Patriots have questions on offense — but Tom Brady will find answers
Here is the state of the Patriots offense as they enter the 2018 season:
They traded away their 1,000-yard receiver. They let their most reliable third-down receiver walk away in free agency. Their other trusty receiver is 32 years old, coming off a torn ACL, and suspended for the first four games.
Their star quarterback and tight end skipped almost the entire offseason program. Their first-round lineman tore an Achilles’ tendon and is out for the season. Their first-round running back missed most of the preseason with a knee injury.
The accumulation of all that can seem . . . daunting. But the Patriots still have their ace in the hole.
“Um, they still have No. 12 back there, right?” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said recently.
No. 12, of course, is Tom Brady, the reigning NFL MVP. And he certainly has a track record of figuring it out.
Myriad teammates have come and gone over Brady’s 19 seasons, yet the Patriots offense has been consistently great. This decade, the Patriots have finished no worse than fourth in the NFL in scoring. The last time they didn’t rank in the top 10 in points scored was 2003.
This year’s roster has plenty of question marks. Can the Patriots survive the first four weeks without Edelman? Can Chris Hogan and the unproven Phillip Dorsett replace Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks? Can tight ends Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister produce? Can the offensive line protect Brady with left tackle Nate Solder departed and rookie Isaiah Wynn injured?
“It’s almost like [Bill] Belichick is making it harder for Brady right now,” quipped CBS analyst Boomer Esiason. “ ‘We’ve got no receivers? Who cares! We’ve got, like, 17 running backs, three tight ends. We can do whatever we want.’ ”
This is perhaps the most uncertainty facing the offense since 2013, when Brady was throwing to the likes of Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Austin Collie (and the Patriots still finished third in scoring).
But Brady takes the personnel changes in stride, saying recently, “I don’t go in there and tell them who I want.”
“None of it really bothers him,” former Raiders quarterback and NFL MVP Rich Gannon said. “That would really upset me, if I lost Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and my left tackle. And I think he’s been trained that way. ‘We’re going to just trust the process, and we’re going to get it figured out.’ ”
The Patriots still have dangerous weapons.
Rob Gronkowski is the NFL’s first-team All-Pro tight end and is as dominant a force as there is in the game. The running backs — Rex Burkhead, James White, and Sony Michel — have the potential to cause fits for opposing defenses in the passing game.
And they still have an experienced coaching staff that knows how to create favorable matchups. Former Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck remembers the Patriots’ Week 2 game against the Saints last year, when the Patriots targeted then-rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone right away and created big plays with Burkhead.
“They can find matchups where guys are in man-to-man coverage, and it’s a guy who doesn’t spend the majority of his day doing defensive back drills,” said Hasselbeck, now with ESPN. “They’re going to find you with formations, shifts, motions, audibles.
“Whoever the right guy is, they’re going to find you. They did it in the Saints game. They put Burkhead in space and immediately hit him for a touchdown.”
And despite all of the personnel losses this offseason, the Patriots retained one significant piece: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who decided to return instead of leave for the Colts’ head coaching job.
“And we underplay that,” Collinsworth said. “But the idea that there’s continuity on the offensive side of the ball, where Belichick doesn’t have to bounce between both spots now, I think that’s a really significant thing. He now can just rely on Josh.”
The receiver position, though, is certainly under the microscope.
The Patriots kept just three receivers on the initial roster, and it’s not the most exciting group. Hogan has never had more than 41 catches or 680 yards in a season, and he missed most of the second half of last season with injury. Dorsett, acquired last year in a trade a week before the start of the season, couldn’t get on the same page with Brady. He played in 15 games but saw just 18 passes come his way, catching 12 of them for 194 yards. And Cordarrelle Patterson is more of a gadget player than a true wide receiver; he is effective on screen passes, go routes, and end-arounds, but he isn’t a polished route runner.
“I would say receiver is a challenging position in our offense,” Brady said recently on WEEI. “We have a very graduate-level type of offense. It takes a lot to learn. It’s not easy. Not easy for rookies. Not easy for veterans. It’s a lot of work. It’s time-consuming.”
But Hasselbeck cautioned against underestimating the Patriots’ offensive talent. He played with Dorsett and Allen on the 2015 Colts, and he believes in their skill sets. Dorsett should replace Cooks as the speedy deep threat, and Allen hopes to have more impact than he did last year, when he caught just 10 passes for 86 yards in the regular season.
“I know 100 percent that those guys are really good,” Hasselbeck said. “It doesn’t really matter if people aren’t picking Phillip Dorsett on their fantasy team right now. I know for sure the kid can play. He’s lightning-fast, one of the fastest people I’ve ever played with. He’s a hard worker, and he’s coachable.”
Dorsett entered the season as a roster bubble candidate but has earned the respect of the coaching staff and one of the top two receiver positions.
“This may seem like not a compliment, but it is: He’s one of the best at clearing out for the other guys I’ve ever been around,” Hasselbeck said. “And you need guys like that, that are very unselfish, that do an amazing job of helping guys get open.
“I haven’t talked to Tom, but my projection would be that the way Phillip practices, the way he works, the way he showed up at camp this year, I could see that respect, that trust being gained, and I could see the ball start to come his way.”
Hasselbeck is also a big fan of the Patriots’ tight end core. Gronk is the all-around dominant tight end, while Allen is a superior blocker, and Hollister a quicker pass-catching H-back.
“That’s a lethal tandem with what those guys do individually, what they do best,” Hasselbeck said. “Is the wide receiver situation a little bit unsettled right now? Sure, but I believe that a guy like Phillip Dorsett or someone else can step up.”
Someone, or several Patriots, will have to step up. History says it will happen.
“There is no question that they’re going to have to find some help at receiver,” Collinsworth said. “And in the short term, they’ve got to come up with some answers.
“But if you’ve got No. 12, you’ve got to feel at least pretty good about your chances about figuring it out.”