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It’s been a long time since the Patriots had this much trouble scoring points

The New England offense has largely been brought to its knees in Cam Newton's first year under center..Matthew J. Lee/Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

It’s not quite leather-helmet football, but the Patriots’ struggles to score in 2020 hearken back to a bygone era in New England football — one that preceded not only Tom Brady and Bill Belichick but also Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, and even Bob Kraft.

Across the league, NFL offenses are putting up points at a historic pace. Twelve weeks into the season, teams are averaging 24.8 points per game — up from last year’s season-long average of 22.8, and on pace to shatter the post-merger record of 23.4 in 2013.

That overall bump in scoring makes the Patriots’ decline all the more jarring. At a time when points appear to be easier than ever to come by, New England’s offense is slogging to an average of 20.8 points per game — 4 below the league average.


This likely will mark the first time since the 2000 season (the last before Brady wrested control of the offense from Bledsoe) that the Patriots have scored fewer points than the league average. And the severity of the gap merits further consideration.

After all, the last time the Patriots scored at least 4 points fewer than the league average was 1992, when they went 2-14 under coach Dick MacPherson. With quarterbacking duties split among Hugh Millen, Scott Zolak, Tom Hodson, and Jeff Carlson, the Patriots averaged a paltry 12.8 points per game, 5.9 below that year’s league average of 18.7.

That poor performance represented a continuation of years of offensive futility by the Patriots. This season, the elusiveness of points comes on the heels of years as a point-scoring machine.

For 16 straight years from 2004-19, the Patriots outscored the league average by at least 3 points per game. That consistent excellence positioned New England for perennial success — while now setting the stage for one of the more pronounced single-season offensive drops in league history.


While the Patriots endured a 2019 season that, by their own standards, was offensively sluggish, they still averaged 26.3 points per game — the seventh-highest average in the NFL. This year, they have plummeted all the way to 27th.

That sort of offensive freefall is a nearly insurmountable barrier to success.

Entering this year, just 25 teams in NFL history had endured a fall of at least 20 spots — going from one of the better offenses in the league to one of the worst — in a single year. (The record decline came from the 2009-10 Vikings, who scored the second-most points in 2009, then sank to 29th the next year.) Things did not end well for most of the teams in that group.

The big drop Teams that have seen their NFL rank in points per game drop by at least 20 places in one year.
Teams 25
Average wins 5.4
Average losses 10.6
.500 or better 5
Playoff teams 2
Total playoff wins 1
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The average team in that group had 5.4 wins and 10.6 losses. Just five of those teams finished with at least a .500 record, and only two — the 2016 Giants and 1996 Cowboys — reached the playoffs. The Giants were bounced in the wild-card round, while the Cowboys advanced to the division round.

Against that backdrop, the Patriots’ 5-6 record already would distinguish them as one of the more successful teams to suffer such a severe drop in offense. The fact that they have even a glimmer of a chance at the playoffs qualifies them as a rarity among teams whose offenses stalled so dramatically from one season to the next.


Even so, that offers little consolation to a team that remains in search of a formula for victories that can prove reliable in spite of a deficient offense.

Transitional turbulence always seemed unavoidable in the first year of the franchise’s post-Brady existence, but it would have been hard to envision just how severe or sustained it has proven through a little more than two-thirds of the season.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.