Entering training camp seven weeks ago, the one area of the Patriots that produced absolutely zero concern was their passing offense.
They still had Tom Brady, looking as youthful as ever at age 40. They returned their top four receivers from last year, and added Brandin Cooks, an emerging star. Rob Gronkowski healed up from his back injury. Super Bowl hero James White signed a contract extension. The offensive line returned all five starters.
But then football happened.
Julian Edelman tore an ACL in the preseason and is done for the year. His replacement, Danny Amendola, lasted three quarters before leaving the season opener because of a head injury. And Malcolm Mitchell went on injured reserve right before the opener after suffering a knee injury in training camp.
Suddenly, the Patriots offense is in scramble mode as they prepare for Sunday’s matchup at New Orleans. They’re figuring out how to incorporate two new running backs (Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead) and a new tight end (Dwayne Allen), and suddenly have only two of the five receivers who were projected to be on the opening-day roster (Cooks, Chris Hogan).
But the coaches aren’t panicking as they try to figure out how they’re going to replace Edelman, and how to make an offense click with so many new faces in the huddle.
“There’s some element of that every week in the National Football League,” Bill Belichick said dismissively Tuesday. “Every team is dealing with something and some circumstances and some unique situations about the game. I’ve seen weeks a lot worse than this one, to be honest with you.”
Certainly, the Patriots still have plenty of star power in the offense, with Brady, Gronkowski, Cooks, Hogan, and White. The loss to the Chiefs wasn’t that bad, with the Patriots still putting up 27 points and leaving several more out on the field with two failed fourth-down attempts.
And they aren’t decimated by injuries as they have been in past years. In 2013, the Patriots lost a 13-6 game to the Bengals in which Brady was throwing to Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Brandon Bolden, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Nate Solder. Later that season, in a 26-16 loss in the AFC Championship game, Brady threw passes to Matthew Mulligan, Matthew Slater, and Austin Collie.
This year’s team still has plenty of firepower.
But the first test for the Patriots in their post-Edelman life wasn’t pretty, either. Brady completed just 16 of 36 passes for a 44.4 completion percentage, the fourth-lowest of his career. Thirty-three quarterbacks threw a pass in Week 1, and Brady’s completion percentage was dead last.
And when Amendola went down, things got real hairy for the offense. Amendola sat out the entire fourth quarter, and the Patriots’ four drives ended with three punts and a turnover on downs. Brady went 3 for 10 for 35 yards without Amendola, taking three sacks and missing on his final six throws.
The Patriots just didn’t have an answer for how to replace their key players. Brady’s response was to simply drop back and throw it deep to Cooks and Phillip Dorsett, the speedy former first-round pick who has been a bust through his first two-plus seasons but was brought in to help replace Edelman.
Brady threw deep (more than 20 yards down the field) 10 times against the Chiefs, completing just two of the attempts. Last year, he threw deep just 49 times all season, completing 23 of them.
The Patriots tried using Hogan as Edelman’s replacement, aligning him in the slot 38 times against the Chiefs. Hogan ran many of the same quick routes that Edelman runs, and they even tried the jet sweep with Hogan that Edelman runs so effectively.
But the results were markedly different. Hogan caught just 1 of 5 passes thrown his way, for 8 yards. Those jet sweeps went for 13, 4, and 0 yards.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has to learn his new personnel, and quickly. But like Belichick, he’s not panicking.
“There’s really no time to stop and think about that, and it doesn’t really matter anyway, because every team is dealing with the same set of circumstances at some point, at some position, somewhere along their roster, on their team during the course of the season,” McDaniels said Tuesday.
“We’ve got a lot of good players, and whether they’ve been here for multiple years or a few months or, in some cases, a couple weeks, that’s our responsibility. We’re supposed to get used to them, learn what they can and can’t do well, and then make sure that we put them out there and put them in position to do something productive for the team in their position.”
Finding a way to replace Edelman is McDaniels’s biggest challenge. But he also needs to figure out how to best utilize Burkhead, who was targeted on six of his 10 snaps against the Chiefs but gained only 23 yards. He has to figure out which running plays best suit Gillislee, who scored three touchdowns but averaged just 3 yards per carry.
He needs to figure out how to get Allen more involved in the offense, and whether Dorsett is ready to produce after spending just two weeks in the system.
McDaniels said he doesn’t scrap the offense with all of the new faces. He just has to figure out which plays in his arsenal best fit his personnel.
“I’ve described this before,” he said. “We have our bucket, they have their bucket. We’ve got to figure out how to best use our players, our scheme, against what they do and their scheme and their players.
“We also know that there’s going to be a number of adjustments that are going to be made on Sunday anyway. So you work hard during the week to make sure that your players feel good about what they’re doing and what we’re asking them to do on game day, and then you go out there and play as fast and hard as you can and you adjust as you need to.”
The Patriots need to adjust quickly, or they will be staring at an 0-2 start that no one expected seven weeks ago.