Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Patriots' Offense - From Finesse To Physical

Bill Belichick is a child of the 70's.

Many intellectuals born in the 1950's found themselves against the establishment created by the war mongers during their formative high school and college years smack in the middle of the 1970's. That didn't necessarily include Belichick, whose mind was already settled on what he wanted to do with his life and had no time to protest said establishment.

He saved that for this moment in time.

The Dark Master has always been a loose cannon. Most innovative minds tend to work in a sidewinding motion, and frequently drift at angles away from center at a distance where only megalomaniacs, kangaroos and adrenalin junkies feel comfortable.

And, perhaps twisted football coaches as well, but the body of evidence to satiate inclusion includes a list of men so exclusive that not even the greatest of the great to ever roam the sidelines did so with the absolute detest that Belichick holds in his heart for the people who run professional football - so that list includes just one, which hardly constitutes a list at all.

Belichick's anger towards the folks that run the National Football League is an emotion shared by millions, but his is singular in that he is in the position to do something about it, and every move that he has made thus far in his offseason team building process smacks of giving the league a metaphoric middle finger.

And by "The League", it is meant that no one is immune - either you are with the Patriots, or you are going to incur the wrath of Belichick, scorned.  For some, that means seeing their best-laid game plans laid waste. For others, it means taking a colossal stomping on the field of battle, but for those who wear the suits and ties and work at the NFL's posh Manhattan digs, it means getting the finger from Belichick at every turn.

It's not like he was part of the league's big, happy family prior to commissioner Roger Goodell and his minions setting him and his team up for an epic fall over air pressure in footballs, as he consistently refuses to join the NFL coaches association, his injury reports to the league offices fall just shy of novel length and his sideline attire smacks of thug life... it doesn't take much to trigger his Machiavellian personality when it comes to the league hierarchy - and one can just imagine what's going through his mind as he contemplates how to handle his revenge upon Goodell, et al., for taking away his first round draft pick and suspending his franchise quarterback for what turned out to be a sting operation gone awry.

Actually, it doesn't take much of an imagination at all to figure out what he's doing, as he's loading up with some serious beef, threatening to build his team like the antiquated 1970's squads whose hallmark was being physical and bullying the other team into submission.


The 1978 New England Patriots still hold the NFL single-season record for most rushing yards in a season by calling 671 rushing plays.

Wrap your brains around that for a second, 671 rushing plays. But if you want to get technical, quarterback Steve Grogan turned and handed the ball to one of his four rugged backs only 590 times, while he kept the ball 81 times for an astounding 6.7 yards per carry. In fact, Grogan was one of four Patriots at ran for at least 500 yards that season...

...with the others, Sam Cunningham (768 yards, 3.9ypc), Andy Johnson (675, 4.6) and Horace Ivory (693, 4.9) all running behind one of the greatest run blocking offensive lines in NFL history, featuring Leon Gray and John Hannah at left tackle and guard, respectively, Sam Adams at right guard, Shelby Jordan and right tackle and Dr. Bill Lenkatis at the pivot.

Players were smaller back in the day - for example, Hog Hannah was considered a huge specimen at 6'2" and 265 pounds, but would be considered too small for the position today. Running backs were proportionately smaller as well, with Cunningham, a fullback, tipping the scales at 226 pounds and everyone else at least 20 pounds lighter.

There were no "passing backs" per se, because all of the running backs were adept at catching the football. In fact, nearly half of all of the completions in the passing game went to the running backs, and the leading actual pass catcher on the Patriots that season was tight end Russ Francis, with a whopping 39 receptions.

For comparison's sake, consider that on the 2015 edition of the Patriots, tight end Rob Gronkowski nearly doubled Francis' production, and that the Patriots' offense as a whole more than doubled the number of completed passes of that 11-5, 1978 team.

That said, the 2016 edition of the Patriots isn't going to set any rushing records. They may, however, be forever remembered as the team whose offense shattered every record there is for efficiency.

You know, things like first downs made, time of possession, third down efficiency, fourth down efficiency, red zone efficiency and so forth, because if you thought the Patriots' offense was a methodical, boring, chain-moving entity before, his moves in free agency pretty much guarantee that they will become the preeminent methodical, boring, chain-moving offense.

At least, it will boring to the fans of their opponents, but that is not our concern.

For the past decade, the Patriots have de-evolved into a finesse team, particularly on offense, where the reliance was on under-sized interior linemen who could move laterally in unison for a zone blocking scheme that featured smallish backs who could slash against the grain through cutback lanes. The drawbacks to the scheme, however, were that the interior linemen would get manhandled at the point of attack and most of the time were not able to fight through to the second level...

...while in pass protection they would be pushed back by the initial punch of the defensive pass rush, causing the pocket to collapse around Brady and, most importantly. did not give him room to step into his throws. The pass rush didn't even have to get to Brady to be effective, which gave defensive coordinators carte blanche to run exotic coverage packages.

Even so, the Patriots would always be able to fly through the regular season with 12, 13 or 14 wins and secure a first round bye - most of the time the top seed in the conference as well - but once they faced superior defenses in the post season, the results were mixed and several opportunities for titles were missed.

So Belichick is going about the dark business this offseason to ensure that his team will not get pushed around in the trenches ever again.

Belichick made two acquisitions in particular on offense that feed this notion - both of them via trades - while also taking the opportunity to beef up his defensive interior, literally.

Four days after the free agency period began, Belichick dumped a huge salary by shipping defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona in exchange for a second round draft pick and guard Jonathan Cooper, a former first-round pick - then two days later trading a fourth-round pick to Chicago in exchange for Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett and a sixth-round pick.

It could be argued a win for both side in each endeavor, as Arizona gets much-needed pass rush help and unload a former-seventh overall draft pick in Cooper, who struggled with injuries and was considered a bust by most experts, while Chicago gets a mid-round pick for a disgruntled pass catcher who didn't like some of his red zone touches going to someone else...

...but the real winners are the Patriots, who add an experienced right guard to a mix that includes Tre Jackson and Josh Kline, and who team up Bennett with the preeminent tight end in all of football in Rob Gronkowski to form a tight end tandem the likes of which the National Football League has never seen.

Throw in massively underused H-back Clay Harbor, whom Belichick signed last week, and 305 pound hybrid tackle/tight end Michael Williams, and the Patriots may well have the largest offensive front in the National Football League - because in addition to the 6' 6", 265 pound Gronkowski bookended by the 6' 7", 270 pound Bennett, New England boasts identically-sized tackles in 6' 8",325 pound Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer,,,

...replacing girth with sheer power on the interior with 6' 1", 310 pound left guard Shaq Mason and 6' 4". 325 pound Tre Jackson and Cooper slugging it out for top dog at right guard, flanking 6' 4", 325 pound Bryan Stork at the pivot.

The only thing missing is a powerful, bell-cow running back, which New England will likely be addressing on Day 2 of the NFL draft coming up in three weeks and, barring that, they could always fall back on the back that is perfectly suited to run behind a wall-blocking entity that Belichick has built, in the person of veteran LeGarrette Blount.

Blount has had zero interest from other teams on the free agent market - most likely stemming from his less-than-amicable release from the Pittsburgh Steelers midway through the 2014 season, not to mention a hip injury that landed him on the injured reserved list late last season, an event that effectively ruined the Patriots' offense for the post-season because they had no running game to balance the unit.

So with Blount on Belichick's speed dial, the Patriots have a ready-made bell-cow at 6' 0" and 250 pounds just in case whomever they draft needs some time to acclimate, or just because Belichick remembers that the Oregon bad boy averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season despite the injuries along the line and offensive coordiantor Josh McDaniels' penchant for forgetting that he has a running game.

In fact, it may come as a surprise to some that for his career, Blount has averaged a stout 4.6 yards per carry and found paydirt 31 times - and like any power back worth his salt, Blount gets better when the games count the most, averaging 4.9 yards per carry in the post season, not a bad Plan B, as it were.

Regardless of who is taking the handoffs from Brady, the Patriots are stacked with a massive, wall-blocking offensive line to go along with undoubtedly the deadliest passing attack in the league, and the running game will be much more effective because of the change in philosophy from finesse to physical.

Belichick has been quoted on numerous occasions as stating that those mid-to-late 1970's teams were the best New England has ever served up - physical and violent, those teams bullied their opponants in an era when being physical and violent was commonplace and came within one Ben Dreith flag and Billy Sullivan's interference from having two more Lombardi's in the trophy case.

But those teams have served as a blueprint for what a Patriots' team should be about, and now Belichick is loading up with physical, violent and super-sized players for his offensive juggernaut. As mentioned before, they probably won't set any rushing records, but they are about to unleash the most proficient and deadly efficient offense in the history of the NFL...

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