Bill Belichick readily admitted that his offense would have to change with Tom Brady out of the picture.
"Over the last two decades," Belichick said back in April, "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 . . . Whoever the quarterback is, we'll try to make things work smoothly and efficiently for that player and take advantage of his strengths and skills."
For a while, we assumed the quarterback in 2020 would be Jarrett Stidham. Now it could be Cam Newton. May the best man win. How can Belichick and Josh McDaniels make both options comfortable? How can they make things work "smoothly and efficiently" for both?
We won't know for sure until the Patriots take the field. But emphasizing looks that have taken the league by storm of late, looks that have simplified things for middle-tier quarterbacks, looks that Belichick's pal Mike Shanahan is credited with popularizing... Those might help.
The third installment of our "Stidham Plan" series shifts to look at how the Shanahan scheme could take advantage of both Stidham and Newton's individual skill sets.
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The Patriots don't have to hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete on whatever they'd built offensively this offseason now that Cam Newton is in the fold. There is a way to tweak and adjust that which they'd constructed around Jarrett Stidham to accentuate Newton's unique skills.
Make no mistake, they've been building. Even in a virtual offseason. They had to have been. For two months since the draft, any team in the NFL could've signed Newton. His acquisition by the Patriots was not a fait accompli. Stidham and Brian Hoyer — and maybe undrafted rookies J'Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke — were their plan.
The attack designed to fit that plan can't go up in smoke now.
First, keeping Newton healthy is no sure thing. Newton's incentive-laden contract and the fact that he went unsigned deep into June serve as proof that there's a non-zero chance someone other than Newton ends up taking snaps for the Patriots in 2020.
Of course, if Newton hits Foxboro feeling well and can stay that way, it'll be a matter of time before the offense is his and the planning goes full-on Cam-centric. But until the Patriots know what he looks like on the field, it'd be hard to devote an entire offensive overhaul to what he might be.
So how do the Patriots work Newton in? How do they cook up an offense that works for both him and Stidham?
MOBILITY A MUST
Newton is arguably the greatest true dual-threat quarterback in NFL history: an MVP, a red-zone rushing monster, and as recently as 2018, he was a highly effective passer.
Weeks 1-9 of 2018, per @PFF.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) June 29, 2020
* Top-5 positively-graded throw rate
* 8th-lowest uncatchable pass rate
* 11th-best PFF passing grade
Moved well, too. This run is from Week 8 of 2018. pic.twitter.com/VNrPappqzN
But coming off a foot injury that limited him to two games in 2019, coming off shoulder surgery in January of 2019, who is Newton now? There's some uncertainty there.
The questions surrounding Stidham are more obvious. Who is he, other than a collection of impressive quarterbacking tools — good arm, good athleticism, an ability to throw off different platforms — who has taken zero snaps of consequence as a pro?
With either one, the quarterback position in New England will have a mobility element it has not had with Tom Brady taking snaps. That's an element to quarterbacking play that, according to some forward-thinking football minds, is critical in today's NFL.
"I think what you're seeing now is mobility being just so paramount in acquiring a quarterback," said Chiefs general manager Brett Veach, who's credited with pushing to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017. "Some things like velocity or accuracy, whereas before — depending on how you weighted things — certainly being a lot higher. I think the athletes nowadays and the speed from sideline to sideline is so great that you have to have a quarterback who can create plays.
"And the defensive lines — the defensive line talent that comes out every year is just ridiculous with the athletes up front so you just have to have a quarterback who can create plays on his own and throw from different platforms. Then if you have one who can create on his own, throw from different platforms and be accurate, good luck. It's hard."
Newton and Stidham are different players stylistically, there's no doubt.
When healthy, Newton has the better arm. When healthy, there's no more powerful runner at the quarterback position. He's an explosive play waiting to happen with the ball in his hands.
Stidham doesn't have the same kind of arm talent as a healthy Newton, but he's no slouch when it comes to spinning the football. He was arguably the most natural thrower in the draft two years ago, able to make accurate plays from various platforms. And while Stidham is not close to a healthy Newton when it comes to his running ability, he was the highest-rated dual-threat quarterback in the country coming out of high school not too long ago.
Rather than try to turn either player into the classic drop-back style passer the Patriots have had for two decades, they can hang onto some of those elements while devising a plan that would simultaneously cater to both of their athletic 2020 quarterbacking options.
NO TWO SCRAMBLERS ALIKE
Stidham was a ready runner during New England's preseason games, rushing for 93 yards on 11 non-designed runs, per Pro Football Focus. As recently-retired Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told Sirius XM NFL Radio recently, when Stidham "doesn't know, he'll take off." And when Stidham didn't tuck and run during his rookie preseason, he flashed an ability to extend plays and throw accurately while on the move.
But there were times when Stidham's effort to extend plays got him in trouble. He was stripped once while eluding pressure in the backfield against the Panthers in Week 3 of the preseason. In the Week 4 finale, Stidham was hit and picked off after scrambling outside the pocket. While he was accurate on 60 percent of his throws under pressure in preseason, according to PFF, he made a handful of decisions that could have easily resulted in turnovers.
Though we've seen relatively little of him as a pro, navigating pressure is one facet of Stidham's game that likely remains a work in progress. At Auburn, running an offense that encouraged him to get the football out of his hands quickly, he didn't have much in the way of experience sliding in the pocket to extend plays and find open receivers. He also was featured in some run-pass option plays that encouraged him to make a quick decision and take off quickly.
26 days to kickoff: Auburn defeats Alabama 26-14 in the second winner take all Iron Bowl in the past five seasons to win the SEC West. Alabama finished second and was denied a spot in the SEC Champ Game. P.S. don’t overlook Stidham’s ability to run the ball #WDE #2ndAnd26 pic.twitter.com/UZPMN18OZZ— Graham Brooks (@The_GBrooks) August 6, 2018
The Patriots could adapt some similar concepts with Stidham taking snaps, but it'd come as little surprise if those running game options were emphasized more with Newton behind center. For years the Panthers ran a power running game that sent Newton into the teeth of defenses behind pulling offensive linemen. He ran zone reads and lead draws. He was a quarterback who could be used as one of the most talented running backs in the league, which took a toll on defenses and his body alike.
The perfect offense for both Stidham and Newton might be one that would reward athletic quarterbacks who can throw on the move. It would give a historically banged-up passer like Newton more time and space behind the line of scrimmage to make prudent decisions on when to scramble and when to bail. It would provide a young quarterback like Stidham some quick-and-easy reads.
As it turns out, that style of offense happens to be spreading throughout the NFL at the moment. And with either Stidham or Newton at quarterback, the Patriots look built to be able to adapt some of its concepts.
The style of offense that is quickly proliferating throughout the NFL — the wide-zone, Shanahan-style attack — is "the best offense you can run" if you're looking for something that's going to be "extremely quarterback-friendly" and "eliminate thinking" to a degree, according to one offensive assistant from the Shanahan tree.
"When you roll out," the coach explained, "you have four options — one, two, three, four — that are there almost regardless of the coverage. You're only reading half the field, and you're going top-down: There's a deep element, a 10-to-12-yard intermediate element and someone in the flat. If it's open, throw it."
Those play-action plays — where the quarterback, running back, offensive line and tight ends sell a wide-zone run before the quarterback bootlegs in the opposite direction — seem perfectly suited to help a quarterback like Stidham transition to a starting role. They could help Newton thrive.
Both players are athletic enough to run the play-fake, spin in the opposite direction and throw on the move if needed. And any concerns about either quarterback choosing the option to keep and run the bootleg too frequently — thereby putting themselves in harm's way more often than they or the team might like — can be mitigated by the consistent reads those bootleg snaps create.
As we mentioned in our piece highlighting the value of versatile tight ends in this type of scheme, there are a variety of ways to set up the target options on these bootleg passes. And there are a variety of personnel groupings a team can use to give the plays a different flavor without overcomplicating the overall concept.
It's key for quarterbacks in this type of system to bootleg in either direction in order to better hide the offense's intentions snap-to-snap; if a right-handed quarterback is only comfortable rolling to his right to throw, that's not ideal. But whether moving right or left, the same elements show up consistently on these types of plays. If it doesn't outright "eliminate thinking," it helps speed up the process.
That could prove beneficial to any quarterback, but particularly quarterbacks like Newton or Stidham, who are both looking at the Herculean task of preparing for new jobs — one going from Carolina to New England, one going from backup to potential starter — during a shortened offseason.
'CREATES A TON OF INDECISION DEFENSIVELY'
While the quarterback's thought process on these types of plays is streamlined, they can still result in headaches for defenses.
If a coordinator wants to deploy split-safety coverages, the offense can run on the assumption that the opposition is short an in-the-box defender. Against post-safety coverages, crossing routes are problems for linebackers who bite on the run fakes. And when those routes become a nuisance, then the post safety may crash down to take them away. If that happens, the deep element-option is in one-on-one coverage with plenty of grass to play with. If all else fails, a quarterback with some athleticism can scramble with open space in front of him. Hit a defense with a few of those bootleg runs, and now opponents' heads are spinning.
This illustrates why Cam Newton is so valuable. LB 51, DE 98 and SS 32 all took a misstep away from the run because they were worried about Newton on a bootleg. pic.twitter.com/qruuzyh0Pp— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) December 6, 2017
It's through the air, though, where the chunk gains can be found most consistently.
"You're reading the post safety and if he takes the 20-yard over, that's a touchdown," the Shanahan-tree assistant said. "Even if you go one-for-three on those, you're good. It creates a ton of indecision defensively."
The evidence is there that this system can work, and work quickly, for quarterbacks with strong arms who have some mobility — a description that fits both of New England's new starting options.
Ryan Tannehill led the NFL in quarterback rating off of play-action for the Titans in 2019 (143.3) under offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who worked under former Mike Shanahan assistant Matt LaFleur in 2018. Minnesota's Kirk Cousins, playing in a scheme headed up by Kevin Stefanski and former Shanahan assistant Gary Kubiak, was fourth (129.2) and tied Lamar Jackson for the NFL lead for touchdowns thrown off of play-action (14). San Fran's Jimmy Garoppolo, with Kyle Shanahan calling the shots, was sixth in yards per attempt off of play-action (10.8) and fifth in touchdowns (9).
Buoyed by their play-action performances, Tannehill, Garoppolo and Cousins all ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in overall yards per attempt (first, third and seventh, respectively) and quarterback rating (first, eighth and fourth, respectively).
This system is the same one that took a good quarterback and turned him into an MVP when Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan made offensive magic in 2016. It's the same system that, with Mike Shanahan disciple Sean McVay in charge, turned Jared Goff into one of the league's most efficient passers.
SHANAHAN LINK IN FOXBORO
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doesn't hail from the same tree, but Bill Belichick went out of his way to hire a veteran coach from outside the building this offseason, Jedd Fisch, who could help Newton and Stidham master these concepts that have worked so well elsewhere.
Fisch was McVay's assistant offensive coordinator in 2019 and a senior offensive assistant in Los Angeles when Goff and the Rams made a Super Bowl in 2018. Earlier in his career, in 2008, Fisch was the receivers coach for Belichick pal and Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan. And when Fisch had his own NFL offense to run as the coordinator for the Jaguars in 2013 and 2014, it wasn't hard to see that he was influenced by his time in Shanahan's wide-zone scheme.
Incorporating these types of play-action boots wouldn't mean that the Patriots have to abandon the many from-the-pocket passes they relied upon for so long during Brady's tenure.
Even if those "keeper" throws ended up comprising only a play-call or two per quarter, that'd be significant. That'd be one or two plays that could lead to an explosive gain, one or two plays that would allow Newton or Stidham a prolonged period of time behind the line of scrimmage and provide them a chance to show off their physical skills.
In an offseason where the Patriots offense will be focused on accentuating the strengths of their quarterbacks, but without much practice time to do it, it would seem to make sense to try to have both Newton and Stidham learn the same concepts. Those might include run-pass option plays, power and zone reads. But Shanahan-style looks, which have permeated the NFL and sparked some of the most efficient offenses in the NFL recently, could yield results as well.