By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You know, the much-ballyhooed Week 4 meeting between the Patriots and Buccaneers was supposed to be fun. Potentially a meeting of 3-0 teams — albeit 3-0 teams with very different ceilings — it was supposed to be a night of celebration and fanfare. A spectacle.
Now, it’s kind of looking like a fiasco for the home team.
The Patriots fumbled away their Week 1 home date vs. Miami, and they threw away Sunday’s game at home against the Saints. They’re now 1-2 on the season, with their only victory coming against the Jets, who legitimately might not win all year long. And they’re staring down the barrel of a 1-3 start and an 0-3 record on home turf, as Brady and the defending champs enter Foxboro coming off a loss of their own. You know they’ll be carrying some added motivation to avoid losing two straight, especially with the whole world watching.
This is not what most of us had in mind when following the moves of the Patriots through the spring and summer.
The draft picks — Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Rhamondre Stevenson.
The free-agent additions — Matt Judon, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Davon Godchaux, Jalen Mills, Kyle Van Noy, Henry Anderson.
The re-signing of free agents David Andrews and Lawrence Guy. The return of Dont’a Hightower from his COVID opt-out. The trade for Trent Brown.
Given the roster improvement and the somewhat soft schedule, an outlook of 10-7 or 11-6 and a return to the playoffs was reasonably expected from this year’s team. Yet if they lose Sunday, they’ll need to go 9-4 the rest of the way to reach double-digit wins. With games the Cowboys, Chargers, Panthers, Browns, Titans, Bills (twice), and a Dolphins rematch all on the schedule, that’s going to be awfully tough.
Of course, the Patriots haven’t lost to the Bucs yet. And though there’s been little evidence to provide a reason to believe that an upset is possible, we’ve at least learned over the past 20 years to never rule anything out with Bill Belichick’s team.
Regardless of the outcome of Sunday night’s game, this year’s team has us asking some questions.
What’s Going On With The Offensive Line?
Offensive line play is never a sexy topic, but the reality is that this group is massively underperforming this season. And it’s submarining the entirety of the offensive efforts.
No running back — save for Barry Sanders — can thrive without good blocking. And no quarterback can survive and succeed without protection from the line.
However much of the blame pie you want to assign to the O-line for the Patriots’ ranking of 26th in points scored and 22nd in yards per game, there’s no denying that it’s the largest piece of the puzzle.
As for the reasons for this, there are some reasons. Trent Brown’s injury is massive, and Justin Herron and Yasir Durant have not exactly filled in seamlessly at right tackle (though Herron was better vs. the Saints). Bill Belichick’s refusal to move Mike Onwenu from left guard to right tackle — where he was great last year — is a bit perplexing, especially with Ted Karras chilling on the sideline and doing nothing despite his ability to step in and play the left guard position at a high level.
Ted Karras has yet to play a snap through three weeks. That’s strange.
I’ve also seen and heard the idea floated that this is all about coaching. The name Dante Scarnecchia has been thrown around a million times already, just like it was in 2015 and 2016, when the noise got so loud that the man had to come out of retirement to help the team make a few more Super Bowls.
I just struggle to believe that the loss of Cole Popovich — who seems to have lost his job based on COVID vaccination protocols — was so significant that a unit with that much talent and experience can be so bad. The interior of Onwenu, Andrews, and Shaq Mason should be better than this, regardless of who’s coaching them.
Isaiah Wynn at left tackle? He may not actually be as good as the Patriots hoped for him to be, but that’s not yet determined at this moment in time.
Taken together, the issues are clearly multiple, and it’s suffocating the whole offense. If this doesn’t get figured out — quickly — then things won’t get better for the offense.
… And The Defensive Line?
Another major point of concern is on the defensive line. The Patriots were weak there last year, yet they seemed to be in solid position to offset the loss of Adam Butler by adding Godchaux, Barmore, and Anderson, plus the re-signing of Guy. Add in the presence of Hightower in the middle of that defense, and they were simply supposed to be a much improved unit.
Through three weeks, that hasn’t bee the case. At all.
Overall, the run defense numbers are bad. The Patriots rank 24th in rushing yards allowed, at 122.7 per game. But on the granular level, it’s certainly been even more disappointing.
In Week 1, Jacoby Brissett twice entered the game to run QB sneaks on third-and-1 plays for Miami. He gained two yards on each of them, the latter of which allowed the Dolphins to kneel out the rest of the clock and ice the win.
In Week 2, the Jets ran the ball on third-and-2 or third-and-1 three times, picking up first downs twice — once with a one-yard run, and once with a 14-yard run.
On Sunday vs. the Saints, Jameis Winston successfully ran a QB sneak in the fourth quarter to convert a third-and-1 that allowed New Orleans to take even more time off the clock before their touchdown to put the game away.
In all but one gotta-have-it stop for the defense, the stop wasn’t made. That’s a big component of losing football.
As for the fix, is it scheme? Is it coaching? Or is it just being bigger and stronger and wanting it more? That may be a cliche, but when you’re talking about one team trying to gain a yard and the other team trying to stop it, the notion does have some relevance.
Do The Patriots Regret The Sony Michel Trade?
Just a few weeks ago, the Patriots were flush with running back talent. It was overflowing.
Now, they’re giving red zone handoffs to Brandon Bolden. On consecutive plays. For negative-1 yards.
The answer to this question has some yes and some no to it, but definitely more yes.
Let’s start with the no: Sony Michel could only ever be Sony Michel. That is, he could be a solid running back who can hit a hole, hang on to the ball, break occasional big runs to the second and third level once or twice a game, and reliably run the ball in the red zone. He cannot be an offensive savior, or focal point, and he can’t create magic on his own.
So, would he have changed the Patriots’ fortunes significantly thus far in the season? Probably not.
At the same time, these Brandon Bolden carries wouldn’t be happening if Michel were still on the roster. And the relegation to the inactive list for Rhamondre Stevenson after a rough debut wouldn’t be so noticeable.
In the sense that the Patriots merely got future draft picks for Michel, then the team definitely would be better off right now with the player on the roster. Probably not enough to make a huge stink about, though.
However, with James White now out for a long time, and with Damien Harris showing fatigue issues in Week 1, the trade is a fair criticism. The Patriots would probably be better off with Michel on the roster as opposed to some of the special teams only players — Brandon King, Cody Davis, Justin Bethel among them.
Would They Be Better Off With Cam Newton?
OK, I may be the only person asking this question, but I can’t help but raise it after seeing the wild emotional response to a simple statistical comparison shared on Twitter on Monday:
Cam Newton, Weeks 1-3, 2020:
714 yards, 7.85 Y/A
2 TDs, 2 INTs
35 rushes, 149 yards 4 TDs
Mac Jones, Weeks 1-3, 2021:
737 yards, 6.1 Y/A
2 TDs, 3 INTs
6 rushes, 28 yards, 0 TDs pic.twitter.com/FFfvhTiT2x
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) September 27, 2021
The comparison is not to say that Mac Jones is horrible, will always be horrible, and will never become an NFL quarterback. It is merely to note that … the Patriots might not be 1-2 if Cam Newton had been running the offense. And that may just be for one major reason.
The one-dimension aspect of Jones’ game allows defenses to completely disregard his threat as a runner on every single play. As a result, you’ve seen opposing pass rushes absolutely tee off on the QB, leading to all of the aforementioned offensive line problems.
If someone like Newton were back there, defenses would have to pay attention. They’d have to keep him in mind on every single snap, after he turned in one of the best rushing seasons of his entire career last year.
And the knock on Newton was that his downfield passing wasn’t accurate. Jones went 3-for-19 on deep passes on Sunday, after keeping the deep ball largely holstered for the first two weeks.
Obviously, much of last season was abysmal for Newton, so just like Michel, he can’t be looked at like some sort of theoretical savior for the 2021 squad. But remember, Newton looked nice at times in the preseason, particularly against Philadelphia, when he completed eight of his nine passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Having real NFL tight ends and wide receivers might have really helped the guy, you know?
The answer to the question in the long run is absolutely not. Cam Newton is not the future of the Patriots. Mac Jones has a chance to be. However, could Cam not have accounted for one more scoring drive vs. Miami or New Orleans? And could that have been the difference between 1-2 and 3-0? Absolutely.
In that sense, I do believe it’s fair to wonder why the Patriots fully ditched Newton at the end of the summer. Reasonable minds disagree on this topic, however. (See the replies and quote tweets to that statistical comparison for further illustration of this phenomenon.)
What Happened To The Team That Always Dominated In Turnover Differential?
Tom Brady left. Dang it! We weren’t supposed to talk about him. But, well, you lose the quarterback who would sooner chop off one of his toes before he would willingly throw an interception, and the ratio is going to turn against you.
The ratio is now at 1:1, after Mac Jones threw three interceptions on Sunday. Those picks were all kind of anomalies; he was hit while throwing the first, Jonnu Smith butchered the second, and the third was a fourth-down prayer in garbage time. But those are also kind of offset by Zach Wilson’s charitable contributions in Week 2; at least three of his four picks were straight giveaways.
More concerning, the Patriots have fumbled five times — Jones has two, while Smith, Stevenson, and Harris have one apiece. The Harris one was the most costly, obviously, but Stevenson’s also killed a potential scoring drive in that same game. (Smith’s was recovered by the Patriots, as were both of Jones’ fumbles.)
Meanwhile defensively, the Patriots have forced zero fumbles.
When a team is coached to focus on forcing fumbles, it shows. (See: Flores, Brian.) Not having Stephon Gilmore swooping in to surprise running backs with well-placed jabs hasn’t helped, but the point to separate footballs from bodies clearly hasn’t been a point of emphasis for the Patriots.
As we’ve now learned, they’re not good enough to be lacking this much in any aspect of the game, particularly one as significant as ball control.
And The Penalties?
Much like ball control, discipline was generally a staple of most Bill Belichick Patriots teams. It’s just not the case anymore.
The Patriots did get their penalty number down on Sunday, but they were significant miscues. A Hunter Henry false start took away a fourth-and-1 attempt before halftime, leading to the team settling for a field goal. (Jakobi Meyers also jumped, so it may have been a communication error more than a straight jump.) Joe Cardona’s false start negated what would have been a New Orleans offside penalty that would’ve given New England a first down. Jonathan Jones’ third-down holding penalty was declined, because Winston completed a touchdown on the play, but it would have given the Saints three more shots at the end zone if that pass had gone incomplete. Holding by both Smith and Andrews on one play negated a 17-yard run J.J. Taylor run. Jake Bailey sent a kickoff out of bounds for a second straight week.
It’s certainly not the crisp, clean operation that we’ve come to expect from a Belchick-coached team.
“We’ll continue to address it. We haven’t been a highly penalized team, we don’t want that and hopefully we’ll have fewer of them going forward,” Belichick said after his team committed eight penalties in Week 1. “Hopefully we can do a better job of coaching it and players have to make decisions. It’s a fast game and there’s a lot happening there, but hopefully we can certainly eliminate some of the plays that don’t involve that, penalties that don’t involve that and use good judgement on our playing style and make good decisions.”
Again, the Patriots don’t have the margin for error that they used to have. Some of the issues on the margins — like penalties — can really add up.
So … What Now?
Another great question. (I wrote the questions, so I’m complimenting myself. Probably time to wrap it up.)
As mentioned earlier, most of us kind of expected the Patriots to finish the year somewhere in the 10 or 11-in area. Still not at the level of the Bills, but good enough to earn one of the wild card spots and maybe even win a playoff game. Restore some respectability to New England football.
Now … that’s not feeling like a reality.
Let’s quickly run through the remainder of the schedule.
They’ll almost assuredly beat the Texans, Jets, and Jaguars. That’s four wins.
They should beat Atlanta, though the Falcons have been only subpar this season as opposed to wretched. A road game on a short week in Atlanta will not be a slam dunk. But for now, we’ll count it as a win, bringing the total to five.
Sunday night vs. Brady? Feels like a whopper of a loss.
We’ll give them a win over the Colts, too, bringing the win total to six.
That leaves us with eight games against teams that range from good to great: the Cowboys, Chargers, Panthers, Browns, Titans, Bills (twice), and Dolphins. In a best-case scenario, they’ll split those, going 4-4. That won’t be easy, but it’s possible, sure.
So, some quick finger math tells us that 10 wins is still possible. It’s just going to be a whole lot harder, with a pair of winnable games already having gotten away from them. And as we learned last year, a team generally is what it is. If a team tends to let wins slip away from them — especially at home — then that may just be their identity.
This year’s team has a whole lot more talent than last year’s. While few are expecting big things from them this week, they’ll need to rapidly change what they’re about, beginning in Week 5, in order to get their ship heading back in the right direction.