Patriots offense searching for a productive identity


What does the Patriots offense do consistently well right now?

That’s the question facing New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Tom Brady these days, one that’s not close to having an obvious answer.

This isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to the Patriots offensive struggles in the 16-10 win in Buffalo last Sunday, a game in which Brady and Co. punted on nine of 13 possessions, seven of which were three-and-outs against a talented Bills defense.

A week earlier the unit punted (or turned the ball over) on eight of its final 11 possessions against the Jets, sputtering after opening the game with three straight drives to touchdowns.

The reality is that while Bill Belichick’s team has jumped out to a 4-0 record on the season, it’s done so on the foundation that is arguably the best defense in football and, at times, in spite of an offense that’s been inconsistent at best and alarmingly ineffective at worst.

“We have to figure out what we can do well," Brady told the Greg Hill Show on WEEI just hours after flying back from the struggles in Buffalo. "We have to figure out the things we got to throw out that we’re not doing a good job of and probably won’t work. Every year your team changes and so forth. Sometimes you try certain things because you think they are going to work and they don’t, or you build on things. Just going to try and find ways to get better and improve and find things we can consistently do a good job of.”

Some of the struggles are easily explained.

Certainly injuries and inconsistency on the offensive line has been a major factor. Captain and center David Andrews is lost for the year, leaving inexperienced veteran backup Ted Karras to hold things down in the middle. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn is on injured reserve for at least half the season, leaving late-arriving journeyman Marshall Newhouse to try to get the job done at the premier line spot.

The line’s issues haven’t just resulted in Brady being under pressure, as he was regularly in Buffalo despite not actually being sacked, but also in an ineffective running game. Late last season and throughout the Super Bowl LIII run, the Sony Michel-led ground game was the heart of the offense. Now, Michel is averaging a mere 2.8 yards per carry on 62 attempts, with Belichick emphasizing a number of times in recent weeks that the line in front of him needs to do a better job giving the second-year back room to produce.

The passing game has also hit a rough stretch of late thanks to the chest/rib injury that’s limiting go-to slot option Julian Edelman. When the going gets tough, Brady generally looks to Edelman to inject life into the offense. But with Edelman sidelined for the second half against the Jets and looking anything but himself as he gutted through things in Buffalo, Brady was left with James White’s contributions out of the backfield as the only reliable option.

“We're not where we want to be in any area of our offense at this moment, and we're going to continue to try to get better at each one of those,” McDaniels said this week. “Whatever the peak is for us this year, we're certainly not there yet and we have a lot of work, a lot of practice to put in to reach that.”

The good news is that McDaniels, Brady and the Patriots offense has been through this time and time again over the years. Heck, the unit went through multiple evolutionary phases just a year ago on the trek toward a title. Remember when the offense had its issues before the desperation trade for Josh Gordon last September? Then became a different beast with the big outside target in the mix only to transform one more time after Gordon was lost to an NFL suspension in December?

McDaniels and Brady should and do have confidence they can work through this latest speedbump in their annual journey to building a productive, winning offense. In many ways it’s been one of the backbones of Brady’s legendary career, taking whatever it is he has to work with in a given year and creating an attack worthy of competing for a championship.

Maybe the return of Ben Watson from NFL suspension will bring some production to a tight end position that’s been a non-factor through the first month.

Maybe the offensive line will come together under the unquestioned tutelage of legendary position coach Dante Scarnecchia.

Maybe there will be an addition to receiving corps to add life to the group and take pressure off Gordon – who’s looked sluggish and inefficient – and Phillip Dorsett, who’s clearly at his best as a complementary weapon. No, any midseason addition won’t be of the caliber of Antonio Brown, but dreams of names like Emmanuel Sanders and Stefon Diggs litter Twitter as a titillating tease these days.

Most importantly, Belichick, McDaniels and Brady have the time and opportunity to figure things out on offense thanks to a defense that is playing at an historic level. Unlike so many years past, Brady and Co. don’t have to strive to score 30 points to have a chance to win. Heck, right now the Patriots offense might just be the third-best unit on the team. That’s both a rarity and a luxury.

“Whatever we need to do on offense to help us win the game, that's really what we're focused on trying to do each week, and I think our group is really in-tune with that – very unselfish. Whatever that means, we have to do our job, and at the end of the day the most important thing is that we have an opportunity to win the game,” McDaniels concluded. “Again, defense is really doing a great job and we've got to do our part and play complementary football with that and the kicking game. So, we're one of the three compartments, and we certainly are going to work hard to improve in our area and try to play good, complementary football moving forward.”

A month into the year the Patriots offense is still searching for its identity. That search may continue into the middle of the season and beyond as it tries to figure out what it can do well on consistent basis, especially as the schedule grows more challenging in the coming months.

So far it’s been good enough to win every time it’s taken the field.

Game plan details and statistical production aside, that’ll remain the goal over the final 12 weeks of the season and beyond.

The Patriots offense is clearly a work in progress, but there are plenty worse things to be in the NFL than a 4-0 work in progress.