The Patriots' Real Problem

The Patriots' Real Problem
The Patriots' Real Problem
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Sean Sullivan-O'Malley

Clearly the New England offense has been much better than the defense, especially the last few years. I am not arguing the defense is not a problem and does not need to get better. It is, and it does.

However, there is an important issue with the offense people are missing. I think people give too much weighting to regular season results, and extrapolate them to all the playoff losses - ergo people around here are conditioned to think its the defenses fault but that is not always the case, especially on a relative basis versus their regular season performance and what one should expect in the playoffs.

The question of offense versus defense is a relative question as much as it is an absolute one. In the Playoffs you should be expected to be who you are. Ergo average teams should NOT be expected to be great all of the sudden. Importantly a bad to average defense should not be expected to be good all of the sudden. And a great offense should be expected to continue to be more or less great throughout the playoffs. To be fair in every single game each unit will not perform to its regular season standards, and teams who either play well on both sides of the ball or exceptionally on one side will tend to win a given game.

However, it is instructive to look at a teams performance versus what it actually is, as opposed to what one wants it to be in the future. And on that basis, I believe the Pats offense (and Tom Brady) has been the biggest relative failure in the post-season.

As a sample, let's look at what I think are their 3 biggest losses. This AFC championsip to Baltimore, last years SuperBowl, and the undefeated season Super Bowl. IN EACH OF THESE LOSSES, THE PATS DELIVERED THEIR SEASON LOW IN POINTS. YOU CAN NOT BE EXPECTED TO WIN A SUPER BOWL WHEN YOUR OFFENSE DELIVERS ITS SEASON LOW IN POINTS IN THE POST SEASON. NO DEFENSE SHOULD BE EXPECTED TO OVERCOME THAT. Below is the data.

This year the Pats averaged 35 points a game on offense, 21 points a game on defense. In the loss to the Ravens the offense scored 22 points less than regular season average (and 7 points less than its low for the season 20 against Arizona), and the defense gave up only 7 points more than regular season average (and gave up this many points or more many times). Last years Super Bowl loss the offense scored 15 points less than regular season average (its low for the season 17 to the Steelers), the defense was SLIGHTLY BETTER than their regular season average. Undefeated season Super Bowl loss offense scored 23 points less than its regular season average (and again less than its low for the season 20 to the Jets), defense again SLIGHTLY BETTER than their average.

So on a relative basis (versus how the team performed in regular season), the offense has shown the biggest change in performance. And NOT just by a little bit. This is a HUGE delta. And it has happened enough to raise some questions. And at a minimum, for their own good, its important data for the Patriots to look at and understand.

And I am not saying a good defense should not be expected to step up and win games for a team. It should. And I am not saying the Pats shouldn't try to get better on defense - clearly they should. But I am saying this offense has really sh*t the bed in the post-season, and some of these bed wettings have been so bad, they have scored so few points that it wouldn't even be reasonable to expect the defense to win some of these games for them.

So it begs the question of what has happened with the offense AND if I were them I would still be trying to understand this issue AND get better on offense as well as defense so this does NOT happen to such a degree.

Here are some hypothesis:

-Offense not as good as we all think based on regular season performance. Belichick and Brady thrive on poor teams and weak division, run up alot of points. But this offense even in regular season has exhibited a sharp falloff against good D's. This happens with all offenses, but the falloff is sharper with the Pats (hypothesis - not sure if proveable). If this is happening, its really the same issue as above in playoffs. Why?

-Brady just chokes

-The way the game is officiated and played changes drastically in the post season. Brady and this offense really designed to exploit ticky tack regular season officiating and opponents not fully prepared. Other offenses designed or have personnel that don't get affected as much by these changes or are not benefitted as much by them in regular season.

There are probably many more hypotheses about what is happening. And again I am not saying the defense is not a problem and does not need to get better. But I think people are overwhelmed by what goes on in the regular season and it biases the view of what is going wrong in the post-season -- so used to blaming the defense. Also in the post season people should not expect the defense to be stellar and win games for them if its not doing that in the regualr season. It may be this offense is not as good as people think, and needs more examination and improvement to hold up like it needs to in the post season. AND I AM NOT SAYING it should be expected to scored 30 or even 25 points a game in the post season. BUT JUST NOT 13, 17 and 14 POINTS EITHER AND IN EACH CASE THEIR LOW POINT OUTPUT FOR THE SEASON especially when it delivered historic levels of points and performance and lack of turnovers in the regular season and in these games this is when you need it most!!!

  Offense Defense   NE Points Opp Points   Off Def
Year   Pts Game Pts Game   Loss Win   Delta Delta
2012   34.8125 20.6875   13 28   -21.8125 7.3125
2011   32.0625 21.375   17 21   -15.0625 -0.375
2008   36.8125 17.125   14 17   -22.8125 -0.125


74 comments, Last at 05 Apr 2013, 11:32pm

66 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Yo first off I don't see any team really doin what the pats do .. to hate on there offense obviously you don't watch the games .. we are explosive defense special teams and offense now with good free agency and gettin rid of to 5 foot 5 guys we might go toanother superbowl bc.u are all sleepin on Leon Washington Donny Jones and armendola

2 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Injuries to Gronkowski in the playoffs both of the last two years hasn't helped the offense any.

4 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Thanks Sean. This is a great analysis! I think you may be on to something with hypothesis #1, and the running up the score analysis. If you could go back and recalculate DVOA excluding the running up the score data, that is exclude the offensive plays for excess Belichick Scoring, the DVOA(*BS) calculation should give the true expected strength of the offense. That is bound to be lower, and would probably reflect these noted playoff losses. Could you include the DVOA (*BS) stat for the Patriots in the future?

5 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Obviously a coaching issue. Get rid of Belichick and hire that Harbaugh kid who was interning for his uncle. The Harbaugh name is gold right now.

6 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Awesome April Fools!

Just plausible enough to hook the gullible. I especially love the number of significant digits in the final chart, and the telltale use of ALL CAPS TO MAKE YOUR ARGUMENT MORE CONVINCING!!!!!!!

"hypothesis - not sure if proveable" That hits the tone perfectly.


55 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Considering that I saw this article for the first time on the 2nd, I was wondering what it was doing on this site, no mention of DVOA and no mention that points scored does not equal offense, and points scored does not equal defense.
Oh yeah.

8 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

As far as I can tell, this article is complete crap.
Peyton is a huge choker, where is his article?
Really, calling Brady a choker is way out of line.
I can't believe you could post something like this here.
Lots of people are going to be upset when they read this.

For years, I've read this site, and never seen anything so terrible.
Of course, some have been here longer, so maybe they remember a worse piece.
Obviously, this is from a guest writer, so maybe you can pass the blame.
Luckily, I think most will forgive this atrocity since it was a guest piece.
Subscribers should probably still demand their money back.

9 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

The only thing that would have made this a better April Fool's joke is if the writer's name was Harbaugh or Rex Ryan.

10 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Then your title is mis-written.

"And on that basis, I believe the Pats offense (and Tom Brady) has been the biggest relative failure in the post-season."

if that's the case, the offense is the Patriots' relative problem. In real terms, it's their defense.

In 2011, the Lions lost to New Orleans in the playoffs 45-28. The offense averaged 30 points per game, and went 4-6 on the season in games in which they scored 28 or fewer. (6-1 in games over 28).

Given that, was the failure in the playoffs on the part of their offense, or their defense?

58 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

You actually won't find it in Noah Webster's original American dictionary.

\In all seriousness.
\\"Gullible" dates to 1818, and Webster's 1st dictionary was published in 1807.

13 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

A huge contributing factor is their lack of horizontal yards. Losing Welker makes it even worse since he ran side to side practically as much as he ran down the field on routes. Maybe they can fix it by revamping the offense to have Hernandez and Gronkowski cutting to the sidelines for 7-yard gains more often instead of attacking the seam so often.

14 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

People need to be more respectful to the writer - he's just opining about a topic that a lot of people have raised.

Now, I personally don't read too much into it. I would say, partly hypothesis 3 - the games are called looser in the playoffs and that makes it harder on offenses in general - but other than that - I don't think you can extrapolate too much meaning after isolated pats losses.

20 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Well played.

I have to be honest - they got me. Completely. I didn't catch on until the comments, which is to say that I never caught on.

29 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

A truly great parody has to be a good example of the very subject which is being parodied. Spinal Tap wouldn't have worked nearly as well if it didn't sound so much like the glam rock bands they were skewering; Galaxy Quest is actually one of the best Star Trek movies ever made.

With a few substitutions, and maybe a Tebow reference or two, this article is largely indistinguishable from a Skip Bayless column. If anything, it's too subdued.

33 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

For a truly great parody, you also have to love the subject. Reiner and Guest were metal fans and Tim Allen is a long-time Trekkie. I'd also toss Simon Pegg with Shawn of the Dead, one of the best zombie movies ever, and the Rutles, Eric Idle's parody of the Beatles. It's probably no surprise that I love Weird Al, Mel Brooks, and Robot Chicken.

34 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

With a few substitutions, and maybe a Tebow reference or two, this article is largely indistinguishable from a Skip Bayless column. If anything, it's too subdued.


21 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Don't forget spygate? The defense always plays better, when they know the calls ahead of time.

Also, the tuck rule saved their a$$es in 2001.

Man if we had the rules today back then, the Pats may have never won a SB.

23 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Don't forget hypothesis 4: The giselle effect. Once she entered Brady's life- his magic beans just went out the window. This was further confirmed when she lasted out at welker. Clearly she needs to go.

25 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

"Well Gronkowski has been injured, and those losses came to some pretty good defenses, an it's a small sampl- Wait a minute! See what you did there."

Had me going for a couple of paragraphs, I'll admit.

27 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Either the author or the commenters think they are funnier than they are. I'm not sure which.

28 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

The Patriots' real problem is Tom Brady's awful hat. I mean, seriously. Look at that thing.

35 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Bottom line - the Patriots need to find a way to win in January. They need to get that magic back. You can run up all the points you want in the regular season, but playoff football is a different game, and teams that don't figure it out go home.

36 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Its that something unique to the patriots or is that something you can pretty much add to every team's modus operandi - right along with don't turn the ball over, convert in the red zone and stop them from scoring tds. I mean...nothing you said is particularly novel or insightful.

37 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

I was completely fooled. As I was reading, I was thinking, "Man, a lot of caps. This is the most unprofessional I have read on Football Outsiders." I didn't even get it with the first few comments.

What a great article.

38 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

I'm a big fan of New England... but sign me up for number two: Brady chokes. It seems as though pressure situations numb him, since he became a superstar and is expected to produce great comebacks in big games.

People assume he's a great pressure-player and comeback kid partly because that's assumed of every top QB, and partly because of his history for it. The truth of the matter is, partially because of their routine demolitions of opponents, Brady has become soft in the clutch (Pro Football Weekly had a pretty damning set of comments from an 'insider' regarding this--for what it's worth).

Glad to see this was an April Fool's prank, because otherwise it's a stunningly poor article for FO.

39 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

I do want to ask Pats fans: The more interesting question is - is there a certain scheme type that is especially effective at stopping Ne's offense?

As long as I can remember, if we take away games where the pats o line gets completely mauled(because honestly, thats ideally how you would stop any pass offense) - the defenses that were really effective against Ne play and after play were the steelers in 2011 and the jets in 2010. Somehow, both those teams designed really good coverage concepts that really just took away some of the typical route combos the pats love to use. They were also really good at keeping NE behind in the chains.

To me - the key to stopping Ne's offense is having fluid personnel who can cover and defend the run in base and sub. You also need one really good slot defender to take away welker. If you have that combo, I think you can get away without pass rush. In some sense, the ravens stopped the run - but most of the pats offensive ineptitude came down to poor execution at bad times - throws in the dirt - fumbles - issues with timeouts, etc.

40 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

But that's part of the strategy of NE, and why Baltimore was successful. For NE to succeed, they need a lot of 3rd down conversions. Typically, NE gets 3rd and short. Baltimore was sticking them with third and medium or third and long, and forcing them to convert hard 3rd downs. They did it frequently, but Baltimore typically was getting stops outside of field goal range.

By contrast, Baltimore sort of muddled along for a awhile, but got enough boom plays and hard conversions to succeed, because Baltimore's offense is not predicated on constantly churning 1st downs.

41 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Or you could look at the stats instead, and save the rest of us some time.

In 2012, the Patriots ranked first in moving the chains on first or second down. (total, percentage of their first downs, conversion rate) Exactly the opposite of what you implied. They relied on converting third downs less than all other teams in the league.

Forcing teams into 3rd and long is always a good idea, since it's the best way to stop a drive short of forcing a turnover or running out the clock. But it's no more important against the Patriots than against most other teams.

Were you just continuing the Aprils Fools joke? No fair posting it on April 2!

45 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

I could have sworn there was a recap here discussing how the Ravens took NE out of their comfort zone by stopping the 1st down run against 6 in the box, by effectively running a nickel-based run defense (sort of like the Giants do), putting NE behind schedule for most of the game.

47 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Probably. But most teams don't like being stuck in second and long, either. It's not a Patriots issue in particular.

I used the NFL team stats, so I didn't distinguish converting on first versus second down. I do know the Patriots are one of the more balanced offenses, so stuffing their first down plays is a good thing, but hard to do.

Maybe that's where you're headed with this: to counter the Patriots versatility, you need to stuff them on first down to force them into pure passing situations. That requires a defense that is adequate (and maybe fortunate) against both run and pass with the same personnel, and then capable of being strong in passing situations.

42 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

This had me going for a while, but I think the Jeff Brohm one is still the best one of these so far...

The article brings up a good point, though. Anecdotally, pass-heavy offenses tend to "break down" or "get solved" in the playoffs. It seems like the Pats are moving back towards a more balanced offense, with less emphasis on the WRs and Stevan Ridley in the Corey Dillon/Antowan Smith role. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over time.

43 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Now that it is April 2, I can mention where this comes from... None of us wrote this. This is an actual e-mail somebody sent to Vince Verhei. He thought it was hilarious. We all did. We just changed the author's name to something appropriately Boston-sounding.

46 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Format looks like it came from one of Danny articles on the 9ers

48 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

That the Pats aren't winning the superbowl is not really evidence that they have a problem but I do wonder if their regular season production is not necessarily going to translate to the postseason.

I think that the Pats are the best in the game at exploiting defensive errors and that you are less likely to see such errors in the playoffs. By using multiple formations and their high tempo no-huddle offense they increase the chance of defensive misalignment and miscommunication. Against regular season fodder they consistently make big plays that give them a high DVOA. I think that this is less likely against better coached sides in the postseason.

I'm not suggesting that this is the source of all the Pats offensive success or that it is the only possible cause of the Pats dropping out of the playoffs (if there is a problem and it's not just a sample size issue).

49 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Part of this is also that in some sports, the playoff effect is a very real phenomenon. Defense changes markedly in the playoffs in the NBA and the NHL, and regular-season wonders definitely exist (as any Red Wings, Canucks, or Bulls fan can attest).

It seems less true in the NFL or MLB, though.

52 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Part of that defensive change in those two sports could be that they go from playing single games in the regular season to best-of-seven series. It's a lot more effective to tailor your defense toward stopping a particular team when you're playing against the same opponent for two weeks than when you play them once and then move on to the next team.

60 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

We keep discussing why low seeds win Super Bowls. To whatever extent the concept of "regular-season wonders" "seems less true in the NFL or MLB", it's because there are fewer playoff teams in those sports. Even with baseball's 162-game season, wild cards become champions. In seven games, let alone one, luck can have quite an effect.

Most of us now understand that the champion isn't necessarily the best team. Nobody sells "best team" T-shirts, though.

50 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

All quite reasonable. But keep in mind, the Patriots also had a +96% (+95% Off) DVOA game this playoff season, against one of the better defenses in the playoffs. Their overall DVOA for the playoffs was better than their regular season DVOA, too. That makes the "regular season fodder" argument hard to sustain.

Sometimes stuff happens. Any given Sunday, small sample sizes, etc...

61 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

But that's the point. The theory was that the opponent adjustments would undershoot how well the Patriots played against bad defenses and how much good defenses would stifle their performance.

So, DVOA is right in this case.

62 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

If I can remember the game wasn't it characterised by the Texans defense repeatedly lining up wrong and blowing communications? Seriously, that's what my impression was, that the Texans were often beaten before the ball was snapped. Though in their case it was also partially because they had limped into the playoffs without a single linebacker who was decent in coverage. The defense the Pats played wasn't one of the better defenses as a result of injuries that DVOA doesn't account for, just as it didn't account for the Ravens getting healthy on D.

65 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

The texans defense is also not built to stop Ne in that way. They rely solely on a single pass rusher and good man to man outside corners(JO Jo and kareem jackson). Toward the end of the year, their linebackers and really their safeties started getting exposed in a big way. Ne literally forced their hand, picking on the weakest parts of their defense over and over.

67 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

The Houston defense was fifth in the league in weighted defensive DVOA at the end of the regular season. While that was a drop off from their third overall defensive DVOA, it isn't really a case of being "exposed in a big way".

They had the best defensive DVOA in the wildcard round, posting a better DVOA than their season average. Again, that's a strange thing to happen to a defense that everyone has learned how to beat.

And then they faced the Patriots, who took them apart.

You are right to look at schemes and match ups and the like when a great defense gets embarrassed in that way. But you are wrong to blame an "exposed" defense, when it took the best offense in the league to do it to them.

56 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

I'm not sure the exact reason, but not having Gronkowski -- who is the only guy they had that could really pose as a deep threat -- didn't help. They also lost their best and seemingly only good cornerback right off the bat against the Ravens. And the Ravens seemed to be very healthy when the playoffs rolled around.

63 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Great article. I was getting really mad and lining up all kinds of intellectual ammo to shoot down the author for about halfway through it...and then remembered the date. Well played. :-)

In all seriousness, to answer the above poster's question (how to stop the Pats):

In my opionion, the teams that have succeeded are the ones that have non-abysmal D-lines, fast linebackers, and sound tackling. They succeed by crowding the line of scrimmage, chucking the recievers off their routes, clogging the short throwing lanes with extra bodies, and tackling the Welkers and Woodheads of the world immediately after the catch to keep 4-6 yard gains from becoming 8-15 yard gains.

They do this by exposing themselves deep, especially on the corners. Frankly, Brady (or his recievers, or more likely both) are not that dangerous on the deep ball (the way either Manning brother is), so you don't mind single covering Brandon Lloyd and Matthew Slater (or even Wes Welker if he actually runs a deep route), because they will convert such a pass about once in 7 or 8 attempts (or about once every two games or so). Not fearing the deep ball frees up a safety to help clog the interior lanes.

Watching most teams on many plays, or the Pats defense on all plays, I see them sitting back sometimes, giving the recievers a free release, often with one or both safeties not even on the screen at the time of the snap. Watching everyone's defense versus the Pats offense, you ALWAYS see all eleven defenders within a few yards of the LOS, and usually see the edge receivers single covered.

Of course, this only works if you have fast lateral defenders, decent corners, a decent line to avoid giving Brady all day, and very sound tackling (and enough run defense to avoid letting the RB du joir tromping all over you). And you generally don't have time to do anything exotic with blitzes, or fancy substitutions, so you need to do it as a matter of course with your base guys. Hence only the good defenses out there can stop the Pats.

69 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

I think this is pretty succinct and in line with my thoughts. I would add a few other layers. I agree you can't have abysmal pass rush - but I would argue more important is the sound coverage. Part of this is the pats don't use those long conventional drops that allow your edge rushers to go after brady+brady has really good pocket awareness(when he isn't ducking). The interior o line is the key to alot of ne's success - allowing brady to scan the field cleanly and throw in the middle. Even with what you listed above, there are teams that have stopped them without the combination you mentioned. The 2010 jets had no pass rushers, the 2011 giants had poor inside linebackers, the 2012 Ravens had decent pass rush and decent linebackers(who still got burned by welker and vareen) - so its not exactly clear to me if there is a specific design that always beats Ne.

On a separate issue - I wish I could ask someone within the pats if this was all designed or did they just luck into it. As Fo pointed out, leaguewide, the slot production by dvoa outdoes outside receiving production. Given that, the pats have gone all out for the slot. And since then, we've seen the slot production gain far more notice. Was it Ne that pioneered this innovation?

71 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

The short answer is that (1) good defenses are more likely to stop good offenses. (2) good offenses are more likely to overcome good defenses. (3) playoff teams are more likely to have good offenses and/or defenses. Any given game may be (a combination of) a triumph of scheme, better execution by personnel, or just luck.

I would look at Coryell's Chargers and Walsh's 49ers for early exploitation of slot receivers. It's obviously evolved, and the Patriots certainly deserve credit for what they've done, but "innovation" probably goes back decades, maybe even before what I mentioned.

72 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Well, I wasn't referring to strictly the slot. My point was more towards the evolution of an offense evolving around the slot - specifically multiple slot players running a combination of routes - using tight ends, rbs, screens, smoke routes, bunch formations, tight end chip and releases, etc etc. Essentially a compressed west coast offense but concentrating solely on the inside. This was naturally aided with the rule changes and prevalence of shotgun, but I do think it was Ne that started this type of offensive evolution.(at least in the nfl)

64 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Hmm, I'm a bit confused. Yes, this is not an article up to the FO standards, so I can see why it might be deemed an April Fool's 'joke', but at its core is the premise so ridiculous? ie. that the Pats need their offense to perform CONSISTENTLY well in the playoffs?? Seems logical to me. If you rely on your offense heavily in the regular season, surely you'll need to rely on it heavily to perform well in the playoffs. If the offense can't meet those expectations, some tweaking is needed.

68 Re: The Patriots' Real Problem

Peyton Manning's has failed to score more than 18 points in 9 of his 11 playoff losses even though his regular season average is above 26 ppg. Does he get an article too? Most of those losses came in his first playoff game of the year. Peyton owns the record for most One and Done's All-Time with 8, twice as many as the second place guy Marino who has just 4. Imagine the story of FAILURE you could write on him. LOL. BTW,Brady has the most playoff wins All-Time and is tied for the most Super Bowl appearances All-Time. Unfortunately for Brady two of those low scoring games came in the Super Bowl or he would also have the Most Super Bowl Rings All-Time.