Patriots offense still searching for answers after summer’s early optimism

FOXBORO — There were warning signs this summer that the Patriots offense wasn’t suddenly going to turn from inept into a juggernaut.

But it was also easy to ignore them — the early-summer red-zone struggles, quarterback Mac Jones’ inability to hit a receiver deep in stride, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s quiet camp, persistent pressure from a battered and constantly shifting offensive line — with the sheer amount of optimism emanating from Patriots players with a seemingly competent offensive coordinator taking over for Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in Bill O’Brien. Players were smiling. Offensive players were hyping up Jones’ progress. The team was celebrating in practice and having fun. The stink of 2022 had worn off and the unit was starting anew by challenging what was expected to be a stout defense before injuries changed those plans.

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Now past the midway point in the season with a 2-7 record, the Patriots’ offense is somehow playing significantly worse than they performed in 2022 when it seemed like the post-Tom Brady era had hit rock bottom. It sadly hadn’t.

The Patriots ranked 24th in expected points added (EPA) per play at -0.047 in 2022. They’re 30th this year at -0.162. They had a 41.1% success rate last season. That mark stands at 40.9% this season. Their dropback EPA per play was 22nd at -0.026 last year. Now they’re 29th at -0.162. They were 21st in rush EPA per play in 2022. Now they’re 25th.

So, what exactly caused the Patriots to not live up to the optimism that surrounded the unit three months ago?

“I don’t think you can point to one thing,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day we haven’t played on a consistent level at all. We have to do a better job of being more consistent all the way around. We have a really good group of guys. They work really hard. There’s no finger-pointing going on, anything like that. We watch the tape, we try to get better, they work hard to get better. And the results just haven’t been there. We have to continue to — there’s no substitute for hard work. We can’t all of a sudden just not working at all. We just have to continue to work at it. There’s a lot of ball left. And let’s see if we can get better starting this week.”

Jones has regressed for the second straight year. The Patriots replaced Jakobi Meyers with JuJu Smith-Schuster. And head coach Bill Belichick didn’t make a move to fix an offensive line that already struggled to protect Jones in 2022, substituting Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson, Vederian Lowe and rookies Sidy Sow and Atonio Mafi for Isaiah Wynn, Marcus Cannon and Yodny Cajuste. Reiff was moved from right tackle to guard early in camp, Anderson was benched then placed on injured reserve, and Lowe was benched after being acquired from the Vikings in a trade weeks before Week 1. Since moving Mike Onwenu to right tackle and inserting Sow at right guard, the offensive line has settled more. But wide receiver Kendrick Bourne is out for the season with a torn ACL, Smith-Schuster has not lived up to his offseason hype, and DeVante Parker saw his snaps reduced for Eagles first-round castoff Jalen Reagor before missing Week 9 with a concussion.

“I think you start with turnovers,” tight end Hunter Henry opined about why the Patriots haven’t played up to their potential. “Turnovers are one thing that obviously hold back any offense no matter how good of an offense it is. That’s hurt us. And a lot of those turnovers too have given the other team points. So you can kind of point to that right away. Not being great in situational football and specifically probably third down. Just staying on the field and sustaining drives. We just haven’t been good in those areas. Clean those things up, and we can finish stronger.”

The Patriots rank 28th in turnover differential this season. They have the league’s ninth-most turnovers. They’re 27th in third-down conversation percentage at 33.05%. It’s almost all bad.

“Just being consistent and trying to work together,” Jones said about his offense’s struggles. “We’ve got some young guys playing. And just making sure we’re all on the same page and out there executing every week. Like I said, each week is different. It’s important to understand what we need to do this week. That’s where our focus is. Communication needs to be up there. Make everybody be on the same page, and then it’s pretty good.”

The Patriots had two rookies — Sow and wide receiver Demario Douglas — starting Sunday’s loss to the Commanders. Two second-year pros — left guard Cole Strange and wide receiver Tyquan Thornton — also played significant snaps. And Reagor joined the team after training camp.

If the Patriots can play more consistent, and if they can limit turnovers, and if they can improve on third down and if they communicate better, then perhaps they can put a better product on the field. But with seven losses through nine weeks, the Patriots are already past the point of no return. They currently have <1% odds of making the playoffs, per The New York Times’ model.

If the Patriots bring back the same offensive core in 2024, they won’t fool anyone into a false sense of optimism.

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