Patriots certainly seem to be trending in the right direction on offense — with one huge ‘if’

Patriots

This offense can make magic happen. But will they have enough protection to do so?

Steven Senne
The progress of quarterback Mac Jones is now in the capable hands of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien (right).

So, two games and a couple dozen practices into the preseason, we’re all in agreement on the biggest “if” with the Patriots offense, yes?

  • New England Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (84) reacts after making a catch for a first down during a preseason NFL football game between the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023, in Green Bay, Wis.

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  • What Mac Jones said about Bill O’Brien, Ezekiel Elliott, Demario Douglas and more on WEEI

It’s the offensive line. And, I’d argue, pretty much only the offensive line.

Most of their issues from a 2022 season in which they scored just 31 touchdowns on offense (they tallied six more on defense and special teams, their saving grace if such a thing is possible in an 8-9 season) do not appear to be carrying over to the new season.

I do not believe there is a hint of hyperbole in saying that Bill O’Brien, a good-to-very-good offensive coordinator, might be the greatest upgrade any team in the league has made this season in its roster, coaching staff, front office, concessions staff, anything.

O’Brien’s competence, his fundamental capability of doing his job, is an incalculable upgrade on last year’s de facto offensive coordinator, Matt Patricia. Patricia was a fine defensive coach and a trusted Bill Belichick lieutenant through the years, but he was so fundamentally inept overseeing the offense that I found myself longing for the late ’90s days of Ernie Zampese and third-and-8 draw plays to Terry Allen for 3 yards.

Patricia did not know what he was doing, he knew it, and his reaction to that knowledge was to act outwardly as if he had all the answers. Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history and a far better general manager than he gets credit for nationally, but putting Patricia in that role was foolish, and keeping him there all season, as he was damaging a promising second-year quarterback with his incompetence and ego, was borderline negligent.

It is impossible to fully measure the damage Patricia did until we see how players that fell deep into his doghouse for speaking the truth — receiver Kendrick Bourne for one, but most notably Mac Jones — recover and fare this season.

The Patriots offense hasn’t been perfect this preseason, or all that consistent. But it’s trending the right way; by all eyewitness accounts, Jones was impressively sharp in the second joint practice with the Packers last week. And there were plays made in Saturday night’s game — such as Bourne’s leaping grab of a Jones pass early in the second quarter for a first down — that felt like pure, significant progress on what we saw last year.

I’ve gone on record with it before, and I will again right now. I’m a believer in Jones. His ceiling is always going to be lower than the elite tier of quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert) once he starts winning meaningful games because of his limited arm.

But at his best, and when he is competently coached, he processes quickly and delivers the ball accurately. At his best, he’ll be Chad Pennington with a slightly better arm, and a visit to Pennington’s pro-football-reference.com page will remind you that he was more effective than you remember.

Sure, Jones’s petulance was unbecoming, but you know what? He was right. And besides, his edge is entertaining. His inevitable first regular-season blow-up with “Teapot” O’Brien should be a doozy.

(I love that Jones told The MMQB’s Albert Breer that he is determined to “[keep] it loose and go out there and sling it” this season. “Sling it” is a term with a nice place in Patriots lore, given that it’s what Drew Bledsoe told Tom Brady to do on the final drive of Super Bowl XLIX.)

Jones doesn’t have one elite, sure-thing receiving target, but the Patriots should have a well-rounded group of pass-catchers. Hunter Henry, who had nine touchdowns in 2021 but was lost in the Patricia haze last season, and Mike Gesicki (once healthy) are a talented tight end duo.

DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bourne, and intriguing rookie sixth-rounders Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte look like keepers. Tyquan Thornton seems to have fallen behind, but there has to be some clever way to utilize his beep-beep! speed.

And the running back tandem of Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott (have you ever heard so much talk about someone’s blitz-pickup skills?) is one of the team’s most talented positional units on either side of the ball.

Ah, but back to that flaw. None of this matters if the Patriots can’t block. The varsity offensive line has not been together at all in camp, with Michael Onwenu — a true All-Pro talent on the right side — still recovering from ankle surgery and left guard Cole Strange sidelined since the first padded practice with a left leg injury.

Strange, a surprising first-round pick who had an uneven-at-best rookie season, needs to take a huge leap this year. Missing essentially all of camp is not ideal.

Even with trusty David Andrews anchoring everything at center and Trent Brown appearing interested again at left tackle, right tackle and overall depth remain issues. Jones was under siege often against the Packers, and putting overmatched Andrew Stueber at left tackle while Jones was still in the game could have had season-altering consequences.

These guys had better get healthy and acclimated. The Patriots — with an outstanding defense, more talent on offense than they get credit for, and an actual, capable offensive coordinator — have a chance to be one of the surprises of the season. But only if that offensive line gives Jones and friends the time to prove it.


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