The Looming Josh McDaniels Departure

The will they/won’t they saga of the Las Vegas Raiders GM and coaching search has been a wild ride. In 24 hours it went from Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Patriots Director of Player Personnel Dave Ziegler as potential candidates headed to Vegas as head coach and GM, to them both being out of consideration and neither in the running, back to both of them being favored as a pair to take the head coach and GM jobs. The Raiders are known for having no idea what they are doing when it comes to hiring and there is no greater example of that than when they asked for an interview with GM candidate Dave Ziegler prior to even firing their current GM Mike Mayock. Mark Davis really knows how to run a franchise… Putting Vegas aside, if Josh McDaniels were to depart New England, for real this time, what impact would it have on the Patriots franchise?

The first question becomes who replaces McDaniels as offensive coordinator. While there isn’t a clear and obvious internal choice, the Patriots could consider promoting wide receivers/kick returners coach and Patriots legend Troy Brown to that role. He’s quite inexperienced in the coaching world, which is certainly a disadvantage, but not completely out of the blue for Belichick, especially if he trusts and respects Brown as a coach. It’s possible that Belichick could begin by taking over the play-calling reigns with Brown as an offensive assistant and eventually hand over the play-calling duties to him over time. It’s near impossible to say what Brown’s style as a play-caller would be other than continuing the Patriots current system, so if he were to be hired, there would be a lot of interested eyes watching his every move. While I wouldn’t say this is a strong possibility, I think it’s worth watching.

While the internal candidates aren’t obvious, there is a blatantly obvious external name on the table when replacing McDaniels. Bill Belichick could dip into his well, as he loves to do, and bring back Bill O’Brien, who was an assistant on the staff from 2007-2011 (offensive coordinator in 2011). He’s locally connected (grew up in Massachusetts, went to Brown University in RI) and has spent time both as a head coach in the NFL and college as well as an offensive coordinator in college since his departure from the Patriots. After being fired as the Houston Texans head coach in 2020 after 6ish seasons, he took over as the offensive coordinator under Belichick’s favorite college coach, Nick Saban. O’Brien just happens to be learning the Alabama offense and QB Mac Jones just happens to have had success in that same Alabama offense just a little over a year ago. To say the path seems clear and obvious is an understatement.

If O’Brien replaces McDaniels, what does that mean for the offense in general? There were certainly times last season that it felt like the play-calling wasn’t as effective as it had been in the past. A piece of that is the introduction of a rookie QB into a complicated offense and the need to simplify, at least in the first half of the season. Another piece of that equation was McDaniels trying to learn where Mac Jones was most comfortable and help ease him into the league without wrecking his confidence. McDaniels spent most of his career calling plays for a QB that he knew inside and out and that made him look great consistently. When that comfort was stripped away, some cracks emerged, but that frankly would happen to most any offensive coordinator/rookie QB combo across the league. Looking at O’Brien’s history as offensive coordinator, his style could help Jones and the Patriots move forward.

O’Brien’s lone season as the offensive coordinator with the Patriots in 2011 was one of, if not the most prolific seasons of Tom Brady‘s career. Removing this past season because of 1 extra game, 2011 was Brady’s highest yards thrown (5,235) and he was tied for the most passes completed (401) in a season. O’Brien was deemed an innovative and creative offensive mind, which helped propel him to the head coaching job at Penn State the next season. This past season, O’Brien led Alabama QB Bryce Young and the offense to a strong season, culminating in a loss in the College Championship game. The offense was the 6th most prolific in points per game, 4th in passing TDs per game, and 7th in total passing yards per game. It’s a bit hard to really judge given the dominant system he walked into, but O’Brien has some very recent experience in a high-level, pro-style system that happens to transition into the current Patriots system easily.

Ultimately, if O’Brien is the new offensive coordinator I don’t see a ton of change overall. I think O’Brien will perhaps be a bit more aggressive than McDaniels, but he’ll also have a 2nd year QB with more experience than this past season. For Jones’ sake, O’Brien would likely keep much of the same offense and just ramp up some of the pre-play motion and hopefully continue to push the creative boundaries of play-calling. O’Brien had a lot of success in 2011 with short-mid range passing game, utilizing the slot receivers and TEs in creative ways. That fits nicely with Jones’ play-style and skillset and doesn’t deviate much from the current design.

After many threats of an exit for McDaniels (seemingly every year), this year might be a good time for both parties to move on. McDaniels hasn’t exactly wowed the past few years and it’s about time he actually takes another head coaching job if he doesn’t see Belichick’s retirement on the horizon. One theory around why he took, then turned down the Colts job in 2018 was because there was some unwritten agreement that he was the heir-apparent when Belichick finally retires. Whether that’s true or not, any decision to walk away from the Patriots at this point makes me think that McDaniels believes Bill is hanging on for at least a few more years and his future path within the organization isn’t clear.

While nothing is locked in yet, this could finally be the year that Josh McDaniels finally leaves the Patriots franchise after his 2nd stint in New England and 6 super bowl championships. On the other hand, you never know what decision the Raiders will make. There is still a strong possibility that we are right back here next season having the same conversation about a potential McDaniels departure. Let the offseason hiring carousel continue to spin.

Patriots Embarrassed in Buffalo

For the first time in a long time, the Patriots looked absolutely over matched in Saturday night’s AFC Wild Card loss to the Buffalo Bills. There wasn’t a single person, position group, or coach that looked good against the Bills in the worst playoff loss of the Bill Belichick era as the head coach and one of the worst losses for the franchise. The loss was a really sour note at the end of a surprisingly enjoyable season for the Patriots who were led by a rookie franchise QB.

After a 1-year rebuild, the Pats returned to the playoffs again thanks to a 7-game win streak in the middle of the season. They surprised a lot of people and turned some heads during the win-streak and made many fans believe a deep playoff run was possible. Unfortunately, the team lost all momentum the last several games of the season and forgot how to play disciplined, smart football, a Belichick staple. Mistakes became the story of losses to Buffalo and Miami and as the Patriots played their way out of the AFC East title and into a wild card game on the road. Limping into the playoffs is rarely a recipe for success and boy was that true this year.

My biggest issues down the stretch with this team were discipline and play-calling (along with about a dozen other things). The most baffling to me is the complete lack of discipline. From penalties to missed assignments, the mistakes were plentiful down the stretch and exaggerated in the playoff loss on Saturday night. Most of the mistakes were mental errors such as too many men on the field and false start penalties and lapses in coverage that are mind-boggling. I don’t understand what happened to this team in the final portion of the season to completely forget how to play within themselves and within their position. Despite discipline ultimately resting on the players shoulders, it’s a terrible reflection on the coaching staff and their inability to prepare their players. All of it was very un-Belichick like and makes me wonder what’s happening behind the scenes.

My other main issue that was amplified on Saturday is play-calling. Josh McDaniels seems lost in what to call and when to call it the latter part of the season. On Saturday night, the first drive had a few rushes, but featured the passing game from Mac. He had one wide-open pass dropped by Brandon Bolden and the drive ended with an incredible interception by Micah Hyde, but overall looked like he could exploit the defense a bit. The following drive, McDaniels called 3 straight rushes by Damien Harris and the Patriots had to punt without even trying to look at the short or medium passing game. Later in the game, there were a number of odd calls that just didn’t fit the situation, including a fake spike at the end of the half that resulted in a terrible sack. Also, what happened to the hurry up offense that Mac looked so strong in earlier in the season? It disappeared.

The list of other issues is long, but I’ll save that for the long offseason. Based on what I saw down the stretch, I’m not sure all the Patriots positional coaches deserve to keep their jobs for the 2022-2023 season. Change is needed, whether it’s directed by the Patriots or because they lose someone to a head coaching offer elsewhere.

Saturday night was rough and will take time to get over. Take a day off and get right back to work for next season.

Third Time’s a Charm – Patriots vs Bills Playoff Edition

As playoff scenarios began to play out during the inaugural week 18 in the NFL, it was clear to everyone that the Bills and Patriots would meet for the third time this season in the playoffs. Even as the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers game crept into OT and the Pats vs Bengals scenario was still alive, it just felt like the Raiders had to win so the Bills and Patriots could play once more this season. The matchup is everything the NFL could want in a #3 vs #6 matchup on wild card weekend and they put the rivalry game in primetime on Saturday for all to witness.

The previous two matchups this season between the Bills and Patriots have been, well, interesting. The first was the “wind-game” where the Patriots went into Buffalo and ran all over the Bills. Mac Jones had exactly 3 pass attempts and the Patriots managed a 14-10 victory on the road thanks to 41 rushes. Damien Harris had 11 yards rushing on just 10 carries and a TD, while Rhamondre Stevenson rushed 24 times for 78 yards. Mac completed 2 of his 3 passes to Jonnu Smith and Brandon Bolden and the Pats relied on a strong defensive presence to grab the road victory. The game was far from pretty, but a W is a W and led to some sour grapes from Bills coach Sean McDermott who said after the game, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give Bill Belichick in this one.”

The rematch two weeks ago was a completely different game (not just because there wasn’t a ton of wind). The Bills came into the game looking to punch the Pats in the mouth with their aggressiveness and it worked beautifully. From aggressive play-calling to big plays when they needed them the most, the Bills took it to the Pats. The Bills converted 3 of 4 4th downs and trusted Josh Allen to make the right decisions and in this instance, he did with his arm and legs. The Bills got a massive game from virtually unknown WR Isaiah McKenzie while the Pats mostly shut down WR Stephon Diggs in the first half. To the Patriots credit, they fought back and didn’t give up, but were completely flustered on a picked-up unnecessary roughness penalty in the last minute of the first half that led to other penalties and likely took points off the board.

Prediction

Round three should be another thrilling chapter in the AFC East rivalry. Based on past success, I expect the Bills to come out on fire Saturday night with aggression as their mantra. It worked in their second match-up vs the Patriots and really put the Pats players back on their heals. I would be surprised if McDermont doesn’t try to score quickly and take chances on 3rd and 4th down throughout the game. On December 27th, WR Isaiah McKenzie caught the Pats off-guard while the secondary did a nice job on Diggs and TE Dawson Knox and I expect something similar will occur on Saturday, but with the other receiver options, mainly Emmanuel Sanders and/or Gabriel Davis. The Pats secondary depth is of definite concern right now and the Bills are smart enough to unleash Josh Allen to attack on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th levels. I also expect a fair amount of passes (mostly screen-type routes) to RB Devin Singletary to get the playmaker the ball in space and keep the defense off balance. If the Bills can exploit the Pats secondary, it could be a long night for the Pats.

On the other side, the Pats have some work to do this week to prepare in all three aspects of the game. The #1 issue they have had over the past month is mistakes. Between bad penalties, turnovers, and mistakes in coverage, the Pats have been uncharacteristically the sloppier team. In almost all of their losses this season, the Pats have been in contention with a chance to comeback or win, but there is usually at least one mistake you can point to after the game that prevented the W. The ability of the Pats offense to move the ball downfield with balance is key to keeping the Bills defense at bay. If the Pats get down early, it makes them more predictable and easier to play against. A balanced run/pass attack will allow Mac to make more comfortable reads with space and allow the offensive line to hopefully hold up a bit better. On the defensive side of the ball, they need to get pressure on Josh Allen and contain him. If they can get pressure on Allen, he will make mistakes eventually, but the inherent risk is that you flush him from the pocket and he takes off for a 20-yard run. When playing well, the Bills offensive weapons are near impossible to cover, but when Allen feels the pressure and is forced into quick decisions, he has a tendency to make mistakes.

When all is said and done, I think the Patriots squeak out a really intense, close game 27-24. In general, I think it’s a pick’em game that could go either way. The team with the most mistakes losses and has all offseason to wonder what-if. I think the Bills options on offense are so strong and deep for the weak Pats secondary to handle, but Allen will make one too many mistakes or McDermott take one too many chances on 4th down and allow Mac Jones to drive down field and win on a late K Nick Folk field goal. I don’t feel even a little confident in the prediction, but in a toss-up game I’m picking the Pats every time.

Is Wilkerson the Patriots Secret Weapon?

After watching Patriots WR Kristian Wilkerson make some really nice grabs in the pre-season, it seemed that he might be in line to get some regular season playing time. The weeks passed as Wilkerson sat on the Patriots practice squad and didn’t get the call-up, even as WR N’Keal Harry struggled. Week 9 against the Panthers Wilkerson was activated, but didn’t see any action and then the same thing happened again last week against the Buffalo Bills. Finally, in week 17, we got to see Kristian not only get on the field, but show why he could be a key piece moving forward for the Pats.

Despite not playing much together in an NFL game in several months, the chemistry between Mac Jones and Wilkerson was evident against the Jaguars. Mac looked his way on 27% of this pass attempts (8), tied for the most targets in the game with WR Jakobi Meyers and was able to connect with him on 4 passes, including 2 TDs. He almost hit him for a big TD in the 2nd half, but the defender on Wilkerson hit his helmet breaking his concentration and the ball fell through his hands. For a receiver to get very few reps with the first team offense and then come out and have the performance he had against the Jaguars is impressive and makes you wonder what he could do with more time on the first team.

I understand it’s the Jaguars and they, well, aren’t good, but Wilkerson showed an ability to pull in some big catches and get some separation when needed. When you compare his performance with that of Sunday’s healthy-scratch WR N’Keal Harry, Wilkerson looked much more dangerous and able to make the crucial play. I’d much rather have Wilkerson on the field in almost any scenario. To Harry’s credit, his blocking has been his biggest asset this season, but when you need to gain yards and rely on a receiver to catch the ball, Harry has failed time and time again. If the Pats get a healthy WR Nelson Agholor back, the addition of Wilkerson actually make them a pretty deep group. With Meyers, Agholor, Bourne, and Wilkerson, they can move the ball around in lots of different ways and have different guys step up depending on coverage in the playoffs. When you add in TE Hunter Henry and RB Brandon Bolden as pass catchers, it’s a much more solid group with Wilkerson in the mix (TE Jonnu Smith intentionally left out).

After witnessing the performance of Wilkerson this week, there is now no excuse to continue to ride the painful-to-watch Harry week-in and week-out. Wilkerson gives you another dynamic piece you can integrate into the offense more thoroughly as the playoffs approach, now that a playoff berth has been locked-up. He’ll most likely match-up against a 3rd or 4th cornerback, which gives him a really good chance to make a handful of catches per game and maybe even be the primary target at times. On top of it all, he already has a deeper chemistry with Jones than Harry, so you certainly aren’t losing anything on that end.

With the high likelihood the Pats will play in a Wild Card game, having an additional x-factor will be huge in getting into the Divisional round. Even better, there is very little professional tape on Wilkerson, so it’s hard to fully scout him and understand all of his strengths and weaknesses. Now is the time to unleash another classic Bill Belichick undrafted free agent find, Kristian Wilkerson.

Revisiting the Cam Newton Decision for the Patriots

One of the biggest storylines during the preseason for the New England Patriots was about the QB position. The Pats had re-signed Cam Newton to a 1-year deal and also drafted the heir apparent, Mac Jones, at #15 overall. The question wasn’t if Mac would be the starter, but rather how soon he would be handed the reigns. The Pats obviously made the decision to go all-in on Mac and released Newton to the open market. It took 9 weeks, but Cam found himself back in Carolina as their starting QB after an injury to Sam Darnold.

In his first start with the Panthers less than a week after signing, he played just 9 snaps and had a significant impact. He completed 3 of his 4 passes, including a passing TD and a 14-yard rushing TD. After his first touchdown he yelled “I’m back!” and instantly became a meme magnet. In his first game back as a starter in Carolina, he lost to the Washington Football Team, but put up strong numbers (21 of 27 for 189 yards and 2 TDs as well as 10 rushes for 46 yards and a TD). It seemed like Cam was comfortable and had a chance to resurrect his career back where it started. Then, as quickly as it began, the tires began falling off.

Since his strong performance against the Football Team, Cam has plummeted back to earth and looked exactly as expected, if not worse. In his last 4 games, Cam has gone 45 of 95 (47.3%) with 1 TD and 5 INTs, with 3 rushing TDs and 4 fumbles. The “I’m back!” memes aren’t exactly aging well these days. Cam is clearly past his prime and there are very few people, if anyone, who still think Cam should have been the Pats starter this season, but with Mac’s recent struggles, it was worth checking in on the former Pats QB. For those jumping on the “Mac is over-rated train”, let’s see what Mac has been up to over the last 4 games.

Over his last 4 games, Mac has gone 65 for 112 (58%) with 773 yards and that includes the 3 throw wind-game in Buffalo (19 yards). This stretch of games has been fairly pedestrian and the worst of his young career with only 4 TDs and 4 INTs and a 2-2 record. Despite the struggles, Mac has been better than many other QBs in the NFL, including Newton. Mac has 286 more yards and 11% higher completion rate over that span.

I know it’s a bit unfair to compare the two when the teams around them are very different and the situations are very different, but it’s a kind reminder to Pats fans that even a mediocre performance from Mac Jones, is still miles ahead of the alternative this year. Rookie QBs will all go through struggles early in their careers, it’s one of the disadvantages of young talent, but overall, Mac has been stellar in his first year in the league. At 23 years old, Mac has amassed 3,313 passing yards, 18 TDs and 12 INTs in his first 15 games as a professional, including an impressive 67.2% completion percentage and 7.2 yards gained per pass attempt. Rookie or not, that’s an incredibly strong season thus far.

The standards are sky-high in New England and expectations are a deep playoff run or heads will roll. While I’d love to be surprised, I don’t think this team is talented enough for a deep postseason run in 2021, but it’s not because they have a rookie QB at the helm (hint: it’s the defense). One thing I can say with almost absolute certainty: if Cam was the QB instead of Mac, this team is not even in a position to think about the postseason. Take the good with the bad, but overall, life is still good in New England.

Patriots Put the League on Alert with Huge Win

The start to the 2021 season for the New England Patriots was filled with optimism, but limited results. After falling to 2-4 following an OT loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it felt like Mac Jones and company were competing, but falling just short. Of their first 4 losses, only the Saints game was a 2 possession loss, the others were by 1pt, 2pts, and 6pts in OT. They were close, but couldn’t finish the job. Their only two wins were against far inferior opponents in the putrid New York Jets and Houston Texans, leading everyone to ask the question: Can the Patriots beat a decent, playoff-level team? Now, just 4 games later, the tides have turned and the Patriots look to be hitting their stride.

Of the Patriots 6 wins thus far in 2021, 4 were against far inferior opponents (Jets 2x, Texans, and the pre-Cam Newton Carolina Panthers). Those games make it difficult to judge a team, but 2 of the Patriots most recent wins were eye-openers. On Halloween, the Patriots went out to Los Angeles and pulled out a huge victory against the 4-3 (at the time) Chargers. At that point, it was the most complete game by the Pats, with a balance rush/pass attack and a defense that put pressure on the opponent and made just enough plays down the stretch. It was both a close win and a win over a high-quality opponent on the road. Then after their 3-score win over the Panthers, the Patriots had another chance to prove themselves against the Browns.

Both teams entered the game at 5-4 and were looking to make a statement. After 60 minutes of play, the Patriots made a massive statement of their strength with a 38pt victory and it didn’t even feel that close. The entire team played exceptionally well and made the Browns look like more like a 1-win team rather than a playoff contender. The Browns were without their star RB Nick Chubb due to testing positive for COVID, but even if they had a massive day from him in the lineup, the Browns would have still lost big. The Pats defense continued their trend of forcing turnovers with an INT (2nd in the NFL) and got plenty of pressure on the QB with 5 sacks on the day. As good as the defense was, the offense was the star of the game. Mac Jones had his best professional game throwing 19/23 for 198 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. His 82.6% completion percentage and QB rating of 142.1 were by far the best of his young career against a team with the most sacks in football.

The upcoming schedule for the Pats is the continuation of a tough stretch. After a tricky mid-level game on the road in Atlanta against the 4-5 Falcons, the Pats have to play the very tough 8-2 Tennessee Titans, and then have two games against the division-leading Buffalo Bills with a game against the Indianapolis Colts sandwiched between. How the Pats perform over the next 5 games will determine whether they are playoff contenders this year or just an improving team that has future promise. The latter outcome is not a bad one given their youth at QB, but expectations in New England are always very high and a playoff game or two in Jones’ rookie season would be tremendous.

I anticipate a solid 3-2 record over the next 5 games for the Pats, putting themselves in solid playoff contention on the other side at 9-6 with games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins to close out the year. Anything better than 3-2 will escalate the conversation around whether this team can make a deep run this year. The games against the Bills will be critical for the Pats to potentially win the AFC East and avoid playing on wild card weekend. The fact that I can even write about the playoffs after their 2-4 start with a rookie QB is a credit to the entire organization and their continued improvement.

Buckle your seat belt, because the remainder of the season should be wild.

Outside of Mac Jones, Rookie QBs are Struggling

Heading into the draft this year there was a lot of attention on the top 5 QBs to come off the board. All 5 QBs came off the board in the top 15 picks, including the top 3 picks, and they were all considered to be potential franchise changers. Just 7 weeks into the season (6 games for the Jets and Jaguars), there have been some surprise performances from this group, mostly on the negative end of the spectrum. Of those 5 QBs, #1 Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), #2 Zach Wilson (BYU), #3 Trey Lance (North Dakota State), #11 Justin Fields (Ohio State), and #15 Mac Jones (Alabama), only Jones has over 1,500 yards passing and a completion percentage above 60%. It’s been a struggle for the other 4 higher-drafted QBs thus far in 2021.

Of the 5 QBs, 3 were handed the starting job in week 1 – Wilson, Lawrence and Jones. Fields has now been given the starting job in Chicago and has 5 starts, but appeared in all 7 games, while Lance has started just one game due to a Jimmy Garoppolo injury and appeared in 4 games. I’m putting Lance aside for this next bit because he hasn’t had enough time on the field to really be analyzed yet, although his 1 start and 3 other appearances left a lot to be desired.

Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are a combined 4-13 when starting with 1 win each for Wilson and Lawrence and 2 for Fields, while Jones has led the Patriots to a 3-4 record on the young season. On the QB performance side, Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have more interceptions than TDs (combined 13 TDs compared to 23 INTs) with just 4 TDs for Wilson and 9 INTs, which is tied for the worst in the NFL. On the flip side of that group, Jones has a positive TD to INT ratio with 9 TDs and 6 INTs. While 6 INTs is still high, mistakes are expected with younger QBs, ideally they are outweighed by the positives.

To me, the most glaring difference amongst the group is in completion percentage and what that says about the QBs, their teams, and their maturity. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have completion percentages between 57.3% and 59.7% which are well below the league average of 65.9% thus far, while Jones has the 4th highest completion percentage in the NFL this season at 70.4%, only behind Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson. Jones has shown veteran maturity when making decisions about when and where to throw and that’s reflected in his percentage, while the others have struggled a bit more with consistent decision making.

Because Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are being asked to do more on the field than Jones, you would expect to see them throwing down field more often and completing fewer low-percentage passes than Jones, but the stats don’t bear that out. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are ranked #27, #29, and #31 in yards per attempt this season, while Jones is 8 spots ahead of the group at #19. Both Jones and Lawrence are averaging around 36 pass attempts per game, while the other 2 are at 30 or below. Jones is completing the shallow-to-mid passes at an incredibly high rate, while the others are not.

The other area I anticipated a bigger advantage for the other QBs over Jones is in the run game. Fields and Wilson especially showed off their athleticism in college and proved to be dual-threat QBs when needed. Thus far, no one in this group has earned a dual-threat crown despite being super athletic. Lawrence and Fields are averaging about 20 yards on the ground per game, while Jones has just over 6 yards per game and Wilson has just under 4 yards per game. None of them are exactly lighting it up on the ground just yet and I’d say it’s mostly a wash.

There are certainly other factors involved in the success of a young QB including offensive line protection, receivers to throw to, quality of the running game, etc, but it’s interesting to see that outside of Mac Jones, none of the rookie QBs are really matching expectations at this point. Jones came into the league the most polished and game ready, but the intangibles and athleticism of the other QBs in the class were expected to make them significantly better. Over time that may be the case, but through 7 weeks that narrative has failed to come to fruition.

To be fair to Wilson and Lawrence, their teams are terrible, which certainly doesn’t help them settle in and learn the NFL game, but most everyone expected more from them regardless. It is an extra long NFL season and it’ll be interesting to revisit the QB conversation when each of these players has had more experience under center. It will also be interesting to see if the 12-game college season vs a 17-game NFL season causes some deeper struggles in the last few games of the season.

Not All is Lost in 2-4 Start for the Patriots

On late Sunday afternoon the Dallas Cowboys came to town and the matchup was filled with big plays, interesting and quick momentun turns, and extra football. The Cowboys came into Foxborough at 4-1 with a high-powered offense that was averaging 34 pts per game and 40.3 in their past 3 contests, tied for the best in the NFL. The Pats defense had their hands full and they needed a lot from Mac Jones and the offense and they got a solid performance from the rookie. Ultimately, after overtime the Cowboys are flying home happy and the Patriots are sitting 2-games below .500, but it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom in New England.

One of my takeaways from Sunday was the Patriots run-defense and their ability to limit running backs Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. In his last 3 games, Zeke was averaging 116 yards per game on just over 19 carries per game. On Sunday, the Pats held Zeke to 69 yards on 17 carries, just 4.1 yards per carry which is nearly 2 yards per carry below his average the last 3 games. The more limited run game forced a much larger pass game which was absolutely electric, but it’s nice to see the big front line for the Patriots limiting the run game.

The other main takeaway: Dak Prescott is at the top of his game and the Pats secondary is, well, not. Dak was able to put the ball in tight windows and make some huge throws on big 3rd and 4th downs to keep the Cowboys driving. He was able to read the defense and make the right decisions throughout the game, especially in crunch time in the 4th quarter and overtime. He finished the game with an incredible 445 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT, the most passing yards against a Bill Belichick coached team. It was his 2nd 400+ yard passing game this season and his 5th game with a passer rating above 101. In 6 games, he now has over 1,800 passing yards, 16 TDs and 4 INTs. His 74% completion percentage coming into the game was 2nd best in the NFL amongst regular starters and that will stay high after this 70.5% performance against the Patriots.

While Dak was impressive, it does raise a glaring flag in the Pats secondary which is now officially without Stephen Gilmore going forward after his trade to the Carolina Panthers. Jalen Mills was beat repeatedly throughout the game, including badly on the game-winning TD to CeeDee Lamb, who had 149 yards on 9 catches on the day. The secondary is coming off a terrible performance against rookie David Mills and the Houston Texans where they allowed 312 yards, 3 TDs and couldn’t grab an interception and they didn’t look much better against the elite QB. Beyond Mills, JC Jackson didn’t have his best game and committed a really costly pass interference penalty in the end zone that led to a Dallas TD in the 2nd half. It was a rough day all around.

On top of that, the Pats offensive line has more holes than swiss cheese. Between injuries and COVID-list stints, they were more intact than last week, but still thin. They got T Isaiah Wynn back this week, but he allowed a few really bad pressures/sacks and was benched at one point and moved around on the line. They did an OK job in the run game, but were incompetent at times in pass protection allowing a few awful hits on Mac Jones, which is not how you want to take care of the face of your franchise. Jones blamed himself for not getting the ball out quickly on those plays, but he can’t be expected to have 1 second of protection on every pass play. In spite of the line, Mac had a solid game.

The good news for the Pats is that they get the 1-4 New York Jets coming off a bye week at home next week, before taking a tough trip out west to play the Chargers on the road. Following the Chargers, they have a string of winnable games against the Panthers, Browns, Falcons, and Titans. They have a real chance to finish that 6-game stretch 4-2, which would return them to .500 heading into 2 games against the powerful division leading Buffalo Bills in 3 weeks.

For now, it’s time to get back to work and improve before next Sunday. I’m not sure how the Pats fix the secondary and offensive line, but if they can tweak and improve a little each week, then the team can get back to winning on the regular. It’s not great right now, but there is a long way to go in this season.

Will the Patriots Run-Game Get on Track Against the Dallas Cowboys?

One of the biggest frustrations of the 2021 season thus far for the New England Patriots has been the complete lack of a run game. In the pre-season, there was an embarrassment of riches at the RB position with 6 guys having a legitimate chance to make the roster and contribute. It was clear that Damien Harris was the lead back and James White would definitely have a roster spot as a receiving back, but after them there was rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden, and Sony Michel who were all solid RBs. The once deep and exciting group, has turned into a thin and disappointing one really quickly.

Seeing that there was not room on the roster for 6 RBs, Bill Belichick sent Sony Michel out west to the Los Angeles Rams the day prior to their 3rd and final pre-season game. It became clear that Bill wanted to give an opportunity for the others in the group to take some snaps and Stevenson and Taylor had both had some nice runs in the pre-season, so he hedged and traded Michel which at the time made sense. The season started off solidly on the ground for the Patriots, with a 23-carry, 100-yard performance from Harris in the 1-pt loss to the Miami Dolphins (30 carries as a team – White 4, Jonnu Smith 1, Bolden 1, and Stevenson 1). There was an unfortunate late-game fumble from Harris that clouded his performance, but overall it was solid.

Facing the Jets in week 2, the Patriots had a decent game on the ground with Harris rushing 16 times for 62-yards and White picking up 20-yards on 5 carries. The workload was lighter, only 24 carries as a team, but the balance was still as expected with Harris leading the group. Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints is where things went bad and in a hurry. Against the 4th best run-defense in football, the Patriots weren’t able to get the much going on the ground, partially because they were trailing the entire game. The leading rusher in the game was Mac Jones, with 28-yards on 6 carries and Harris only had 14-yards on 6 carries (2.3 yards per carry). Bolden had 3 rushes for -1-yard and Taylor and White had 1 rush each. Unfortunately for the Pats, James White was carted off the field and his season was over with a hip injury.

Coming off the White injury, the Patriots had the most anticipated regular season game in history against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs and the run game was absolutely atrocious. As a team, the Pats had -1-yard for the game, with the only positive rush coming from WR Nelson Agholor for 4-yards. They only attempted 8 rushes and were absolutely crushed on 7 of the 8. When your team has 6 rushes from 3 RBs that amount to -4-yards, you’ve had a miserable day. Good thing for the Pats, their opponent in week 5, the Houston Texans, would be easier to run on.

The Pats began to right the run-game ship this past Sunday against a mediocre Texans defense. J.J Taylor was inactive, but the Pats rushed 30 times for 136 yards, 25 attempts from Harris and Stevenson. While they still didn’t look great and Harris had another fumble, they took advantage of the Texans who have allowed the 7th most rushing yards to opponents on the season. In a bizarrely close and uncomfortable game, the Pats snuck out of Texas with a 3pt victory on a walk-off Nick Folk field goal, but no one felt good about the performance. During the game, Harris sustained a rib injury and has barely practiced (as of Thursday).

If Harris is inactive or limited, the Patriots enter the game against Dallas extremely thin at RB. Stevenson would presumably pick up the slack for Harris, but then it’s really only Brandon Bolden left on the depth chart. J.J. Taylor was played very little and it’s unclear why (besides his fumble), but could be an option just in case. The once 6-deep running back core is down to 3 or maybe 4 and isn’t going to have an easy time running on the Cowboys who have allowed the 5th fewest rushing yards against this year. Oh yeah, and the Patriots are still without 3 of their 5 offensive linemen due to injuries and COVID-related absences.

If I were a betting man, I’m not taking the Patriots run game to turn it around this week. They have struggled mightily against strong run-defenses and at best, their lead RB will not be 100% with a rib injury that I imagine will hurt every time he gets hit and at worst, he won’t play. Harris and Stevenson have 3 combined fumbles in 5 games, which is not what the Patriots, or any team, want to see. This game could be a big opportunity for Stevenson to show he can be a lead back going forward, but it will not be easy. I’m predicting fewer than 70 yards on the ground this week, so Mac Jones has to be ready to throw 40+ times if the Pats want to have a chance to topple the 4-1 Cowboys.

Biggest Winner on Sunday was Mac Jones

I don’t think there has ever been a regular season NFL game hyped as much as Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The storylines were abundant in Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro following 20 years in a Patriots uniforms and 6 Super Bowl titles. It seemed on paper that this could be a 1-sided match-up with Brady showing his former fanbase and team that he is still atop the mountain, but instead, it was one of the best football games of the year.

Lost somewhat in the Tom Brady hype this week was his “replacement” Mac Jones. One has to imagine that Tom Brady was feeling a ton of emotion returning to Gillette as a visitor and with the ovations and chants he heard as he came on the field for warmups and then for pregame, but what about Jones? A rookie in just his 4th NFL game who had been compared by some to a Brady and has been anointed the successor to lead this storied franchise. What were his emotions leading up to kickoff and into the first quarter on Sunday?

While there are certainly comparisons between Tom and Mac, I always find it unfair to compare players, especially when one is the GOAT. That being said, once Mac settled in after the first drive or two, he showed a massive national TV audience why he is being compared to Tom and just what he can do in a high-pressure environment (literally). He faced a lot of pressure from the Bucs defense, but was able to make smart decisions. When he sensed pressure coming, he was often able to step up in the pocket to gain an extra half-second to make a better throw (very Brady-esque).

Mac’s quick decision-making is what sets him apart from all other rookies, and many veterans. I’ve been talking about this ad nauseum, but it’s critically important and a big reason he won the starting job this year. He takes the 3-5 step drop, does a quick scan, and and lets the ball go. It keeps the ball moving and doesn’t allow the defense to adjust or get set in coverage. Will the quick decisions lead to mistakes at times? Absolutely, but it’s a recipe for success. When it isn’t a quick read, Mac is able to scan through his receiving options and make the smart, right choice, all while being aware of defensive pressure.

Other than the interception, Mac mostly made the right decisions around when to take a sack vs. risk a turnover with a bad throw. Taking a sack is a negative play and obviously should be avoided, but may also be the most unappreciated successful result of a play. There were at least 2 times on Sunday night that Mac took a sack, because pressure got to him quickly, he couldn’t get out of the pocket, and there was no passing lane to put the ball in. In that case, a sack is the smart decision because you live to play another down, you don’t risk intentional grounding, and you don’t risk a turnover that could shift the momentum of the game and lead to opponent points. Of the reasonable outcomes in that instance, a sack is the best result.

I’ve already said this a ton and I’m guessing it’s going to keep coming up, but Mac is poised and confident well beyond his years. He’s able to put the last play behind him, learn from it, and move forward very quickly and it appears that very little can phase him. It already seems like Mac has been in the league for a few years and has a high floor for performance, but the questions were around his ceiling coming out of college. If he continues to learn and grow, his ceiling is as high, or higher, than any other rookie QB in the league.

While Tom Brady and the Bucs won the football game on Sunday, the real winner for me is Mac Jones. I know they aren’t on the field at the same time and that’s not how wins and losses work, but in the first head-to-head match-up between the GOAT and the rookie, the rookie came out on top. If only the scoreboard reflected the W.