BOSTON -- It was supposed to be better. Much, much better.
Not at all, really.
Consider this: The 2023 Patriots have played four games. They're 1-3, and they've scored 13.8 points per game, which is second-fewest in the NFL. They're 24th in yards per play. Nothing is really better. Last year, they were also 1-3 through four games, though last year's team scored almost five more points per game, for whatever that's worth.
Obviously, there have been some legitimate reasons for the Patriots' sputtering offense, the largest of which being the offensive line. New England employed its fourth different starting O-line on Sunday, and between injuries, subpar play and poor roster construction at those five critical spots, it has been a veritable mess up front for the Patriots' offense. Fair enough. Got it.
Yet in no way, shape or form should the Patriots' offense be this futile. They rank 28th in rushing yards per attempt, 23rd in yards per pass play, and 22nd in first downs per game. They've improved their red zone scoring (tied for eighth at 62.5 percent), but they're middle of the pack at converting third downs (16th, at 38.7 percent) and they're tied for 28th at converting fourth downs.
The common thread from last year? Executing offensively when it's really needed.
The other common thread would of course be Mac Jones, who had himself his biggest nightmare as a professional quarterback on Sunday. He was undoubtedly a major part of the problem in the blowout loss, but he's not the only one who has some questions to answer this coming week and moving forward.
That list is topped by Bill O'Brien, who had the easiest task in the world this year: Running an offense that's better than Matt Patricia's was. So far, he's not achieving that insanely achievable goal.
The list includes Rhamondre Stevenson, who was expected to rise to real star status this year but has been ordinary. (Like Mac, the offensive line impacts him severely in this, of course. But we've seen great players make great players despite less-than-ideal circumstances.)
The list includes Cole Strange, who was taken in the first round as a guard ... which means he should be as good as a guard can be. He didn't play Sunday, missing his second game due to a knee injury, and he hasn't been a positive player while on the field.
And the list -- just like any list involving anything with the Patriots -- includes Bill Belichick. If he wanted DeAndre Hopkins, he could have gotten him. He didn't. If he wanted Orlando Brown Jr. or Mike McGlinchey or Jawaan Taylor (who's been bad, admittedly), he would have gone after them in free agency. He didn't. If he wanted Broderick Jones or Dawand Jones or any number of tackles in the draft, he could have selected them. He didn't. If he wanted to trade up for a Paris Johnson/Darnell Wright/Peter Skoronski/Broderick Jones, he could have done that, too. He didn't. If he wanted the reliability and consistency of Jakobi Meyers, he could have easily kept him. He didn't, instead opting for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has 80 receiving yards through four games, having caught a tick over 50 percent of the passes thrown his way.
Clearly, the issues are multiple, and that's why nobody expected the Patriots to have a top-five offense. Even the 1-3 record isn't all that shocking, considering the difficulty of the schedule. (The three teams that have beaten the Patriots have a combined 10-2 record.)
The point is that the offensive operation was supposed to be better, so that when the team hit the second month of the season, there would be reason to believe that Mac Jones and Bill O'Brien and the rest of the offensive crew would have some steady momentum heading into a section of the schedule with some winnable games.
Instead, we've got ... a three-point output on the road, in which the quarterback turns the ball over three times and hands the opposition 18 points. And we've got questions.
The Patriots have been thoroughly mediocre for three years running. What happened Sunday was notably worse. It could end up being rock bottom, and the team could end up making it a footnote on an otherwise mediocre season. If it gets worse though, and that 1-3 record becomes ... 1-4 ... 1-5 ... or 1-6 (!), then there will be some significant problems in Patriots Land, to say the least.
Even with the losses to the Eagles and Dolphins, there was enough reason for optimism on the season. Sunday's loss was so bad, though, that we're now kind of entertaining that worst-case scenario.
For now, let's hit some leftover thoughts from the 38-3 shellacking of the Patriots at the hands of the Cowboys.
--Mac Jones was really bad, and that has been covered pretty well at this point. And the obvious gaffes certainly stand out. But he was actually worse than some of the numbers and lowlights would show.
The effort on the failed QB sneak was horrible:
This thing? Whatever this thing was, it was unprofessional:
And this play was arguably worse than his picks. Not only did he try to go no-look to a running back who was well-covered, but he tried to go no-look to a running back who was well-covered while ... failing to look at the defender standing directly in the path of his pass.
Mac Jones has gotten hit with all sorts of criticism since entering the league, some of it more fair than others. This, though, was as lost as he's ever looked on an NFL field.
--That being said, he should have had a touchdown on the opening drive. While it looked like an overthrow to Mike Gesicki in the end zone, Jones put the ball where Gesicki should have been. Even with Gesicki not getting to the back of the end zone, he could have caught the pass. His effort was ... not inspiring.
--I cannot believe how long the game broadcast hung with the Eagles and Commanders over ... the actual game you were tuned in to watch.
All due respect to the mighty Washington Commanders, but we all knew how that game was going to end. We didn't need to see it.
--Speaking of the Eagles, though, I had this little thought. The Patriots have faced four teams, all of which have also faced four teams. Here's where the Patriots rank in terms of points scored against those teams.
Vs. Eagles: Third out of four
Vs. Dolphins: Fourth out of four
Vs. Jets: Fourth out of four
Vs. Cowboys: Third out of four
The Commanders and Vikings scored more vs. Philly than New England did. The Broncos (!) scored more vs. Miami than New England did, while the Bills scored, oh, you know, almost three times as many points vs. Miami. The Jets scored 10 vs. the Cowboys, and the Cardinals scored 28; the Patriots scored three.
That adds more context to the 1-3 record, I do suppose. Relative to the competition, the Patriots have been worse.
--Now, behold, the one highlight for the Patriots!
--And here's the defensive highlight!
That's almost impossible, delivering a clean and legal but massive hit in this era of professional football. But Kyler Dugger is that guy.
Anyways. Those are your highlights. Hunter Henry had a cool catch, working through a defensive hold. Throw that on the pile, too. It's a small pile.
--I'm not sure that it would have prevented an interception ... but I couldn't help but notice that JuJu Smith-Schuster really rounded his route on the fourth-down play. We're used to seeing slot guys make sharp cuts, dig their feet into the turf, and keep defenders off-balance. JuJu just kind of ... runs an easy-to-read out and the pass is picked off.
It's just not a decisive route, and it's not one where Smith-Schuster is going to win very often.
It reminded me of a third down last week, when JuJu had the chance to work against a linebacker on a third-and-3, but instead of making a sharp, crisp return route, he just kind of ... went through the motions in the middle of the field. Watch him come out of the right slot:
He's not exactly fighting to get open. He looks like a guy who's just ... out there on the field.
Is it knee-related? Does he not have full confidence in what he's running? Is he being misused? Dunno, dunno, dunno. But the first four weeks of the JuJu era in New England have been a letdown.
--JuJu did have one catch for 14 yards ... when the Patriots needed 15. He popped up and signaled first down.
Not to live in the past, but the attention to detail was always what set the Patriots apart. If they needed 15, they got 15. In this case, the exact yard line to gain was known. It was the 40. Smith-Schuster did run to the 40, but he had to come back to get the ball, ending up a yard short. Then they failed on the QB sneak.
It's not new, but you'd think it'd get better at some point here in the post-Tom Brady era.
--If you could name two defensive players the Patriots couldn't afford to lose, you would have named Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez. Defense was supposed to be this team's strength, and those two were a big reason why. The identity of the whole team is going to have to shift moving forward, with Judon seemingly set to miss a lot of time.
--Feels like a good time to just cap it. After a Mike McCarthy-coached team clowned around on Bill Belichick's team, it's probably best for everyone to move on for now.
Up next: A 2-2 Saints team that just got waxed at home by the Bucs. The phrase "must-win" gets thrown around willy-nilly all the time. But this one? Yeah. Must-win territory for the local football team. Like never before, really.
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