The New England Patriots recently completed yet another 12-4 season.
They went to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Although it fell short of winning its fourth Super Bowl during the Bill Belichick era, New England continued its penchant as the most successful football organization since the dawn of the century, having completed its eighth 12-win season of the past 10 years.
It was another typical season for the Patriots, ranking as the second-best team in the AFC and making yet another deep run into the postseason.
Yet this offseason hasn't been about, "Will the Patriots win the Super Bowl next season?"
The question that's been asked has been, "Will the Patriots still be a contender?"
Yes, observers and pundits are questioning the Patriots again. The arguments range from Tom Brady turning 36 years old in August, to the fact that the Patriots have an underwhelming corps of wide receivers, to the fact that the Patriots have gone eight years without winning a Super Bowl.
The downfall of the Patriots that's been predicted by observers for years is in full effect again. And it's never been stronger than this year.
The Patriots didn't stop there, as they allowed both Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch—their other two top receivers from 2012—to walk as free agents.
The hype surrounding the Patriots' demise only got worse as the offseason drifted into the summer months, as Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery in June.
It has now reached it's boiling point after the release of tight end Aaron Hernandez last week.
Due to the player turnover of Tom Brady's supporting cast from 2012, people are panicking over the Patriots' future.
Talk has not just centered around whether or not the Patriots will make the postseason in 2013.
Talk has now shifted to the Patriots possibly changing their offensive philosophy in an effort to adapt due to the player turnover in Brady's supporting cast.
Mike Salk of WEEI.com wrote an article about how the Patriots should consider a shift in offensive philosophy. He's goes into detail about this by saying the "Patriots should return to more of a ball-control offense."
When I think of the three Super Bowl-winning teams, I think of a ball-control offense. Yes, Brady was a burgeoning star (certainly by 2004), but he didn't throw it that often. In 2001, he attempted just 413 passes, in 2003 it was up to 527 but by 2004 it was back down to 474. He has not had a year with fewer attempts since, peaking at 637 attempts last season.
In fact, the Pats' pass-run ratio was nearly even in the three Super Bowl seasons – 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent. Since 2004, it has risen to 55/45. The same is true for the percentage of yards gained through the air rather than via the run. That climbed from a 64/46 split to 71-29.
The numbers bear out what any of us might have guessed: The Pats have become much more of an aerial attack than a pounding running style. They score quickly and often. And while that has made sense with their explosive offensive personnel, it has had an effect on their defense. For the last three years, that defense has given up yardage in droves, though they've remained among the leaders in fewest points allowed.
It's true that the Patriots were more of a ball-control-oriented team when they won their three Super Bowls at the beginning of the century.
Over the years, as Brady developed into an elite quarterback who could control games much in the way Peyton Manning does, the offense became centered around the strengths and passing abilities of Brady, rather than the balance and ball-control nature of the offense.
The Patriots have become a team that goes where Brady goes, in contrast to their Super Bowl-winning teams, which had a defensive identity combined with Brady's ability to take care of the ball and an even offensive balance when pertaining to running and passing the football.
But the Patriots should not change their offensive philosophy of the last few years back to the ball-control-oriented offense that they featured a decade ago.
Considering the loss of Brady's top weapons and the mystery surrounding most of the new receiving targets brought in, why should the Patriots remain an aerial attack team that goes where their quarterback leads them?
The NFL is a Passing League
This is the biggest flaw in Salk's argument. In his article, he brings up great statistics about the balance of New England's offensive attack in 2001, 2003 and 2004—New England's Super Bowl-winning seasons.
The Patriots' pass/run ratio was 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent—about as balanced as you can possibly get. Since 2004, the ratio stands at 55 percent to 45 percent in favor of the passing game.
The reason for the Patriots' increased dependence upon the passing game hasn't been just because of Brady's evolution as a passer—it's been because of how the NFL has evolved into a passing league over the past decade.
When the Patriots won their first two Super Bowls in '01 and '03, defenses had a lot more leeway to rough up wide receivers and quarterbacks.
When the '04 season arrived, the landscape started to change. Implemented as a rule change beginning that season was the "illegal contact" rule, where defensive backs could only engage in incidental contact with a wide receiver when he was five yards past the line of scrimmage.
Per Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com in 2004:
The rule stipulates that a defender can have only incidental contact with a receiver once the receiver is more than five yards downfield. The feeling among some coaches is that game officials have, in recent seasons, permitted defensive players more leeway. One head coach noted Sunday that while he embraces "a kind of 'let 'em play' attitude, there seems to have been a swing toward the defense lately."
This was the beginning of the NFL's efforts into making itself more of a pass-driven league. Over the next several years, rule changes were implemented that started protecting the quarterback and receivers from dangerous hits.
Since 2004, when the beginning of the NFL's shift to a passing-driven league started taking place, the single-season touchdown record has been shattered twice—by Peyton Manning in 2004 and Tom Brady just three years later.
Dan Marino had previously held the single-season touchdown record for 20 years before Manning broke it during the first season the new illegal contact rule changes were put in place.
Their rushing attacks ranked as follows—Giants at No. 32, Packers at No. 24 and Saints at No. 6.
With the exception of the Saints—who obviously had a Drew Brees-led offense—the Giants and Packers had dreadful rushing attacks. In spite of that, they won Super Bowls in large part due to the aerial-dominant aspect of their offenses.
The 2012 Ravens ranked 15th in passing and 11th in rushing last season. However, it took one of the greatest postseason performances in NFL history by Joe Flacco—11 touchdowns and zero interceptions—to propel the Ravens.
This is not your older brother's NFL—this is a league dictated by quarterbacks more than ever. Your team goes where your quarterback goes. Rushing attacks have taken a backseat.
You win championships based upon your aerial attack.
The Patriots Have Tom Brady
There are only a certain number of quarterbacks in the league—Brady, Manning, Brees and Aaron Rodgers—who can be considered truly elite quarterbacks.
All four quarterbacks are not only above their peers at the quarterback position—they can control games at will.
There is more to being a quarterback than just having a strong and accurate arm, or having amazing athleticism combined with a large stature.
What Brady and these other quarterbacks excel at is the ability to get the ball out as quickly as possible. This is a combination of pre-snap reads, experience in the offense and knowing how the play is going to develop before the play actually happens.
How good is Tom Brady at getting rid of the football as soon as the snap takes place?
According to Pro Football Focus, he's the best in the league. It takes Brady only 2.49 seconds upon snapping the ball to pass the football.
When you have one of the four elite quarterbacks in the league leading your offense, regardless of who's catching passes from him, your offense is going to be in good shape.
All four quarterbacks have a history of utilizing all of their receiving weapons in spread-offense sets. This is due to their ability to get rid of the football as soon as possible before the defense can react.
The Patriots' offense succeeds for two simple reasons—because they have one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, and because they have an offense that gives its players the best chance to maximize their talents.
New England frequently utilizes a lot of bubble screens and hitch routes—this isn't something new to the Patriots' playbook, as they used it frequently during Brady's early years as an easy way to move the football. But the play has been popularized over the last few years due to Wes Welker's success with it.
Welker is a great player, but who was he before he was traded to the Patriots? He was known as a special teams talent. That's it.
The Patriots face a similar predicament in 2013 as they look to utilize Danny Amendola—who has had success in St. Louis as the go-to-guy—the way they used Welker over the past six years.
Examples of the Patriots' utilization of quick screens, hitch routes or passes at the line of scrimmage are featured in the image below:
In this Week 14 game versus the Texans, the Patriots had their way en route to a 42-14 victory. They featured a good mixture of vertical passing along with short passes at the line of scrimmage to score touchdowns.
In this play, the Patriots are in a 1st-and-goal situation with Aaron Hernandez lined up as a wide receiver to the left and Welker, the inside receiver, on the right. One of the many positive attributes of the Pats' aerial attack is their ability to run a hurry-up offense to keep the defense offset.
This play is the perfect example of that, as Brady—being an experienced quarterback—senses that the Texans are not set on defense, with the defensive back not even being lined up opposite from Hernandez to prevent the completion—and eventual touchdown—from happening.
This is in stark contrast to a "ball-control offense" that would negate plays such as these from occurring.
When it pertains to replacing Welker with Amendola, the Patriots likely won't have the same production out of Amendola as they did Welker—Wes averaged 112 receptions in six years as the best slot receiver in the game—but Amendola should be able to do enough with his skill set in order to continue helping the Patriots remain one of the top offensive teams in the game.
Other than Welker's dependability as a receiver, his attributes included yards after the catch and the ability to find creases in defenses to make Brady's job easier. Amendola can do the same thing—maybe not to Welker's extent—but he can play the role.
New England's system is one that maximizes its talent. On a number of New England's designed short-yardage passing plays, it's the blocking and player accountability that play just as much of a role as Welker's ability to gain yards after the catch.
Another quality that goes unnoticed about New England's offense is Brady's ability as a veteran quarterback to a run a hurry-up, no-huddle offense that keeps opposing defenses off-balance—which, as a result, puts his supporting cast in the best position to succeed.
In other words, it's the system—along with Brady's ability—that makes the offense work.
You need players who fill their roles and play to the system. But you don't need top-tier players in order to make the system work.
Tom Brady led the league in touchdown passes in 2002 as a passer who depended upon completing quick passes at the line of scrimmage. Welker became the NFL's most consistent receiver over the past six years. Matt Cassel led this team to an 11-5 record in 2008 as the starting quarterback. Under Cassel's lead, the Patriots had the eighth-best offense in the league.
This isn't to say these players aren't elite—with the exception of Cassel—but it's to say that the system maximizes the abilities of the players that are featured in it.
The Patriots don't need top-tier receivers to remain a top-tier offensive team. It may not look as pretty as it did last year, when New England had the best offense in the league, scoring 34.8 points per game. But the system—regardless of player turnover—will keep the Patriots as one of the top offensive teams in the league.
The Patriots' offense is one that depends upon rhythm and timing—more than other offenses in the league—to go along with quick decision-making for the offense to succeed.
With the league's best quarterback at dictating the tempo of a game, and the Patriots' ability to maximize talents such as Amendola, New England shouldn't have problems scoring in 2013.
A "ball-control" offense is not the way to go—an aerial passing attack that features Brady's passing abilities is the way to go.
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