Bill Belichick has never taken a risk as big as appointing former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as his offensive playcaller and offensive line coach — while also giving former special teams coordinator Joe Judge a job as the quarterbacks coach.
It was a risk that was so bold that I couldn’t help but think Belichick would pull it off. Because that’s just what he does. He solves the Patriots‘ problems, often with counterintuitive solutions.
But this season, rather than solving a problem, Belichick appears to have created one. Quarterback Mac Jones looks worse than he did in his rookie season. The Patriots offense is unimaginative and predictable. Their third-down offense is a mess. (They’re 25th in the NFL with a third-down conversion rate of 36%). Their red-zone offense is even worse. (They are turning just 37.5% of their red-zone appearances into touchdowns. That ties them for last in the NFL with the much-maligned Denver Broncos offense.)
At 6-6, New England is still in the playoff hunt at eighth in the AFC East. That’s thanks to the team’s defense, led by coaches Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo and edge defender Matthew Judon. The Patriots are allowing the seventh-fewest points (18.8). And while there are many metrics to measure defenses, that’s the one Bill Belichick likes most. So by his standards, they’re a top 10 defense.
But if he uses the same metric for their offense? New England is a bottom 10 unit on that side of the ball with 20.8 points per game (9th). The Patriots are going to miss the playoffs if the offense can’t get its act together. That starts with Patricia, who — Belichick assured on Monday — is not in danger of losing his job.
Belichick was asked whether the Patriots might consider a change at playcaller.
“I think we need to do what we’re doing better. I don’t think at this point making a lot of dramatic changes — it’s too hard to do that,” Belichick said. “If we can just do consistently what we’re doing, I think we’ll be alright.”
So Belichick, Patricia and Judge will continue to tweak this offense. At this point in the season, they should be fine-tuning it. But they’re still at a foundational point — trying to find something that works. And that’s a bad sign, because their inability to establish an offensive identity has negatively impacted their young quarterback in a big way. Their schematic and playcalling issues have reversed the course of Jones’ development.
Last season, he looked like a competent starter with upside, with the second-best completion percentage for a rookie in NFL history to go with 3,801 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a playoff appearance. This season, Jones has developed bad habits (namely the inability to keep his eyes downfield in a collapsing pocket) and looks like one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
“I think I want to be coached harder. I want to be a better player,” Jones said postgame on Thursday night after New England’s 24-10 loss to Buffalo. “The coaches have given us everything they’ve got.”
That begs the question: If Belichick, Patricia and Judge have given everything and the offense looks like a disaster, then are they the right men for the job?
It’s holding back Jones’ statistics and New England’s record. But it’s also holding back Jones’ development as a leader because he can’t truly have a voice on offense if he’s still making game-changing mistakes.
“I want to hold everybody accountable, including myself. I think it’s tough, right? You get called out a little bit, you have to admit that you didn’t do your job,” Jones said. “That’s part of the game. A lot of that blame falls on me.”
Jones went so far as to question the playcalling on the sideline during the loss to the Bills. Via the broadcast, Jones could be seen screaming — with plenty of expletives — that the quick passing game wasn’t working. Considering the Patriots were trailing, Jones’ urge to push downfield would make sense. Of course, he has had issues with downfield throwing. It has often led to interceptions, with Jones throwing seven interceptions in his nine games this year. So you can also see why the coaching staff didn’t want to put him in that situation.
There’s a lack of trust on both ends. Something has broken.
“We got to get the ball downfield,” receiver Kendrick Bourne told reporters after the game. “I think Mac needs more time. He’s obviously running around, so it’s hard to get the ball downfield when you can’t really have time for him to throw. No knock to the line, it’s just what we need to work on. The receivers can’t do nothing if the ball can’t get downfield. If we can’t throw it past five yards, it’s going to be a long game. … We have plays, but we can’t get to them. We’re calling them, but they’re just not working.”
This level of criticism isn’t something you typically hear inside the New England locker room. Patriots players don’t talk about what isn’t working, not specifically. They put on a straight face and say they’re going to get better. They’re going to practice harder. They’re going to turn on the film and correct their mistakes.
But Bourne, who was embroiled in trade rumors, might feel like he has nothing to lose. He was an ascending talent under former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — just like Jones — in 2021. Under Patricia? Bourne’s production and usage have cratered.
Bourne continued to indicate that coaching was a problem when asked about the team’s inefficiencies on third downs.
“Yeah, man, we need to scheme up better,” Bourne said. “We need to know what they’re doing. We need to know what they wanna do on third down. … They call this, and we call that, and it falls right into what they want.”
I repeat: There’s a lack of trust on both ends. Something has broken.
And Belichick is right. It’s too late to bring in former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who’s looking to spring out of his offensive coordinator role at Alabama. The Patriots can’t install a new offense before the playoff push. Can they?
The alternative is improving what’s there. But what if there isn’t enough of a foundation to build anything meaningful?
These are the impossible questions that Belichick has left himself to answer.
The Patriots have winnable games against the Arizona Cardinals this week and the Las Vegas Raiders next week. That would put them squarely in the playoff hunt. But New England’s defense can only get it so far. The Patriots offense has to step up. Belichick needs to solve the biggest problem of his career — one that he created.
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Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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