orleans on Sunday was more of the same. Jones’ first two pass attempts went off the mark, contributing to a three-and-out to open the game. He ended the contest with two more interceptions and was credited with a fumble on a botched pitch to running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
As was the case versus the Cowboys, Jones was pulled from the game late in the third quarter. Backup Bailey Zappe offered a different body under center but little more: he too was unable to provide much of a spark.
The Patriots are facing a quarterback question now: stick with Mac Jones or turn to another option?
Realistically, there are only two candidates to be considered here — Jones and Zappe. Third-stringer Will Grier only just joined the club in late September, practice squad rookie Malik Cunningham does not appear to be getting a lot of serious consideration as a QB, and any outside acquisition through trade, free agency, or practice squad pickup, would have to be brought along at light speed.
Considering all that as well as Jones and Zappe themselves, a change at quarterback would come as a surprise at this point.
That does not absolve Jones of any blame; it merely means that he still looks like the best option available primarily for a lack of alternatives. Things are fluid, though, especially if the turnovers start piling up and his decision making and care for the football continue being on and off.
Nonetheless, as things currently stand, any shakeups will likely have to happen elsewhere. There are three areas in particular to look at: Wide receiver usage and talent; Offensive line; Coaching staff and play-calling.
While Mac Jones has spoken highly about the Patriots’ receiving talent, fact is that the group as a whole has underwhelmed so far. DeVante Parker has not been able to build off of the connection he showed with his quarterback last year; free agency acquisition JuJu Smith-Schuster has disappointed; Kendrick Bourne has had some moments but is neither an elite separator nor route runner; Demario Douglas continues to be underused; Kayshon Boutte is little more than an emergency option at this points.
There appear to be two ways to improve this group, with the first being personnel usage. The first five weeks of the season showed that the team wanted to get Parker and Smith-Schuster involved as starter-level players at the position. Their production — 12 catches for 129 yards and 14 catches for 89, respectively — does not justify such prominent roles, however, and might open the door for somebody else to step up.
That somebody might be Demario Douglas, Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton. After an up-and-down rookie season and trip to injured reserve to start this year, the latter is a wild card more than anything else at this point. Douglas and Bourne, on the other hand, have shown that they are deserving of increased looks.
The rookie Douglas might be the Patriots’ most reliable man coverage beater right now, and as such should see more action as the main read against such defenses; his head injury suffered in Week 5 puts his immediate availability in question, but he appears to be the player best suited to turn into a safety blanket for Mac Jones similar to former wideout Jakobi Meyers.
Bourne also might be capable of becoming that, but he is less reliable versus man. That said, he does have value especially in the intermediate parts of the field and also as a potential X-receiver — something offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien might want to further emphasize moving forward.
Mac tried hitting KB twice on PA crossers vs tight man, which was Jakobi Meyers' bread-and-butter play— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 9, 2023
First attempt wasn't catchable, but Bourne also doesn't do much to separate vs Lattimore. On the second try, the WR throws in an outside fake at the top and dusts Adeebo pic.twitter.com/dFZN7WHEDc
Of course, the bigger question of talent also could be addressed in case New England is not convinced its current group has much room for improvement. The free agency market can likely be disregarded, but the trade block is a different story.
That is especially true given that the Patriots do have some capital to make major swings if players such as Denver’s Jerry Jeudy or Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins become available. Not only does the team have a full stock of draft picks in 2024 and some possible trade candidates (Josh Uche comes to mind), it also possesses enough projected cap space to sign any incoming players to long-term extensions.
As colleague Matthew Rewinski recently noted, “Nothing else will matter if the Patriots’ offensive line stays like this.”
What does “this” mean in that context? That a mix of bad injury luck, underwhelming individual performance, and insufficient depth has created a bottom-tier unit.
The injuries are what they are, and the Patriots have no way of improving in that area other than providing their players with the best treatment. What they can do, however, is making sure to get the best guys out there and use them to the best of their abilities.
And as things currently stand, the best guys might be — from left to right — Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Michael Owenu and Riley Reiff. Granted, three of the five have missed considerable time already this season, but given how the other options have looked in particular at right tackle this might be the highest-upside group at the team’s disposal right now.
Then, there is the question of how to actually use those players on the field. Against the Saints, there appeared to be a disconnect between what they were asked to do and what they actually could do.
More: Gap runs— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 9, 2023
Less: Pin-pull (at least until Strange gets back)
The Patriots tried pin-pull three times versus New Orleans and were stuffed every time, which makes sense given that the interior lineup consisted of a mix of Atonio Mafi, Riley Reiff and Michael Onwenu flanking center David Andrews. For comparison, though New England averaged 6.0 yards per rushing attempt on duo.
The biggest thing will be getting all the pieces back in place again, of course, but once that happens play selection will be key — which directly brings us to the third area to watch mentioned above.
There is only so much Bill O’Brien can do given the limitations his offense has from a personnel perspective, but there were still some dubious calls on Sunday against the Saints. The aforementioned pin-pull runs versus gap runs are an example of that, as is his play calling on the game’s opening possession.
O’Brien has to do a better job in that regard, whereas his assistants also might be in need of some help. Any major shuffling of the deck should probably not be expected here either, but maybe adding some outside talent could do the trick. Bringing Dante Scarnecchia or Ivan Fears out of retirement to serve as consultants, or having LeGarrette Blount and Aaron Dobson return after the Bill Walsh Coaching Fellowship brought them to New England this summer, come to mind as potential supporting moves.
The Patriots might also look into changing some responsibilities within the current staff. Should assistant coach Troy Brown, for example, really work with both the wide receivers and the returners? Or are assistant quarterbacks coach Evan Rothstein and assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates candidates capable of taking on a bigger workload than their titles suggest?
Bill Belichick outright firing or demoting members of his staff, on the other hand, will not happen. While drastic times do at times call for drastic measures, he has shown through the years that he will not throw his assistants under the bus and stay loyal to them in-season.
The man himself, of course, may also not be immune to change. No, team owner Robert Kraft will not step in to strip him of any general manager-like powers — any modifications as far as his focus as a head coach is concerned would come directly from Belichick and nobody else within the Patriots organization.
What all of this ultimately shows, though, is that there are several avenues that can be explored if the Patriots are indeed serious about “starting over.” And at 1-4, they likely have no other choice.