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The New England Patriots offense for 2020 was essentially declared dead on Tuesday, March 17. As a unique St. Patrick's Day played out in Boston, five hours south longtime quarterback Tom Brady sent out social media communication indicating he wouldn't be re-signing in New England. A day later, he signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With Brady went any reasonable optimism the Patriots harbored of resuscitating their offensive attack. Throughout 2019 Brady had done more with less, his aggravation steadily more apparent and irascible through public comments. That foreshadowing made his departure less of a shock that it perhaps should have been.
Indeed, the 2020 Patriots offense has followed the path that Brady-loving doomsday fanatics had prescribed for it. There's no passing cohesion. The team's vision of a versatile rushing attack has largely come to fruition, but it turns out that winning games by dominating on the ground is a lot harder than being more efficient through the air, as ColdHardFootballFacts has been preaching for years. The result of those two factors, combined with an overwhelming lack of firepower at quarterback Cam Newton's disposal in the passing game, has delivered New England to the true nadir of its offensive performance.
In the 17 years that ColdHardFootballFacts has been charting the Patriots' Offensive Passer Rating, it's never been as bad as it over the past three weeks.
That's not an exaggeration. And, given Brady's prolonged excellence, perhaps it isn't too much of a surprise, either. Still, the unit's precipitous decline is alarming and eye-opening. The Patriots currently rank 31st in Offensive Passer Rating. The only team in the entire NFL with a worst rating is the Jets, the team New England just beat on a last second field goal ... and even that advantage is slim; the Patriots currently hold a 71.82 Offensive Passer Rating to the Jets' 71.11, with the Jets featuring four additional touchdown passes and three fewer interceptions than New England's QB room. Incredibly, these numbers are actually an improvement over where New England sat following its Week 7 loss to the Broncos. For the first time ever, that New England unit was literally dead last in Offensive Passer Rating.
If that strikes you as dire, well, it is. It's a wonder that New England is 3-5 not because that record is so poor. Rather, the Patriots should probably be even worse.
To put the Patriots passing game woes in even more stark relief, consider this: the worst a Patriots team has finished in the league-wide ranking for Offensive Passer Rating since ColdHardFootballFacts began in 2003 came just last year, when New England finished the 2019 regular season ranked 17th. In only one other season since Tom Brady took the reins did the Patriots even finish near the middle of the pack: 2o13, when Brady's New England squad struggled to replace Wes Welker with the likes of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins en route to a 15th-place finish (yes, the Pats still reached the AFC Championship Game that season behind a three-headed rushing attack that overwhelmed the Colts in the divisional round).
Given a three-year decline arc for New England's passing attack, and the team's inability to upgrade at the wide receiver position, it is perhaps no surprise that the Patriots have continued along that downward trajectory. The real question is whether they would have struggled quite so much with Tom Brady still under center. There's obviously no clear answer for that hypothetical, but there's anecdotal reason to believe they may have.
Brady now plays in Tampa with one of — if not the — best receiving units in the NFL. He has his security blanket tight end from New England in Rob Gronkowski. He has a slot receiver in the model of Welker and Julian Edelman in the form of Scotty Miller, whom he has transformed into a star. And he has legitimate downfield danger men in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, a duo better than any he ever had in New England. Despite all those weapons, Brady currently ranks just 16th in Offensive Passer Rating. Yes, he and the Bucs have been as high as eighth this year, but their inability to adjust to the Saints' game plan Sunday night reinforced the blueprint for disrupting and discombobulating late career Tom Brady: Bring pressure to his face and force bad balls. It's not a mystery, it just takes the right personnel. And even Brady's mystique isn't a solution for a defensive unit that can get past the Tampa Bay offensive line (just ask the Bears).
Would a quarterback who ranks 16th in the league while playing with the best weapons available really have the Patriots higher up the Passer Rating standings? Perhaps. At the same time, it's at least as likely that Brady and the Patriots would be staring at a nightmare that's eerily similar to the one they're in now. Keep in mind: re-signing Brady at any level would have necessitated additional salary cap cuts, the kind that could have had an impact on New England's offensive line depth and any ability to add the wide receivers Brady lusted for. Even if you (probably rightly) believe "the cap is crap," it's a safe assumption that at best Brady would have been working with the unit Newton has begun to become comfortable with in Foxborough.
It all paints a bleak picture of an inevitable passing decline in New England. Yes, losing Brady was an enormous gut punch to the franchise's culture and optical superiority, but his gravitas may have been papering over the team's expanding passing fault line for two seasons. Rather, the downfall of the long-vaunted New England passing attack was likely arriving in 2020 no matter what once it became clear that N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers weren't plug and play NFL starters in 2019. The truth is that Brady and the Patriots brought each other down in 2019, and were barreling over a cliff in 2020 even if they stayed together. That's now being cast in sharp relief in both New England and Florida, with neither the Patriots or Buccaneers true Super Bowl contenders despite what some hoped and expected before the season.