Patriots

Patriots’ offensive game plan seemed stuck in a familiar rut

And you can blame Josh McDaniels.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. AP

COMMENTARY

Give Josh McDaniels this at least: He can still run an offense to nowhere, with or without a quarterback who can throw the football. 

The Patriots offensive coordinator’s redemption tour didn’t get off to a hot start on Sunday, when New England lost its season-opening game to the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Mistakes and blunders highlight the box score of this one, a 17-16 defeat that was sealed when 100-yard rusher Damien Harris coughed the ball up in the final minutes to seal New England’s fate. 

“Not going to let this mistake define me, so I’m just ready to move forward,” Harris said. 

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As egregiously-timed as the fumble was, the loss wasn’t Harris’s fault. 

McDaniels had already done everything in his power to assure that the Patriots remain only a capable NFL offense in between the 20-yard lines. 

As geeked as Patriots fans should have been after watching rookie Mac Jones (29 for 39, 281 yards, and a touchdown) take the torch in his first professional start, there was also a sense of familiarity with everything that went down on the Gillette turf. As in, was this Patriots offense any better than the putrid one we watched last season? 

It’s not like we should have expected immediate fireworks after Bill Belichick managed to pry $163 million from Bob Kraft’s wallet in the offseason. But we also must have missed the “To be continued…” attached to last season’s credits, particularly after last year’s piñata, Cam Newton, was released in order to pave the way for the rookie QB. Here was a guy McDaniels could work with, some posited, a huge step up from the broken down version of the former MVP he was saddled with in 2020. 

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Yet, as good as Jones, Harris, and Nelson Agholor (five catches, 72 yards, and a touchdown) were in highlighting the best of the offense, it was McDaniels who seemingly held the unit down, continuing to limit Jones and the receiving corps in favor of grinding it out on the ground. Never mind that the running plays had all the creativity of a network dating show. 

The Patriots should have been up in the final minutes of the game. They should have been able to try and kill some clock after forcing a turnover (raise your hand if you’re experiencing sudden symptoms of puppy love with Matthew Judon) that Jonathan Jones juggled into his possession. Instead, Jones took the ball and made a pair of plays to the pair of tight ends (Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith) who are supposed to be pivotal in the resurrection of this offense. It was the first time we saw just how impactful the duo would be when Jones needed them most. 

Then, McDaniels took the ball out of the rookie’s hands and into those of a gassed Harris. 

Fumble on the 11. 

It wasn’t the first time all game that a McDaniels decision had Patriot fans spitting into the masks that all fans wore in accordance with Gillette regulations (hah, just kidding). New England’s final score of the game was a Nick Folk 33-yard field goal (Quinn Nordin, we hardly knew thee) after McDaniels stuck with his bread and butter run game on back-to-back plays and stalled out on the 15-yard-line. Did we mention that this was a drive during which Jones made completions of eight, 10, and 16 yards to lead the charge? He finished 8-of-9 on the drive that started on his own 28. 

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On the possession that led to the Patriots’ previous field goal (are we seeing a pattern here?), Jones had completions of 21 and and 26 yards. It was at this point in the game that he was grooving, throwing darts, and ready to make his name in the most compelling way possible. 

Yet his team was limited to going for three after committing the same number of penalties. Then again, it’s not like Jones proved to be the second coming of the guy who played here before him (no, the OTHER guy) in that instance. On the same drive, he failed to convert a third-and-eight that might have turned the tide. 

But the point is, there are pockets of bad play-calling decisions all over the game that should at least limit the amount of vitriol directed at Harris. 

It seems like eons ago that McDaniels was supposed to be the second coming, the man in line for the job whenever Belichick decided to hang it all up and spend his Sundays wearing an ACK hoodie. But we might be starting to learn now just how much of his decision-making Tom Brady managed to mask with his own audibles. It’s like McDaniels read from “Finger Painting for Dummies” to prime the Matisse that Brady eventually had in mind. 

With Brady, McDaniels was hailed as an offensive mastermind. Without Brady, McDaniels is more like Dick Coury in terms of the litany of Patriots offensive coordinators. We should have cemented any theory about the coverup when Brady went and made Bruce Arians appear like a satisfactory presence on the sideline. 

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Now, McDaniels has got to hope a rookie can be good enough to cover up his blemishes. He needs Jones to figure out early on how to manage what Brady had been doing for years: making McDaniels look much better than the decisions he makes.  

“Being the quarterback, I need to do a better job of demanding more in practice,” Jones said after the game. “I sometimes let things slide.”

If we’re going to saddle the kid with Brady comparisons, at least, maybe, this one fits: He might already understand he has to act as a masking agent for the questionable decisions of his coach.

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