Early season growing pains are nothing new for the Patriots. Everyone remembers the famous game at Arrowhead in 2014 where the Patriots were dismantled by the Chiefs, or the first four games of last season where the defense was incompetent to the point where there had not been a game where they gave up less than 33, but something feels different this season. Almost every year in the Brady-Belichick era they have been able to overcome the early season struggles to win the AFC East. However, something feels different this year.
The Patriots have been extremely reliant upon the elite play of Tom Brady to keep things afloat. Poor early-season defenses, offensive line play, running games, etc. have been overcome due to Brady playing at superhuman levels and Belichick fixing the rest of the team throughout the season. Through this system, the Patriots play their best at the end of the regular season (and the post-season), a formula that has worked every year since 2008 (when Brady was injured). So why does this year feel different? Largely because Brady is yet to show he can overcome the roster’s shortcomings.
Through Week 3, the Patriots are faced with problems run blocking, coverage, and run stuffing. However, their main issue has been their receiving core. Due to the departures of Cooks and Amendola and the suspension of Edelman, this unit has been headed by Gronk, Hogan, and James White with the help of Dorsett and Patterson. While this may not sound horrendous, it is. Gronk is double teamed every single play, essentially eliminating him from the game. Hogan is facing number 1 corner backs when he is naturally a number three receiver, White is a running back, and Dorsett and Patterson don’t seem to have fully grasped the playbook. The result of this is nobody gets open.
Obviously, if your receivers cannot get open and you are not a mobile quarterback (which Tom Brady is NOT), there is nothing to be done. This has lead to throw aways, sacks, and risky decision making (like the deep pass attempt to Dorsett last game). These are not typical Brady plays, leading to the almost yearly chorus of doubters asking “Has Brady finally fallen off of the cliff?”.
So why do I believe he hasn’t?
First I’ll state the obvious saying that his best weapons are yet to take the field (Edelman and Gordon). This should alleviate the double teams on Gronk every play and will give Brady his most trusted route-runner back. a large amount of the Patriot’s offense is based on option plays, where the reciever adjusts his route based on the coverage. Knowing how to do this like Brady wants takes time to learn, and nobody on the team knows this better than Jules. While I don’t expect Gordon to grasp all of the option routes, he is such a physical threat on the deep ball that defenses will have no choice but to pay attention to him.
There is another big reason why Patriots are not finished, and that’s that Brady’s stats don’t reflect his talent. Try to recall how Peyton Manning looked in his twilight season. He had no mobility, couldn’t seem to throw the ball more than 20 yards downfield, and even had accuracy problems on short passes. Brady, on the other hand, still looks spry in the pocket. Sure, he’s no Russell Wilson, but his movement in the pocket continues to only get better throughout the years. He can still throw the deep ball (pass to Dorsett), his accuracy is still solid, and his stats look bad because he’s simply not getting many passing attempts. The offense has become conservative due to the lack of receivers, leading to a very formulaic approach of run-pass-run. Once Brady gets his targets back, the three-and-outs stop and the basic play calling ceases.
“But what about the defense?” Trust in the hoodie. He always uses the first few weeks to see what the units strengths and weaknesses are. They always improve later in the season and at the moment should not concern Pats nation.
The Patriots will still win the AFC East. They will, in all likelihood, make the AFC Championship game, and are still the favorites to make the Super Bowl. I’d be shocked if they end worse than 11-5. People tend to make too much of the early quarter of the season. After all, does anyone truly believe that the Dolphins are going to repeat their perfect season? Or that the Texans, led by J.J Watt and Deshaun Watson are the worst team in football? If the Patriots still have a losing record by Week 6 then we can reopen this conversation, but anyone who is proclaiming the dynasty is dead already are either jumping the gun or just dreaming.