Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Analysis" of the Patriots offense

I don't know Rich Cimini. I don't know whether he's bright or dumb, quick or slow. I don't know whether he's serious or sarcastic.

I just know that this is one of the stupidest pieces of "analysis" that I've ever seen.

One of the worst-kept inside jokes around the NFL is Tom Brady’s weekly appearance on the Patriots’ injury report. For what seems like forever, he has appeared on the report with a mysterious shoulder ailment, which has caused many eyes to roll.

The way things are going this season for the Patriots, they might have to tweak the ‘ol injury report. Don’t be surprised if you check your local newspaper’s agate page one day soon and see something like this:

QB Tom Brady, right-arm fatigue, probable.

Brady is throwing like a one-armed bandit, leading one of the most prolific passing attacks in NFL history. The Patriots are 6-0, and Brady already has attempted 204 passes, including an NFL-best 21 touchdown passes. In Sunday’s 48-27 victory over the previously undefeated Cowboys, Tom Terrific became the first quarterback in history to throw at least three scores in each of his first six games.

OK? The Patriots have thrown the ball a lot. That's true. So far, so good.

But let's stop, for just a second, and look at that scary number there. "Brady has already attempted 204 passes." The clear implication is that that is a huge number. And it is currently 3rd in the NFL. However, the Patriots, unlike a dozen other teams, haven't had their bye week yet. If you look at attempts per game, Tom Brady is ... 8th.

Doesn't sound too extreme, does it?
He’s scary good, but it raises a question: Can the Patriots continue to blow away the competition with such a one-dimensional offense?

Gosh, is the offense one-dimensional? He hasn't offered a single piece of evidence that that's the case. But he must be right, of course, because that's the entire point of his article. I'm sure that if I check, the evidence will be overwhelming.

Checking...

Checking...

Uh, there's a slight problem here. Through 6 games, the Patriots have thrown the ball 204 times.

They've run it 202 times.

They've thrown the ball on 50.25% of their offensive plays. Number of NFL teams throwing it more often? 23 of 32. Number of teams with a more balanced pass/run attack than the Patriots? One (1).

That's it. Essentially, the offense that Rich Cimini (apparently) assumes is "one-dimensional" is one of the two most balanced offenses in the league.
History says no. Sooner or later, it has to bite them, right? Every football tenet indicates that a team requires some semblance of balance to win a championship. I mean, you can expect to do the same thing over and over, and get away with it.

And I'm sure that he's got the evidence to support that, too, right?

Because a team could never win a Super Bowl if they pass the ball 53% of the time, like the 2003 Patriots.
Or 54.1% of the time, like the 1996 Packers.
Or 55.2% of the time, like the 1999 Rams.
Or 55.9% of the time, like the 2006 Colts.

People who have actually looked at the issue, a group that clearly doesn't include Rich Cimini, have discovered that great passing teams have historically done better than great running teams.
Remember Air Coryell? In 1980 and 1981, Dan Fouts passed for 4,715 and 4,802 yards, respectively, but those high-flying Chargers teams never made the Super Bowl.

Remember Dan Marino’s heyday? He was a passing machine for the Dolphins in the mid-1980s, throwing for 48 touchdowns in 1984, but what did it get him? He got rich, even got a street named after him in Miami, but he has as many Super Bowl rings as me.

Which is three fewer than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Tell them some more, Rich, what they need to do.
Yes, the old 49ers, from the Bill Walsh and Joe Montana vintage, were a pass-first team. But they had a fellow by the name of Roger Craig in the backfield to keep defenses somewhat honest.

How did they do that, Rich? By running the ball about 50% of the time?
You can’t be a one-trick pony in the NFL.

That sounds good, but I'm not at all convinced that it's true.

Even if it were, however, I wouldn't appear to have any relevance to this very balanced New England attack.
Yes, Brady is having one of those amazing years — he’s on a 4,700-yard, 56-touchdown pace — but it’ll come crashing down eventually. And by that, I don’t mean a prolonged losing streak. But they won’t go undefeated, write that down.

Wow. There's a narrow limb to climb out on...
Obviously, coach Bill Belichick doesn’t want to play this way.

Given that he's the one running the team, and they're playing the way they are, I don't know where, exactly, that "obviously" comes from. Maybe Rich Cimini is as ignorant about Bill Belichick as he is about what the New England Patriots are doing.
If he had his druthers, he’d love to run it 40 times a game and ram it down the opponents’ throat (like early in the season when running backs Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney were 100% healthy). But what makes him such a good coach is his ability to adapt to his personnel.

With Morris and Maroney banged up, the strength of the Patriots rests on Brady (duh!) and the rebuilt receiving corps. So he’s going to let ‘er rip, especially if the matchups dictate an emphasis on the passing attack. And that certainly was the case against the Cowboys.

So if the running backs were healthy, Belichick would prefer to run an ineffective offence rather than an effective one? I don't think so.
Facing a thin and banged up secondary, the Patriots used spread formations throughout the game, creating favorable matchups all day. The Cowboys simply didn’t have enough defensive backs to cover the Patriots’ posse of receivers.

You want to double Randy Moss (six catches for 59 yards and a TD)?

Fine, no problem. They’ll throw to Dante Stallworth (seven catches for 136 yards and a TD).

You want to double Stallworth? Go right ahead. They’ll throw to the slot receiver, Wes Welker (11 catches for 124 yards and two TDs).

If Brady gets bored with those choices, he can throw to tight end Kyle Brady (one TD catch) just for kicks.

Brady finished with a career-high five touchdown passes, as the Patriots rolled to their highest point total since a 50-point outburst against the Colts in 1984.

“I’m not saying we’re unstoppable,” Moss said. “We just work hard at what we do.”

So now you’re thinking, “Why can’t they just keeping doing it?”

Yup - you got me there. I am. However, since I understand what they're doing, I'm not thinking, as you suppose, "why can't they just keep throwing the ball most of the time regardless of what the defense does?" but, rather, "why can't they continue to be effective by using their great offensive talent against the opposition's defensive weaknesses?" I suspect that they can. I think that the 16-game numbers won't end up being as gaudy as the 6 game numbers, and someone will probably hold them under 34 at some point, but this is a team without a significant offensive weakness.
Maybe they can, but it’s a dangerous way to play. In spread formations, you’re living with only five pass protectors (the offensive line), leaving the quarterback vulnerable to blitzers. On Sunday, it happened once to Brady, resulting in a strip/sack that was returned for a touchdown.

And how often do they actually do that? Far less than Cimini thinks. Most of the times they keep in plenty of blockers, and the receivers are so good that they get open anyway. Brady's been sacked 6 times this year.
A pass-heavy attack also doesn’t use much clock, putting a heavier burden on your defense. That happened to the Bills teams of the early 1990s, when Jim Kelly racked up big numbers with their “K Gun” no-huddle attack. Problem was, they scored so quickly that the defense never had much time to catch its breath on the sideline.

This really is a gem. There are two teams in the NFL who are holding the ball more than 35 minutes per game, which is more than 10 minutes longer than the opposition. One of them is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Any guesses as to the second?

Right. The New England Patriots.
Naturally, Belichick knows this. Heck, he was the guy who came up with the brilliant game plan for the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, essentially daring the Bills to run the ball. Before the game, he told his players that they’d win if Thurman Thomas rushed for more than 100 yards. They thought he was off his rocker, but he was dead on. He knew his plan would take the Bills out of their quick-strike element.

No doubt, Belichick will try to return to a balanced offense in New England.

That'll be quite a trick, returning to a place that you never left...
Much of that will depend on the health of his M&M Boys, Maroney and Morris. They’re going to need a running game in three weeks, when they face the Colts in what could be a battle of undefeated juggernauts. If they get into a shootout with Peyton Manning & Co., especially in the sterile confines of the RCA Dome, the Patriots will lose.

They lost in the AFCCG in a shootout to the Colts last year in the RCA Dome, so I guess that there's some historical precedence for this prediction. But it was a four-point game, and the Patriots have upgraded their defense, and significantly upgraded their receiving corps, so I'm far less certain that this statement is true, either.
Unless there’s another defensive whiz like Belichick out there, plotting ways to stop Brady & Co., the Patriots could win the Super Bowl with a run-and-shoot mentality. If they do, they’d be bucking decades of football doctrine.

Anyone who would confuse this Patriot offense, or offensive mentality, with a "run-and-shoot" mentality really needs to have his pundit card revoked...

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