While the 2007 Patriots set the standard for offensive excellence, it’s clear that after the first five games, the 2012 offense is just as potent.
There are only three offensive players who are left over from that 2007 unit: quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Wes Welker and left guard Logan Mankins. And while the current offense might not be able to match some of the records that were set by the 2007 team -- particularly Brady’s 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss’s 23 touchdown catches or 589 points, a single-season NFL record -- but across the board, through the first five games, the rest of the numbers are certainly comparable.
While the 2007 team averaged 411.3 yards per game, through five games, the 2012 team is averaging 439.4 yards per game. This year’s team is far better at running the ball than their 2007 counterparts (115.6 yards per game to 165.4 yards per game), and while they don’t have the passing stats to match the 2007 team (295.7 yards per game five years ago vs. 274 through five games this year), they can nearly boast the same ridiculous points per game total (36.8 in 2007, 33 this year).
Beyond the numbers, it’s becoming clear that this offense has the personnel to match up with the 2007 edition. Here are four reasons why:
When healthy, Aaron Hernandez is a more versatile -- and dangerous -- offensive option than anyone on the 2007 roster. Hernandez is an offensive Swiss Army knife, a dynamic presence that allows the Patriots to do multiple things with multiple schemes. He’s lined up in the backfield, flush against the tackle as a traditional tight end, in the slot and split wide. If an opposing defense comes out in a base look, Hernandez can shift from lining up next to the tackle -- or motion out of the backfield -- and split out to become a wide receiver. If the defense breaks the huddle in a nickel or dime set expecting a pass, he can line up anywhere to give the Patriots a power run look. He can’t match the overall production of a Randy Moss or Wes Welker, circa 2007, but his ability and flexibility allows New England to put stress on opposing defenses in ways it never could in 2007.
“He’s the X factor that makes the Patriots offense hard to match up with from a personnel standpoint,” Sam Monson, an analyst for Pro Football Focus, said of Hernandez. “Gronkowski is a nightmare too, but in the same way any great tight end is always tough to defend. Hernandez forces teams to make a decision about whether to treat him as a wide receiver or part of the run game before the huddle, and that tends to change personnel groupings on defense.”
The tight ends force opposing defensive coordinators to make a fundamental choice. Over the course of the last two weeks, we have seen the Patriots face teams that are primarily geared to stop the pass -- there’s been a flood of extra defensive backs and undersized linebackers on the field as the Bills and Broncos were clearly thinking pass-first when defending the Patriots. But the presence of Rob Gronkowski and Daniel Fells have allowed New England to utilize some mismatches to their advantage, and have led to big days for the Patriots’ running game. New England ran for 251 yards against Denver and 247 yards against Buffalo, and that’s thanks in large part to their tight ends.
“They do a good job, because they have some tough matchups with those tight ends,” Denver coach John Fox when asked about the matchup problems the Patriots’ offense possesses. “And you know, some people chose -- and we did early, [and] kind of adjusted as it went -- to put more athletic, smaller people out there to defend them because they do spread it out pretty good. So, it’s matchups, and once you get the little guys out there, it’s a little more inviting to run against.”
The 2012 team has a more consistent running attack, leading to greater offensive balance. In 2007, Laurence Maroney provided an occasional relief from the New England passing attack -- he finished with a career-best 835 yards and six touchdowns on 185 carries, a respectable 4.5 yards per carry. But through five games, Stevan Ridley is more than halfway there with 490 yards and four touchdowns. (That would put him on pace to finish the season with 1,568 rushing yards.) And with Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen continuing to work in complementary roles (Bolden would appear to be a safe bet to crack 500 yards), it would seem evident that the Patriots would have no problem breaking the 2007 mark of 1,849 rushing records as a team. That run-pass balance has played a large role in their success.
“Balance is good as long, as that’s the best thing for you to do to try to win the game and be successful,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “But the last so many weeks -- and really all year -- we’ve been in the game or been ahead in the game and have had the ability to maintain our run-pass balance if you will. Again, we go into each week trying to figure out what the best way to play the game is and hopefully we choose a plan that will give our guys the best opportunity to be successful and so far I think that being balanced has been part of that formula.”
This team has a greater ability to control the tempo than the 2007 team. Part of this feeds into the success of the running game, but it is also seen in their work in the no-huddle offense -- they have leaned heavily on the hurry-up over the first five week, using it an average of 33 percent over the course of the first five games. Their ability to keep opposing defenses on their toes and play at such a high speed distinguishes them from the 2007 team, and it also figures into their ability to keep drives moving. Over the first five games of the 2007 season, the New England offense averaged 26 first downs a game, with a high of 28 first downs in the season opener against the Jets. In 2012, the Patriots have averaged 30 first downs over the first five weeks of the season, with 35 in last week’s win over the Broncos. (If they maintain their pace of 30.2 first downs a game, they’ll finish with 483, shattering the NFL record of 416 set last year by the Saints and the club mark of 399.) Their late-game loss to the Ravens aside -- where they couldn’t close out Baltimore on the road -- this Patriots team does a better job of managing the game than the 2007 squad.
“I think the most important thing is that we’re doing something, whatever that is, if we choose to play fast, we’re doing something that we know how to execute ourselves,” McDaniels said. “I think everything starts with our own execution and our own ability for all 11 of us work on the same page on every play. Sometimes that seems to be better playing at the line of scrimmage and other times it’s much better playing from the huddle. I think there are probably a number of factors that could decide what you choose to do each week, and we’ve kind of done both.”