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Patriots players retain hope despite offensive struggles since Josh McDaniels’ departure as OC

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Patriots players retain hope despite offensive struggles since Josh McDaniels’ departure as OC

TUCSON, Ariz. — New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was basking in the sunshine at Arizona Stadium on the campus of the University of Arizona this week, happy to share thoughts on his respect for the Wildcats’ football program and alums such as kicker Nick Folk, Rob Gronkowski and Tedy Bruschi.

He also delved into how challenging it will be to slow down NFL leading rusher Josh Jacobs when the Patriots face the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox), and some of the factors that have contributed to Patriots defensive end Josh Uche‘s breakout season.

Then came a topic he had no interest in expounding upon.

The question was as straightforward as a 3-yard fullback dive: How challenging has the transition been replacing long-time Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is now the Raiders’ head coach?

His answer: “We’ve talked about that. We’ve been in this transition every year.”

But has this one been harder than others in the past?

“Every year is a different year, so they’re not hard, they’re not easy,” Belichick said. “You take it as it comes.”

How Belichick has taken it — elevating Matt Patricia and Joe Judge to leading roles on the offensive staff despite their limited background on offense at the NFL level and streamlining the playbook — has been under the spotlight for the better part of the season because of the unit’s struggles.

Despite having most of the same player personnel returning from last season, consider these key areas of regression from 2021:

• 32nd in red zone offense (14 TDs in 36 trips) … down from 11th (39 in 63)

• 28th on third down (35.6%) … down from 10th (43.5%)

• 28th in first downs … down from tied for 9th

• 23rd in sacks per pass play … down from 8th

• 24th in total yards per game … down from 15th

Surely, Belichick will have a thorough analysis of the slippage when he deems it appropriate, assessing how much of it has been coaching- or player-based. During the season, when there is such a short-term focus on preparing for a game each week, usually isn’t the time for to do that.

Some players, however, have acknowledged that things haven’t unfolded as they wanted them to this point but still retain hope.

“I feel like, being in that system for so long, of course you’re going to go through some growing pains. Maybe these have gone longer than expected,” veteran left tackle Trent Brown said.

“But I think we’re getting better, week in and week out. We’ve had some highs and lows throughout the season. We just have to find a way to be consistent on our highs and not have as many lows.”

The Patriots (7-6) are still in the playoff hunt and how the offense performs down the stretch could play a factor in Belichick’s future plans. For example, would Belichick entertain the possibility of bringing back former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien if he decides he’d like to return to the NFL?

The offensive struggles have challenged quarterback Mac Jones, whose emotions have boiled over at times during recent games. When it happened in Monday’s win over the Cardinals, ESPN analyst Troy Aikman said: “The frustration from Mac Jones, I understand it, I get it. Being an offensive coordinator, I’ve always felt, is the hardest job on any staff. It’s more than just calling plays. Part of it is getting a group of players to buy in.”

Of the transition from McDaniels, Jones said: “I think Josh is a great coach, a great person, a really good leader. He prepared me really well last year … We have great coaches here now too. You learn from whoever is coaching you, and everyone is a little different. That’s what I learned at Alabama when I had a bunch of different coordinators.

“I was definitely glad to get the experience with [Josh], and now this year working through a lot of things and getting experience with the guys we have; they’ve done a great job.”

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