What can the Patriots' offense do moving forward to find optimum success under the direction of inexperienced fourth-year-backup-turned-starter Matt Cassel? That's the question New England will face on a weekly basis in the Tom Brady-less reality that's now the 2008 schedule.
One school of thought is that the New England offense is the New England offense. Even without the reigning NFL MVP, Josh McDaniel's unit must, in some sense, maintain its identity from a year ago as a group that takes advantage of strengths that include All-Pro playmaker Randy Moss, slot machine Wes Welker and, Super Bowl performance aside, a solid pass-blocking offensive line. The other school -- an old school, maybe even cliche thought -- is that the team must become a run-based offense to take some pressure off Cassel as he embarks on his first career action as a starter.
In the end, the Brady-less Patriots offense will probably be somewhere in the middle, as it was for the most part in Sunday's low-scoring divisional win over the Jets in New York.
Regardless how the Patriots -- a game-plan team from week to week over the years if there ever was one -- come up with a scheme to attack opposing defenses, it's obvious to everyone, including the players, that finding increased success in the ground game can only make life easier on the offense as a whole.
"If we're not putting the whole game on his shoulders, it will be a lot easier for him," Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins said of using the running game to aide Cassel. "Plus, if you can run the ball, it opens up play-action (passing), and that's where a lot of big plays come from is play-action. If you can run the ball, it makes it easier."
Of course, as Mankins sees it, running the ball is something he'd always like to do. But he and his trench-mates don't always get the go-ahead to do so, although they might in the coming weeks.
"We want to get the running game going. We always want to do that," Mankins said. "It makes the game go faster. It chews up the clock. It takes possessions away from them. And we just like to run the ball. We like to get our running backs going. We like to hit people in the running game. We always want to run the ball; it's just sometimes it's not there for you."
The guys doing the running seem to agree with the men up front. Starter Laurence Maroney declined to comment on the importance of increasing the rushing load before smiling and winking while issuing a Bill Belichick-like, "It is what it is."
Veteran backup Sammy Morris took a similar approach, seemingly not wanting to admit that the backs' role would change with the swap of quarterbacks. After all, Belichick clearly expressed to his players in the days following Brady's placement on injured reserve that each guy must simply do his job -- nothing more, nothing less.
"I think that's regardless of who is back there. If you can get the running game going, obviously it helps out the other aspects of the game."
The Patriots certainly would seem to have the horses to increase the load on the running backs if such an attack is deemed in the best interests of the offense and the team as a whole. Maroney and Morris showed to be at full health in the season opener, Kevin Faulk returned from suspension for Week 2, Heath Evans remains his versatile self and new addition LaMont Jordan is itching to show his unique combination of skills in a backfield that goes five deep.
"One thing is the versatility of them. They all can contribute in both the running game and passing game, which is a good thing to have from the backfield spots," McDaniels said, speaking about the options the five players presented even before Brady went down. "Getting them involved in the passing game, giving them the ball and sharing reps on whatever it may be. If it is in and out of a drive or if it is in the game together.
"We have a good group and we feel like we have a lot of depth there. Hopefully we should be able to keep fresh running backs on the field all the time. We don't do the big role thing; they can all interchange with one another. They should be in the game and give us productive plays in either the running game or passing game."
How the backs come together in the weeks ahead remains in question, as does the way the entire New England offense as a whole will manifest itself as it seeks out an identity without Brady. There is confidence throughout that Cassel will be able to chip in with aerial contributions to his many receiving weapons, but everyone agrees that the more the team can accomplish on the ground, the easier things will be for the Patriots' new passer.
"I think it's everybody's opportunity to step up and take pressure off the whole team," Faulk said.
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