Bill Belichick makes mistakes. Just so we’re clear.
The New England Patriots coach is many things to many people and opinions on him vary from genius to scum, depending on your affiliations - but in the end, he is human, unlike the pious beings that he attempted to defy last season.
With as many players that he has under his charge, complete with all of the potential and possibilities and the ultimate frailty of the human body, things are going happen – guys are going to get hurt or do stupid things - and the dauntless Belichick is one of the best there has ever been in the game of football at making adjustments and trudging forward.
But he is not immune to error, whether it be because of oversight, deception or merely arrogance – so what happened with the offense last season should be considered an anomaly, because given the fact that Belichick benches people for being what he classifies as “error repeaters”, it goes without saying that he himself is not going to repeat the errors of last season…
…which came down to sacrificing the receiving corps in favor of his plan to crush the rest of the NFL with his tight end-centric offense and power running game - a plan that was dictated by the strength of two tight ends and a stable of young running backs that were so athletic and so powerful and so versatile that on paper they could overwhelm almost any defense in the league.
It took one of the best and most veteran-laden defenses in the NFL to take full advantage of Bill Belichick’s error, end even then it wasn’t overwhelming by any means - in fact, it took fundamental breakdowns in the most clutch of circumstances combined with just flat running out of options for the mistakes to come full circle…
…but come full circle they did, and the Patriots wound up watching the hated Baltimore Ravens celebrate the AFC Championship on Gillette Stadium’s turf – then watched on as bystanders two weeks later as the Ravens celebrated the ultimate prize, the Lombardi Trophy.
Forget about the defensive struggles, conspicuous as they were, because those were magnified by the mistakes made on the offensive side of the ball on a game to game basis. That defense was stout, quarterback Tom Brady singing its praises after many a contest, though it suffered from omission and lack of quality depth – which has actually been a consistent theme for the unit since they last won a title.
Going into training camp last season, the Patriots employed up to a dozen receivers on their 90 man roster at any given time, but by the time camp broke and the final preseason game was played, Belichick had gone all Texas Chainsaw on the receiver’s corps, sparing only three legitimate wide receivers on the depth chart, while keeping four tight ends and four running backs.
And it worked, initially.
The plan that was put into effect was surprising to many fans because it did not include All Pro Wes Welker, rather, in the first regular season game the Patriots chose to jab the Tennessee Titans with play after play of Brady exploiting every mismatch on the field to the point that they inevitably were overwhelmed and folded like a card table.
Of course, it worked so well because Brady ran the offense so efficiently – or as more than one general manager anonymously lamented, “He can make you feel as if you are in the wrong coverage, every time, even if you’re in the right one.” - but even with Brady running the show, the offense would go only as far as his supporting cast could take them.
The tight ends were dominant and the running game solid, all with Welker riding the pine in favor of Julien Edelman, leaving many to speculate that Welker and his sniping little comments had worn out their welcome – let’s see how the offense looks up until the trade deadline in October, they said, then deal Welker to some needy NFC team for a King’s Ransom.
Edelman was good enough for this brand of football, they thought, what with Brandon Lloyd taking a corner outside the numbers, Aaron Hernandez taking a corner and a safety up the seam and Rob Gronkowki sitting in the flat after chipping the defensive end, leaving Edelman to the underneath coverage, who also had to be aware of Danny Woodhead or Shane Vereen curling out of the backfield.
And there was depth at the power positions, with Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanwanui at the tight ends and with the tough running Stevan Ridley backed up by a trio of capable, hard running young greyhounds – not to mention perhaps the best offensive line in the NFL leading the way…
…but lost in all of that, was the fact that it was just Edelman and the mercurial Lloyd at wide reciever, with Welker pouting on the bench – to be inserted into the lineup in the event of emergency – and that was it, the entire corps rendered a complimentary entity in the face of the overwhelming bulk and power of the irresistible force.
Still, the Patriots were in position to dictate terms and to pound a defense mercilessly until they relented not just the game, but their will as well – Belichick style.
So…what went wrong?
Simply, by not having any receivers to consistently stretch the field when implementing their tight end-centric offense, the Patriots attempted to side step the most basic and fundamental of all rules in offensive game planning, and that is to make the defense defend the entire field, and it cost them a legitimate shot at another title…
…though it is important to remember that the Patriots were still thisclose to winning yet another AFC Championship and earning a rematch with a San Francisco 49ers team that had beaten them in perhaps the game of the year in the NFL just a few weeks earlier - and it was only by a handful of mistakes in the title game against the Ravens that prevented it.
The supporting cast was perfect for Belichick’s scheme, but when they became hobbled and broken and ,ultimately, collectively inadequate, the envisage of launching an offensive juggernaut so powerful that the NFL had never seen anything like it evaporated like a dream upon waking – because as masterful as Brady is, even he could have substandard games, and when he wasn’t operating as efficiently there was no one else to pull the offense out of it’s funk.
Otherwise the game plan was obvious and perhaps impossible to stop in Belichick’s view: Put two or three tight ends in the formation, mixing and matching receivers and backs - then turn Tommy loose with the no huddle, up tempo offense – surveying the field and calling the audibles to move his weapons around, taking advantage of any and all mismatches…
…which lasted all of one game. When former tight end Hernandez went down with an ankle injury in the second game of the season against Arizona, the game plan went down with him, the Patriots ill prepared to replace his versatility and athleticism. so a simple switch in philosophy went into effect, Welker put back into the game plan and Plan B initiated, which was nothing more than a return to the brand of the previous season.
Problem was, Belichick had cut all of the receivers in training camp and went all-in on the concept of ramming the football down his opponent’s throats, and had only Welker to fall back on in the event of a chronic loss, so he was also forced to try and continue the power game with the depth at tight end – but Fells proved to be no more than an extra tackle and Hoomanawanui’s versatility merely scratched the surface of what Hernandez brought to the table.
Even so, as long as Gronkowski was still in the line up, the good work could continue with a tweak here and there…
…but the Hernandez injury was just the start of a long and cruel string of injuries, personnel mistakes and suspensions that consumed the bookends and every pass catcher brought in on the fly - the depth proving incapable of many of things the missing stars were taken for granted for – so it was a minor miracle that the Patriots ended up hosting the AFC title game, only to have every one of those issues come together all at once to doom the Patriots chances of going to yet another Super Bowl…
…pulled hamstrings, running backs knocked unconscious, fumbles here, interceptions there and dropped passes at the most inopportune of times – mixed in with the fact that the best tight end in the league, Rob Gronkowski, was sidelined with a twice broken forearm, Edelman with a broken bone in his foot and all of the relics the Patriots had brought in for replacements breaking like cheap glass – well - it adds up to epic fail.
All because the offense was top heavy, which made it fundamentally unsound - with no vertical threat to populate the back third of the defense and to keep the safeties from cheating into the box – a mistake that Bill Belichick will not be making again anytime soon…
What New England was able to do last season was amazing given that their lone “deep threats” were a nimble tight end that missed all or parts of 10 games, and a seldom-used running back with sprinters speed, an ommission which allowed the opposition’s defense to play the Patriots straight up – the illusion of greatness perpetuated by the play of Brady and their vastly underrated defense…
…the Baltimore Ravens ultimately solving the paradox in the AFC Title tilt by capitalizing on the Patriots trying to delude the sanctity of football – their hard hitting defense able to contain the Patriots’ offense by aggressively coming after Brady and not respecting their inconsistent deep game - making Brady look ordinary by simply being able to match up.
Even so, the Patriots still had a shot at winning the game - the running game was working, but penalties and Ridley being knocked out and fumbling the ball, then both Hernandez and Welker failing in the most clutch of situations doomed their season to end right then.
But now Welker is gone, along with Hernandez, Lloyd and Woodhead – all of whom leave some pretty good sized shoes to fill to at least match last season’s magic act…
…and since Belichick hates error repeaters, the task this offseason was crystal clear: Get Gronkowski healthy, bring in athletic, quality depth in the event he isn’t and replace the outgoing selfishness and weirdness in the receiving corps with younger, faster and normal players, throwing in a few extra set of hands for good measure…
…all with fundamental football in mind – because ignoring the basics is what got them in trouble in the first place.
Given all of this, the question burns: Has Belichick succeeded in leveling the playing field, and finding favor with the football deity once again?
Next: The fundamental fix