NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
Through the first seven games of their regular season, the New England Patriots have failed to live up to expectations. Fourth-quarter mistakes cost the Patriots losses in three of their first six games, and although they did defeat the New York Jets to move back above .500 and into first place in the AFC East, it took overtime to do so after another late-game collapse.
Whenever a team fails to live up to expectations and suffers bad losses, the team’s fans will inevitably apportion blame upon specific players and/or coaches in the organization. The one person who may be taking the most criticism of any Patriot thus far, however, is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
While there is certainly plenty of blame to go around, and McDaniels deserves a share of it for some questionable fourth-quarter playcalling, he doesn’t deserve the brunt of it.
Under McDaniels, the same coordinator who orchestrated the 2007 Patriots team that set the NFL record for most points scored in a single season, the Patriots currently have the league’s No. 1 offense in both total yards per game and points per game.
While critics will attribute those tremendous statistics to the tremendous offensive talent the team has, and continue to question McDaniels’ playcalling, it is a slight to McDaniels to give him no credit for the effort.
Through seven games, the Patriots’ offensive numbers are nearly identical to what they were last year under then-offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, but one area where the Patriots have seen significant improvement is in their rushing offense. Even with the losses of two crucial offensive linemen in left tackle Matt Light and right guard Brian Waters, along with last year’s starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots have averaged 149.3 rushing yards per game this season, a 39-yard-per-game improvement thus far.
Most of the criticism McDaniels has faced is for his playcalling, and this is warranted to an extent. Rather than maintaining an aggressive game plan with leads late in close games, McDaniels has gone with an uncharacteristically conservative game plan, composed almost entirely of runs and screen passes.
In an effort to avoid clock-stopping incompletions or turnovers, this can be a good late-game offensive strategy, but it hasn’t worked this season for the Patriots. In every game in which the Patriots have not held a lead of 14 points or more in the fourth quarter, they have been unable to win the game in regulation, and a big reason for that is their inability to put together drives to keep their defense off the field.
This should not all come back on McDaniels, however. Part of the problem keeping the Patriots from going downfield more often late in games is that they have not yet established a reliable deep threat at wide receiver, as Brandon Lloyd has yet to become a consistent, reliable target for the offense. Additionally, McDaniels has had to work through injuries to key players including tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and wide receiver Julian Edelman.
Also, while the offense takes some blame for being unable to maintain time of possession and keep the defense off the field, the majority of blame for the Patriots’ late-game collapses should fall upon their pass defense, which has been far too prone to giving up big plays and blowing coverages to leave wide-open receivers late in games. If there are any coaches that deserve the brunt of blame for the Patriots’ losses, it would be the defensive coaching staff, although much of the issue continues to fall upon defensive backs who simply aren’t getting the job done in New England.
The Patriots have some problems, but firing McDaniels would not fix those issues. McDaniels is an intelligent offensive mind with a proven track record of success in New England, and while the offense certainly isn’t setting the world on fire as it did during his first stint as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, they are still statistically the league’s best.
McDaniels needs to open up his offense and begin taking more shots, even late in games, so that the Patriots’ offense can once again become a unit that is feared by opposing defenses for all four quarters of a game. There is much more to the Patriots’ late-game struggles, however, than just McDaniels’ playcalling, so Patriots fans should continue to have faith that their offense is one of the league’s elite, and that McDaniels will be able to help the Patriots turn their season around.