FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The 2018 New England Patriots offense was a clear-cut example of a unit that bought itself time before finally finding what worked best in late December. The combination of patience and relentlessness in search of answers ultimately helped turn the Patriots into a power-running team that won Super Bowl LIII.
Fast-forward to the quarter mark of the 2019 season and there are parallels to this year's Tom Brady-led attack.
Coming off a disappointing performance in Sunday's 16-10 win at Buffalo -- with due credit going to a stingy Bills defense -- Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has to be asking himself the following question: What can the offense truly hang its hat on?
The Patriots rolled with that in a blowout win at the Miami Dolphins, then carried it into the first quarter of a Week 3 home triumph against the New York Jets, before the wheels essentially came off. Since taking a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter of the Jets game, the Patriots have totaled 21 possessions (non kneel-downs). They have scored two touchdowns over that span and had nine three-and-outs.
A domino effect has contributed to the downturn, which includes:
Edelman suffering a rib injury, which he is playing through
Gordon suffering a finger injury, which he is playing through
Fullback James Develin (neck) landing on the injured reserve list
A revolving door at tight end
So now McDaniels and Brady are essentially back at the blank-canvas stage, which is why the connection to the way they reinvented themselves in 2018 is so timely to highlight. The Patriots (4-0) have the benefit of time to figure it all out, as well as a softer schedule in the short term to ease the burden, with upcoming games against the 0-4 Washington Redskins (1 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS), New York Giants (2-2) and the Jets (0-3).
Every week that passes also puts them a step closer to an in-house personnel boost, as evidenced this week with the return of veteran tight end Benjamin Watson from a four-game NFL suspension.
In addition, NFL teams can bring two players off IR later in the season, which means starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn (foot), first-round draft pick N'Keal Harry (leg) and Develin are possibilities to help. And that's not to mention veteran receiver Cameron Meredith (physically unable to perform list) and maybe even rookie offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste (non-football injury list).
"No team is perfect this time of year. This is not the team we're going to be in December," Brady said during his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI's "The Greg Hill Show."
While crediting the Bills for making it difficult on Sunday, Brady also made it clear the Patriots' offense can be better.
"We just didn't really execute well in any phase -- the pass game, the run game, none of it was up to our expectation," Brady said on the program. "Really it comes down to our execution and ability to move the football on a consistent basis, to have dependability, to have trust, confidence -- all those things play a role in offensive football."
The way McDaniels began Sunday's game was telling, calling on a two-receiver grouping of Edelman and Gordon, along with tight end Ryan Izzo, fullback Jakob Johnson and running back Sony Michel. It was an early reflection of his commitment to the run, with Michel ripping off a 15-yard gain.
Then, on the second play, 335-pound offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor came on as a sixth blocker up front, and another attempt was made to pound the ball with Michel (no gain).
The Patriots entered the game with lingering questions about their ability to run consistently, and though there were flashes on Sunday, there still are too many negative plays on the ground. And the passing game, with little production from the tight ends and banged-up top receivers, is now sputtering too.
But as was the case in 2018, Brady & Co. aren't panicking.
"Offensive football is always a work in progress," Brady said on WEEI. "It's very rare that I've ever had an offense where I've said, 'We have it all figured out' in the 20 years I've been playing.
"I'm excited to get into work, to learn, improve and try to get better. That's where I'm at this time of year."