The New England Patriots have started their 2017 season with a 4-2 record; one of the best in the NFL. However, the team has not yet lived up to the enormous potential it featured when looking at the roster from a personnel standpoint. The Patriots have had their fair share of defensive issues over the first six games of the year, coupled with offensive inconsistencies particularly over the last two contests.
According to Bill Belichick, however, growing pains like these are to be expected early on in the season. After all, the more practices a team goes through, the better it should get – and right now the number of practice opportunities is still relatively low. New England's head coach spoke on a conference call with the media yesterday and made this clear when he was asked about the balance of week-to-week adjustments and the foundation of the system installed before the season.
“[I]t's incomprehensible to me how anybody could think that a team that's practiced for six months and played 19 regular season and postseason games and had triple-digit practices,” Belichick pointed out, “five months later, after not playing a game, after having a fraction of that type of experience, could be anywhere close to the level of execution that they were five months before that.”
The future Hall of Famer began his answer – one that was 790 words long and is absolutely worth reading – to the above-mentioned question by talking about how the team approaches its practices early in the season. “I'll just say that when you start the season, you have, let's call it 20 practices, not including the spring,” Belichick pointed out. “[D]uring that time you're trying to evaluate your team, work on a lot of basic and fundamental things.”
“[...] I'll say basically get your team ready to play not only on the opening day, but for getting conditioned and build your fundamentals and all that so that you can compete in the 16-game regular season.” Once this foundation is laid, continued Belichick, the team can then move away from what the coach called “evaluation mode and a fundamental mode” towards more complex and diverse schemes.
“As you get into the season,” the veteran coach noted, “you build on that and you have things that attack certain schemes or you have to use to address certain issues that your opponent is trying to pressure you with.” Belichick pointed out that, yes, from time to time the basics taught during the early practices could handle an opponent but there are times when a team needs to go beyond that by adjusting the weekly game plan.
The reason for that is rather simply as Belichick laid out: “If you don't increase the volume of your scheme on offense, defense and special teams, then every week, your opponent's just looking at a handful of things and probably most of them they've seen before.” In short: The more a team evolves schematically over the course of the season, the tougher it will be to defend – and given the NFL's competitive nature, attacking an opponent with the foundational schemes installed early on will not lead to a lot of success.
“[Y]ou do what you need to do each week to try to win,” Belichick noted. “You put in the plays, make the adjustments, you don't want to overload things – I mean, nobody's talking about putting in a new offense every week. That's not it at all, but are there some modifications you can make? Sure.” And those modifications are easier made the more experience a team has and the more sound its fundamentals are.
The process is the same every year, according to Belichick: “Each year, you start all over again. You start that process all over again. You build your team over the course of the year though practice repetitions, through preseason to regular season games, through the evolving of your scheme, and that's why each year is different and unique.”
So far, the 2017 season has been quite different for the Patriots than the last one: In 2016, the team had the top-ranked scoring defense and even early on in the season looked much more sound when it came to stopping the opponent. However, the past does not matter and as the current version of the team further evolves, it might be able to find similar success down the road.
The first few steps have already been taken – and the results of that are slowly starting to show.