The New England Patriots made quite a splash with the spread offense in 2007. The combo of Moss and Welker and the support of bit players like Stallworth, Gaffney, and Watson combined for a record setting offense that lead to yet another Super Bowl appearance. Unfortunately attacking Brady, doubling Moss, and outclassing the bit players was just enough to keep the Patriots from another Lombardi. A year without Brady (2008), and another year without adequate bit players (2009), and the spread offense withered on the vine. Moss was no longer Moss in 2010, and the Patriots drafted a couple new tight ends to throw into what had become "Death from Below: the Attack of the Smurfs".
The sophomore tight ends grew to become a two headed monster in 2011 when combined with one of the best slot receivers in the game. The new incarnation of the Patriots offense was good enough to once again propel the team to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, one half of the new dynamic duo was playing injured, and the defensive secondary was comprised of receivers turned defensive backs (Slater and Edelman), add in an untimely drop by Welker, and the Patriots fell short again. Since that time, Gronk has been injured (2012-2013), his one time partner in crime, Hernandez, decided crime was the way to go (2013), and Welker skipped town to be replaced by Amendola and Edelman (2013). The Patriots collected a bevy of wide receivers taller than 5' 9", and a couple of backs that are dangerous in multiple positions.
With the potential for injury with Gronk, the lack of backup tight ends, the unproven state of the newly acquired receiver corps, and the abundance of running backs and a full back that can both run and catch, some have speculated the Patriots will start running multiple running back sets as more of a base formation. It seems reasonable as it does play to a strength of the team. but as with the spread offense, and the multiple tight end offense, it lends itself to the perfect storm of just the right team at the right time (probably the freaking Giants) having just the right personnel to stop it in the most important game of the year. Alas, the Patriots just acquire a new move tight end in Tim Wright to replace the second half of the two tight end offense, and the Patriots are in the best shape ever to be as dynamic as they wanna be on the offense. Cue the unicorns, rainbows, and show ponies.
While it's difficult to say with a straight face the Patriots can have as prolific a spread offense as they had in 2007. Future Hall of Famer Randy Moss was a one of a kind talent and he's no longer with the team. It's easier to believe that the tag team of Edelman and Amendola can fill the slot role as well as push defenses further down the field than Welker could. It's easy to see how Kenbrell Thompkins and Brandon LaFell can be a more versatile combo than Donté Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney. It's easy to see how Robert Gronkowski is a more threatening tight end presence than Ben Watson. It's not too much of a stretch to believe we could get more production in the passing game from Shane Vereen, James White, and James Develin over Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans (Maroney's contributions are on line with Ridley, except Ridley can run without dancing). The big leap of faith is that Aaron Dobson or Moss' protége Bryan Tyms can replace the production of Randy Moss, and neither of them can. However, with improved production at virtually every other position, they won't have to. The Patriots have the personnel to run the spread offense while threatening every portion of the field this year, and they will.
Two Tight End
Just as it is difficult to say the Patriots spread offense could be as good as the best spread offense they've ever fielded, it is also difficult to say without cracking a smile that they will be better at the two tight end offense than the best two tight end offense we've ever fielded. Robert Gronkowski is still hands down the best tight end in the game when he's on the field. Asking Tim Wright to replace Aaron Hernadez's production is when the questions arise. Hernandez was an offensive chess piece. He could line up in line, behind the line, in the slot or out wide. Brady would move him anywhere he saw a potential mismatch on the field. How can we expect newcomer Tim Wright to be as productive? The answer is the Buccaneers used him in similar roles with less emphasis on blocking (which also wasn't Hernandez's strong suit). That is only a partial answer though. With Vereen or White in the backfield, we have another versatile chess piece that Brady can move at the same time. We also have taller and more versatile wide receivers than we had in 2011, the heyday of our best two tight end offense, With the acquisition of Tim Wright, a versatile two tight end offense is back on the table, and it could be every bit as formidable as the best two tight end offense we've ever had.
Two Running Back
Finally, there's that multiple back formation we talked about earlier that could include any of Vereen, White, Finch, Develin, or even purer runners like Ridley, Bolden, or Jonas Gray. While Ridley is harder to perceive as a threat as a catching back, the defense is more likely to bite on the run fake with him moving between the tackles than James White. That allows your catching back to slide into space for a big gain, or your wide receivers to take a few more steps down the field. Really any two backs we toss out there have advantages and disadvantages, and we can switch them around all day long. While Tim Wright isn't as believable as a blocker in what looks to be a running formation, Hooman is a capable blocker and can still be a fine outlet receiver when defenses have more important places to put their best personnel. While Hooman won't make defenses cringe like Gronk will, he does just fine in a "when you least expect it, expect it" role.
Mix to Match
Will the Pats stay spread all season long? Unlikely. Will Gronk and Wright rewrite the record books? Unnecessary. Will the Pats keep two backs on the field all the time? I'd have to say, "No", because variety is key. The Patriots have the pieces to game plan for whatever defense they face. The same personnel can switch between multiple formations on command from Brady. They have personnel to attack any part of the field without betraying which part of the field they're attacking. They have personnel to switch out any position for a change of pace. Wright or Hooman for Gronk? Sure, for a down or three at a time to give the big guy a break. The defense may not feel as threatened, but we have enough players to challenge them until Gronk returns. We are far better off than when he was injured in 2011. Admittedly, I'm looking at the offensive possibilities through rose colored glasses, and there's still plenty of uncertainty about just how far this offense can go. What I believe though, that for every strength our offense had in 2007 and 2011, we have better complementary pieces now than we had then. We have better tight ends and running backs (loved Faulk, but I can live without DDR Maroney) now than we had in 2007 even if we're short a certain freakish deep threat. We have better receivers (especially in the red zone) now than we had in 2011, even if we're not sure if Wright can be Hernandez 2.0 (albeit without the extra-curriculars).
With hopefully an improved defense and the ability to attack in multiple ways on offense, this team may do something the 2007 and 2011 teams were unable to do: seal the deal and bring home the Lombardi. I know it's still the preseason and we still don't know exactly what this team can do. One game at a time and all of that. That's fine, but I'm a fan, and I'm not required to be practical. This team has fewer holes than any the Pats have fielded in years and years. As far as the offense goes, it's not a question as to whether they can move the ball. The question is now about how they'll choose to move the ball. It's an offense that is built to become whatever they need it to become. It's an offense that will keep defenses guessing. It's an offense that should be able to lose a piece or two and continue to put points on the board. It's an offense that should be able to win the biggest game of the year this February. It not a question of Super Bowl or bust. It's more a question of which players and formations will Brady lean on most when he wins his fourth ring this year. He's got all of the right cards this year, now it's just time to sit back and watch him win the games. Especially, the duck boat game in February, because this year the Lombardi lands in Foxboro. That's how I see it ... even if it's through tinted spectacles.