Bill Belichick likes to say that the Patriots start over from scratch each season. But surely at this point, after seven weeks of spring practices and six weeks of training camp, Josh McDaniels must have a good grasp of what his offense’s identity will be for the 2019 season?
“No,” he said last week with a chuckle. “There’s still a lot of unknowns, a lot of reps that we need to take and get better at.
“To say exactly what we’re going to be, what groupings we’re going to lean on, the roles everybody’s ironed out yet — I think it would be unfair for me to say that.”
McDaniels probably has a decent idea, but he has been around the game long enough to know to put his plans in pencil, not ink. Sure enough, in the week since McDaniels gave his interview, the Patriots put rookie receiver N’Keal Harry on injured reserve, and unexpectedly lost center David Andrews for the season with a blood clot.
“Yeah, that’s an important position,” Belichick conceded. “The relationship between the center and the quarterback is, of course, an important one. I’m not sure exactly how this will turn out.”
Harry was supposed to be the big, physical threat on the outside for Tom Brady. Andrews is as smart and dependable as any center in the league. And they’re not the only key pieces missing.
For the first time since 2009, Rob Gronkowski won’t be in the middle of it all. The Patriots will miss his great hands, his precise route running, his unspoken bond with Brady, his ability to break tackles, his physicality in the run game, and his value as a decoy on play-action passes.
The Patriots didn’t do much to replace him, either. The team that a decade ago based its offense around two star tight ends now has Matt LaCosse (battling an ankle injury) and Ben Watson (suspended for the first four games) trying to piece it together at the position.
And wide receiver is, as usual, a work in progress. Julian Edelman is the one constant. Chris Hogan is gone, and so is Cordarrelle Patterson, which takes some of the gimmick-play element out of the offense.
The Patriots have plenty of question marks at receiver. Can Josh Gordon last the whole season? Does Demaryius Thomas have anything left in the tank? Can Phillip Dorsett finally break out? And can undrafted rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski turn training-camp success into regular-season production?
“It’s kind of been a changing element of the offense here in the spring and summer,” McDaniels said of the receivers. “We’ve worked with a lot of different guys.”
But here’s the reality with Brady and the Patriots: They always figure it out on offense. For the last nine years, they have finished in the top five in the NFL in scoring, which is among the team’s more amazing accomplishments. And the Patriots have ranked in the top 10 in scoring for a whopping 15 years in a row (yes, even the Matt Cassel year).
Sometimes the Patriots figure out their offense in Week 5, as in 2014 when they went “on to Cincinnati” and thrashed the rest of the league. Sometimes it takes until the divisional round of the playoffs, like last year, when they retooled their offense during the bye week to become more of a run-based team and went on a somewhat surprising Super Bowl run.
“I’m not really curious, because I know that they’re going to make it work,” CBS analyst Tony Romo said. “They’re always a step ahead. Tom and Josh do as good a job as anybody that’s ever played with finding unique ways to move the ball without certain things that I find most teams need. So, we’ll see.”
On paper, the strengths and weaknesses of the offense are obvious. Brady is still an elite quarterback at 42, even if his stats declined a bit last year. He is still the best field general in the NFL, can pick apart a defense before the ball is snapped, and always gets the Patriots checked into the right play based on the defense. And as he proved in the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl, Brady is still the king of clutch.
“He did say to me this offseason one time, ‘It’s easy for me now,’ ” CBS commentator Jay Feely said. “ ‘I’ve seen what every defensive coordinator can throw at me. I know the answers to the test before I take it.’ ”
The running backs are a definite strength. The Patriots bring back Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead, and add third-round pick Damien Harris to the mix. Michel and Harris will be the traditional ball-carriers, while White and Burkhead will be a big part of the passing game. And fullback James Develin can always punch the ball in from the goal line.
The offensive line is also a strength, with tackle Marcus Cannon and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason returning.
Andrews’s injury could have a significant impact, however, because the best way to get pressure on Brady is right up the middle. The center position now comes down to career backup Ted Karras and Buffalo castoff Russell Bodine.
And left tackle is definitely a question mark, with former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn returning from a torn Achilles’ tendon that cost him his entire rookie season. Wynn is also undersized for a tackle at 6 feet 3 inches. But he has won the starting job this year following Trent Brown’s departure and the Patriots remain high on his potential.
“When he was coming out of Georgia, I thought he was one of the best players in that draft,” NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said. “Wasn’t very tall, but had a way of just constantly staying in front of pass rushers. All I kept thinking was, ‘Why in the world would you move this guy to guard, when these speed rushers aren’t able to get around him?’ ”
The passing game is where the Patriots have the most uncertainty. They may get very little production out of their tight ends. And other than Edelman, the receivers all have boom-or-bust potential.
CBS’s Nate Burleson thinks the Patriots are loaded, especially when they get Harry back from injured reserve; Burleson calls him “a monster.”
“You’ve got the best running back group in the NFL, you get Josh Gordon back, you have Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry – the greatest complement of players Brady has ever played with in his life,” Burleson said. “And he gets back to the Super Bowl.”
Early in the season, the offense may look a lot like last year’s — a lot of running and play-action passes out of heavy formations, quick passes to Edelman, White, and Burkhead, and the occasional deep crosser to Gordon. The Patriots finished third in the NFL in rush attempts per game last year, and 11th in pass attempts. They will need a similar balance this year to keep the heat off Brady.
The one different element to this year’s passing attack is the back-shoulder throw, as they did add three receivers who stand between 6-2 and 6-4 (Gordon, Thomas, Meyers).
The offense may not look perfect on paper, and replacing Gronkowski will be tough. But after watching Brady, Belichick, and McDaniels operate for nearly 20 years together, everyone knows that the Patriots will figure out their offense.
“I don’t expect them to be any different than I’ve ever seen,” said CBS’s Phil Simms. “They won’t plug somebody in. They’ll just find other ways to do it. And they’ve got 20 years of the same offense. Who can ever claim that?”