Sunday is Halloween, so this is a fitting question: Does the Patriots' offense still put the same fear in opponents as it did when Randy Moss was dressed up as a Patriot?
That's been obvious against two very good defenses the last two weeks in Baltimore and San Diego. The Patriots won both games because they out-executed the opponent when it mattered the most and displayed the type of gridiron gestalt that save for last season and 2002, has been a hallmark of Belichick teams since the Cinderella 2001 season. With or without Moss, the Patriots are a good T-E-A-M. Are you listening Miami Heat? That's team, not collection of talent.
However, without Moss, who makes his return to Foxborough on Sunday to face his former team, the margin for error on offense and Tom Brady's window to complete passes has shrunk considerably. This offense is now closer to the 2006 rendition than the 2007 one. It's OK, the Patriots can win with this offense. Just don't tell me it's better than the one with Moss.
Moss is gone and so is the thrill from the Patriots offense.
Even though some people are content to do so now, it's tough to just ignore those 50 touchdowns Moss had in his 52 games as a Patriot and act like they never happened. Let the record show that the last two passes Moss caught from Brady, against Buffalo, both went for touchdowns.
The sample size is very small -- two games -- but it's apparent that when Moss went to Minnesota he took the Patriots deep ball with him. The team has attempted two deep passes since Moss's departure, a long bomb to Brandon Tate on the final possession of the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens and a reverse flea-flicker to Deion Branch on their first possession last week against San Diego.
Both plays seemed designed to prove a point. Both times there was a better chance of Bill Belichick coaching with a Moss mask on Sunday than the pass being completed.
No where in the commandments of football does it say Thou Must Complete the Deep Pass. But it certainly helps to be able to have the threat of the deep pass to keep defenses honest, which Moss in his bizarre monologue following the season opener said was his job. The Patriots had that threat in the Glory Days in the form of David Patten. The last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl, 2004, Patten averaged 18.2 yards per catch and had seven touchdowns.
Teams simply have no reason to fear the deep pass from the Patriots any more. And it shows. Brady's passing yards per completion attempt with Moss this season was 7.47. Minus Moss it's 6.83.
The most glaringly example of tighter windows for Brady without No. 81 has come on third down. With Moss, the Patriots converted on third down at a 55.3 percent clip. The last two weeks they're 7 of 26 (26.9 percent).
Wideout Wes Welker, who is still working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, was asked how Moss's presence as a vertical threat impacts defenses.
"I think it keeps the defense honest and wanting to make sure he’s not going deep," said Wes Welker. "You don’t know which play he’s going to all of a sudden take off on you. It definitely can put those safeties in check."
Now, when Welker meant you don't know which play he's going to take off on you, he didn't mean you don't know which play Randy is going to take a siesta on. And that did happen here. No question.
No one is arguing that the Moss trade was a bad deal. The Patriots are 2-0 without him. He had clearly become fixated on his contract situation and it was only a matter of time before the situation deteriorated and took the team down with it. Plus, it looks like father time has caught up with Moss just a bit, but the automatic conclusion that subtracting Moss from the mix made the Patriots' offense a better unit is a lot of revisionist history.
Before the season started the general consensus was that the strength of these Patriots would be their explosive offense. People pointed to Brady throwing to Moss and Welker and the young tight ends. Moss's presence was trumpeted as a reason the Patriots could win. Then suddenly it was his absence that made them better.
The change of popular opinion was enough to give you logic whiplash.
The Patriots went out and got Brady his security blanket back in Branch, and Branch has been great for the locker room and seamlessly adapted to the offense. In his first go-round with the Patriots, Branch was a deep threat. He has yet to display that same capability in his second Patriot act, and a bum hamstring this week isn't going to help matters.
A lot of the Patriots' receivers mimic each others' skills sets. Branch's strengths are similar to those of Welker. Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate both seem to be good in space with the ball in their hands and the ability to run. Moss may be one-dimensional, but it's a unique dimension.
The Patriots offense hasn't scored more than two touchdowns in the last three weeks. That includes Moss's final game as a Patriot when he had zero catches and was zero part of the gameplan.
It might not get much better on Sunday, with Moss having debriefed the Vikings coaches on the Patriots offense. It's not just anyone giving Minnesota Patriots intelligence, it's a player Belichick described today as being "as smart as any receiver I've coached."
Moss is no dummy, and if he thought that night in Miami the Patriots' offense had become too predictable, maybe the delivery was wrong, but the point was right.
Now that's a scary thought.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.