The New England Patriots offense finished the 2012 season ranked first in the NFL, averaging 34.8 points per game in the regular season, with only Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos within 5 points per game of the mighty Patriots offense. In addition, the Patriots finished first in yards per game at almost 428 yards per game and first in converting 110 3rd downs at a 49% success rate. Despite these gaudy stats, the offense sputtered in the AFC Championship Game and only scored 13 points against the stingy Baltimore Ravens defense. Despite being the best in the league in the regular season, the offense is looking for upgrades in order to improve the team’s odds to win the Super Bowl next season. Today the focus is on the passing attack, with a look at the rushing attack to follow soon.
In the off-season last summer, there was much discussion focused on the return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the effect of his fingerprints on the offense. The Patriots brought in wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, franchised Wes Welker, attempted to involve Julian Edelman more, and brought back former Patriots Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, and Deion Branch to complement their dynamic duo of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Brandon Lloyd had an up-and-down year for the Patriots in 2012. He disappeared in both games against the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets. He had huge games against San Francisco and Baltimore in the regular season. At times, it seemed as if the Patriots were force-feeding the ball to him to keep him involved in the game plan: he was targeted 33 times in the first three games of the season, as if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was trying to make sure there was not going to be a repeat of the Ocho-Cinco mess of 2011.
After injuries affected Gronkowski in the 2012 AFC Championship game against Baltimore and the 2012 Super Bowl against the New York Giants, the Patriots brought in a plethora of tight ends to provide insurance for an injury again. Tight Ends Visanthe as Shiancoe, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, and Kellen Winslow were brought in as insurance, and all four proved to be dismal failures in replacing production in the passing game and blocking in the rushing game.
The biggest problem is that tight end Rob Gronkowski is a freak, in the best sense of the word. He is a force as a blocker in the running game, often taking on a defensive end and freeing up the tackle next to him to get to the next level and make space for the running back. In the passing game, his size and strength makes it difficult for any safety to cover him. With a linebacker in coverage, his speed and route-running skills allow him to consistently get open. Add in his hands and leaping ability, and even in double-coverage he goes up in the red zone to snare touchdown passes. He is, in a word, irreplaceable.
Every team in the NFL is scouring the college ranks looking for a tight end like Gronkowski. Unfortunately, such multi-threat tight ends with his skill set are in short supply in football, possibly because the only other such threat is named LeBron James and has been playing professional basketball. The Patriots are not going to find a replacement for Gronkowski, there is no replacement. So what exactly is the team supposed to do in case of injury?
The Patriots had injuries to tight end Rob Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez and faced that dilemma all season. On one hand, based on statistics, it appeared the team acquitted themselves quite well. Although they obviously had designs early in the season to play a two-tight end and two-wide receiver set on offense, with injuries and the ineffectiveness of the backup tight ends, the three wide receiver-one tight end offense began producing. Unfortunately, the loss of wide receiver Julian Edelman to injury pushed Deion Branch into the third wide receiver role where he contributed little to the offense. With tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells being non-existent in the passing game, the two tight end set failed to produce results outside of tight end Aaron Hernandez, wide receiver Wes Welker, and occasionally wide receiver Brandon Lloyd.
The Patriots had tight end Rob Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez on the field together less than 50% of the snaps, with Gronkowski on the field for approximately 60% of the offensive plays, and Hernandez playing about 46% (all snaps played numbers as charted by ESPNBoston.com). Tight ends Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui both played almost 25% of the offensive snaps, a much higher percentage than anticipated. At wide receiver, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd were on the field for 85% of the offensive snaps, with Deion Branch near 40% and Julian Edelman limited to 24% due to injury.
One solution to the offense depth issue is to keep wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and import a legitimate third receiver who can complement their strengths (middle of field and outside the numbers), maybe someone who can stretch the field vertically like Baltimore has in Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith. Another option is to continue to search for a third tight end who can make plays in the passing game and block effectively and allow the offense to use the two tight end offense that allows them to exploit match-up issues. Unfortunately, there are 31 other teams looking for such a tight end or deep threat wide receiver.
One option that has yet to be fully explored is finding a fullback/H-back to allow the team to run a modified two-tight end set. Bill Belichick has utilized the fullback in the passing game in the past in New England (Marc Edwards, Patrick Pass, and Heath Edwards) and drafted a fullback in the first round of the NFL draft while in Cleveland (“Touchdown” Tommy Vardell). With the undervaluing of the fullback position in the past ten years, it seems exactly like the kind of move an innovative offensive team would bring back to the offense to redefine the fullback role. A fullback in the mode of former San Francisco 49ers back William Floyd would be a perfect fit.
The Patriots had brought in some fullbacks in training camp, leading to speculation that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels may have a trick up his sleeve involving that position. Remember, McDaniels drafted quarterback/H-back/tight end Tim Tebow in the first round while head coach in Denver. If there was one potential match-up problem that would be effectively utilized in New England, it could be Tebow. Although it may not be Tebow, bringing in a big, pass-catching fullback could be in plans for the Patriots in 2013 to keep the offense flexible and prevent injuries from slowing down the multi-threat passing offense.
COMING SOON TO MUSKETFIRE.COM by Hal Bent: New England Patriots: Looking Ahead to 2013 – Part Two-Rushing Offense; Part Three-Passing/Nickel Defense; and Part Four-Rushing/Base Defense.