In football, or any sport for that matter, when you win — and win consistently — you become the target of constant criticism and jealousy, and will undoubtedly receive the best effort from opposing teams, week in and week out. This has been the New England Patriots for the past 13 years.
Over that 13-year stretch, the Patriots have totaled 12 seasons with a double-digit-win total, 11 playoff appearances, 11 AFC East championships, five Super Bowl appearances, and three Super Bowl championships. A loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, an unimpressive home win against a dreadful Oakland Raiders team, and a humiliating Monday Night Football loss to the Kansas City Chiefs have many people wondering if the Patriots have lost their edge.
What makes the Patriots’ lackluster start to the 2014 season even more alarming is that the team’s struggles cannot be traced to a single phase of the game. The Pats have had numerous issues on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and the players look seemingly unmotivated under head coach Bill Belichick for the first time in recent history. With one quarter of the season in the books, the Patriots need to turn things around in a hurry, or they will find themselves in a hole they may not be able to dig out of.
(All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.)
The Patriots’ horrid start, coupled with quarterback Tom Brady’s now infamous “When I suck, I’ll retire” statement, have many people around the league wondering if this is the end of the line for one of the all-time great NFL quarterbacks.
From afar, it’s easy to see Brady’s average-at-best 2014 statistics and pin the offensive struggles on the two-time Super Bowl MVP. I’m not by any means defending Brady’s play, because it has been substandard, but an in-depth review of the Patriots’ offensive statistics will show that their struggles go far beyond the problems of the best player in Patriots franchise history.
From 2001-2013, the Patriots have averaged a top-10 league ranking in offensive yards per game; in 2014, they rank 29th. Likewise, the Patriots have averaged a top-five league ranking in points per game from 2001-2013, and in 2014, they rank 24th in the league. Some of this is attributable to a rushing attack that ranks in the bottom 10 in the league in yards per game and yards per attempt.
Another part of this can be blamed on a passing offense that ranks in the bottom 10 of NFL teams in quarterback rating, completion percentage, yards, yards per attempt, touchdown passes, and yards per game. Throw in the fact that the Patriots’ offensive line has given up the sixth most sacks in the league, and you have a recipe for offensive disaster.
A team with a struggling offense can still be successful and win a lot of games if it has a dominating defense. The Patriots do not. Yes, they rank fourth in the league in yards given up per game and total takeaways, and 14th in points given up per game, but outside of their game against the Chiefs, the Pats’ other three opponents won a combined 17 games in 2013.
Against the Chiefs, who pieced together a patchwork offensive line for the game, the Patriots gave up 443 yards, 207 of which were on the ground. Additionally, their defensive third-down conversion rate ranks in the bottom third of the league. One of the common themes among all five Patriots teams to make the Super Bowl from 2001-2013 was a top-ranked, playmaking defense.
Here’s the bottom line: The future, both immediate and long-term, looks bleak for the Patriots dynasty led by Brady and Belichick. Sure, they are an impressive +3 in turnover differential in 2014, and if there is any quarterback-coach combination that could quickly turn things around, it’s Brady and Belichick. But after watching the Patriots struggle through their worst loss since 2003 against the Chiefs, it’s starting to look like the magic has run out in New England.