I was on Twitter spit-balling on the idea of the Patriots drafting Hunter Renfrow in the sixth round, then the potential of having him and Braxton Berrios together as Julian Edelman moves closer to retirement (thought not seeming to slow down now). This is of course if they were to be successful and make a Patriots roster together, or have one beat out the other one in this imaginary scenario.
I joked that, we might see Renfrow and Berrios have success for the next decade together with various talking heads still like: “HOW DO THE PATRIOTS DO IT WITH NO RECEIVERS?!” With my response being a tongue-in-cheek kind of, “don’t you get it? These short dudes are receivers too.”
It’s so clear every post-season how valuable these 5’9″ to 6′ tall, 180 to 200-pound quick, joystick type of pass catchers are as route runners and ball carriers for the New England Patriots offense. We marveled the last few weekends as the Patriots had multiple seven or eight minute drives based around what we perceived to be the pounding Sony Michel rushing attack, but it was also the short, quick, efficient passes to James White, Julian Edelman, and Rex Burkhead. Even routes to downfield threats Chris Hogan have been short. Phillip Dorsett gives them a little bit of both.
But it feels like I write a variation of this article every offseason. Every year the industry marvels at the idea the Patriots make it so far with no one at receiver, while we watch every post-season come down to them peppering these short, quick receivers with targets. I’ve been writing about it since the 2014 Super Bowl against that elite Seahawks defense where Brady was 37 for 50 for 328 yards with four touchdowns to two interceptions. Edelman, Danny Amendola, and, the previous James White, Shane Vereen had 25 catches for 230 yards and three touchdowns on 31 targets. That’s an 80.6% catch rate and 7.4 yards per target; a highly efficient style of moving the football that helped them overcome rushing for just 57 yards on 21 carries (2.7 yards per carry), while still maintaining an efficient, ball moving offense.
I’m not sure what to make of Time of Possession as a stat, but it’s valuable to keep your defense off the field as we so often see defenses get worn out over the course of a game. The Patriots controlled the ball for seven and a half more minutes than a Seahawks offense that ran for 162 yards on 29 carries (5.58 ypc). It seems that short, passing offenses can be even more efficient at controlling the pace of the game than rushing the ball is in the style the Patriots do it.
Against the Chargers two weeks ago, White tied a playoff record with 15 receptions (on just 17 targets) for 97 yards. That’s 5.7 yards per play. Danny Kelly found that Brady’s average time to throw in this game was just 2.33 seconds per dropback and he averaged just 4.3 air yards per target. With this strategy, Brady wasn’t sacked on the day against one of the best pass rushing teams in the NFL. After the Chiefs win, Brady posted a picture on Instagram of his clean jersey thanking his linemen for another sack-less afternoon against what PFF ranked as the best pass rushing group in the NFL according to their pass rushing grade.
A line that let left tackle Nate Solder walk in free agency last offseason to a Giants team willing to give the 30-year old left tackle $15.5 million per year because of Ereck Flowers’ not panning out; a four-year $62 million reminder of the impact that draft failures have on an NFL team’s salary cap.
Meanwhile, the Patriots offensive line is playing in a seemingly dominant way as the league’s 29th most expensive offensive line group in the NFL in 2018. Part of that is scheme, part of that is talent, and another large part of that is Dante Scarnecchia, who might be the best offensive line coach of all-time. He’s a master choreographer in the art of offensive line play.
It’s these short, quick receivers that the Patriots create a ball control offense every postseason, but the addition of Sony Michel and what has looked like an elite power running game with James Develin and Rob Gronkowski generally crushing people at the point of attack is making the ball control offense even more potent. PFF’s Sam Monson tweeted that Develin played more snaps against the Chiefs than the fullbacks for 11 teams played over the course of the entire season.
White has 25 touches in two games for 169 scrimmage yards and 6.8 yards per touch in the two playoff games. Sony Michel has 242 rush yards on 53 carries (4.6 yards per carry) with five touchdowns. Rex Burkhead has 83 scrimmage yards on 21 touches (4.0 yards per touch) with three touchdowns. Their running backs account for 50% of scrimmage yards this postseason, while scoring eight of the 10 Patriots touchdowns. They’ve provided a dynamic, efficient ball-control based attack. The use of Develin illustrates the way they’re using an old strategy in a way that attacks weaknesses presented by modern defenses.
We get the word dynamic confused with the idea that the evolution of a dynamic offense is only trending in one direction, that we’re progressing towards this speed dominated strategy of existing in the league. But the definition of dynamic is a process or system characterized by constant change, activity, and progress. Belichick’s teams are dynamic because it’s this constantly changing organism over the course of seasons and over the course of a singular season that’s constantly capable of taking advantage of the problems presented to them.
In past seasons, we’d see Blount take over against bad rush defenses as well. Across the analytics world, guys like Josh Hermsmeyer and Kevin Cole point out how inefficient running the football is compared to passing the football, but Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders’ tweeted out during the AFC Championship game that there were six defenses where running the ball was actually more efficient than passing the ball with the Chiefs being one of the teams and the second worst run defense in the NFL by this metric as well. The Chargers fielded a terrific all around defense though and New England manhandled them in every way, partially due to Gus Bradley sticking with the same small defense he had success with the same defensive back heavy scheme he used to stop the Baltimore Ravens, which was exploited by the Patriots strategy.
The Chargers were able to stop the NFL’s second best rushing attack the week prior, so we can’t just explain away the Patriots success as scheme based without being respectful to the fact that they still beat the hell out of a team that shut someone else down the week prior.
These Patriots teams don’t just have these short, quick receiving groups to control the ball, but they’re always efficient enough running to manhandle sub-par rushing defenses. But against the best rushing defenses that passing attack is plenty to control the ball.
The Monson tweet reminded me of the idea that the Patriots were the first team to use shotgun a majority of the time. As Kevin Clark wrote in 2017, that 2007 team was the team that essentially introduced the ideas that now populate the league today: increase shotgun, increased emphasis on passing, a decreased reliance and perception in the value of running backs, an increase of three wide receiver sets, the death of the fullback, and much more. Defenses respond with smaller defenders with the league wide nickel and dime defense rates increasing from 43.4% in 2008 to 65.2% in 2017 to combat the changes in the offensive game.
So Belichick created the trends that populate the league today, then he utilizes old school strategies and techniques to exploit the weaknesses in the trends he helped popularize. Where the Rams lean into the trends of the day and run 11-personnel (one RB, one TE (11); three WRs) on essentially every play, the Patriots go against league-wide trends and try to exploit the league going smaller. Robert Mays writes that the Patriots use 21-personnel (two RBs, one TE (21); two WRs), on 31% of offensive plays, the second highest mark in the NFL behind the 49ers who signed fullback Kyle Juszczyk to a 2017 deal worth $5.25 million per year that still outpaces the market by over $3 million.
McVay does some things unique schematically that helps him supersede this necessity for a versatility of mismatch creators that a team like the Patriots excel using. In 11-personnel, he plays his primary three receivers (Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, then Josh Reynolds after injury), running back (Gurley, but with CJ Anderson coming on toward the end of the year of course), and cycles between Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee at tight end. Before the addition of CJ Anderson, there was almost no variation in the skill personnel on the field during the game.
Back to the point on the Patriots and their wide receiver group though after meandering off into discussions of offensive strategy for a few paragraphs.
It’s interesting that the Patriots have had success for 20 years with wide receiver groups that the entire industry has basically said aren’t any good. Their receivers apparently suck, yet the markets tell us that wide receiver is a very valuable position with Odell Beckham Jr. signing a contract that’s only outpaced in average per year by the quarterback market and the top two edge rushers in the edge defender market, and the Patriots keep making the playoffs with the same basic receiver configuration in terms of the type of personnel. They keep finding value by creating this wide receiver group that both stretches the field, then properly attacks it underneath, but with the heavy emphasis being on Brady’s ability to make decisions quickly and accurately deliver the ball in a way that allows his ball carrier to make plays.
This year they had that elite WR1 type player in Josh Gordon, but he can’t stop smoking weed and the league can’t take a plant that helps athletes deal with pain off the drug testing list because the owners need to keep all their bargaining chips for 2020 CBA negotiations. (Apparently the Patriots are paying for his treatment and standing behind him, Chris Hogan was apparently raving about him to Ty Dunne of Bleacher Report. Josh Gordon seems to be really trying his best and has the best organization in the sport still believing his on the right path. I hope the NFL grants him leniency with his latest drug test in what would be an unprecedented move (although I’m sure everyone else around the league would complain about it being the Patriots).) Last year they had Brandin Cooks, but in many years the Patriots have a WR2-type of player as their primary outside receiver like a Chris Hogan or Brandon Lafell. These players can stretch the field, run all the outside receiver routes, and create space for the other offensive weapons to take advantage of the space made underneath.
This is all part of the system they run now, which Kevin Clark explained in “The Near Perfect Team” started in 2007 with The Freak Randy Moss in this role at a low-cost because he’d be run out of Oakland. This was when Belichick introduced the slot receiver as a part of his offense as well with Wes Welker.
Moss took the top off coverages with 98 catches for 1493 yards and an NFL record 23 receiving touchdowns. Welker burst on the scene with 112 receptions for 1175 yards and eight touchdowns, which introduced the value of this style of quick possession receiver, as defenses didn’t have a responding chess piece to cover him with. This wasn’t the first time the Patriots succeeded with short, quick wide receivers, they’d been successful with Deion Branch, Troy Brown, David Patten, and even the six-foot tall David Givens.
While the cost of a Randy Moss type receiver proved too restrictive to continue with that strategy, Belichick broke down what Moss provided into it’s most basic component: the ability to take the top off the coverage. In 2016, his first year in Foxboro, Pro Football Focus said that Hogan was the best “go route” runner in the NFL.
The strategy was tweaked slightly for strategic advantages, plus cost reasons. Rather than invest in the Moss type receiver, Belichick drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft, who then developed into a killer tandem for three years until we found out Hernandez was the killer. Two tight ends presented a mismatch issue for every defense, plus two elite veteran tight ends cost as much as one elite outside receiver, so it’s a cost-saving efficiency based measure.
There is no two tight end strategy with the Patriots today, but the strategy remains with Gronkowski and other pieces. Gronkowski also has the capability of attacking the deep middle of the field, a valuable role in stretching defenders thin in the defensive backfield. Have someone who can stretch the field, have players underneath and the type of players creating production on the underneath routes provide more value than they’re being paid if we’re looking at the game from the perspective of achieving victory. If the Patriots can have this kind of success year after year with the Julian Edelman’s and James White’s of the world, but they still only cost two to three percent of the cap, then there’s something off about how we’re valuing them.
For years now, the narrative has been that Brady hasn’t had receivers, but if receiver is such an important piece of a passing game, then they must be good receivers because Brady and the Patriots have been in the Super Bowl 9 times in of his 17 seasons as a starter. Peyton Manning always had great wide receiver groups from Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, and Dallas Clark to Wayne, Clark, and Pierre Garcon to Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Owen Daniels, yet he didn’t have the kind of post-season success Brady had. Of course, in Caponomics I discuss how much of this is caused by Brady being at a lower cap hit in almost every year and much lower in terms of his average cap hit over the years, but these receiver groups must be competent enough for them to continuously be in the big game.
Taking this line of thinking with Manning, if we’re working under the premise Brady’s receivers suck, yet he’s still making the Super Bowl every year, then we also have to assume that Brady is a much more talented quarterback than Manning to produce in a similar way so consistently, yet none of us think Brady is supremely talented compared to Manning.
Brady is the same guy who had Drew Hensen threatening his job during his two seasons as a starter at Michigan, he fell to the sixth round for reasons, so just from a probability standpoint it’s unlikely he’s some kind of generational talent. It’s more likely that he’s a very talented player with one of the most finely tuned competitive mindsets we’ve ever seen in American sports, a tireless work ethic, and surrounded by elite football minds. He reminds me of a champion I grew up looking up to in Derek Jeter, although Jeter was drafted sixth overall in the 1992 MLB Draft, so using that kind of barometer he’s likely the more naturally gifted athlete in his sport.
It’s this Patriots success that makes me wonder how much we overvalue most of the wide receiver market, while also wondering how we should properly value these quick, chain moving type of players. They’re not 1250-yard per season players, which is what you’d constitute as a six to nine percent of the cap type of player, but a 1100-yard receiver who catches 100 balls should be worth six percent of the cap, right? But they’re not. So therefore, in my opinion, not only are they valuable for what they do on the field in moving the chains and getting open in hard to defend ways on high percentage routes, but they’re valuable from a cost perspective.
Then there’s the success of Dak Prescott in Dallas once he had Amari Cooper that seems to show us how important a great receiver is. But is Cooper necessary because he’s an elite receiver or is he necessary because Jason Garrett doesn’t run a very innovative offense?
According to Graham Barfield of NFL.com, over the first six weeks of the season, prior to the addition of Cooper, Prescott was struggling against pressure largely due to the inability of his receivers to separate. They were earning just 2.4 yards per separation at the target point when Prescott was under duress, which was the second-worst figure in the NFL (Sam Darnold’s receivers had averaged only 2.2 yards of separation per play). Because they were unable to get open quickly, he was under pressure more often and being under pressure these tight throws were made even harder.
But according to Keegan Abdoo an NFL Next Gen Stats researcher, while yards of separation may give us some information about a receiver’s proficiency, it is largely a function of factors outside of their performance. Abdoo says it has more to do with a receiver’s role, rather than their ability as of now. He says that once we tie yards of separation to route and coverage data it starts to be a lot more relevant, but still the main ingredient in a player creating separation in a hyper competitive league of elite pass catchers and coverage players is how the offensive coordinator gets that player open. It can be man or zone defense, how does the coordinator put the defender in a position he can’t win? This can be done with play action, using motion to outflank defenders, using option routes to make sure the defender can’t ever be right, specific route combinations, pick plays, forcing defenders to navigate across the middle of the field, creating higher splits for receivers to give them a two-way go like a slot receiver, and other concepts.
Part of creating separation Abdoo says is a team’s play caller putting wide receivers in the specific role that matches their skill set, which is something I mention above regarding how the Patriots break their pass catching group up into the roles of field stretcher (Hogan), chain mover (Edelman, White), and red zone-slash-middle of the field target (Gronkowski, but also Edelman and White as they get open in tight spaces). These players fulfill roles that make the offense go and they fill them well because Belichick and Company have constructed this system over decades and know exactly what traits they’re looking for.
Hogan, a former college lacrosse player in the last year of a three-year, $12 million contract, was second in the NFL in average yards of separation at 4.1. This is a player no one is clamoring to sign, but for three years he’s played a key role in helping the team make the Super Bowl. In January 2017, he had 9 catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns to beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship. In last year’s Super Bowl, he had six catches for 128 yards and a touchdown with Cooks out of the game with a concussion.
His production is partially a function of his tremendous (and wildly under appreciated) athletic ability, but also his role in the offense. Great offensive coordinators get the best out of their offensive pieces.
In the year of the offensive explosion, it came as no surprise that the final four teams had the four best offenses, they were the teams we thought would be there all season. They didn’t just have the four best offenses because they had elite units and quarterbacks either. They had the four best offenses because, arguably, they are coached by the four best offensive minds in the NFL: Josh McDaniels (with Bill Belichick and staff), Sean McVay, Andy Reid, and Sean Payton. While the previous year had a lot of talk about the final four teams being the four best defenses, even last year had three elite offensive minds with the Patriots tandem, Doug Pederson, and Pat Shurmur.
In 2016, Kyle Shanahan helped bring the Falcons to the Super Bowl before taking the head-coaching job in San Francisco.
Consider Pederson. Last year he went on a run with his back-up quarterback that multiple coaches had given up on. In the Super Bowl Nick Foles had the second-highest PFF grade from a quarterback in Super Bowls since 2006. His 92.3 grade was only beat by Aaron Rodgers’ 94.3 in Super Bowl XLV against the Steelers.
Shurmur made it to the NFC Championship with Case Keenum, an undrafted quarterback who had bounced between the Texans and Rams for five seasons before landing in Minnesota. He did it by using play action passes at the second highest-rate in the NFL. Jared Goff led the NFL by throwing play action on 29.1% of passes, but Keenum was next at 28.7.
Since Chip Kelly was the focus of the 2013 season, people forget that Shurmur was the offensive coordinator of the record-breaking Eagles offense that year. Whether he called the plays or not, whether it was his system or not, he was there when many of the spread concepts that are now spreading around the league were beginning to be utilized in a complete system. He’s certainly picked up innovative ideas that are serving him as a coach today in addition to the ideas he had picked up working under Andy Reid from 1999 through 2008.
Speaking of ideas like forcing defenders to navigate across the middle of the field, the Patriots utilized Cooks and Hogan extremely well in 2017 on deep crossers. After recovering from the ACL tear that stole his 2017 season, Edelman has gone back to making huge plays over the middle in important scenarios. He’s back to running motion across the formation, outflanking the defender over him and completing easy 4-yard outs that convert in important 3rd and short situations.
Speaking of the idea of shortening a receivers split to give him a near impossible to defend two-way go, McVay uses a formation that Abdoo refers to as the “naked slot” a league high 43% of the time. This naked slot is when the outside receiver is split within six-yards of the offensive tackle, which is extremely unique. So unique that the next highest team was the Titans at 23% and the league average for this formation was just 12%.
Another thing McVay does better than anyone else to give himself a hard to defend advantage is that Todd Gurley has led the NFL in rushes against defensive boxes with six or fewer defenders, which gives the running game a distinct numbers advantage that results in a more efficient running game. This is a huge reason why they use 11-personnel on essentially every play, because it results in the defense spreading out with smaller defenders to contend with the third receiver and leaving these short-handed boxes.
From 2016 through the first six weeks of 2018, Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight found that running backs with at least 20 carries averaged 4.75 yards per carry against six men in the box, which is well over a half a yard higher than the average of 4.09 per carry when those same backs faced seven defenders near the line of scrimmage. Against eight man fronts, their yards per carry dropped to 3.59. Obviously, loaded boxes make things more difficult.
Through the first six weeks of 2018, Hersmeyer found that Gurley averaged 5.5 yards per carry versus 6-man fronts, which was about average. Against neutral 7-man fronts, he was below league average at just 3.7 yards per carry. Using the graph below, Hermsmeyer then illustrates that Gurley is still basically the same back he was in his 3.2 yards per carry 2016 season, making defenses miss less often than expected per league averages. Gurley is a productive back, but CJ Anderson is illustrating that many RBs could succeed with McVay.
He amplifies Gurley’s abilities via running against boxes where they have the numbers and frequently throwing him the ball on first down when defenses traditionally face rushing plays despite extensive data showing how much more efficient passing the football on first down is compared to running it. They frequently create the numbers advantage for Gurley to run into because of their almost total use of 11-personnel forcing defenses to go smaller or else be gashed by the passing game. The defense likely picks their poison and since rushing is less efficient and less likely to produce a big play, the defensive coordinators make that decision to go small…at least until someone comes up with a solution.
We can see how these top coaches create scenarios where average players become productive or good players become great players. We can also understand why a Jason Garrett led Cowboys offense might be unable to create separation for receivers. As David Moore from The Dallas Morning News pointed out this week while the rest of the NFL is focused on hiring top offensive minds with seven of the eight head coaching roles filled by offensive coaches, Garrett has no one in his coaching tree. In eight seasons, there have been 19 coaches to work under Garrett on the offensive side of the ball, yet none have gone on to oversee the offense of another NFL team.
Part of this is due to Garrett coming from an offensive system, the Air Coryell, which is a valid offensive system, but a piece of pre-salary cap era history. Philosophically it’s a deep passing offense that saw Dak Prescott have the 8th highest average time to throw at 2.65 seconds after the snap. With Deshaun Watson, Prescott led the NFL with 49 sacks that came 2.5 seconds after the snap.
In a league trending toward quick throws under 2.5 seconds, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where a quarterback is holding the ball for so long. Not only does that lead to sacks, but also quarterback pressures, which severely decrease the efficiency of quarterbacks.
It’s not he offense is heavily reliant on having a big armed quarterback with an offensive line that can protect the quarterback. The system needs an elite running back, plus a solid tight end and two complete receivers outside who can stretch the field deep. We can see this from the 1995 Cowboys team that had Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper, Jay Novacek and a terrific offensive line. When I first started writing for Over The Cap, I looked at the 2014 Cowboys team and saw exactly what they were trying to re-create with Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Jason Witten, that offensive line, plus an extra piece like Cole Beasley, but by the time that really came together with a competent defense, the window closed.
The issue with this strategy is not just the deep passing focus without the proper underneath passing system, the issue is that it’s an expensive offense. You need elite players to succeed because the system itself isn’t as innovative, while the West Coast and Erhardt-Perkins offenses are built on principles of efficiency that play well in today’s NFL that forces to abide by the rules of the salary cap.
Any business knows it’s not just about the people you hire, it’s about the systems you have in place to maximize their production and efficiency and Garrett’s system isn’t the best option for strategic and financial reasons.
While the Patriots have sustained a two decade long competitive dynasty because they don’t need to take advantage of “windows.” Their roster is primed to be successful due to the ability of the staff and front office to cycle talented players into fairly easy to fill roles, the Cowboys run a system predicated on winning when the window is right, winning before costs restrict the team from fielding the kind of complete roster they need to succeed, especially on offense. Garrett surely is a good coach with a .566 winning percentage over nine years, but there are definitely some things that stand in the way of being the legendary Super Bowl winning Cowboys head coach he wants to be.
That window may have passed with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper all due large investments on offense, plus Demarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones on defense. Their inability to take advantage of Prescott and Elliott’s rookie contracts, two NFL Rookie of the Year candidates their freshman seasons, with an elite offensive line and Dez Bryant could haunt Cowboys fans for years to come. The hope has to be that the team will continue to draft well enough on the offensive line and defense to sustain this roster moving forward.
The whole lesson in all of this, a lesson we keep learning, is that the people calling your plays on offense and defense are the most important value creators in your organization. Considering that offense has been found to be the more important side of the ball via data analysis and it’s also the more expensive side of the ball, the person calling your plays on offense is the most important value creator in the organization, although I have no way to quantify that as of right now. Figuring out some more data analytics based standards for how we judge offensive coordinators is probably a necessity in the future.
Maybe I didn’t touch on that point enough in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, but it’s a point I’m going to be sure to continue to integrate into future analysis.
Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time, but he’s not Tom Brady without the offensive minds that have helped mold him and the Patriots offense. Peyton Manning was supremely talented, but he’s not Peyton Manning without his mind being capable of running and calling the entire offense while playing quarterback. Successful rookie contract quarterbacks like Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, and Jared Goff are not the same players without their great coordinators and head coaches. They all run highly efficient offenses on the cutting edge of innovations that provide advantages.
We even saw an example this season of Baker Mayfield. In six games with Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, Mayfield completed 58.3% of passes for 245 yards per game, 6.6 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns to six interceptions. Once they were gone and Freddie Kitchens was running the offense, his numbers over the last eight games included a completion percentage of 68.4%, 281.8 yards per game, 8.6 yards per attempt and 19 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
Mayfield’s success is why sticking with Freddie Kitchens seems to be the right move for the Browns and it’s why hiring offensive coaches as head coaches seems to be the new wave. Make your head coach the same guy who makes your offense go and no one will hire him away, which means no one is stealing your greatest value creator.
The trend of hiring the philosophical offspring of whoever the hottest offensive mind in the NFL is might be a trend that’s here to stay. And, if you find the people with the right mindset to also be a head coach, it might not be such a bad strategy.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.