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FOXBOROUGH — The 2018 New England Patriots season has been one of the wackiest seasons of the Bill Belichick era.
The Patriots’ NFL record streak of consecutive 12-win seasons ended at eight, the team finished the year below .500 on the road (3-5) for only the second time since 2001, and are in jeopardy of playing on Wild Card weekend for the first time since 2009.
On top of that, the Patriots will now have to clear another obstacle as they’ve lost top receiver Josh Gordon to an indefinite suspension, something they knew would be a possibility when they acquired the former Pro Bowler in September.
“We’ve certainly faced our fair share of adversities and I think part of that’s mental toughness and when you actually go out on the field and in meetings and so forth, you just focus on what you have to do, what your role is, what your job is,” quarterback Tom Brady said on Friday.
The Gordon suspension will test the mental toughness of a Patriots team that’s reeling on the field to the tune of two-straight losses, and now off the field with one of their teammates.
And in football terms, the Patriots cannot replace the electrifying Gordon who leads the team in receiving yards (720) and explosive plays (12) with one player.
Yes, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, who played on 78 percent of the snaps in the Patriots’ first five games before taking a back seat to Gordon (12.1 percent in last nine games), will see an increased role.
But the Patriots will need more than just a strong showing from Dorsett down the stretch to make another deep playoff run.
“Everyone’s got to pick it up, including me,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “We’ve just got to come out and play together. Everyone doing their roles, everyone doing what they need to do to help spark the offense, to help keep the drives going, to help pick up a third down on a drive, to make a touchdown in the red area.”
Gronkowski’s message may seem boilerplate, but the four-time All-Pro is correct; they’ll need more from everyone, and that starts at the top with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Brady and as he said, the tight end.
Nobody should be expected to play above their abilities, which would be the case if you’re hoping Dorsett, Chris Hogan or Cordarrelle Patterson will replace Gordon’s production; it’s going to take contributions from multiple players in the passing game.
And the Patriots offense wasn’t reminding any of us of 2007 over the last six quarters even with Gordon.
Here are five things that need to happen for the Patriots to make another championship run in a post-Josh Gordon world:
NOTE: In my opinion, the Patriots have gotten as much as they could’ve expected out of Julian Edelman one-year removed from ACL surgery and Cordarrelle Patterson.
1. “GOAT” Brady Reintroduces Himself
Let’s make one thing clear: Tom Brady isn’t playing poorly this season, and there is no cliff.
Brady is fifth in PFF grade (90.2), sixth in DVOA, sixth in QBR, and his box score stats this season aren’t that far off of his MVP pace a year ago.
However, the Patriots don’t just need elite Brady down the stretch; they need “GOAT” Brady to put the team on his back en route to another championship.
When you’re the greatest, your game gets nitpicked by critics, but the one area where Brady does need to be better is in the red zone.
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During the Patriots’ latest two-game losing streak, Brady has been uncharacteristically bad in the red zone with multiple missed throws and two poor decisions. New England doesn’t have the margin for error anymore for Brady to miss open touchdowns (Hogan throw vs. Miami), mismanage the clock (sack vs. Miami before halftime), or throw late-game interceptions to wipe out scoring chances (Joe Haden INT).
Fair or not, Brady needs to be nearly perfect for this team to hoist a Lombardi Trophy this season, something he knew going into the season when he made these comments during training camp:
“This team needs a great quarterback, and, you know, hopefully, I can go out and be that.”
2. Josh McDaniels Gets Hot
I’ve been a staunch advocate of Josh McDaniels for years. He has a great understanding of offensive philosophy, prioritizing players then formations then plays in that order when designing schemes. For that reason, we see the Patriots offense get the most out of their personnel, and use players with hyper-specific skill sets such as pass-catching running backs and weapons like Cordarrelle Patterson better than most. A great stat that backs up McDaniels’ ability to scheme open receivers is Next Gen’s expected completion percentage. Among 35 qualified quarterbacks, Tom Brady’s 67.9 expected completion percentage is second in the NFL behind 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard, and it’s no coincidence that quarterbacks coordinated by McDaniels and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan are at the top of that list.
If there are any silver linings with the Gordon news, it’s that subtracting him from the equation should open up the entire playbook to McDaniels who was somewhat limited by Gordon’s knowledge of the playbook. That isn’t to say that Gordon didn’t study hard or learn a large chunk of the Patriots’ offense, but there’s no way he knew the intricacies of the offense like the players that have been here for years or even Dorsett who beat him to New England by 12 months. With that in mind, McDaniels will need to have some fun with formations and get creative with how he uses the personnel available to him to get the most out of those players.
Some of the criticisms of McDaniels’ play-calling are warranted, and his struggles adjusting in-game certainly played a role in some of the offense’s struggles in the Patriots’ losses.
Over the next two weeks, and hopefully beyond, McDaniels has to be at his absolute best with the talent level on offense taking a hit with Gordon’s suspension.
3. Rob Gronkowski is Closer to Gronk Than Retired
You can take any angle you’d like to justify Gronk’s decline in play this season; ankle and back injuries clearly limit the Patriots’ tight end. But part of the reason why the Patriots made the move for Gordon was that, outside of a few weeks, Gronk wasn’t Gronk’ing. If there’s one player that needs to elevate his game the most to get the Patriots over the hump, it’s Gronkowski, and the big tight end knows it, telling reporters on Friday that he needs to up his game to make up for the loss of Gordon.
One of the ways I’d like to see the Patriots use Gronk moving forward is out wide as a receiver. Gordon’s physicality and big-play ability on the perimeter made the Patriots offense more diverse, and although Gronk isn’t as explosive, he’s still a big-bodied receiver. This season, the Patriots have only flexed Gronk outside 67 times. Last season, he lined up at wide receiver 97 times in the regular season. By moving Gronk to the perimeter, the Patriots force the defense to make a decision: either match the tight end with a linebacker, a favorable matchup for Gronk, or a defensive back which creates openings elsewhere.
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In Week 1, the Patriots got Gronk on a matchup with Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham, and despite a bracket call, Brady connected with Gronkowski for the score on a perfectly placed back shoulder throw.
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Here, the Pats flex Gronk out again near the red zone in an empty formation. The Jets cover the Pats tight end with cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety Jamal Adams rotates towards Gronkowski in the two-deep coverage. That leaves Julian Edelman in the slot with a linebacker, and Jordan Jenkins busts the coverage by dropping into the wrong zone leaving Edelman uncovered. Brady drops the ball off to Edelman on the “stick” route, and the Gronk gravity gives him tons of space to run the ball into the end zone.
When you look at Gronk’s usage, two things stand out: the Patriots need to move him outside more often, and his eight red zone targets this season simply aren’t enough for one of the league’s premier threats down by the goal line.
4. James White Can No Longer Be MIA
By now, I’ve shared just about every James White stat there is that correlates his production to the Patriots’ win-loss record; when White has 13 or more targets/carries the Patriots are 9-0, but when he has 12 or fewer, they’re 0-5.
Over the last six weeks, White has been missing in action, and although there are unconfirmed rumors that White is dealing with a leg injury (potentially ankle), the Patriots need Mr. Reliable to be the player he was in the first eight games of the season.
Some of White’s lack of playing time (he has had three of his four fewest playing time games over the last month) and production could be managing his workload to save him for the postseason, but the Patriots don’t have that luxury anymore as we enter Week 16 with the AFC East still hanging in the balance, and the quarterback sees that as well.
“James has done a great job for us, and he’s a big part of what we do every week. So some weeks he gets it a little more than others and any time the ball’s in his hands, we’re in good shape because he does a great job with it, taking care of it. He’s a big factor every game, so we count on him a lot,” Brady told me at his weekly press conference.
White has a juicy matchup against a Buffalo defense that he caught ten passes for 79 yards against in October, and the Patriots need him to string together similar performances moving forward.
5. A Phillip Dorsett or Chris Hogan Breakout
Finally, the Patriots will need to replace at least some of Gordon’s production with one of their depth receivers, likely either Phillip Dorsett or Chris Hogan.
Dorsett should see an uptick in playing time with Gordon out of the picture, and based on his play during the first five weeks of the season; it’s not crazy to think that he can give the Patriots something out of their third wide receiver spot.
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On the two plays here, Dorsett showed that he improved his route running over the offseason. He has a better understanding of how to set up defenders in his stem, and his footwork and flexibility out of his breaks was much better than a year ago. Dorsett was sinking his hips and making sharp cuts to change direction at the top of routes to create separation.
As for Hogan, he’s had a disappointing season in terms of production. However, his play overall is about where he’s been his entire career. There are a small handful of examples on the tape of Brady missing open throws to Hogan, but for the most part, he’s separating at his usual rate and would need to step up his game to demand more targets. I have my doubts that he’ll be able to do that, but if he does, it will come at a good time for the team and Hogan in a contract year.
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