For years, the New England Patriots' offensive attack has been predicated on putting the ball in the hands of quarterback Tom Brady and letting him go to work.
The Patriots rode the finesse style of offense, with a rhythm-oriented, fast-paced passing game, to some of the most prolific numbers in NFL history. They became only the second team to ever put up 500 points or more in three straight seasons, per Pro-Football-Reference.
In what became a yearly tradition, the Patriots' offense would fold in the playoffs when it got punched in the mouth by a fearless, tough-nosed defense.
In 2013, the plan changed dramatically. By taking the burden off the passing game, the Patriots were trying to answer those "punches to the mouth" by punching back with a running attack.
Balance had been missing before, but the Patriots finally had it. Instead, the Broncos elected to take away the running game, and for once, the Patriots didn't have enough weapons in the passing game to make up for it.
Those in-season changes were made as much out of necessity due to injuries—specifically to tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins—as they were made to better position the Patriots for a postseason push.
Nonetheless, the events raise significant philosophical questions on offense. Namely these: What are the Patriots? What do they want to be?
With free agency and the draft around the corner, the offseason will provide plenty of team-building opportunities for the Patriots to gear their offense for whatever direction they decide to go. There are some key decisions coming up, however, that could influence their thinking—and possibly even provide a clue as to the future identity of the Patriots offense.
It starts with evaluating their own talent. They'll need to decide what to do with wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount.
If the Patriots want to field a more potent passing game, re-signing Edelman is a logical first step. The Patriots need to keep familiar targets around Brady as he enters the end stages of his career; they simply don't have enough time to keep going back to the drawing board on finding receivers who are compatible with both Brady and the offense.
Re-signing him, however, is no sure thing.
The Patriots invested big in a slot receiver last year and are on the hook for $3 million to wide receiver Danny Amendola in 2014. Signing Edelman, who is similar to Amendola, may be a redundant move.
Perhaps, then, the Patriots decide they need to diversify their offense and get more explosive in the passing game. That could mean bringing in one of the many free-agent receivers like the Broncos' Eric Decker, the Giants' Hakeem Nicks, the Eagles' Jeremy Maclin or others.
But that begs the question: If the Patriots invest big in a boundary "X receiver," do they run the risk that the involvement of a new pass-catcher could stunt the growth of second-round pick Aaron Dobson?
It's an interesting question, but if they end up investing in either a running back or a receiver, history tells us that the resources will most likely be used at receiver. The Patriots have made a living off replacing running backs, seemingly featuring new bell-cow running backs every two to three years like clockwork.
As recently as 2011, the Patriots' stable of backs had a much different look, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead serving as the top two options. They let each of them walk for what ended up being relatively small contracts that the Patriots could have matched.
These days, a trio of Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are called upon to do to the heavy lifting in the backfield. With all three due to hit free agency over the next 14 months, the complexion of that group could be changing yet again.
Or, perhaps, the Patriots will decide it's time to devote more resources to the running game in an effort to take some of the pressure off Brady.
There will be changes, but on some level, we can expect the Patriots to maintain the status quo.
Much of the Patriots' offensive identity is predicated on tight end Rob Gronkowski. Without him, they struggled to find their identity.
|Patriots offense, 2013|
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The Patriots' red-zone offense was 57 percent more efficient with Gronkowski in the lineup than without him. They threw for nearly 76 more yards per game and averaged an extra 7.6 points per game. The Patriots ran for more yards without him, but that's because losing him meant they had to run the ball more to take the burden off the passing game.
It worked for a time, but it fell short in the postseason.
Gronkowski's impact on the field is tremendous, but the Patriots can only hope to get a full 16 games out of him for the first time since 2011. It will be up to others to step up their game.
Amendola and Dobson aren't going anywhere this offseason. Amendola looked like a 100-catch receiver in training camp, but tore his groin in Week 1 and was never the same. Dobson looked like a dynamic X receiver last summer, and although he got off to a rocky start, he started to emerge before a foot injury diminished his role down the stretch.
The Patriots will be expecting improvement, and hoping for good health, from all those players. If they get those things, however, they'll have a solid foundation for their passing offense with Gronkowski, Amendola, Dobson, Vereen and (if they can retain him) Edelman.
That's a great start, but unless they can balance it out with an efficient running game that can be effective when the opponent knows they're going to run, the Patriots could face postseason deja vu next January.
Whatever direction the Patriots head, it must be one they feel can get them over the hump and lift the team to its fourth Lombardi Trophy.
These questions expand to an identity question that stretches beyond next season.
The next few months will give us an idea of what the Patriots want to be in 2014, but it's also time to start thinking about the long-term identity of their offense.
Whoever is calling the signals for the Patriots' offense when Brady hangs it up for good, it's likely that quarterback will not be as talented as the one before.
The Patriots must begin making serious considerations toward creating a nurturing environment for a young quarterback.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.