Only a severe injury to Tom Brady could truly derail the Patriots’ quest for perfection.
The degree of difficulty continues to rise, however, thanks to New England’s battered offensive line.
Arguably the strongest – certainly the most consistent – position group on the roster in 2018, the Patriots are already without center David Andrews for the season as he recovers from blood clots in his lungs. Ted Karras has started each of the first two games in his place.
Right tackle Marcus Cannon sat out last week’s win over the Dolphins with a shoulder injury, ironman Joe Thuney missed his first snaps at left guard since 2017 and now left tackle Isaiah Wynn, himself a replacement for Trent Brown, is on the shelf for a minimum of eight weeks with a foot injury.
There are additional long-term concerns when it comes to Wynn, who missed all of 2018 with a torn Achilles, but the short-term prognosis isn’t great for the group as a whole.
Marshall Newhouse, signed by New England just last week, played every snap against the Dolphins. The nine-year veteran got the start for Cannon on the right side of the line and flipped over to the left after Wynn’s departure in the second quarter. Newhouse was responsible for one of two sacks of Brady and allowed the 42-year-old to be hit twice more.
When Newhouse slid over to the left, Korey Cunningham, acquired at the end of training camp, took over duties at right tackle.
"Certainly, there’s a lot of things we need to work on, on a lot of levels offensively, but certainly at the tackle position just from an experience standpoint," Bill Belichick said on a conference call on Monday. "Just literally a few days of practice, and that’ll be a challenge for them, but I thought they held up physically fairly well, in I’d say pretty tough conditions, and we played quite a bit of football offensively."
The Patriots don’t appear to be done with their tinkering on the offensive line, either, just signing free agent Caleb Benenoch on Wednesday. Jermaine Eluemunor and James Ferentz also remain on the 53-man roster, with more depth on the practice squad.
Benenoch started all 16 games at right guard for the Buccaneers in 2018, which just so happens to be the lone position not currently in flux thanks to Shaq Mason, though Benenoch played all over the line in the past.
"He’s played both, so we’ll see," Belichick said of where we may see Benenoch. "I’m not sure."
Benenoch, along with Cannon, was listed as a limited participant on Wednesday’s practice report with a calf injury.
Prior to Wynn’s return in training camp, Thuney was taking reps at left tackle along with Dan Skipper, who’s now on the practice squad. Since being drafted by the Patriots in 2016, Thuney has appeared in all 59 of the team’s games between the regular and postseason at guard. Would bouncing him outside in game action make sense?
"Whatever the team needs, I’m available," Thuney said.
Thuney declined to say if he’d lined up at left tackle during practice on Wednesday, stating only
"I was just focused on my job and doing what I can to help the team."
That’s where Dante Scarnecchia, the offensive line whisperer, comes in.
"Dante does an excellent job of developing younger players and getting older players and the playing group to play cohesively, and with good communication, and trust and accountability for each other," Belichick said. "He’s an excellent game-planning coach, and an excellent in-game coach in terms of making adjustments and recognizing what the problems are and fixing them."
If Thuney isn’t the answer at left tackle, the Patriots should be keeping an eye on Washington as the situation between the team and left tackle Trent Williams continues to deteriorate.
The Patriots could always swoop in and free the fourth overall pick from the 2010 draft from the perpetual losing in D.C. prior to the Oct. 29 trade deadline. Williams, 31, could provide the Patriots insurance in two ways: he can play left tackle for the rest of this season as to not rush Wynn back, and should Thuney walk as a free agent, Williams can play left tackle again next year and Wynn can play guard, where he has experience from his days at Georgia.
Williams, who is signed through 2020, is at odds with Washington’s medical staff over its handling of a medical condition last year, as well as his contract.
Between internal and external options, as well as the presence of Scarnecchia, the Patriots will be just fine along the offensive line. Let’s not forget that Scar was on hiatus in 2014, the last time New England dealt with a five-alarm inferno of this magnitude, and that season turned out OK.