— That silver Rolls Royce with red-and-blue trim you see cruising through the NFL standings is driven by the Patriots.
They are once again the team to beat, and they are the last opponent an on-the-ropes contender like the Packers wants to face. The Patriots just finished preying on the weaknesses of the Jets and Bears, and their offense is so good that it’s drawing comparisons to their historic 2007 unit, the one that scored 415 points and led the team to an undefeated regular-season.
This year’s offense, with no Randy Moss, Kevin Faulk or Donte Stallworth, can’t possibly be as good as the 2007 model, can it?
Table 1 shows a direct comparison between the 2007 and 2010 Patriots offenses. The numbers are close, but the old Patriots hold an edge in most categories. The advantage in passing yards is most significant: almost 50 per game. The old Patriots even hold a slight edge in rushing, which is surprising, because the team switched to a more conservative, power-oriented attack this season. Passer efficiency rating isn’t the best statistic in the world, but it is adequate for quick comparisons, and it shows that classic short-haired Brady was a slightly better percentage passer than shaggy Brady. Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic tells the same story: the 2007 Patriots were 75.4 percent above league average in passing, the 2010 Patriots are a (very similar) 74.2 percent above average.
With a 50-yard-per-game discrepancy between the two offenses, how can anyone say the 2010 Patriots are better? Let’s dig into the numbers a little bit.
Take Out the Bombs: The old Patriots were very bomb-oriented, with Brady and Moss hooking up for lots of 50-yard passes. Using the Football Outsiders database, it is easy to filter out and examine a team’s deep passes. The Patriots completed 26-of-59 passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air in 2007, amassing an incredible 1,058 passing yards on those plays.
Long passing is an important component of an offense, but a few long bombs can really inflate a team’s passing figures. This year’s Patriots have completed just 12-of-35 passes over 20 yards in length, totaling just 444 yards. Take the bombs out of both team’s statistics, and the gap between the old and new Patriots tightens: the old Patriots threw for 229.5 non-bomb yards per game, the new Patriots 216.
Here’s the amazing part. If we subtract all of the bombs (complete and incomplete) from each team’s offense, then re-figure their yards per play, the 2010 Patriots come out on top! The 2010 Patriots average 5.59 yards per play on everything that isn’t a long pass. The 2007 Patriots averaged 5.52 yards per play on non-bombs. Nearly all of the difference in quality between the two teams comes down to a few Brady-to-Moss (and to Stallworth and others) aerial strikes.
It isn’t fair to completely erase the 2007 Patriots’ quick-strike capability, of course. But statistically, there’s a lot of noise in every long completion: the difference between a 40-yard and 75-yard touchdown is simply field position, not the quality of the players, yet a couple of 75-yard plays can really skew the numbers.
Running When it Counts: The 2007 Patriots gained more rushing yards than the 2010 team, but despite their reputation for running up the score, they spent many fourth quarters flopping on 52-7 leads. Fullbacks Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel combined for 67 carries that year, for goodness' sake. This year’s team is more likely to run when it matters, and they are more effective at running in tight situations: on third-and-short, and at the goal line.
This year’s Patriots are 21-of-25 when running on third down and less than two yards. The 2007 Patriots were just 14-of-21 in those situations. The Patriots were more likely to throw that quick hitch to Faulk on 3rd-an-2 in the old days, but even when short-yardage passing is factored in, the old Patriots converted 72.5 percent of 3rd-and-short opportunities, the new Patriots 77.4. It’s a slight edge, but it demonstrates the difference a more balanced offense can make.
A look at the goal-to-go stats tells the same story. The 2007 Patriots scored touchdowns in 73.8 percent of goal-to-go situations. The new Patriots punch it in 82.1 percent of the time. The old Patriots scored 17 rushing touchdowns, while this year’s squad has 16 rushing touchdowns with three games left to play. Little advantages like these add up.
Strength of Schedule: We haven’t even factored in the biggest difference between the 2007 and 2010 Patriots: the quality of the defenses they faced. The AFC East was horrible in 2007, with no team other than the the Patriots finishing above .500 and the Jets and Dolphins combining for just five wins. Many of the Patriots’ myth-making blowouts, including 56-10 and 38-7 wins over the Bills and a 49-28 win over the Dolphins, came against overmatched foes. The old Patriots blew out some very good opponents, too, but their “holy cow” offensive statistics include a healthy dose of daisy stomping.
This year, the Patriots are plowing through some of the best defenses in the NFL, including the Jets, Steelers, and Bears. Strength-of-schedule is often in the eye of the beholder (they crushed the Lions, too), but at Football Outsiders, we base our schedule adjustments on every single play from every game. Without getting too deep into a mathematical treatise, we adjusted the Patriots’ offensive output slightly down in 2007 to account for all the awful defenses they faced. So far this season, the numbers force us to adjust the figures slightly up. The old Patriots weren’t quite as good as their amazing stats, the new Patriots are slightly better than theirs.
Better Balance: The 2010 Patriots defense isn’t nearly as good as their 2007 defense, which is why the team is currently 11-2. That said, the Patriots made a wise trade when they sacrificed shock-and-awe offensive tactics for balance. The Giants found the weaknesses in their offensive line and took away the bomb in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots had no Plan B. The Packers, with their great pass rush, cannot hope to do the same thing this week because the Patriots can do so much more offensively: drive down the field mixing runs and passes, convert 3rd-and-1 easily, stuff the ball in at the goal line.
The scariest thing about the Patriots offense is that it is getting better: by Week 12 of the 2007 season, opponents had caught up to the Patriots, and their offense went from “unstoppable” to “very good.” The opposite is happening this year: the Patriots have been better in the last month than they were in September and October, when they still had Moss and a few vestiges of their old bombs-away philosophy.
That’s what has the rest of the NFL getting nervous. The Patriots are still revving their engine. They might be even better when the playoffs arrive.