Brown: New England’s offense still has room to grow

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) talks to wide receiver Brandin Cooks (14) as they warm up before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) scores a touchdown after making a one-handed catch as Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde defends during a contest on Dec. 24 in Foxborough, Mass. BELOW: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (right) talks to wide receiver Brandin Cooks as they warm up before a game against the Buffalo Bills. AP photos

For the Monitor
Sunday, January 07, 2018

The New England Patriots have the best offense in football, and after the team spent its week off preparing for Saturday’s Divisional Round playoff game against the Titans, it’s fair to wonder if that offense has yet to grasp its potential.

The Patriots finished the regular season second in points scored (458) and first in offensive efficiency (with DVOA of 27.3 percent), and did so despite a constant barrage of injuries to key personnel.

Yes, quarterback Tom Brady, who handily won a spot on the Associated Press All-Pro team and is considered one of the favorites for MVP, remained healthy throughout the season, as did tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Those are easily the four best players on the offense, and that core has been healthy and exceptional. But after losing Julian Edelman to a torn ACL in the preseason, the Pats have struggled to integrate new players while keeping everyone on the field.

Right tackle Marcus Cannon played in only seven games before going on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Receiver Chris Hogan has missed seven of New England’s last eight games with a shoulder injury. Tight end Martellus Bennett returned for two weeks only to land on IR with shoulder and hamstring injuries. Rex Burkhead, who has emerged as a valuable change-of-pace back that can create matchup problems for opponents while disguising the offense’s intentions, has missed six games this year, including the last two. Third-down back James White missed the last two games, and running back Mike Gillislee, who hasn’t played much this season, sat out the finale.

That’s an exhaustive list of players the Patriots would like to count on, and it doesn’t even include Malcolm Mitchell, the second-year receiver who has been designated for return from IR after missing the regular season with a knee injury. And yet, the Patriots averaged 27.5 points per game over the final month of the season when they were at their most depleted. They even had 20 points in a 27-20 loss at Miami, with Gronkowski serving a one-game suspension.

The Patriots were not required to issue an injury report this week, so it’s clear which of the injured players were practicing. However, the time off can only help New England get some of these players healthy and it also gives the Pats a chance to improve. While waiting for their next opponent to be decided, the Patriots used their week off to focus on themselves.

“I think it’s always valuable to evaluate where you’re at and what you’ve done and kind of what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well,” Brady said in his weekly press conference. “So, to have that luxury (of a bye week) is great because usually you just don’t have time. It’s a tight squeeze anyway to get the whole game plan in for the week, and man, we go right up to the very end. And then, to have a week where you can just kind of focus on what we’ve done, I think that’s been real positive.”

The formula that led New England to a championship in 2016 mixed elite offense with a deceptively stubborn defense and very good special teams. This year, despite early struggles, the defense has returned to its many yards/few points sweet spot, and the special teams have improved to a near-elite level. The Pats ranked third in special teams efficiency this season, and after the Rams’ loss Saturday, they have the most efficient special teams unit that’s still playing.

The bottom line, however, is that the Patriots have invested the bulk of their cap space and talent in the offense, and rely on that unit to be elite. So far, the offense has succeeded despite a glut of injuries. Perhaps it hasn’t reached its full potential.

(Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.)