People bristle around here when it’s suggested that Patriots offensive success is because of the system and the scheme.
It feels like a whack at the singular talent of the players. It suggests that what’s gone on in New England for nearly two decades isn’t because Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, James White, Shane Vereen, Chris Hogan or Julian Edelman (I could go on) are excellent players but simply landed in the right spot.
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It’s the NFL version of “check your privilege.” If you play for the Patriots, you were born on third base, don’t think you hit a triple.
There are seasons, games and players that bolster the argument. Matt Cassel’s 11-5 season in 2008 when Brady blew out his knee is Old Reliable when it comes to painting the Patriots as a machine and the players as nuts, bolts and washers.
The fine print on that season was that the ’07 team won 18 games and would still be viewed as the greatest team ever assembled if it got to 19 wins. All 11-5 seasons aren’t created equal and 2009 was a pretty steep dropoff without Brady.
Edelman’s 2009 performance standing in for Welker is another trump card lapped down when “the system” conversation arises.
In Week 2 of that season, Welker sat with a knee injury. Edelman – who never played wideout at any level before being drafted in the seventh round four months earlier – caught eight passes for 98 yards and was targeted 16 times in a 16-9 Patriots loss. In the final game of the regular season, after Welker blew his knee out in Houston, Edelman caught 10 for 103 on 15 targets. And he was the only one that really showed up the next week in an embarrassing 33-14 playoff loss to the Ravens, making six catches for 44 yards and two touchdowns.
With Brady, playing slot receiver was so easy even a converted dual-threat quarterback could do it.
What we didn’t realize then and are probably about to fully realize now is that Edelman is unique. Full disclosure, I wrote a book with Edelman in the offseason. Maybe I’m suffering from some recency bias. But there were reasons he was able to do what he did in 2009 and there are even more reasons he’s been one of the NFL’s best receivers since 2013. The system is barely half of it.
Edelman didn’t get invited to the 2009 NFL Combine but his 20-yard short shuttle of 3.91 seconds was so eye-popping scouts at his Pro Day made him run the drill twice. Since 2009, just three wideouts have run faster than 3.91 at the Combine – Brandin Cooks being the fastest at 3.81. Odell Beckham was just behind Edelman with a 3.94 in 2014. How important is the short-shuttle to the Patriots? The Patriots have employed three of the five players with the fastest short-shuttles recorded at the Combine – Kevin Kasper (3.73 in 2001), Deion Branch (3.76 in 2002) and Cooks.
Combine that God-given and player-honed natural quickness with the seven seasons Edelman spent playing quarterback and learning defenses before he got to the Patriots and sprinkle in his willingness to be a crash-test dummy and you can better understand why he did what he did.
Why did it take him five seasons to emerge fully for the Patriots? The full story is in the book but the abridged version is he was locked in behind Welker, the Patriots offense changed in 2010 with Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, Edelman was dogged by injury and he had some growing up to do.
Is Edelman in the best possible system to spotlight his skills? Absolutely. The Patriots have not been a perimeter passing team since 2009. The day they traded Randy Moss and re-signed Deion Branch, they got back to their “find the mismatch” roots. Edelman in the middle of the field – like Welker before him – is a matchup headache because his quickness requires a defender-and-a-half.
There’s a stat wonk perception that a controlled passing game relying on option routes and yards-after-catch is gaming the system. Basing your offense around a “take the top off the defense” wideout means you have hair on your chest. Throwing short and giving your wideout a chance to make YAC is using an offensive cheat code, like laying up on a 480-yard par-5.
The reality is, you need an inside receiver with the quickness to separate and the courage to trust his quarterback to keep him out of harm’s way. He also needs the physical makeup to absorb violent hits and the mental makeup to put fear in a box on a high shelf. And he needs to understand what the quarterback is looking at.
There are fewer of these guys available than 6-2, 210-pounders who can run a sub 4.5. And Edelman is the best of that crop.
Meanwhile, Brady is at the top of the food chain when it comes to quarterbacks who know what the hell they are looking at with the smarts to manipulate a defense before the snap and the accuracy to throw into tiny windows after it. Put two unique players together and the results will be unique. Especially when they’ve thrown together so often they see things identically and finish each other’s football sentences like an old married couple.
I took this circuitous route to make this declaration: there’s no replacing Edelman in the Patriots offense. Undrafted rookie Austin Carr – despite all his production at Northwestern and in this preseason – isn’t going to do it. He’s not as physically gifted as Edelman is (or was in 2009). Even with the injury to Edelman, Carr is touch-and-go to make the team because other options at other positions may afford more insurance. D.J. Foster, for instance. The second-year running back was a terrific pass-catcher at Arizona State, is outstanding in space and has ridiculous quickness. Which offensive player had the best 20-yard shuttle at the Combine in 2015? Foster (4.07).
Danny Amendola is – at this stage – not even playing the same spot in the offense Edelman does. He’s brilliant in the flat because of his hands and explosiveness are absurd and his ability to turn and make the first man miss is terrific, but he can’t run inside like Edelman does or he’ll be turned to sawdust. Malcolm Mitchell is too high-cut to work inside and – to an extent Chris Hogan is as well. The longer the legs, the harder it is to make those waterbug moves on option routes that Edelman makes.
Cooks probably could work inside similarly to Edelman and it will be interesting to see if he gets some of those reps and whether he has the belly for that punishing duty.
Expect Hogan to get the lion’s share of Edelman’s targets and – after that – it’s going to be trial-and-error including running backs like Foster.
It will take weeks for the Patriots to find their post-Edelman identity on offense. A prediction? They won’t look like who they are going to be until mid-October. And even then, the loss of Edelman’s loss will be lamentable until the Patriots play their last game.