We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.
It’s impossible to be perfect at football. The game is too multifaceted. You can have 21 great starters, but if your quarterback stinks, then your team will probably stink, too. Even the best rosters in the NFL have weaknesses. No team is dominant on offense and on defense and also on special teams.
No team, apparently, except the Patriots. Which is a bummer, because I’ve hated the Patriots for the entirety of my adult life. It’s easy to root against them in theory, but it’s tiresome to root against them emotionally — after years of trying, there’s simply no way that I can argue they suck. They have been excellent on offense, led by an ageless, all-time quarterback, and have finished among the top 10 in the league in points scored in 15 of the past 16 years. On defense, they’ve finished in the top 10 in points allowed in 13 of the past 16 seasons. And head coach Bill Belichick thinks more about special teams in one day than most of us do in a lifetime. A writer for Bleacher Report tried to evaluate the Patriots’ strengths and weaknesses this spring and came to the conclusion that all of the Patriots’ position groups are strengths except running back (where New England had the league leader in rushing touchdowns last season) and special teams (where the Pats have the fourth-most-accurate kicker of all time among players with at least 60 attempts). It sounds too positive to be unbiased, only it’s maddeningly accurate.
During its dynasty, New England has had Pro Bowlers at every position except punter and long snapper. (Technically, it has never had a Pro Bowl right tackle either, but the Pro Bowl doesn’t categorize linemen by side.) Belichick is not just a historically great coach, but he’s also an expert roster builder. There are no famous Pats draft busts; they’ve given few hideous contracts to undeserving players (they gave $35 million to Adalius Thomas, that’s about it); and they often fleece teams on the rarely used NFL trade market.
As part of The Ringer’s Patriots Week, I wanted to find the things that the Pats are bad at. Not the things they’re worse than their own standard at — for instance, the Patriots are 43-19 in night games since 2001, which equates to a worse winning percentage (69.4) than their overall 196-60 record (76.6) during that stretch, but can be explained by the higher caliber of competition in prime-time matchups and still shows that New England is really, really good. Rather, I set out to find the aspects of football in which the Pats are worse than league average.
Over the duration of their dynasty, the Patriots have had almost no flaws. But I discovered five! More often than not, though, New England’s miniature failings teach us something about its successes.
1. Landing Skill-Position Stars Early in the NFL Draft
The Patriots tend to avoid targeting skill-position players in the early rounds of the draft — and they don’t have an impressive hit rate when they buck that trend. Below is a list of the Pats’ skill-position player draft picks in the first four rounds since 2001:
- First round: Laurence Maroney (RB, 2006), Ben Watson (TE, 2004), Daniel Graham (TE, 2002)
- Second round: Jimmy Garoppolo (QB, 2015), Aaron Dobson (WR, 2013), Shane Vereen (RB, 2011), Rob Gronkowski (TE, 2010), Chad Jackson (WR, 2006), Bethel Johnson (WR, 2003), Deion Branch (WR, 2002)
- Third round: Jacoby Brissett (QB, 2016), Ryan Mallett (QB, 2011), Stevan Ridley (RB, 2011), Taylor Price (WR, 2010), Brandon Tate (WR, 2009), Kevin O’Connell (QB, 2008), David Thomas (TE, 2006)
- Fourth round: Malcolm Mitchell (WR, 2016), James White (RB, 2014), Josh Boyce (WR, 2013), Aaron Hernandez (TE, 2010), Garrett Mills (FB, 2006), Cedric Cobbs (RB, 2004), Rohan Davey (QB, 2002)
There is one legitimate superstar above: The Pats landed Gronk, who is on track to become the most statistically prolific tight end ever, with the 42nd overall pick in 2010. There are a few more players who made significant contributions to the team’s success — Deion Branch was the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP; Stevan Ridley posted a 1,200-yard rushing season in 2012; and from a strictly on-field perspective, I suppose Aaron Hernandez was a good pick — but that list of names raises plenty of questions.
First: How did New England end up with so many bad wide receivers? Boyce, Dobson, Price, Jackson, and Johnson quickly busted out of the league. Tate has found a modicum of success in Cincinnati and most recently Buffalo, but the Pats cut him after two seasons.
Second: Why so many quarterbacks? The Patriots have had Tom Brady this entire time, but since 2001 they’ve used five first- or second-day selections on backup passers. Garoppolo might be good, and it’s far too early to issue judgment on Brissett. But it’s hard to say anything positive about Mallett, O’Connell, or Davey.
And finally, how is it possible that any team — let alone a team that’s won so many freaking games — has failed to land a star skill-position player with a first-round draft pick in 17 years? Think of a franchise that’s been trash at drafting players, and it’s probably landed a standout skill-position player with a first-round pick since 2001. (I picked the Jets. I had to go way back, but eventually got to Santana Moss.) To be fair, most of the Patriots’ picks have come late in the first round, but they still haven’t been good. Laurence Maroney had the worst career of the four first-round running backs taken in 2006 (Reggie Bush, DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai); Ben Watson and Daniel Graham were decent tight ends, but neither was worthy of a top-32 selection. (In the best season either player ever had, Watson ranked seventh among tight ends in receptions and eighth in receiving yards.)
Of course, what’s happening here is easily explained by the Patriots’ other successes. They have found value in grabbing defensive players early, as it’s been 11 drafts since the Pats used their first pick on a skill-position player. They’ve had a lot of hits with that strategy, nabbing Pro Bowlers like Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Devin McCourty, and Brandon Meriweather. And New England has been excellent at locating skill players through other means. Finding Brady in the sixth round is the greatest draft pick of all time, and Julian Edelman was a seventh-rounder. The Pats traded — and didn’t even give up a lot — to get Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Three of the team’s leading rushers since 2011 — LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis — were essentially unwanted before signing with New England.
The Patriots haven’t been good at this, but they haven’t needed to be.
2. Having an Effective Run Defense
There have been only a few seasons in New England’s dynastic reign in which the team’s run defense has been elite. In 2005, the Pats allowed just 3.6 yards per rush, the fourth-best figure in the league. But they’ve ranked in the bottom 10 in that stat five times since 2001, including a 29th-place finish in 2002 and a 28th-place finish in 2007.
Scrolling through Football Outsiders’ defensive line statistics pages, it’s easy to find run defense stats in which the Pats finished last or close to last in the NFL. In 2014, they allowed first downs on 81 percent of opposing third- or fourth-and-short run plays, the worst power success rate in the league. In 2013, they stopped only 13 percent of opposing runs at or behind the line of scrimmage, the worst stuff rate in the league. (They also finished dead last in stuff rate in 2004, and have never finished inside the top 10 during their dynasty.) In 2012, they were the second-worst team at stopping runs off the right defensive end and the third-worst at stopping runs off the left defensive end. In 2009, they were the worst in the league at stopping runs between the guards.
Still, New England has found a way to make stops when it counts. In 2014, when they had the worst power success rate in the league, they also allowed only six rushing touchdowns — the second fewest in the NFL. The Pats surrendered just six rushing scores last season as well, the fewest in the league. And they keep contain. New England has given up a mere 107 rushing plays of 20-plus yards since 2001, an average of 6.7 per year and the second fewest in the NFL behind the Ravens. (The Saints, Rams, Bills, and Browns have allowed twice as many opposing runs of 20-plus yards.)
The Patriots may rarely make stops behind the line of scrimmage, but they routinely have exceptional linebackers and disciplined secondaries that refuse to break when the defense bends.
3. Having a Good Defense in General From 2010-2012
The Pats failed to place a defense in the top 24 of yards allowed for three straight seasons. Things bottomed out in the 2011 campaign, when they allowed 6.2 yards per play, 30th in the league. New England allowed the second-most passing yards in the NFL (4,703) and the most first downs (370) that fall. It started players such as Kyle Love, Jerod Mayo, James Ihedigbo, and 34-year-old Shaun Ellis. It couldn’t stop the pass or the run.
The result of that awful defense? A trip to Super Bowl XLVI. And the Pats almost won it, because they somehow managed to generate turnovers. New England forced 34 turnovers in 2011, third most in the league. This tendency was a constant during this period.
The Pats racking up a lot of turnovers despite being inefficient defensively makes some logical sense: Perhaps they were gambling for interceptions or forced fumbles, or perhaps opponents took more risks against a defense that had proved porous. This defense was also on the field a lot, thanks to a quick-scoring Patriots offense and a tendency to allow first downs. Still, it’s stunning that New England was simultaneously bad and good at defense for a three-season stretch. It hasn’t finished inside the bottom 10 in yards per play — or in the top 10 in turnovers forced — since.
I searched so hard for things the Patriots were bad at. I searched their quarter-by-quarter splits. (They’ve been kind of bad in the second quarter over the past two years, but it’s not a trend that holds in the long run.) I dug into their directional running splits, and how their performances varied by kickoff time and time zone. I looked at their offensive line stats during the supposedly dreadful two-year period when longtime positional coach Dante Scarnecchia was semi-retired; in spite of that one horrendous AFC championship game against the Broncos, they were awesome. There have been no trends at which the Patriots have been consistently bad.
Except for punting! Since 2002 (as far back as ESPN’s data goes), the Pats have finished in the bottom five of net punting four times, ranking 32nd in 2009 with a measly 36.4 net yards per punt. The first punter of the dynasty era, Ken Walter, was honestly just very bad. (I truly cannot praise Football Outsiders enough; here is an in-depth analysis of Walter from 2003.) New England has been in the top five in net punting during its dynastic run only once, in 2011, when it was fifth. The grand disgrace of the Patriots: On average, throughout this span, they’ve placed 17th in net punting.
This is surprising, considering Bill Belichick absolutely loves punting. Especially left-footed punters. Here, read 628 words from Bill Belichick about punting. My guess is that the Patriots’ net punting averages are sophisticated in a way that the numbers can’t explain. Belichick would not be sold short here. He has earned our trust on this of all things.
I refuse to give it to him. The Patriots are excellent at everything, and their fans know it. But I will never let them live down the embarrassment of being mediocre in net punting average.
5. Beating the Giants in the Super Bowl
The Pats are the NFL’s model franchise since the turn of the millennium. They have almost no flaws. They have a winning record against 30 NFL teams since 2001. (Congratulations to the Packers, who have gone 2-2 against New England.)
But like I said up at the top: Football is multifaceted. Nobody is perfect.