A quick look at the Patriots final season statistics gives fans obvious answers as to why the 2002 season went so wrong. While the team made a valiant effort to get into the postseason with a thrilling overtime win over the Dolphins on the final day of the season, the team's regression in the running game on both sides of the ball throughout the year made the effort a simple story of too little, too late.
New England finished the 2001 season ranked 19th in the NFL in total offense. That breaks down to a 13th ranking running the ball and a 22nd ranking in the passing game. Behind Antowain Smith and Tom Brady the offense utilized a conservative approach to win and control football games. The formula led the team on a season-ending nine-game winning streak that culminated in a championship.
This season the Patriots made great strides in the passing game, an aspect that became a much more focal part of the offense. Charlie Weis' offense opened the season with numerous spread formations and Brady throwing the ball upwards of 30, 40 or even 50 times a game. But in conjunction with that increased focus on the passing game came a slight slide in production in the running game. In 2002 the Patriots overall offense ranked 21st in the NFL, just two spots back from a year ago. But the breakdown of that ranking was much different . While the pass ranking improved from 22nd to 12th, the rushing attack fell from 13th to just near the basement of the league at 28th.
And whether you think it is an old wive's tale or not, many believe that running the ball and solid defensive play are keys to late season and playoff success. It would be a hard point to argue considering a comparison of the Patriots success running and defending the run over the last two seasons.
A look at the defense paints a strikingly similar picture to that of the offense. A year ago the Patriots had the 24th ranked defense in the NFL. A unit that earned a reputation as a bend-but-don't-break group and a team of playmakers ranked 19th against the run and 24th versus the pass.
This season a similar group of defenders, with the only substantial new faces being veteran safety Victor Green and veteran run-stopping defensive lineman Steve Martin, actually improved in overall ranking up to 23rd in the NFL. The issue with the defense though was that it wasn't nearly as balanced against the run and the pass as it was a year ago. While the unit improved all the way up to 11th in the league against the pass, it fell to an abysmal 31st against the run. Early in the season teams had significant success against New England on the ground. Romeo Crennel and Bill Belichick's unit never really found a solution.
And while the numbers against the pass may be slightly swayed by the fact that teams simply had more success and spent more time running the ball, the pass defense was still at a much more reliable level than the run. Ty Law had a Pro Bowl season at corner, matched mostly against opponents' top receivers. Lawyer Milloy also had a Pro Bowl season in a multifaceted role both playing a linebacker of sorts in some instances to stop the run and acting as a true deep safety in other Cover 2 situations.
So while these numbers are just a sampling of what will be analyzed, compared and evaluated over the next offseason, they are at the heart of this season's struggles. In a league where running the ball and stopping the run are considered keys to winning, the Patriots could do neither with any regularity in 2002. As a team the Patriots have holes to fill across the board, but improving the running game and stopping the run have to be at the top of the list in terms of offseason wishes for Patriots Nation.