Tom Brady is 36 years old, Wes Welker and Randy Moss are gone, heck, so are Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead. Rob Gronkowski can’t stay healthy and Aaron Hernandez is in jail, how will the Patriots find any offense this year? Easy, the same way they always do, by playing to their strengths.
A lot of people have been questioning how Bill Belichick will replace this player or that, but Belichick has never been about replacing a player within his offensive system, rather, he builds around the players he does have and what will work that year. In 2004, the Patriots won their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years and finished 4th in the league in points scored and 7th in total yards of offense. In the 8 years since, the Patriots have never finished lower than 11th in the league in either category, and have lead the NFL in scoring 3 times. They have also finished in the top 3 in yardage four of these nine seasons, leading the NFL twice, all while continuously changing the way they do it. (As a side note, they have been a top-10 scoring defense 7 of the past 9 seasons as well.) The team has won 8 playoff games in this span, losing twice in the AFC title game and twice in the Super Bowl.
There are some general schemes that tend to be a trend with the Patriots offense. First of all, there is always an extra running back who can catch the ball. In 13 years with the team, Kevin Faulk caught 431 passes, including at least 26 each year from 2000-2009. Faulk had 2 50-catch seasons and 3 more with over 40 receptions. 2004 and 2005 were Faulk’s worst reception totals over the span I am looking at, with 26 and 29 catches respectively. In those seasons though, fullback Patrick Pass added 28 and 22 receptions and Corey Dillon was involved in the passing game as well, with 15 and 22 catches respectively. In 2010, Danny Woodhead took over the role as primary receiver out of the backfield and caught 34 passes. He caught a meager 18 balls in 2011 before grabbing another 40 in 2012. Aaron Hernandez was used all over the field, including in the backfield in 2011, so that hurt the receiving numbers for the true running backs that season. This year it appears that Shane Vereen will inherit the role with some help from veteran Leon Washington.
Belichick has also always liked and used the tight ends. Early on it was guys like Daniel Graham, an in-line blocking tight end, and Ben Watson, a more explosive receiving type player. That obviously shifted to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and their talent forced the offense to shift its focus onto tight ends recently.
Belichick likes to have a possession receiver, someone who can catch a lot of passes when they are called on. Deion Branch was good at this in spurts and especially in the big game. In 2 Super Bowls Branch caught 10 and 11 passes. Wes Welker is the prototype for this role though, with reception totals over 110 in 5 of his 6 seasons with the Patriots.
Belichick also loves to have a utility guy on the offense, one that can fill in nearly anywhere on the field. In the past, Troy Brown played that role, and now Julian Edelman is the guy who can return kicks, catch passes, run reverses and even play defensive back in a pinch. Edelman was actually a quarterback in college but has been primarily a receiver and return-man in the pros. (Keep an eye on Matthew Slater as a potential fill in here too. The former college return man has experience as a wide-out and as a defensive back.) In 2004, Brown had 17 catches, 12 punt returns and 3 interceptions. In a 2001 game against the Colts, receiver David Patten opened the game with a 29 yard touchdown run. In the 2nd quarter he caught a 91 yard touchdown score from Brady and then threw a 60 yards TD score to Troy Brown. He finished the game with 4 catches for 117 yards, 2 TDs, 1 rush for 29 yards and a TD, 1/1 passing for 60 yards and a TD and a kick return for 20 yards.
The last trend I’ve seen with the Belichick offense is the presence of a deep threat. Every year the Pats try to develop someone in this role. For a while it was Bethel Johnson. Then Tim Dwight. Deion Branch and David Givens took shots at this role. Randy Moss filled the position beautifully for a while. Brandon Tate was considered an option and Brandon Lloyd did it last year. As with the tight ends, the team will throw deep as often as the talent allows, and if that isn’t a strength that season, they won’t force it.
Now a quick look at who has produced within the schemes during this 9 year streak of top-10 offenses.
2004 (4th in points, 7th in yards)
A 30 year old Corey Dillon joined a team that failed to have a 1000 yard rusher in each of the last two seasons (Antowain Smith topped out at 1157 yards as the lead back on the 2001 Super Bowl team). At this point, the venerable Tom Brady had yet to top 3800 passing yards or 28 passing touchdowns, something he has done 6 times since. The leading receivers, David Patten and David Givens each barely topped 800 yards and Patriots relied on the running game. Dillon immediately set career highs in rushing yards and touchdowns (1635 and 12) on the way to another Patriots Super Bowl.
2005 (10th in points, 7th in yards)
The team lost some explosiveness but utilized the whole team approach as Dillon lead all rushers with only 733 yards and leading receivers David Givens and Deion Branch only had 738 and 998 yards respectively. Despite this, Brady topped 4000 yards for the first time in his career.
2006 (7th in points, 11th in yards)
Another season of total team contribution, Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney finished with 812 and 745 rushing yards respectively and new receiver Reche Caldwell topped out the receivers at only 760 yards. Brady had a terrible season, by his standards, passing for only 3529 yards and 24 touchdowns. Despite this, the team won 12 games and made it to the AFC title game, where they lost to Peyton Manning and the eventual Super Bowl Champion Colts.
2007 (1st in points, 1st in yards)
The best regular season team ever? Corey Dillon retired and Laurence Maroney lead the team in rushing with 835 yards but the real story was the passing game. The team brought in Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth for dirty cheep and Tom Brady spent the season slinging the ball all over the field. Brady finished with 4806 yards and an NFL record 50 touchdowns. Randy Moss pulled in 98 catches for all but 1500 yards and an NFL Record 23 touchdowns. Welker grabbed 112 balls for 1175 yards and Stallworth added another 700 yards. The team outscored opponents 589(NFL Record for a season) to 274 and went into the Super Bowl at a perfect 18-0. We all know what happened there though.
2008 (8th in points, 5th in yards)
Possibly the most impressive and also most underwhelming season the Patriots have had in this span, the team won 11 games without Tom Brady or Laurence Maroney, only to miss the playoffs anyway. Matt Cassel, starting his first games since high school threw for almost 3700 yards and 21 touchdowns and Moss and Welker each topped 1000 yards. The running game was lead by fullback turned halfback Sammy Morris and career Patriots utility man Kevin Faulk who ran for 727 and 507 yards respectively. Any team that can finish this high in scoring and yardage with Matt Cassel and Sammy Morris behind center must have good game plans.
2009 (6th in points, 3rd in yards)
Maroney comes back to lead a sub-par rushing attach, only 757 yards and Tom Brady returns and throws for another nearly 4400 yards and 28 touchdowns to the usual suspects Welker and Moss. Welker brings in 123 catches, tying for the second most ever. The team gets back to the playoffs but loses in the Wild Card round.
2010 (1st in points, 8th in yards)
Randy Moss has a lost season, but the team adds Danny Woodhead and drafts Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, beginning the era of multiplicity on offense. Third year running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Law Firm) gives the Pats their first 1000 yard rusher since Dillon in 2004 with 1008 yards and 13 touchdowns. Diminutive Danny Woodhead produces 547 rushing yards and 379 receiving yards. Wes Welker and Deion Branch lead the team in receiving with 848 and 706 yards respectively, but the big impact comes from the rookie tight ends. Hernandez comes away with 563 yards and 6 scores and Gronk adds another 546 yards and a whopping 10 touchdowns. The team wins 14 games only to lose to their rival Jets in the playoffs.
2011 (3rd in points, 2nd in yards)
Another amazing offensive season, Law Firm and rookie Stevan Ridley combine for over 1100 rushing yards and Danny Woodhead adds another 500 yards of offense. Wes Welker grabs another 122 catches, good for a share of 4th most all time and nearly 1600 yards, and Hernandez adds 79 catches for 910 yards and 7 scores. Rob Gronkowski, though, redefined the tight-end position with 90 catches for 1327 and 17 touchdowns. The 1327 yards and 17 scores are both all-time records for tight-ends. Tom Brady finished with 39 touchdowns and 5235 passing yards, a number second all-time only to Drew Brees that same season. The team won 13 games and went on to lose another Super Bowl to the Giants.
2012 (1st in points, 1st in yards)
Tom Brady continued to sling the ball around last season, coming up with another 4827 yards and 34 touchdowns. Gronk and Hernandez are in and out of the lineup, but Gronk still winds up with 790 yards and 11 scores. Welker has another 118 catches for 1354 yards and veteran journeyman Brandon Lloyd adds another 900 yards. Danny Woodhead was good for another 750 yards of offense and 7 scores, coming up with 301 rushing and 446 receiving and Stevan Ridley came threw with 1263 yards and 12 scores on the ground No matter who was available, the team kept on producing.
2013 (?, ?)
So what will this year’s incarnation look like? Well the receivers always seem to reload. David Givens, Deion Branch, David Patten and Troy Brown became Reche Caldwell , then Randy Moss and Welker, then Branch again, then Brandon Lloyd. This year will be no different. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are smaller slot type receivers capable of catching a lot of passes. Rookie Josh Boyce is explosive (sub 4.4 speed) and will stretch the field vertically and, 6’3″ rookie Aaron Dobson and 6’4″ 10 year vet Michael Jenkins will provide some size. Rookie Kenbrell Thompkins adds yet another bigger guy (6′ 195) who has good speed.
Even with a good group of wide outs, expect to see shift back to a run heavy offense this season. The team returns starter Stevan Ridley and top backups Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, who each had over 250 yards last year. Vereen is explosive with the ball in his hands and should be able to get open in space, and Bolden is a 2nd big back built much like Ridley. The team also brought in 6′ 250 pound thumper LeGarrette Blount and return-man Leon Washington, who is a capable receiver out of the backfield. The team has monstrously large running back James Devlin (6’3″ 255 lbs) and undrafted rookie George Winn, who is a bigger back and talented north-south runner. If you want to believe in Winn’s NFL ability just read this article. The team site even lists 2 starting running backs on their current depth-chart, rather than a full back, 3rd wide receiver or 2nd tight end. In addition to a large stable of backs, the team also has 6 tight ends currently on the roster, lead by touchdown machine Rob Gronkowski, career backup Daniel Fells, massive target Jake Ballard who, at 6’6″ and 250 lbs, had 600 yards on 38 catches for the Giants last year, and returning backup Michael Hoomanawanui. The team also brought in quarterback enigma Tim Tebow, who adds the threat of a big play in the running game any time he is on the field.
Final Prediction for 2013:
Despite the massive overhaul of the offense this offseason, I expect the Patriots to continue their tradition of finishing inside the top 10 in points and yards. They won’t lead the league in either category but Tom Brady will surpass 3500 passing yards, something he has done every year since 2002. He will struggle to break 4500 yards like he has the past 2 years though. If healthy, Danny Amendola can be the possession receiver and will catch 90 passes for over 1000 yards and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce will fill out the vertical passing game nicely, despite some standard rookie struggles. Julian Edelman will be the do-it-all guy and will fill in for the oft injured Amendola if needed, and Gronk will be the primary tight-end and red-zone target. Gronk might lead the team in touchdown receptions even if he misses 4 or 5 games. Look for the backs to be involved in the short passing game, with Vereen and Washington getting at least 20 catches each. We will continue to see multiple tight-end sets, but the team will also spread the field in order to get favorable match-ups both in the run game and down the field in the vertical passing game. Ridley will lead a strong running attack, and with the help of the stable of backs available, the team will rush for over 2200 yards.