FOXBOROUGH — During a seven-day stretch that could define the Patriots’ 2014 regular season, they lost to the Chiefs by 27 points, then beat the Bengals by 26 points.
Obviously, the games couldn’t have been more different from the Patriots’ perspective. At Kansas City in Week 4, they ran a season-low 49 offensive plays. After licking their wounds, they came back on Oct. 5 and ran a season-high 82 against Cincinnati. They were forced to pass more against the Chiefs in an attempt to cut into a large deficit, then ran the ball at will against the Bengals while holding a big lead.
Since it’s unclear what the game plans were going into those games — the Patriots aren’t keen on sharing those — it speaks to how impactful game flow, personnel, momentum, and score can be toward any team’s attempt at generating offensive balance. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has stated multiple times this season that a run-pass balance is a goal. But that can be difficult to pull off, and while it’s a goal, it’s not the goal.
“Scoring points is the ultimate [goal]. That’s what we’re trying to do, and however you need to do that, that’s what you have to be able to do,” quarterback Tom Brady said on Wednesday. “Some games you may throw it a little more, some days you may run it a little bit more, depending on how the game goes or how the flow of the game goes. Those things kind of sort themselves out. But you’d love to come out of every game running it as much as you would’ve hoped.”
Despite winning, the Patriots haven’t been doing much running, with a few exceptions. Heading into Sunday’s 1 p.m. home game against the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots have run the ball 40.7 percent of the time through 13 games, and called for a pass (which includes pass attempts and sacks) 59.3 percent.
Over the past three games, though, that run/pass ratio has been 33/67. In fact, take away the games against the Bengals (46 rushing attempts), Colts (44), and Vikings (37), and the Patriots are running the ball only 34.8 percent of the time.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m definitely not a coach and would never say, ‘We need to do this or that however many times.’ Whatever’s working, whatever’s going to get us the win, that’s the bottom line,” said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who is involved in both the running game and passing game. He has three receptions on the season, but was on the field for 22 of the Patriots’ 28 rushing plays in last Sunday’s 23-14 win at San Diego.
Without a so-called featured back, the Patriots’ rushing attack is typically by committee — except at Indianapolis, when Jonas Gray rushed 37 times for 201 yards. Combining bigger backs such as Gray and LeGarrette Blount with smaller backs such as Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, the Patriots can create a game plan, depending on the opponent, that includes some kind of combination from multiple backs. Or they can give the bulk of the carries to one back, like they did against the Colts. Or they can go pass-heavy, like they’ve done the past three weeks (134 pass plays, 66 runs).
No matter the number of attempts, the Patriots are always looking for something when they opt to run. Even if the attempt number is small, the influence can be big.
“Running the ball, you really can control the pace of the game, you can control the tempo of it. When we run it well, it’s really critical to our success,” Brady said. “And that doesn’t matter if we run it 40 times or 25 times. It’s just you’ve got to run it really efficiently.”
Before the Nov. 30 game at Green Bay — and coming off a home win over Detroit that featured a large run-pass discrepancy — McDaniels reiterated what he wants to see from his offense regarding balance.
“I’ve said this before numerous times. We’ve always wanted to go into each game and maintain great balance and run the ball 25, 30, 30-plus times in the game because that means you certainly have control of the game and you’re out there on the field a lot,” McDaniels said. “I definitely wish we could establish a better balance than what we had [against Detroit, when the Patriots had 20 run plays and 53 pass plays]. That’s our goal every week.”
In today’s NFL, a 40/60 run-pass split might be considered balanced. Among the teams currently ranked in the top five this season in total yards — the Patriots are seventh — only the Eagles run it at a higher percentage than New England’s 40.7, and the top three (Colts, Steelers, Saints) are all below 40 percent.
But since Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001, the Patriots’ run percentage has been below 40.7 percent in just two seasons: 2011 (40.5) and 2002 (38.3). The 2002 season is the only time a Brady-quarterbacked Patriots team has missed the playoffs; in 2011, he led them to the Super Bowl.
With a pair of 200-yard rushing games and five 300-yard passing games this season, the Patriots have shown an ability to do both well. As the season enters its final stretch, that’s a positive sign. The team that becomes one-dimensional is often the team that loses.
The greatest run-pass difference for the Patriots this season came against Sunday’s opponent. In the season-opening game at Miami, the Patriots ran it 20 times and had 60 pass plays. They were heavily unbalanced and lost, 33-20.
“Yeah, [winning is] the most important thing,” coach Bill Belichick said. “As the game unfolds sometimes there’s a balance and sometimes it tilts more one way than another based on any number of circumstances. We try to do what we think is best and that’s based on all the circumstances, and the most important thing is to move the ball and score points offensively. If we’re doing that, regardless of how we’re doing it, we’re doing a good job. If we’re not, then we need to find a way to do it better.
“Balance isn’t nearly as much of a concern for me as moving the ball and scoring points. That’s really what we’re out there for.”