When it comes to the Patriots offense, there’s the popular belief that the whole thing is interchangeable -- that it’s nothing but Tom Brady and a handful of offensive options with minimal tweaks. However, a closer look at the number reveals that New England’s offensive game plan underwent a massive overhaul in 2012, and whether it was because of injury or personnel, this past season looked very little like the 2011 edition.
Between the end of the 2011 season and the start of 2012, there were two fundamental changes in personnel -- with the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis for Cincinnati via free agency, Stevan Ridley assumed the role of lead running back. And Brandon Lloyd became the No. 2 wide receiver, taking the snaps that went to Chad Johnson and Deion Branch last season. (While Branch was on and off the roster in 2012, he didn’t play near as much as he did in 2011.)
Starting at quarterback, Brady remained Brady. One of the best signal-callers of his generation, his numbers actually changed relatively little, other than a dip in his passing yards and touchdowns thrown.
2011: 401-for-611, 66 percent completion rate, 5,235 yards, 39 TDs, 12 INTs
2012: 401-for-637, 63 percent completion rate, 4,827 yards, 34 TDs, 8 INTs
Looking at the rest of the team, there are some interesting differences between the 2011 and 2012 offense. Two big things stand out.
First, the Patriots leaned on the running game far more than they have in years past. The Patriots ran the ball 523 times in 2012 -- the highest number of carries for a New England team since the 2004 team ran the ball 524 times over the course of the regular season. There was simply no comparison between the 2011 and 2012 running attacks.
2011: 438 carries, 1,764 yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 18 touchdowns
2012: 523 carries, 2,184 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 25 touchdowns
That’s an increase of six carries per game (from an average of 27 to 33) and 27 yards per game (from 110 yards per game to 137 yards per game), both of which represent sizable increases, particularly in this era of spread offenses. Truth be told, the Patriots running game this past season was the best and most consistent since that 2004 team that featured Clock Killin’ Corey Dillon. As a group, New England was able to hit 500 carries and 2,100 rushing yards and maintain an average of better than four yards per carry for the third time in the Bill Belichick era.
2012: 523 carries, 2,184 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 25 touchdowns
2008: 513 carries, 2,278 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 21 touchdowns
2004: 524 carries, 2,134 yards, 4.1 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns
Ridley fell just 10 carries short of becoming the first New England running back to hit the 300-carry plateau since Dillon in 2004, but he still managed 290 carries, 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. And as long as we’re talking about marks when it comes to running backs, it’s worth mentioning that veteran running back Danny Woodhead became the first New England running back since Kevin Faulk in 2008 to get at least 40 carries and 40 catches in a single season -- Woodhead finished with 76 carries and 40 catches.
(On the subject of Woodhead, it’s not only his ability to contribute in the passing game, but his dependability as a pass-catcher that makes him dangerous. This past season, he caught 40 of the 55 passes that were thrown in his direction. That catch rate of 73 percent was the best of any New England skill position player who was targeted at least 10 times.)
The second big thing that stands out was the fact that the Patriots’ passing game was able to put up elite numbers despite the fact that two of their primary targets, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, missed a sizable chunk of the 2012 season because of injury. According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez played just 573 offensive snaps in 2012 -- barely more than the 514 snaps he played as a rookie in 2010. As for Gronkowski, he played 743 offensive snaps in 2012, the lowest total in his three seasons in the league. The decrease in action is seen in their total targets: after a 2011 season that saw them dominate in the passing game (Gronkowski had 90 catches on 124 targets and Hernandez finish with 79 catches on 113 targets), those numbers were off this season. In 2012, Gronkowski had 55 catches on 79 targets, while Hernandez had 51 catches on 83 targets. And those decreased numbers were reflected in the changes in the teamwide target distribution:
2012 targets by position:
Wide receiver: 230 catches on 369 targets
Tight end: 116 catches on 182 targets
Running back: 56 catches on 84 targets
2011 targets by position:
Wide receiver: 196 catches on 309 targets
Tight end: 169 catches on 237 targets
Running back: 37 catches on 58 targets
Other: 0 catches on 1 target
If most offenses were forced to make do without a 90-catch and a 79-catch guy for a portion of the season, they’d be lost. However, Lloyd was able to collectively pick up the targets from many of those who didn’t return for the 2012 season -- his 74 catches on 131 targets were carved mostly from the leftovers from the Chad Johnson era, as well as those from Branch (who saw a drastic drop in playing time from 2011 to 2012), Julian Edelman (who went on injured reserve on Dec. 4) and short-timers from the 2011 roster like Tiquan Underwood. While he was underwhelming at times, there’s no debate about the fact that he brought a different dynamic to the offense, a sideline presence who showed a unique ability to operate in tight spaces. (One odd statistical quirk to Lloyd’s game was his lack of YAC, or yards after catch. On an offense that has annually had several pass catchers in the Top 20 when it comes to YAC, Lloyd finished the regular season with 180 YAC, the lowest total of any receiver who had at least 70 catches on the season.)
But the guy who picked up most of the slack in the passing game was Welker. Unquestionably, Welker’s role in the earliest weeks of the season was limited. However, as the season progressed, he reclaimed his prior role as an offensive focal point — to the point where he experienced a slight increase in both the number of times he was targeted in 2012 compared to 2011, and in terms of the overall percentage of passes went his way in the offense. (However, it’s worth noting that, with the star tight ends limited, Brady targeted the wide receivers as a whole more than he did last year; the increased attention Welker received in the offense was actually slightly less than the overall bump that the wide receiver group as a whole enjoyed in 2012.)
The slight increase in Welker’s targets is due to three different factors. One, part of it is simply game-planning and situational football: if the Patriots find a weakness in an opposing defense (such as an inability to cover Welker, for example), they will pick at it again and again until the defense can find a way to stop them. Two, the fact that both Hernandez and Gronkowski were sidelined for several weeks (Hernandez was out seven-plus games, while Gronkowski was out for five games) caused the New England passing game to lean on Welker.
And three, regardless of the year and who is around him, Welker remains one of the better and more dependable options in the passing game. This season, he became the first receiver in NFL history with at least five seasons of 100 or more receptions. And against the Jaguars on Dec. 23, Welker passed Jerry Rice with his 18th career game with 10 or more catches. For the season, he ended up with 118 catches for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns -- his 118 receptions marked the third-highest total of his career. (He caught 123 balls in 2009 and 122 in 2011.)