What will the Patriots offense look like in 2012 under Josh McDaniels?

January 10, 2012 - 6:10 pm

When Josh McDaniels returns to the role of offensive coordinator with the Patriots in 2012, he will come back to a far different passing game than the one he left following the 2008 season. Under McDaniels, the Patriots were loaded with several elite receivers at the top of their game, including Randy Moss and Wes Welker, as well as several excellent complimentary pieces at the position, including Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney. Meanwhile, the Patriots were getting serviceable play out of their tight ends, a collection that included Benjamin Watson, Kyle Brady and David Thomas. The trio did good work, but certainly not the sort of pass catchers you want to build your offense around. As a result, the New England offense leaned heavily on three-receiver sets, looking to utilize premiere playmakers like Moss and Welker in the passing game. In 2008, Welker (111 receptions) and Moss (69 receptions) combined for 180 catches, more than half of the 339 passes that were completed by quarterback Matt Cassel. In 2009 (Bill O'€™Brien'€™s first season as the de facto offensive coordinator), it was status quo, as Moss and Welker were the primary targets for Tom Brady (they had 206 of the 390 completions from the quarterback), while Watson and Chris Baker were complimentary parts of the New England offense. But in 2010 -- as we wrote here -- the passing game began to evolve from to one that incorporated young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The arrival of the talented young rookies, combined with the early season trade of Moss (and reacquisition of Deion Branch) altered the look of the New England passing game. Instead of the three-wides, it was more and more two-tight end sets, using dynamic young playmakers like Gronkowski and Hernandez in an attempt to try and diversify the Patriots'€™ passing attack. That trend continued in 2011, O'€™Brien'€™s first season with the title of New England'€™s offensive coordinator, and that was reflected in the overall amount of targets. In 2009, the Patriots'€™ tight ends had 43 catches on 60 targets, and finished with a combined 546 yards and seven touchdowns. This past season, it was 169 catches on 237 targets -- almost four times as many targets and catches. In that same span, the wide receivers went from 273 catches on 423 targets in 2009 to 196 catches on 309 targets in 2011. So what sort of offense does McDaniels inherit? Unlike the 2005-2008 group, it'€™s one that leans heavily on tight ends. And while McDaniels has utilized tight ends as a sizable portion of his offense (according to Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus, the Rams used a two-tight end set 50 percent of the time in 2008, fourth-most in the NFL), when it comes to production, tight ends have struggled to put up numbers. The best statistical performance by a tight end in a McDaniels-led offense was in 2006, when Watson was second on the Patriots in receptions with 49, to go along with 643 yards and three touchdowns. Other than Watson'€™s effort, no tight end finished in the Top 3 in receiving on a McDaniels'€™ offense. Part of it is personnel. (It just made sense to feature guys like Moss and Welker in New England, as well as Brandon Lloyd in St. Louis and Brandon Marshall -- who had 101 catches in 2009 -- in Denver.) But the disparity in production is odd. '€œIt'€™s certainly an interesting point, but looking back at the tight ends he'€™s had to '€¨work with, none are really in the Gronkowski/Hernandez talent range,'€ said Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus. '€It'€™s probably a fair point that he likes to throw to wide receivers rather than tight ends, but I can'€™t see him steering clear of those two, given the impact they have. '€œThe interesting thing will be if the reports of Brandon Lloyd wanting to follow McDaniels are true, because he'€™s only really succeeded under him, and he'€™s exactly the kind of receiver the Patriots could do with.'€ Going forward, it'€™s important to note that with their versatility, Gronkowski and Hernandez are not traditional tight ends. (In fact, Hernandez is probably a tight end in name only.) And as Monson mentioned, it'€™s also worth mentioning that Lloyd has stated on several occasions that he would follow McDaniels wherever he went: the idea of Lloyd in a New England uniform would add another wrinkle to the New England passing game. In the end, while it will be interesting to see how he utilizes the duo of Gronkowski and Hernandez when it comes to game planning in 2012, the most important cog in the machine doesn'€™t see things changing all that much. '€œIt'€™s been pretty much the same offense since the day I got here,'€ quarterback Tom Brady said Tuesday. '€œWe'€™ve had a couple different play callers, but the terminology is all the same. Really, we try to get the ball to the open guy. We try to find a weakness in the defense and take advantage of it. That really hasn'€™t changed over the course of my time here. The jerseys are maybe a little bit different, but guys are trying to get open and I'€™m trying to find them.'€