It wouldn’t be a surprise if you heard the phrase “Tom Brady is a system quarterback” in recent weeks. Back-ups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett have led the Patriots to a 3-0 record, with Garoppolo looking particularly excellent by leading the league in QBR.
The term “system quarterback” has usually been said to discredit Brady’s success over the years and to heap the past fifteen years of Patriots production at the feet of head coach Bill Belichick. It implies that Brady isn’t good in his own right and benefits from the offensive game plan of Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Which, sure, that’s true. Any coach that deserves to be on a sideline should create an offensive game plan that best aligns with the skill sets of their players. If a coach isn’t setting up a player to succeed, then they should have been fired yesterday.
We’ve seen how the Patriots have been asking the receivers to run similar routes with Garoppolo at quarterback as we did with Brady, but Brissett had some plays drawn up in the sand for Thursday Night and he looked perfectly adequate.
But I think we’re all overlooking an important fact. Even if the routes are the same as they have been, the play call and execution has been entirely different.
Last year, the Patriots dialed up a passing play on 65.0% of snaps, good for 3rd in the NFL behind the Lions and Jaguars.
This year, the Patriots have called a passing play on a mere 46.0% of snaps, the lowest rate in the entire league. The 49ers (49.7%, coincidentally) are the only other team that has called more running plays than passing plays.
The Patriots lead the league with 108 rushing attempts, 452 rushing yards, rank second in rushing 1st downs (26, behind the Cowboys 32), and rank third with 5 rushing touchdowns.
New England has gone from being the most successful pass-heavy team to the most successful run-heavy team in just one year. Credit goes to the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and the impressive offensive line that appears to be able to run to the left at will.
But when someone says the Patriots are running the same system with Garoppolo and Brissett as they did with Brady, you can roll your eyes. The routes might be the same, but the play calls certainly aren’t.
Although I guess this we could argue that the past three weeks have been the sign of a great agnostic offensive system. It’s a unit that doesn’t rely on passing or running to win; they just find a way to win.
It’s a testament to Belichick and McDaniels that they can draw up entirely different game plans from week to week, from quarterback to quarterback, and have the end result be the exact same.
To call Brady a system quarterback is to ignore the fact that there is no single playbook in this system. Time is a flat circle where the Patriots have gone from a run-heavy offense with Corey Dillon, to a spread offense with Randy Moss, to a two tight-end offense with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to a death by a thousand paper cuts offense with Wes Welker and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and now back to a run-heavy offense with LeGarrette Blount.
I’m sure the offense will change again when Brady returns to quarterback and when Gronkowski returns to full health. The only system the Patriots are beholden to is one that finds a way to win week in and week out.