First, quarterback Tom Brady has returned from a left knee injury and replaced Matt Cassel. Second, running back Laurence Maroney has recovered from his own injury and is having the best string of games of his career. In turn, Maroney has provided solidarity to a position that took a committee approach last season. And third, Sam Aiken has finally emerged as Jabar Gaffney‘s replacement as the Patriots’ primary third wide receiver.
Brady and Maroney have upgraded their respective positions, while Aiken is a bit of a downgrade from Gaffney. With better personnel in place, though, why is the Patriots offense struggling so badly?
The most logical place to look is the sideline. Quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien is calling the offensive plays, and he seems to be suffering to find a rhythm in his first year with that responsibility. It’s a transition year for the Patriots in that sense, as Josh McDaniels held that job from 2006-08 before departing last offseason to become Denver’s head coach.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Patriots’ offensive numbers have improved this season. They’ve averaged 414.6 yards and 27.3 points per game in 2009, as opposed to 365.4 yards and 25.7 points in 2008. (Don’t jump on the defense just yet, as the Pats are allowing 18.7 points per game this season, compared to 19.3 last year.)
Therefore, the Patriots have passed the statistical test, but they’re failing the visual exam. There doesn’t seem to be enough creativity with the play-calling, as the only trickery the Patriots have relied upon is the flea flicker and fake end-around. But there are times when the screen game — to running backs, at least — is forgotten, and the running game is often overlooked in the second half after it has seemingly worked in the first half.
New England’s second-half issues have been well-documented, and those can be linked to poor adjustments from the coaching staff. The Patriots couldn’t beat the Broncos zone defense in the second half earlier this season, and those coverages have tended to give Brady and the offense issues throughout the year. Other times — in losses to the Jets and Saints — the Patriots have struggled to pass protect, and they’ve kept extra blockers in the backfield, which at times can make it difficult to free up Randy Moss.
The point is, the Patriots simply don’t have all the answers anymore, and when they get into an offensive funk, it’s been nearly impossible for them to kick the nails out of the coffin.
“I’m a player,” running back Kevin Faulk said when asked about play-calling criticisms, “so if I have a positive answer to that or a negative answer to that, I’m wrong anyways.”
There is precedent for the Patriots’ current coaching situation. McDaniels began his tenure with the Patriots in 2001 and became the quarterbacks coach in 2004. While he called the plays in 2005, he wasn’t named offensive coordinator until 2006. O’Brien was hired by the Patriots in 2007 and was named the quarterbacks coach in 2009.
McDaniels was also largely unknown when he took over for the highly successful Charlie Weis, who was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator during all three Super Bowl victories before he took over as the Notre Dame head coach. The Patriots averaged 27.3 points per game in 2004, and they dropped to 23.7 in 2005, causing a similar outcry from the team’s fan base.
When asked if Belichick takes more of a role in the offensive play-calling because the team doesn’t have a true coordinator, Faulk responded, “No matter what the situation is, Belichick is going to have a role.”
It’s unclear if Belichick has taken more of a hands-on approach this season, but what isn’t debatable is the poor execution while communicating the play calls from the sideline to Brady. The Patriots have taken a number of delay-of-game penalties this season, and they’ve had a few more close calls. For instance, Brady appeared to rush to get the snap off before the play on which he threw an interception to Vontae Davis in the end zone against the Dolphins on Sunday.
There have been other communication issues, too. There was a key fourth-quarter series during the Patriots’ Week 9 victory against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Holding a 24-17 lead with 1:14 to play, the Patriots faced a fourth-and-1 from the Miami 18-yard line, but considerable confusion caused the Patriots to take a timeout. After Belichick decided the Patriots would go for it, right guard Stephen Neal was called for a false start and the Patriots settled for a 40-yard field goal. Belichick appeared disgusted after the game over that specific series of events.
Then, there was the infamous fourth-and-2 against the Colts in the following week when the Patriots burned a timeout because the punt team ran onto the field and the offense began heading toward the sideline. All the while, Belichick was trying to order his offense to remain on the field to attempt a fourth-down conversion. The lines of communication were mangled so badly that no one really knows to this day who was at fault for that chain of events.
“That’s pretty much what it comes down to,” wide receiver Wes Welker said, “executing our plays, running them the right way and competing.”
O’Brien, in similar ways to McDaniels, is struggling in his first season on the job. There is no telling as to whether Belichick views O’Brien in the same light as McDaniels, so it’s difficult to forecast if this is O’Brien’s job for the long haul or if he’s a stopgap.
When Weis was fired last week by Notre Dame, this Patriots’ dilemma took a movie-script turn. Brady still has a special relationship with Weis, and the quarterback might have been sending a public service announcement to the powers that be last week.
“Charlie and I always keep in touch, and he’s always been a great friend of mine and we have a great relationship,” Brady said when asked if he’d like to reunite with Weis on the New England sideline. “[The firing] is very disappointing for him. His heart and soul was with Notre Dame, and the players all obviously really liked Charlie. We all really enjoyed being with Charlie. None of those decisions are up to me. He’s a great guy and a great coach, and any team would really be lucky to have him.”
It’s a possibility the Patriots could land Weis before next season if he chooses to take an NFL coordinating job, but that won’t help New England in 2009. For now, as Belichick likes to say, the players will play and the coaches will coach. The Patriots are 12 games into their season, and they know what they’ve got with four games to go. It’s up to the players and coaches to work together to correct their flaws, and they all have to increase their performance in the final month.