As Bill Belichick well knows, regardless of whether he’ll speak on it or not, there’s a very good reason Patriots fans and media are concerned about the fate of this year’s offense.
New England is heading into the 2021 season without offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, now head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, for the first time since 2012. He wasn’t just the offense’s play-caller; he was also the closest advisor to quarterback Mac Jones, who will enter a highly important second season with offensive assistants Joe Judge and Matt Patricia prominently in his ear along with Belichick.
Losing McDaniels obviously hurts. Whatever you think of a call or two here and there, what he did with a rookie Jones and the offense in 2021 might have been his best individual work yet after years working with the greatest quarterback of all time.
Throw in the very purposeful obfuscation Belichick is casting over who will call plays in 2022 and some surprising personnel choices -- trading away Shaq Mason, for example -- and it feels like this season's offense could be a train wreck waiting to happen.
But is it really? Recent history suggests things might not be as bad as all that.
Since 2017, NFL teams have changed their primary offensive play-callers (head coach, offensive coordinator, or other coach) 49 times heading into seasons. (Note: this does not include examples of play-callers being fired mid-season and having another coach take over for them.)
A quick comparison of how offenses performed in the years before and after teams switched play-callers showed that offenses picked up small gains in yards per play (0.098), points per game (0.83), and estimated points added per play (EPA/play; 0.018) directly after the change.
Of course, the Patriots were a pretty solid offense in 2021, ranking sixth in points per game (27.18) and 10th in EPA/play (0.7). So the unit has some work to do to keep up with that standard and will need Jones to make the second-year jump many are hoping for.
Speaking of Jones, switching offensive play-callers doesn't have to be a development-killer for quarterbacks going into their second year.
Among recent quarterbacks who improved their efficiency, as measured by composite EPA/play + completion percentage over expected (CPOE), from Year 1 to 2 despite having new play-callers are Lamar Jackson, Mitchell Trubisky, Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa.
Of course, there are also the cautionary tales of guys like Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones, whose last two seasons were overseen by none other than Joe Judge, who scuffled in Year 2 with new offensive coaching and arguably suffered irreparable harm.
Mac Jones is likely better than several of the previously listed players, so there's hope he can continue succeeding as long as the supporting cast around him plays at or above last year's level.
But the other thing the Patriots have that many of these other teams don't is continuity at the top of the coaching structure. In the end, this is Belichick's team, his system, and his philosophy for how to function on the field, no matter who the assistants are.
All this is to say: the numbers push back on any narrative that the Patriots’ offense is doomed to fail just because McDaniels is gone. The only question is whether or not New England has the right guy(s) calling the plays in his place.
If we’re talking about Belichick taking on the brunt of the offensive planning and play-calling himself while relegating Judge and Patricia to more specialized roles, perhaps there’s more hope the offense at least breaks even in 2022 as compared to last year.
If not? Well, as Samuel L. Jackson's character said in Jurassic Park: hold onto your butts.