Patriots: Bill Belichick's Genius May Now Be Offensive
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Back in 2001, I drafted a running back for the New England Patriots named Shannon Millard. Millard was a beast, consistently pounding through holes for four, five and six yards. He protected the football, broke tackles and could even juke a defender out of his pads once in a while. Millard was an automatic 100 yards plus per game.
We dominated teams out of the single-back formation. The offense lined up in many single-back variations: trips, bunch, trio, double tight end, jumbo, ace, spread—you name it, we ran it.
The great thing about that Patriots team is that we were a threat to run or pass out of every formation. We would spread the field with four wideouts, and gash you up the middle for 10 yards with good ol' Millard. If you packed in close to protect against the run, you were vulnerable to the pass. We won it all that year thanks to our offense.
I am, of course, referring to my amazing run to the NFL title in EA Sports John Madden Football 2001. Unfortunately, Millard is not real. Oh, he was very real to me in my college days at UMass Amherst, but in fact, he was generated by Madden's draft function in franchise mode. I miss Millard.
Side note: I do not play Madden anymore because the game has not improved in 10 years. This failure to improve seems to correspond with the acquisition by EA Sports of an exclusive rights deal with the NFL. Maybe there is something to these antitrust laws after all.
Real-Life New England Patriots
In my lifetime, Corey Dillon is the closest thing the real-life Patriots have ever had to a Millard. The Patriots are not likely to find a Dillon or Millard this year, but perhaps they can piece together similar results via the combination of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and Stevan Ridley. Ridley, at 6'0" and 225 pounds, has the potential to be that bruising back the Patriots are lacking.
Results, or lack thereof, can often distort or distract from true value or effectiveness. For example, no one will remember the 2005 Patriots because they did not win the title (largely due to five turnovers in the Divisional Round against Denver).
However, the Pats had a stretch at the end of the 2005 season that was some of the most dominant football they have ever played.
Contrast this with the 2007 Patriots, who are remembered as one of the more dominant teams in history (and for failing to win the big one). However, that team struggled to adapt when it mattered most and nearly lost three of the last six regular season games.
The stretch of dominance in 2005 is relevant here because it hints at what the Patriots offense could be with a more threatening running game—particularly given the addition over the last two years of top-flight blocking and receiving tight ends. In the last four meaningful games of the 2005 regular season, the Patriots outscored opponents 110-31.
During this stretch the offense had multiple games in which their time of possession was over forty minutes (70 percent plus of total game time), thanks in large part to Corey Dillon's 73 rushing attempts for 292 yards. The Pats went 4-1 to finish the season; the lone loss was to Miami in the final game of the season (a game the Patriots did not attempt to win—Tom Brady was removed in the first half).
Side note: I went to this game and witnessed the fantastic Doug Flutie dropkick extra point—one of the few bright spots on a dreary winter day in New England. I was unaware that the dropkick was a legal move, and remember thinking, "wow, the Patriots really don't give a $#!% about this game."
Rewind to 1998: I was at a Patriots-Bills game in Buffalo. It was the beginning of Flutie's return to Buffalo and the fans were nuts for him. My Drew Bledsoe jersey and I were the recipients of some Flutie flakes in that game.
Anyway, Flutie, mid-sprint, lateraled the ball overhand nearly the width of the field. So, out of six NFL games that I have attended, Flutie has twice made plays that left everyone completely baffled. Imagine what could have been if NFL coaches and executives did not completely hose Flutie. The Canadian Football League is thankful for and well aware of this.
2011 New England Patriots Offense
Signs of a shift in the Patriots offense occurred last season when the Patriots made tight ends a major part of their offense. From ESPN.com:
[Rob] Gronkowski and [Aaron] Hernandez were together on the field for 631 of the Patriots' 986 offensive plays in 2010, and the Patriots scored 37 of their 56 offensive touchdowns with two or more tight ends in action. Gronkowski and Hernandez were most dynamic in the red zone, combining for 16 touchdowns.
This approach is a microcosm of the Bill Belichick way—he values versatility. Tight ends, with their blocking and receiving capability, are amongst the most versatile players on the field. Here are a few examples of Belichick's emphasis on versatility: linebacker Mike Vrabel's role as goal line receiver and blocker, wide receiver Troy Brown's switch to defensive back, and defensive lineman Dan Klecko's appearances at fullback in goal-line formations.
If Belichick values versatility in individual players, it is reasonable to speculate that he desires the same out of his offense as a whole. It is possible Belichick has been attempting to make the shift to a more powerful and versatile offense for years now as evidenced by the repeated use of draft picks on tight ends. Mike Reiss addressed this fact last year on ESPN.com:
Belichick was a big tight end guy early in his Patriots tenure.
He traded up to select Daniel Graham in the 2002 first round, and used the final selection of the 2004 first round on Benjamin Watson. In his first seven years in New England, he drafted nine tight ends.
That stretch back in 2005 may be a prototype of what Bill Belichick and the Pats offense is moving towards in 2011. He has assembled personnel that could allow the offense to run or pass out of many formations, without the formation or personnel tipping off the defense as to whether the play is a run or pass.
He has two athletic tight ends (Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski) that can make plays down field, three tight ends that can block effectively (Gronkowski, Alge Crumpler, Lee Smith), two monster bookend tackles (Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder), four running backs that can run, catch and block (BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley) and three receivers that can work the zero- to 20-yard zone (Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman).
It remains to be seen if young wide receivers Taylor Price or Brandon Tate will contribute to this offense.
One counter argument to my positive speculation are that many of these essential cogs of the offense are rookies or second year players, i.e. Solder, Vereen, Ridley, Smith, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. Odds are that at least a couple of these rookies will struggle, and the sophomore slump is lurking out there for Gronkowski and Hernandez. An additional downside is the Patriots' aging and vertically-challenged wide receiver corps.
Yet, given what Brady and Branch were able to do in eleven games last season, it could be very exciting to watch the progression of that reunion.
The Point Is...
The Pats are stocking up on versatile players and consequently, the offense has the potential to be significantly more dynamic. The running game will likely play a larger role overall, and the personnel groupings will allow the offense to be more versatile on the fly. Brady will have the personnel on the field on any given play that would enable the offense to run or pass, and to adjust accordingly as he makes his reads at the line.
This will greatly aid against defenses attempting to copy the Jets' approach in last year's playoff loss in which Rex Ryan's defense keyed singularly on the Pats' passing attack. An added benefit of an offense with the ball control tool in it's bag, is the ability to keep your defense off the field for extended periods of time (just a little something extra for those of you still reeling from the draft and lack of a pass rusher).
When the lockout ends in mid-July (or earlier), it will be exciting to see exactly how Belichick pieces together an offense that could be the best in the NFL.
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