To state the obvious: no, this is not a story about the New England Patriots stealing other teams’ signals (or rather filming them from the wrong location) or any other illegal activities on the part of the most successful pro football franchise of the 21st century. No, this is a story about the NFL being a copycat league — and that the Patriots are on the forefront of innovation and setting trends for other teams to follow.
The latest to do that are the New Orleans Saints. During Sunday night’s shellacking of the Philadelphia Eagles, Saints head coach Sean Payton used a play that New England ran against the Eagles nine months ago in Super Bowl 52. “I look at the league a lot,” Payton told NBC’s Peter King after the 48-7 beatdown of the defending world champions. “I look at all the scoring plays every week. I look at Belichick and New England.”
When analyzing head coach Bill Belichick’s team, Payton found a play he thought would be useful for his squad against Philadelphia. “I hadn’t watched all of New England’s offensive plays in the Super Bowl against Philadelphia in a while, and so [on Saturday] night, I put the tape on and I found something,” Payton told King. “[Rob Gronkowski] caught a ball inside the 10 and scored, but it’s how he caught it.”
“It was like catching an inbounds pass, using your body to keep the defender off you,” the Saints’ head coach continued. Lo and behold, a situation arose in which the play came in handy for New Orleans — which speaks for the team’s preparatory process and for how coaches can draw inspiration from their brethren. During a conference call earlier today, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spoke exactly about this.
“If there’s something that we’ve done that somebody else takes, that’s great,” McDaniels said when asked about the flow of ideas and concepts all over the league (via NESN’s Zack Cox). He then — to get back to the story title — told about the Patriots’ approach: “We probably steal as much as anybody else. There’s a tremendous amount of great coaches in our league that do great things and there’s a lot of great players that make those plays go.”
“I think you have to understand that there’s a lot that goes into something like that,” McDaniels continued. “When we look at other teams that are having some success [...] you see a lot of good things that these guys have designed and, most importantly, have been able to get their guys to execute really well on game day. That’s the biggest factor in all those things — you’ve got to be able to transfer it to the field and get it done right.”
The Saints did just that on Sunday against the Eagles when they used the Patriots-inspired play to gain 30 yards on a pass. This very same process of drawing inspiration from other teams and play-callers is nothing new in New England: the team and its coaching staff are masters at taking ideas and adapting them — just think of the ineligible receiver formations the team used in 2014 to defeat the Baltimore Ravens in the postseason.
Back then, the Patriots used ideas from the Tennessee Titans and from old friend Nick Saban’s Alabama teams to put themselves in a position to be successful: on three plays, New England used a four-man offensive line to confuse their opponent and it helped the team march down the field to cut into what was a two-touchdown deficit at that point. The ensuing momentum swing helped the Patriots on their way to their fourth Lombardi Trophy.
For McDaniels, taking established concepts and trying to make them work in New England appears to be a worthwhile exercise: “That’s a fun aspect of our job,” New England’s offensive coordinator said. “You take a look at some things that are maybe trending in certain directions and see where it might fit for you and your team and what might be difficult to defend for the opponents that you’re getting ready to coach against.”