Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - Offensive Concepts Grounded In History, But With Modern Flair

 Editor's note:  The following article appeared originally as a contribution on firststopfantasy.com...

"It's no big deal, really. I don't look at it as us inventing it. I look at it as a bunch of coaches sitting in rooms late at night organizing and getting things together to help players be successful." - Ron Erhardt

Indeed?  Why not at Denny's in the big round booth in the back corner, dimly lit to give off the aura of cloak and dagger - paranoid, sleep deprived old men clearing their throats and nervously shuffling papers when the waitress ventures near with a fresh pot of coffee...

Madness, right?  But not too far fetched to be outside the realm of imagination, particularly considering that while Erhardt, Ray Perkins and Chuck Fairbanks were creating the genesis device for the one predominant offensive system that has stood the test of time better than any other in history, the country was embroiled in the paranoid culture created by social unrest.

Smack in the middle of the war in Vietnam, violent protests of such and the embarrassing ouster of Richard Nixon and his cronies from the White House, the National Football League was evolving into the entity that we know it as today - ten teams of the upstart American Football League had merged with the NFL, bringing with them new ideas that would forever change the game.

Of course, the Boston Patriots were part of that transition, but their participation in the expanded league was contingent upon the construction of a new 50,000-plus seat stadium as mandated by the NFL, the result being Schaefer Stadium in Foxborough which opened for business in 1971, just in time to greet the team's Number one overall draft pick, Jim Plunkett...

...that was some time before Nixon went down in flames due to Watergate, and a few years before Fairbanks took over as Patriots' head coach and suffered through some tough rebuilding years - before the innovative systems developed by his coaching staff began dominating the opposition with what is thought to be the prototype for the "Ground and Pound" philosophy.

Hard times for many folks and turbulent times for the freshly renamed New England Patriots as they struggled to field a consistent product, but the five years that Fairbanks spent as the head coach of the Patriots were - without question - the most formative in the team's history as he and his assistant coaches implemented their systems on both sides of the ball, utilizing some of the best drafts in the history of the franchise to build teams that were some of the most talented in that same history.

That includes the 1976 team that current Patriots' coach Bill Belichick noted was the best in the history of the franchise and a "real who's who" in terms of talent - which are accurate monikers to bestow upon them.

The Erhardt-Perkins offensive system was initially developed to maximize the Patriots' advantage in inclimate weather conditions, such as those found in New England in the late fall and early winter, by running simple plays out of a variety of formations and personnel groupings...

...all the while with the knowledge that the opposing defense was aware that any of the skill players on the field are able to line up anywhere in the formation and execute the given assignment, causing confusion and frustration-fueled errors.

To attain the level of competence to make the system work, the pass catchers and the runners must know every route and possible running play in any given package - known simply as a concept - so Belichick and his scouting staff select the players with best combination of intelligence and physical gifts out of a relatively shallow pool to draft or sign off the wires.

The learning curve is off the grid - which is one of the main reasons that Belichick abhors the draft being in May instead of April - and every so often a rookie will tell tales of all-night cram sessions and the resultant sleep deprivation that accompanies them, just in order to learn the playbook.

Once acclimated, the theoretical result would be that any competent quarterback would be able to bark out a single code word while walking up to the line of scrimmage - each concept having it's own core word - and the players on the field would alter the formation to take advantage of the mismatches that the quarterback identified.

The true beauty is that the team has the option to either quick huddle or to even eschew the huddle altogether, forcing the defense to use limited substitution and to keep those big defensive linemen down in their stances for extended periods - the combination creating a natural physical fatigue and frustration from trying to figure out from where and when the next play is coming.

In this offense - which was built primarily as a power running scheme with a short pass element built in, as a vehicle for Erhardt's belief that a team should "Pass to score, run to win" - the quarterback can control the pace of the game to the benefit of the offense, made simpler by gaining an early lead with the play action, then taking away the defense's collective will (not to mention run down the clock) by running the ball down their throats.

As mentioned, the plays themselves are simple - perhaps plays that the players have been running since High School - but in having to learn them inside of several different concepts requires a transdisciplinarity approach, which in lay terms means that the player knows what every position is supposed to be doing - and all at the same time.

Not everyone gets it.  There's no reason to go through the list of former Patriots' receivers who consistently zigged when they should have zagged, but it is worth pursuing the mentality that drives how Belichick and his team of advisers select players, sometimes leaving fans and even some football experts scratching their heads.

But it must be done.  Although the entire premise of the offense is to make communication easy - the Patriots terminology dictates that the quarterback can set his formation with the aforementioned single code word - to gain that level of ease on the field takes a professional commitment to the scheme that entails hundreds of hours of study and practice.

It was simpler in Fairbanks' time.  He inherited Plunkett from the previous regime and nearly killed him by asking him to run his offense flanked by players that were unfit for the scheme.  Plunkett had a cannon for an arm and loved the idea of the vertical game, but he was not terribly athletic nor elusive enough in the pocket to make up for a lack of playmakers - and he took a horrible beating.

But starting in 1973, Fairbanks' drafts became the stuff of legend.  His first ever pick, Alabama guard John Hannah, not only set a solid foundation for an offensive line in need of grit but also changed forever the way interior linemen played the game - and his second and third selections, running back Sam Cunningham and receiver Darryl Stingley formed a base for the "skill" positions.

Fairbanks concentrated on defense in the 1974 draft with linebackers Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt but still added running back Andy Johnson and picked up an offensive tackle named Leon Gray off the waiver wires after he was dumped by an overstocked Miami Dolphins' team...

...and then in the 1975 draft selecting a little-known tight end out of Oregon named Russ Francis in the first round before spending a fifth rounder on an even more anonymous quarterback from Kansas State in Steve Grogan.

Up to that point, the teams fielded by Fairbanks were competitive, but not very good - particularly on defense - but when he traded away the unhappy and damaged Plunkett to the San Francisco 49ers that yielded a Kings' ransom, he completed his rebuilding process by integrating names like Mike Haynes and Tim Fox and Raymond Clayborn on defense...

...while adding center Pete Brock, receiver Stanley Morgan and and running back Horace Ivory to complete an offense that became juggernauts beyond Fairbanks' years with the team - including the 1978 Patriots, who still hold the NFL record for the most rushing yards by a team in a season with 3,165 yards.

What all of these players had in common was that they were intelligent, versatile, team oriented talents that fit a new conceptual scheme that has become known over the years as the Erhardt-Perkins offense - an offense that is still in use today with a handful of teams, an offense that requires a certain breed of player at all levels, or it won't work.

The 2014 Patriots have many elements of the Fairbanks' teams of the mid to late 70's, but also one Tom Brady, who is without question the best quarterback in franchise history, and for whom an argument can be made for the greatest of all time.

Brady's value to the New England Patriots' offense can not be over-stated, though the debate still rages on as to whether the certain future Hall of Famer is the driving force behind a staggeringly consistent offense, or if the system simply relies on a signal caller who can absorb the terminology and communicate it effectively.

It really doesn't matter, as was reflected on in part one of this series.  All quarterbacks are to some degree a product of the system that they are in - and with that being true, it is fair to say that there is no one in the league that runs their system with the efficiency and success of Brady.

The system doesn't throw the ball into a tight window, nor does it make the reads - It doesn't do anything but provide a baseline, and Brady runs with it.

So, it makes sense when Belichick puts such a high price on Ryan Mallett's services, why he hasn't moved the backup to Brady even though he's probably going to bolt for a starting gig after this season is out - and also why Belichick selected Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of this year's draft.

"In our organization, I don't think we would put together a team the way the Indianapolis Colts did when they lost Manning and went 0-16 or 1-15 or whatever it was." Belichick said with unusual candor in responding to criticism for selecting a quarterback with such a high draft pick. 

In Mallett's case, he is a player who has been with the organization and into the playbook for the past three years and has an intimate knowledge of the system, and is worth every penny spent on both his salary and in the draft capital rejected as part of any deal, while Garoppolo's draft status indicates that the team fully expects to lose Mallett at some point...

...because one does not simply does not toss around second round draft capital for a quarterback that may or may not make the team.  He's going to be around for a while, and how long the Patriots' hold off on any potential Mallett trade deal will be directly tied to how quickly Garoppolo can absorb the playbook and then put the knowledge into practice with practical application.

The race to be Brady's understudy is on, and the fact that Mallett has been held out of organized team activities while sporting a knee brace - providing invaluable reps to the rookie - definitely smacks of attrition and adds an element of intrigue to Mallett's status.

But with the job of backing up Brady one of the more compelling upcoming camp battles, the rest of the offense is already just about all set, with a superb mixture of tenured young veterans and a dynamic rookie class to choose from - and Patriots' fans should not be at all surprised if some incumbents lose their roster spots, particularly along the line, where an upgrade on the right side and at the pivot is sorely needed.

This is Part 2 of a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with parts three and four focusing on the offense, while parts five, six and seven look at the defense and special teams.

Next up, the power running game and how the potential changes along the offensive line impacts the entire offense.

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