It seems like much of the talk this offseason in New England is about what the Patriots offense doesn't have.
In the spring it was all about not having Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski on the OTA practice field.
Then the focus shifted to not having a left tackle to lean on after Nate Solder took the free agent dollars in New York.
More recently a major talking point has been in relation to the lack of weapons at the receiver position. Danny Amendola (free agent) and Brandin Cooks (trade) are in Miami and Los Angeles, respectively. Guys expected to vie to fill the void such as Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt were all cut after dealing with injuries. Even late arrival Eric Decker is gone after announcing his retirement.
But in a rare offseason meeting with the media on Tuesday morning, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels presented a rather optimistic front when asked for his thoughts on his offense as the preseason draws to an end.
"Like every trying camp you've ever been in you start at some point and you try to improve every day. Your identity as a team on any side of the ball is really never that clear by this point in the season or year. So we'll just continue to work hard. I really like our group. Guys have a great attitude. Working hard. I think we're making progress," McDaniels said. "It's a great group. I love our attitude, our work ethic, our attention to detail. The leadership we have in our room is really phenomenal."
That leadership includes Brady at the helm and Gronkowski as one of the truly elite offensive weapons in the game. It also includes Julian Edelman returning from a season lost to a torn ACL, though he'll also be lost for the first four weeks of this season to an NFL suspension.
The attack fields one of the deeper running back groups, when healthy that New England has had in the likes of James White, Rex Burkhead, first-round pick Sony Michel and newcomer Jeremy Hill.
Up front Trent Brown has settled into the left tackle spot. The interior of the line is held down by returning starters Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. Though Marcus Cannon missed most of camp to injury, he or returning veteran backup LaAdrian Waddle bring some stability at right tackle.
The questions, though, remain about the wide receiver spot. Chris Hogan will essentially be the top target during September, with Phillip Dorsett and offseason trade addition Cordarrelle Patterson vying for playing time and opportunities.
McDaniels certainly sounds as though he likes the growth he's seen from the former first-round pick Dorsett since he arrived via trade from the Colts at about this time a year ago.
"It's hard to not grow if you have a good attitude and you work hard, you pay attention," McDaniels said. "And we have a number of players that fit into that category. Phillip, specifically, came in late last year, very little foundation, and really did as well as we could have imagined without an offseason and much of a training camp. Then really put forth a tremendous effort during the year last year to try to catch up. Then strong spring, worked hard in the summer in training camp, and again he's a young player that's trying to get better at his craft."
McDaniels also said he's having "a lot of fun" in his early days working with Patterson and certainly seems intrigued with what the former first-round pick brings to the team.
"He can do a lot of things," McDaniels said with a smile. "He's working hard to really master the little things. This is a system that's new to him. Got a good attitude, working hard and he's getting better. That's the thing…at this time of year you want to see the guys that are putting in the work see some improvement in their game. Then it helps us offensively as a group and I think that's what we're seeing."
McDaniels has been around New England and the NFL long enough to know that things change dramatically season to season, and very often week to week. In many ways the overhaul at receiver is nothing new. So while many media and fans are lamenting the lack of proven options at receiver, the former Broncos head coach is simply focused on the overall cast of weapons he has to work with.
"Each year is different. So I know that our responsibility is to take the group of guys in our room and maximize the strengths of the players that we have. And we have a lot of strengths," McDaniels said. "There are guys in there at each position that do things well. I've said it a number of times before, when we get to the point where we are playing a game, a regular season game, our job is to take the group of guys that we have and the scheme that we have available to us and try to beat the other team. And they have a group of players in their bucket and they have scheme that they can use. That's the challenge each week.
"I really like the group that we have. We're working hard each day to try to get better and develop the chemistry that we need, in the passing game in particular. We'll see how it plays out."
Even if he doesn't see his personnel as a challenge at this point, McDaniels certainly is ready to embrace the challenge of weekly game planning and preparation.
"I mean as a coach you love working with your players, it's the best part of my job every day is the opportunity to work with those guys. They have such a great attitude and, again, our responsibility is to take what we have and beat the other team. And score points. We only take the field for one reason and that's to put points on the board," McDaniels concluded. "But I think that is a fun part. And it really starts to take form once you have a specific opponent in mind and in place and you know the variables that you have available to you and you know the matchups and the scheme on the other side. Then you start to try to figure out how you can best attack that."