Grading the New England Patriots offenses through the Belichick-Brady era

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The New England Patriots offense is a match-up driven group that mixes their personnel on the field on a play-by-play basis week in and week out. The basis of the offense is the Ron Erhardt-Ray Perkins system initially brought in by offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and refined and adapted under Bill O’Brien and Josh McDaniels. The Patriots have multiple formations and option routes for the receivers to adapt to when the ball is snapped. Despite the multiple formations and groupings, there are basically a number of core plays in each group.

With quarterback Tom Brady leading his receivers and backs, and with all players understanding the concept of the offense, it clicks like a smooth running machine. The Patriots do not win with trick plays but rather running the same plays with different looks and wrinkles. Where the offense thrives is when, due to tireless preparation and practice, the receivers and quarterback both read the defense the same way and the linemen, tight end and backs all read it properly and work in conjunction.

The Patriots have focused on a number of different offensive concepts on offense over the years based upon the personnel surrounding Brady. As much as the offense stays the same, it adapts over the years. Last year there were three distinct offenses in one year, but usually the grouping and identity carry over a few years. The Cover32.com Grade Day will review and assign grades to the Patriots offenses over the Belichick-Brady years:

2001 to 2004: “Ground and Pound”

Three Super Bowl Championships would imply that this was the best offense, but these were running teams with a play-action offense built around slot receiver Troy Brown and later Deion Branch. The Patriots were not blowing away their opponents but riding the defense to win close games, and grinding out first downs behind big, powerful running backs Antowain Smith and later Corey Dillon. Hardly a wide-open scoring offense, this was a traditional run-to-set-up-the-play-action-pass offense that looked like the Phil Simms/New York Giants offense that offensive coordinator Charlie Weis was a part of earlier in his career.

GRADE: B

2005 to 2006: “Brady’s Offense”

The Patriots lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis after the 2004 Super Bowl, and although the team had no official offensive coordinator in 2005, it was clearly the Josh McDaniels show. In 2005 the running game began to fail as Corey Dillon slowed down and the team brought in Laurence Maroney in 2006. After 2005, the team was without Branch and fellow wide receiver David Givens, and Brady was leading a group of receivers led by Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell to the AFC Championship game. This offense sputtered more often than it should have, and its inability to run the ball consistently hurt them. Corey Dillon was limited to 3.5 yards per rush in 2005 and by 2006 had handed the reins to first-round draft pick running back Laurence Maroney. That said, Brady improved by leaps and bounds as he was forced to grow as a leader and put the offense on his back.

GRADE: B-

2007 to 2009: “Bombs Away!”

The Patriots went out and brought in wide receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, buying low on two wide receivers who would go on to have a huge impact on the team’s fortunes. With Moss and Welker in the fold, Brady finally had some weapons to fling the ball to all over the field. The Patriots attacked deep, over the middle, outside-the-numbers and simply spread out defenses and exploited mismatches. The team put up 589 points and was the first team to win sixteen regular season games. Even with Brady out for a season in 2008, the team was able to rush the ball effectively to take pressure off of backup quarterback Matt Cassel and let him find Welker and Moss. Although Maroney was out of the picture, the running backs combined for 2,278 yards on the ground and a 4.4 yards per carry average. By 2009 the offense began to slow down as Moss slowed and Welker injured his knee in the final game of the season and missed the playoffs. The team was unable to find a third option behind Moss and Welker, and this lead to the next change on offense.

GRADE: A-

2010 to 2012: “The Double Tight-end Era”

The 2010 Patriots won 14 regular season games as Brady tossed for 3,900 yards, 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1,000 yards, and street free agent Danny Woodhead emerged as Kevin Faulk’s replacement on third-down. Rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski became the main targets behind Welker. By 2011, Gronkowski emerged as the key receiver in the offense as Brady topped 5,000 yards through the air. Rookie running back Stevan Ridley came on strong at the end of 2011 and supplanted the plodding Green-Ellis in 2012. Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012 and outside receiver Brandon Lloyd joined the Welker-Gronkowski-Hernandez trio as a target for Brady. The Patriots spread-offense and hurry-up offense caught opposing defenses on their heels as they rushed to the line of scrimmage.

GRADE: A-

2013-Part One: “Consistently Inconsistent”

The Patriots opened 2013 with Lloyd released, Hernandez in jail on murder charges, Welker in Denver after departing through free agency, Gronkowski recovering from forearm and back surgery and converted college quarterback and special teams ace Julian Edelman as the only receiver having caught any significant number of passes in the NFL. Leaning heavily on two rookies and no help at wide receiver, the Patriots saw top passing options free agent wide receiver Danny Amendola and third-down back Shane Vereen go down in week one. Working with option four (Edelman) as the top receiver and running back Ridley struggled to hold onto the football and provide his consistent production from 2012. Brady, through force of will, somehow had the team 5-2 without Gronkowski, with a controversial overtime loss and a loss in Cincinnati with the offense slowed by the weather on their potential game-tying drive.

GRADE: C-

2013-Part Two: “Gronk Makes All the Difference”

Once Gronkowski returned to the offense in Week 8 against Miami, the Patriots offense sprung to life. With his top option on the field again, Brady’s offense went from 24 points per game without Gronkowski to 32 points per game. After getting their feet wet against Miami in Week 8, the offense put up 390 or more yards every game with Gronkowski, even topping 600 against Pittsburgh in Week 9. The Patriots looked ready to streak to the playoffs until the wheels came off when Gronkowski blew out his knee against Cleveland.

GRADE: A

2013-Part Three: “Ground and Pound, Take Two”

Without Gronkowski, the Patriots offense looked lost in the second-half against Cleveland and against Miami in Week 15 in rainy South Florida. The running game was a non-factor in those six quarters and the frantic offense barely pulled out a win against the lowly Browns, and a Danny Amendola drop in the end zone in the fourth quarter with 27 seconds to play resulted in a loss against Miami. The Patriots threw 55 times and rushed just 22 times against the Dolphins. After Gronkowski left injured in the third quarter, the Patriots threw 33 times while rushing just 8 times. All that changed in week 16 against the Ravens. The Patriots established the running game early and often and rushed for 142 yards in the win. In the final regular season game, the Patriots rushed for 267 yards with Blount going for 189 on his own. In the playoffs versus Indianapolis, the offense stuck with the run and pounded out 234 rushing yards. Unfortunately, the Broncos stuffed the run in the AFC Championship Game, and the offense was held to just 16 points in the loss.

GRADE: B

With Gronkowski back to health this summer and all the receivers back from 2013, the Patriots offense is in position to make 2014 a return to form. Adding veteran wide receiver Brandon LaFell from Carolina gives additional depth at wide receiver while rookie James White replaced Blount at running back capable of backing up Ridley and Vereen.

With all the pieces in place, what grade will the Patriots’ offense earn this season?

Follow Hal Bent at @halbent01


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