Patriots

Patriots

Bill Belichick knows change is coming. It's inevitable.

Tom Brady is gone. The Patriots offensive system will be altered. Trimmed, no doubt. Tweaked to accentuate the skills of whichever quarterback becomes the next sun around which its plays revolve.

"Over the last two decades," Belichick said in a conference call on Monday, "everything we did, every single decision we made in terms of major planning, was made with the idea of how to make things best for Tom Brady."

No longer. Now this is where things get interesting.

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Not that the last two decades have been a bore by any stretch of the imagination. With one quarterback and one mind-numbingly involved offense — coordinated by three different men: Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels and Bill O'Brien — the Patriots sustained an unprecedented level of success. 

And the breadth of the scheme on that side of the ball figured prominently into all that winning. For every problem there was an answer. For every wonky defensive look thrown their way, Brady and his coordinator could scrap an entire week of preparation, pull out a plan from another week, another year, and plow forward.

So what now?

This is, as Belichick acknowledged, the first time in 20 years the Patriots will go into the season planning for someone other than Brady to take the snaps behind center.

Jimmy Garoppolo was going to be the guy for four weeks while Brady was suspended in 2016. The Patriots had almost an entire regular season to adapt to Matt Cassel's strengths and weaknesses back in 2008.

 

This is different. Has to be. But that doesn't mean the playbook — that living, breathing thing that has grown and developed over two decades and helped produce six Lombardi trophies — will have a stake driven through its front cover.   

The system is, in theory, amorphous. It's so wide-ranging — you want a 2007 down-the-field attack or a 2001 manage-the-game approach? — that it should be able to handle a stronger arm or a weaker one, a fleet-footed quarterback or an immobile one. 

We haven't seen it implemented by anyone other than Brady over the course of an offseason and into Week 1, but Belichick wants his system to be adaptable.

Just as it was with Cassel. Just as it was supposed to be for four games of Garoppolo. 

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"I don’t really see that changing," Belichick said. "Whoever the quarterback is, we’ll try to make things work smoothly and efficiently for that player and take advantage of his strengths and his skills. Each of us has different skills. Each quarterback has a different skillset, and whatever things that particular player does well, we’ll try to work towards and feature, or at least give him an opportunity to do those.

"And the things that either he doesn’t do well or needs more experience at or whatever the case might be, then we’ll try to minimize or until those things improve, work around them. So, I don’t see it being any different, the process, than what it’s ever been."

The question becomes just how drastic will the alterations be? Cassel, stylistically, wasn't a total 180-degree turn from Brady. Both were tall, pocket passers. Garoppolo was a little shorter and a little more athletic than Brady, but like Brady he had a quick release and could be accurate to all levels of the field.

What if the Patriots drafted Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round, though? He's a relatively raw passer with great size and athleticism. What if they drafted Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts in the third? He's the most athletic quarterback in this year's class, whose speed and strength is a little reminiscent of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.

How far would Belichick and McDaniels be willing to go? How many pages from the playbook would they be willing to excise and rewrite in order to make it work?

There's a reason why coaches around the league I've spoken to are watching the Patriots intently this offseason. 

They understand that real change is coming.

They know there's no sense in operating the Patriots offense with an old-school dropback passer — trying to recapture whatever they had with Brady — if the new guy doesn't come equipped with a supercomputer between his ears. They know the athletes coming out of the draft at that position are getting better and better every year. 

 

They know Belichick and McDaniels will be willing to adapt. They just want to see what that looks like.

And judging by the way in which Belichick described the challenge he's facing at that position on Monday, so does he.