Though it should come as no surprise to literally anyone, it’s pretty safe to say that the offense of the New England Patriots has struggled in this first act of the post-Tom Brady era. The motley crew of role players assembled once masterfully utilized by Brady are now basically a big grab bag of disparate Legos that otherwise belonged to different sets:
- the late offseason addition at quarterback who didn’t have the chance to work with his new team for the majority of the offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic (Cam Newton)
- the legendary slot receiver and the team’s 4th-leading pass catcher in team history that’s suddenly starting to show signs of his age (Julian Edelman)
- the former first round pick at running back who simply can’t shake the injury issues that have plagued him since he arrived in the NFL (Sony Michel)
- the third-down specialist running back who served as the proverbial security blanket for his former quarterback but hasn’t developed anything close to that with his new quarterback (James White)
- the rest of the PuPu platter of wide receivers comprised of “where the hell did that guy come from?”-types (Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd among others) or failed projects acquired by premium NFL Draft capital (N’Keal Harry)
The lack of cohesion — and game-altering talent in general — was a big reason that New England finished the month of September with a losing record, and followed that up by scoring a grand total of 28 points in the entire month of October.
But over the last four weeks, things have shifted in the right direction for the Patriots, thanks to the emergence of second-year running back Damien Harris. Harris has averaged just under 16 carries per game in the month of November, which as translated in New England going 2–2 in their last four games. Normally, a 2–2 stretch would be cause for major concern in New England, but considering the Patriots entered November riding a four-game losing streak, they’ll take wins whenever and however they can get them.
The Patriots drafted Harris just one year after using a first round pick on Michel, leaving some publications to wonder if Bill Belichick ‘reached’ for Harris because of a combination of Brady’s stated desire to pair a short-yardage running back with Michel plus Belichick’s long-time relationship with (and trust in) University of Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban.
But the truth is that we really shouldn’t be that surprised that Belichick would both acquire and find the best way to utilize a player like Harris. Look at the archetype of running backs he’s employed over the years, who have enjoyed success: Antowain Smith (2001 through 2003), Corey Dillon (2004 through 2006), LeGarrette Blount (2013 through 2016), and even Laurence Maroney (2006 through 2009). All of those guys are among the top 15 leading rushers in the history of the Patriots’ franchise (though I fully recognize that they haven’t exactly had a storied history at the position), and all of them shared almost the same profile as Harris: big, physical, between-the-tackles runners who ran with power and tenacity but lacked the burst and open field shake-and-bake that we’re accustomed to seeing from the premier running backs in the league.
(In actuality, my favorite comparison for Harris is Stevan Ridley: the former Patriots running back with a similar frame and playing style, who ran for more than 2,000 yards and had a combined 19 rushing touchdowns during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, before suffering a career-altering knee injury in 2014.)
Of course, anyone familiar with the modus operandi of Belichick’s utilization patterns also knows of his penchant for totally changing up his offensive strategy from week to week — including heavily featuring one player for a given period of time, only to completely shelve the same player in a given game.
We saw that happen just last week, when Harris followed up a career-best 121-yard performance against the Baltimore Ravens by carrying the ball only 11 times against one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL (belonging to the Houston Texans); the Patriots called the number of James White and Rex Burkhead almost as many times as they did of Harris (the latter two combined for 9 carries while Harris had 11).
Given what we know about Belichick, such a “hot-and-cold” utilization strategy is bound to manifest itself again. But, if you’re someone with a vested interest in the performance of New England’s offense, you hope those ‘cold snaps’ are few and far between, given what we’ve seen from Harris to date. He and Miles Sanders in Philadelphia are the only two running backs in the NFL to have played in less than 8 games this year yet still rank among the top 21 running backs in the NFL, in terms of rushing yardage.
For an offense desperately lacking playmaking and production, even arguably the greatest Head Coach in NFL history would do well to not outthink himself, and just hand the ball to one of the few guys on his team who’s been able to perform for the New England offense this season. ■
Week 12 NFL Picks
Lines via MyBookie.ag, as of Thursday afternoon
Houston (-3) at Detroit
Washington at Dallas (-3)
Las Vegas (-3) at Atlanta
Arizona (-1.5) at New England
NY Giants (-6.5) at Cincinnati
Cleveland (-6.5) at Jacksonville
Carolina at Minnesota (-3.5)
Tennessee at Indianapolis (-3)
LA Chargers at Buffalo (-5.5)
Miami (-7) at NY Jets
San Francisco at LA Rams (-6.5)
Kansas City (-3.5) at Tampa Bay
Chicago at Green Bay (-8.5)
Seattle (-5.5) at Philadelphia
note: picks removed for the Steelers-Ravens and Saints-Broncos games, as the books are closed for these matchups due to the COVID-19 situation
Last Week: 9–5
Season To Date: 76–65