It’s beginning to feel like we’ve seen this movie before. The year was 2013. The New England Patriots were piecing together another good season and setting themselves up for another playoff run despite obvious deficiencies on offense, specifically in the receiving game.
Rob Gronkowski played in just seven contests before being ruled out for the year in early December. Danny Amendola was in the midst of a mediocre first season with the Patriots, missing four weeks due to injury and catching just six passes over the last four games including the playoffs, which ended with him only being targeted once in the AFC Championship. It was the first season after the Wes Welker era, thus beginning Julian Edelman and Tom Brady’s lifelong friendship. Edelman was the leading receiver on the team, catching 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.
Those were your top three pass catchers. Edelman, Amendola, Gronkowski. Yes, Gronk had the third most receiving yards on the team despite playing in less than half of their games. So what was the problem with the rest of the guys? They were young, inexperienced, and never managed to get acclimated with Tom Brady. Aaron Dobson was a second round draft pick, Kenbrell Thompkins was undrafted. Both were rookies. They earned the nicknames Dropson and Dropkins early on, and aside from Thompkins’ famous game-winning catch in New Orleans, things never really got better. Both players had trouble getting on the same page as their quarterback, and both dealt with injuries towards the end of the year that made them ineffective in the postseason. By the time the Pats got to the AFC Championship in Denver, they were relying on throwing bombs to Matthew Slater. Of course none of them were completed, and six years later the seven-time Pro Bowl special teams captain still only has one career reception.
The 2019 Patriots offense could potentially be in danger of facing the same demise. The issues with Thompkins and Dobson were almost identical to what we’re seeing with Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry. Amendola was just about as effective as Mohamed Sanu has been. And although it happened for different reasons, both teams lost Gronk and struggled to replace him with any sort of serviceable tight end. Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan were not viable second options, and neither are Matt LaCosse or 39 year-old Ben Watson. Much like 2013, Julian Edelman has been Brady’s one consistent, reliable target. Brady is 42 instead of 36 and he’s been more vocal this time around in regards to his displeasure with the offensive execution, so naturally there’s been more negative press. But it’s basically the same scenario.
The biggest difference of course is the defense. The 2013 Patriots defensive unit embodied the phrase “bend but don’t break”. They somehow managed to be one of the top 10 best teams in the league in terms of points allowed while landing all the way down at 26th best in yards allowed. Aside from lone Pro Bowler Aqib Talib being one of the elite corners in the league in his 13 games, Dont’a Hightower’s emergence in the wake of Jerod Mayo’s season-ending injury, Chandler Jones becoming a sack machine, and the solid play of Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich, there were no standout performances. The weaknesses (Steve Gregory, Kyle Arrington, Chris Jones, Logan Ryan, etc.) far outweighed the strengths.
The 2019 Patriots are first in points allowed and second in yards allowed. The 2013 defense wasn’t good enough to carry a depleted offense, but this one just might be. Like I’ve said before, if 2015 Peyton Manning could get carried to a Super Bowl then anything is possible. Although we’re going to need that depleted offense to be a little more competent than it was last in last Sunday’s loss to the Texans.