FOXBORO — Well. That was different.
The Patriots unveiled their highly-anticipated new offensive approach on Sunday afternoon, and it's yielded early returns. Behind a whopping 15 carries from Cam Newton — going for 75 yards and two scores — they bullied their way to a Week 1 win over the Dolphins, 21-11.
It was a record-breaking performance in a few different ways.
Newton's rushing total was the highest by a Patriots quarterback since Steve Grogan rushed for 81 yards way back in 1977. His 15 carries were the most he's had since rushing 17 times back in Week 6 of 2014. And according to Next Gen Stats, the Patriots either ran the ball or used play-action on 83 percent of their offensive plays. That was the fifth-highest rate by any team over the last two seasons, and it was the highest rate by the Patriots in five seasons.
And though the Patriots pounded the Dolphins over the head with their running game, rushing for 217 yards on 42 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and three scores, variety was the name of the game.
Newton ran for 12 on a non-designed scramble and he scampered for 10 — dragging Kyle Van Noy behind him — on a zone-read keeper. He ran quarterback sweeps down by the goal line and scored on one. He faked a hand-off and bootlegged to the opposite direction, sprinting to open space for his second score. He ran quarterback draws and he pitched one to James White on an option play you might be accustomed to seeing from your local high school team execute on Friday nights.
But it wasn't all Newton, of course. Julian Edelman had a 23-yard end-around. Rex Burkhead scampered for 15 yards on a zone-read play that confounded the Dolphins. J.J. Taylor and Sony Michel pounded Miami between the tackles. Even some of Newton's passes worked like run plays, with backs or receivers swinging out of the backfield, trying to get runners in space with a head of steam to churn out yardage.
To call it a throwback plan by Josh McDaniels would be a misnomer. Yes, the Patriots more than doubled-up their pass attempts (19) with carries (42) in a league that passed on about 60 percent of its offensive snaps last year. But this was modern-day option football that can be executed by only a handful of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league. It was a modern-day play-action scheme at time, using motion and wide-zone misdirection that's employed heavily by some of the brightest young offensive minds in the NFL like Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.
McDaniels has his power-running quarterback and he's not afraid to use him. Years after dipping into the first round to draft Tim Tebow in Denver, McDaniels has someone who can execute that vision. So far so good, at least.
"He put our offensive players in great positions to make plays," Belichick said of his offensive coordinator after the fact.
And he did it by keeping the Dolphins off-balance even before the ball was snapped.
He used seven different personnel groupings — at times using a deep group of active offensive linemen — to force Miami's hand personnel wise on the other side. McDaniels called on the NFL's go-to grouping (11 personnel) less than half the time, for 29 plays. They rolled with two backs, it appeared, on 20 snaps. Two tight-end groupings seemed to get the call nine times. And in certain situations, McDaniels went very heavy. On the goal line, he rolled with four tight ends and a fullback, using Newton in the traditional running-back role. Multi-back and multi-tight end groupings also trotted out to the field at times.
It's a lot to keep track of. For the defense, sure, but also for the offensive coordinator calling for all those looks in the first week of a new scheme.
But the Patriots had a plan, chiseled after two months with a unique talent at quarterback. They had a coordinator who has been planning for this moment ever since he was running his own team a decade ago. They have a head coach open to anything.
Together, with a combination of brute force and guile, they grounded out a win in their first go-round. It was different. And the league will have to adjust accordingly in order to prevent them from gaining some momentum with their new offensive approach.