Even a physician of footballogy would find it hard to analyze the vital signs in New England in the wake of the 2008 season.
Sure, the postseason pulse among Patriots fans is weak. After all, this is the first year without January football since 2002, which puts New England in an off-season coma for an unusually long time. It’s a full eight months before the next football flies in anger and the blood starts to course through the system again. It’s hard to feel good about the season given those circumstances.
Conversely, the Patriots performed better than most “pundits” predicted given the fact that the team’s golden right arm was amputated in early September. But most reports indicate that it will be reattached by September, so Patriots fans hold out hope for a full recovery and have reason to believe that the team will emerge as strong as ever. It’s hard to feel bad about the season given those circumstances.
But the wounds in 2008 were not only physical, they were also mental. After all, the Patriots went 11-5 – a mark that equals or betters the record of seven of the 12 playoff teams this year. The Patriots also outscored opponents by 101 points – a mark that betters the scoring differential of seven of 12 playoff teams. By any rational, statistical measure, the Patriots are as good or better as half the teams playing in the postseason. It’s hard to wrap your head around the seeming injustice.
So how do you make sense of all the conflicting vital signs?
Easy: you consult the Ph.D of pigskin called the Cold, Hard Football Facts to take the pulse of the Patriots as they prepare for the eight months of bed rest that is the NFL off-season.
The Patriots were obviously not the same team they were last year, when they might have been the greatest scoring machine in NFL history. The 2007 Patriots scored 36.8 PPG. In the entire history of pro football, only the 1950 Rams (38.8 PPG) were more prolific.
But the Patriots offense performed perfectly well in 2008 given the fact that it, you know, lost a guy who might be the best QB ever in Week 1 and turned the keys over to the most inexperienced player who has ever taken a snap in the NFL.
New England finished second in the AFC in scoring (25.6 PPG) and placed seventh league wide (clearly, the great offenses were in the NFC this year).
The running game was the franchise’s best in 25 years, averaging 4.44 yards per attempt. Given the fact that a hodge-podge of journeymen and four-named newcomers carried the ball for the Patriots this year, it was a fairly impressive output.
While the performance of quarterback Matt Cassel was one of the great storylines of the 2008 season, the Patriots actually ran the ball more often (513 attempts) than the Titans (508), Panthers (504) and Giants (502).
Credit New England’s offensive line, which performed exceedingly well this year. It finished the season at No. 8 on the Offensive Hog Index we use to measure OLs at ColdHardFootballFacts.com.
The passing game suffered relative to 2007 – though a drop-off might have been expected even if Tom Brady himself had played the entire season, given the historic productivity last year.
The 2008 Patriots averaged 6.13 yards per attempt, a fairly pedestrian 13th in the NFL this year and a steep decline from last year when the Patriots led the league with 7.79 yards per pass attempt (the method we employ at ColdHardFootballFacts.com takes sacks into consideration because it gives the most accurate indicator of the success of the passing game).
However, much of the decline can be credited to Cassel’s inexperience early in the year, when he suffered a large number of negative pass plays (sacks and INTs) that cut deeply into New England’s pass production. But once he got his feet under him, the negative pass plays declined sharply, and the Patriots passing game was as productive as any in football over the second half of the year.
By the way, those negative pass plays also cut into New England’s ranking on our Offensive Hog Index. So New England’s offensive line, which ranked eighth at the end of the year, was actually much stronger over the second half of the season when Cassel stopped taking as many sacks as he did early in the year.
The receiving corps, meanwhile, was again among the best in the league despite the loss of Brady. Randy Moss did not come close to his record 23 TD catches of 2007, but his 11 scores ranked third in the league behind only Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson (12 each). Wes Welker of 2008, meanwhile, was a virtual mirror image of Wes Welker of 2007, catching 111 passes this year (second in the league) for 1,165 yards. Last year, he caught 112 passes for 1,175 yards.
Diagnosis: The old ticker’s got a few scars on it, but the heart of the offense is pumping just fine. The Patriots scored 410 points this year, easily enough points to win a Super Bowl. Consider that their championship teams of 2001, 2003 and 2004 scored 371, 348 and 437 points, respectively. The offense certainly looks strong enough to keep the team in championship contention for the next few years.
Remember the great 49ers teams of the 1980s and 1990s?
Most fans remember the seemingly unstoppable offenses led by Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young that carried the team to five Super Bowl titles in 14 seasons.
But those who have earned their Ph.D in pigskin from the Cold, Hard Football Facts know the untold secret to San Francisco’s success: they consistently fielded some of the best defenses in football.
Throughout that entire run, from San Francisco’s first Super Bowl in 1981 to its last in 1994, the 49ers defense surrendered fewer than 300 points each and every season. It was one of the most remarkable streaks of defensive consistency in NFL history.
The Patriots have not enjoyed the same kind of defensive consistency. In fact, their worst seasons this decade were marked by their worst defenses. The 9-7 Patriots of 2002 surrendered 346 points; the 10-6 Patriots of 2005 surrendered 338 points; and the 11-5 missed-the-playoff Patriots of 2008 surrendered 309 points.
The problems in New England’s secondary were well documented this year – first here and then elsewhere. The Patriots finished 23rd in the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating (89.8) – the best measure of pass defense. It’s hard to win when opponents are snapping up an average of 7 yards or more every time they drop back to pass.
(By the way, if you need some confirmation of the utility of Defensive Passer Rating, consider the case of the 2008 Lions. The first 0-16 team in NFL history was handicapped by the single worst pass defense any team has ever fielded, with a gruesome Defensive Passer Rating of 110.9.)
The defensive front, meanwhile, remains fairly overrated, at least according to our Defensive Hog Index (which essentially measures the performance of the entire front seven, not just the DL).
While commentators insist on mentioning all the No. 1 draft picks up front each week, New England’s defensive hogs ranked a perfectly pedestrian 16th in the NFL this year, and an almost perfectly pedestrian 15th against the run, allowing opposing offenses 4.13 yards per attempt.
Third-down success is one of the components of our Defensive Hog Index, and the Patriots were among the very worst in the league this year, allowing opponents to convert a whopping 44.4 percent of their third-down attempts. It’s hard to be an elite defense when you can’t get off the field.
There were some encouraging signs: linebacker Jerod Mayo was one of the top defensive rookies in the NFL this year, while Richard Seymour played almost an entire season (15 games) and matched his career high with eight sacks. But they were among the precious few signs of life on a perfectly ordinary defense.
Diagnosis: Fans can lament the fact that the 11-5 Patriots missed out on the playoffs. But the major indicators tell us that they simply did not have a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
THE OVERALL PROGNOSIS
We’ll give it to you straight, folks: the vitals signs are not good.
Quite frankly, the Patriots display all the symptoms of a football team on the back nine of a dynasty or a suddenly limp patient of pigskin who realizes that he a needs little blue pill to perform like he did in the past.
As recently as 2005, the Patriots could proudly proclaim that they had won three of the past four Super Bowls.
But in 2006, they suffered the greatest second-half collapse in conference championship game history, losing to the Colts 38-35 after holding a 21-3 first-half lead.
Then in 2007, they became the greatest team not to win a Super Bowl.
And here in 2008, they became the best team in the Super Bowl Era that failed to reach the playoffs.
That’s a long list of negative superlatives in recent years. And the defense has been the culprit. It fell apart in the second half of the 2006 AFC title game. Then it surrendered two fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, after holding New York to three points through three quarters. And, finally, the defense this year hijacked what could have been a Super Bowl-worthy team.
The most disconcerting part is that somewhere along the way, after their 2004 Super Bowl title, the Patriots organization made a deal with the devil that simply hasn’t worked out, putting the bulk of its efforts into building a high-powered offense at the expense of its defense.
Perhaps the organization was tired of the biggest complaint about it from 2001 to 2004: the complaints that they were boring and that they won ugly.
But they won.
The Patriots will have a Super Bowl-caliber offense for the foreseeable future, apparently no matter who plays quarterback. The key now is to build a defense that’s consistently Super Bowl-worthy, like it was earlier in the decade.
Kerry J. Byrne is the publisher of ColdHardFootballFacts.com. His self-congratulatory column will appear here each Wednesday during football season. Send fawning praise, death threats or pictures of your 19-year-old sister to firstname.lastname@example.org