As our offseason-long “....the hell happened here?” of the 2019 Patriots continues, our fearless leader Bernd and film analyst Taylor Kyles have been watching the 2019 tape like the Zapruder scene in JFK to find out what ultimately FUBAR’ed New England. It will surely surprise no one that the wide receiving corps that help New England start the season scoring 76 points in their first two games (including a two-touchdown opening night for Philswitch Engage....sigh) and yet couldn’t muster a single receiving touchdown against the Tennessee Titans are at the top of the list.
Starting with the two mid-season additions that were supposed to be the Red Bull for the offensive hangover, rookie 1st-rounder N’Keal Harry and long-coveted trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu, the struggles really boiled down to a few different flavors of the same issue; whether it was technique (for the former, mostly), unfamiliarity with the system (Mo, possibly) or injuries (both, in some form or fashion), the guys had trouble making decisive moves, getting open, and of course, the all-important “Going where your quarterback thinks you’ll be going when he thinks you’ll be going there”.
Since Bernd and TK have broken down both N’Keal and Mo Sanu in highly detailed fashion already, go read those if you missed ‘em while you were smoking ribs for the Super Bowl or whatever. The part about getting open and separating from defensive backs though, especially with N’Keal, who you may have heard was ranked 143rd out of 143 receivers by Next Gen Stats on average separation this season, kept grinding my gears because somewhere I remember reading about another Patriot struggling with the same issue. Maybe not to that extent, but when you’re a physical freak in a relatively soft college football conference not *exactly* known for playing tenacious defense, building one’s get-open toolbox at the NFL level takes work.
Of course, we’re talking about All-Galaxy and All-Time great Rob Gronkowski, who started his career in 2010 posting a 546-yard, 42-catch season. Obviously, 10 of those 42 catches went for scores, which tends to paint that stat line in a much better light in comparison to the all-world secondary-destroying legend he’d become, but Gronk definitely did not come out of college with all the tools. Talent, motivation, the physical ability, all that? Sure. But learning the ins and outs, the finer points of technique and hand-fighting and route running and all that, never mind learning the offense that changes every year? That took work.
Take it from him, in this SI story titled, and I kid you not, Rob Gronkowski, Football Mastermind.
Gronk: “Many, many times you have to be a football mind,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of athletic juggernauts throughout high school, college, even the NFL who can’t play the game. When you first get [to the league], it’s learning a whole new language. You have to learn the playbook inside and out. You have to learn code words for each play. You have to learn defenses. You have to just have football knowledge. Without football knowledge, it doesn’t matter how much skill you have.”
“When I first got into the league, I just used to run,” Gronkowski says. “Just run the route. Really no technique to it. I really couldn’t separate myself from the defender. I just listened to my coaches, went through the cone drills and everything.” That, of course, was not good enough for the future Hall of Famer throwing him the ball.
Ah, we’re already at the famous TOM BRADY’S TRUST part. Let’s talk about that.
”Tom wanted me to get outside leverage on this flag route, and I just couldn’t. I just kept going inside. And he just flipped out on me about it. He said, ‘All right, the ball’s not going to you then.’” Gronkowski’s eyes drift down as he relates the story. “I remember that.” After a slight pause, he says, “So finally I just started learning, All right, I’ve got to get outside.”
Brady stopped hounding the young tight end after he learned that route running is “all about little techniques,” Gronkowski says. “Having defenders think you’re going somewhere else. And always remembering to run what looks like the same route as before, but boom: At the top you stick it off one way or you stick it off the other. But all the way to the top of the route, it looks the same. I’ve worked on that a lot throughout my career.”
K, so, technique is important, and not as easy as drawing up a go route in the backyard. How about that part where a receiver’s route automatically changes in New England’s offense based on the defensive look?
Perhaps the biggest factor behind his success in New England’s voluminous, multifaceted offense has been “learning how to read the safeties. There are a lot of routes, about five or six in the playbook, where if it’s split-high, I have to run one certain route, and if it’s single-high [one safety deep], I have another route. My rookie year I always got it wrong. But just learning the game, studying film, listening to my coaches, figuring out the techniques of the team I’m playing that week, to know if it’s split safety or post high, was hugely helpful. Eventually you know it in a second. You won’t even have to think about it.”
Example? Glad you asked. Especially given that N’Keal (and I’m only picking on him here because he’s taken more than the lion’s share of heat for a Brady-led offense looking like 2014 vs Kansas City this season) will more than likely move around from the slot to all the way outside on any given play...just like Gronk.
“Let’s say you’re running a post route. If you’re lined up “all the way out, you have to get inside the DB off the line,” Gronkowski explains. “You also have to see where the safeties are playing. If they’re far away, you have to keep your route skinny.” Now, instead of being wide, say you’re flexed just a few yards outside the offensive tackle. Here, “you have more field to work with. So if it’s a post route from inside, you can possibly stem it a little outside now.”
Hey, guess what, it’s 2-4-1 today. This one’s more tight-end specific, but still relevant, given that getting open and catching footballs moves the chains:
Well, first off, “if it’s a 10-yard route on second down and you accidentally do a nine-yard route but you get wide open, that’s fine. Totally fine, 100%,” he says. But before that, “you have to figure out if it’s man or zone defense. Throughout the week you go over the opponent’s second-down scenarios. You go over their coverages. You go over their people. So when you put your hand down, it’s like you’re already watching the filming. Knowing something like, if this defender points to the safety, he’s going to be in man. Or if he’s way backed up, it’s going to be zone. You have to know by studying film that week.”
O.K. But what happens if your opponent on film clearly does one specific thing, but then you line up out there and see something totally different?
Gronkowski brightens: “That’s the game of football, right there.”
There’s a lot of work to be done this offseason in New England, no doubt. Having said that, though, if N’Keal and Jacoby can pick up some sophomore-level technique improvement like Mr. Gronkowski did, we’re having an entirely different conversation at Halloween in 2020.