Patriots will sink or swim with their Big 3: Brady, Edelman and McDaniels

Jim Hackett
November 21, 2019 - 9:30 am
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Sunday marks the highly anticipated return of the prophet Isaiah (Wynn that is). Though his presence on the line and the subsequent removal of season-long replacement, punching bag and human turnstile Marshall Newhouse should help, let’s be clear, it will not be a magic bullet. I’m confident his presence will make a positive impact but a little sobriety is required here. 

Wynn has exactly six quarters of NFL experience under his very wide belt and is just over a year removed from a very serious Achilles injury. Yet, he remains at the top of a list of newcomers and even distantly rumored returnees, carrying an unrealistic load of hope to help correct what has become an inconsistent ensemble offense. Make no mistake, the Patriots sit atop the AFC with a stellar 9-1 record in spite of its offense.

Speaking of newcomers, many in these parts are "just wild about Harry," turning their hopes to the rookie wide receiver, N’Keal Harry who made his career debut on Sunday in week 11 of this NFL season. I too am "wild about Harry" or at least the potential and pedigree he may eventually bring but let’s get serious, the guy had his first legitimate practice load over the last few weeks. Whether it’s Wynn on the line, Harry or the recently acquired Mohammed Sanu at wide receiver or yet another rookie, running back Damien Harris, people are spewing out all the wrong names when looking for solutions to the Patriots inconsistencies. On Wednesday, wait for it,  No. 17 in your week two program was again the subject of Patriots offensive debate. Oh yes, that No. 17 – Antonio Brown. 

Look it’s true that any one of those guys could help stabilize the Patriots offense, especially Brown, if the Patriots and specifically team owner Robert Kraft were willing to take that risky yet potentially rewarding leap. However, none of those guys are the real answer. The reality of the Patriots offense is that it starts and ends with the three men you have relied on for the last several years; Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Everyone else has a role in the orchestra but they’re not making any consistent music on offense without their conductor and their killer horn section. 

When discussing the Patriots offense recently with my Fantasy Football Hour broadcast and podcast cohost, Pete Davidson, I said, "The whole ensemble is off." At the outset of the season and pretty much every week since I’ve said "that everything starts at the offensive line." With that said, the Patriots started the season with 60 percent of its offensive line in street clothes. Before they even kicked off, they lost their center, David Andrews for the season. Right tackle, Marcus Cannon missed a game and played at less than 100 percent for a few more and the aforementioned Isaiah Wynn was soon to follow his injured brethren during the second game of the season. It was a brutal way to start the year and yet the Pats persevered in championship fashion. Bravo.

However, we now enter Week 12 of the season, one week away from Thanksgiving and the business of football in 2019 is getting more serious. In 2018, the Patriots were in a different place. The offensive line wasn’t just healthy, it was dominant. They had years of consistency working together on the interior, a dominant star at left tackle in Trent Brown and two tight ends that took pride in their blocking. One of which is the greatest to ever play his position, Rob Gronkowski. So when the team needed to pivot and change its identity they could and they did. Credit the coaching staff for recognizing that need and morphing as needed. The Patriots became a punishing, run-first team on the fly that physically wore out opponents and struck artfully and opportunistically with the pass. The result was an eventual sixth Super Bowl Championship after sporting an uninspiring 9-5 record midway through December. 

That was last year.

This year is an entirely different beast. The offensive line is missing that 2018 cohesion and 40% of that personnel. The tight ends, once a massive strength, now not only an afterthought but truly a team weakness. The running game? Mediocre on a good day. The 2018 late-season rookie sensation, Sony Michel is looking quite ordinary just one year later. That 2018 offensive line looks more dominant every time you watch the 2019 Michel make modest if not minuscule gains, none of which are coming on his own. 

So you can’t block and you can’t run, what do you do? You turn to what has always been your anchor, Brady to Edelman and despite all of their offensive problems, they need to make that connection work.  

Here’s where it gets tricky.

Neither Brady nor Edelman is playing to the level that we’ve become so used to. Edelman is dropping passes consistently game to game. I cannot recall seeing that happen with the frequency it has this season and it’s glaring. Sunday’s drop in the end zone is the most recent and most prominent but it wasn’t isolated. Edelman is one of the surest handed receivers I’ve ever seen, perhaps the most dependable the Pats have ever had. So what’s the deal? I’m wondering if after all the hits he’s bravely taken the last 10 years if there are some concentration lapses happening. Or perhaps he’s really not over his early-season chest injury. Whatever it is, the 2019 Edelman is nowhere as consistent as the guy we’ve seen make game-altering catches with great frequency in the biggest moments. If this offense is going to pull its end, Edelman’s unprecedented dependability has to be there.

Brady’s line hasn’t given him enough time on too many occasions. The middle of the field, for most of these 20 years has been a target area of excellence but so far this season hasn’t been as fertile. The running game is no threat and the core of pass catchers has changed so much that consistency has been all but absent. All those factors are real, but is Brady playing his best ball? Not by a longshot. Inconsistency surely surrounds him, no doubt but when the protection has been there the throws haven’t always been on the mark. Blame has many suitors in this offense and Brady isn’t blameless. Mut kindly pinned 5% of the blame pie on Brady, I’d up it to somewhere just north of 10%. Much of that is likely the culmination of the structure breaking around him, but his individual performance can improve whether he says it publicly or not.

Lastly in the solution formula is Josh McDaniels. I like him. He’s innovative, creative, and quick to act and adjust. He clearly works in near-perfect concert with his quarterback and the results he’s enjoyed are indisputable. However, the reality of 2019 is that things aren’t clicking. Twelve weeks into the season, with pieces like Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Mohammed Sanu coming in and out surely rocks the boat, but McDaniels is the one who has to find this units’ ultimate strength and find a way to make it work. We’ve seen it in dribs and drabs. Sunday’s game plan against Philly was too cute and a failure but the adjustments coming into the third quarter showed his ability to adapt quickly. Consistency was again a problem though.

Consistency. For the offense, it’s time to find some. I’m looking at the three guys who have always seemed able to find it, to do so again. If they can’t, nobody else on this offense will. That’s for sure.