New England gave Buffalo “an absolute clinic” on how to play football. Tom Brady could have demolished Buffalo “with his eyes closed.” The Patriots could have sent undrafted players out there and won that game (they did).
But the lingering caveat from the massive win, in which the Patriots were setting new benchmarks of dominance, was that the first half was horrible. If Brady could beat the Bills with his eyes closed, why didn’t he? And how did he — and his fumbling receivers — have such trouble giving the Bills an absolute clinic in the opening minutes?
Patriots coach Bill Belichick will explain how the Patriots were in the right positions but failed to execute, and how the team just needed to take advantage of opportunities. But that’s beside the point. The real issue here is why they didn’t execute, and why they didn’t take advantage of opportunities. How does this whole Patriots team just misfire so badly sometimes, and how can anyone be assured that it won’t happen again? Or, at least in key moments, such as last February’s Super Bowl?
Belichick is right in saying that the Patriots had all the right plays they needed and all the right tools to get it done. This isn’t like years prior, when Brady was throwing to a more junior varsity set of receivers, or the secondary was comprised of such poor defensive players that the offensive players who helped out often looked better. Belichick has his personnel — and it’s arguably the best group he’s had in his time in New England.
Brady is untouchable at quarterback. The running back group is proven and talented beyond what the team requires of it. The tight ends are the best in the league and may rank among the best in NFL history by the time they’re done. The wide receivers are a mix of excellent fits for the Patriots system, speed guys and great possession receivers. The defense has power and quickness at its key spots.
The problem here is not a lack of talent, but rather a lack of execution with the talent.
The answer to why the Patriots are so bad when they have so much to work with may be that the Patriots are trying to do too much with all the good that they have.
Think about it — in an offensive set, one guy is going to get the ball. So, as nice as a five-receiver set is, unless the Patriots are matching up against a team highly skilled across the board, they have an over-abundance of talent. Three receivers may do the trick. One key matchup is enough. On a team of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman and Deion Branch (and that’s just the big names — it doesn’t include the other players who are capable), New England is drinking out of the proverbial fire hose every time out.
The biggest way this could be seen in the opening weeks was by the — ahem — creativity of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels, who had a fine time letting Brady and deep threat Randy Moss loose in record-setting 2007, came back to the Patriots this year eager to play with his toys and make the most of his offense.
But, in getting tricky with his plays, McDaniels has sometimes done just the opposite — he’s tossed so much complication out there that the Patriots simply fail to execute sometimes. It’s not only the huge personnel sets. McDaniels has used trick plays and deception to try to spring players free who would be just fine if they were given a normal setup and let go.
Sunday’s second half was a great example of what can happen if New England just takes a simple game plan and pushes forward. Brady was given the freedom to control the game, and he ran the team down the field in basic, efficient fashion for 45 points.
The running game used a similar tactic. Bills players remarked after the game that they were frustrated to see New England running the same three rushing plays over and over, with big gains each time. When playing Madden, you run the running back over the left guard 100 times if the Dolphins’ defense can’t stop you. In the NFL, the Patriots’ backs should be able to do the same against the Bills. They did, and they don’t lose any credibility doing it with three running plays rather than 25.
There are good arguments for why the Patriots should have plenty of wrinkles in their offense and a variety of options going forward, especially against great defensive teams. But New England’s schedule is full of creampuffs, and the Pats have already lost one game this season that they should have dominated. Rather than getting complicated and trying to maximize every position (anyone remember how Brady would try to chuck it all the way down the field on second down in 2009, leading to numerous 3-and-outs because he wanted a one-and-done pass to Moss?), the Patriots need to just run a basic game plan. Being simple and seeing their talent do the work has led them far before, such as the Super Bowl seasons, when Brady and his receivers executed with the little they had.
New England will have its days of dominance, but they won’t come from the team game-planning high-octane offense from the beginning. The Patriots need to do what they can do first, then add the frills later. They certainly have the talent to make enough plays and points without going crazy, and the losses, stalled drives and failure to finish games can largely be pinned on an offense that should win games with its eyes closed instead failing to make basic plays.
Belichick surely knows this concept. He’s the man of not trying to win all 16 games at once — or trying to get all 52 points at once. The right play at the right time is what brings victories.
The Patriots have had their scares so far this season, and they have seen what works.
Leave the Wildcat and fake field goals to the Jets and Rams. The Patriots should be able to win by playing football.
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