An unusual dependency on Tom Brady pretty much describes the Patriots' problems heading into Week 3 of the 2009 season.
New England should have learned its lesson back in 2007 — but more on that later.
Instead the Patriots, and their fans, were lulled into a false sense of security by Brady's late-game performance in the Week 1 win over the Bills. He returned from a year away from the game and, with an apparently hopeless outlook against the Bills, delivered a pair of late touchdowns to lift the Patriots to an improbable win.
All of New England was ecstatic to see Brady's return to form after a year away. Including, apparently, New England’s coaching staff. But it might have been the worst thing that could have happened.
In Week 2, for reasons not obvious to most observers, the Patriots insisted on asking Brady to drop back to pass on almost every down against the Jets. They attempted 47 passes, to just 19 runs — even though there was little reason to abandon the run game.
We understand the fit of desperation against the Bills when the Patriots trailed big late in the game and had few options. In fact, in these cases, the dependency is understandable. As we reported here last week, nobody is better than Brady at delivering victories when victories seem hopeless.
But against the Jets, the Patriots were not desperate. They led for most of the game. They never trailed by more than one score. They actually ran the ball fairly effectively, in the few instances that they did run it. But instead of balancing Brady passes with Fred Taylor runs, the Patriots just kept putting the ball in the air.
The result was a devastating 16-9 loss that altered the balance of power in the AFC East, at least for the time being.
This sudden dependency on Brady — a guy given no time to ease his way back in after a nasty, year-long injury/rehab — defies everything that we know about football and about the so-called “Patriot Way”: One-dimensional teams, and teams that depend too much on one player, do not win football games consistently.
And the Patriots, in the first two weeks of the 2009 season, have been the most one-dimensional team in football.
- New England has attempted 100 passes through Week 2, easily the most in the NFL.
- Teams with productive quarterbacks many fans consider pass-happy — such as the Cowboys, Colts and Saints — have attempted just 56, 61 and 68 passes respectively. Those teams are a combined 5-1
- The No. 2 team on the pass-attempt list is Tampa Bay (92 attempts). The Bucs are 0-2 and have trailed badly in both of their losses.
Clearly, something is wrong with the offensive strategy in New England. And this strategy needs to change quickly or the Patriots are in for a long, 2002-style season.
Consider these Cold, Hard Football Facts:
1. The Patriots can run the ball
Most fans don’t know this, but last year’s Patriots were one of the best running teams in franchise history. This story was lost in the rush to praise Matt Cassel for his performance in the wake of the Brady injury.
But the truth of the matter is that New England ran the ball incredibly well last year: 513 attempts for 2,278 yards, an awesome average of 4.44 yards per attempt.
You have to go back a full quarter-century to find the last time the organization ran the ball that far and that effectively: Back in 1983, John Hannah, Tony Collins and Mosi Tatupu led a team that ran for 2,605 yards on 538 attempts (4.84 YPA).
2. The Patriots should be even better this year running the ball
So, the Patriots had a great ground attack last year. In theory, they should be even better this year. The Patriots boast largely the same offensive front they fielded last year, plus some highly touted draft additions such as Sebastian Vollmer.
They also added a great running back in Fred Taylor. Yeah, he’s a little old now (33). But the former Jacksonville ball-carrier joined the Patriots with a spectacular career YPA average of 4.6. That’s among the best individual performances of your lifetime. To put Taylor’s 4.6 YPA into perspective, remember that Emmitt Smith ran his way to three Super Bowls and an all-time rushing title and into the Hall of Fame with an average 4.2 YPA.
Taylor has averaged 4.2 YPA here in 2009, but he’s been given just 17 attempts in two games. He touched the ball eight times against the Jets, ripping off 46 yards. That’s a spectacular 5.8 YPA in limited time.
Sammy Morris, meanwhile, averaged a very impressive 4.7 YPA for the Patriots last year.
Taylor, Morris, Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk form a very strong stable of backs. They just need more carries.
3. Laurence Maroney is better than he’s given credit for
Maroney is a lightning rod of ire among Patriots Nation. There’s something about his style that just doesn’t sit right with observers, and fans simply don’t believe that the team has gotten value out of this former No. 1 pick.
We’re not going to argue that he’s lived up to expectations.
But the fact of the matter is that, when he was healthy in 2006 and 2007, Maroney was a very, very effective ball-carrier. Over these two seasons he rushed 360 times for 1,580 yards, 12 TDs and a very strong 4.4 YPA (anything over 4.0 is good … anything close to 5.0 is Jim Brown territory).
In fact, look up the best running backs in Patriots history, and you’ll find that none averaged 4.4 YPA. Most weren’t even close: Jim Nance (4.0), Larry Garron (3.9), Sam Cunningham (3.9), Craig James (4.2), Tony Collins (3.9).
Maroney has not been particularly productive here in 2009 (16 attempts for 55 yards, 3.44 YPA), but he’s a home run-type who, given the opportunities, has shown in the past that he can break the big, game-changing play.
4. The Patriots win when they run the ball
New England’s Super Bowl champions boasted the best pass-run balance of any of their teams of recent vintage.
The 2001 Patriots attempted 482 passes and 473 rushes. That’s pretty damn good balance.
The 2003 Patriots were completely ineffective running the ball but at least made the effort to provide some balance. They attempted 537 passes and 473 rushes.
The 2004 Patriots actually ran more often than they passed: 485 pass attempts and 524 rushes. They’re the best team in franchise history: They went 14-2, dominated many opponents and won the Super Bowl.
As these teams proved, an offense that balances the effort to run with a great quarterback is a potent force that can deliver Super Bowl championships.
5. The Patriots must run … even if they don’t run well
The 2003 Patriots are a very interesting story. That team averaged an abysmal 3.4 YPA on the ground. It was the worst ground attack by any champion since the 1970 Colts (3.3 YPA), another team led by a Hall of Fame quarterback (Johnny Unitas).
So, the 2003 Patriots were a pathetic running team. But they proved the value of running — and we hate to use a cliché here — merely to keep opponents honest.
The 2003 Patriots yielded few results when running the ball. But they still ran it. In fact, they ran it 473 times — just as many attempts as the 2001 Super Bowl champions.
Even in the Super Bowl win over Carolina they ran it: 35 times for 127 yards, a measly 3.6 YPA. But they kept the Panthers off balance, and then when needed, Dr. Feelgood was there to deliver the satisfying jolt of another last-second Super bowl victory.
6. The Patriots lose when they don’t run
The 2007 Patriots really had it working — for 18 weeks.
Anyone who was not caught up in the euphoria of an undefeated regular season would have noticed that the team had grown one-dimensional right before our very eyes. But to paraphrase the Eagles, we pretended not to notice, we were caught up in the race.
And we all know what happened: The one-dimensional Patriots crashed against the Giants in Super Bowl XLIII, in front of one of the largest audiences in American TV history.
In a desperate bid to counter the New York pass rush, the Patriots had nothing left in their tank: They were unable to call or even execute run plays in critical situations. The Patriots ran just 16 times that night for an abysmal 45 yards (2.8 YPA) and Brady got hammered almost every time he stepped back to pass.
You’d think the Patriots might have learned their lesson that night. But so far, here in Brady’s first two full games since that Super Bowl disaster, they’re falling into the same old habits.
Brady is a gem — one of the true great quarterbacks of our time and a guy who has proven that he can win games that other quarterbacks lose. But like any quarterback, he’s at his best when the team comes up with a game plan that utilizes all 11 players around him.