It’s commonly misstated that the New England Patriots’ offense had a talent problem in 2019.
That’s certainly true at the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski retired, and the Patriots brought in Matt LaCosse and then-38-year-old Ben Watson to replace him alongside Ryan Izzo. Needless to say, replace him, they did not.
But the Patriots had talent at running back and wide receiver. James White and Rex Burkhead are good players, and the Patriots spent a 2018 first-round pick on Sony Michel. Julian Edelman is the Patriots’ version of a No. 1 wide receiver, N’Keal Harry was a 2019 first-round pick, and Mohamed Sanu had been solid in his two previous stops. An offense consisting of White, Michel, Burkhead, Edelman, Harry, Sanu and a replacement-level tight end should not have been as bad as the Patriots’ 2019 unit.
So, what happened? And how do the Patriots fix this moving forward? Let’s look at Saturday’s wild-card round loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady targeted Harry and Sanu 12 times, so trust seemingly was not a problem. Production, however, was an issue, as Harry and Sanu caught three passes for 32 yards.
Brady’s first pass of the game went incomplete to Harry. Harry ran a comeback, and the two clearly were not on the same page as the ball fell incomplete.
Brady targeted Sanu on a flea-flicker later in the drive. You can see Brady trying to motion to Sanu while the receiver was running his route.
The pass flew many feet out of the end zone.
Two plays later, Brady went back to Harry, who didn’t complete his route with a defender in the way. The ball fell incomplete, and the Patriots were forced to kick a field goal.
Later in the quarter, Brady completed his only pass to Sanu. Sanu sat down in zone coverage, caught a short pass from Brady then turned upfield for the first down.
Midway through the second quarter, Brady targeted Sanu downfield. Sanu seemingly didn’t see Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro careening toward him from the right. Vacarro leaped to knock the ball away, while Sanu kept running.
Brady completed his first pass to Harry during the same drive. Harry ran an in-route against zone coverage then backed his way upfield for a first down.
Brady targeted Harry again late in the second quarter, but the ball sailed well over Harry’s head.
Harry’s next catch came early in the third quarter. He sat down against zone coverage and picked a short throw off the ground for a first down.
Brady went back to Harry on the very next play. Harry rewarded him with a dropped screen pass.
Brady threw behind Sanu late in the third quarter.
On the next play, Harry was draped in coverage on a third-down throw from Brady. The play wasn’t flagged, and the Patriots had to punt.
Brady was intercepted on the final throw of his night when he targeted Sanu on a comeback route. Sanu was covered tightly, the pass was broken up by Tramaine Brock, and Logan Ryan picked it off for a touchdown.
It’s difficult to definitively assign blame on some of these incompletions, but beyond some overthrows, the drop and plays without separation, a common refrain seems to be a lack of communication. Brady, Sanu and Harry simply weren’t on the same page. Sanu joined the team at midseason, and Harry is a rookie.
So, whose fault is that? Is it the receivers? Brady for not coaching them up enough? Is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense too complex for a new or young receiver to learn quickly? “Talent,” or lack thereof, is too simple.
The good news is Harry and Sanu now have a full offseason to get on the same page with … whoever is playing quarterback and calling plays for the Patriots in 2020. Brady is a free agent, and McDaniels very well could leave for a head coaching opportunity.
If Brady and/or McDaniels are back, then we can reassess the situation in training camp to see if there’s better chemistry. If both leave, then perhaps it would benefit any wide receiver to learn a more simple offense.
The strength of the Patriots’ offense is also its downfall. When everything is clicking, it’s extremely difficult to defend, because New England is adjusting to what the opposing defense is calling. It picks apart the weaknesses in whatever coverage is played.
But when receivers can’t perfectly read Brady’s mind, then it can be chaos. And that’s how the Patriots’ offense can best be described for much of this season.
The Patriots could use at least another receiver to join Edelman, Harry, Sanu, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski next season. But that’s not a bad receiving corps if Harry can play up to his first-round potential and Sanu produces as he did with the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons.
Throw in a quality tight end, and the Patriots’ offense very well could be back on track with that group. But Harry and Sanu must find a way to click over the next eight months.