(Our Russian mail-order Naughty Nurse checks the statistical vital signs of each NFL team after each season. She breaks out her pigskin probe and uses her soothing, healing hands to take the temperature, and maybe a few liberties, with the New England Patriots. See her statistical analysis of other NFL teams here.)
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts doctor of love
Our Naughty Nurse finds the New England Patriots suffering from a bad case of bi-polar disorder: frighteningly good on one side of the ball, but seriously lacking anyone who instills fear in opponents on the other.
She knows where it all went wrong, too, if you can make such a claim for one of the most consistently dominant regular-season teams in the history of football. You can trace it back to the landmark 2006 AFC title game
, when Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts out-gunned Tom Brady and the Patriots, 38-34, in an instant classic NFL game.
Manning enjoyed the luxury of throwing to a galaxy of offensive weapons that day, included Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne and prolific future Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison. Brady was throwing to aging journeyman Troy Brown and guys essentially picked up off the street like Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney.
It was a watershed loss for the Patriots organization. New England management looked at the results and determined that a change of strategy was in order. The Patriots, they seemed to determine, needed to find a way to win shootouts. So they began to take the focus off defense and instead focus on arming their great but modest-numbered quarterback with offensive weapons, namely Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007 and stud tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in more recent seasons.
The new strategy proved that Brady could put up record numbers while leading a juggernaut offense, including the most prolific in history in 2007 (589 points). But the new strategy has yet to yield a Super Bowl championship – the kind the Patriots used to win with a far more balanced brand of football. The kind that Belichick used to win when he was a star defensive coordinator with the New York Giants.
In retrospect, New England pursued the wrong strategy. The fact that the Patriots lost a shootout in that 2006 AFC title game, while allowing Indy the greatest comeback in conference title game history, should have been taken as an indictment of the defense, not the offense.
The result is a team overloaded on offense -- and as we demonstrated to the football world last week
, great offenses almost always fail in the postseason. Great offenses NEVER win championships if not paired with defenses that you can count on to come up with big plays in big games.
The 2011 storyline:
It was gridiron Groundhog Day for the Patriots. For the third time in five seasons they were dominant in the regular season and scored more than 500 points. But each postseason ended in the same manner: with an underachieving effort out of the offense (14, 21 and 17 points, respectively) and a defense that simply could not make a single stop when it had a chance to win the game.
The Vital Signs
Bill Belichick (139-53 with New England; 175-97 overall)
13-3 (32.1 PPG – 21.4 PPG)
Record against the spread:
Record vs. Quality Opponents:
0-2 (18.5 – 24.5)
Record last five seasons:
Best Quality Stat in 2011:
Real Passing YPA (2nd); Bendability (2nd)
Worst Quality Stat in 2011:
Defensive Real Passing YPA (29th); Quality Standings (32nd)
ALL QUALITY STATS
Overall = Overall position in Quality Stats Power Rankings; QS = Quality Standings; SCOR = Scoreability; BEND = Bendability; RPYPA = Real Passing Yards per Attempt; DRPYPA = Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; QBR = Real Quarterback Rating; DQBR = Defensive Real Quarterback Rating; OPR = Offensive Passer Rating; DPR = Defensive Passer Rating; PRD = Passer Rating Differential; OHI = Offensive Hog Index; DHI = Defensive Hog Index; REL = Relativity Index.
Statistical curiosity of 2011:
Tom Brady has posted a passer rating of better than 100 in 24 of his last 32 regular-season games, including 12 of 16 in 2011. He has posted a passer rating of better than 100 in just two of his last 10 postseason games, including 1 of 3 in 2011.
Best game of 2011: 45-10 win vs. Denver (divisional playoffs).
The Patriots appeared to shake off the rust of recent postseasons past with near flawless football in its single most dominant victory of the 2011. The Patriots ran for 146 yards while Brady tacked on 363 through the air with 6 TD passes. New England more than doubled up Denver’s offensive output (509-252), committed just two penalties and held a 42-7 lead early in the third quarter before putting it into cruise control.
Worst game of 2011: 25-17 loss at Pittsburgh (Week 8).
The Patriots faced fellow AFC powerhouse Pittsburgh on Halloween weekend and it proved a nightmare for the visitors. New England was largely humiliated in a game not quite as close as the final score. The Steelers more than doubled up the Patriots on offense (427-213), Ben Roethlisberger outgunned Brady (365-198) and Pittsburgh punctuated the victory by forcing a Brady fumble for a safety in his own end zone.
The Patriots lost 24-20 to the Giants the following week, too – their only two games of the regular season against Quality Opponents. The 0-2 record vs. Quality Opponents was the worst of any NFL team in 2011 (1-3 including playoffs).
Strength: Passing offense, team-wide efficiency.
Brady and the passing attack continue to operate at historically efficient levels. The Patriots finished among the league-leaders in every major measure of offense and passing offense in particular, while Rob Gronkowski emerged as a major weapon after the most productive season by a tight end in NFL history (1,327 yards, 17 TD).
The Patriots continue to be masters of situational football, a hallmark of Bill Belichick’s teams, as evidenced by their consistently high rankings in our efficiency indicators: Bendability (2nd) and Scoreability) (4th). New England is brutally efficient at turning yards into points while the flawed defense was consistently able to stiffen and limit damage on the scoreboard.
Weakness: Lack of playmakers on defense.
New England’s strategy of Value Uber Alles
has paid great dividends over the long haul. The Patriots have reached five Super Bowls in 11 years, joining the 1970s Cowboys as the only teams to win so many conference titles in such a short period (Dallas actually did it five times in nine seasons). But that effort – as evidenced by its strategy of stockpiling picks then trading down on draft day – has come with a price: the Patriots have few if any game-changing players on the defensive side of the ball.
This fact is typically evident in all the near-miss big-game losses the team has suffered in recent years, including in Super Bowl XLVI. The Glory Days Patriots of a decade ago thrived on coming up with that huge sack or pick-six in critical moments of big games. New England was fundamentally sound on defense, as evidenced by the fact it was no. 2 in Bendability and No. 15 in scoring despite surrendering gobs of yards on defense. The Patriots were shredded for 4,977 passing yards in 2011, 11 yards shy of the record surrendered by the Packers in 2011, and ranked 29th in Defensive Real Passing YPA, allowing opponents 7.13 yards everytime they dropped back to pass.
The history of our Quality Stats, including Defensive Passer Rating and the Defensive Hog Index, prove the value of big-impact plays. And New Engand makes few of those plays these days. The Patriots desperately need to find one or two defensive playmakers if they hope to salvage the last years of the Tom Brady Era with another championship.
General off-season strategy/overview
: The Patriots have been extremely active in free agency, having already signed 10 unrestricted free agents (as of April 21). Among these are five defenders but few stars. They’ve also continue to surround Brady with pass catchers, including Anthony Gonzalez and Brandon Lloyd, who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2010 (1,448) when playing in Denver for head coach Josh McDaniels – now back as New England’s offensive coordinator.
But it’s obvious to anyone armed with the Cold, Hard Football Facts – New England does not get over its big-game hump without harvesting playmaking defenders.
Totally premature 2012 diagnosis:
The Patriots, once again, are early off-season favorites to challenge for the AFC and Super Bowl championships. Barring a huge breakdown on offense, it’s very easy to see the Patriots repeating as AFC East champs for an incredible 10th time in 12 years. But the difference between being a really good team once again or returning to championship form will be determined by harvesting one or more game-breaking defenders in the draft or, if possible, in free agency.