Friday, May 12, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 4: Belichick "Cooks" Up Enticing Receiving Corps

"A modern day warrior
Mean, mean stride
Today's Tom Sawyer
Mean, mean pride."

When Neil Peart, the world class drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, penned the lyrics to the band's most recognizable and signature tune Tom Sawyer, New England Patriots head ball coach Bill Belichick was just starting to cut his football teeth as linebackers' coach for the New York Giants under the tutelage of Ray Perkins...

...the same Ray Perkins who, along with Ron Erhardt, devised the concept-based Erhardt-Perkins offense while they were both offensive assistants with the Patriots, a system so complex in it's simplicity that learning the playbook has ruined many competent veteran receivers with it's reliance on versatility.

Perkins' influence on Belichick is evident every time his Patriots take the field, as the mantra for the Erhardt-Perkins offense, "Pass to score, run to win" is pretty much how it's done in New England with their pass-first mentality and their ability to close out games by running out of their four-minute sets - but finding players that "get it" when it comes to the concepts is not an easy task.

The offense requires that every player knows what every other player is supposed to be doing, and relying on their diverse skill sets to give them the ability to line up at any position on the field, be it split wide, in the slot or in the backfield.

For years, Brady has called the play in the huddle - a simple one word designation that tells each player where to line up and what route he is running, breaking the huddle quickly and then using the rest of the play clock to survey the defense, unmask the coverages by sending any number of players in motion and gauging the defenses' reaction, then adjusting the pass catchers to a spot in the formation to take advantage of mismatches.

So, there's a reason why Belichick selects the pass catchers that he does, a reason why Patriots' receivers are no-name, often nomadic creatures who wouldn't make another team's roster because they lack any number of requisite qualities that fans will pay to see - literal jacks-of-all-trades, receivers that are successful in the concept have three things in common:

They are intelligent, both academically and in football vernacular.  They are versatile.  They are dependable.

Not a list of traits looked at with any degree of enthusiasm by the casual fan - or by many coaches, it seems - it is these traits that have fueled the Patriots' offense for close to two decades, ruining the aforementioned tenured veterans and making cult-figures of ambiguous, ill-figured athletes, some of whom had not played at receiver until Belichick got hold of them.
"Tom Sawyer was a collaboration between myself and Pye Dubois.  His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern-day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful.  I added the themes of reconciling the boy and the man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be." Neil Peart
The gap between what Belichick is and what people perceive him to be has narrowed exponentially with each division title, with each conference championship and with each Super Bowl.  Initially, the man we've come to call "The Dark Master" was perceived to be a curmudgeonly old malcontent who loathed the media and didn't give two shits what anyone thought of him...

...his sole saving grace in the public eye was the obvious affection that he had for the men who played ball for him - and even that took hits every time he released or traded away a player whom the fanbase had decided had lots of gas left in their tank.

He discarded certain hall-of-fame receiver Randy Moss after he ceased to be useful, and dumped slot receiver Wes Welker after openly mocking him with the moniker "Wally Pipp" and giving his job to Julian Edelman.  He took chances on a washed-up Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne, but both crashed and burned at the prospect of having to learn the playbook.

His track record of drafting receivers that could actually function in the system is abysmal, so instead he concentrates on collecting already broken-in talent with varying degrees of success and rides the lightning with them - his track record in that endeavor solid gold despite the failed Ochocinco experiment.

Moss set records and made mockery of secondaries throughout football.  Welker became the prototype for garden gnome-sized slot receivers, holding the fort for Edelman, a former-college quarterback that worked his way into the lineup.  Danny Amendola was signed the day that Welker was shown the door and became one of the most clutch receivers in team history.

Chris Hogan didn't even play college ball at Penn State, instead playing Lacrosse on scholarship then using his final year of eligibility to learn to play the position at tiny Monmouth College, and last season became the Patriots big play game breaker - and in Malcolm Mitchell, all indications are that Belichick may have finally gotten a draft pick right.

Indeed, Mitchell was the highest-drafted receiver on the roster last season - with the exception of late-season rental Michael Floyd - being taken in the fourth round and wowing the fans at Gillette Stadium with his toughness, resilience and electric moves after the catch, and all indications were that Mitchell was ready to break out onto the scene as a sophomore...

...that is until Belichick traded away his first-round draft pick to New Orleans in exchange for Brandin Cooks, a move that will either limit Mitchell's progress by taking snaps from him or make him that much more dangerous as opposing secondaries look to contain the speedy Cooks.

Running a blazing fast 4.33 in the 40 yard dash, Cooks routinely ran away from coverages operating out of the slot, his short area burst causing instant separation as he took slot corners inside out across the face of the intermediate zone and up the sidelines which draws the attention of the high safety and should leave the other pass catchers on the roster in single coverage.

That's bad news for defensive coordinators on the Patriots' schedule, especially considering that Mitchell and Hogan are no sloths, running 4.45 and 4.47 respectively - we saw what both did last season when left in man coverage, and the fact that they rose to the occasion when their team needed them most in the post-season makes them solid gold in Belichick's system.

No, his mind is not for rent
To any God or government
Always hopeful but discontent
He knows changes aren't permanent

Terminally discontent despite holding another trophy, in trading for Cooks Belichick addressed the most worrisome issue coming out of their championship season, that of not having a speed merchant to force the defense to defend the entire field and allowing defenses built on quickness - such as the Atlanta Falcons - to key down on taking away the short game that has been a staple of Belichick's offenses throughout his tenure.

His Patriots overcame that disadvantage in the Super Bowl, barely, but Belichick can't count on making epic comebacks week-after-week after spotting teams large leads - so he went out and did something about it.

In Cooks, Hogan and Mitchell, the Patriots are suddenly youthful in their receiving corps.  Cooks is 23 and still working on his rookie contract, though Belichick picked up his option for 2018 and making him a multi-millionaire.  Mitchell is in his second season at age 24 and also on his rookie contract, while Hogan is still just 28 and entering his sixth season...

...joining Edelman (30) and Amendola (31) to form perhaps the most dangerously versatile receiving corps in the National Football League.

Now add in the combined talents of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen - both just 27 years old and under contract for multiple seasons - along with the pass catching talent coming out of the backfield in the personages of Super Bowl hero James White (25), Dion Lewis (26), Rex Burkhead (26) and Mike Gillislee (26), and one has to wonder how anyone is going to stop the apparent juggernaut that Belichick has built.

Luckily for opposing defenses, the Patriots are only allowed five skill position players on the field at any one time - but that is going to be hard enough for them to cover and account for...

Today's Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you

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