04 Oct 2005
by Ned Macey
Every week sees surprising results in the NFL, and often they are more surprsing than Chargers over Patriots. What makes this week's upset so specatcular was not only that it took place at New England, but the way the Chargers thoroughly dominated the second half. Patriots fans could shrug off the first loss of the season at Carolina due to extenuating circumstances. What happened Sunday, however, was much more alarming. For the first time since 2002, the Patriots lost at home, and in doing so, they were thoroughly outclassed. As has been well reported, the Patriots were short-handed with the loss of Rodney Harrison, Matt Light, and several cornerbacks. The loss of Harrison in particular left the Patriots particularly vulnerable to the Chargers, whose entire offense is based around a dynamic running back and the game's best tight end. While the Patriots have to worry about giving up so many points, they may simply have played the best offense in football thanks to a healthy LaDainian Tomlinson.
Before we look at how San Diego exploited the Patriots' weaknesses, let us take a second to consider the Patriots team as a whole to identify those weaknesses. Last season, the Patriots faced some serious injuries leading famously to wide receiver Troy Brown's becoming their nickel back. The truth, however, is that by the end of the season, the only major source of injury was in the secondary. While the loss of Ty Law and Tyrone Poole to injury was nothing to laugh at, the Patriots played the Super Bowl with only one other projected starter out with injury, left tackle Tom Ashworth.
From the starting line-up in the Super Bowl, the Patriots have turned over seven new starters, and only one can be considered a clear upgrade.
|Super Bowl||Last Week|
|Matt Light||Nick Kaczur|
|Joe Andruzzi||Logan Mankins|
|Keith Traylor||Vince Wilfork|
|Tedy Bruschi||Chad Brown|
|Ted Johnson||Monty Beisel|
|Randall Gay||Duane Starks|
|Rodney Harrison||Gus Scott|
Looking at these losses, the Patriots have subbed out three Pro Bowl quality players (Light, Bruschi, Harrison) and added only one player with serious upside in Wilfork, and he actually played more snaps than Traylor a year ago. In the Patriots' defense, they planned well in the off-season for their known changes. They let an average player in Andruzzi go and replaced him with first round pick Mankins, a potential short-term decline that will be a long-term improvement. Given their lack of depth in the secondary, they added Starks and Chad Scott. When Tedy Bruschi had his stroke, they signed Brown and Beisel to add flexibility. Still, this was a team that entered the season with less talent than it had a year ago. Injuries to key players this year have only exacerbated the situation.
Even with the departure of Ty Law, the secondary was supposed to be a major strength thanks to emerging players Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson. Injuries are again crippling the depth of the unit. A year ago, the Patriots were excellent against # 1 receivers, but the lack of depth left them vulnerable to # 2 receivers. The injuries made that true again on Sunday where Keenan McCardell was held to one catch (albeit a touchdown), while Eric Parker and Reche Caldwell combined for six catches, 87 yards, and one TD. Those numbers are not outstanding, but they were compiled in only seven attempts, and all but one (a 19-yard reception on first-and-20) went for a first down or touchdown.
While the Patriots struggled against secondary receivers last season, they were dominant against tight ends. Using DVOA, our statistic that breaks down every play to see how much success a team has compared to league average, the Patriots were the fifth best team in football defending the tight end, with a DVOA of -31%.. The person most responsible for this was Rodney Harrison. Nicely illustrating this is that the Patriots have ranked fifth and second against tight ends since Harrison signed in 2003. The year before Harrison joined the Patriots, they ranked a mediocre 16th. Going into a match-up with football's top tight end, the Patriots had no answer. Antonio Gates was Drew Brees' favorite target, and he responded with 6 catches for 108 yards. Three of those catches were converted first downs when the Chargers were facing third down and five yards or more.
The biggest catch of the day for Gates was emblematic of many of the Patriots' problems. With the score tied at 17 early in the third quarter, the Chargers faced third-and-5 on the New England 39-yard line. On the play, Brees rolled right, had plenty of time, and then threw back to his left down the field. The ball was your typical "jump ball," but Gates easily outmaneuvered Harrison's replacement Gus Scott and came down with the ball on the one yard line. On the next play, Tomlinson ran over Beisel and the Chargers never looked back.
Of course, the Patriots' defensive struggles may prove to be nothing more than a fleeting mirage caused by their facing the best offense in the NFL, the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have the early lead in offensive DVOA with a 46.7% DVOA. Despite no major off-season additions, the Chargers entered this season with a major weapon they did not have a year ago: a healthy LaDainian Tomlinson. A season ago, the Chargers ranked sixth in DVOA offense, mostly attributable to a passing game that ranked fifth in the league. Their rushing offense was a mediocre 14th. Tomlinson, widely considered the best back in football, ranked 34th in DVOA just ahead of Travis Minor.
What kind of statistics could possibly consider Tomlinson such a substandard back? The kind of statistics that actually look at what happened on the field. Thanks to conventional wisdom that arbitrarily declares 1000 yard rushers are valuable (an average of 62.5 yards per game) and fantasy football that smiled on Tomlinson's 17 touchdowns, many people missed how mediocre his season was. Even for DVOA non-believers, the numbers tell the story: yards per carry dropped from 5.3 in 2003 to 3.9 a season ago. None of this means the real Tomlinson is not an exceptional back, but simply that even the amazing Tomlinson is only middling when hampered by injury.
This year, the Real Tomlinson is being added to a potent passing attack to create a dynamic offense. Tomlinson through four weeks is first in all of our measurements: DVOA which measures on a per play basis, DPAR which measures total value, and success rate which measures the percentage of plays that are "successful." (Full definitions of all of our statistics are available here.) Tomlinson ranked sixth and second in DPAR in 2002 and 2003, so the mainstream acceptance of him as the league's best back was warranted. In the emergence of the Chargers as an excellent offense, nobody seemed to notice that Tomlinson was having a down year. A healthy Tomlinson, a developing Gates, and full seasons from McCardell and Caldwell may keep the Chargers as the best offense in football all season.
The Patriots' brutal early schedule continues with consecutive road trips to 3-1 Atlanta and 3-1 Denver. The Chargers do not exactly have an easy time of it, as they host Pittsburgh this week before heading to Oakland and Philadelphia in Weeks 6 and 7. Both teams sit at 2-2 and in the competitive AFC cannot afford to lose too many more games. Ironically given the results of this game, the Patriots may be in a better position than the Chargers due to the surprising weakness of the AFC East. After four weeks, the AFC East has only upstart Miami in the top half of our DVOA rankings, while the lowest ranked AFC West team is Oakland at 15th.
The Chargers may really cost themselves a division championship thanks to their hardball negotiating tactics with Gates that led to his missing their Week 1 game against Dallas. The offense is something to behold, but their defense has been poor, with a DVOA of 9.0%, good for 25th in the league. Last year's Chargers' offense was helped by a defense that ranked 11th in DVOA. The defense should improve as the year goes on, but in the all offense all the time environment of the AFC West, the likely division champion is going to be the team that learns how to at least occasionally stop the opposition.
The Patriots still have the horses to make the playoffs given the state of their division and the very good talent remaining, but this team is just not as good as the Super Bowl champions of a year ago. Bill Belichick remains the best coach in football, but even a great coach can only do so much with the talent he is given. This article focused on the deficiencies of the defense, but without Light, Brady looked rushed all game, and the running game was struggling even before Light went down. Before the playoffs come, the Patriots should get back Light, Gay, Poole and Kevin Faulk. If they are lucky, only Harrison will be gone for the season. Still, all three Patriots Super Bowl runs have started with a first round bye in the playoffs, and with two losses already in the books and a tough upcoming schedule, it looks like the Patriots will be playing on Wild Card weekend this year. 10-6 or 11-5 and a division championship is good enough for most teams, but after going 34-4 over the past two seasons, it is not good enough for the Patriots.
61 comments, Last at 07 Oct 2005, 12:40pm by Sue Ellen