In August, during a visit to an AFC East team’s training camp, I brought up the fact that NFL media was buzzing about a particularly sloppy stretch of practices at Patriots training camp. New England, seemingly, was trying to install a set of wide zone running plays and struggling to execute–linemen were running into each other, running backs were getting stuffed left and right. A rival exec enjoyed a quick laugh at the thought of New England spinning its wheels before quickly turning serious to say: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
It never feels good to count the Patriots out, given their time-honored tradition under Bill Belichick of simply finding a way. And at 7-7, following their baffling last-second loss to the Raiders on Sunday, the Patriots still technically have a shot at the playoffs, albeit a slim one seeing as the Bengals, Dolphins, and Bills are their final three opponents. But it’s time to call it–really, it has been time.
New England has never eclipsed average this year and it was all there to see even before the season started. Belichick was not playing four-dimensional chess by trusting the offense to Matt Patricia; it was a decision that played out exactly as everyone except Belichick expected it to. They are who you thought they were.
The surprise in all of this is that the Patriots seem like a poorly coached team. They’re sloppy—Belichick’s team is tied for the 10th most penalties, has committed the fourth most offensive penalties, and is tied for the eighth most presnap penalties. They don’t play to their strengths; despite being one of the better play-action offenses in the league (11th by total expected points added, according to TruMedia), they’ve run fewer snaps using play-action than every other team besides the Saints. They got caught tipping plays against at least two opponents this season. The quick game has been accused of sucking. They are particularly bad situationally; they’re 29th in third-down percentage, ahead of only the Panthers, Texans, and Broncos, and last in the league in both red zone percentage and fourth-quarter success rate. On Sunday, before losing a game on a play that became an instant contender for dumbest in NFL history, New England had would-be touchdowns called back on two straight plays because of a poorly timed timeout and a false start penalty on tight end Jonnu Smith. They also had a punt blocked that set up a Raiders touchdown before halftime.
All of this qualifies as a surprise because of who the head coach is, but the signs that this was coming were there. Belichick’s gambit of the season was to trust Patricia, with an assist from former Giants coach Joe Judge, with major responsibility for the offense and the development of Mac Jones in a critical stage of the second-year quarterback’s career, at a time when New England was attempting to modernize its offensive system by incorporating more traditional West Coast passing elements. This was obviously a big leap of faith given Patricia’s defensive background and disastrous tenure as head coach in Detroit (as well as Judge’s special teams background and disastrous tenure in New York). I’m shocked to tell you it did not go well! The offense that struggled in camp has gone on to rank 25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and score 21 points per game. The offensive line, the most glaring issue in those preseason practices, has gone on to rank 22nd in adjusted sack rate through 15 weeks and allows running backs to be stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage more often than all but eight other teams.
Notably, though Patricia’s role has been as de facto offensive coordinator for the season, his title is “senior football advisor/offensive line.” During the training camp practices I saw, Patricia spent most of his time calling offensive plays alongside Belichick while assistant Billy Yates mostly worked with the offensive linemen. The division of labor was notable given how the line was struggling, particularly while undergoing what looked like a shift in scheme to a wide zone run game as part of the offensive transformation attempted in camp, a complicated change that requires teaching players new fundamental blocking techniques. In the end, that shift never became a bread-and-butter part of the Patriots offense, and they’d probably like those practice reps back.
The worst of this is the lack of development from Jones after a promising rookie season. A young quarterback’s second season is often the time for a leap forward; at the very least it’s a time when the team has to try hard to put him in a good enough environment to figure out his true potential. Neither of those things happened for Jones in New England this year. Jones regressed across the board in 2022, but most significantly in how he performed under pressure. His completion percentage has dropped from 53.7 percent in 2021 to 41.9 percent this season, his yards per attempt from 5.93 to 4.3 (32nd among qualified starters), his passer rating from 74.2 (13th) to 25.5 (32nd) and he’s thrown six pressured interceptions so far after throwing four all season in 2021. It’s hard to separate out how much of that is on Jones and how much is on play-calling and his offensive surroundings, but that’s the point. Nearing the end of his second season, Jones’s performance within the Patriots offense is statistically indistinguishable from that of his predecessor Cam Newton, and the only thing New England has really learned about him is that he doesn’t seem to like Patricia.
Mac— Brian Barrett (@itsbrianbarrett) December 19, 2022
210 yards per game
6.9 yards per attempt
82.6 passer rating
Cam in 2020
177.1 yards per game
7.2 yards per attempt
82.9 passer rating
Accountability is one of the pillars Belichick has built his Patriots dynasty on. It’s been enforced from the top down through an almost militaristic power structure. The wrinkle now is figuring out how to uphold that standard when those who most obviously aren’t meeting it are among the highest-ranking members of the coaching staff, not to mention Belichick’s closest friends. There hasn’t been a significant assistant coach fired in New England since offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was let go after the 2015 season. The team has been to three Super Bowls since then, so there hasn’t been much need for pink slips, making this a genuinely unfamiliar issue for the team. It’s also worth noting that after the 2015 season was also when Belichick promoted his son Steve from an entry-level defensive assistant job to a position-coaching gig, and hired his other son, Brian, for a staff position. The nepo babies of New England seem to have performed well in their roles, but it’s undeniably more complicated to hold the rest of a staff accountable for performance when, at minimum, some of their peers hold privileged positions. If a player underperformed the way the Patriots offensive coaching staff seems to have this year, we know from dozens of examples that their role would be minimized. Those precedents aren’t as clear for coaches.
Without accountability for the failures of this season, though, things won’t get better and they will probably get worse. Jones has taken to screaming his displeasure at Patricia on the sideline for all to see. This week, he contradicted Belichick in an interview by saying that he believes he would have had the arm to try a Hail Mary at the end of the Raiders game. After the Week 13 loss to the Bills, Jones mentioned, repeatedly, his wish to be “coached harder,” something he praised Josh McDaniels for having done in the leadup to the Raiders game. He’s said he doesn’t know why the Patriots have relied heavily on shotgun formations. And it hasn’t just been Jones saying this stuff. Receiver Kendrick Bourne said after the Bills loss that “the receivers can’t do anything if the ball can’t get downfield, if we can’t throw it past 5 yards.” Earlier this month, NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry reported that offensive players were taking it upon themselves to hold coaches accountable for being detail-oriented in game prep.
Your mileage may vary on how much of that seems insubordinate, but the upshot is that schematic issues can compound into trust issues very quickly if players feel that their leaders are holding them back without consequence. The Patriots’ season is over—really, it has been over, and maybe it never began. The story of their upcoming offseason will be whether or not someone is held accountable for Patricia and the offensive coaching staff’s failures. I’ll believe it when I see it.