The Patriots have fallen to 1-2 and are two games behind the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East. Can the two wide receivers waiting in the wings return in time to salvage the Patriots season?
The narratives started early last week. Angry Tom Brady is the best Tom Brady. Belichick always beats his former assistants. The Patriots never lose back to back games. As the Sunday Night Football game came to a close, however, the Patriots were once again on the losing end and the Twitter trolls emerged from their caves to feed. Not only was New England behind the Dolphins in the standings, but the Patriots were also now behind the Cleveland Browns.
The Patriots defense is typically slow to develop, as the season matures the defense tends to figure it out. The philosophy the last few years has been “bend, don’t break.” The team has always given up plenty of yards (29th yards per game in 2017) but managed to keep their opponents from getting into the end zone (5th in points per game in 2017). Despite this philosophy, the defense has always had something to bail them out at the end of the day, a top-ranked offense. In 2018, the Patriots offense has struggled to put points on the board, averaging only 19 points per game.
In July, the Patriots path back to the Super Bowl was clear. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was healthy. They had bolstered the running back position by drafting Sony Michel out of Georgia and picked up Jeremy Hill to potentially help at the goal line. The wide receiver corps lost Brandin Cooks in a trade prior to the draft but would be bolstered by the return of Julian Edelman from injury, the signing of Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt was sure to emerge as a threat on the outside. Chris Hogan would also build off his injury-shortened 2017 season.
Nearing the end of September, the path to back to the Super Bowl is hazy. Gronkowski has had little help on offense. Michel missed most of training camp and Hill was lost for the season in Week 1. Edelman was suspended for the first four games of the season, Britt and Matthews did not make the roster out of training camp, and “#HoganSZN” has been limited to a couple garbage time touchdowns in a Week 2 loss to the Jaguars. The Patriots have spent 25 transactions trying to get wide receiver right, and it is transactions 25 and 26 fans are hoping will get the Patriots back on track.
Transaction 26, barring any injuries or waiver moves, should be the return of Julian Edelman from his four-game suspension. The Patriots offense hums when the Edelman runs routes from the slot, from 2009-2016 when Edelman plays Brady averages 4.9 touchdowns to an interception, the ratio dips to 1.7 without Edelman. The Patriots receivers have had trouble getting open this season, and the hope is that Julian Edelman is the cure for this ailment. Transaction 25 is the lottery ticket. Prior to Week 3, the Patriots traded for Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon was a top receiver in 2013 before running afoul of the NFL’s drug testing policy. The hope is that the Patriots will keep Gordon on track and Gordon will showcase the talents that made him one of the most feared receivers in the league.
The slow start has been concerning, but the Patriots have bounced back from slow Septembers before. In 2014 and 2017, the Patriots finished September with a .500 record. In each of those seasons, the Patriots reached the Super Bowl. To continue that trend, the Patriots must fix their offense and get a win against Miami next week. A loss to their AFC East rival would put the Patriots three games behind in the loss column, and Edelman’s return in Week 5 may not be enough to get this team on track.