FOXBORO – We knew the Patriots were going to do some things differently on offense in 2022.
We heard from Kendrick Bourne about scheme changes. Jakob Johnson said when he signed with the Raiders that the Patriots were phasing out the fullback position. We knew that over the past two decades the Patriots playbook and scheme had gotten heavy.
So paring things down, simplifying and streamlining all made perfect sense. We talked at length about the changes we were seeing during minicamp.
But through one week of training camp, we’re not looking at a team going through an offensive nip-and-tuck. It’s a renovation.
It’s like leaving your house in the morning when the landscapers are arriving to mow the lawn and coming home at 5 p.m. to find the lawn ripped up and them still working away. Not. What. Was. Expected!
The most arresting two words uttered by anyone in the first week came from Mac Jones after Tuesday’s unpolished padded practice when he said he was “getting my feet wet in the new offense.”
So far, I don’t think Mac likes the water. And nobody could blame him. As a rookie in 2021, the strength of the Patriots offense was quarterback. Jones was a vast upgrade over Cam Newton and a player accurate, poised and shrewd enough to show waaaayyyyy more competency than any other rookie quarterback had in the Patriots system. He made the Pro Bowl. The Patriots made the playoffs. The arrow was pointing up.
And in Year 2 Bill Belichick decides that the best offensive coordinator to succeed Josh McDaniels is no offensive coordinator. And that the de facto OC – Matt Patricia – will be a guy who’ll split his time between coordinating the offense, coaching the offensive line and dealing with whatever else Belichick lobs his way. And Mac’s quarterbacks coach will be Joe Judge, a fella who’s never been a quarterbacks coach.
And, oh yeah, new offense. More stretch runs even though the Patriots stunk running wide in 2021 and traded one of the league’s most athletically smooth guards, Shaq Mason, and replaced him with heavy-footed Mike Onwenu.
Will it work? Eventually, yeah. The whole apocalyptic, "I’ve never seen anything this bad in my life!!!!" tenor of the reports coming out of these early practices blissfully ignores the fact that everyone stinks when they start something new. It also ignores that 11 guys trying something new at the same time with 11 guys trying to stop them may stink even worse.
They are going to get better. But in the time it takes them to get better, practice days are being frittered away as the Patriots rep plays, get in the lab, correct them and then run them again.
“Right now, we’re just trying to run our base plays and see it on film. That’s the biggest part,” Jones said Tuesday. “Every offense has a system where they can change the play and we do, too. When we get there, we get there, but right now it’s more about the fundamentals. ... Some of the plays that we’re running, we’re going out there and seeing what it looks like first, and then trying to figure it out. So that’s the biggest thing, is just getting the plays on the screen and watching them. ‘All right, here’s the problem, this guy’s unblocked, how do we block him?’ It’s really not rocket science but our job is to execute what they tell us to.”
I’m sure if Jones had his druthers, he’d have picked up where he left off in 2021. The defense probably feels the same. They’re not getting better blowing up an offense that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing yet. And they are getting a first-hand look at just how stifling they may have to be if this whole install takes months to show dividends. And it likely will. The Patriots are notorious for treating September as an extension of training camp as they get their feet set and plot a course for who they’ll be.
Their former quarterback, McDaniels and high-level talent that dotted the roster on both sides of the ball gave them that luxury. They could pummel two-thirds of the league without breaking a sweat. The 2019 team started 8-0. Their offense was Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and James White. (Of course, the 2018 team lost five times to non-playoff teams and won the Super Bowl … I digress).
Now? They aren’t really equipped to out-talent many teams. And if they can’t outscheme or outsmart ‘ em either – as they did on many occasions last year – what’s the edge?
Which brings us back to why, why, why, why. And for me, it keeps coming back to the name Shanahan. Not Kyle. Mike.
Nobody was a better offensive coaching foil for Belichick than the longtime Raiders/Broncos/Washington coach.
“I've had the privilege of coaching in this league for a long time against a lot of great people, especially offensively. ...I have to put Mike right up there with any I've ever coached against,” Belichick once said.
"I don't think there is anybody any better at game-planning and creating problems for the defense. He takes a look at what you do and then he presents a situation for you that is tough to deal with. It's always something that is a little bit different, but it always hits right where it hurts the most.''
Before SB51 at the end of the 2016 season, we peppered Belichick with questions about the Shanahan Offense which really began with Mike and was passed down to his son, Kyle. Read all about it here.
The way Belichick has gone on about Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay (who also runs a similar style with the Rams) or the brilliance of what Peyton Manning did with the Colts with the stretch running game, one can easily see why he’s been itching for switching.
Belichick’s been tethered to the Erhardt/Perkins offense since the 1980s. Charlie Weis came up in it, so when he and Belichick came to New England to coach Drew Bledsoe – who’d played in a Super Bowl running the scheme – the offense followed. Brady replaced Bledsoe and was adept at it, so they kept going with it. There were tweaks and adjustments as Brady and McDaniels molded it more and more.
As it got more and more complex, college offenses were simultaneously getting more and more simplified so quarterbacks and wideouts could simply play fast. So the pool of draftable receivers the Patriots could consider was small and the number that actually succeeded, well, we know the numbers there.
But the Patriots weren’t going to give up their edge when Brady was still dicing. And, after the team convinced McDaniels in 2017 to pass on the Colts job, they sure as hell weren’t going to ramrod a scheme change down his throat. So on it went.
Until Brady left. And then McDaniels got an interview with the Raiders and the Patriots didn’t lift a finger this time to stop him from taking the job. With the cockpit clear, the Patriots were now clear to perhaps update their offense to one that’s more user-friendly.
Which brings us back to Mac, Mac, Mac, Mac. And the fact he’s the pilot of an offense and his air traffic controllers are working their asses off to figure out just how to get the plane off the ground.
Do they at some point have to abort takeoff and go back to the old offense? Anyone thinking that might happen doesn’t know Belichick very well. One way or another, this offense is getting in the air. Even if it bumps on its belly over every runway for weeks, the long-term benefit of changing is going to be worth the short-term pain of trying to change.