Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Super Bowl LI - Patriots' Receivers, Akin To Misfits, Bask In Belichick's Offensive System

Keyshawn Johnson was right.

Sort of.

The loquacious, quite well-traveled former NFL wide receiver said on Friday that none of the receivers on the New England Patriots roster wouldn't find themselves on any other team's depth chart, simply because they are a product of the Patriots' system, which accentuates their limited individual skill sets.
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Where the former Jets, Bucs, 'boys and Panthers' pass catcher has a point is where recent history suggests that receivers whom have been part of the New England culture since head ball coach Bill Belichick arrived on the scene at the turn of the century, just haven't been impactful - neither before they arrive on campus, nor after the leave.

Where Johnson is off the mark is when he says they are a product of the system - because they aren't a product of the system, they are the system.

You see, where most coaches and personnel men select players whom they can integrate into their offensive scheme, Belichick builds his scheme around his receivers combined skill set.  This allows Belichick much more latitude in game planning, expanding the concepts in his playbook and allowing a seemingly endless combination of personnel packages.

It's the theory of not trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, rather, to bore out the round hole to allow the square peg to fit.

And while Johnson is mostly correct in his assertion that Patriots' wide receivers wouldn't be contributing factors in most other passing games around the league, it is also true that Belichick is consistently above the curve when it comes to innovation - his concept-driven offensive philosophy requiring above average intelligence and intestinal fortitude, and if you have those things, he will put you in the position to succeed.

But Belichick is under no obligation to ensure that any player who leaves his team is ready to take on any other scheme - and, as we've seen and as Johnson points out, many are not.

Belichick's offense is predicated on the old New England standard introduced by offensive coordinators Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins during their time together on Chuck Faurbanks' staff during the early and middle parts of the 1970s, and include the same plays that would conjure memories if one had played high school ball...

...only that the defense has no way of determining what they plays are because they are run from what coaches refer to as "concepts", which means that these simple and fundamental plays are formed in a group, depending on the personnel on the field, that gives the quarterback a myriad of options to take advantage of whatever formation the defense has committed to on any given play.

The concepts are easy for the players to learn, as they form a mental picture of routes, blocking assignments and running gaps from a single word.

Everyone who watches football hears a quarterback barking out numerical and linguistic instructions to the other ten offensive players on the field, and for most teams, the quarterback is simply calling an audible - changing the play at the line of scrimmage - or setting different blocking instructions for his linemen, but when one hears Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's cadence, he is actually calling the play at the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots are able to do this because of their personnel, as every player on the field at any given time has the skill set that enables Brady to shift them into any position in the formation, knowing that each player is capable of running the route assigned to the position - in effect, each player has an interchangeable skill set that has been incorporated into the offensive system during the previous offseason and implemented during training camp.

If there is a drawback to the system, we saw it during the 2013 and 2015 seasons when the Patriots lost so many players to injury that the system broke down when replacement players were signed out of desperation, limiting the offense to simply running plays instead of utilizing their conceptual scheme.

In both seasons, the team lost enough pass catching threats that it altered the play calling to more of a bare bones playbook, reducing them to one-dimensional entities that better defenses in the NFL were able to take advantage of, losing in the AFC title game to Denver in both seasons because they simply couldn't impose their will on the Broncos' top-rated defense.

To combat this, Belichick turned his attention to depth signings this past offseason, not willing to chance losing another season because his offense couldn't operate at max-efficiency.

For example, instead of keeping his fingers crossed that All World tight end Rob Gronkowski could make it through an entire season unscathed, he send a late-round draft pick to Chicago to acquire Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett - and while this move solicited visions of a revisitation to the days of Gronkowski and now-incarcerated thug Aaron Hernadez terrifying opposing defenses with a two-tight end attack, it was instead a depth move that worked out famously when Gronkowski went down midway through the season.

Similar moves have been made in the past few seasons, with names such as Chris Hogan and Dion Lewis brought in to ensure that injury wouldn't limit their conceptual system - a system that have seen them in six consecutive AFC Championship games in as many seasons, and are now vying for their second World title in three tries during the same time span.

The good news for the Patriots is that, with the exception of Gronkowski, the Patriots are whole on offense with no limitation to their concepts.  The bad news for their opponents, the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, is that no team in the past two-plus seasons have been able to contain the Patriots' offense with a full complement of weapons effectively enough to give their own offense a chance to outscore them.

The Falcons, in fact, are very similar defensively to what the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded in their title tilt showdown with New England, in that they are mediocre against the run, surrendering an eye-popping 4.5 yards per rush, while their secondary ranks in the bottom five - a number that is a bit deceiving in that Atlanta's offense tends to jump out to huge early leads, forcing the opposing offenses to be one-dimensional to play catch-up.

The result, of course, is that Atlanta's pass rushers pin their ears back and come after the opposing quarterback and their secondary goes into a dime look where they can shut down ordinary receivers playing in ordinary passing attacks.

Of course, the Patriots have anything but an ordinary attack and are led by the greatest quarterback to ever take a snap, playing in a system designed to take advantage of the considerable individual skill sets of their players - and with New England's offense playing with a full complement of weapons, feeding off of the top scoring defense in the National Football League, the chances for  Falcon's victory seem dim...

...and all of this from a collection of receivers that wouldn't be able to make another team's roster.

So says Keyshawn Johnson, anyway.

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