Well, we could have guessed that when the New England Patriots went from Josh McDaniels running their offense to some odd combination of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge doing it, things would get a bit weird. McDaniels, one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL, is now the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, and Bill Belichick brought Patricia and Judge back into the fold to replace him.
We last remember Patricia (Belichick’s defensive coordinator from 2012-2017) as the Lions’ head coach, and the guy who tore apart Detroit’s defense by telling everyone to get off his lawn. Judge, who worked with Belichick on special teams and with receivers from 2012-2019, is best remembered for his time as the New York Giants’ head coach, and the wonderful quarterback surrenders (we won’t call them “sneaks”) that resulted from that decision.
Fire this franchise into the sun. pic.twitter.com/tMq3dj8FY3
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) January 9, 2022
Through training camp, the bad news from Foxboro is that the offense, led by second-year quarterback Mac Jones, looks entirely out of sorts.
A play reflective of a tough day for the Patriots’ offense: To finish 1-on-1s on a “got to have it” play, Mac Jones tries to connect with DeVante Parker in windy conditions — and Joejuan Williams picks it off.
The offense then drops for push-ups. pic.twitter.com/OPKfgSmckk
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 9, 2022
“Every day is a challenge,” Belichick said on Tuesday about the challenges of installing a new offense. “We just try to build on yesterday, and do what we can do today to get better, and build on it tomorrow. At different points in time, we take stock of where we are and decide whether we add more in this area, or add more in that area, or whatever it happens to be. We try to do things we think are most important and most necessary that will help us win. That’s just kind of what we do.
“You can get everything in and not execute it very well, or you can get in less and hopefully do it better. That’s usually the way it works, or there’s somewhere in between. I’d say usually, we fall somewhere in between: don’t get in everything we want, but feel like the things that we can do, at least we’re doing it at a competitive level. Not saying it’s great, but at least we can go out there and do it. So, we’ll see.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
(Syndication: The Providence Journal)
But will any of this matter when it’s time to play the games for real on *checks calendar* Sunday, September 11? That’s when the Patriots play the Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on the first Sunday of the regular season. More imperatively, the Patriots play the Giants in their first preseason game on Thursday night.
Legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who coached with Belichick in New England from 2000-2013 and from 2016-2019 before his retirement, recently said that it’s too early to put a pin in how this offense will look.
Nov 27, 2011; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (L) shakes hands with assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia (R) after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Patriots defeated the Eagles 38-20. (Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)
“I would say this, in fairness to everyone, I just think this is the wrong time to evaluate it.,” Scarnecchia told Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald on Monday. “The pads have come on, but they’re not playing real football yet. Whenever they play the Giants, we’ll have a better idea where this thing is. Even at that point, it’s not totally fair to say they can’t [do it].
“I think there’s a [three-game preseason] process at hand, where we’ll have a better idea where this thing is going… What doesn’t look good in training camp early, has no bearing on anything.”
One thing that’s different (at least reportedly) is that the Patriots’ new offensive brain trust wants to implement more wide zone running concepts with pre-snap motion as a big part of things. That would ostensibly put the Pats in the same boat as Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay as architects of some of the more complex run games you’ll see in the NFL.
Scarnecchia shot down the idea that the Patriots weren’t doing this already.
“I can tell you without a doubt, we ran the outside zone play,” he told Guregian. “What we didn’t run off that action are the bootlegs off that, which is what you’re seeing from San Francisco, the Rams, all those teams where that came from. And why didn’t we do that?”
We all know why they didn’t do that. Tom Brady and boot-action really don’t go together, and what works for Tom Brady is what you’re going to run. But Mac Jones is no more a threat to bedevil a defense with boot-action than Brady ever was. Jones is not a mobile quarterback at all. He didn’t leave the pocket at Alabama unless he was pressured by the defense to do so, and in his first season with the Patriots, Jones had just 21 dropbacks that resulted in him leaving the pocket to make a throw from play-action. Per Sports Info Solutions, he was pressured on 13 of those dropbacks. Overall, he completed 10 of 21 boot-action attempts for 120 yards, 78 air yards, and a touchdown. Those 21 dropbacks ranked 29th in the NFL.
There is a reason that Mac Jones’ coaches have never tried to make him a boot quarterback. That’s not what he does!
“Yeah, I think we have a lot of room to grow here,” Jones said on August 2. “The goal for me is to not run the ball and throw it so, I think our offensive line is doing a good job, and we just have to get on the same page.”
As to the entire structure of this “new offense,” which includes more tight splits for the receivers (a Sean McVay staple), Jones did not sound entirely convinced.
“I try to just get us in the best play with the tools I’ve been given. Right now we’re just trying to run our base plays I think and just kind of see it on film. That’s the biggest part, like I said, every offense has a system where they can change the play and we have that too. So when we get there, we’ll get there but right now, it’s more about the fundamentals.”
In the end, Scarnecchia said (and he would certainly know), Belichick is not the type to stick to what does not work. Which means that if this particular playbook needs to be set on fire, he’ll be the first to do it. Scarnecchia also said that the Patriots tried rolling Brady out years ago, realized it didn’t work, and moved on.
“I’d say we were as good a team at running the outside zone to the open side, the non-tight end side, as anybody in football,” Scarnecchia. “And we were good at running it to the tight end side when we had a good enough tight end to block it – Rob Gronkowski. So we ran it.
“We ran it out of two-back sets a lot with Sony Michel [in 2018] … We ran toss-crack, we ran outside zone, we ran the gap runs inside, whatever we felt like we could do, we did.”
The Patriots were one of the NFL’s most effective two-back teams in 2021, with halfbacks Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, and fullback Jakob Johnson. Now, Johnson is with McDaniel in Las Vegas, and the Patriots don’t have a fullback at all.
That’s a lot of change — perhaps unnecessary and counter-productive change — for an offense that didn’t really need it. Is this anything more than a couple of coaches being allowed to goof around with concepts at the expense of their players?
Very soon, Belichick will have to take inventory of the offense he’s allowed his underlings to promote. And it seems quite likely that he’ll have to take the whole thing out of their hands, and have them adapt to what actually works, sooner than later.