Back in October, when the New England Patriots traded Randy Moss along with a seventh round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for a third round pick in, many thought Tom Brady and the Patriots offense were in serious trouble.
Rumors emerged of a locker room altercation between Brady and Moss over hair that seemed to cement the idea that this move was made not because it was the right choice, but because the Patriots felt they had no choice.
If it wasn't the alleged altercation, then it had to be the embarrassing distraction Moss had become with his moaning and groaning during postgame press conferences. Even if it hurt, surely such insolence had to be dealt with by the organization like a gangrene appendage must be amputated.
The Patriots moved quickly to put together a trade with the Seattle Seahawks to secure Deion Branch in exchange for a fourth round draft pick.
All in all, the Patriots essentially traded the greatest deep threat in NFL history in Randy Moss for an injury-prone Deion Branch, whom the Patriots were perfectly content with letting go of several seasons ago. This had to be desperation. There's no way this was a calculated exchange, especially not in the midst of a season.
The thing is, four games into the season Moss had only managed 9 receptions for 139 yards. He was on pace for a miserable 36 receptions for 556 yards on the year. Just two weeks ago, the Patriots were embarrassed by the New York Jets, a division rival many had picked to win the division this year after their trip to the AFC Championship game last year.
The Patriots only managed 14 points on offense in that game with Brady only completing 55.6 percent of his passes while throwing two interceptions.
To make matters worse, the Jets did this without their star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who had injured himself chasing Moss down the field on a remarkable catch for a touchdown late in the first half. It wasn't Revis Island that stranded Moss in the second half of that game, it was Antonio Cromartie, whom the Jets had acquired from the San Diego Chargers during the offseason. The Jets' second-best cornerback.
While Cromartie has been known to have trouble moving his hips and staying with receivers, his uncommon height for a cornerback (6'2") and legendary wingspan matched up very well against Moss' tall, lanky frame and long arms.
After all, Moss isn't known for juking his coverage, he is known for running straight past them. The Jets had in their possession a cornerback seemingly handcrafted specifically to guard Moss on all those jump balls down the field.
Combine that with the threat of Rex Ryan's blitz schemes, and it just didn't seem like having Tom Brady wait around in the pocket to throw lobs deep down the field to Moss was a very good strategy against the Jets, and certainly not one to have built an offense around.
And let me remind you once again, this was the Jets' second-best cornerback we were talking about. That left a vacancy on Revis Island for Tom Brady's other go-to-guy, Wes Welker. Rex Ryan was grinning ear-to-ear, and Bill Belichick calmly despised every bit of it.
So the Patriots tossed Randy Moss out and brought back Deion Branch. They might have lost a wide receiver with the ability to win a jump ball against any cornerback in the league (except Cromartie), but they gained a 5'9" wide receiver with the shiftiness to exploit and abuse Cromartie and those hips of his.
Of course, they already had that in Wes Welker, but when you have two such wide receivers, Revis has to leave one of them for Cromartie.
So while the Jets managed to stay neck and neck with the Patriots for the entire season leading up to their Week 13 rematch, the Patriots quietly laughed to themselves with the confidence found only in knowing exactly what you are doing. They used that shifty 5'9" wide receiver to abuse that lanky 6'2" cornerback and in the process that defense and ultimately team as a whole.
Just like that the Patriots had changed up their offense and put the Jets and the rest of the league on notice. All those schemes and strategies amassed to stop that 2007 Patriots offense? Go back to the drawing board and hope you can find something new before February. This isn't an offense that is going to sit Tom Brady back in the pocket waiting patiently for Randy Moss to get down the field. Not anymore.
Come after Tom Brady all you want with your blitzes, because he's going to get the ball out to Welker or Branch and let them make a play after the catch. Perhaps NFL defenses should consider chasing after chickens and greased pigs during practice.
This is an offense with a lot of weapons and capable of giving you a lot of different looks, so don't think you can just lock down and focus on taking away Welker and Branch either.
Otherwise, one or both of the Patriots young tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, will get you. Or perhaps their young speedster Brandon Tate, who is more than capable of getting down the field in a hurry in case you thought Moss took all the speed with him when he left.
So what does the rest of the league do now? They need to adjust and move on just like the Patriots have. You stop playing zone coverage, even if it's what your team likes to do (are you listening Pittsburgh Steelers?), and you play man-to-man. Zones are just too easy for Welker and Branch to find holes in and exploit.
If you are the Jets specifically, you don't put Cromartie on Welker or Branch. Use him as a free safety or nickel back and put him on one of the Patriots tight ends (Hernandez or else Gronkowski). Let him put his height and wingspan to good use without having his lack of horizontal quickness exploited.
I suspect this would lead to the Patriots featuring Gronkowski over Hernandez and preferring to leave him in to block rather than send him out to run a route against Cromartie.
If that's the case, Rex Ryan will have an extra defender to blitz, or perhaps better yet he can allow Cromartie to roam free and improvise, playing against Tom Brady's eyes instead and using that wingspan of his to snatch balls out of the air as if they were slightly overthrown passes intended for him. This is after all what Cromartie truly excels at.
Whoever you are, you don't give Tom Brady the time to wait for Welker or Branch or whoever to eventually get open. You overload that powerful interior of the Patriots offensive line and get a push right up the middle into Tom Brady's face. Make him uncomfortable and push him off of his spot.
Only you remember to get containment to his right, and you don't just allow him to casually roll out and complete passes with ease. He might not be Michael Vick, but that doesn't mean you just let him do whatever he wants outside of the pocket. Bottle up that escape route, and you bottle up him. Get in Tom Brady's face, and you get under Bill Belichick's skin.