Patriots live 'n' die with game-plan O
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If ever there was a stretch of games to illustrate how the New England Patriots pride themselves on being a "game-plan" offense, these last three are it.
After rushing for more than 200 yards in back-to-back weeks, marking the first time they'd done so since 1978, the Patriots essentially conceded the ground game in last Sunday's disappointing 24-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They finished with 59 dropbacks and 26 rushes.
This is the essence of the game-plan offense, one that reinvents itself weekly based on where Bill Belichick and his coaching staff feel they can best exploit the opposition. Given the way the Seahawks primarily play defense, with a single-high safety and an eighth defender in the box to support the run, the X's and O's dictated that the passing game would be the primary vehicle of attack.
Based on the way the Patriots moved the ball, with 388 net passing yards, it's hard to argue with the approach.
Then again, considering the final result, some sloppy play in the red zone, and how the San Francisco 49ers gashed the Seahawks on the ground five days later, a case could be made that perhaps the Patriots out-thought themselves on this one.
Both are probably right, and it highlights the delicate balance that Belichick and his staff attempt to strike with the ambitious game-plan offense. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum of teams who are more defined by one aspect of the game, and essentially say to the opposition, "This is what we do, we do it well, so let's see if you can stop it."
A team like the "ground-and-pound" New York Jets, the Patriots' opponent this Sunday at Gillette Stadium, falls into that category.
The Patriots couldn't be more different: How they plan to attack the Jets is truly anyone's guess. Will they go back to the ground game to exploit a Jets rush defense that is 28th in the NFL in yards allowed (150.5) and 26th in rushing average (4.7)? Or will it be another Tom Brady-directed aerial assault, as the Jets are without top cornerback Darrelle Revis and have shown vulnerabilities there as well?
Belichick wasn't about to tip his hand, but he was more than willing to take a trip down Memory Lane on Friday when asked where the idea of the "game-plan" offense was born for him.
"I guess I've always had that philosophy -- you try to do what you think works best against that particular opponent, within the framework of what you're comfortable doing," he said, mentioning Navy coach Wayne Hardin before going even further back.
"When I was in high school at Annapolis, I played for Al Laramore, who was Maryland Coach of the Year, a Hall of Fame high school coach in Delaware and all that. So, he's a pretty good coach. We won a lot of games and we ran [just] four plays -- 22 Power, 24 Quick Trap, 28 Counter and Sprint Right -- and that was it. When we ran them to the other side, we just flipped formation. The whole line flipped and the play went the other way: 22 Power, 24 Quick Trap, 28 Counter and Sprint Left. That was the offense, that was the entire offense and we won a lot of games.
"Then the next year when I went to [Phillips] Andover [Academy] and played for Coach [Steve] Sorota there, who again was a great player, great coach, [had] played with [Vince] Lombardi at Fordham and was one of the most renowned coaches I'd say ever in New England prep school football or maybe high school football period for that matter. The quarterback called his own plays. They didn't send them in; they didn't tell him what to call. They got in the huddle and he may have asked for a suggestion from me or [current Patriots football research director] Ernie [Adams] or somebody, but he called whatever he wanted to call and that was the offense.
"So, that was about as opposite as you could get it from one year to the next year. We won just as many games. It was totally different, but both were very successful. So what's the right way to do it? What's the wrong way to do it? I don't know. Whatever works, whatever you believe in."
Belichick, now in his 13th year as coach and with a masterful quarterback in Brady who has evolved with the system over that time, obviously believes strongly in the game-plan approach. His players buy in, too.
"I think the players like it. We look for plays that are going to work the best, we don't go into a game with plays that we know aren't going to work, and I think our coaches do a good job of that," explained Patriots eighth-year left guard Logan Mankins, one of the team's captains. "You know the plays are going to change from week to week, you don't know what your philosophy for that week is going to be."
Some might say such an approach makes it harder for the offense to build an identity, but Mankins doesn't necessarily see it that way. The identity, it turns out, is that the Patriots are ever-evolving. One week they could be rushing for 200 yards, while the next week, there could be 59 dropbacks.
Mankins said players are usually given the plan on Wednesday and "we have the entire week to master the calls and plays for that week. We run a ton of reps at practice and walk-throughs, so everyone gets on the same page."
There are times when Belichick might surprise players and explain to them that he wants to stick with what's working, even though it hits at an opponent's strength. ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi reflected on that this week, saying on his weekly ESPNBoston podcast, "Sometimes you challenge your players. You might say, 'This is a great team at X but we don't care. We're going to attack their strength.' That sort of lights the fire in your players sometimes."
Maybe the Patriots should have done that last week against the Seahawks by running more, which would have given them a better chance to establish a physical edge. Then again, if one or two plays had turned out differently and Brady was on his game, this notion probably wouldn't be on the radar.
"I think after every game, you look back and say, 'Maybe we should have done this different, or that different,' but you only have so much time to get ready during the game and everything is made fast," Mankins said. "You don't get time to think about it."
Such is life with the game-plan offense. Every week is different -- for better or worse.
There is no better example than what unfolded last week, when the potent Patriots attack sharply altered its course away from a rushing attack that was ringing up yards the franchise hadn't seen in 34 years.