New England Patriots 2021 Team Study

Part 1 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Part 2 is now available: Buffalo Bills.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.28 +0.41 7th

Offensive Eff. Rating (blue and red) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
11th 7th 25th

The Patriots made things easy for Mac Jones in 2021. Leaning on one of the NFL's best offensive lines, they ran the ball a lot and they ran the ball effectively. They unlocked the playbook one piece at a time, focusing on keeping the pocket clean and getting the ball out quickly. This approach led to the 2nd-fewest quarterback pressures and allowed them to bring Jones along comfortably. He responded well. Not many rookie quarterbacks take their team to the playoffs.

But the Patriots’ offensive success must be contextualized. Their impressive numbers were heavily skewed by four outlier games in which the Patriots dominated bad teams from start to finish. They faced an easy schedule overall, playing just five regular season games against playoff teams, including a heavily depleted version of the Titans and the Bills in weather so bad that Jones threw the ball only three times. It's no surprise that a team built to run excelled against bad teams but looked average against the best competition.

I think this offensive philosophy is here to stay. Bill Belichick likely anticipated that NFL defenses would shift towards stopping explosive plays in the passing game, leaving a vulnerability up front against teams that beef up and lean on the ground game. He and Josh McDaniels designed the offense to exploit this weakness. The Patriots played their best offensive football against defenses built to stop the pass. Chart A shows the Patriots' opponent-adjusted effectiveness against each opponent ranked by its relative defensive strength stopping the pass versus stopping the run, with teams that stop the pass better on the left. They trended towards worse performances against teams that were relatively better at stopping the run, including four of their worst five performances against NYJ (-1.34 Adj. Rating), ATL (-0.63), HOU (-0.19), and CAR (-0.16).

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pass defense relative to run defense in EPA/play.
*omitted Week 17 v. JAC due to excessive Covid issues for JAC.

The Patriots had zero truly bad games on offense after some expected early struggles. Outside of their dominating performances, they generally played to the level of their competition. But average offense only goes so far against the NFL's best teams. Even one of their more impressive wins on the season - a 27-24 victory over the Chargers - involved the Patriots taking the lead for good on an interception touchdown. Jones flashed playmaking ability at times, like when he forced overtime against Dallas with a 75-yard strike to Bourne. But he did not string together these types of plays with consistency. Even that crucial play came on the heels of a pick-six.

It's still very early in his career arc, so the range of outcomes is wide. But based on his rookie film, I think Mac Jones has career upside in the range between Kirk Cousins and Eli Manning. If the defense plays well and the run game takes the pressure off, he's capable of making one or two key plays to win a big game. But he's not going toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen any time soon, especially with the Patriots' current weapons on the perimeter. Their path to offensive success makes them heavily schedule-dependent and unlikely to advance far in the playoffs.

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