The New England Patriots enter Sunday's game as an offensive machine. It has been that way for years. Since Tom Brady took the starting quarterback job for the Patriots, they have finished outside the top ten in scoring once, in 2002 when they were twelfth. You have to go back to 2009 to find New England falling outside the top five. They were sixth that season. As the supporting pieces change, New England keeps operating at a high level. Let's take a look at a few of the reasons why.
A few years back, Chris Brown of Grantland wrote a piece on the excellence of the New England offense. Grantland is gone, but a lot of the article still holds. Brown traces the success back to the roots of the system in the Erhardt-Perkins philosophy.
The backbone of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that plays — pass plays in particular — are not organized by a route tree or by calling a single receiver’s route, but by what coaches refer to as "concepts." Each play has a name, and that name conjures up an image for both the quarterback and the other players on offense. And, most importantly, the concept can be called from almost any formation or set. Who does what changes, but the theory and tactics driving the play do not. "In essence, you’re running the same play," said Perkins. "You’re just giving them some window-dressing to make it look different."
One of the great dilemmas for building an offense is how complicated a scheme should be. If you run the same thing over and over, the defense is going to have a good idea of what is coming. On the other hand, you also want your players to understand the offense. If you load them up with too much information, you are liable to confuse them just as much as the defense. I bet you just nodded in agreement if you are a Jets fan who lived through the Brian Schottenheimer Era. You also only have so much time to practice and prepare during the week. You can choose between learning a handful of things really well or being a jack of all trades, master of none. In many cases, it is better to do a handful of things really well than do a lot of things just ok.
Some coaches lean on the side of keeping it simple. Others like complexity like former NFL coach Al Saunders, whose 700 page playbook is the stuff of legend.
The New England Erhardt-Perkins philosophy attempts to mend the best of both worlds. At the risk of being overly simplistic, it is a handful of plays run out of a wide variety of formations and personnel groupings. It is simple for the offensive players but it looks complex to the defense. Brady might have run a play with a given route combination thousands of times. He know if the defense gives him this look, he throws the ball here. If the defense gives him that look, he throws it there. He has this down cold.
From the defensive perspective, a tight end might run one route on one play. A wide receiver might run the same route on a different play. A running back might run it on a third.
This makes me think of offensive record setting college football coach Mike Leach. Leach is a cult figure. After he got his law degree, he decided he wanted to coach college football rather than practice law. He worked his way up and became a head coach at Texas Tech and later at Washington State where he has produced extremely prolific passing offenses. He got a New York Times profile by Moneyball author Michael Lewis where he talked about his philosophy.
Leach is not an Erhardt-Perkins guy, but he has a similar way of thinking.
"There's two ways to make it more complex for the defense," Leach says. "One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that's no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays and run it out of lots of different formations." Leach prefers new formations. "That way, you don't have to teach a guy a new thing to do," he says. "You just have to teach him new places to stand."
Leach keeps things so simple that he doesn't even have a playbook. He is hailed as a revolutionary for a lot of reasons, but some of his core concepts are steeped in football history. You heard about the Erhardt-Perkins philosophy that the Patriots base their offense upon. Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins developed it in the 1970's working for the Patriots. Sometimes in football being revolutionary can be using something really old.
Perkins later became head coach of the Giants where he hired a young special teams coach by the name of....Bill Belichick.
Anyway, here is a three man concept the Pats run. It is from their playbook from over a decade ago, and it is still there.
On this one, you have a one back shotgun set. You have the James White going into the flat, Julian Edelman running the curl, and Rob Gronkowski running deep.
Here you have a one back set under center, but the back isn't involved. Gronkowski is going down the field. Edelman is running the curl, and Danny Amendola goes into the flat.
Finally on this one, Gronkowski is going into the flat. Aaron Dobson runs the curl, and Amendola is going down the field.
From Brady's perspective, this is the same play. He just has to identify which targets are running which routes. From the defense's perspective, these are three very different plays. These are just three plays from the first half in the first meeting between the Jets and the Pats alone.
By any definition, the Patriots run an up tempo offense. Football Outsiders keeps track of offensive pace. New England is the fifth quickest team between snaps in the NFL. They are second quickest when leading by a touchdown or more. They are second quickest down by a touchdown or more. They are fourth quickest when the game is within a touchdown.
How do they move so quickly? Back to Brown's article, he notes the Erhardt-Perkins system has a less complicated verbiage for communicating plays than other systems.
To oversimplify, the West Coast offense, made famous by Bill Walsh and still the most popular system in the NFL, uses what is essentially a memory system. On running plays, the same two-digit numbering system as most NFL and college teams is used. Passing plays, however, are typically denoted by the primary receiver’s route, such as Z-In, X-Hook, while the rest of the players are required to memorize their tasks. This system is as old as football itself, which is no surprise given that Walsh’s onetime mentor Paul Brown is credited as much as anyone with inventing the modern conception of huddles, game plans, and play calls.
In the Coryell system, the elegance of the three-digit route-tree system has been rendered almost entirely obsolete. Because NFL teams operate predominantly in one-back formations, there are often more than three players running routes, and calling any pass play means having to use both numbers and words ("896 H-Shallow F-Curl"). More critically, the numerical route-tree system gives coaches and players flexibility where they don’t need it and not enough where they do. The "benefit" of a route-tree system is the ability to call any passing concept a coach could dream up, but that option is of very little use. Assuming the route tree has 10 routes (0-9), a three-digit tree gives an offense 59,049 different possible route combinations. That’s absurd. And yet, the route tree by definition only has 10 possible routes, much fewer than any NFL team actually runs. This means that any other route must be called by name, thus defeating the very purpose of having a route tree.
This effectively makes the Coryell system sound a lot like current West Coast offense play calls,1 which have no organizing principle and have morphed into monstrosities like "Scatter-Two Bunch-Right-Zip-Fire 2 Jet Texas Right-F Flat X-Q."
Jon Gruden, a West Coast Offense enthusiast is famous for his love of a call, "Green Right Slot Spider 2 Y Banana."
Brown makes the point that the Erhardt-Perkins system has simpler verbiage than the other two. With a less wordy call, the Patriots can communicate their play quicker and have everybody understand what they are supposed to do.
It might be even quicker than Brown suggested in his article. New England's up tempo style owes a lot to time Belichick spent with Chip Kelly, then the coach at the University of Oregon, whose offense was dazzling operating at warp speed on the college level. This article from 2011 in the Boston Globe explains.
If you want to see what’s next on the pro level, look to the colleges. That’s what Belichick does, with his alliances with coaches such as Nick Saban (LSU and Alabama), Urban Meyer (Florida and Ohio State) and, now, Kelly.
That’s why when Kelly walked into Gillette Stadium two years ago — and he’s been there three times total — ears perked up among the Patriots’ coaches, including Belichick.
Kelly told the Patriots he was moving to a no-huddle that only used one word to signify everything involved in a play.
Sideline calls take too long. Wristbands too.
One word is all that is needed.
The Patriots operate their no-huddle attack most often using one word as the play call.
More accurately, they use six one-word play calls a game.
That word tells all 11 players on offense everything they need to know.
Direction on run plays.
Routes for receiver on passing plays.
Shifts in formations.
Possible alerts and play alterations.
Back to Gruden, this is a famous clip of his pre-Draft quarterback camp segment with Cam Newton in 2011. Gruden grills Newton on the verbiage of his play calls in Gus Malzahn's up tempo offense at Auburn. Newton talked about how just a number like 36 could communicate everything about a play. Gruden goes on to lecture Newton about how much more complicated the verbiage is in the NFL. Does more complicated necessarily mean better? Were offensive schemers like Malzahn and Kelly actually onto something? Based on the results, Belichick seemed to think so. Based on his results, he might be onto something.
Going so fast has plenty of advantages. There are some obvious ones. Going that quickly fatigues a defense, particularly the big defensive linemen who have to clog the trenches and rush the passer.
It also puts a lot of pressure on the defense. The defense also has to get its play in and everybody lined up correctly. An offense that goes too quickly creates confusion.
Take this play in 2011 when the Jets hadn't even gotten a cornerback over to cover Deion Branch by the time the ball was snapped.
Defenses frequently have to play basic looks just because they don't have the time to get in a playcall and get everybody lined up. Remember, defenses have to get their play called before the ball is snapped also. If the offense is giving them less time to do so, it puts a strain on the defense. If the offense is communicating its play quicker than the defense can, it is a big problem for the defense.
It's also tougher to disguise defensively against an up tempo offense. If a guy lines up in one spot to try and disguise the defensive call and then retreat to his actual position right before the snap, the offense might just quick snap it before he can get back. He will be out of position Substitutions also might be off the table so a defense is less multiple.
Against an offense that uses tempo, three and outs become very important. The offense cannot frequently go up tempo until it picks up the first first down of the drive. Run three plays in rapid succession and then need to punt, and that team has put its own defense back onto the field with only around a minute to rest. The wrong defense gets tired out.
The Patriots love to have versatile skill players who can move all over the place. Rob Gronkowski is one such player. You can line him up in-line at tight end. You can put him in the slot. You can split him wide.
This creates an advantage for Brady and the Pats. Take his touchdown in last year's Super Bowl right before halftime.
Gronkowski is split wide. The guy across from him is K.J. Wright. Wright is a linebacker.
In this case, New England's ability to use Gronkowski this way has given Brady a presnap advantage. He knows Seattle is playing man to man coverage. Why else would a linebacker be playing out there unless he was covering a tight end? The Seahawks have given away a key element of the play before the ball is even snapped.
More than that, Brady already knows where he's going to go. Wright is no match for a player with Gronkowski's skills one on one. It is a difficult spot. A linebacker is not used to lining up out wide like that. The Seahawks are essentially asking him to become a cornerback, something he is not used to doing. Gronkowski is used to running routes like this. The result is predictable.
Going back to the top picture of the Choice play in The Philosophy section, let me show you how we got to that formation before the ball is snapped.
The Pats originally have a back, James White, out wide.
They bring him in motion to the backfield.
At this point, Demario Davis bails from his position to pick up White. He had been at a conventional linebacker spot to try and disguise his assignment, but he jumps out to pick up White. He can't risk the ball being snapped when White is in motion. Davis would be out of the play, and Brady would have an easy completion.
White goes into the backfield, though. Brady has the Jets just where he wants them. Davis has tipped the coverage.
Whether Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis, or somebody else a back who is a capable receiver has helped the New England offense in this way for years.
The Erhardt-Perkins offense was built as a ball control offense to deal with Northeastern winters. The Pats are not married to playing any one way, however. The offense is built around core principles, but the application of them has morphed through the years. When Brady first came into the starting role, they had a dink and dunk attack with short passes to some degree replacing the run game. They played power football when they traded for Corey Dillon. They became a vertical passing team around Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth. Then they were based around two tight ends and a slot receiver in the days of Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Welker.
Even from game to game, there can be wild variations in strategy. In that first meeting with the Jets in October, Brady threw 54 passes. New England running backs had a grand total of 5 carries. The Pats followed that up with a short week. They played Thursday night against Miami.
NFL.com's legendary Greg Cosell noted a wild change in New England's philosophy that night.
As we said before, some coaches run their system. The Patriots’ system changes based on the opponent. Against the blitzing Jets, it was a spread attack. The Patriots hadn’t run a play with no back on the field in their first five games; against the Jets they did it 16 times and Brady was 11-of-15 for 130 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots handed off just five times to a back in that game.
By Thursday night, it was a different Patriots offense, with heavy sets and power running. I can’t tell you specifically why the Patriots thought this was the correct attack against the Dolphins, but it’s clear they thought they believed this was the way to beat Miami's defense.
The Patriots came out in the first possession with a lot of "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends) and "wham" blocks (an offensive player coming across the formation to block an unblocked defender). The first two plays were power strong runs. Remember, the Patriots handed off five times in the entire game against the Jets. Against the Dolphins, the game plan was heavy on between-the-tackles runs. With LeGarrette Blount, they run two basic plays: power, and backfield counter with a reverse pivot by Brady. They can run play action off either run.
You probably saw Gronkowski get a 47-yard touchdown on the first possession of the Dolphins game, and maybe wondered, "How can the Dolphins not cover him?" Well, it was set up by that running game.
Damien Woody of ESPN described New England's approach this way.
It's very unique. They're the only team that's really game-plan specific, the only team that week-to-week can morph into something totally different. As an opponent, it is so hard to play against a team like that. With a coaching staff, you draw upon tendencies -- what a team does on this down-and-distance and so forth -- and tend to build a game plan from there. Everyone has them, but the Patriots do a very good job masking tendencies. Most teams have a system with a head coach and a front office that fits players in that system. They're going to run what they're going to run, but they might just window-dress it differently, dial up some different formations. With the Patriots, it's just completely different from one week to the next. When you're an opponent against that, it's almost like going in blind. They find your weakness and attack it.
I think a lot of this goes back to Belichick. A lot of coaches early in their career are exposed to a specific system and decide they want to do things that one way. Belichick is more adaptable. He started learning the game at a young age.
His father Steve was a legendary scout at the Naval Academy. These were in the days before film was widespread. Steve Belichick's ability to see the entire field and diagnose what was happening was remarkable.
He worked with his son as noted by David Halberstam in his book The Education of a Coach.
According to Halberstam’s book, a 9-year-old Belichick made a deal with his father: If he finished his homework early, the old scout would give his son a preview of that week’s report, allowing the youngster to gorge himself on play diagrams and digressions on the popular tactics of the era, like the single wing and straight T-formation offenses and the wide-tackle six and gap 8 defenses. Halberstam noted that Belichick quickly became conversant in football arcana, eloquently explaining to one old coach at 10 years old that he should switch to an Oklahoma 5-2 (a predecessor to today’s 3-4 defenses) to better match up against an upcoming opponent.
As Chris Brown notes in this different Belichick article, being exposed to so much football strategy at one age left Belichick with an appreciation of the benefits and drawbacks of each football tactic as well as a library of knowledge of X's and O's that few of even the most seasoned coaches possess.
Belichick's inside and out knowledge of football strategy and its history allows him to have conversations with this degree of detail.
Q: Do you ever look back and study the tape of what Paul Brown did and use that in your offense at all?
BB: Well, again, basically what Paul [Brown] did was he ran the west coast offense. What’s called today the west coast offense, that was really Paul’s offense. As that has spread through the league. There are a lot of different versions of it, from [Mike] Holmgren, who is probably the purist. His offense is probably most like what San Francisco ran back in the ‘80s with Bill Walsh. Then you have Andy [Reid] and Jon Gruden, all the different offshoots that come out of that, [Mike] McCarthy, basically the whole NFC North, right? Green Bay. So, there’s a lot of offshoots of that and they have their own individual adaptations of it. For example, I-Formation was a very minimal part of that offense as Bill Walsh ran it, not as Paul Brown ran it. Paul ran a lot of "I" when he had [Paul] Robinson and Ickey [Woods] and those guys. He ran a lot of that I-Formation. So each coach has modified it a little bit.
Q: Is what [Don] Coryell ran considered the west coast offense?
BB: No. I think there are elements of it, yeah, but it was a much more downfield passing game and less replacing runs with those drive routes, the underneath crossing patterns, the wide routes by the backs, a lot of slants, the plays that come with a high frequency in the west coast offense. A lot of those are really replacements for runs. The Coryell passing attack is much more of a downfield passing game.
Belichick is open to the newest ideas because he is also able to mesh new thoughts with the theories of past greats. Back to the up tempo verbiage gained from Chip Kelly.
Why didn’t anyone think of taking the next step to extend those calls to an entire offense?
Well, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh did. In his seminal out-of-print book Finding the Winning Edge published in 1998 — Belichick has called it the coaching bible — Walsh had a section on page 308 titled, "Determining the Future Dynamics of Offense in the NFL."
First bullet point: "Teams will huddle only when the clock is stopped."
Second: "Teams will use single-word offensive audibles."
"Doesn’t surprise me," Belichick said. "But when you talk about Bill, that’s Paul Brown. When you think about how far ahead of the game Paul Brown was back in the ’40s and ’50s, all the things he did and the way he practiced, the way he did it, and then everybody has done it since then, has really stood the test of time. I don’t care what school you came up through. Everybody pretty much does it the way Paul did it."
The Chess Match
Let's go back to our original play. Demario Davis gave away the Jets are in man to man coverage. Certain doom awaits, right?
Well, the Jets realize that they've given away the coverage. Marcus Gilchrist makes a hand signal.
It's possible Davis was bluffing when he jumped out at White to try and confuse the Pats. It's also possible Gilchrist's motions mean nothing. As one watches the play unfold, the feeling does arise that the Jets changed their defensive play after New England's presnap movement.
Now we've shown you only what the three receivers heading to the right side of the formation. What is the combination of the two guys on the left?
This is going to be a very difficult route for the Jets to cover on the left side of the offense in the man to man coverage Brady is expecting because the formation and the route create a natural pick.
But remember, Gilchrist might have changed the play. The Jets are in something looking like a cover three with zone underneath. Brady looks to his left, but the route is covered.
What he misses is he actually has Gronkowski open. There reaches a point where that route combination on the other side we talked about at the start of this article is perfect. Gilchrist in his zone is occupied with White. Davis sees Edelman coming. Darrelle Revis is over the top, but there is no coverage underneath. Davis is the closest underneath defender so he lets Gronkowski go, but it is too early. There is a window.
By the time Brady sees this, however, it is too late. Sheldon Richardson has beaten his man and is in Brady's face. This is one thing about a quarterback who can see the entire field like Brady. You can put a zone beating combination on one side and a man beating combination on the other and let him go to work based on the coverage he sees. It makes any play a potential winner with a guy as great at reading coverages. In this case, however, he got fooled.
Muhammad Wilkerson hits Brady as he throws it, and the pass falls harmlessly incomplete.
Brady gets his revenge on the third play we pictured way back in The Philosophy section. You know the routes that are being run on the right side of that play.
How about the left side?
The Pats attack zone coverage again. Brady is not going to his combination on the right. He is looking left.
With any luck, the zone Darrelle Revis occupies will have two receivers draw his attention for just long enough for Brandon Lafell to run into the blue area. It has to be in the short time before Calvin Pryor gets there.
What happens? Does David Harris leave Edelman too soon? Perhaps, there is nobody near his zone, and Revis is occupied by LaFell.
Does Revis let LaFell go a hair too soon to go to Edelman? Perhaps again, but Edelman is his man, and Pryor is deep.
Is Pryor a hair too late in reading what Brady is doing? Perhaps, he delivers a hit on LaFell but too late to prevent the catch.
Really, though, the Jets defended this pretty well. This is just ridiculous execution by Brady. Look at the window where he has to fit this ball.
Sure as Brady knew the three man combination on the right side we talked about at the beginning, he knew the two man combination he had on the left side. He has run a play like this against the defense the Jets ran on this play over and over. He knew the timing. He read the coverage. He knew exactly where the ball had to be.
This is a long way to give you the cliche. The first play in this section where the Jets won showed the value of mixing coverages and getting pressure on the quarterback. The second showed the effect of a great quarterback in a system that simplifies things for him and lets him practice the same things over and over.
Sunday should be a terrific matchup.