Patriots center David Andrews was asked for his initial impressions of the new offense after his team’s 20-7 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday.
His answer should horrify Patriots fans.
“Look, obviously, when you get down like you do, it kind of takes your fastball away — the run game, obviously,” he said.
In 2022, no NFL team should consider the run game to be its “fastball.” The run game should be a change-up. The third pitch in the repertoire.
If that’s the Patriots’ plan on offense this year — yikes.
Hopefully Andrews was just giving his own perspective.
“As an offensive lineman, you kind of want to get out there and run the ball as much as you can,” Patriots play-caller Matt Patricia said Tuesday.
If Andrews was sincere, then the Patriots’ offense could be in big trouble.
You’re going to lose your fastball every week, as Andrews lamented, if it’s your run game.
Today’s NFL is a passing league. You throw to score. You score to win. Pass. Pass. Pass some more.
The Patriots used to sling the ball with Tom Brady. They consistently ranked in the top half of the league (and often in the top 10) in throwing the ball in the first half. In 2019, they ranked 11th (62.4 percent).
But in the last two years without Brady, the Patriots have resorted to a philosophy of “run game and defense.”
In 2020 with Cam Newton, the Patriots ranked 32nd in first-half pass plays (45.5 percent). In 2021 with a rookie Mac Jones, they ranked 20th (55.8 percent).
The season with Newton ended short of the playoffs, and the Jones season finished with a 47-17 blowout in the wild-card round. It wasn’t a coincidence.
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Run-pass balance is grossly overrated. If the Patriots want to have a dynamic offense in 2022, they need to throw the ball. A lot.
Patricia acknowledged Tuesday that running the ball just for the sake of it isn’t smart.
“I think balance is a great part of our game, and I think it comes in different forms,” Patricia said. “There’s a lot of games sometimes where you just can’t run it early based on what you’re seeing from the opponent. We’ve been involved in games where we haven’t run the ball a lot, and still been able to kind of control the game from that aspect.”
The Patriots have to focus on the passing game. Look at the NFL in 2021:
▪ Rushing attempts averaged 4.33 yards per play. The pass game averaged 6.22 (including sacks).
▪ There were 889 passing touchdowns and 524 rushing touchdowns.
▪ The teams that ran the ball the least in the first half: Buccaneers (31.2 percent), Bills, Chiefs, Dolphins, Bengals, Rams, Packers, Raiders, Chargers, and Steelers.
▪ The teams that ran the ball the most in the first half: Bears (48.3 percent), Eagles, Giants, Saints, 49ers, Titans, Washington, Colts, Panthers, and Lions.
Notice the trends? The teams that come out throwing in the first half are generally the NFL’s best — the most dynamic offenses, the most successful teams, and the two Super Bowl participants. Teams that have confidence in their quarterbacks (or at least try to show it).
The teams that come out running the football are generally teams that miss the playoffs, and don’t have confidence in their quarterbacks — guys like Justin Fields, Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz, Sam Darnold, and Jared Goff.
Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game offered more proof that it’s all about the passing game.
▪ Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel called 20 passes against 10 runs in the first half. His team gained 184 yards (163 in the passing game), scored 17 points, and averaged 6.13 yards per play.
▪ Patriots coaches called 15 passes against 10 runs in the first half. The offense gained 108 yards (67 in the passing game), scored 0 points, and averaged 4.3 yards per play.
▪ The Patriots’ run game was effective (4.56 yards per carry). The Patriots’ passing game was not (4.6 yards per play). That’s why it didn’t score any points.
Every minute leading up to this Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh should be spent improving the passing game. No more missed assignments on the offensive line. More designed plays for their playmakers. More creativity from the play-callers. More snaps for Kendrick Bourne (he had just two on Sunday).
And, most importantly, more play-action, the most proven way to pick up chunks of yards on offense.
Only three teams in recent years have had success with a run-oriented offense: the Ravens, Titans, and 49ers.
The Ravens and Titans have quarterbacks who are terrific runners (Lamar Jackson and Ryan Tannehill), giving the offense a numbers advantage. The Titans, Ravens, and Niners also hit huge plays via play-action. Jimmy Garoppolo finished second among quarterbacks last season in averaging an impressive 8.64 yards per pass attempt.
But Mac Jones is not a runner. And the Patriots only called two play-action passes Sunday — screen passes to Jonnu Smith for 15 and 7 yards. The Patriots’ deep passing game consisted of Jones lobbing 50-50 balls to receivers who were covered. Almost all fell incomplete, and one was intercepted.
The run-oriented offensive style isn’t exactly proven, either. The Ravens and Titans also have been the NFL’s biggest postseason disappointments in recent years. The knock on Jackson has been that he can’t play from behind.
While the Patriots should focus more on play-action, there’s not much evidence to suggest that you have to run the ball much to be successful at it.
In fact, study after study has debunked some of the NFL’s most enduring myths: The importance of “establishing the run,” the importance of running the ball to set up play-action passes, or that running the ball early leads to greater success late in the game.
The run game is important to finish out the clock in the fourth quarter. But if you want to build that lead for the fourth quarter, establish the pass.
Mac Jones, just beginning his second NFL season, isn’t near the level of the QBs who are slinging it — Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and so on. It’s probably not fair to expect Jones to play at that level, especially given the lack of elite talent the Patriots have put around him.
But for the Patriots to have any chance, the passing game, not the run game, needs to be their fastball.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.