The Patriots’ offense finally hit a big play last Sunday, a second-quarter strike from Mac Jones to Pharaoh Brown that, in earning an early 10-point lead, felt like more than enough against the hapless Jets.
The good news? It was an exciting and well-scripted play, worthy of the sideline celebration and home-couch joy it unleashed.
The bad news? It remains the Patriots’ biggest gainer through three games, a sad reminder of a most alarming truth about the 2023 roster.
Where have all the playmakers gone?
It’s painful to recall what it used to be like around here, when Tom Brady was the playmaker in charge but had plenty of supercharged threats around him. Rob Gronkowski, pummeling would-be tacklers as he rumbled toward the end zone. Julian Edelman, darting and weaving his diminutive but pesky frame around the field. Danny Amendola deftly getting his hands on anything in his reach. Randy Moss, only one of the best deep threats the NFL has ever known.
But even before the Brady era, there was Curtis Martin, a threat to break a run on any and every down. Or Stanley Morgan, whose 1977-89 Patriots tenure included three 1,000-yard seasons, including two where he averaged more than 22 yards per catch. The pre-Brady Super Bowl appearance in 1996 boasted a roster that included threats in Martin, Ben Coates, Shawn Jefferson, Dave Meggett, Keith Byars, and the late, great Terry Glenn. No wonder Bill Parcells wanted to shop for ingredients.
This year’s roster? Who scares opposing defenses? Who do they worry will torch them on the ground or in the air? Who do they have to game-plan around?
The answer, as of now, is no one.
It’s not Jones, a quarterback who continues to prove himself capable and serviceable (and so much better than the likes of Zach Wilson, who truly reminded Patriots fans what it’s like to have a zero at QB), but is nowhere near the class of the NFL’s elite. It’s not JuJu Smith-Schuster, the offseason free agent receiver Bill Belichick targeted as a deep threat, but whose slow adjustment and lingering knee issues have limited him to 10 catches in three games, for a grand total of 66 yards with no touchdowns.
It’s not any of the other receivers either, with Kendrick Bourne’s 14 receptions barely ahead of tight ends Hunter Henry (13) and Mike Gesicki (9), who both have more than DeVante Parker (8) and Demario Douglas (7). Knowing the Patriots played nearly the entirety of both of their first two games from behind only makes those passing numbers look worse.
But it’s not as if the running game has scared people either. Not Rhamondre Stevenson, whose longest run of the season is 14 yards and who was outgained in his last game by veteran addition Ezekiel Elliott. And not Elliott either, who is here to complement Stevenson having outgrown his Pro Bowl form from Dallas.
Neither of them has cracked 100 rushing yards in a game this season; neither has a Patriots receiver cracked 100 yards. And even the plays that might look big on paper were more about yards after the catch, starting with Brown’s touchdown and including a Stevenson 32-yard completion in Week 1, and twin 18-yard catches by Gesicki and Bourne in Week 3.
The no 100-yard performance is a badge of dishonor only six other teams wear at this early point in the season (Denver, Green Bay, the Giants, Tennessee, Washington, and Kansas City) and we’ll give the Chiefs a pass on that one, for two reasons. One, Patrick Mahomes at QB is playmaker No. 1 in the league, and though he might not have found one receiver for 100 yards in a game, he has connected with 14 different ones this season. He’ll be fine.
Meanwhile, the Patriots face playmakers nearly every week, including the dreaded Mahomes in Week 15. The AFC East-leading Dolphins might still be scoring points on the Broncos, and with Tyreek Hill, Raheem Mostert, and breakout rookie De’Von Achane (a former track star who reached 21.93 miles per hour on his 67-yard touchdown run), not to mention Jaylen Waddle, who didn’t play last Sunday, there’s no reason to think they’ll slow down now.
Sunday’s Dolphins-Bills game is the jewel of this weekend’s schedule, filled as it is with playmakers. Dual-threat QB Josh Allen already has accounted for six touchdowns for Buffalo (five passing, one rushing) and his favorite target, Stefon Diggs, has two 100-yard games. This week’s Patriots opponent, the Cowboys, have a receiver in CeeDee Lamb who has at least one catch of 30-plus yards in every game this year. Even the Jets have Garrett Wilson, an explosive receiver who is always a threat, such as his 68-yard TD catch against Dallas.
For the Patriots, game-changing plays this year have come on defense (Matthew Judon’s sack for a safety) or special teams (Brenden Schooler’s blocked field goal attempt). Their breakout star is also on defense, with newly named Defensive Rookie of the Month Christian Gonzalez at cornerback.
This offense doesn’t scare anyone. Much as they were happy to take the lead against the Jets — the first time they’d led this season — the field goal drive could have been a touchdown, if only the downfield game were working better. A third-and-3 pass from the Jets’ 29 saw Jones target Parker down the right sideline.
Incomplete; 48-yard field goal.
Story of the Patriots’ season so far.