Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 1: Reverence To Philosophic Base Renders Offense More Balanced

Shaq Mason is a center.

No, not like his namesakes Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, both legendary basketball centers, but the kind of center who has a quarterback's hands all over his backside for the better part of an hour a day and surly defensive tackles hell bent on getting to that quarterback by bashing him right in the chops.

Basketball is Shaquille Olajuwon Mason's first love, but he discovered early in his high school hoops career that never got above the rim, as one might expect from a 300 pound kid who was still growing. Wisely, the Tennessee native followed the wider path to the gridiron, where for the past four years he has opened even wider paths both for the running backs lined up behind him, and for his own journey to the National Football league.
Mason (R) is stocky, has violent hands and gains consistent leverage

As a center, or so they say.

At least, that's what all of the draft experts were saying about the pudgy interior offensive lineman coming out of Georgia Tech - but Bill Belichick has rarely cared what the experts think...

...and besides, Belichick already has his center for the next decade in young pivot Bryan Stork.  What Mason was most likely drafted for was to become the team's next right guard.

If there is one player drafted by the New England Patriots who signals a philosophic shift on offense, it is Shaq Mason.  At 6' 2" and 310 pounds, Mason is a one-man wrecking ball as a drive blocker - his entire body is a center of gravity and he consistently gets under the pads of even the most physical defensive tackles and drives them off the ball.

So why was Mason not selected until the fourth round - indeed, the very end of the fourth round?  It isn't solely because he's short for a professional lineman, nor because his pass protection needs refinement, nor even because the middle rounds is where Belichick normally finds his best value - it is, after all, where he found Stork last season, along with versatile swing tackle Cam Fleming...

...and also where Belichick doubled up on drive blocking guards by selecting Stork's former Florida State University teammate Tre' Jackson this season. But Belichick selected Mason in the fourth round because he represented the best value for him at that spot as the top rated center in the draft, which means that his football IQ is off the charts, he has a nasty streak a mile wide, and he is the best run blocker in the class.

And just like that, as fast as you can say Belichick's wheelhouse, an offense that somehow managed to make the top five in the NFL in scoring and 11th in total yardage with guards that looked like they fell off a charm bracelet suddenly has become a drive blocking force.

But, you say, the Patriots are a short-area, quick-set passing team that relies on the right arm of currently suspended quarterback Tom Brady to move them up and down the field - and while that is still true, it is true only to the extent that the running game makes it so.

To say the Patriots' running game was unsettled last season is a pretty big understatement.  Injuries to Stork to start the season and to lead back Stephen Ridley in week five that ended his season low-lighted a season that saw the Patriots finish a dismal 18th in rushing yardage despite have the 11th most attempts in the NFL.

After Ridley's injury, the team struggled to find cohesiveness, but got a huge confidence boost in facing the run defense-challenged Indianapolis Colts four games, unknown power back Jonas Gray rumbling for 200 yards and four touchdowns in a Patriots rout in which Brady dropped back to pass just 30 times, 10 off of his season average to that point.

Then, miraculously, former Patriots' runner LeGarrette Blount became available after going through some bad ju-ju in Pittsburgh, and the erratic Patriots running game suddenly became consistent and efficient, relying on Blount and the interior line consisting of lunchpail guards Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly flanking Stork to clear a path for Blount to do what he does best, run the clock in the four-minute offense.

It barely registered on the glamour scale and almost completely disappeared during the playoffs - save another walk in the park against the Colts in the AFC Championship game - as New England rode Brady's arm and the toughness of his receiving corps to bring a fourth Lombardi Trophy back to Foxborough...

...but for them to bring home number five, the Patriots can't afford to be so one-dimensional again and should opt for more balance in numbers.

There are many reasons why, but the biggest reason is the proper execution of the Erhardt-Perkins offense which, when executed properly, absolutely grinds the opponent into the dirt - and that's the only thing that will make the nut for the dynastic Patriots, because simply winning isn't enough.

The Patriots under Belichick have been winning, and winning more than any other team in that last decade-and-a-half.  They are the standard bearers for success in the NFL regardless of whether you choose to asterisk their accomplishments or honor them straight up, because an asterisk is merely so many sour grapes on which these Patriots will stomp to produce their finest vintage yet in 2015.

And why not?  Not that much has changed on the team, particularly on offense where Belichick not only upgraded the interior of the offensive line, but also beefed up the stable of tight ends with the addition of free agent veterans Scott Chandler from Buffalo and Fred Davis from Washington to go along with All World tight end Rob Gronkowski and up-and-coming touchdown maker Tim Wright...

...but to understand Belichick's motivation - at least as far as his offensive philosophy is concerned - one needs only to understand the premise of the Erhardt-Perkins offense is not necessarily predicated on balance in equal numbers of snaps for both the passing and running game, but in what capacity each is needed to offset the other.

It's a capricious differential, one wrought with uncertainty at this point in the team-building process, but when the credo of the philosophic acumen is described as "Pass to score, run to win", it conjures familiarity from what New England's offense was at the turn of the century with Charlie Weis in charge of the attack, and what they have attempted to return to for the past three seasons.

And this season, they may just have nailed it.

The Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy is a concept-based system that maximizes not just the individual players' skill, but also the full potential of his football mind.  Where most offenses are based on either a full route tree or a numerical system that identifies players and gaps and routes by base numbers. the Erhardt-Perkins system runs a concept scheme that is limited only by the physical limitations of the personnel.

Instead of individual assignments, there are sets of route combinations which,  by design from the warped football brain of the Dark Master, are interchangeable depending on the personnel on the field at any given time - and the Patriots are one of the very few teams, perhaps the only team in the NFL, that has the diversity on their depth chart to pull it off.

No?  Name another team that could (Potentially) line up four tight ends and a back on first down, two tight ends and three receiver spread on second and one tight end, three receivers and a back on third down, utilizing the same formations but stressing out the defense by using different personnel each time - then place the added stress on them by going up tempo...

It's no secret that Belichick fawns after players that have two and three tool skill sets, and the more of those types of players he can get on the field at one time, the more the concepts open up for quarterback and the more a chance the offense has of occupying safeties by forcing the defense to defend the entire field.

That's why players like Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk fit into this offense so well, as they all were magic with the ball in their hands, whether it be hauling in a wheel route in the flat or getting the tough yards up the middle of the field, the Patriots under Belichick have prized these versatile players.

All three of the aforementioned are long gone, leaving the "Passing Back" role up for grabs between a couple of young players, but that is a subject for another day - the sole purpose of bringing up that position is that having a versatile and tough passing back makes all the difference in play calling, setting protections and creating mismatches... if having pass catchers like Gronkowski, Chandler, Wright and LaFell wasn't enough - and that's just scratching the surface of the offensive firepower.  The point is that the Patriots have evolved into the sort of offense that potentially doesn't just take what the defense gives them, they take what they want from the defense by force - and the mismatches created by the versatility and sheer size of the "Skill" players is what dictates the concepts.

And that is what was meant earlier in regard to the offense achieving balance not in the numbers of play calls for the passing game vice the running game, but how one offsets the other in mismatches - and because the concept calls can be made from just about any formation or personnel grouping, rapidly, it gives the offense a decided advantage.

"Pass to score, run to win" is translated just how it reads: Throw the ball to gain a quick lead, then run the ball to tire out the defense, kill the clock and win the game - and with the beef and nastiness added to the offensive line in the 2015 draft, especially if James White claims the passing back role for himself, the offense will be able to pass and run to score, then run some more to win.

This is the first of a multi-part series that is focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the team building process.  Part two will focus on the running game and the fact that how balanced the offense becomes is up to them...

...which also places a very large onus on the offensive line, particularly on the interior where the two rookies look to ply their trade instead of watching and learning, 

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