Precision is what makes Patriots passing attack sparkle
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (centre) celebrates with teammates Danny Amendola (80) and Brandon LaFell (19) after scoring a touchdown against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015. (Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports)
Precision is not required for pass catchers in the New England Patriots offence so much as it is demanded.
Insisted upon, really, by no one more so than the famous starting quarterback himself.
The too-simplistic answer to the question, “Why are the New England Patriots so prolific on offence, year after year?” is Tom Brady.
Well, duh: the sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback-to-be, the three-time Super Bowl champion, the two-time Super Bowl and league MVP, and the still-unsatisfied owner of a slew of NFL records for winning and throwing.
But to understand why Brady and the Patriots pass attack remain so lethal, you have to punt the fashionable idea that those who have caught his passes over the past 14 seasons -- with the obvious exception of Randy Moss -- were anybodys, purely bargain-bin receivers.
Not so. And not fair.
There’s far more to it than that. And never mind if so many were unwanted and unaccomplished before coming to New England, and generally the same after leaving New England.
Head coach Bill Belichick cannot, and does not, just plug in anyone who’s free on the waiver wire to keep his formidable offensive machine humming and rolling.
That Brady is great and the Patriots passing system is uncommonly well-refined are both true.
But the other essential ingredient? Pass catchers who run precise, disciplined routes.
Play, after play, after play, after play.
To this degree.
“Let’s say we’re lined up on the line,” wide receiver Danny Amendola told me Tuesday at Super Bowl XLIX Media Day, “and your split is off by just a matter of a couple of inches. Tom will see it, and fix it and get you right. It comes down to inches with him, for sure.”
On Wednesday morning, I relayed that example to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who chuckled knowingly before I even finished the anecdote.
“That was the way we were taught (here) -- to be precise, to have great attention to detail and try to make sure that the players are as prepared as possible,” said McDaniels, who is in his second stint running New England’s offence since 2006, after two years as quarterbacks coach.
You better believe Brady demands his receivers to be prepared.
“If what you’re doing is not exactly right, he’ll tell you once,” No. 3 tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said. “After that, it’s on you. (Mess up twice) and you probably won’t be out there.
“The guys that can listen to him, as well as to the coaches, are usually the guys who are on the field.”
New England’s incarnation of NFL offence is not for every receiver.
Ask Chad Johnson, whose hands, ball skills and speed still seemed to be NFL-worthy in 2011, his 11th year, when he signed with the club.
But Johnson could not run routes dependably enough for Brady. The quarterback barely ever threw his way -- 32 times over the whole season for 15 completions. Johnson didn’t even dress for Super Bowl XLVI.
New England’s pass offence thrives and depends on consistent accuracy from Brady on timing routes, which is only possible when receivers -- be they wideouts, slots, tight ends or halfbacks flaring out of the backfield -- run precise routes.
The Patriots run these routes over, and over, and over again in games. And they rehearse them over, and over, and over again all year -- from spring practices, though summer training camp and every week during the season.
On the opening day of training camp this past July, I saw Brady run pass play after pass play with just his wideouts -- Amendola, Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins (who’s now on injured reserve) -- as well as with tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen.
They were all going against air, but the point of the exercise appeared to be to refine their timing. At one point, Brady went over to Amendola and appeared to be showing him how to turn his shoulders differently on an in route, which play they proceeded to run again.
Brady needs to know that his receivers will be exactly where he wants them to be -- where he needs them to be -- if he decides to throw their way, especially if earlier options are covered.
Even if a defender is in the way.
“He wants you to push through contact and run a route with precision, so that you can (gain) separation from the defensive back,” said second tight end Tim Wright, whom Belichick acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay in September. “That’s something that Tom thinks is very important.”
Over the past 14 years, New England’s offensive system has developed, set and cured -- especially on so many of their pet, short-depth crossing, out, curl and angle routes. Brady often knows and the coaches know what will work against what defences, so long as the receivers run the routes as called.
“There’s a great amount of detail that you have to have to play wide receiver on the Patriots,” said Chad O’Shea, New England’s receivers coach since 2009. “That’s demanded not only by the coaches but the guy who’s throwing the ball.
“We’re very detailed as far as specifics of the way we want certain plays run, and certain alignments. And that’s what Tom expects, and what we expect as a coaching staff.”
Brady makes no apologies for taking such command, for being essentially a coach on the field. Back on Day 1 of training camp, he asked reporters rhetorically, “If the quarterback doesn’t do it, who else will? That’s how I’ve always looked at it.”
Look, the Patriots aren’t the only NFL team aiming for the same precision with its passing game. Few can match New England’s in that regard, though.
“What’s unique about the Patriots is that Brady has been in this system for as long as he has, so he truly has a great understanding of every pass concept that’s installed in our offence,” O’Shea said.
“He has repped that play over and over -- for all these years. With different receiving corps, too. What’s consistent for him is how the play is run. So the system itself is so consistent that guys who plug in could be different names, but he knows exactly how those concepts work, and how they should be executed.”
O’Shea not only confirmed that receivers who freelance on their routes, or veer regularly from the structure of a designed play, aren’t long for Foxboro.
“They have to be very precise, very disciplined,” he said. “They have to play within the system. There can’t be that element of do-your-own-thing within our offence. If it’s 20 yards, it’s 20 yards.
“What we say is there’s no grey area in our pass offence. If there’s grey area, then we don’t have the success that we want to have.”
Amendola came to New England last year, as a replacement of sorts for Brady’s close personal friend and the most prolific wide receiver in Patriots history, Wes Welker, who’s now a Denver Bronco.
In his first game for New England, Amendola became Brady’s go-to receiver in the fourth quarter of a comeback win at Buffalo.
On what might have been the game’s pivotal play, Amendola lined up in the slot, to Brady’s right, on 3rd-and-8 at the Buffalo 39, with the Bills up 21-20 and 1:20 left.
Amendola began to run what looked like a short out to the right sideline, but after a couple of steps in that direction he broke the route off sharply, and cut upfield on a short post.
When he looked back to his quarterback the ball was already in the air. Brady’s pass hit Amendola perfectly in the hands, a moment before a pair of Bills defensive backs smashed into him and flipped him over.
Amendola held on. Ten-yard gain. Patriots in field-goal range.
Bills fans streamed out of Ralph Wilson Stadium, having seen this show far too many times since 2001. They missed seeing Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski drill the game-winning field goal.
A more recent example: Brady’s long, winning touchdown pass to wideout Brandon LaFell down the left sideline late in New England’s AFC divisional-round playoff win against Baltimore three weeks ago.
Brady looked off a receiver to the right, then looked left and instantly fired deep to LaFell, who wasn’t the primary receiver.
“That pass was perfect,” LaFell told me on Tuesday. “It’s easy to catch when it’s put right into your hands.”
O’Shea said that play is a prime example of why it’s vital that every receiver, on every play, does exactly what he’s supposed to do.
“Assume you’re getting the ball on every play, you’re going to have your opportunities to make those plays,” O’Shea said. “Because Tom is going to know where to go with the ball -- he’s proven that over the years.”
This is not to say that there isn’t at least some flexibility for receivers on their routes. There is. But, again, it’s all designed.
“Although we ask you to run a certain route, at a certain depth, at a certain angle, we also know that everything is changing on the defensive side of the ball,” O’Shea said. “So we think that one of our other traits of being a receiver here is the ability to adjust -- but within the scheme, within the system. Not doing their own thing but to adjust accordingly to what the defence gives you.”
And the Patriots have option routes, too -- where the receiver has the choice to change a route based on the coverage he sees, something Brady will be reading simultaneously. And the receiver better read it as Brady does.
“That’s also critical for them to be able to master,” O’Shea said.
“It’s all just a matter of doing exactly what we want -- what Tom wants.”
BRADY THE CONSTANT FIGURE
The defensive masterminds of the Seattle Seahawks’ NFL-best defence marvel at Tom Brady’s ability to operate at such a high level.
Despite an ever-changing cast of receiving targets.
“We looked at the last game we played against them (in 2012),” Seahawks head coach Pete Carrol said. “There’s a lot of players who aren’t there anymore -- really, really good players. But they still function at such a high level.
“Brady’s always been the constant. He’s been there throughout, and of course coach (Bill) Belichick has as well. Those guys have figured out how to systematize their style of offence so that they can draw new talent, and unique talent, and still make it work.
“It’s a highly, highly evolved system -- with great structure and continuity. And players can move around as interchangeable parts within it … They’re an extraordinarily well developed team.”
Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who next week will be named head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, shook his head Wednesday at Brady’s decision-making speed within his familiar system.
“His mental quickness of where to go with the football is terrific,” Quinn said. “And then you add his accuracy onto that. That’s what makes it such a challenge to go against their team.”
Tom Brady’s receivers for Super Bowl XLIX:
11 Julian Edelman, 5-foot-10, 200. 6th year, 6th in NE
19 Brandon LaFell, 6-foot-3, 210. 5th year, 1st in NE
80 Danny Amendola, 5-foot-11, 195. 6th year, 2nd in NE
82 Josh Boyce, 5-foot-11, 205. 2nd year, 2nd in NE
84 Bryan Tims, 6-foot-3, 204. 2nd year, 2nd in NE
18 Matthew Slater, 6-foot, 210. 7th year, 7th in NE
87 Rob Gronkowski, 6-foot-6, 265. 5th year, 5th in NE
81 Tim Wright, 6-foot-4, 235. 2nd year, 1st in NE
47 Michael Hoomanawanui, 6-foot-4, 260. 5th year, 3rd in NE
OUT OF THE BACKFIELD
34 Shane Vereen, RB
29 LeGarrette Blount, RB
38 Brandon Bolden, RB
35 Jonas Gray, RB
46 James Develin, FB