It may feel as if there have been several dramatically different versions of the Brady-Belichick offense over the past 17 seasons. In the early years of the duo’s time together, the Patriots often lined up with a fullback and a tight end (or two) and pounded the ball. When Wes Welker and Randy Moss arrived in New England in 2007, the Pats embraced the shotgun formation, spread the field, and slung the ball all over the yard. That era was followed in 2010 by the two-tight-end approach with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And the present-day Pats offense is defined by formational diversity and a multifaceted combination of backs.
With Bill Belichick at the helm and Tom Brady leading the way, the Patriots have managed to withstand a constant churn of turnover and put together the greatest dynasty that football has ever seen. But while New England’s offense has adapted to countless changes in the league landscape, its core principles have stayed mostly the same. “The offense really hasn’t changed,” says Kevin Faulk, who played running back in New England from 1999 to 2011. “As long as Tom Brady’s there, the offense isn’t going to change.”
What’s changed is the personnel that the Patriots have had at their disposal. Players with varying strengths have shuffled in and out, and the talent New England had in 2001 was different than the type that populated the roster a decade later. Yet even if certain offensive packages have gone dormant for stretches as fresh faces have joined the team, those ideas never truly died out. “[A concept] may have been depressed in the past few years because we didn’t have anybody to do it,” says Ivan Fears, the Patriots running backs coach since 2002. “Injury-wise, you lose a guy. Or somebody is not there very often. Whatever it may be. But the offense hasn’t changed. The offense revolves around the ability of the guys who can run it.”
New England’s overall offensive flexibility—both through the years and from week to week—gives off the appearance of extreme variation. In reality, many of the unit’s basic tenets from Super Bowl XXXVI until now have remained constant. The Patriots offense has evolved, but that evolution hasn’t been the linear schematic progression that outsiders might be inclined to believe. New England’s offensive evolution has at times been cyclical, and at times revolutionary. The catalyst has always been the same. Better than any team in modern professional sports, the Pats have adapted to their environment as a means of survival.
One of the core principles of the Belichick era is that the franchise’s slate gets cleared before each respective season. No matter how the previous campaign unfolded, every year begins anew. Along with staving off any sense of complacency following years of unfathomable success, this mind-set forces the New England coaching staff to evaluate each roster as its own unique entity. “Football changes,” says defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who spent two years on the Pats’ offensive staff before moving to the other side of the ball in 2006. “It’s not like it was a long time ago, where you have the same team for 10 years, or even five years. Just the way it’s structured right now year in and year out, you have to figure out what to do with the players that you have.”
To discover the talents of every skill-position player on the roster, the Patriots’ staff puts guys through a myriad of drills to gauge their individual capabilities. Running backs are asked to run routes from every alignment. Tight ends line up wide, in the slot, and out of the backfield. In the interest of information gathering, all elements of the game are explored. “What our job is from April on is to get our guys to do as many things as possible so we can evaluate our team,” says offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was with New England from 2001 to 2008 and has been in his current role with the franchise from 2012 onward. “So at the end of training camp we can say, ‘This is what we’ve got.’”
Practices during OTAs in May give position coaches a general idea of the players with whom they’ll work, but that period doesn’t form a complete vision of the roster. It takes months for the staff to decipher the specific ways that each weapon can be most effectively deployed. “You can say, ‘OK, he looks good doing that. This guy looks good doing this,’” Fears says. “But you don’t make any decisions then. You’ve only framed a little bit of a picture of who they are. You don’t do shit until you put the pads on.”
Belichick’s demeanor and stiff public persona may give New England’s franchise an unforgiving feel, but the Pats’ run of success has been fueled by an uncommon level of flexibility. This staff takes pride in its willingness to be open-minded. Rather than predetermining concepts and grafting them onto players, the Patriots take players and graft them onto their massive pool of concepts, regardless of position. “They tell us [how to use them],” Fears says. “They tell us that by what they can do. You go out there in the spring, and you install your offense. You install everything you’re doing, and you see what they can do with it. You see what their expertise is.”
When running back Rex Burkhead arrived in town this offseason after signing as a free agent, he found that his mental workload in New England’s system was more rigorous than anything he’d previously encountered. The wider scope meant that no scenario was ever off the table. “Being in other systems in the past, it’s maybe more, ‘Focus on your running back stuff, and that’s it,’” Burkhead says. “Here, you really have to branch out and expand your horizon to understand everything that’s going on.”
Kevin Faulk is a distinctive figure in the Patriots’ dynastic run. Other than Brady, no other offensive player managed to stick around through so many iterations of personnel. Faulk arrived in New England in 1999 when Drew Bledsoe was still the top option under center; he became the pass-catching alternative to the 232-pound Antowain Smith and four-time Pro Bowler Corey Dillon during the early 2000s; and he caught 47 passes for the 2007 squad that went undefeated in the regular season. At age 35, Faulk even started three games during the 2011 campaign in which Gronkowski took over the league. “My motto was, ‘The more I can learn, the more I can do, the harder it’ll be for them to get rid of me,’” Faulk says. “I knew all the receiver positions. I knew what the quarterback was doing. I just couldn’t throw like the quarterback.”
Faulk was the first person Moss told, shortly after his arrival in New England, that the Patriots wouldn’t lose a game during the 2007 season. “I said, ‘We’re going to sweep through this league, and it’s not even going to be funny,’” Moss says. “‘We’re going to go undefeated.’ He laughed at me. Then he told his wife, and she laughed at me.”
From afar, Moss had long watched and admired the intricacies of New England’s passing game. When he got the chance to see it up close, that appreciation only grew. “When I got up there and realized how they ran their routes, it was just beautiful, man,” Moss says. “It was like Picasso.”
Snagging Moss from Oakland for the paltry price of a fourth-round pick is among the most remarkable moves of Belichick’s tenure, but as much as it represented a giant offensive step forward, it also amounted to an attempt to regain an element of the Patriots’ former units. For years, wide receiver David Patten, who reportedly clocked a 4.29-second 40-yard dash in a 1997 tryout camp before signing with the Giants, served as New England’s main downfield threat. In four seasons with the Pats, Patten averaged 15.2 yards per catch, peaking when he reeled in 44 passes for 800 yards (18.2 yards per reception) with seven touchdowns in 2004. The following spring, he agreed to a five-year contract with Washington, and for two years the Pats failed to find a reliable vertical theat. “The deep ball, and us being able to throw the ball deep is what got a lot of guys excited,” Moss says. “I studied Tom, I studied that offense, I knew how they threw the ball around. But they hadn’t been able to stretch the field.”
The ’07 Patriots and their offensive approach changed the NFL forever. Both Welker’s production out of the slot and the team’s extensive use of shotgun formations—it was the first group in league history to line up in shotgun on more than half of its offensive snaps—shaped the way that the modern game is played. But for as revolutionary as that offense was, it was also a logical extension of concepts the Patriots had run up to that point.
Welker and Moss were archetypes that still exist within the Pats offense. What has set New England apart is the types of players that have filled those roles. One of the Pats’ staple route combinations out of empty sets is a concept called “Hoss Y Juke.” “Hoss” refers to the routes assigned to the wide receivers on the outside and the receivers just inside them. The players on the outside run hitch routes; guys on the inside run up the seam. “Juke” refers to the no. 3 receiver, the player lined up the farthest inside. In this alignment, that spot is reserved for the shiftiest pass catcher on the offense, and the goal is to get him matched up with a linebacker. While presenting at a coaching clinic after he left New England, former Patriots offensive coordinator and then–Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien described the type of receiver best suited for that role. “What we would do in New England was we would always try to get Welker, Hernandez, whoever our quickest player was, matched up on a Mike [linebacker] that couldn’t stay with him,” O’Brien said.
That O’Brien would lump Welker and Hernandez together stylistically offers insight into how the Pats contextualize positional fluidity. New England doesn’t teach specific assignments based on the letters next to a player’s name on the depth chart. The offense is a collection of ideas that any skill-position player can be asked to perform on any given snap. That naturally causes the lines between positions to blur. “Overall, there’s one language that denotes where certain guys should align and what routes they’re running,” first-year Pats tight ends coach Nick Caley says. “There’s not a whole different language for the tight end, per se, than the receivers.”
In New England’s victory over Baltimore in the AFC championship game following the 2011 season, Hernandez ran many of the same routes that Welker did. At times, he lined up in the backfield and was asked to execute the same concepts as running back Danny Woodhead. When Gronkowski lined up as the split receiver outside, he filled a role similar to the one that Moss previously inhabited.
“I think our offense has become predicated on what our players do well. It’s not rigid, where we have to have this, or we have to have that,” McDaniels says. “We’ve had tall receivers. We’ve had short receivers. We’ve had fast ones. We’ve had slower ones. We’ve had big linemen, smaller linemen. Big tight ends, blocking tight ends. Small backs, big backs. What we do here is try to find good football players, get them on our roster, and try to let them do what they do well.”
James Develin resents the notion that fullbacks are relics of a bygone football era. New England’s 29-year-old blocking back, who spent one season in the Arena Football League after playing defensive end at Brown, recorded 346 snaps during the 2017 regular season—the second-highest total among any fullback in the league. “I think fullback often gets the rhetoric that it’s a dinosaur position, that it’s going out of style,” Develin says. “But there are a lot of fullbacks around the league doing a lot of good things.”
The Patriots led the NFL in the use of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) at 26 percent in 2017, and the use of a supposedly defunct philosophy speaks to how the Patriots have been able to evolve without having to fundamentally alter their DNA. Fullbacks are no longer a standard piece of college offenses. As they’ve disappeared from the collegiate game and become less prevalent in the pros, NFL defenses have spent less time learning the schemes they would use with a fullback on the field. “When you [draft a fullback], there’s kind of a projection,” Patricia says. “For [our defense], we tend not to prepare for as many fullback-type plays.” With linebackers shrinking to better succeed in coverage and defenses less prepared than ever to combat heavy alignments, Develin gives the Pats offense a distinct advantage. “Everything works cyclically,” Develin says. “Linebackers have to be more athletic and smaller to cover all the passes, and subsequently, an offense can run on them a little bit more.”
The flexibility that Develin provides the Patriots represents the most intriguing wrinkle to their current offense. New England loves to line up in traditional 21 personnel with Develin and a running back (often Dion Lewis) set up behind Brady in a variation of the I-formation. Plays out of that alignment are split about 50-50 between runs and passes, and New England loves to employ play-action throws in those scenarios. The most fascinating development often comes on ensuing plays. Without huddling, the Pats will trot to the line of scrimmage with Develin and Lewis still on the field, yet instead of putting those players in the backfield, both will be split out as receivers. “We’ll see teams that do it to some extent, but not nearly the amount of reps that these guys do it,” Eagles linebackers coach Ken Flajole says. “They’re so much more creative about how they try to get guys in position and how they try to I.D. coverages to get the mismatch.”
Using Lewis, Burkhead, and James White as receivers has been the signature trait of the 2017 Patriots offense, lending this group an element that was missing from many New England units of the past. If a defense puts its base personnel on the field to counteract the presence of a fullback, Brady can call for an empty set and locate his mismatch of choice. “If a team’s playing base personnel, I would go empty, too,” Woodhead says. “I’m taking Dion Lewis against a linebacker any day. Gronk’s also not a guy you just put anyone on. A lot of teams want to put a corner on him. Well, if you put a corner on him, that means a safety or a linebacker is on [Danny] Amendola or [Brandin] Cooks. Or, you have a linebacker on Dion.”
The receiving talent all three of New England’s 2017 backs have makes this roster unique in the Brady-Belichick era. But there’s no doubt: Individually, each current Patriots back echoes Faulk, Woodhead, and Shane Vereen—New England’s pass-catching backs of yesteryear.
Spreading out a defense and attacking with runners and receivers happens to be a perfect strategy against an Eagles unit that’s most dangerous in its nickel package. Flajole expects the Patriots to rely heavily on that look in Super Bowl LII, and he doesn’t blame them. The 63-year-old position coach offers a rare perspective on how the Patriots approach title games. He held the same position in Carolina when the Pats and Panthers faced off in Super Bowl XXXVIII. In his mind, New England doesn’t look all that different this time around. “I don’t know if they’ve changed a whole lot schematically,” Flajole says. “They’re just doing it with different people now.”
For the Patriots and their constantly evolving offense, all that’s old will eventually become new again.