The question seems broad: What makes the Patriots offense so special?
In the last 10 years, the Patriots have ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in scoring offense 10 times, including No. 1 rankings in 2007, 2010, and 2012.
And the answer to the question seems obvious.
“It’s simple: No. 12, Tom Brady,” said former Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins. “The reason why they’re able to be so dominant year in and year out is obviously the quarterback.”
Of course. Brady is an all-time great who will eventually go down in NFL lore with the likes of Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, and John Elway. His arm strength, accuracy, and knowledge of the game give the Patriots a huge advantage over any defense.
Even with a ton of roster turnover this offseason — Rob Gronkowski is injured, and most of last year’s top receivers are gone — few expect the Patriots to be anything but stellar on offense again.
“When you look at all the changes, if there’s anyone that can make up for that, it’s Tom Brady,” said former MVP quarterback Rich Gannon.
But it’s too simplistic to chalk up this offensive dominance to a freak of a quarterback. Brady wasn’t born a football savant — he worked his way, tirelessly, into one.
The Patriots offense has taken on the personality of its chief; Brady’s talent and smarts carry the team a long way. But the offense wouldn’t be consistently stellar without the tireless preparation and intelligence of the other players and coaching staff, as well.
Here, then, is a look at how three main factors have led to a decade of offensive dominance.
The plays the Patriots run on offense aren’t necessarily revolutionary or unique; in fact, it’s a lot of the same plays over and over, but run out of endless formations and personnel groupings.
“You’re not going to win the conference with flea-flickers and reverse passes and trick plays,” Brady said. “That is a bit of a misnomer sometimes. You think it’s a new scheme or a new offense, but it comes down to how well you catch and throw and run and block.”
But mastering the offense does require a lot of unspoken communication between the quarterback and his receivers, particularly with the team’s use of “option routes,” which are essential to running the up-tempo, no-huddle offense, according to NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, who watches coaches’ tape on every NFL game.
New England coach Bill Belichick said the playbook doesn’t have an “overriding” number of option routes for the receivers, but they are certainly a large element. Brady and his receivers have mere seconds before and after the snap to dissect the coverage and to know which routes to run and where to go with the ball.
“We could change right before the snap, or it could be a post-snap adjustment based on the coverage, where the rotation is, whether the cornerback is pressed on or off, the location of the linebacker, all those kind of things,” Belichick said.
The Patriots were devastating with their use of the up-tempo offense last year, averaging 35 points per game. Brady calls out one word, the offense rushes to the line of scrimmage, and the Patriots hit the defense with another play before it even has a chance to set up.
That level of nonverbal communication and execution doesn’t happen by chance. Brady doesn’t waste a snap on the practice field, and his 7 a.m. meetings with the offensive specialists — before the rest of the team begins its day — have become the stuff of legend. Brady said he has spent even more time teaching and meeting with his receivers this year because there are so many new faces.
“That’s always part of the role of the quarterback, to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” Brady said. “Because really, it’s a reflection of you as a player, whether guys are doing the right or wrong thing. And when you’re in the huddle looking in their eyes, it’s, ‘OK, what are they going to do, and what kind of confidence do I have in what they’re going to do?’ ”
Former Patriots receiver Troy Brown said discipline is the only way for receivers to thrive in the offense.
“Discipline in route-running — not rounding out, not coming back to the ball, all the little things you don’t always think about,” Brown said. “Taking care of your body. Eating right. Being accountable. All those things are part of discipline.”
Brady also has the advantage of preparing for games with a legendary defensive coach in Belichick, who analyzes the opposing defense, figures out how that team will attack the Patriots, then devises a game plan with Brady to neutralize those elements.
“Those meetings that Brady has with Bill are so invaluable,” Gannon said. “Bill knows defensive schemes, ‘so here are the three or four things we have to handle each week.’ ”
With four new wide receivers and a new tight end, Brady stayed in town this spring and put in extra practice time with his new mates. His work appears to be paying immediate dividends with receivers Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld.
“Amendola looked like he had been working with Tom Brady for 10 years,” said former Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber after watching one of the joint practices between the teams. “We practiced with them last year, and I was amazed at how he communicates — sometimes nicely, but a lot of times it’s in your face. He’s that leader that demands respect from his guys.”
In this offense, the ability to retain a lot of information and apply it in split-second decisions on the field is more important than physical skill. The meetings and preparation during the week are key, but they ultimately don’t mean much if the players don’t understand what the heck Brady is talking about.
For example, the Patriots might call a play for a receiver to run a comeback route, but it ultimately depends on what the defender shows immediately before or after the snap.
“If the cornerback keeps his butt to the quarterback, then you might stick with the comeback route,” Wiggins said. “But if he opens up his hips, maybe you run a go route.
“Then you have to read, is there a defender outside? Inside? And you have to read all this as you’re running your route, and it could change 8 or 9 yards downfield, twice. That’s where the complexity comes in.”
The receivers who didn’t thrive in the Patriots offense — such as Chad Johnson and Joey Galloway — weren’t able to diagnose the option routes on the fly, and never earned Brady’s trust.
“In Cincinnati, there were many times Carson Palmer threw interceptions because Chad Johnson didn’t read the coverage properly,” Cosell said. “Especially if you’re going to play a lot of up-tempo, you have to be able to read on the move.”
It’s never easy putting labels on Belichick’s schemes — he uses elements from several different offensive and defensive philosophies — but if anything, the Patriots run the Erhardt-Perkins offense, named after former Patriots assistant coaches Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins.
Essentially, it has a finite number of passing plays, but they are run out of endless formations and personnel groupings. The players running the routes may be different, but Brady often has the same reads on his pass plays.
When the Patriots go up-tempo, all it takes is for Brady to bark out one word, and everyone from the receivers to the tight ends to the offensive linemen knows his assignment.
But when the Patriots slow it down, the terminology expands, and can be complicated. Johnson came from a number-based system in Cincinnati that told him exactly what to do when he heard one number. In New England, there is a lot more terminology and a lot more information to retain.
“They could say, ‘Trips right, 56 all go special halfback snow,’ and that sets the blocking assignments and tells the halfback to run an option route,” Wiggins said. “And this stuff changes week to week.”
Yes, no discussion of the Patriots’ offensive greatness is complete without talking about No. 12, who is entering his 12th year as the starting quarterback (he barely played in 2000 and 2008).
He has been a Patriot for 14 years overall, and 14 years of film study, and learning how to train his body, and working diligently with his teammates has made him a better quarterback than ever.
Brady’s game is so cerebral now that he knows how to diagnose pressure before the snap, and gets the ball out of his hand before it can get to him.
“They run a lot of empty sets, a lot of five-man protection, and it’s predicated on the quarterback not holding the ball,” Gannon said. “And Brady does a great job of protecting himself. He gets the ball out quickly and doesn’t take unnecessary hits.”
At this point in his career, Brady has seen just about every scenario, and little fazes him.
“The smarts and intelligence of Brady are special,” said a rival AFC front-office executive. “The offensive direction under Brady is so well-versed in regards to situational football, down-and-distance. To beat Tom Brady and his offense, you have to beat them, they won’t hand you the game.
“He’s not immortal, but he has arm talent and brains, reads defenses very well, understands where pressure is coming from, knows where the matchup advantages and deficiencies are of the defense, and goes about the business of exposing them.”
Brady is at the point in his career where he can just toy with opposing defenses.
“There’s different levels of quarterback play,” Cosell explained. “When guys start out, they just want to run the plays. Then the second part is understanding the shifts and motions. Then the next part is understanding the defense. Then it’s trying to read the defenses on the go. Then the highest part is manipulating the defense, where you’re actually manipulating the game before the snap.
“That’s where Brady is at now, the highest stage. And he’ll tell you, he’s better at it than he ever has been, because he’s more and more experienced every year.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin