The question right now, as they plan for the offseason, is how do they stay fresh and avoid complacency?
After reading this interesting piece from WEEI.com, it’s worth pondering if it’s time for the Patriots’ offense to begin their next evolution. Look, Tom Brady is Tom Brady, and there’s no use suddenly trying to go to the run-and-shoot or the wishbone because he does what he does and he does it amazingly well, but as Brady will hit 39 this season, how can the Patriots protect and extend the playing career of their best all-time quarterback?
The Patriots offense has gone through many evolutions over Brady’s career. Early on he wore the “game manager” label, but slowly became more and more efficient and knowledgeable within the offense, earning the remark that his “favorite receiver was the open one”.
Deion Branch and David Givens were his early weapons and when they exited it opened the door for the free agency and trade haul of 2007 with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. That offense would go on to set records and fall just short of a perfect season.
Then came the return of Branch in 2010, and combined with Welker, and young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, it became the “death by a thousand cuts” offense which pushed offensive pace to a new level.
This iteration is largely what we still see today, as it maximizes Brady’s strengths – reading the defense, accurately throwing the ball short. When it’s clicking it’s unstoppable, but as we saw against the Broncos, and in other season-ending defeats to teams who can generate pass rush pressure with only four defenders, it can break down at times.
When that happens the offense can look flat and suicidal for Brady and his receivers.
Now you might’ve noticed there’s one small thing I’ve left out of this discussion of the Patriots offense, and that is the running game. And I’m not talking about the passing down back role held by the likes of Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and then the combination of Dion Lewis and James White this season. That’s a huge role in the offense and a vital one, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
We, like the Patriots, have forgotten about the power running game.
Ironically, the great grandfather of the Patriots’ offensive system (The Erhardt-Perkins Offense) was originally predicated on smash mouth ball control and didn’t ask running backs to get involved in the passing game. Obviously that has been flipped on its head now.
The kind of powerful running backs the Patriots could lean on have slowly disappeared from New England over the last 15 seasons. The first two Super Bowls were heavily reliant on Antowan Smith, the third was a ton of Corey Dillon. Even Laurence Maroney had his moments like 2007′s AFC Championship, but since Maroney’s quick rise and quicker fall, the power back role has almost been an after thought.
Unless you want to talk about the Sammy Morris years. Which I don’t.
LeGarrette Blount is the closest thing we’ve had to one of those old fashioned war horses and while he’s had some big games, mostly against the Colts, he often struggles to generate early momentum against tough fronts. Stevan Ridley showed some spark at times, but lacked the faith of the coaching staff to truly fill the power back role and be a consistent closer.
At the end of this season the Patriots were left to pull Stevan Jackson off the retirement scrap heap, and while he gave them a touchdown in the AFC Championship, he was well past his prime of being an impact player.
All this leads us back to now being the time the Patriots must re-commit to the power running game. They essentially have carte blanche this offseason at the position with Blount a free agent and just unknown Tyler Gaffney sitting with Brandon Bolden on the depth chart.
With limited pressing needs they should return to their roots with multiple impact additions, both in the draft and free agency.
The simple fact is that the Patriots at the end of the 2015 season could not run the ball even against light boxes with sub-package secondaries behind them. They were one-dimensional and forced to send Brady back to pass over and over. The result? The defense could attack him and Brady paid the price for it too many times.
The Patriots were lucky he escaped the season finale in Miami without a broken leg, much less so the AFC Championship where he was hit more than any other quarterback in a decade.
The cupboard cannot be left barren heading into training camp. The Patriots must add at least two explosive new running backs who can compete and insure each other against injury. Preferably ones with size and young, fresh legs.
The results would be fantastic. And they have the personnel to immediately help – Gronkowski, Edelman and LaFell are all excellent blockers, and guard Shaq Mason is one of the most athletic young pulling guards in the game. They have the pieces and could make teams who want to play them with their nickel or dime defense pay mightily.
Best of all it takes the pressure off of Brady and the constant punishment which he won’t be able to endure and walk away scratch-free from much longer.
The Pats always stay ahead of the curve. This time, staying ahead of the curve means going back to their original roots.