The Patriots may be 2-0 with two division wins, but the top story of the season so far is clearly the offense’s struggles against two supposedly weak teams in the Bills and Jets.
The Patriots, the No. 1 offense in the league last year at 34.8 points per game, are averaging just 18 points so far. Tom Brady is completing a ghastly 52.7 percent of his passes, and the running game is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Thursday against the Jets, they gained 63 yards on six second-half drives and punted all six times. Through two games, they’re converting just 39.4 percent of third downs.
“I didn’t think they’d be hitting on all cylinders, but I thought they’d be better than this,” said former offensive lineman Ross Tucker, who did sideline reporting for Westwood One radio at Thursday night’s win over the Jets.
Of course, injuries have complicated matters. The Patriots were missing arguably their three best offensive players outside of Brady on Thursday in Rob Gronkowski (back), Danny Amendola (groin), and Shane Vereen (wrist). They also lost Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd from last year, leaving Brady with a cast of rookies, special teams players, and street free agents against the Jets.
But while fans may be panicking about the suddenly punch-less offense, several NFL analysts say the Patriots are going through natural growing pains given all the offseason changes.
“Why would anybody think they were going to be the same offense?” said former Jets and Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, now with ESPN. “I don’t think anybody felt that they were going to be the 34-point offense they were last year, especially early. But I think by Week 4 you’ll see a totally different offense. They’ve just got to grow up.”
“I’m just kind of baffled as to why everybody thinks the sky is falling,” said Dan Dierdorf, who called the Bills game for CBS. “I don’t know what you expected.”
Patriots fans may have to be patient with young receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, but that doesn’t excuse some of the mistakes they made in the first two games. Thompkins ran the wrong route on the goal line against Buffalo, forcing Brady to take a third-down sack.
Dobson, meanwhile, had three drops against the Jets, including one that could have gone for a big touchdown.
“The only guy [Brady] trusts is [Julian] Edelman, and even they weren’t on the same page the whole time,” Tucker said.
Brady was seen screaming his head off at his receivers after a failed third-down throw in the red zone, presumably because they weren’t running the correct routes.
“I was wondering if he was going to walk off the field and say, ‘I’ve got $100 million in the bank, I don’t need this,’ ” said Fred Smerlas, a Patriots analyst for WEEI, Comcast, and Channel 7.
Brady acknowledged, “I have to do a better job with my body language,” but many analysts believe he’s not wrong to be angry at the rookies.
“It’s frustrating to Brady, because it is some of the simple things you should be able to do, like coverage recognition,” former Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. “And I think if you look at some of those plays [Thursday] night, the ball is there, the opportunity is there, and the guys are just dropping the football.”
“His entire passing game is gone, and it’s going to take awhile, but I also expected the guys to pick it up and understand what they’re doing,” added former 49ers defensive back Eric Davis, now with NFL Network. “And when Brady had an opportunity to hit a guy when there was a busted coverage, these guys aren’t catching the ball.”
It’s easy to blame the Patriots’ front office for putting too much responsibility on rookies Thompkins, Dobson, and Josh Boyce this season, especially given Amendola’s injury history. But the Patriots certainly didn’t envision going into their Week 2 matchup with Edelman as their No. 1 receiver.
“Let’s be honest, nobody saw the Hernandez situation coming,” Wiggins said. “Nobody saw another surgery for Gronk on the forearm and then the back. We knew that Amendola would have some issues, but nobody expected him to be out Week 2.”
The good news is Gronkowski should be back within the next week or two. Amendola is week to week, while Vereen is out at least another seven games. Even if the Patriots aren’t 100 percent healthy at any point this season, they should at least have more weapons for most games than they did Thursday night.
“When Gronk comes back you’re going to have the touchdowns. That will change things,” Davis said. “They’re going to win the division. I just think it’s going to be a lot closer.”
And the Patriots still believe in the talent of their young receivers despite the slow start, particularly Thompkins and Dobson.
“They’re both talented players. Tom praises them to no end at how hard they’ve worked,” Dierdorf said. “They’re going to grow into the offense. This isn’t how I expect the offense to look in October, November, and December.”
The Patriots’ defense has been a nice revelation (15.5 points per game and six turnovers), and most analysts believe the Patriots will still win the AFC East. But Super Bowls are the standard around here, and they have offered little proof so far that they have enough offense to get past Denver or perhaps Houston in the conference.
“I don’t know if they’re a 12-win team anymore, but I think they’ll still win the division,” Edwards said. “Denver right now is the favorite, and Houston is playing better. That game [Matt] Schaub played on the road was good, and Denver with Peyton Manning, he’s got a crew of guys.”
Eagles quickly grasp Kelly’s fast attack
Now we shift our attention to an offense that is actually working well — that of the Eagles, who left the Redskins and many NFL observers breathless with their uptempo pace in Monday night’s 33-27 victory.
Chip Kelly came from Oregon with a reputation for an innovative, rapid-fire offense, and it didn’t disappoint in his debut. The Eagles “only” ran 77 plays, but they slowed the action down in the second half as they milked the clock. They ran a whopping 53 plays and gained 322 yards in the first half to build a 26-7 lead.
“It was spectacular, and it will be sustainable,” ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said. “It was fascinating. There are multiple options on every single play. It was just really cool to watch this offense operate.”
Kelly’s offense was good to the Eagles’ top three playmakers — Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, and DeSean Jackson. McCoy rushed for 184 yards and a touchdown, Jackson had seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, and Vick threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns while adding nine carries for 54 yards and another score.
“In this offense you’ve got to have players who are good in space, and Chip Kelly has three of the best space players in the NFL in Vick, McCoy, and Jackson,” said Dan Dierdorf, who is calling today’s Eagles-Chargers game on CBS. “These three guys were just made for this offense.”
Dierdorf said the Eagles aren’t “running any plays that haven’t been run before. But he’s certainly bringing this tempo.” But Kelly’s offense used more designed runs for the quarterback than traditional NFL offenses, and he even broke out the little-used Emory & Henry formation, in which the offensive tackles are split out wide with the wide receivers, and produced a 10-yard run by McCoy.
“That was pretty football that they were playing,” said the NFL Network’s Eric Davis.
Still, while Kelly’s offense dazzled in Week 1, there are still plenty of skeptics who don’t think the offense, particularly Vick, can sustain this performance. In addition to the designed runs for Vick, he often only has five blockers protecting him on passing plays and could be subjected to a lot of hits.
“Michael Vick will not last 16 games if that’s the workload every week,” Dierdorf said.
“That’s a great scheme, but you look at it like the run-and-shoot,” Davis said. “If teams can cover your guys outside, and if you’re not going to protect the quarterback, they’re going to blitz him, and they’re going to hit him a lot. So yes, you’re going to get some plays, but you’re also going to lose a quarterback.”
ON THE OFFENSIVE
Viewers have no shortage of opinions
Three interesting leftover tidbits about the Patriots’ offense:
■ While most observers don’t seem to have a problem with Tom Brady’s tirades at his teammates on Thursday night — it certainly wasn’t the first time Brady showed some negative emotion on the sideline — Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said he is “sick and tired” of seeing it from Brady and wants him to use more positive reinforcement with Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins.
“OK, they made a mistake, we know you’re upset — now let me see you take a different approach and try to raise these guys up so maybe they can go back and make plays,” Irvin said. “Got tired of seeing it. As a wide receiver, I would have said something.”
“You talk about how difficult the offense is — these are young guys, they’re playing in their first couple games in the NFL,” Irvin added. “I don’t mind Tom getting down on these guys sometime and going after them, but as a receiver I saw way too much of it. I saw way too much of it for these young guys. I didn’t see him do it one time when he messed up. I would have a problem with that, regardless whether I’m a Hall of Famer or a young guy.”
■ Wes Welker’s Broncos played on the opening Thursday night of the season, allowing him to watch the games last Sunday, like the rest of us. Naturally, Welker checked in on the Patriots’ game against the Bills.
“I’d say it’s hard not to, because you know all the guys there, you played there, you kind of know the plays and what they’re about to do,” Welker said on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike.” “It was funny watching because the few plays I followed, I could tell which play they were about to run. So, it was pretty interesting.”
■ And there was an interesting exchange between Dan Dierdorf and Greg Gumbel about New England running back LeGarrette Blount during the Patriots-Bills broadcast.
Blount is listed at 6 feet and 250 pounds — a monstrous size for a running back — but Dierdorf said that in the Saturday production meeting, Bill Belichick said Blount “runs like a smaller guy. He’s not really a bruising runner.”
Gumbel added that Belichick said Blount “runs like a 225-pounder.”
Replied Dierdorf: “I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”
Fairness of fines just doesn’t add up
Mama, don’t let your sons grow up to be defensive players.
The NFL has skewed way in favor of offense in recent years, and not just with the new ticky-tack rules that penalize defenders for even the slightest contact against receivers.
Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News dug up a great stat over the weekend: The NFL doled out $324,000 worth of fines in Week 1. Of that, $309,000 was assessed to defensive players. Obviously, defensive players — the ones who most often deliver the hits — are way more prone to fines under the league’s guidelines than offensive players, who most often receive the hits.
Egregious penalties — spearing and launching — should still be fined severely, but perhaps a more fair system would be to fine offensive players double the amount of defensive players for penalties such as chop blocks and unnecessary roughness.
Despite increasing pressure from fans, media, and Native American groups, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has remained steadfast in his refusal to change his team’s nickname, which many find to be an insensitive racial slur.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has stood behind Snyder in the past, saying as recently as June 5 that the Redskins name has a “positive meaning distinct from any disparagement.”
“For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect,” Goodell added.
So it was fascinating to see Goodell change his position last week, saying Wednesday on Washington’s 106.7 FM that the NFL needs to more closely examine the issue.
“We have to do everything that’s necessary to make sure that we’re representing the franchise in a positive way . . . and that if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we’re doing the right things to try to address that,” Goodell said.
“Ultimately, it is Dan’s decision. But it’s something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition and history that it has for so many years.”
A radio ad from the Oneida Indian Nation’s “Change the Mascot” campaign ran in Wisconsin, leading up to Sunday’s Redskins-Packers game. And several media outlets, including Slate, Sports Illustrated’s MMQB, and USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan have adopted policies not to use the word “Redskins.”
Alabama had its national title hopes on the line Saturday in its showdown against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, and Crimson Tide coach end Nick Saban used a little help from the Patriots to get his team in the right frame of mind Friday night.
Namely, Saban showed his team the speech Tom Brady gave to the Michigan football team when he visited his alma mater last month.
“Every man in this room is counting on you, and every player that’s ever worn this helmet is counting on you,” Brady said that day.Contact Ben Volin at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.