Tom Brady is a system quarterback. As long as the system features a strong running game and a handful of receivers that can get open, or maybe an elite deep threat and an elite slot receiver with decent backup targets, or even an elite tight end and a versatile second tight end with a quick outlet receiver or running back, or ... hmm maybe Tom Brady IS the system. Give him a handful of tools to work with and let him figure out how to use them to best advantage, and he'll win you a load of football games.
The only constants in the Patriots offensive "system" during the Belichick and Brady regime is:
- They put their best players on the field.
- They emphasize strengths and minimize weaknesses of the players (AKA They put them in the best position to succeed)
- They give Brady the flexibility to choose the match-ups he likes.
Let's address each point in turn:
Put their best players on the field
This is where drafting and free agent acquisitions come into play. Earlier this pre-season, I looked at how the Patriots tend to have less "draft cash"
than many other teams. Drafting at the bottom of each round makes it harder to get the best and the brightest at each position. When there's a run at certain positions, the Patriots will almost certainly be staring at empty shelves once it's their turn to shop. They have to shop smart and they have to be creative. They traded "draft cash" for Moss and Welker and dominated the league. They grabbed tight ends with their "draft cash" when TEs were devalued, and dominated the league. They grabbed running backs once running backs were devalued, and we can only speculate.
Likewise, getting free agents requires an outlay of another limited resource: Salary Cap cash. The Patriots pay elite money when needed, but they tend to spread the wealth around the team and stay close to the cap year after year. That may mean they don't have as many top flight players, but it also tends to avoid the "Oh crap! Not THAT guy!" players that other teams use for depth (See Painter, Curtis filed under #SuckForLuck). As Darrelle Revis shows, the Patriots will shell out cash for players that are worth it. As Mike Wallace shows, they won't do it for just anyone.
Put them in the best position to succeed
When your best guys are in the backfield, you need enough passing prowess to keep the safeties honest. There's a reason Walter Payton was happy to have McMahon at QB, and Adrian Peterson was thrilled to see Favre under center. It sucks to run into a loaded box, and the safeties won't give you any breathing room until you prove to them that they HAVE to.
Likewise, when your best assets are wide receivers, you need a competent QB tossing them the ball. If the team can muster a strong running game, it makes the receivers jobs easier as the safeties can't always drop into coverage. It's easier to get open in one on one coverage.
Great tight ends help in both running and receiving. They can be tough to match up to on defense. That's also why they are currently in such high demand.
To get the best from your players, you need to keep the defense from focusing on just one aspect of the offense. This is where being able to attack from multiple formations and multiple personnel groupings is important. McDaniels will send in the guys and plays he thinks gives him the best options at the time.
Give Brady the flexibility to choose the match-ups he likes.
There are three aspects to this. The first is allowing Brady to call protections. Some teams have a savvy center make the line calls, so the QB has less to worry about. On the Patriots, Brady's calls decide who stays in and who runs routes, as well as centering the protection where he wants it. The center then puts a hat on hat to (hopefully) make it all work out.
The second aspect is allowing Brady to change the formation on the fly. He can motion his running backs out, pull his tight ends in, bunch his receivers, and switch from run to pass and back at will. He can also lock a defense into a specific formation by running the no-huddle anytime his little heart desires. That QB sneak? That's a hot read and Brady can fire that sucker at will to great effect.
The third aspect is allowing Brady to order his progressions based on the his defensive reads. Brady can decide where he wants the ball to go pre-snap. The progression may call for him to look for the deep ball, but if he sees two deep coverage and a mismatch elsewhere, he can decide to drop the ball on say Vereen over his linebacker defender instead of Dobson and the coverage designed to remove him from the play. That makes his reads faster post snap and allows him to stay upright when the defense brings a load of pressure.
Obviously, you need to have a great deal of confidence in your quarterback to let him have that kind of functionality. Once the QB is the system though, that flexibility is a given. Oh, and what about the Matt Cassel year? He was on a much tighter leash. His biggest option was scrambling if things didn't look right, which he did to great effect. He didn't have Brady-like flexibility there.
Give me your best.
We're at that point in the season when most of the Patriots "best guys" are already on the team. They may add depth here or there, and they may find a way to upgrade a couple of spots on the depth chart. The top guys are already under contract, and will be in camp in a few short weeks.
Now I could worry about the offensive line, and to be honest, the interior line is a cause for concern. We drafted some guys, other guys are healthier, and I'm crossing my fingers that somehow this year's line will keep Brady safer than last year's line. So whoever they are, there will be five offensive linemen. My best guess here is Solder-Mankins-Wendell-Cannon-Vollmer, but one or more of the rookies may surprise me.
Of course, we can also rest assured that Brady will be out there, because as I've said, he IS the system. So far that's six guys and I'll be darned if they don't only allow eleven in the formation legally, so that leaves five guys to shuffle in and around the offense. In addition, we want our best players to be on the field as often as possible.
When you're looking at the Patriots for elite offensive talent, it starts and stops with Rob Gronkowski. Any formation we use, we'll want Gronk on the field, and really, there's not a single formation that wouldn't be improve with Gronk on the field. After Gronk, the rest of the guys are personal preference and game plan decisions.
So we really have Gronk and a bunch of guys we move around him depending on formation:
Spread: Gronk, and 4 of Dobson, Edelman, Amendola, Boyce, KT, and LaFell
I-Formation: Gronk, 2 of Dobson, Edelman, Amendola and Boyce, 1 of Develin and Hooman, 1 of Ridley and Vereen
Split Back: Gronk, Vereen, 2 of Dobson, Edelman, Amendola and Boyce, 1 of Develin, Hooman, and White
Single back: Gronk, 3 of Dobson, Edelman, Amendola, Boyce, Hooman, and Develin, 1 of Ridley and Vereen
Power run: Gronk, Hooman, Develin, 1 of Ridley and Vereen, 1 of Dobson, Edelman, Amendola,
...and on and on it goes....
Some personnel make it possible to switch to other formations easier. Some guys offer more speed and height, others offer more shiftiness and agility, some offer more strength and power. To some degree for the fans it is a personal preference. To the Patriots, it's a team by team game plan each week and one of the reasons fantasy owners devalue Patriots players. Committee approaches make weekly fantasy rosters a crap shoot.
So tell me, when the Patriots put their best on the field, who do you see lined up? Once we know the best players, we can look at the formations that best suit them, and we can
make blind guesses about predict with absolute clarity what the Patriots offense will look like for 2014. One thing's for sure, it will fit within the Patriots "system", because Tom Brady will make the whole thing work. Just like he does every year.