The Patriots’ offense isn’t playing well, but no one can agree on the cause.
Former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis told The Ringer it’s because the Patriots don’t have elite receivers.
“Tell me who the No. 1 receiver is that you’re concerned with every time you go to play against New England?” he said.
Former Rams coach Mike Martz told The 33rd Team it’s the offensive line.
“They’ve got to do a better job of protecting [Mac Jones], change up the protections, because they’re not very good up front,” he said.
Former Patriots special assistant Michael Lombardi told VSIN that first-time offensive play-caller Matt Patricia is the issue.
“To me, when I watch the Patriots, they don’t have an offense. They just run a bunch of plays,” Lombardi said.
NBC analyst Chris Simms said Jones’s limitations — a lack of arm strength and athleticism — have been exposed.
“I love Mac, but he’s not a superstar,” Simms said. “He needs a system and a support system to make it all work.”
The real answer: They’re all right.
The 6-6 Patriots are floundering as they get ready for Monday’s game at Arizona — 23rd in offensive points (18.4 per game), 25th on third down, 31st in the red zone. They have scored one or fewer touchdowns in four of their last five games. And their struggles can’t be pinned on just one or two players or units.
Let’s examine each issue further:
▪ The receivers. The Patriots may have found a spark against the Bills when rookie cornerback Marcus Jones took a quick pass and scampered 48 yards for a touchdown. But none of the other Patriots receivers have game-breaking speed or talent. Jakobi Meyers is their leading receiver with 593 yards and three touchdowns, numbers that put him outside the top 35 in the NFL.
Lombardi said it’s no accident that quarterbacks such as Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow thrived when given receivers Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, and Ja’Marr Chase.
“I’m not saying that the receivers from New England aren’t any good, but I’m saying I don’t think any of those teams are trading their receivers for the Patriots receivers,” Lombardi said.
But the Patriots aren’t devoid of talent, either. They have a veteran group with a history of NFL production. Meyers is a reliable possession receiver. Hunter Henry caught nine touchdown passes last year. Nelson Agholor caught eight TD passes and averaged 18.7 yards per catch the year before coming to New England. Jonnu Smith, with one touchdown in two years, had 16 TD passes in four years with the Titans. DeVante Parker once had a 1,200-yard season, and is averaging a healthy 19 yards per catch this season, with several highlight-reel grabs.
Next Gen Stats also says Jones ranks 20th among 33 quarterbacks with 3.5 yards of separation per throw. And Bailey Zappe was able to complete 10 passes of 20-plus yards in games against the Browns and Bears.
The Patriots have talent. They just don’t have a true No. 1 receiver.
“They are overly dependent on average players talent-wise, being elite execution-wise,” ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky said.
▪ The offensive line. The Patriots want to be a run-heavy offense to take the pressure off the passing game, but they have struggled up front. The Patriots’ 4-yard rushing average ranks 25th in the NFL, and per Next Gen, they have the second-highest percentage of stuffed runs (25 percent), and the eighth-lowest rushing success rate (38.4 percent).
But the pass blocking hasn’t been so terrible. Next Gen says Jones’s average time to throw of 2.76 seconds ranks 18th out of 33 quarterbacks. Jones has been pressured on 22.6 percent of his throws, which ranks seventh-lowest. The Patriots’ “time to pressure” of 3.15 seconds ranks 10th-best.
If the Patriots do have issues with the offensive line, it is because of injuries and a lack of continuity in recent weeks. David Andrews missed games against the Jets, Colts, and Vikings, and the line struggled in the first two. The Patriots also have used three starting right tackles in the last five weeks (Marcus Cannon, Yodny Cajuste, and Conor McDermott); left tackle Trent Brown missed a game and has struggled with injury and illness; and Isaiah Wynn has just one start in the last six weeks because of injury and ineffectiveness. Only guards Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu have started all 12 games.
The Patriots don’t have great depth on the offensive line. But the unit has been decent when Andrews is in the middle and they have most of their starters.
▪ The offensive coordinator. A lot of people snickered at Bill Belichick when he installed Patricia and Judge as play-caller and quarterbacks coach, respectively, despite neither having done the jobs in the NFL. The performance of the offense hasn’t changed many minds.
“Has Mac thrived? No, but of course he hasn’t thrived. He has a defensive coordinator and a special teams coach calling plays,” Orlovsky said.
Kurt Warner told ESPN recently that he thinks Jones is bored by the Patriots’ simple offense. Orlovsky has highlighted plays where none of Jones’s receivers are looking for the ball when he’s ready to throw. He tweeted that Jones should request a trade this offseason if the Patriots don’t get him a real offensive coordinator.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday that the Patriots run “a very conservative pass game.”
“It’s how a defensive guy would call offensive plays, right?” he said. “ ‘Let’s not turn the ball over. Let’s get 4 yards a play and try to burn clock.’ And that’s what they’re doing … [Jones is] going to be patient, maybe take a shot from time to time, but for the most part it’s run game, it’s quick game, and it’s screens.”
The Next Gen stats tell a slightly different story. Jones has as many deep touchdowns (20-plus yards in the air) this year in nine games as he had in 17 last year (2). His completion percentage on deep passes is 11.3 percent over expected, which ranks ninth out of 33 quarterbacks. Last year, he ranked 25th out of 31 (minus-2.2 percent).
The one area in which the play-calling needs to improve is with play-action, which Jones has used on just 15.9 percent of his passes, the third-lowest rate out of 33 quarterbacks. By comparison, Tagovailoa, who is having an MVP-type season, uses play-action on 42.6 percent of throws.
▪ Mac Jones. You don’t hear many analysts blaming Jones. But his lack of a signature fourth-quarter performance is glaring.
And the issues with pass protection may be more on him than the offensive line. He has the seventh-lowest pressure rate (23 percent) among quarterbacks, yet the ninth-highest sack rate (8.5 percent) and fourth-highest interception rate (7.7 percent) under pressure. That’s on the quarterback.
CBS Sports’s Chris Trapasso was one of the few to criticize Jones after the Patriots’ 24-10 loss to the Bills, giving Jones credit for one “high-caliber throw” and five “low-caliber throws.”
“Jones was completely overwhelmed by a quality Bills defense,” wrote Trapasso, who gave Jones a D for the game. “The only reason he doesn’t get an F is because some of the blandness and conservative vibe of the passing attack is on the play-callers.”
Clearly, Jones’s performance has been is affected by the other issues — a lack of elite receivers, shaky offensive line play, and inexperience at offensive play-caller. But the Patriots’ struggles reveal Jones’s limitations. He doesn’t have any elite physical attributes — size, arm strength or speed — and seems to need everything around him to be perfect.
“If you give him a great offensive system, he’s going to make the right reads and decisions and do all those things great<’ Simms said. “But he’s not going to be one of those guys that can make it work no matter what.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.