The New England Patriots lost an early season game and looked terrible doing so. We’ve all seen this part of the book before, and we know how it ends.
We saw it in 2003, when they were embarrassed and shut out by the Buffalo Bills in the opener 31-0, and Tom Jackson declared that “they hate their coach.” We saw it in 2012–the last time they were 1-2–when they lost at the gun on a missed field goal one week and on a made field goal the next. We saw it when they “were on to Cincinnati” in 2014 after falling to Kansas City in primetime. We saw it last year when the Chiefs blasted them on opening night and the defense looked like a mess early in the season.
It’s overly simplistic and wrong to say that the Patriots always do this, but it’s happened enough that we’ve seen plenty of examples of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and company circling the wagons and fixing the problems and making a Super Bowl run. They aren’t always at their best in September.
But maybe this time is different. You’ll only be able to diagnose the Patriots post-mortem, where previously benign signs of trouble seem obvious in review. We’ve seen too many poor prognoses result in miracle cures to think things are terminal in New England.
I’ll point out, though, some differences. The Patriots have played from behind each of the last two weeks, situations that normally result in yardage accumulation as teams try to rally. Nevertheless, New England hasn’t been able to get anything going. That wasn’t a shock result against the Jaguars defense, but it’s now happened twice in a row. Here are the lowest two-game total yardage totals for New England since 2001.
- 392 yards, 2002, weeks 15 and 16 (0-2)
- 419 yards, 2006, weeks 14 and 15 (1-1)
- 435 yards, 2001, weeks 9 and 10 (1-1)
- 468 yards, 2002, weeks 6 and 8 (0-2)
- 475 yards, 2008, weeks 2 and 3 (1-1) – Matt Cassel’s first two starts
- 478 yards, 2006, weeks 5 and 7 (2-0)
- 485 yards, 2001, weeks 3 and 4 (1-1) – Tom Brady’s first two starts
- 510 yards, 2003, weeks 13 and 14 (2-0)
- 511 yards, 2018, weeks 2 and 3 (0-2)
- 524 yards, 2003, weeks 14 and 15 (2-0)
You’ll notice that this is the lowest two-game stretch in a decade. The last time New England had fewer yards was in the immediate aftermath of Tom Brady’s knee injury, with Matt Cassel having to take over. Besides that, you have to go back to prior to the Patriots’ offense becoming a powerhouse, before Wes Welker and Randy Moss came to New England. You’ve got two stretches from 2006, when the team realized they needed to add weapons in Welker and Moss instead of Reche Caldwell, and Doug Gabriel, and a 35-year-old Troy Brown. You’ve got some stretches from 2002, the last time the Patriots missed the playoffs with Brady at quarterback. You’ve got some from 2001, when Brady was first starting.
The reasons are pretty obvious when watching the games. The Patriots don’t have anyone that scares other teams, other than Rob Gronkowski, who is getting double and triple teamed. It’s the worst receiving group since 2006, as the current trio of Chris Hogan/Philip Dorsett/Cordarelle Patterson are a bottom four group in the NFL. The backs are mediocre–Sony Michel is a rookie and he’s not there yet when it comes to being comfortable in the passing game. James White is a nice complementary piece but if he’s the second-best offensive option, that’s not a great offense.
Now, the path to turning this around is maybe around the corner. But Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon are no guarantee. It’s been two years since we saw Edelman get 98 catches. He’s coming off a knee injury, a PED suspension, and is the same age now that Wes Welker was when he left the Patriots. Josh Gordon is five years removed from being an all-pro wide receiver and picking up and meshing with the Patriots’ system is no given. We expect those things to correct themselves; but things aren’t a certainty.
This offseason has also been different. Yes, we’ve heard of some veteran discord in the past. But here, it’s been with the two best offensive players on the team. Rob Gronkowski just confirmed yesterday that he rejected being traded to the Detroit Lions last spring, and we know that there was acrimony with Brady coming to offseason voluntary activities. Brady is also 41. The population of quarterbacks to throw 20 touchdown passes at that age or older is Warren Moon in 1997 (25, and 16 interceptions).
There are warning signs, but they look like some of the signs from the past. Some day, they won’t be able to turn it around. Now, that may just mean “not getting a bye in the AFC and going 10-6” because remember, the Patriots have made all their Super Bowl runs after a first round bye. We’ll know in a couple of weeks if the prognosis is going downhill for that. New England gets Miami this week, and then Kansas City in week 6 at home before a trip to face Chicago’s defense. If they’ve lost to both the Chiefs and Jaguars, the return to a bye week is not guaranteed as the offense tries to find itself.