Josh McDaniels can only do so much to help Patriots’ passing game

Ryan Hannable
December 17, 2019 - 6:00 am
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While the Patriots are currently ranked seventh in the NFL in points per game, that doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to their offense.

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A better measure is it being ranked 18th overall because a great deal of the points have come either directly because of the defense and special teams, or been heavily aided by those units.

To put things in perspective, the 2019 offense is worse than the 2013 offense that many believe was the worst in the Tom Brady era. That group averaged 5.4 yards per play, while this group is currently averaging just five yards per play.

And with as bad as the offense has been, it’s hard to imagine where it would be without the work of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

The unit has had its most success on the opening drives of games and also the first drive of the second half. These are the drives with the most time to prepare, and at least to open the game, have scripted plays. After that, it’s about making adjustments, but more so players making plays. And that hasn’t been able to happen this year.

On opening drives of the game and second half this season, the Patriots are averaging 5.8 yards per play. On all other drives, the Patriots are averaging 4.9 yards per play. Also, of the 37 touchdowns scored by the offense, 10 have come on these possessions. 

A good offensive coordinator can help an offense score points, but it can’t do it all. He can call the right plays, but it is up to the players to execute.

That hasn’t happened this season, and it’s due to a variety of factors with all positions playing into it, and that includes Brady. 

Brady is completing 60 percent of his passes (tied for 29th in the league) for an average of 6.5 yards per attempt (tied for 28th) and a quarterback rating of 86.5 (21st in the league). While the 42-year-old has missed his fair share of throws this season, who he’s throwing to plays into it.

Right now, there’s a banged up Julian Edelman, an under-performing Mohamed Sanu, a rookie who is catching up in N’Keal Harry, and then role players like Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers. Quite simply, these players cannot win 1-on-1 matchups to get open, which is a major reason why Brady was 6-for-17 with 37 yards and a touchdown when targeting receivers against the Bengals.

Brady leads the NFL with 37 throwaways this season, and that’s 12 more than Aaron Rodgers who is second with 25. Edelman has 92 receptions on the year, James White 65 and Dorsett 28, so there have been more throwaways than receptions by the No. 3 pass-catcher. And then Brady has had 29 passed dropped this season, which is also the most in the NFL. 

The throwaways are because of not only receivers not getting open, but the offensive line not doing its job well at times in giving Brady the time to throw. 

McDaniels could call the perfect play, but if the offensive line doesn’t block, the receivers don’t win their matchups and Brady doesn’t make a good throw, it means absolutely nothing. 

The Patriots’ best offense of late has been trick plays and screen plays, which obviously cannot be called all the time. Trick plays for obvious reasons, but screen plays, too.

“You can’t over-use screens, I think you’ve got to be careful with that,” McDaniels said on a conference call Monday. “If you feel like there’s a couple situations based on your film study that you can use them and be productive, then you work on them during the course of the week and try to give them a shot during the game.” 

In order for the offense to somehow turn it around and be a factor in the playoffs, it needs more production from players like Sanu and Harry.

Since joining the Patriots, Sanu has averaged 0.91 yards per route run, which ranks 73rd among 85 qualified wide receivers, according to Pro Football Focus. And while Harry has two touchdowns, and should have had a third, he hasn’t had more than 18 yards receiving in any of his four games played.

Given Edelman’s condition, these two need to do more, and if it doesn’t happen, it’s hard to imagine the passing game being able to do much of anything the rest of the season. 

It’s time to really appreciate the work McDaniels has done this season and realize it’s up to the players to contribute — he can only do so much.

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