Foxborough, MA - Another week, another loss. This is starting to feel painfully routine for Patriots nation. However, Sunday's loss, their second time being shut out this year, and their whopping fifth game under single digits this year, was the rotten cherry on top of the month-old sundae that is the current Patriots offense. While the only significant thing at stake on Sunday for the Pats was draft position, there was still a lot to learn from Sunday's loss. Here are the key takeaways.
No QB Can Thrive In The Current Offense - Zappe Hour Isn't Happy Hour
This game affirmed two things that I had been feeling for some time. First: the team isn't a QB away. Second: Zappe is the impostor we thought he was. The day on offense was as horrendous as the score made it look, especially offensively. The Patriots generated all of five first downs in the pass game, and were never really able to string a drive together - and when they could, they pulled themselves behind the line of scrimmage.
Zappe wildly missed on a lot of straightforward throws, and really had no rhythm whatsoever. Where Mac was able to move the ball but then shot himself in the foot with untimely mistakes, yesterday, Zappe wasn't able to get ANYTHING going. A lot of the yards he did have were on screens and RB throws, and the one good throw he arguably had during the game was dropped by Tyquan Thornton. The four largest drives of the game ended in: fumble, punt, downs, downs.
Neither Mac - the current version - nor Zappe is the answer, but another reality is becoming abundantly clear. With this inconsistent receiver core with no star-level talent, an offensive line whose performance varies by the snap, and the third OC in the last three years calling plays, no QB would be set up for success in the situation that Mac has been set up with in the last three years.
The Patriots will be looking to draft a quarterback early this April, but they're much, much more than a QB away. Luckily, with abundant cap space and potentially excellent draft position, they have the bandwidth to bring a lot of positive change to the roster - but that will require deliberate, offensive-minded GMing.
Need a precedent for change within an offseason? Take Houston, GMed by a former Patriot staffer in Nick Caserio. With an aggressive draft strategy focused on game changers, and an equally aggressive free agency, they've managed to completely turn themselves around to contenders a year after having the second draft pick.
Note: The run game continues to improve. Stevenson and Elliot could be great duo for years to come if the team chooses to keep Zeke, and their effectiveness will only increase with better usage, and a strong passing game that allows for effective play action.
The Defense Provides Hope And Reasons For Optimism
Allowing merely 26 points in three games is an extraordinary feat. No defense should have to experience three losses in such a span. The last 16 points that the Patriots have allowed: a short-field TD off an interception against the Giants, a 3-and-out leading to a FG against the Giants, a FG against the Chargers in a drive that started near midfield, and another FG against the Chargers in a drive that started in FG range.
The upshot is this: even this low total of 26 points over the last three games should and would be much lower, had the offense not created such disadvantageous situations. The cornerback play isn't perfect, but they're holding their own despite injuries to Gonzalez and Marcus Jones, as well as the release of Jack Jones. The safeties are playing at an incredibly high level, especially Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers, who are showing versatility in coverage and LB-like roles, and impressing with their hits as much as they are with their secondary play.
The team is generating a strong pass rush on the edge and on the inside, despite not having easily their best pass rusher in Judon. The linebacker play from Uche, Bentley, Tavai, Wilson, and Jennings has been phenomenal so far. Where on the offense, it's hard to find players to keep, on the defense, it's the opposite, where not much change needs to be made at all, especially with the caliber of players coming back this offseason. This allows the team to focus almost exclusively on offense in this offseason.
The offense the Patriots just limited to a mere six points isn't a slouchy one, in fact, it's littered with fantasy mainstays from Herbert to Keenan Allen to Austin Ekeler. Shockingly, in each of the last three games, the Patriots have outgained their opponents and won the time-of-possession battle. The level from the defense is playoff-level, maybe championship-level, and is something to keep optimism in for next year. If it's still Belichick at the helm, they'll have a guy who coached up a brilliant defense this year - and if the offense wasn't so bad, that would be the narrative of this 2023 season.
Unfortunately, the offense can't even come close, and more often than not puts the defense in increasingly tough situations - no stat summarizes this better than the following: the Patriots, on average started at their own 14, and the Chargers started at their own 34 - an already large gap that would have been worse if not for some brilliant punting by Bryce Baringer.