Quick: Who was the last Patriot to score a first-quarter touchdown? We’ll get to the answer shortly.
But in a strange football season for the Patriots, it could very well be the strangest stat we’ve ever come across: Through seven games, the New England offense hasn’t scored a first-quarter point. The only first-quarter touchdown for the Patriots this season was a pick-6 from Devin McCourty in the loss to the Seahawks in Seattle.
New England is on pace to score 16 first-quarter points as a team this year, which would set a team record for futility over the course of a 16-game season. It wouldn’t set a franchise record — the 1970 team played a 14-game regular-season schedule, and somehow ended up with just one first-quarter offensive touchdown all season and a total of 13 first-quarter points. They finished 2-12. But it wouldn’t be too far removed.
When it comes to first-quarter futility, other low points for New England include the strike-shortened 1982 season (nine games), when it had 23 first-quarter points and went 5-4. They were almost as equally bad in 1990 (30 first-quarter points) and 1993 (33 first-quarter points), two seasons where the Patriots won a total of six games.
Back to 2020. For the Patriots, an average of one point per game through seven games is the worst in the league. (The Seahawks average of eight points per game is best in the NFL going into Thursday’s game.)
For a team whose success is predicated on running the football and controlling the tempo, no first-quarter touchdowns is a recipe for offensive disaster. Razor-thin at wide receiver and tight end and seemingly well-stocked at running back, New England needs to put its stamp on the game in the early going with a sustained ground attack, one where it controls the clock.
Instead, the Patriots are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to first-quarter time of possession, checking in at No. 27 — this season, they have controlled the ball for 45 percent of the first quarter. Only five teams are worse. (Again, for some statistical context, Green Bay was best in the league in that department at 64 percent heading into Thursday’s game.)
The shame of it all? It’s not hard to draw a line between those struggles and the fact that if the New England offense had been able to generate any sort of rhythm in the early going against the Seahawks, Broncos, or Bills — games they lost by a combined 14 points — there’s the very real chance they could have won all three games. Those games came down to a failure to execute offensively in their opponents’ territory in the last two minutes. If they can find a way to put some points on the board in the early going and find an equal measure of success late, there’s the chance we’re going into this weekend looking at a 5-2 team instead of a 2-5 one.
Will the Patriots be able to flip the script in the early going Monday night against the Jets? You would think so: Through its first eight games, New York is one of the worst defensive first-quarter teams in the league, allowing an average of 7.4 points per contest in the first 15 minutes — 30th out of 32 teams. (That includes allowing 14 first-quarter points last week against Kansas City.) And for New England, a game with a reasonable facsimile of the starting offensive line in place for the second consecutive contest should create an optimal situation for a good start.
But if not, maybe they can figure out a way to sneak tight end Matt LaCosse (pictured above) back on the roster. LaCosse — who opted out at the start of the season because of COVID-19 concerns — was the last New England player to register a first-quarter offensive touchdown, almost 11 full months and nine games ago, if you include last year’s playoff loss to the Titans. (LaCosse caught an 8-yard pass from Tom Brady in a 24-17 win over Buffalo.)
If New England can’t find a way to fine tune its first-quarter attack going forward, what started as a just a strange stat could go a long way toward shaping what could ultimately be a forgettable legacy for the 2020 offense.
This originally appeared in Point After, the Globe’s Patriots newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox on Mondays and Fridays during the NFL season.
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