LOS ANGELES -- Cincinnati would not have made the Super Bowl without taking the steps it did to surround its young quarterback with receiving talent. Period. But that's the easily-identifiable portion of its road to Hollywood.
The subsequent (perhaps at the time more subtle) quarterback-related choice the Bengals made is almost as noticeable now that we can take a 10,000-foot view of their season.
They had to trust Joe Burrow. They had to trust him enough to put the game in his hands. They had to trust him to maximize the talent surrounding him. They had to trust that that would be enough.
The second part of that equation is worth digging into for those residing in New England. Of course, providing quarterback Mac Jones another weapon in the passing game should help him take a step forward in his development. But, for Jones to get a foothold in Year 2, trusting him to take to the air more often -- and eschewing a carefully-crafted running game at times to do so -- may allow his game to take off.
Consider the track taken by the Bengals in 2021.
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Though they'd added top-five pick Ja'Marr Chase to Burrow's offensive huddle, they entered the year as one of the most pass-averse teams in the league.
Maybe that was because Burrow was coming back from a devastating knee injury that ended his rookie campaign after 10 games. Maybe it was because the Bengals knew their offensive line was a sieve, and dropping Burrow back to pass simply was not wise when taking into account his health and the overall health of the franchise.
Through the first month of the season, in one-score situations, Cincinnati ranked 22nd in the NFL in pass rate, according to Sharp Football Stats. Running back Joe Mixon ran 83 times in four games. And it worked. The Bengals went 3-1 to start the year.
But, despite their record, their running game wasn't overly efficient. They were 21st in expected points added per play as an offense and 23rd in rushing success rate. Their passing game, meanwhile, ranked 15th in success rate. There were signs that they should be leaning on their air attack, and that they should be putting more on the plates of their top draft picks from the last two years.
So they did.
From Week 5 through the remainder of the regular season, the Bengals were sixth in the NFL in pass rate in one-score situations. And with all that passing, Burrow excelled. Their offense was eighth in EPA per play after the first four weeks of the season, fifth in dropback EPA, and 11th in passing success rate.
Plus, in that timeframe, the Bengals had the best yards-per-pass figure (8.4) in the league aside from the Niners (9.1) and ... the Patriots (8.6).
In one-score situations -- when theoretically an entire playbook, run or pass, is available to an offense -- the Patriots were one of the most efficient passing offenses in football. And yet, a pass play in those moments was rare relative to the approaches taken by the league's other 31 clubs.
In fact, the numbers would suggest the Patriots were the most run-happy offense in the NFL by being almost truly balanced in one-score scenarios. According to Sharp Football Stats, they ran the ball in those situations on 51 percent of their snaps, more than any other team.
If one were to only include results from the first three quarters of close games -- eliminating furious comeback attempts late or salt-away-the-clock strategies -- their run-to-pass ratio was split 50-50.
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On first down, the Patriots were even more aggressive in their intentions to keep the ball on the ground. From Week 5 through the remainder of the season, in one-score games, there wasn't a team that even came close to their affinity for run calls. On 69 percent of their first downs during that stretch, they called for a running play. The next-closest team (Tennessee) came in at 64 percent runs on first down in close games.
Can a team win at a high level when taking that kind of run-first approach? Feels a tad anachronistic. Particularly when understanding the top 10 teams in 2021 in pass rate made up most of the top-10 teams in football: Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Kansas City, the Chargers, Las Vegas, the Rams, Dallas, Miami, Cincinnati and Green Bay.
Former Patriots and Giants running back Shane Vereen made his money as a pass-catching back, but he joined the "Next Pats" Podcast this week to say that an old-school run-first style can still win in today's game.
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"I absolutely do," he explained. "I would even say if the Chiefs had a more prominent run game, then they win that AFC Championship Game. That second half is dominated by the Chiefs offense, running the football, converting first downs.
"It's one thing running the football, it's another thing having a concerted effort that we're going to run the ball 20-30 times a game and that's our game plan coming into the game. It's physical. What it does if you run heavy in the first three quarters, that defense, that defensive line, that pass-rush slows down. Those gaps start to get bigger, you're controlling the ball, you're controlling the tempo of the game, all that is still very (important).
"A lot of teams now are controlling the tempo, controlling the game via the quarterback, via the pass game, but that's not to say you can't have an effective run game that allows you to control the game, allows you to be physical, allows you to win the line of scrimmage. That really will help any quarterback.
"We talk about Joe Burrow, but Joe Mixon was one of the best running backs this year and we don't talk about him that much. He had over 1,200 yards . . . The run game with Joe Mixon -- especially in the red zone -- really, really opened things up for Joe Burrow. It allowed Chase to be in one-on-one situations because of the threat of the run game. It allowed Tee Higgins to be the mismatch for that offense as well, the tight end to be a mismatch, because you have to allocate players to stop the run.
"I think it works in conjunction. It's a very good marriage when you can run the football and you know you can run the football."
The Patriots have for years touted that the concept of "balance" should not come at the expense of scoring points. And balance, they've said, doesn't have to mean an even split between run and pass plays. Balance is being able to throw it short, intermediate and deep, bring able to run inside and outside.
But when longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia joined Next Pats earlier this season, there was a very specific number of rushing attempts he said he had his sights set on week to week.
"From a philosophical standpoint," he said, "as an offensive staff, we always used to say, 'If we can run the ball 24 times or more, we felt we had a really good chance to win the game.' Because we were a balanced offensive football team. That, to us, was very important. We strived for that all the time."
No surprise, then, that one of Scarnecchia's top pupils during his time in New England feels similarly.
Former Patriots and Broncos center Dan Koppen likes the idea of balance, where a strong running game can set up play-action shots down the field. But, having played for explosive offenses in Foxboro and Denver, Koppen believes a certain level of dedication to the running game can make it difficult to keep up with the best of the best in today's NFL. The Chiefs scored in 13 seconds to send their instant-classic Divisional Round game against the Bills to overtime.
"That's the thing that's kind of hard and one of the reasons why I say that run-pass balance is so important," Koppen told Next Pats. "You're going to chunk out five-minute drives, seven-minute touchdown drives. Then when you have a team like Buffalo or Kansas City, it takes them 1:30.
"It's hard to put those drives -- those longer drives -- back to back to back, then (give up) a 1:30 drive. I think there's got to be a balance between that grind-it-out style and that explosiveness that you see from some other teams in the league."
Perhaps that's the path for the Patriots in 2022: finding some kind of middle ground so they can maintain an identity rooted in toughness while also having the ability to score in bunches.
For Jones' rookie year, it made sense to lean on the running game while he got his bearings as a pro. But to keep pace with the elite offenses in the AFC moving forward, the Patriots may have to train their focus on creating a more explosive passing offense and then trusting Jones to use it.
That's how the Bengals got here, at least.