Matt Patricia Keeps Getting Away With It
9:22 AM EST on December 13, 2022
It's not often that the NFL's most unimaginative offense belongs to a team with a winning record, but that is how things stand now that the New England Patriots are 7-6 following Monday night's victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Winning is always better than losing, but I can't help but wonder if there are some people within the Patriots organization, like, say, the starting quarterback, who are feeling just a little bit disappointed that last night's victory may have bought more time for upward-failing offensive play-caller Matt Patricia.
I can't remember the last time I saw an NFL broadcast that was so eager to lead a funeral procession. From the moment the game started Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, along with the producers and statisticians who feed them talking points, had their sights trained on Patricia, who somehow landed a gig calling this team's plays despite only ever having previously been a good defensive coordinator and failed head coach. Patricia once again cut a befuddled figure on the sideline as the Patriots' offense struggled to get anything going. Every screen pass and run play was held up by Aikman and Buck as an object of disgust, and the momentum really picked up when cameras caught Patriots quarterback Mac Jones sending a dismissive wave in Patricia's general direction.
You don't want to read too much into every little thing that happens in a football game, but I've never seen a clearer example of a guy trying to do his job while thinking, Just shut the fuck up! Idiot! about the colleague whose own contributions are not helping.
ESPN had good reason to try and turn Patricia into a piñata. The collective exhaustion at Patricia's methods has been growing all season, and events from the previous week seemed to set up Monday night as a breaking point. The Patriots were coming off a loss to the Bills in which they only managed to score 10 points, and during that game cameras caught Jones screaming, "THROW THE FUCKING BALL! FUCKING RUN GAME SUCKS!" on the sideline. A few days after that, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph sat for a press conference in which he couldn't help but chuckle at how conservative the Patriots' offense is. "It's how a defensive guy would call offensive plays, right?" he said. And then there was Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who responded to a question about whether Patricia should be replaced as the team's offensive play-caller not by giving his man a vote of confidence, but by shrugging his shoulders and saying it was too late in the season to make any sort of change like that.
The axe was ready to fall on national TV, but it never did. Not because Patricia suddenly turned into a dynamic play-caller, though. New England's offense was just as moribund on Monday night as it has been all season—Jones threw 12 screen passes, the most he's thrown in a single game in his career—but the team was once again carried to victory by its incredible defense (and the fact that the Cardinals lost Kyler Murray to an awful knee injury on the first drive of the game). When the game was tied at 13 late in the second quarter, the Cardinals looked like the side most likely to put more points on the board, but then DeAndre Hopkins fumbled a ball that was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by Raekwon McMillan. The Cardinals never really sniffed the end zone after that, and the Pats were able to tack on another touchdown thanks to Jones making a great throw on one of the few times he's been allowed to look downfield this season:
If you were to pin down Patricia and Belichick and ask them to explain themselves, they'd probably argue that this is all by design. It's clear that they are convinced that their best shot at winning is to engineer a conservative attack that doesn't create many opportunities for turnovers, and then rely on the defense to get them through games. To some extent, they have been proven correct—the Patriots have a winning record and are still in the playoff hunt despite not having any offensive players that one would consider stars. That's a certain kind of success, but one that requires tradeoffs. If this team's ambitions start at "can handle a pile-of-crap Cardinals team" and end at "stand absolutely no chance against the Bills," then is it worth maintaining that position at the cost of the starting quarterback's development? Jones has regressed since last season, his first as a pro. The guy who once looked like an ascendant young player ready to lock down the quarterback position for years to come suddenly looks overmatched, unreliable, and unhappy. Would it have been worth trading a few wins and a chance to get smoked in the wild card game for a play-calling philosophy that would create more room for Jones to grow as a player? If you want your quarterback to just be a screen-pass bot that's fine, but Jones has demonstrated that he's capable of more than that, and he's clearly not having a good time in this system.
But when have we ever known Belichick and the Patriots to prize players over the system? As long as the team goes on winning more games than it loses, it won't matter how unpleasant the whole process is to watch, or how unhappy Jones is. He'll just have to grin and bear it, like he did after last night's win.
Jones was asked about his on-field remonstrations and if he is frustrated with the offense during his postgame presser, to which he responded, "No. I think the biggest thing for me is not letting it affect my play and bringing the best out of my guys. Today I thought we all did a good job with play the next play, play the next series, and Matty P did a great job. He's trying to call the game so that we can win. Sometimes, it might be this thing that people don’t know about, like the quick passes for whatever reason and that’s our game plan."
Now there's a guy who is excited to go to work every day.