Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

28 Dec 2005

Calf-time for Bruschi

Still no word on the extent of Tedy Bruschi's injury during the Monday night game, but the fact that he was hurt while covering a punt again raises the question about having starters on special teams. I know the idea is to have the best players on the field, but there are 53 roster spots.

Posted by: P. Ryan Wilson on 28 Dec 2005

25 comments, Last at 31 Dec 2005, 11:00pm by Timdog


by Purds (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:07pm

Good question about playing these guys in odd situations. The Pats do it all the time, and it works, but I was wondering why they were doing it Monday night against the Jets. Why have Brady sneak on 4th and 1 so often? (The game was in the bag.) Why have so many starters on the ST and in odd situations (defensive players on goal line offense, etc.)?

Of course, Bellichick is God, so we can't question his decisions. Or can we?

by Oswlek (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:13pm

Attached is an article by Tom Curran of the Providence Journal. It is worth a read.

by Oswlek (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:14pm

Try this one instead.

by GOD (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:15pm

I am not Bill Bellichick. I'm Doug Flutie.

by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:47pm

The part that gets me about Bruschi (and Mike Vrabel, and Eugene Wilson) playing special teams is, the coverage units aren't all that great anyway.

It seems to me that mediocre coverage can be had, using the Wesley Mallards and Monty Beisels on your roster.

by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 4:48pm

I know the idea is to have the best players on the field, but there are 53 roster spots.

Yes, but most of those will end up starting in the secondary by Week 3 anyway.

by RCH (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 5:04pm

I think that you have to take the whole package. W/Belichick the guys are football players first, position specialists second.

As the article linked to in #3 notes, there are plenty of positives that come from BB's philosophy. And by its very nature, making exceptions to the philosophy will be what undermines it. That is, if Bruschi is relieved from teams duty, then why not Seymour and Vrabel? I think for the system to work that it has to be applied to everyone.

by Jay B. (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 6:32pm

Just thinking out loud here, but it seems to me that ST plays are more important on a per-play basis than regular snaps on offense or defense. If so, you'd want your best players on the field for special teams, even your skill position superstars (assuming they're also good at special teams, of course).

by MJK (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 6:43pm

One thing that kind of annoys me is how everyone's making a big deal about how the Patriots are apparently "doing something crazy" by throwing to Vrabel in goal line situations. Teams regularly have special "goal line packages" that only play on less than 4 yards and goal to go situations. Almost every time this season, and about half the time last season, the Patriots were in that situation, Vrabel has checked in as an eligible tight end. I'm sure, whenever the Pats practice their goal line offense, Vrabel practices with them. He's not "a linebacker playing tight end", he's a football player that happens to be both a starting linebacker and a tight end in goal line packages. When a player is part of a regular unit like that, it's not "unusual" to see him do it.

Special teams is a whole other ballgame, however. In general, players aren't following the "script" of nice little blocking and running assignments, but rather are running full tilt up and down the field. It does seem that a lot of the Pats major injuries have happened on special teams plays.

by PatsFan (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 6:47pm

The Pats injury list released this afternoon has Bruschi as "questionable", and a bunch of people (though, amusingly, not Brady) as "probable".

by Iacocca cola (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 7:29pm

"I know the idea is to have the best players on the field, but there are 53 roster spots."

And only 45 players active every game.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 7:56pm

First of all, Belichick's not God, that would be Eddie Lawson. :D

Starshatterer, how do you know that the coverage isn't mediocre because the starters are playing and that it wouldn't suck rocks if the starters weren't in there?

This "issue" of Patriots personnel usage always pops up like a jack-in-the-box (or a whack-a-mole game, take your pick) every season with the press and fans. Belichick will play his starters if there's something to play for OR he thinks they need the work at game pace. If you listen to the quotes from the players recently (Brady is the one I can remember before the Jets game this year) you can hear this theme. He'll also play his starters on special teams if he thinks it makes the special teams better and allows him to carry fewer specialists. He's said repeatedly things to the effect that he doesn't believe in trying to protect players from injury, that if they can perform the role, the ENTIRE role, they're in, if not, they're on the sidelines.

Personally, I like this philosophy, because it's not based in fear. Put the players in and let them do the job instead of constantly worrying about whether they might get injured. If you need to ease up a bit, I think it's better to do it in practice, not in the games. If they need rest more than work, he'll rest them.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 7:57pm

Oh, and PatsFan, according to the injury report on the website, Brady is listed as "Probable", right at the top of the list.

by andrew (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 9:33pm

Having starters in on a FG defense is probably what won Chicago a game against the Niners, without which they'd still not have clinched a playoff spot...

by PatsFan (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 9:35pm

Re: #13

As originally issued, Brady wasn't on the injury report. The Patriots later sent out a revision putting Brady (probable, right shoulder) back in his customary place.

by Tedy Bruschi (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 9:57pm

Please, people.

I am God.

I am the Patriots' Savior.

I will end wars and cure cancer.

I am Tedy Bruschi.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 10:05pm

Most teams have some starters play some special teams. E.G. starting offensive linemen and tight ends will block during field goals. There is always a "punt-safe" formation where much of the starting defense stays on the field to prevent fake-punts in certain situations. Often a starting running back, defensive back, or wideout will be the punt/kick returner, and starting fullbacks will frequently be in blocking on such plays given how little they are used.

However, the point is well taken. We are often told about how the Patriots are getting maximum use out of roster spots by having plays play offense, defense, and special teams. But think about it for a moment. If Belichick is using starter's on punt and kickoff coverage and returns, there are only 22 starters, plus punters, kickers, nickel and dimebacks, nickel safeties, nickel linebackers, 3rd defensive tackles and ends, 3rd wideouts, and 2nd tight ends who get significant snap counts or must play. That's 32 players, meaning 13 other guys simply are not going to be a major part of a game unless they play special teams coverage and return units. If the Patriots are taking half of these spots with starters, what it really means is that at least 5-10 guys on the roster really are doing next to nothing each game, while the other 35 guys are being overworked relative to other teams.

by Mikey (not verified) :: Wed, 12/28/2005 - 11:43pm

Has any analysis ever been done on the frequency of guys getting hurt on ST versus getting hurt on plays from scrimmage?

I watch a fair amount of pigskin and it doesn't feel to me like I see guys disproportionately getting hurt on ST. Could the whole thing be a myth?

by Sid (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 1:42am

RE: 1

I didn't understand why the starters were left in, either.
I would've pulled them at halftime.

by Digit (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 1:46am

I would like to point out that Belichick _used_ to carry people who played mostly exclusively special teams.

He gave up on that, I think, after the 2004 Super Bowl when Je'Rod Cherry and Chris Akins had to take over the safety position when Eugene Wilson got hurt- Jake Delhomme lit up the secondary SO badly after that one.

And the Patriots basically rotate in their guys on defense for the most part, to keep them fresh, and mix up their offensive packages. A lot.

All in all, I'd say they make more use out of their roster spots because they need to keep people healthy AND ready just in case.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 2:05am

Re: Pats roster composition

An interesting question. Looking at the game log for the Pats-Jets contest, here's what I come up with for the 45-man roster:

On offense:

QB Brady
4 RB's Dillon, Faulk, Pass, Evans
5 WR's Branch, Givens, Brown, Dwight, Andre Davis
2 TE's Watson, Fauria
7 O-line Kaczur, Mankins, Hochstein, Neal, Gorin, Ashworth, Mruczkowski

Total of 20, all of whom saw some time in the game on offense.

On defense:

5 DL Seymour, Wilfork, Warren, Green, Wright
6 LB's Colvin, Vrabel, Bruschi, McGinest, Beisel, Brown
6 DB's Hobbs, Samuel, Wilson, Hawkins, Sanders, Poteat

Total of 17 that all saw some time in the game on defense.

Special Teamers only:

P Miller
K Vinatieri
Long Snapper Paxton
Kick Return Bethel Johnson
Coverage only: LB's Izzo, Davis, Chatham. I'll put DB Stone on this list as well, to be conservative, since I can't recall for sure if he was in on some regular defensive plays.

Total of 8 special teams only.

There's also Flutie, backup QB who happened to see some time, but even if he didn't, that's no different than any NFL backup QB.

That's the 45-man active roster for the game.

Unfortunately from the game log I can't tell who played special teams out of the starters, but I know the special teamers all played special teams and the players listed on offense and defense actually played, so I can't see a single player here "really doing next to nothing" let alone 5-10 players.

Of the non-starters that probably got relatively little time on offense or defense, the only one that may NOT have played special teams was Mruczkowski, the backup O-lineman.

Without a complete list of who played on how many plays (is this available somewhere?) it's hard to address the "wearing out" comment with concrete data. My opinion is that the "wearing out" is not significant enough to affect the starters play in their regular assignments. However, I am fairly sure that nobody was standing around, except for Flutie most of the game and the "46th Man", the emergency QB, Cassel.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 2:06am

Oops, that should have been 19 on offense, plus backup QB Flutie for a total of 20.

by Glenn (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 3:35am

Excellent points, CaffeineMan. I am consistently amused whenever anyone brings up the Key Starters Shouldn't Be On Special Teams topic, because it presumes and implies that ST isn't as important as the other facets of the game. As Belichick likes to say, it's 1/3 of the contest, and if the team takes a philosophy that its best ST players don't need to be out there for ST plays, then it sends the absolute wrong message about ST's value to everyone on the team. If Bruschi is one of the Pats' best ST players, then that's what he'll do! The only time BB needs to apologize for this strategy is if he has someone out there who's not one of the best ST players and then he gets hurt.
That having been said, the Pats have never been more than average with their ST play, and one does wonder how much worse it would be without some starters on the field. As other aspects of the team have excelled, special teams has lagged year after year. So, how loyal should Belichick be to ST coach Brad Seely? If the ST gameplanning were different/better, would key guys like Bruschi need to be out there if a Beisel could do the job just as well in a different system?
Just a thought.

by CaffeineMan (not verified) :: Thu, 12/29/2005 - 1:48pm

The info I'd love to see is how many plays the starters are actually out there. Many are talking about it as if it's every play. It may not be, which means there's more spreading the load than we might think. I assume this would have to be an output from the game charting project, but even then, you're limited by the camera angles. D@mn the networks and their "fathead" QB camera shots.

by Timdog (not verified) :: Sat, 12/31/2005 - 11:00pm

I dunno - its probably worth the risk to have starters out there if they are making a big difference. I mean, look at Buffalo - last year, they started putting a bunch of starters out on kick-returns and they have had fantastic results, leading DVOA in tat category both years. Some of that is Terence McGee being really damn fast but I think quite a bit of credit goes to London Fletcher being an absolute madman knocking people around blocking.

On the other hand, I guess this is the downside, but ST is part of the game and can make a big difference in many games (look at the 2004 Bills or the 2005 Bears), so there's no point in giving it up...