Sports Nut

Forecasting the 2016 New England Patriots

Will this year’s Belichick and Brady squad be excellent or merely really, really good?

Tom Brady
Tom Brady warms up prior to a game on Aug. 26, 2016, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This piece is adapted from the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, by the experts at Football Outsiders and edited by Aaron Schatz. The full book contains similar essays on all 32 NFL teams as well as player projections and a section on this year’s college football season, and it’s available both as a PDF and a printed book.

2016 mean projection for the New England Patriots: 9.8 wins
Patriots’ odds to make the playoffs: 65.5 percent
Patriots’ odds to appear in Super Bowl: 19.2 percent

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For as long as Football Outsiders has existed, for as long as the world has known Twitter, Pro Football Talk, Bleacher Report, smartphones smart enough to set your fantasy lineup, high-definition televisions, midday hot-take talk shows featuring a white sportswriter and a black sportswriter screaming imaginary controversies at each other, and all the other things we take for granted as modern football fans, there have only been three types of Patriots teams: Historically Epic Patriots Teams, Excellent Patriots Teams, and Really, Really Good Patriots Teams.

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The Historically Epic Patriots won Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX. They lost Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

The Excellent Patriots won Super Bowls XXXVI and XLIX. They lost in the AFC Championship Game last year and in 2006, 2012, and 2013. They lost in the divisional round to the Jets after a 14–2 season in 2010. Strictly using DVOA, the 2010 Patriots might classify as Historically Epic (they led the NFL at 44.6 percent) and the 2011 team merely Excellent (they finished third at 22.8 percent), but playoff performance must count for something when you are measuring altitudes on Olympus.

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The Really, Really Good Patriots went 9–7 after winning the Super Bowl in 2002, 10–6 in 2005, 11–5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback in 2008, and lost in the wild-card round after a 10–6 season in 2009. These are the worst Patriots teams your typical millennial can even remember, teams that suffered calamities like a season-ending Tom Brady injury and still posted records that would bring parades to Cleveland or Jacksonville.

You have to push back to 2000 and Bill Belichick’s first season to find a Patriots team with a losing record. But even back in the late 1990s, the Patriots were toggling in and out of the playoff picture with a legitimate franchise quarterback at the helm (his name was Drew Bledsoe, young’uns) and a head coach who either had won a Super Bowl (Bill Parcells) or would someday (Pete Carroll). The Truly Bad Patriots are buried in early 1990s antiquity. You may not have even had internet in your home the last time the Patriots had back-to-back losing seasons (in 1992 and 1993). Heck, you may not have been born yet.

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All of this is relevant because it frames the parameters of how we think (and write) about the New England Patriots. It’s hard to even conceive of how a Patriots team with Belichick and Brady on the payroll would ever produce, say, a 6.8-win projection. There has never been any drama in a Football Outsiders Almanac Patriots chapter, not in 12 years we have published under various titles. At least, not “drama” the way an Eagles, Colts, or even a Packers fan might experience it: Are we picked to win the division? Does DVOA like the team’s direction? Was last year a fluke, for better or worse? Patriots chapters exist on a narrow peninsula between explaining a mean forecast of 10 or 11 wins and crowning another likely sovereign, plus varying degrees of kvetching about the latest scandal depending on who from our staff wrote the essay.

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With that in mind:

  • There is essentially zero chance that we will see the first Truly Bad Patriots Team of the millennium this season.
  • The chance that we will see a Historically Epic Patriots Team is also pretty small. A 14-win season is an unusual thing to project analytically. A prediction like that would have to include some things this Patriots team clearly lacks. Like a first-round pick. Or a quarterback who isn’t facing a four-game suspension, justified or not.

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So we are left trying to determine whether this is an Excellent Patriots Team or a Really, Really Good Patriots Team. That’s a heck of a hair to split in a projection, but it’s the only one worth splitting. Can the Patriots win another Super Bowl, given typical performances by their stars, some occasion-rising by others, and a break or two? Or are they just another playoff-caliber AFC team?

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We regret to inform Patriots fans that it’s close. Because of the naturally conservative nature of our season simulation, the mean win projections for the top teams are always lower than most fans expect. Still, this is only the second time in 12 books that we have listed the Patriots with a mean win projection under 10.0. They fall below the Steelers and several of the top NFC contenders. There is a really good chance that this Patriots team is merely Really, Really Good.

As we list the reasons, remember that the Patriots grading curve applies throughout this essay. If the Browns were projected to finish with 9.8 wins, Handel’s Messiah would start playing the moment you opened to this page. But an 11–5 record and (let’s speculate) a divisional round loss in the playoffs would represent the Patriots’ worst season since 2009. That forces us to nitpick every possible weakness.

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The Brady suspension: There is no sense in vamping or pretending we have some deep knowledge of Jimmy Garoppolo based on three-year-old college scouting reports, some training camp visits, and magical thinking. Garoppolo will probably be OK. He will not be as good as Brady. He will face the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans, and Bills: one of the NFL’s best teams, two divisional opponents, and a conference foe with an outstanding pass rush. Brady’s absence will have some impact on the Patriots’ record and could affect eventual playoff tiebreakers.

The offensive line: Two years of injuries and compulsive juggling have made a mess of this unit. The Patriots finished 18th in adjusted sack rate last year, a figure that would be far worse if Brady wasn’t one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history at anticipating and counteracting the pass rush. Brady encountered pressure on a whopping 174 dropbacks last year, 25.7 percent of his pass attempts. That pressure rate has crept up every year since 2012.

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A healthier line in 2016 should improve Brady’s protection. Nate Solder’s return from a biceps injury will move Sebastian Vollmer back to right tackle; Vollmer struggled on the left side last year, while replacements at right tackle like Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming were awful. Jonathan Cooper arrives via trade to upgrade the interior blocking, and there are many (maybe too many) prospects vying for roles at center and guard. There are good reasons to expect some improvement along the Patriots line.

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On the other hand, injuries aren’t the only reason why the Patriots had the lowest offensive continuity score of any team in the 16 seasons we have tracked. The Patriots started 10 different players on the offensive line and never started the same five guys for more than two games in a row. The Patriots have been mixing and matching interior line prospects (Bryan Stork, Tre’ Jackson, Shaq Mason, Josh Kline, David Andrews, the departed Jordan Devey, and now third-round pick Joe Thuney) for two years and are still searching for a combination they like. And Cooper, considered one of the best guard prospects of the past decade when he left North Carolina, has been an injury-plagued disappointment for three seasons in Arizona. Brady may not be harassed on one-fourth of his attempts this year, but the days when Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen anchored the middle of the line appear to be long gone.

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The running game: Patriots fans and stat analysts are conditioned to harrumph at worries about the running game. No, the Patriots’ scheme isn’t designed to produce 1,500-yard rushers. But the Patriots need some production from their running game. The Patriots rushed for just 215 yards in their final four regular and postseason games, three of them losses. The Patriots needed more than 49 yards on 18 carries from Steven Jackson, Brandon Bolden, and James White when the Jets threw all they could muster at them in Week 16. They needed more than 66 rushing yards on 23 carries from Jackson and Bolden when they went into Smother Brady With His Own Protection mode in Week 17 against the Dolphins. They needed something, anything, when Wade Phillips unleashed the Visigoth hordes in the AFC Championship Game.

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Yes, Bolden and Jackson were late-season injury replacements, and starters LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis are back this year. If this was an essay about any other NFL team, would you expect hosannas about the returns of Blount and Lewis? They are a pair of one-dimensional reclamation projects: Blount a tackle-breaker with personality issues, Lewis a jitterbug prone to fumbles and injuries.

Once upon a time, the Patriots invested in Fred Taylor– and Corey Dillon–types, veterans with 1,000-yard pedigrees, to meet their unique rushing needs. The Patriots even used high draft picks on running backs not too long ago: Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were a pair of Day 2 picks in the same draft class, and even “bust” Laurence Maroney averaged 4.5 yards per carry for the team that went 16–0. When BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Danny Woodhead bubbled up the depth chart to semistardom, they had to bubble past talented players like Maroney or the aging Taylor.

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The current Patriots seem content with letting their system make short-term stars out of Lewis or (two years ago) Jonas Gray. The Patriots ignored the running back position in the draft and free agency, adding only faded Chargers and Colts committee back Donald Brown. So they enter camp expecting to lean upon Blount, Lewis, and James White, who posted some excellent receiving numbers when Lewis was hurt but also carried the ball only 22 times for a piddling 56 yards. Receiving backs like White and Lewis can live off the fat of the land as long as Brady is quarterback and the Patriots system creates mismatches for them, just as Blount can munch the clock between the tackles at the end of a 36–7 win. The Patriots offense can make a running back better. What the Patriots lack—what they had in their Excellent and Epic seasons—is a running back who makes the offense better.

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The first-round famine: The Patriots were without a first-round pick this year because of Deflategate business, of course. Chandler Jones, the team’s first-round pick in 2012 and sack leader last year, was traded to the Cardinals to land Cooper and a second-round pick (which became Thumey and some later picks after trades). Dominique Easley, the 2014 first-round pick, was released in the offseason after two seasons of injuries and reported not-with-the-program behavior. The Patriots traded out of the first round in 2013.

That leaves the Patriots with two first-round picks of their own since 2012 on the roster: linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who has been great, and defensive tackle Malcom Brown, who had a promising rookie season.

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With little first-round talent in the pipeline, it’s difficult to predict vast short- or long-term improvement for the Patriots at positions like cornerback, edge rusher, and offensive tackle, where early draft picks are typically part of the champion-building or -maintaining equation. Just as significantly, 12.5 sacks were wiped off the books with the loss of Jones. The Patriots blitzed less than any other team last year yet still notched 49 sacks thanks to Jones (and with underrated contributions from Easley, who was exceptional in situational flashes as a pass rusher). The Patriots will either have to blitz more or get less mileage from their pass rush this year.

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The Patriots compensate for the loss of young first-round picks by acquiring other teams’ failed or faded first-rounders. They traded for Cooper and signed Shea McClellin from the Bears as an edge defender. Chris Long, an older blue-chip talent, arrives from the Rams as a veteran pass-rush specialist, though Long has recorded just four sacks in two injury-ruined seasons.

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Some of the Patriots’ offseason moves have obvious merits. Tight end Martellus Bennett provides both insurance against an injury to Rob Gronkowski and the opportunity to cause the types of two-tight end mismatches the team deployed from 2010 through 2012. Long is finished as a starter but probably has 30 disruptive snaps per game left in him.

But when evaluating Cooper, McClellin, receivers Chris Hogan and Nate Washington, and others, we must be careful to resist the logical fallacy of Special Patriots Pleading. Sure, Cooper was a bust in Arizona, but he will be good because the Patriots know what they are doing. McClellin never found a position in Chicago, but Bill Belichick will create a special role that turns him into a Rob Ninkovich–level contributor, because the Patriots know what they are doing. Hogan and Washington will have the kind of short-term success Brandon LaFell and Brandon Lloyd had in the past, because the Patriots know what they are doing.

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The Patriots do, indeed, know what they are doing. They have spent this entire millennium inventing and reinventing themselves in surprising ways. Fans and experts are both conditioned to assume that even apparent Patriots reaches or miscalculations are part of some fiendish plan too brilliant or intricate for mortal minds to fathom. Those who resist the conditioning overcompensate and start penning Patriots Are Doomed (or Patriots Are Cheaters) columns after every loss or free-agent defection.

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Some Patriots decisions are neither signs of transcendent brilliance nor the coming Patsocalypse. They are just maintenance efforts designed to make the best of a situation that works against them even when they aren’t forced to surrender draft picks. With first-round talent hard to come by, they surrendered one blue chip (Jones) for a possible blue chip at a position of greater need (Cooper) and an extra pick. Drafting Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones in the second round solved a talent-and-depth problem in the secondary, but addressing that need pushed other needs to later rounds, forcing the Patriots to the midtier free-agent market for McClellin, Hogan, and Washington. Some needs didn’t get optimally addressed because the Patriots simply lacked the resources. No Randy Moss or Darrelle Revis is coming to provide a turbo boost this year. The Patriots were too busy spackling the little fissures that inevitably open when a team has been successful since Friends was on the air.

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By this time next year, those fissures may grow large enough to require more than just a little duct tape and elbow grease to cover up. Jones was only traded in an effort to slough some water off the boat before the Great Free Agent Flood of 2017 arrives. New England has 10 of its projected starters hitting free agency next year, and that doesn’t even include one-year rentals Martellus Bennett and Chris Long or important cogs such as Matthew Slater. Seven of them are on a defense that the Pats have slowly rebuilt from a laughingstock into a borderline top-10 unit. Our total does include Malcolm Butler, who’s only a restricted free agent, but even Warren Buffett would start sweating at the price of cornerbacks nowadays. If the Pats don’t extend Butler after this season, they’ll risk having one of their best defenders hit the unrestricted market and demand huge bucks in advance of his age-28 season. On a related note, Arizona now gets one year to sign Chandler Jones to an extension before he becomes a 27-year-old unrestricted free agent next summer.

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That’s a problem for 2017, but it does underline the trepidation we’ve been hinting at regarding New England’s ability to sustain its status as the Death Star of American professional sports. The Patriots have been hovering at 12–4 for three years, with overall DVOA ratings holding remarkably firm between 18 and 24 percent. It’s tempting to think they can do this forever, or to just trim them down to 11–5 because of Deflategate but assume they will be breathing vengeful fire come the playoffs.

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The AFC East has once again accommodated the Patriots by behaving like a bunch of anxiety-riddled successphobes. The Jets built a dangerous, veteran-heavy roster, then spent the summer courting a 33-year-old journeyman quarterback as their franchise savior. The Dolphins continue to equate spending and managerial in-fighting with progress. The Bills are reliving the glory of the 2011–14 Jets.

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Elsewhere in the AFC, the Broncos celebrated their Super Bowl victory by replacing Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. The AFC South still looks like Conference USA despite some gains; the division always appears to be one year away from spitting out a serious challenger for the Patriots, and this year is no exception. The road to the playoffs looks as smooth as ever.

Then again, the Patriots face the NFC West and AFC North, two difficult divisions. They will face the Broncos defense and whoever their quarterback is at Denver in December. The Bengals game is a 1 p.m. kickoff early in the year, so the Bengals won’t have a case of stage fright. Maybe that’s cutting things way too fine, but we are looking for the 12th win that clinches home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or the sixth loss that forces the Patriots into the wild-card round. The latter is a little easier to find than the former, especially with Brady’s absence making a 2–2 start very likely.

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As the tone of this essay illustrates, the Patriots have the NFL’s version of first world problems. The Patriots can take many things for granted, even when deprived of Brady for a month. There’s Gronk, the coaching, the organization, perennial stalwarts like Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman, Solder and Vollmer, Stephen Gostkowski and others. There are all the hidden benefits of being one of the best-run organizations in professional sports. The special teams are projected to remain top-notch, give or take the blunders that all bunched up in the Eagles loss last year. Because the Patriots can promise both Super Bowl rings and organizational professionalism, veterans like Long eagerly sign on for comeback opportunities and guys like Blount operate at what passes for their best behavior.

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There’s just not enough in the cupboard this year to predict absolute conquest. Other teams, even other AFC teams, look a little stronger. Recent Patriots teams look a little stronger. This team is playoff caliber but not overpowering. Maybe that’s because they really are facing the beginning of the end, particularly if Brady keeps taking hits and the little injuries like those that quickly swallowed Peyton start mustering for a charge. Maybe it’s just another season like 2005 or 2009, the precursor for another reimagining and renaissance.

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Los Angelenos wear heavy jackets on 60-degree afternoons. Inuit children eat hunks of seal blubber like they were chocolate brownies. We are all conditioned to be comfortable in our everyday surroundings and uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, including Patriots fans who don’t remember what the fans of bad teams endure and classify anything less than an annual Super Bowl prediction to be a sign of disrespect.

Have faith, Patriots fans. This is a Really, Really Good Patriots Team. That may not be good enough for you, but after 15 years atop the NFL, it’s still rather remarkable.

Copyright 2016, Football Outsiders Inc. From the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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