Our 2023 NFL Preview takes us to the Northeast, where the Patriots will be looking to bounce back after missing the playoffs for the second time in three years. Indeed, there is a sense of restlessness permeating from Foxborough, as New England fell well short of expectations with last season’s disappointing 8-9 finish, which was only their third losing campaign since the turn of the century. A misfiring offense proved to be the culprit, leading (longtime Head Coach) Bill Belichick to bring back a familiar face in the form of Bill O’Brien to coordinate the attack and in turn maximize the potential of (third-year Quarterback) Mac Jones. Will O’Brien get Jones back on track? Will an influx of playmakers ease that transition? Is Belichick actually on the hot seat? Let’s take a stroll through Gilette Stadium for a look into what may be in store for the Pats, shall we?
Mac, meet Bill (The Other One)
One of the biggest disappointments of last season was the ineptitude of the Patriots’ offense, which plummeted down the rankings following the departure of (longtime Offensive Coordinator) Josh McDaniels, who became the Head Coach of the Raiders. New England finished a middling seventeenth in scoring (21.4), but twenty-sixth in total offense (331.0), along with twentieth in passing yards (224.4), seventeenth in both interceptions (14) and turnovers (23), twenty-fourth in rushing yards (106.6) and twenty-first in yards per carry (4.3). Furthermore, they struggled MIGHITLY from a situational standpoint, ranking twenty-seventh on third down (34.9%) and DEAD-LAST in red zone efficiency (42.2%). Much of the criticism was laid at the feet of Belichick, who opted to replace one of the better offensive minds in the NFL with a pair of former assistants with little to no experience coaching that particular side of the football, namely Matt Patricia and Joe Judge (much more on this shortly). Needless to say, that is far from an ideal decision when it comes to continuing the development of a first-round Quarterback entering his second year in the league. Predictably, Mac Jones struggled, as the sophomore saw regression across the board in completing 65.2% of his passes (down from 67.6%), for an average of 214.1 yards (down from 223.6) on 5.81 net yards per attempt (down from 6.48), fourteen touchdowns (down from 22) in comparison to eleven interceptions, with a QBR that plummeted to 36.2 (down from 50.9). Granted, he suffered a high ankle sprain in a week three loss to Baltimore that sidelined him for three games, but anyone with a pulse could see that the 24-year-old took a major step backward in 2022 and was sorely testing the patience of the coaching staff along the way. As such, Belichick opted to bring back yet another former assistant, hiring Bill O’Brien as Offensive Coordinator, which should bring a sense of normalcy back to the attack. Initially hired back in 2007, O’Brien (pictured above alongside Jones) would spend four years coaching a variety of positions before taking the play calling reins in 2011, in which the Pats ranked second overall in total yards and third in points scored en route to advancing to Super Bowl XLVI. The 53-year-old would parlay that success into a brief stint as Penn State’s Head Coach before enjoying a seven-year run leading the Texans, which included four postseason appearances. Most recently, O’Brien spent the last two seasons as Nick Saban’s Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach at Jones’ Alma Mata, Alabama. The pressure will be on for the longtime play caller to whip this unit back into shape and put his Quarterback back on the road to potential stardom, which should be easier given the further investment that the franchise has made to the supporting cast…
Hiring a proper play caller is one thing, but anyone that watched the Patriots’ offense stumble throughout the season could see that they needed an infusion of talent, and Belichick obliged in the offseason, adding a plethora of playmakers at multiple positions. (Third-year Tailback) Rhamondre Stevenson certainly enjoyed his moments last season, rushing for a career-high 1,040 yards and five touchdowns on a healthy 5.0 yards per carry, becoming the club’s first rusher to break the 1,000-yard threshold since 2016. However, as we detailed earlier, the passing game was a major issue in New England, so in addition to O’Brien, the Pats signed (former Pro-Bowl Wideout) JuJu Smith-Schuster along with (Dolphins’ Tight End) Mike Gesicki and (veteran Offensive Tackle) Riley Reiff in Free Agency. After being relegated to just five games due to injury in 2021, Smith-Schuster (pictured above) bounced back nicely in his lone season in Kansas City, hauling in seventy-eight receptions on 101 targets for 933 yards and three touchdowns en route to winning Super Bowl LVII, and brings a sure-handed, physical presence on short-to-intermediate routes, which have always been a strength of the attack. Furthermore, Gesicki proved to be productive in Miami before becoming a bit of an afterthought in their new scheme, with 126 catches, 1,483 yards, and eight scores between 2020 and 2021. Whether it has been McDaniels or O’Brien, the Pats have always made good use of their Tight Ends, and it should be easy to envision the 28-year-old thriving alongside Hunter Henry. As for the Offensive Line, Reiff finds himself on his fourth different team in as many years, though brings some sorely needed veteran depth to a position group that parted ways with Isaiah Wynn in the offseason, while appearing to be undergoing a youth movement. New England selected (Guard) Cole Strange in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft and followed that up with three Offensive Line selected in the first four rounds of last April’s Draft, including Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi. Jones and the other Quarterbacks were sacked forty-one times (15th Overall) for a percentage of 7.1% (19th Overall) last season, which were both steep increases from the previous campaign, and though the play calling deserves some of the blame, pass protection left a lot to be desired. Belichick will also be expecting more production from (2022 fiftieth overall pick) Tyquan Thornton, who as a rookie hauled in just twenty-two passes for 247 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while the Pats selected (LSU product) Kayshon Boutte in the sixth round last Spring, which could prove to be a diamond in the proverbial rough for a franchise that has struggled to find reliable Receivers in the Draft.
After missing the playoffs for the second time in three years since the departure of a certain Hall of Fame Quarterback, it is time to once again discuss the status of arguably the greatest Head Coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick. During his 23-year reign in Foxborough, Belichick (pictured right) has seen it all and done it all, enjoying a completely unrealistic two decades of success including SEVENTEEN division titles, NINE AFC Championships, and SIX Lombardi Trophies, all the while amassing a ridiculous 262-108 record (.708). This guy has also proven to be one of the greatest defensive masterminds that the sport has ever seen, with his defenses finishing in the top ten in total yards allowed on nine occasions, while ranking within that range in points allowed a whopping SEVENTEEN times. As you can imagine, he’s had a wealth of assistants leave the proverbial nest, with TEN of those lieutenants becoming Head Coaches elsewhere, including two that are currently leading an NFL franchise (Brian Daboll and the aforementioned McDaniels). However, one can’t help but wonder if the end is near for the 71-year-old, who since 2020 has posted a middling 25-25 record (.500), which includes ZERO playoff wins and consists of two of the three losing campaigns incurred since arriving in New England back in 2000. As we covered earlier, a big reason for his troops’ struggles last season was his puzzling decision to replace McDaniels with the combination of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, who despite their previous experience working under Belichick plied their trade on defense and special teams before leaving to become Head Coaches in Detroit and New York respectively. Patricia spent fourteen years in Foxborough coaching primarily on the defensive side of the football (2004-2017), including a six-year run as Defensive Coordinator, while Judge spent eight mostly on special teams (2012-2019), the last five of which as coordinator. In their return to the club that raised them, the former was officially labeled as Offensive Line Coach, while the latter was tabbed to coach Quarterbacks, with the duo sharing play calling duties. Needless to say, this was far from an ideal situation for an offense that was clearly light on weapons at the skill positions with a young Quarterback entering his second season in the NFL. Sure, Belichick has opted for this approach before, but over the long history of the league, this tactic has rarely worked out for all parties involved. And it is with that said that there have been mild rumors coming out of New England that Belichick is actually on the “hot seat”, with a growing faction within the organization pulling for former Linebacker and defensive assistant, Jerrod Mayo, to eventually take over. While that could potentially be a solution for the Pats down the road, we HIGHLY doubt that (Owner) Robert Kraft will pressure him to step down when he is just nineteen wins away from passing the venerable Don Shula (347) for the most in NFL history (including playoffs), which given the team’s performance over the last two seasons looks to be very attainable within two years’ time.
Projected Finish: 9-8
After stumbling to an 8-9 finish and their second losing record in the last three years, it appears that the alarm bells are being sounded in New England, as Belichick has apparently recognized the gross mistake that he made last season in handing offensive play calling duties to a pair of non-offensive coaches. Hell, it’s not even that, folks, for he actually entrusted the further development of the only Quarterback that he had ever picked in the first round to former Defensive and Special Teams Coordinators. With that aside, bringing O’Brien back to Foxborough was a brilliant decision on his behalf, for the offense should see a return to the promising form that we saw under McDaniels two years ago. However, the question remains: just how much better will the Patriots be in 2023? The AFC looks to be a treacherous landscape, with the path through the AFC East looking particularly arduous, as both the Dolphins and Jets have gotten better, while the Bills have all the firepower necessary to claim their fourth straight division title. We expect the Pats to be better this Fall, though barring a major leap from Jones, asking for much more than a Wild Card appearance is likely too much…