The smart quarterbacks in the NFL know when it’s time to go long and when it’s time to check down and hit the underneath receiver. It’s not the flashiest play, but it’s a productive one. In the spirit of those sage QBs, it’s time for me to offer one big play and then check down my list of Patriots thoughts with the season halfway completed and coach Bill Belichick’s club still undefeated.
The Big Play: Resuscitating the running game has been a theme in Fort Foxborough this week, with offensive line alchemist Dante Scarnecchia lamenting the team’s rushing struggles.
The biggest sustainability question surrounding the Patriots appears to be whether the incredible display of defensive dominance they’ve unfurled through the first half is maintainable. Some of the numbers are obscene. But a more pertinent query is whether remaining unblemished is sustainable with a historically ineffective rushing attack that’s generating obscenities?
The Patriots are averaging 3.23 yards per carry, 30th of 32 teams. That average would rank as the lowest of any team to ever reach the Super Bowl. The lowest rushing average of any team to play in or win a Super Bowl belongs to the 1970 Baltimore Colts, who averaged 3.25 yards per carry. The next lowest belongs to the 2003 Patriots, who averaged 3.4 yards. So at least Belichick has experience overcoming an effete ground game.
Of the 106 Super Bowl participants, only seven have made the Roman Numeral Rumble without being able to average at least 3.5 yards per carry without rounding help. The good news is that five of those teams (Joe Namath’s 1968 Jets, the aforementioned Colts, the 1981 49ers, the ’03 Patriots, and the 2011 Giants, who bested Belichick and Tom Brady) won it all. Among the two losers were the 1996 Patriots of Duane Charles Parcells. That team averaged 3.44 yards per carry, even with the rushing stylings of Curtis Martin.
The leaguewide rushing average after Week 8 was 4.27 yards per carry; these Patriots are more than a full yard below that.
Outside of a win over Washington, owner of one of the league’s worst run defenses, the Patriots have struggled to feature a productive running game. They have averaged fewer than 3 yards per carry their last two games. The Washington game remains the only one this season in which they averaged more than 4 (4.8). That’s surprising considering the run game was an integral part of the team winning a sixth Super Bowl last season.
The Patriots remade themselves down the stretch and in the postseason as a run-to-pass offense. They led all playoff teams in rushing yards per game at 161.7 while averaging a healthy 4.25 yards per rush.
The loss of center David Andrews for the season to a blood clot has contributed to the futility on the ground. The Patriots plucked left tackle Marshall Newhouse off the street for depth. He has been pressed into the starting lineup since Isaiah Wynn went on IR following Week 2. (Wynn returned to practice Wednesday, but isn’t eligible to play until Week 12 against Dallas.)
Last week, the Patriots were without right guard Shaq Mason, arguably their best run blocker, because of an ankle injury. Losing three-fifths of your projected offensive line would hamper any offense. They also have lost two fullbacks.
The lack of a running game is influencing other deficient areas of the offense. The Patriots rank 18th in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (39.83) and are an unfathomable by Foxborough standards 23rd in red zone touchdown percentage (18 for 36, 50 percent). The return of the running game also would make life easier for Brady, as play-action proficiency was an essential part of the offense last season.
1. It’s hard not to notice the juxtaposition of Brady and Belichick this season. The 67-year-old coach looks like he’s enjoying himself and basking in his craft. He’s now allowing that he could coach into his 70s, embracing longevity. The 42-year-old quarterback is dour, saturnine, and tough to please after wins. “Fun” feels like a four-letter word for him this season.
Last week, Brady referenced being on borrowed time during his WEEI interview. He doubled back to his standard “playing until 45” position with media maitre d’ Jim Gray Monday night, but it rang obligatory. It’s a stark role reversal for the two principals of the Patriots’ undying dynasty.
2. The Patriots have been in a quarterback canyon facing passers low on experience and capability. When they face Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson Sunday night, it will mark the sixth time in seven weeks they have faced a first- or second-year QB, going back to last-ditch Luke Falk of the NYJ in Week 3.
During the stretch, the only non-first- or second-year QB they’ve encountered was Washington’s Colt McCoy, the epitome of a backup.
But that’s not just the Patriots’ luck. It’s a leaguewide trend toward nascent passers. According to the NFL, 99 of the league’s 121 games (81.8 percent) through eight weeks have featured at least one quarterback under the age of 27, the most at this point in a season in NFL history.
Another young QB got added to the Patriots’ feasting menu this week with the Cincinnati Bengals benching Andy Dalton in favor of rookie Ryan Finley.
3. Hit pause on the weak-to-weak Patriots schedule. Sunday’s game against 5-2 Baltimore and the dynamic Jackson, who has already tied the NFL record for most 100-yard rushing games by a QB in a season with three, starts, dare we say, a challenging and defining six-week stretch.
Both the competition and the quarterback talent gets ratcheted up. The Patriots are at Baltimore, bye, at Philadelphia, vs. Dallas, at Houston, and then host Kansas City.
The Eagles’ Carson Wentz was an MVP front-runner two years ago, and Philly won’t be intimidated by the Fightin’ Belichicks. Dallas’s Dak Prescott is completing better than 70 percent of his passes and is one of three quarterbacks averaging more than 300 yards passing per game. Deshaun Watson is a magician and an MVP candidate for Houston. Patrick Mahomes needs no introduction, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be healthy by the time the Chiefs venture to Foxborough.
Just a bit of competition that puts the game in doubt would be welcome.