Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Feb 2012

ESPN: The Future of New England's Pass Offense

The Patriots are in the Super Bowl after spending three years undoing Josh McDaniels' pass offense. How soon they get back depends in part on the degree to which he undoes the undoing. In this Insider piece, we use game charting data to chronicle the history of the former, and explore potential options regarding the latter.

Posted by: Danny Tuccitto on 02 Feb 2012

23 comments, Last at 06 Feb 2012, 4:55am by Vince Verhei


by Travis :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 2:00pm

I wonder how much the Patriots' offense would have shifted towards tight ends had Randy Moss (unmentioned in the piece) not left & Chad Jackson and Taylor Price not busted.

by Eric (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 2:39pm

This article seems to presume that Josh McDaniels has his own system, and it's the one that was in place for the Patriots in 2007. I don't know where this comes from, other than general assumptions about how coaches work, but I don't think this assumption is warranted.

by Danny Tuccitto :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 7:29pm

I never said McDaniels has his own "system." I said he prefers a 3-wide pass offense, and that assertion was based on the charting-informed strategic tendencies of every offense he's run since 2007. The question then posed in the article is how that preference for 3-wide will mesh with the 2-TE pass O that NE's become since he left. I offered 3 potential paths that this transition will take, and picked the one I thought was most likely.

"Personnel groups a coach prefers" does not mean "system a coach invented." Not sure how it came across as the latter.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 11:22pm

If you stop thinking of Rob Gronkowski as Mike Ditka and start thinking of him as Harold Carmichael, does the scheme become less of a conundrum? He's a TE in name only.

by PatsFan :: Fri, 02/03/2012 - 11:08am

Don't you mean Hernandez, not Gronk? Gronk definitely is a "real" TE -- he does plenty of blocking at the line and is good at it.

by Danny Tuccitto :: Fri, 02/03/2012 - 4:13pm

If you mean Hernandez, not Gronk, I address this in the article. CliffsNotes version = Bingo!

by dryheat :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 3:45pm

Yeah......this article gives McDaniels way, way, way too much credit. Remember he was on the staff as a QB coach for years before being elevated to OC...Belichick was OC during the preceding season. It's not as if he got promoted and installed his own system -- it's the same offensive system Weis ran. Every bit of change has been driven by personnel. Just a thoroughly dumb premise.

by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 4:39pm

Yeah, I had some reservations until I remembered that Josh was the quasi-OC in 2006, when the offense was built (if you want to call it that) around Watson and Graham.

by Dean :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 4:42pm

McDaniels learned the "Detroit" (i.e. 2 TE) offense from Belichick. When he was an assistant with the Pats way back in 1976, they got destroyed by the Lions, who ran a 2TE offense. Bellichick isn't suggesting that's the first time it was used - but that's where he first heard of the idea and he and his colleagues from that staff (Dick McPherson, Chuck Fairbanks, etc.) all have called that package "Detroit" ever since.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 5:33pm


the standard offensive formation from 1921 through 1980 or so?

by SteveF (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 7:24pm

Belichick was actually a special teams assistant on the Detroit staff in 1976. In 1977 he was the TE/Receiver coach.

The way Belichick described it (the decision by the 1976 Detroit Lions to go with a 2 TE set) was that they simply wanted to get their best players onto the field at the same time. In the 1976 Detroit Lions case, this meant two tight ends.

That's more or less the same rationale in 2010-2012. I don't imagine Belichick drafted Gronkowski/Hernandez thinking they would run 2 TE sets 75% of the time. It just turned out that way since Hernandez and Gronkowski turned out to be two of their best three receivers.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 8:52pm

I believe that is BB's general theory to coaching - use your best players.

I saw/read an interview where they asked him why he got rid of the run-first offense that won them Super Bowls in 2002-05 ... he replied to the effect that Tom Brady handing off the ball is a waste of his talent.

To me that's what sets BB apart as a coach ... he creates systems that use players to their strengths. (I say set apart, other coaches do it ... see John Fox).

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 10:10pm

I agree with a lot of what you say, but the idea to start throwing more because he had Tom Brady sets him apart from no one. Any coach today with a really talented QB is going to throw, a lot.

What sets him apart is his ability to change the team's basic identity often, and do it on the fly, and not really stumble. That's not to say he hasn't had down years (2005, 2009 - DVOA didn't think so, but every Pats fan I've talked to really thought little of that 2009 bunch), but even those years aren't that bad.

by John (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 10:57pm

I'm so so sure any team with a talented QB necessarily will throw the ball a lot. Take, for instance, the Steelers and the Bruce Arians firing, reportedly motivated at least in part by a desire to return to "smashmouth football" by running the ball more. This despite having Roethlisberger and two very good relievers in Wallace and Brown.

by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 02/03/2012 - 1:05am

We will see if that actually happens in Pittsburgh, but this isn't the norm. The exception would be then Pittsburgh, who runs the ball a lot with a great QB.

by Mr Shush :: Fri, 02/03/2012 - 9:26am

The Shanahan-Elway-Davis Broncos? I suspect that Foster and Tate would get an awful lot of carries even if the Texans had a top tier quarterback. Maybe even more than they do now, because they'd be leading so often. Look at Schaub's attempt counts in the Texans' wins this year. If you are a very strong team overall, and have an excellent running game, it makes sense to hand the ball off a lot even if you can throw it well.

by dmstorm22 :: Fri, 02/03/2012 - 7:52pm

I don't think Schaub is at the level of Ben and the rest, but as for the Shanahan-Elway Broncos, by that point in his career Elway was not one of the best QBs in the NFL at that point.

by Mr Shush :: Sat, 02/04/2012 - 8:53am

Schaub's definitely not as good as Roethlisberger, but eyeballing the numbers leads me to believe Elway was probably about the 5th or 6th best QB in football at that time - is that so different from Roethlisberger now? Or do the stats flatter him in some way.

The point with Schaub is more that, while he is not a great player, in several games this year he was ripping defenses apart in the way that a great player would, and still spent most of the game handing off to Foster and Tate because the Bucs, Titans or whoever were getting blown out and the running game was dominating, so why not?

by Kyle Williams (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 3:48pm


Sorry about the muffs, but FO is a jinx.

by SteveF (not verified) :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 11:51pm

The playcalling would concern me more than the formations/packages.

The question really is whether McDaniels will try to run teams out of nickel like Brady/O'Brien seem willing to do, or whether he'll get Mike Martz disease, fall in love with the passing game, and doggedly attempt to ram square pegs into round holes.

The advantage of the 2TE/2WR/1RB personnel/set is the ability to move from a spread formation to a run formation without having to substitute, but it's only an advantage if you're actually willing to run the ball when that's what the defensive personnel dictates.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 02/03/2012 - 5:01am

"For most NFL teams, using two or more tight ends is a running formation." - Isn't 2 TE, 1 RB a balanced formation? And has other people have alluded to, the tight ends are often lined up as receivers. Hernandez is closer to a receiver than an old fashioned tight end, though those types have been around for quite a while, Sharpe, Novacek, Brent Jones, maybe even Winslow Snr.

The year before they got Moss I think they were using a lot of formations with two H-backs (Graham and Watson) and used to run inside a lot with wham-blocks. I feel that it's a personnel difference founded on the ability of their tight ends to line up outside the slot receiver which allows them to continue to use their Troy Brown/Wes Welker/Ed Edelman types inside. It's a matchup nightmare.

"No matter the coordinator, New England has ranked in the top eight of DVOA every season since 2004. So whichever way McDaniels' latest tenure in New England goes, the Patriots will almost certainly remain an elite offense as long as Tom Brady is healthy." - Wasn't one of these years under Cassel?

My assessment is that it's the Hooded One who is the prime driver of the system and the overall success.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 02/03/2012 - 5:12am

This was my take in week 3's Quick Reads, which I think is relevant, if ridden with typoes.

I've been thinking about the Pats offense for a while and I'm putting my thoughts here whether it's the right place for it or not.
Basically, I've been thinking about how a defense would go about covering their 2 receiver, two tight end package and maintain the standard two deep coverage. It's nearly impossible to do with base personnel from a 3-4. If Hernandez and Gronkowski are split out as wide receivers then only the middle linebackers are likely to stand a chance of matching up with them, there are very few, if any, outside linebackers who will be up to the job. That leaves the defense with no middle linebacker, meaning either man coverage on the running back with an OLB or limiting both players from their rush as they will have to keep their heads up and cover Woodhead if he slips out on some Banjo-style read. It's a little more viable from a 4-3, as you should have three linebackers who are good in coverage but even then very few teams would be able to match up well in man coverage.
If you go to zone, you have two main risks. Firstly, you will telegraph your defense to a qb who's rather good at his pre snap reads. Secondly, you have probably got to cover Welker in space with a linebacker. Even if the LB only has responsibility over a limited area, Welker is an expert at finding the hole in the zone.
It's a real head scratched for a defensive coordinator. You've been forced out of your base coverages and will probably have ton audible out of most of the complicated blitzes you would like to send at Brady

by Vincent Verhei :: Mon, 02/06/2012 - 4:55am

Based on what we have for charting data so far, there were 5,111 1RB/2TE/2WR plays last year, and 2,533 of those snaps turned out to be running plays. That's 49.6 percent. Yes, I'd say that's a balanced formation.