Welcome to the New England Patriots Machine

Last Word On Pro Football, Derek Brown

When Tom Brady makes his return from suspension this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns it won’t just be the return of a player, but the return of a dying era.

Welcome to the New England Patriots Machine

For years, Peyton Manning and Brady owned Sunday’s in the NFL. Week in and week out it was the same thing, supreme dominance on the offensive side of the ball. They didn’t win every game but it did seem like they were going to score 30 points every week. And if there was ever a bad team coming to town everyone knew what was in store – a 40 burger. It wasn’t just the big numbers on the scoreboard either, it was the consistency. Four touchdowns and a victory become the expectation and it became news when it didn’t happen. By 2008, they had added running mates Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers too. The era of the insanely dominant quarterback was in full bloom and no score was high enough to surprise us.

The 2015 season broke the chain. The Peyton Manning show was dead on arrival, Brees and Rodgers struggled for their own reasons. However, Brady and the Patriots were the same old story. By the end of their ninth game the Patriots had scored 303 points – more than five other NFL teams would score all season. They sat at 9-0, averaging a ridiculous 33 points per game. Then receiver Julian Edelman broke his foot and the offense was never the same. In their remaining nine games the Patriots only broke the 30 point plateau again once. It wasn’t just losing Edelman. There were additional injuries on the offensive line, but the loss of Edelman exposed the lack of options the Patriots had outside of their star receiver (more on this later).

Regardless of how it happened, the result was the same for NFL fans – nearly ten straight years of unprecedented quarterback brilliance was snapped. Of course, there were others to pick up the mantle but the unmatched consistency was gone. Suddenly there was no one you could count on week in and week out no matter the circumstances. Tom Brady is back to change that.

It’s been nearly a full calendar year since we have seen the Patriots machine in action. It’s felt like an eternity! So let’s quickly rehash what we’ve been missing first. The Patriots own October football. Some seasons they take a few games to get going, but once the page turns on the calendar their dominance comes out. Between 2010 and 2014, the Patriots went 52-10 and averaged over 32 points per game between October and the end of the regular season. That’s an .838 winning percentage! In those 62 games, they rolled the scoreboard over 40 points an incredible 17 times. That’s over a quarter of their games. In none of those five seasons did they ever lose more than three games in the remainder of the schedule, and even that only happened once.

Many people have speculated that Tom Brady is going to unleash hell on the league this season to get revenge for his four game “Deflate-gate” suspension. They are right. But not because of revenge or extra determination. Just because that is what the Patriots do. And this year they have new pieces to help them make it happen.

What worked so well for the Patriots in 2014 came crashing down with Edelman’s injury in 2015. Brandon LaFell, who had 953 receiving yards in 2014, missed the 2015 pre-season and never found a rhythm in the offense. The Patriots failed to replace his production and the lack of an outside target hurt the offense. Pass catching running back Shane Vereen was gone to the New York Giants. His replacement Dion Lewis was a revelation, but lasted less than half the season before landing on injured reserve. Tight end Scott Chandler was signed in the offseason and his 6’7″ height had Patriots fans giddy about his pairing with Rod Gronkowski and the mismatches it would create. By season’s end, Chandler was barely part of the offense. He lacked the speed to get open quick enough for Brady’s quick passes and his blocking didn’t give the Patriots the versatility they desired. Even the offensive line suffered when Pro Bowl caliber right tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed the end of the season. Without a suitable replacement the Patriots were less effective in their four and five wide receiver formations and the decline in blocking limited their offense against the best pass rushing teams.

Every move the Patriots made this offseason went to directly addressing these issues on offense. The results may bring the Patriots back to their offensive heyday of 2010-2012 where the Patriots eclipsed 500 points for three straight seasons. Here are the upgrades:

Offensive Line

At times in 2015, the Patriots started three rookies along their offensive line. These were not highly drafted players. It included two fourth round picks and an undrafted free agent at center. The 2015 offensive line deteriorated as the season wore on, by the end of the year they were no threat to run the ball and this allowed opponents to game plan to stop the pass only, both with scheme and personnel. This year the personnel look nearly the same. Two of last years rookies, guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews, have managed to stick as starters for 2016. Added to the group is second round draft pick Joe Thuney who was inserted at left guard day one. Perhaps the biggest addition though is the return of long-time line coach Dante Scarnecchia. The 2015 team ran the ball only 35% of the time, 25th in the league. This season they are running the ball 48% of the time, which is good for second. This change is a natural result of Tom Brady’s suspension – but the point is that the 2015 Patriots could not have run the ball this much and had any consistent success. Scarnecchia has instilled a new toughness in the line that has allowed the Patriots to be versatile. This is a massive improvement over the sometimes one-sided Patriots who rely on Brady to be at his very best in every game.  The blocking has also received a considerable upgrade at another position.

Martellus Bennett

The Patriots traded a fourth round pick to Chicago for Martellus Bennett in the offseason. So far he has been a beast. Twice in four games Bennett has cracked the 100 yard receiving mark. He might be making an even bigger impact as a blocker:


Check out the clip in the attached article. Bennett manhandles former Patriot Chandler Jones, just one of his many blocking highlights from the young season. This is an important aspect of the game to the Patriots. In 2015, the Patriots kept tight end Michael Williams on the squad almost exclusively for his blocking. He was a part of the offense, but caught only three passes all season, and was tasked with helping the offensive tackles out on the edges mostly. Bennett is a massive upgrade because he can fill this blocking role and still threaten the defense with his receiving ability. The resulting versatility allows the Patriots to effectively run different types of plays with the same personnel – essentially Bill Belichicks dream.  The nightmare that is defending Rob Gronkowski and Bennett at the same time has already been described by many pundits, and I couldn’t agree more. Especially when the wild card factor of the next addition is added to the mix.


Chris Hogan

Chris Hogan was brought over as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills in the offseason. He was given a modest contract and a big deal was not made about the signing. Hogan’s potential impact for the Patriots is being vastly under-rated though. He has the size that no other Patriots wide receiver does and is able to fill the outside receiver roll that has been missing since Lafell’s healthy 2014 season. Hogan, though, has a burst that Lafell never possessed, and his sure hands allowed him to develop a chemistry with Brady in the preseason. He is also a tenacious blocker. So far, Hogan has been the complete package for the Patriots even though his stats to date might not jump off the page. Consider this remarkable stat. Chris Hogan has played more snaps this year than Julian Edelman. Many factors could contribute to this but I think one thing is clear. The Patriots coaching staff trusts Hogan, and that is a great sign for his 2016 prospects.

The Hogan and Bennett additions do one more thing for the Patriots offense. They allow them to stretch the field vertically in a way they could not in 2015. When Rob Gronkowski returns to full health he is a threat in this area too. This is a significant because the Patriots have always done such a magnificent job of stressing teams horizontally.  When the vertical element is added to the mix, with three players who can get deep on any play, opposing safeties will be challenged beyond their breaking point.

Tom Brady is back. The offense is in place around him. Even if the additions are not enough to return the offense to its turn of the decade decadence they can certainly replicate the brilliance of 2014 that was enough to earn the team their fifth world championship. We may be seeing the end of an era too. Last season showed that the return of the dominant defense is upon us. The best teams in the league are far more balanced than they have been in the last 10 seasons. The days of the offense that automatically scores 30 points every week are coming to an end.

Enjoy the last ride.