New England Patriots: Play Calling, Personnel Miscues Lead to Loss

Shane O'HalloranContributor IIISeptember 17, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 16:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots is taken down by  Quentin Groves #54 of the Arizona Cardinals in the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 16, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Sunday's alarming 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals brought to light some questionable decision making by the coaching staff in Foxboro. From the offensive personnel groupings to the play calling, Belichick and Co. have some observers scratching their heads heading into a Week 3 date with the Ravens.

For the first time since a disciplinary non-start against the Jets in the 2010 playoffs, Wes Welker watched the beginning of Sunday’s game from the sidelines. Fourth-year receiver Julian Edelman got the nod instead, playing alongside Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the team’s base offense.

It wasn’t until Hernandez went down late in the first quarter with an ankle injury and the Pats went to a three-wide formation that Welker saw the field. The apparent demotion has fueled speculation about a possible rift between the team and the Patriots’ all-time leading wide receiver—Welker sought a long-term extension over the offseason, but eventually settled for a one-year franchise tender.

The shifty wideout still caught five passes for a team-high 95 yards, and Brady came to his friend’s defense again on WEEI sports radio's “Dennis and Callahan” show on Monday, saying, “We have a lot of personnel groupings in the game, and there’s a lot of guys on the roster. We’re trying to utilize every player so that at the end of the year, one guy doesn’t have 700 plays and another guy has 50 plays.”

No. 12 did a great job toeing the company line but ignored the fact that the team’s base offense—its most common personnel grouping on the field—is weakened when one of Brady’s favorite and most successful targets isn’t in the game.

Between the chalk lines is no place to play contract hardball. If that’s what Belichick is doing, the Patriots will suffer for it.

Of course, Welker’s diminished playing time wasn’t the only coaching blunder on Sunday. While it’s impossible to fully prepare for the type of serious injury that sidelined Aaron Hernandez on the second offensive series, Patriots prodigal son and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was unable to establish any rhythm in the passing game going forward.

Instead, McDaniels looked to force feed Brandon Lloyd on fly routes and bubble screens despite looking out of sync with Brady all afternoon. One of those attempts came on a third-and-two from the Cardinals’ 28. Rather than run for the easy first down, the Patriots offense dialed up an 18-yard back-shoulder fade to Lloyd that fell incomplete.

Brady was just 3-for-12 for 80 yards on passes of at least 15 yards, and has overthrown 12 of 19 passes that traveled 30 yards or more since the beginning of 2011, worst in the NFL (h/t ESPN Stats and Information).

It’s important for the offense to stay aggressive and try to pick up large chunks of yardage, but there’s a fine line between being confident and brash that McDaniels seemed to miss this week.

And in some big moments, the play calling swung to the overly timid side of the spectrum.

There was the inexplicable third-quarter sweep call on third-and-six inside Cardinals territory that resulted in a nine-yard loss and a punt rather than a field goal. Then, with 46 seconds left and a chance to make the distance on Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning field goal attempt more manageable, the offense called for two designed QB sneaks—essentially taking a knee without losing yardage.

If the kick had split the uprights, those two plays wouldn’t matter. But it didn’t, making those 46 seconds a golden opportunity gone wasted.

If the Patriots had managed to pull this one out, their 60 yards on eight penalties wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, either.

Ditto their abysmal five-for-15 third-down conversion rate.

But in a loss, every play call, personnel choice and mental error comes with an added layer of scrutiny, and this week, Belichick and McDaniels deserve it.

With a trip to Baltimore on tap next week, the coaching staff doesn’t have long to get the team back on track.