The Evolution of the New England Offense

(From Henning (Charlie Weis) - Josh McDaniels (Spread ) O'Brien (Saints offense - Bunch formations and long stretch plays for draws and reverses)

The New England offense is kind of like computer technology, as soon as you get 2.0, 3.0 will be released next month. The amazing fact is that the Patriots has sustained top ten offenses every year since 2003 and when it's time, they release the next version. Great coaches have always changed their philosophies, Don Shula went from a run first offense to an air attack with Dan Marino, Bill Parcells was a run guy until he drafted Drew Bledsoe and threw the skin off the ball, and Joe Gibbs just took what he had winning three superbowls with three different quaterbacks. However, Bill Belichick's offenses has become software type efficient as every few years it gets an upgrade. The Patriots are about innovation and emulating success, not keeping the status quo.

When Bill Belichick first came to the Patriots his OC was Charlie Weis, who both worked for Bill Parcells and installed the offensive system which was basically the "Don Coryel offense" and run in their previous stop with the New York Jets by Dan Henning. It was a good fit for Drew Bledsoe a long stride QB who utilized 5, 7, 9 step drops and pass routes that took time to develop. In this offense the QB and WR feet are tied to each other, five step drops would be five step routes, usually 5 steps throws to a slant 5 steps slanting. Going forward, the concept grows to Intermediate routes, usually in and out cuts at 15 -20 yards, requiring deeper drops and more protection. This is how it began, a standard practice in the NFL using an "base offense" , but when variables change, so does the equation.

Enter Tom Brady: Brady brought a totally different skill set, where Bledsoe needed to look vertically, Brady was a horizontal passer and Belichick and Weis adjusted the offense with two big decisions 1) Deactivating Terry Glenn their talented but troubled WR and 2) Choosing Brady over Bledsoe. Brady was quicker to make throws from under center and accurate in the short to intermediate game. The screen game became a featured part of the offense, three step drops aka the west coast offense creeped in. Brady has most been compared to Joe Montana and this was prevalent in his play, calm demeanor and smart choices became the standard. The check down became a staple, don't make a mistake, make the smart choice, and get on to the next play.

When Brady came in, the focus shifted to the running game, as Antoine Smith a free agent pick up, got the chance to be the "mail carrier", and he delivered faster than a fed ex package. Power formations, maximum protection, and power blocking put the running game in gear. This protected the young QB, they wanted a game manager and they got exactly that with Brady. Brady only had two true passing targets, Troy Brown and David Pattern ( who caught 150 balls between them ) and Smith provided the ground attack. That simple formula won the their first super bowl.

In 2003 Weis started to expand Brady's playbook, bringing in the 5 wide sets and Check with me audibles that began 2.0 for the Patriots offense. The five wide set ( Branch, Givens, Pattern, Brown, and Johnson )provided the diversity in the passing game that spawn the famous Brady line, "my favorite guy is the open guy". The set allowed the Patriots to spread the field horizontally, and send five WR's out on patterns. The 5 wide set has one liability as sending out all the WR's meant minimum protection as now they have five linemen to block in pass protection. This called for Brady to make quick reads and get the ball out of his hands quickly. The advantage is Brady changing the routes pre-snap to fit against what the defense was giving up.

Check with me calls are different from team to team, however they usually consist of two plays rolled into one call, 1 pass play and 1 run play, at the line Brady would make his read and "check the play, killing either the pass play or run play based on the defense. Audibles like these then lead to reading the defense again and adjusting the routes or run play. Hence, checking with the QB on what is the call is and what the alerts are. Fans have come accustomed of Brady taking his time and letting the play clock dwindle down to few seconds before snapping the ball, that time is spent making adjustments.

Another feature rolled out was their version of the no huddle, and this was the opposite of the taking their time. The no huddle has became the change of pace, get aggressive offense when tempo or momentum needs to be changed. The two new features combined with the no huddle formulated a passing attack that was so efficient, the running game was used as an afterthought, mostly for balance. At this stage Antoine Smith was wearing down and it was evident that the passing game would now be more prominent. Again, they won the Super Bowl, different styles.

In 2004, the Patriots added Corey Dillion and 3.0 was rolled out as they again shifted back to power running, however, the passing game seemed to become even more efficient, and at times explosive as the pas run ration was on average 50 -50. Dillon ran for 1,600 yards and was a brutal physical force that angrily ripped through opposing defenses. This gave Brady tired defenses in the 4th quarter, and a 14 - 2 record and repeat Super Bowl . After the season Weis left to become the head coach for Notre Dame and leaving a void.

Josh McDaniels, the QB coach, was moved to the OC position and the Patriots kept this offense until the loss to Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game in 2006. That loss changed the landscape as years of rules changes that seemed geared to how the Patriots played defense, it seemed as if Belichick had had enough.

2007 introduced 4.0 and it was what they call in the IT field as a slick GUI ( Graphic User Interface ) and the operating system was totally rebuilt. Enter the spread offense, a total retooling of the passing game built on route combinations from spread formations with multiple personnel. The concepts were learned at the University of Florida as Belichick and Josh McDaniels traveled to the sunny state to grasp the offense Meyer had used to much success. Belichick and Daniels implemented a whole new set of formations and plays that wreaked havoc on the NFL defenses.

The first unique feature was that Brady would not be under center as a base offense, as he would be set in a shotgun type formation. Similar to the Florida offense, fast WR's running crossing route and a new wrinkle, option routes. Options routes work on the principle of open space, the WR's start their routes and identify the open space breaking to that spot. To accommodate this the WR corp was restocked as Randy Moss and Wes Welker lead to what many teams in the NFL first experienced, and then copied. Using route combinations, meshes, and screens to set up the long stretch outside the hashmarks targets, Moss ran over the top, Welker runs underneath with Donte Stallworth as the other deep threat, Jabbar Gaffney runs the intermediate route who draws the safeties in. Brady had to read the option routes and the come off those looks to either find the deep route or what is the check down.
Once again the running game took a back seat, and was incorporated into the spread sets to provide some balance, however, the passing game was essentially setting up the run. Bubble screens proved as much worth as running the ball for four yards. Using this set up even the TE position which was under productive in the passing game, produced good numbers as Ben Watson caught eight touchdowns. This offense went all the way to the Super Bowl in 2007, but lost to the Giants and the first chinks in the armor were uncovered. The Giants used a 4 man rush and attacked Brady, who didn't have the open windows he had all season. The Giants found a bug in the software, and they exploited it.

In 2008 and 2009 the Patriots stayed with the spread offense. Due to Brady season ending injury in the opening game of 2008, Matt Cassel took over and took the team to 11-5 and tied for first place, losing on the tiebreakers to Miami. This was Josh MacDaniels masterful coaching as he guided Cassel, who hadn't started an NFL game, never really changed the playbook. After early season struggles Cassel became more consistent by the mid point. Belichick and McDaniels felt Cassel could handle the entire playbook, so going forward he did and by seasons end Cassel was one of the hottest free agents in the next years market and Josh McDaniels left to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos.

2009 ushered in the Bill O'Brien / Brady era back and fighting through recovery for his knee injury , and O'brien a first time NFL OC, furthermore, a team that had grown older, they regressed to 10-6 and for the first time, they could not win against upper echelon teams. the offense struggled and couldn't win tight games. The NFL had seen enough of the Patriots offense, it had copied. In the 2010 off season the Patriots looked to revamp their offense and their model was going to be the newly crowned Super Bowl Champions New Orleans Saints.

Bill Belichick traded a TE named David Thomas for a seventh round pick to Saints in 2009 and showed to be a productive player in their system. The Saints offense is all about movement, reverses, long draw screens, bubble screen, and a vast amount of bunch formations. Belichick found this out first hand when they played the Saints in a November matchup and was completely overmatched as he and Brady stood marveling over the ease and efficiency of the Saints offense. In order to run this offense you need three athletic TE's and WR's that can run and stretch the field. The RB's play a prominent role in the offense as play-action become a huge part of this offense. The Patriots began 5.0 and to start to emulate the Saints system by drafting two TE's in the 2010 draft, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernendez. Belichick had Moss the deep threat, Welker the slot, Brandon Tate as the no# 3 WR, and Gronkowski and Hernendez joining them as a unit that show alot of promise to return to 2007 form.

The return to under center was figured back into the offense as the Saints offense also used under center as a base offense. Bill O'Brien now was in charge of running the the soon to be newly installed software. They began to move away from the long wait spread reads with so many options. The new offense required quicker reads, bunch formation where defenders have to stay back or risk being rubbed, thus making screen situations optimal. Moss would lift the coverage, thus rolling back defenders even further and give plenty of running room for the RB's. This also meant that Moss would see the ball less as the TE's would run more seam and intermediate routes. Moss didn't like this and made it known early and after an opening day post game rant on local television stations, three weeks later he was dealt to the Minnesota Vikings for a third round pick. Brady went on to have his second best statistical year of his career, and the return of Deion Branch sparked a return to the old Patriots ways.

However, a post season divisional to the Jets crashed the hopes for a 2010 title. So, here we stand at 5.0 and it looks good so far, however, the need for a true RB and a no# 3 WR are just one of a few adjustments that need to be made.