If I had a nickel for every time I heard an analyst say that the New England Patriots need a "deep threat," I would be the Warren Buffet of sports analysis.
Buzz words like "deep threat" are crutches that writers often use when they don't really know what they're talking about. Sometimes, though, buzz words ring true in a deep baritone that strikes a chord with the needs of a team.
For the Patriots offense, the buzz phrase of the 2012 offseason is "field stretcher."
There's an inherent difference between the two. While a "deep threat" forces a defense to respect the deep ball, a "field stretcher" forces the defense to literally stretch horizontally, respecting the outside throws as much as the inside ones.
They went on to lead the NFL in scoring that year with one of the most efficient pass attacks in the league. Tom Brady reached new levels of efficiency throwing just four interceptions and 338 consecutive passes without a pick.
Unfortunately, their inability to stretch the field hurt them in the biggest game of the year, a divisional round playoff loss to the rival New York Jets.
The offensive explosion continued into 2011, with Brady finishing second all-time in passing yards while New England finished third in scoring offense and second in total offense. The Patriots cooled off during the postseason and were ice cold against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
While it isn't fair to overgeneralize, the absence of a field stretcher has been present in both games. Both the Giants and the Jets were able to flood the middle of the field and force Brady to throw outside the numbers. Needless to say, that hasn't been New England's strong suit over the past couple of years.
Thus, while the overall output has been acceptable, the end result hasn't been, and that has many fans concerned about the future for the offense: is the blueprint out on how to beat them? Can the team win without a field stretcher?
Why wait to find out?
With help from Pro Football Focus, we find some startling numbers in relation to the Patriots' pass attack.
It's not hard to see that Brady does the bulk of his damage between the numbers from 0-19 yards down the field. In 2012, he completed just 23-of-73 passes (31.5 percent) that traveled longer than 20 yards. With 401 completions total, that gives you an idea of just how effective Brady was on short balls, and speaks volumes to the fact that Brady eclipsed 5,000 yards without a deep threat.
It's hard to argue with that kind of success. Except, of course, when that kind of success ends in playoff failure and the world begins to question whether the book is out on how to defend one of the best offenses in the NFL.
That can be changed with two rather buzzy words: Field stretcher.
The commentary has rolled in from all angles on how the Patriots could add a dynamic playmaking threat in the passing game.
Doug Farrar of the Yahoo! Sports Shutdown Corner blog put out an interesting tweet when NFL draft scout Mike Mayock was asked about the Patriots offense.
Mayock on Pats offense: WR obvious need. Welker and 2TE exceptional, but vertical WR could really help them.— SC_DougFarrar (@SC_DougFarrar) February 15, 2012
One thing that stands out from this perspective is that both the Giants and the Jets utilized a similar strategy of taking away the middle of the field and forcing throws to the outside.
If you take another look at the chart above, it's not hard to see why taking away the middle of the field has been so effective. Being productive outside the numbers isn't something that can be drawn into a game plan. It's a function of personnel.
Either you have guys that can win matchups one-on-one on the outside, or you don't.
That being said, how much would a "vertical" wide receiver really help this offense? Scott Kacsmar of Cold, Hard Football Facts dissected Brady's game like a lab project and came up with some interesting trends. It's a lot to regurgitate here, but here are the key nuggets: These numbers prove that the offense doesn't go deep not because of the personnel, but because Brady isn't an incredibly effective downfield passer.
While Brady should be striving to improve as a downfield passer, the Patriots could stand to give him another weapon in the passing game; one that can do the damage outside the numbers and improve the Patriots offense as a whole.
To fix that problem, there have been two very popular names: wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Lloyd, both set to become free agents in 2012.
Lloyd has excelled in Josh McDaniels' system, but one has to wonder if he can sustain that success over a long stretch of time. He has piled up 2,414 yards in the past two years under McDaniels for 16.4 yards per reception. He's lined up all over the field in McDaniels' offense, and would likely be able to do the same for the Patriots.
Wallace has proven to be one of the best deep threats in the NFL of late, but one has to wonder whether he can effectively run the precision routes required in the Patriots offense. There isn't a whole lot of precision involved in the Steelers' passing game. And Kacsmar's research shows that the Patriots wouldn't be able to make incredibly effective use of a guy like Wallace, anyway.
There is a fundamental difference between a "field stretcher" and a "vertical" wide receiver, and that difference is such that the Patriots would find much more value in the former than the latter.