Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Patriots’ New Offensive Philosophy Isn’t New, It’s Just Evolving

Bill Belichick is a freaking wizard, and once again we are about to witness his magic.

In fact, the 2020 NFL season will come to be known as Belichick’s finest hour, as it were – not so much tied to success on the field, but for finally being able to build his New England Patriots in his own gruff image.

I’ve always enjoyed watching Belichick build his team from the ground up each summer, but not as much as I’ve enjoyed this year’s effort thus far. He had a difficult – some say insurmountable – number of obstacles to navigate even before the pandemic swept across the country, and the resultant social distancing mandates made his task ten-times more daunting.

But “difficult” and “daunting” are challenges that fall right into Belichick’s wheelhouse.

We got our first look at his mindset during the draft, a fascinating, eclectic class of rookies whose selections seemed right on point with what he needed to propagate the theory that he’s been building towards this moment for the past four seasons…

…and although his method caused quarterback Tom Brady to go berserk and probably caused last-year’s late season collapse as well, there’s no doubt that this season’s incarnation of the New England Patriots will offer up a far better product than if he had not been building towards life without Brady.

The evidence is compelling, particularly along the offensive line. Starting with Shaq Mason and David Andrews in 2015, Belichick has assembled a group of linemen who are better a plowing the row than pass blocking – but to be fair, the aforementioned Mason and Andrews, along with 2016 third-round pick Joe Thuney and 2018 top pick Isaiah Wynn, have gradually improved in pass blocking…

…perhaps not consistently enough to protect a statue in the pocket, but plenty good enough to scheme around the talents of Cam Newton, who is now the favorite to win the starting quarterback job (as if he wasn’t the moment he signed his contract).

Initially, the line was being gradually constructed to meld with the skill set of Jimmy Garoppolo, whom the Patriots drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft as the heir apparent to Brady. Garoppolo is much more ambulatory than Brady and, as such, required an offensive line that is more athletic than stout.

You know, guards that can pull into the flat on a designed roll out, or who can slip onto the second level and neutralize a linebacker, and tackles who have the ability to chip defensive ends and drift out to lead the screen plays that are a staple of Belichick’s method of operation.

But when Brady (Kraft?) forced Garoppolo out of the building in 2017 - right in the middle of the building process - it forced Belichick’s hand. His choices were to either scrap his philosophy and cater to Brady’s insistence that he was determined to play into his mid-forties, or to continue along the path he had designed for Garoppolo.

Of course, it went against conventional wisdom that Brady would still be playing at a high level three years later, so Belichick maintained course and heading, knowing that his personnel acquisition was moving the offense away from Brady’s strengths in favor of a hopefully seamless transition to a quarterback that embodies the latest trends in the league, that being a renaissance of sorts to the old-school, smashmouth ways of yesteryear.

Some are speculating a return to the early seasons of the millennium, a power-based running attack to open up play action and to clear defined passing lanes, and while that is the hope on my end, Newton’s presence adds another dynamic

And since any philosophy in football is built from the inside out, Belichick has stocked the offensive line with smaller, lighter linemen with quick feet, excellent football acumen, and a mean streak a mile wide.

Of all the starters along the offensive line, left guard Joe Thuney is the tallest at 6’ 5”, followed by (presumptive) right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor at 6’ 4”, center David Andrews at 6’ 3”, left tackle Isaiah Wynn at 6’ 2” and right guard Shaq Mason at 6’ 1” – with only Eluemunor checking in at over 310 pounds. 

The NFL average for an offensive lineman is 315 pounds, the average height, 6’ 4”.
Again, only Eluemunor checks in at or above the size of the average NFL Lineman, and he wasn’t drafted by New England, brought in on a trade with Baltimore to help assuage the massive injuries that befell the Patriots last season.

All of that said and true, it is no coincidence that Belichick has assembled the smallest, yet most athletic offensive line in football – and all he needed was a quarterback to surround with it.

That’s when Cameron Jerrell Newton fell right into his lap.

Newton isn’t just a mobile quarterback. In fact, he was the gold standard for mobile quarterbacks when he entered the league in 2011, initiating a trend towards more option-based offenses that have swept through the league in the past decade.

But the real indication of Belichick’s commitment to a more diverse, power-based attack came with the drafting of two tight ends, both of whom should step right into vital roles all over the formation and will complete the blocking scheme.

The health of the line as a whole combined with the drafting of the versatile tight ends and the presence of Newton suggests that the product that Belichick is going to field will be different from what we’ve witnessed in the past couple of decades under his rule – but not so different that it will be unrecognizable.

The same concepts will be in play, but this time Belichick will be building his roster from the ground up in his own image instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes in order to appease Brady, because now the hole is square and all of the personnel moves that he has made in the past few years should fit beautifully.

After all, that’s what the Dark Master has had up his sleeve the entire time…

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