Commentary

Tebow offense on the radar

Belichick says the Patriots will try to take advantage of QB's talents

Updated: August 13, 2013, 3:09 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The contrast in the New England Patriots' preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles was striking.

Quarterback Tom Brady played the first 16 offensive snaps and the offense looked pretty similar to what we've seen in recent years. There might have been new faces in various spots, but it was the same explosive results.

When No. 2 signal-caller Ryan Mallett came on for the next 25 offensive snaps, the majority of plays looked the same. At 6-foot-6 and listed at 245 pounds, Mallett has a cannon of a right arm and is more of a pure pocket passer.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Elsa/Getty ImagesTebow didn't look nearly as comfortable dropping back and passing as he did running with the football on Friday.

Then there was Tim Tebow. After running a few conventional plays in the two-minute offense with little success, the Patriots reshaped their attack for Tebow. All of a sudden, there was a full-house backfield on one snap. Some plays with option-based concepts were run. At one point, a receiver motioned into the backfield.

It was the type of stuff that one would never see with Brady, or even Mallett, in the game. Now we know why.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who to this point hasn't gone into much public detail about the team's plans with Tebow, loosened up a bit on Monday. Three weeks after not even acknowledging if his intention was to play Tebow at quarterback, Belichick not only said so Monday, but he took it one step further. He referred to Tebow as a running quarterback, saying he is the first the Patriots have had since backup Matt Cassel from 2005 to 2008.

Belichick's remarks came on sports radio WEEI as part of his weekly appearance, where he often seems more comfortable going into depth than during his standard news conference setting.

So if you're curious why the Patriots have devoted time to making it work with Tebow as a third-string quarterback, carving out precious practice time to run plays that Brady and Mallett wouldn't, Belichick laid it out pretty clearly.

"The decisions that you make are important there; you don't want to waste a lot of time on something that doesn't benefit you," Belichick said on the "Salk and Holley" program.

"At the same time, you want to try to be prepared for, and take advantage of, some of the players' skills that you have. I don't think it's uncommon. We've had those types of things in our offense before. This is a little bit different, but we're not trying to reinvent the game or anything. We're just trying to take advantage of a particular player's skill, and that's no different than something we would do with a tight end, or a receiver, or running back who has a skill set that we want to try to take advantage of."

The difference, of course, is that when the player is a quarterback, it has a significant trickle-down effect on the other 10 players on offense. Everything runs through the quarterback.

Cassel's performance in 2008, when he took over for the injured Brady, is the closest example for the Patriots when it comes to what we've seen with Tebow this year. The Patriots tweaked their offense in 2008 to play to Cassel's strengths, and some might even say it was one of best coaching jobs Belichick and his staff have done in New England.

If the Patriots ever got down to the No. 3 spot on the depth chart this year, similar alterations would be necessary. While Tebow has improved since training camp began, it still doesn't look natural for him when he's simply asked to drop back, read a defense, and function as more of a traditional drop-back passer. He's at his best on the run, such as the third-and-6 play early in the third quarter on Friday when the Patriots executed a quarterback keeper out of a spread formation -- with Tebow darting 12 yards as 5-foot-11, 210-pound safety Earl Wolff found out firsthand how tough it is to tackle the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Tebow. Wolff, to be kind, was splattered like a bug on a windshield.

So when it comes to the Patriots and Tebow, maybe the thinking is simply this: How many teams, when they get down to their No. 3 quarterback, still realistically have a chance to win?

The Patriots could have kept things more traditional with No. 3 man Mike Kafka, but they just didn't see enough there, that one standout trait, to think he could stick on the roster long-term. Tebow has a standout trait -- his running ability -- that could help in an emergency, which is why the club is likely to strongly consider keeping three quarterbacks this year.

In 2011, when explaining why the Patriots would use a third-round draft choice to select Mallett, Belichick said that a coach puts his entire team at risk if he doesn't have a quarterback to run the offense. Investing in such an insurance policy speaks to the importance of the position, and also helps explain why the Patriots have been willing to reshape parts of their approach in working with Tebow.

"I think we're hopefully flexible enough offensively to try to take advantage of whoever we have in the game. Tim is certainly a good runner, so when he's in there, we'll probably let him carry the ball a few times," Belichick said on WEEI.

"Tim has had a lot of experience making those decisions -- whether to give the ball to the back or keep it, or pitch it, all those kinds of things. It's not really like we're trying to teach him those things. He's done it a lot. He has to refine the timing and so forth, but it creates just another thing to put pressure on the defense."

Belichick's explanation was as detailed as we've heard since Tebow's arrival. It puts to rest the idea that Tebow might play H-back or tight end in New England. He's here to play quarterback, to serve as an insurance policy behind two others, and the Patriots feel strongly enough about it to reshape their approach when he's running the show.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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