By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — It should be better than this.
Even though we understand that the receiving corps is not exactly the best in the NFL. Even though we understand the offensive line has been occupied by replacements at various spots all year long. Even though we understand that Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown are not walking through that door.
It should be better than this.
Nevertheless, after 13 games, it’s fair to surmise that if the Patriots’ offense continues on its current course, the 2019 season will fall short of expectations for the New England Patriots.
That’s not to say things can’t turn around for the Patriots’ offense, as proven by last year’s late-season rebranding as a run-heavy juggernaut. But with three weeks left to figure it out, time is running short for Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and everybody who suits up on the offensive side of the ball.
Twice now in as many weeks the Patriots went up against defenses — at Houston, vs. Kansas City — that by many objective measures could and should be considered weak, porous, and vulnerable. Both games represented opportunities for the offense to discover what works best, put some points on the board, and ultimately win a game or two against playoff-caliber opponents.
That is what the Patriots generally do.
Take one in Houston didn’t work out too well — not until garbage time at least. Take two, in the comfort of home, in fairly perfect conditions? Well, it went even worse.
The Patriots scored just 16 points against the Chiefs, who entered the game allowing 22.1 points per game.
The Patriots gained just 278 yards of offense against the Chiefs, who entered the game allowing 372.1 yards per game.
The Patriots rushed for just 94 yards overall and averaged 4.3 yards per carry against the Chiefs, who entered the game allowing 141.3 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry.
The Patriots passed for just 204 yards (only 169 of which came from the quarterback) and averaged 5.5 yards per pass against the Chiefs, who entered the game allowing 230.8 yards per game and 7.1 yards per attempt.
The Patriots went just 2-for-12 on third down (a 17 percent success rate) against the Chiefs, who entered the game allowing conversions on 36.9 percent of opposing third-down attempts.
Again, the deficiencies are well known, and the reality is that third-stringer James Ferentz appeared to have been a problem filling in at center, as the Chiefs generated pressure up the middle with ease all afternoon on Sunday. That led to much of the offensive choppiness. Still, with that quarterback, and that head coach, and that offensive coordinator, and that offensive line coach … the results should be better.
“I mean, I think we’re just trying to figure out what works,” Brady said after the game, during which he was held under 200 yards passing for the third time this season. “So, I think you have an idea and then you see how the game unfolds and then you’ve got to make some adjustments. So, we tried to make some adjustments there in the second half. They threw a lot of different defenses at us, some we handled pretty good, others we didn’t. It was a good game by them.”
Of course, the offensive picture might have looked a bit different if not for some key drops by Jakobi Meyers — one of which came in the end zone — and a blown call on what should have been a N’Keal Harry touchdown. But the hallmark of the Brady/Belichick era has always been the ability to overcome missteps of mistakes, either their own or those of the officials. With this year’s team, that ability has been lacking, leading to very little room for error.
So, when Bashaud Breeland makes a great read and leaves his man to step in front of a Brady pass for an interception, the result can be crushing. It leads to the Patriots as a team relying on plays like blocked punts, turnovers, and touchdowns from the defense. They did get one of those blocked punts on Sunday and turned it immediately into a touchdown. They almost got that defensive score, but the line judge inexplicably blew a play dead where Stephon Gilmore probably would have scored a touchdown. At the very least, the blown call cost the Patriots 25 yards of field position.
While that was no doubt a frustrating moment for the Patriots, it showed that such plays certainly cannot be the foundation for winning. Way back in 2008, Belichick referred to such scores — pick-sixes, fumble returns, kick returns — as “bonus points,” indicating they cannot be game-planned and thus are considered to be, well, bonuses. They can absolutely help a team win a game from time to time, but scoring points the old-fashioned way is the tried and true method of reliability. Through 13 games, the Patriots don’t have that consistency.
Add in that three of the Patriots’ best offensive plays Sunday involved either trickery or a Tom Brady scramble, and consider that two of the Patriots’ three scoring drives were aided by pass interference penalties by the Chiefs, and the picture coming out of Sunday’s loss is not one of sustainability.
“Everybody needs to be on the same page and finish,” James White — who threw a 35-yard pass to Myers — said. “It is nothing dramatic, it is just everybody doing out jobs and doing them a little bit better. We came out in the second half and did things a little bit better.”
That looked to be the case, given the Patriots’ late surge to almost tie the game (or win the game, had the Harry touchdown counted, though to explore that possibility is to open an endless wormhole of possibilities.) Yet despite the slight uptick in scoring, the Patriots’ offense actually gained fewer yards in the second half than it did in the first half. The Patriots had 144 yards on 34 plays (a 4.2-yard average per play) in the first half, and they had 134 yards on 28 plays (a 4.8-yard average per play) in the second half.
It was, technically, an improvement, in terms of productivity. But the Patriots still managed to score on just two of their five drives in the second half. That’s why they lost the game.
On the other side of the ball, after giving up a bomb for a touchdown and getting tricked by a unique formation on the goal line in the first half, the Patriots’ defense stiffened in the second half and held the Chiefs to just 23 points. It was Kansas City’s second-lowest point total this season. With the Chiefs entering the game averaging 29 points per game, this was no small feat.
Yet, as has been increasingly the case, the Patriots’ offense was just not good enough.
It’s not new, and it’s not unique to this season. Yet with three games left in the regular season (and two against the 31st and 30th-ranked defenses), the time crunch is on for Belichick, McDaniels, Scarnecchia and Brady to put their combined 121 years of NFL experience together to figure out what it is this year’s team can do.
For all of the injuries and everything else, it should be better than this. For the Patriots to make something of this season, it simply has to be.