Thursday, July 31, 2014

Brady's command of concept, not big name weapons, key to Patriots' offensive success

New England Patriots' fans are the richest football fans on earth.

Maybe not in the cars that they drive or the clothes that they wear nor the abode that they live in - but separate from that, as in the currency called innovation, dedication to craft and attention to the most minute detail consistently displayed by the coaching staff and front office that has resulted in thirteen consecutive winning seasons...

...a fiscal resourcefulness and a thoroughly relentless professionalism that has the team built to win now and with a future so bright that they will still be a contender five years from now.  Maybe ten, or even twenty.

Bill Belichick spoils the hell out of us.
The future? Gronkowski and his protege, rookie Justin Jones

You bet he does, at least in an aesthetic sense, and to football fans who thrive on the intricacies of the game - the game planning, film study, discipline - there is no man in football more fascinating.  There have been record winning streaks and double-digit wins seasons where he literally had pulled players in off the street and integrated them to form a cohesive unit.

Yet, he is still doubted.  His personnel decisions are questioned and, at times, openly mocked - and his secretive manner about everything just adds to the fans' frustration, and his loathing of the media doesn't prompt them to paint a sunny picture of his disposition.

For years, fans and media alike have been trying to figure out what makes the man tick - why he drafts the players that he does, why he lets big-name free agents slide by without a second look, why he won't bring in a veteran tight end to compliment Rob Gronkowski...

Ah, That's the real issue here, isn't it?

Belichick introduced Patriot Nation to the wonders of the tight end-centric offense - the monstrously athletic pair of pass catchers that ran roughshod over defenses for two seasons before the entire thing started to unravel due to injury and madness, and Belichick just rode out the storm with what he had on the roster, which ultimately wasn't enough.

No need to go into the horrors of last season, other than to say that had Belichick known then what he does now, he probably would have tried to reinforce the position to guard against - well - guard against what ultimately happened.  Either that or take the approach he has this offseason, which consisted of taking his offense back to it's championship roots.

One never really knows what Bill Belichick has up his sleeve, but over the years he has earned the benefit of the doubt with his deft acquisition of talent - taking care of his own players first, provided he wants to retain them, then identifying players that fit their scheme in free agency and making offers, then adding the two together and subtracting them from the big picture and draft for what needs remain, if anything.

The fierce loyalty he has to owner Bob Kraft and his fiscal agenda is rivaled only by the loyalty to both his gut and his draft board that basically consists of identifying the players that they want and solidifying that before the draft.  Then it's just a matter of keeping their eyes and ears open to make sure they secure every one of them...

...which explains Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon, and also Dominique Easley, Jimmy Garoppolo and James White - in each case the team had intelligence that those players were being targeted by other teams, which prompted Belichick to pull the trigger on them earlier than draft experts had them tabbed - in some cases a lot earlier.

So when the tight end-centric offense died it's slow and painful death in 2013, many refused to let go of the notion even after witnessing the success a power running unit that the offense evolved into by necessity and the mediocre were powerless to stop - but because of the injury to Gronkowski and, indeed, throughout the pass catching corps, that too became one-dimensional and the Patriots' offense was again to blame for the team's post-season failure.

And still, the Hooded One let opportunity after opportunity to reinforce the position pass him by, both in the draft and in free agency, signing only undrafted, developmental-type free agents - seemingly content to hit the field in 2014 with a mended Gronkowski and a set of backups that couldn't get it done on the biggest stage last season.

The reason why is difficult to comprehend on the surface, but it's as simple as a gradual yet seismic shift in the direction of the offensive philosophy - abandoning gimmickry in favor of fundamentals.

Gone is the "over-under" spread offense of the Randy Moss/Wes Welker era that excluded the tight end position in favor of the quick strike potential, and now the tight end-centric attack that materialized afterward for one epic season then faded with injury and felony has followed it into oblivion.

A harsh reality for some to accept, but within the scope of the Ehrhardt-Perkins scheme that Belichick employs, balance is so crucial that to tip the scales to one focus on the offense - in essence, to put all of your eggs in one basket - makes the offense easier to defend, particularly when facing an elite, attacking defense that can take away what you do best... the best way to attack an entity like that is to do everything well, and to have as many weapons as possible to rotate onto the field - and in theory, this Patriots' offense will be able to do that in a fashion that is going to be described as "Dizzying".

Consider that Belichick is going to be able to field an offense that will run primarily with a "21 Package" - a two back, one tight end, two receiver package utilizing the versatility of a group of "Skill" position players that will feature a rotation of six receivers, three tight ends and four backs, and will be able to fit any personnel combination into a concept that will enable Brady to morph the formation into anything he needs it to be to take advantage of mismatches.

This is why players such as H-back James Develin, rookie running back James White and free agent receiver Brandon Lafell are in Foxborough while "Big name" draft picks and free agent tight ends are not.  This offense is focused on one thing, and that is Brady's command of the offense - and Belichick has done a masterful job of providing him with a "dizzying" array of weapons to choose from.

This shift in philosophies brings a different focus to the depth chart.  The superstar is still the superstar, but will be harnessed within the confines of the scheme, and in Gronkowski's case, that means a visible attempt to remove a very large target off of his back by integrating him into the offense rather than featuring him - in effect, just making him one of the boys.

That said, the tight end position is still one of some conjecture, as the only locks thus far in camp are Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui with Develin as a capable option at H-back, but the structure of the position sets the standard for the rest of the offense.

All three are powerful inline blockers, but while Gronkowski is on a level all his own as a complete tight end, both "Hooman" and Develin have shown soft hands as safety valve type receivers who are at their best chipping and releasing into the flat - but their real value comes in short yardage and goal line sets where they can flex their muscles and bury linebackers....

...which appears to be a favorite pass time of undrafted rookie free agent Justin Jones, who at 6' 8" and 275 pounds is a height-weight proportioned red zone monster who looks like a tackle but has the hands of a receiver, which he has been showing off in abundance in camp - and may upset the tight end apple cart if he continues to progress.

Develin's flexibility dictates the H-back label as he is a terrific lead blocker, quick enough and with plenty of lateral agility to clear out linebackers and defensive ends on the edge, possesses the aforementioned soft hands and demonstrates a stick-hunting style as a short-yardage ball carrier - and with the offense moving more to a two back pro set, the natural versatility doesn't restrict the playbook.

And that's the key.  In past years with the Patriots identifying particular players as their impetus for the offense, they had inadvertently put themselves in position to close off sections of the playbook when injuries occurred - so breaking camp this season with a group of skill position players that are seemingly just as anonymous as they are versatile, it gives Brady literally dozens of options in any given formation and in any given personnel package.

The result is that the offense will now have the ability to force the defense to defend the entire field - not because an Andre Johnson is spreading them out nor because a Dustin Keller is stretching the seam, but because any player on the field can run any route, and the defense must respect that or get burned.

And with Brady at the helm and running the scheme, the opposing defenses had better have plenty of soothing aloe on hand, because the burns will be a continuously occurring phenomenon...

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