FOXBORO -- Everyone's talking about it. Openly. It's not very Patriots. Not at all.
And yet, at the same time, it is. Because while Bill Belichick, myriad offensive assistants and players have acknowledged that the team's scheme is changing on that side of the ball, no one has publicly given up much in the way of clues as to what that change will actually mean.
Belichick called it a "streamlined" system that will help players and coaches who haven't been around for the better part of the last two decades as Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady were. They're turning things over. Paring down. Simplifying.
But how they're doing that has varied depending on whom you ask.
Kendrick Bourne said earlier this offseason that it's the terminology that's changed. DeVante Parker, who had his best season under former Patriots assistant and Dolphins offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea in a New England style offense in Miami, said this week that the terminology is about the same as it was back then.
Perhaps the best explanation of what's going on came from the man who looks like the de facto offensive coordinator at practices this summer: Matt Patricia.
"I think a lot of offenses have certain variations," he said Monday. "Any time there's a transition if you're talking volume and things like that, some of it may change.
"Philosophically, we are just going to go out and evaluate the players to see what we have that we want to be able to utilize. We'll always adapt to what we have as a team and what we think is best for the players on the field."
Adjusting the volume
If what the Patriots are doing this offseason is focusing on adjusting the volume, or how often they turn to a certain portion of their once-voluminous playbook -- and in so doing maximizing the strengths of their players on that side of the ball -- then followers of the team may have finally gotten a peek into how that will manifest itself during the first padded practice of summer in Foxboro.
During the first 11-on-11 period of Monday's practice, eight of nine snaps between the first and second-team offenses appeared to be wide-zone (or "outside-zone") runs. That was noteworthy.
The Patriots have long been a team that has featured a diverse rushing attack, but they were known more for their "gap" plays with pulling guards, trap plays that catch opponents off-guard, and powerful double-teams at the point of attack.
They always had zone runs in their playbook -- both inside-zone runs and outside-zone runs that intend to stretch the defense horizontally. But they haven't necessarily majored in those plays. It hasn't been a foundational building block of their ever-changing, week-to-week plan.
Attacking the first eight of nine plays with either outside-zone hand-offs or play-action bootleg passes off of those wide-zone looks would suggest they're open to zeroing in on those concepts in 2022.
They weren't necessarily a thing of beauty. Which -- one padded practice into camp, with a new coaching staff and a new scheme -- should probably be expected. There was one two-play sequence that probably illustrated their mixed-bag results with the new focus on outside zone, with both plays featuring Stevenson.
On the first, near the goal line, the offensive line moved in unison to its left. Jones moved quickly that way to meet Stevenson for an exchange. Isaiah Wynn, sealing off his man on the back side of the formation, helped open up a hole that Stevenson quickly spotted. The second-year back cut back and waltzed into the end zone easily.
On the next snap, it looked like the Patriots might be trying to do something similar in the opposite direction. Whether because of a different pressure scheme from the defense, a mistake in communication or something else, the outcome was quite different.
Instead of Jones giving the ball to Stevenson, as it appeared the QB wanted to, Stevenson immediately ran a route into the flat. But he was covered easily by Josh Uche, and Mack Wilson was bearing down on Jones. Eventually, Jones fired the ball into the turf on what looked like a broken play from the jump.
Not exactly how it was drawn up. And again, those growing pains are likely to be seen over the course of the summer. But there's a reason the Patriots could be turning to this kind of scheme for the coming year.
Shanahan influence hitting Foxboro?
It works. It has taken the league by storm and augmented just about every offensive huddle it has touched lately.
Popularized by Belichick pal Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak in the 1990s with Hall of Famers John Elway and Terrell Davis, the idea is for these wide-zone runs to get opposing defenses flowing in one direction. If the run play can continue in that direction and pick up yardage either by getting around the edge or by knifing through a cutback lane at the line of scrimmage, that's welcome.
But the play-action game that functions off of those runs, because they force defenses to flow to one side of the field, can be lethal.
Belichick pal Kyle Shanahan has taken his father's offense and made it his own in a variety of NFL locales. It helped turn Matt Schaub into a Pro Bowler in Houston. It made Kirk Cousins a very rich man in Washington. It turned an already very good quarterback in Matt Ryan into an MVP in Atlanta in 2016. And it boosted Jimmy Garoppolo's numbers to make him look like one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football -- and the Niners still willingly moved on from him knowing there was more production available from the scheme because it is so quarterback-friendly.
Since Shanahan's scheme has had success just about wherever he's gone, it's spread. Like wildfire.
Sean McVay has put his own spin on it in Los Angeles. Matt LaFleur took it to Tennessee and then Green Bay, where Hall-of-Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers has experienced a career revival and won back-to-back MVP awards. Arthur Smith, using some of what he gleaned from LaFleur, helped Ryan Tannehill have a career year for the Titans in 2019 and parlayed a couple of wildly-productive play-action seasons into a head-coaching opportunity in Atlanta. Kevin Stefanski learned from Kubiak and took his talents from the offensive coordinator's chair in Minnesota to the head coach's seat in Cleveland.
And now the scheme appears to be taking root in the AFC East. Not only do the Patriots appear to be going that way, but the Dolphins under former Shanahan assistant Mike McDaniel and the Jets under former Shanahan assistant Mike LaFleur will also build their attacks on these wide-zone-heavy, play-action-heavy designs.
'Absolutely' a good fit
I spoke with one AFC assistant who has worked in and around this scheme for the better part of the last decade, and he explained that it "absolutely" would be a logical path for the Patriots offense to follow.
The reasoning? With new offensive line coaches Patricia and Billy Yates at the controls, it can be a more simplified style of offense to teach up front. It also is a scheme that makes the most of athletic offensive linemen. Outside of 350-pounder Mike Onwenu, the other projected starters for the Patriots offense are viewed as good athletes. First-round pick Cole Strange tested as an elite athlete and ran a wide-zone-centric scheme at UT-Chattanooga.
This scheme would also qualify as one that should maximize the talents of two of their most highly-paid players on that side of the ball: their tight ends.
Both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are lighter, more athletic types. Not hulking "Y" tight ends who look like skinny offensive tackles -- tight ends who can get on the move as blockers and do damage as catch-and-run players in the passing game tend to thrive in this scheme. For a team that needs to get more out of this duo, specifically from Smith, this move seems like it would be a wise one.
Smith, under Arthur Smith in 2019, was second in the NFL among tight ends in average yards after the catch. If they can unlock that kind of season from him, their offense could hit another level.
Then there's what this scheme may be able to do for New England's down-the-field passing attack. Another offensive assistant called this scheme "extremely quarterback-friendly" and said it's "the best offense you can run" if you're looking to "eliminate thinking" to a degree with your passing attack.
"When you roll out (on play-action)," 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."
With receivers DeVante Parker and Tyquan Thornton now in the mix, the Patriots have a pair they hope can threaten opposing defenses as that "deep element." They need someone to do it, because last year, defensive coaches told NBC Sports Boston, opponents simply were not concerned with New England's long passing game.
"He needs guys who can get open," one NFC defensive coach said of Jones. "They don't have guys that can get down the field and have him throw it up for an explosive pass... You need somebody better. Do you need [Ja'Marr] Chase? No. But the best receivers they had this year were Hunter Henry and [Jakobi Meyers] inside. [Nelson] Agholor is just not a consistent guy. He's not going to beat you."
As a rookie, Jones was 21st in the NFL on yards per deep attempt (12.1 yards per pass that traveled 20 yards or more down the field). Including playoffs, he was 28th in NFL passer rating on deep passes (72.4), which was well below league average on those types of throws (92.7) and well below his own rating to any other level of the field (96.7 from 10-19 yards, 95.2 from 0-9 yards, 104.6 behind the line).
If, with new personnel on the outside and a scheme designed to threaten deep, the Patriots can soften how opponents load the box against the run, that could have a trickle-down effect and further enhance what was an efficient run game a season ago.
Belichick had two backs who saw eight or more defenders in the box on over 30 percent of their carries this year (Stevenson, 41.4; Harris 31.7), per Next Gen Stats. Stevenson and Harris were second and eighth in the NFL, respectively, in terms of percentage of runs against stacked boxes. The only other team in the NFL with two backs inside the top eight was Tennessee (D'Onta Foreman, 46.6; Derrick Henry, 36.5).
If defenses do want to continue to load the box with single-high safety looks and force Jones and this scheme to beat them over the top, there should be opportunities there.
"You're reading the post safety and if he takes the 20-yard over, that's a touchdown," the AFC assistant said. "Even if you go one-for-three on those, you're good. It creates a ton of indecision defensively."
It's still early. It's still not quite clear whether or not this is where the Patriots are going. But if they are, there are plenty of reasons as to why it would make sense.