Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - X, Y or Z? Labels Mean Little To Enigmatic Receiving Corps

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

Bill Belichick is a leverage junkie.

He is also a master tactician who believes strongly in a roster that is fundamentally sound, featuring an offensive attack so diverse that with it he can dictate to the opposing defense with such a level of efficiency that they have no choice but to defend the entire field and hope that quarterback Tom Brady makes a mistake...

So imagine how he must have felt as piece after piece of his New England Patriots passing attack fell victim to injury last season, each incident reducing his leverage incrementally until, finally, his margin had evaporated to nothing.

That moment came in the AFC Championship Game, where his abrogated receiving corps featured just one healthy wide out, three that were working through injuries and one that had no business being a target - not to mention his starting tight ends were the less-than-imposing duo of Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan...

...while running back Shane Vereen and his soft cast managed to hang onto five passes to go with Julian Edelman's game-high ten, thrice-cut concussion-in-waiting Austin Collie pulled down four, but no one else had more than two - all while Brady was getting his ass handed to him by the Broncos' pass rush.

So eviscerated was his corps of pass catchers that at one point Brady was reduced to lobbing footballs at special teams' captain Matthew Slater - who has exactly one pass reception in six full seasons with the Patriots - while starting receivers Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola were held in check, nursing a fractured foot and a torn adductor, respectively.

How Belichick's Patriots came to that moment isn't as important as the knowledge that, with health, the Patriots had plenty enough talent amongst the pass catchers to contend for a title, so there really was no need for wholesale changes, nor to bring in that one dynamic and expensive free agent that would "Put them over the top" - but to properly understand this, one must also have a grasp in the roots of their offensive system.

As we know from the first three parts of this series, in the mid-1970's, Ron Erhart and Ray Perkins designed a system under Patriots' head coach Chuck Fairbanks that allowed the team to transform into anything that it needed to be, so long as there was a competent quarterback running the show - running very basic plays from very basic formations, but with emphasis on the quarterback identifying the mismatches in the defense from the line of scrimmage and getting his supporting cast in their proper positions...

...calling for play action set up by a power running game, as the philosophy was designed to give the Patriots' offense the advantage in the often-poor weather conditions that New England is famous for - and at it's best would enable the Patriots to build early leads then stomp on their opponents collective throat with their devastating ground attack.

So when Belichick took over at the turn of the century, he and offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss installed their own revised version of that antiquated staple that featured a five-wide spread offense to maximize mismatches in the opposing secondaries and to take advantage of rapidly expanding rules favoring the passing game.

Initially, the running game still had a prominent place in the attack, but once Corey Dillon retired following the 2006 season, the once powerful ground game became little more than a change of pace to throw at a defense to keep their safeties from going off on their receivers - rendering the offense one dimensional without that power running game that took the heat off of Brady and off of the receivers.

The receivers were competent and the quarterback was excellent, but without that grinding running game the offense - which set scoring records and received many accolades during the regular seasons - consistently fell short in the playoffs.

Why?  Because the Patriots lacked the ability to make the opposing defense to defend the entire field.

It has happened every single season for the past decade, varying from the core concept that made the turn of the century teams so difficult to defend - whether it was the teams focused on the vertical game or the teams that were tight end-centric, the Patriots' lacked the ability to dictate to the defense.

Last offseason, they had the players to foster that ability, the result of four years of turning over the roster with the focus on returning to the fundamental excellence that gained the Patriots three World Titles in four seasons - but a series of arcane incidents laid waste to his plans.

When the Patriots selected tight end Rob Gronkowski out of the University of Arizona with their second round draft pick in 2010 and then Aaron Hernandez in the fourth, Belichick started a process that would see every position on the team's depth chart turn over in the space of four seasons, all the while being able to maintain dominance over the AFC East.

A little hard to believe, but true.  In those four seasons starting with Gronkowski and Hernandez, Belichick doubled up on every level of his team - the result being that he has caused nearly full spectrum attrition, with only Brady, Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins surviving the purge on offense.

Rarely would you find a coach or general manager doubling up on certain positions with early round draft capital the way Belichick has, as a year later he did the same thing at running back by selecting Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen on the second day and then in 2012 he repeated the trend with defensive ends Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette...

...and then last season doubling up at wide receiver (and at defensive back), completing a five year overhaul this offseason with three offensive linemen and, perhaps, their quarterback of the future - and no sane person does something like that, particularly with top end draft capital, without having a plan.

That plan, of course, is to force the defense to respect all facets of the attack, since the team had fallen so far off of the intended course that they suddenly had no identity. 

Belichick tried to corner the market with the Gronkowski and Hernandez gimmick, but due first to injury and then to dark malfeasance, that innovative scheme crumbled right before his eyes, but even in his most vivid and wildest nightmares he could not have imagined that every warning sign and red flag that arose from the scouting process for both would manifest in an arcane series of felony and injury.

The intelligence was all very public - Hernandez was a dope fiend with an affinity for drink and firearms that not even University of Florida coach Urban Meyer nor teammate Tim Tebow could influence, while Gronkowski's back was so gnarled that he was limited to all of 16 games in his career at Arizona before opting to declare for the NFL Draft after his junior season.

But the prospect of unleashing those two within the Patriots' offensive concept was a hard thing to argue with at the time, and for a while it appeared that both would rise above their less-than-stellar scouting reports, prompting Belichick and team owner Bob Kraft to make them the richest set of tight ends in football history...

...but then Hernandez went on a murderous rampage while Gronkowski's twisted spine had team trainers working endlessly to keep him on the field, until a broken forearm essentially ended his 2012 season and put his 2013 season in serious jeopardy with multiple surgeries to the arm to install plates and combat infection - and while they were at it, the team went ahead and had a procedure done on his back to relieve his painful symptoms.

As it turns out, Gronkowski played in eight games in 2013, racking up some impressive numbers, all while wearing a brace that doubled as a soft cast on his forearm - which worked like a charm but couldn't protect his knee from Cleveland Safety T. J. Ward who went low and dirty on Gronkowski, shredding his ACL and MCL and causing little daggers to come flying out of Belichick's eyeballs.

Yet despite all of this, and in addition to quarterback Tom Brady working with receivers that were either inexperienced or injured or both, the Patriots managed a top 10 finish in total offense and a top three ranking in scoring offense - and the reason for that, as it has been for most of Belichick's reign, is the offensive concept.

Gronkowski is indeed a rare talent, one of the very few actual "Stars" in the Foxborough fold, and his presence means just as much for the success of the team than his absence means for their failures.  With him in the line up, Gronkowski demands constant double teams, which means that he will take - at a minimum - a linebacker and a safety up the seam with him...

...leaving the box light and the wide receivers with only single coverage to beat - meaning, of course, that Gronkowski is just as lethal a weapon as a decoy as he is with his sure hands in the pattern - but his influence starts long before the ball is snapped, as Gronkowski is a powerful and devastating blocker in the running game and it is up to the defense to try and figure out if he's staying in to block, releasing into the pattern or chipping at the line and floating into the flat.

This causes the defense to become reactionary instead of attacking, giving Brady not only more options on the play call, but also the extra split second for his primary target to work his way open off the jam.

Hernandez was the initial beneficiary of the Gronkowski phenomena, but with the tight end-centric philosophy now on life support, the Patriots have taken the aforementioned measures to ensure that the only thing that has dominion over the playbook is in how Belichick decides to attack a certain foe as part of his normal opponent-specific game planning.

There is a limit to the effectiveness of the scheme, however, but it involves taking so many debilitating losses in the battle of attrition that there just aren't enough weapons to dictate terms to the defense - which happens to a Belichick coached team very rarely, but with last January's AFC Championship Game a perfect example.

With receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce done for the season along with Gronkowski - and pass catchers Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson clearly limited due to injury, Brady went in to the title tilt with just one healthy core receiver in "Minitron" Julian Edelman and a clear downgrade at tight end with try-hard Michael Hoomanawanui.

So under-manned was New England that all the Denver Broncos had to do was stop the Patriots' power running game by stacking the box and daring Brady to throw to his afflicted receiving corps - and even though Brady managed to make a game of it briefly in the fourth quarter, he did so against a Broncos' defense that was in full prevent mode.

So with human nature being what it is, at the start of the offseason many fans were screaming for Belichick to go deep with veteran receivers and tight ends in free agency, forgetting that the pass catching corps was already loaded with talent that fit the scheme and would have a full six months to recover from their injuries - bringing in only Carolina Panthers' possession receiver Brandon Lafell in free agency...

...which was ok until the draft yielded only a seventh round garden gnome at wide receiver and no tight ends at all - instead, Belichick went heavy to bolster his running game by bringing in three road-grading linemen and a Danny Woodhead type runner that could end up being the team's "featured back", such as it is in the Patriots' scheme.

Belichick doesn't select players from the draft or in free agency to mold the offense around any longer, he selects players that have exhibited the smarts and versatility to grasp his conceptual scheme, which in turn opens up his playbook to any and all possibilities, not limiting himself to labels such as "Deep threat" or "slot receiver" or "Red Zone threats", as he is able to incorporate all of these onto the field regardless of the personnel on the field.

Labels are limiting in his offense, so while many jump on the bandwagon of every free agent or talent considered to be trade bait, most of them don't possess the requisite versatility, either because they are one dimensional or are coming off debilitating injury - passing on them to employ players of whom the system can get the most out of.

So in lay terms, Edelman and Amendola would be considered slot receivers, Dobson and Boyce the speed merchants that are vertical threats and Thompkins and Lafell possession receivers that operate more on the intermediate to downfield levels - but the truth is that all of them are able to line up anywhere in the formation with equal success.  Same with most of the running backs, as we will see Shane Vereen, and rookies James White and perhaps Stephen Houston line up all over the formation.

It's a diverse lot so far as the size and speed that they bring to the field, but because of their versatility, Brady can put a defense back on their heels and take advantage of the deficiencies on the opposing defense simply by barking out a concept from the line of scrimmage, no matter who he has on the field.

Each and every player is required to know where every one of their teammates are supposed to be in any particular formation, made simpler by packaging several "Window Dressing" looks into a single concept - and since all the players are trained from day one to know what route each position is supposed to run, all they need to know is where Brady wants them in the formation and they'll know what to do.

They are that versatile, and together with Gronkowski and the twin passing backs in Vereen and White, Brady will be able to make the defense feel as if they are in the wrong formation every time - even if they are in the right one - with what is going to appear to be a seemingly endless parade of personnel packages and formations.

Even so, some fans and media are still clamoring for Belichick to mortgage the franchise's future for a game-breaking receiver and to take on one of two tight ends coming off of devastating injuries, but the fact is that the offense is already loaded and, with reasonable health, can be anything that it needs to be each week...

...with Lafell being the only import worth mention, because he embodies what Belichick is looking for in players for his system.  Two-thirds of his offensive snaps with Carolina came out of the slot, from where he was able to stretch the seam with his height and more than adequate speed.  He is also an accomplished and willing blocker both inline and down the field, which adds yet another layer to the excellent depth.

As a direct result, much of the intrigue has been taken out of the camp battles on offense so far as the pass catching positions are concerned, where the only likely turnover is in the backfield, and shouldn't impact the receiving corps at all.

That said, The Patriots locked in on the roster likely include Edelman, Amendola, Lafell, Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce while the stable of tight ends should include Gronkowski, Hoomanawanui and H-back James Develin - with running backs Vereen and White joining in the fun out of the backfield at any given time.

Of course, injuries could play a part in one of the fringe players finding their way onto the roster, but entering camp only Dobson is not fully healed and is on the PUP list, and can come off of the list at any time.

This is Part five of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with parts six, seven and eight focusing on the defense. Part nine will cover special teams.

Next up, how the changes in the secondary will impact the entire defense.. 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first four pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 
Part 3: Running Back Competition Wide Open
Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line

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