Whether it was watching the Football Fukushima that was the Patriots loss in Buffalo to the rest of those unwatchable Wild Card games to the best weekend of playoff football these eyes have ever seen, I find it impossible to be a neutral observer. Aside from rooting for whatever nominal prop bet or square I have going at any given time, I'm still all about the Patriots. Despite anything I say to the contrary that gets taken seriously:
So whatever football I'm seeing, it's through the prism of an emotional attachment to this one team. And it's been hard during the seven games since the Pats got eliminated to not look around the league, stand in reverent awe at the might of some of these other offenses, and take an assessment.
First, some perspective is in order. It's tempting to give in to recency bias, remember the Buccaneers scoring touchdowns on their last two possessions and the Rams answering back with a lightning fast game winning drive, then the way the Bills-Chiefs game ended, and think the Patriots are a million light years away from having that kind of capability. But that's not the case.
Let's not lose sight of the fact they scored the sixth most points in the NFL. More than current playoff contenders the Rams, Bengals, and 49ers. But when you look at other metrics, you realize 462 points a surprising total given they finished:
- 15th in total yards
- 14th in yards per play
- 9th in 1st downs
- 15th in touchdowns
- 14th in passing yards
- 12th in passer rating
Which should point to them being more efficient and finishing off a lot of drives with field goals from Big Kick Nick Folk than the sort of WMD they need to be to keep up with the sorts of attacks we saw last weekend. And will see this weekend.
They do have to get better. That's obvious on its face. While the reason they didn't belong on the same field as the Bills was they couldn't make a defensive stop, they're going to have to improve all of the above numbers in order to be competitive in the AFC as long as Buffalo, Kansas City and Cincinnati, just to name three, look the way they currently do.
Personally, I don't think the Pats are that far off. It'll be a daunting task to be sure. But not an impossible one. While they won't be able to pull off another Oil Minister in Vegas-style spending orgy like they did last year (according to Over the Cap they've currently got just the 22nd most cap space in the league at $9.75 million), they shouldn't have to. They're starting from a much better place, not trying to slap a software patch on that 1926 Frankfort Yellow Jackets offense they ran in 2020. [Pause for a full body shudder at those memories.]
So dhere's one Pats fan's list of offensive needs this offseason, from least important (meaning they're mostly all set in that area) to most important (there's the most upgrading to do):
This is not me saying Mac Jones doesn't need to get better. Just that everything is in place for him to do exactly that. I'm not one of these people saying he needs to bulk up and make his arm stronger, because I truly believe it will happen organically. One of the main reasons why I wanted the Pats to draft him was because I saw what happened the last time they put all their trust in a young guy from a huge college program with a supposedly average arm and the sort of muscle definition you usually see on the kid who wears a t-shirt in the swimming pool. Long before he started championing the cause of pliability and weird, pseudo foods, Tom Brady grew into his adult body with a normal NFL fitness and nutrition regimen. Jones doesn't need to go all late 90s Barry Bonds (belongs in the Hall of Fame, by the way) to throw better deep balls. He doesn't even need to be Josh Allen-sized. Quarterbacks can always improve their arm strength. What is impossible to do is take a guy who was inaccurate in college or as a rookie and turn him accurate. (Though you can go the other way, see Tim Tebow. He set the SEC record for completion %, then as a pro threw passes like he was hiked a Wiffle Ball.) Jones tailed off at the end of the year. But keep in mind he started 18 games, and the only ones he didn't finish were because they were blowouts and it was Brian Hoyer Time. He was never pulled for injury or ineffectiveness. I have no doubt he'll improve with another year in the program. This box is checked. In Sharpie.
Damien Harris missed two games and still had 929 yards with 15 TDs. As a change-of-pace back, Rhamondre Stevenson had the identical yards per attempt as Harris, with 4.6, as well as two 100+ yard games among his 12. Harris is 24. Stevenson is 23. The question remains whether James White comes back, but Brandon Bolden reinvented himself in the pass-catching back role in White's place, with 5.1 YPA and 9.9 YPR. But Bolden is actually two years older than White, at age 31. So while either way this crucial role in Josh McDaniels' scheme appears to be all set, they'll need to develop the next great 3rd down back starting now. I had hoped JJ Taylor was being groomed for that role, but he only saw the field in five games, so the jury's out. White, like Shane Vereen and Kevin Faulk before him, had three or so years to develop as a part timer. Taylor is going into his third year. If he's not the answer for the future, they need to draft or sign the answer. Regardless, this position is a strength.
This unit was expected to be a strength of the team in 2021. And while it got off to a shaky start to the season, they figured it out. Beginning with Trent Brown returning to the lineup. Curiously, their best OL from 2020, Michael Onwenu, was moved to a reserve/third tackle role as Ted Karras took over the LG spot. And the Isaiah Wynn Era might have just been buried under a pile of six sacks allowed and nine penalties committed (both twice as many as any other O-lineman on the team). But with David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Onwenu's position versatility, the return of Brown and Karras, and adequate depth guys like Justin Herron and James Ferentz, they can discard and draw from the deck and once again put together a winning hand.
My middle school history teacher used to talk about how he was working on his thesis, which was about Lincoln's search for a general who could win him the war, because he went through like 70 of them. (Don't hold me to that number. I wasn't a good student.) Well we're coming up on our 10th big year of the search for that elusive second tight end you need to run an effective two-tight end offense. It's almost like this franchise is cursed to never find one after the last one went all Aaron Wayne Gacy on us. You can argue whether Hunter Henry's 51 catches and 663 yards justified his three-year, $37.5 million deal. But he was unquestionably Jones' most reliable red zone target and was third among all NFL tight ends with nine TDs. What's not in dispute is that Smith has a lot of making up to do since catching less than 30 balls (with three drops) for less than 300 yards and being reduced to running one Jet sweep per game for three yards on 1st & 10 definitely did not earn a quarter of his four-year, $50 million contract. When your offensive coordinator is calling it "a foundational year" for you late in the season, there is no argument. Here's a crazy idea that is maybe just crazy enough to help him get back to where he was the year before (43 receptions, 457 yards, eight TDs): Try coming to OTAs. That time you lose in the spring sets you back and it's hard to make up that ground. I love goofing off from work in June as much as the next guy. But I wouldn't enjoy it as much if I had to suck at my job in front of the whole world every weekend in the fall. As far as depth goes, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have contributed less than nothing since they were both taken in Round 3 two drafts ago.
If they can't help the cause, release them.
After watching the likes of Ja'Marr Chase, Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, AJ Brown (and that's just sticking with the AFC) and others in these playoffs, I have many, many thoughts about the Patriots needs at this position. Enough that they're probably worthy of several other blogs as we get deeper into the offseason, so I won't get too granular here. Instead I'll just refer to a question that Phil Perry asked me on the most recent Do Your Pod. And that is, if it were up to me, what would I rather have, an elite deep threat, or an elite slot receiver?
And I have to admit, I'm struggling with the decision. Because for years now, I've been arguing that the classic wideout that we all picture when we imagine a WR1 - pick your cliche', but a guy who'll stretch the field and take the top of the defense and all that - is the most overrated, overpaid position not just in football, but in all of sports. And I cited as evidence about two decades worth of Super Bowl winners that didn't have a No. 1 draft pick or a highly paid free agent deep threat as we commonly use the term. With the notable exception of Demaryius Thomas in 2015, the receivers winning rings were all Julian Edelmans and Doug Baldwins and Victor Cruzes. Whereas the GMs that expended all the draft capital at the position tended to be sitting at home watching.
So right now I'm suffering an existential crisis as I see the NFL's Final Four - and the Elite Eight, while I think about it - all being led by a metahuman-like outside the numbers wideout (or a slot guy who's also a deep threat like Hill) in the tradition of the guys who won all the rings in the 1980s and 90s, like Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Michael Irvin. And I wonder if that's what the league has gone back to. Everything is cyclical, and the great wheel of football history has spun back to where it was then.
Right now, I'm torn. But whether they get the next Wes Welker to control the game by moving the chains or the next Chase to control the game by moving the scoreboard, they desperately need someone that defensive coordinators will have to game plan for. Right now they have a collection of pret-tay, pret-tay good receivers that no one sweats. And no one will, until they obtain someone who either has the short area speed to run option routes and exploit the weaknesses in underneath zones, or someone safeties have to account for in the back third, opening up passing lanes for someone else. And, if it's not to much to ask, for either of them to actually catch passes from the most accurate young QB in the game.
The slot receivers tend to come cheaper. Both in terms of draft picks you need to get a good one and money you spend to sign an established one. The wideouts cost you more, so there's more risk involved. And I remind you again that the bust rate on them is off the charts. But there looks to be more of them, with the big DI programs producing more all the time as spread offenses proliferate. In a perfect world, the Pats can find both. There are six or seven receivers' names appearing on the early Round 1 mocks. Slot guys like Penn State's and Bama's John Metchie III, wideouts like Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, both of Ohio State. The Pats have already been mentioned by the likes of Mel Kiper to be taking Bama's Jameson Williams at 21. But since he blew out his ACL in the National Championship game, maybe he'll drop even further and they can get a bargain as they let him rehab and develop. There are a lot of moving parts.
Anyway, the receiver issue is one I'll have to work out in my own head, with a lot of self care. And self medication. All I know is that I'm already more committed to the idea of this team needing to improve this position more than I ever have. And to them never repeating the mistake of taking N'Keal Harry. Stay tuned.