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The Near-Perfect Football Team

Some might remember the 2007 New England Patriots because of the Super Bowl loss that capped off a previously undefeated season. Others might think of Spygate. But the team’s true legacy lives on every Sunday. Led by Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker, the 2007 Patriots built the modern NFL.

A collage of Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Rob Gronkowski Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: Tom Brady officially announced his retirement from the NFL on Tuesday. As the football world remembers his colossal legacy, we’re recirculating this piece.

This was new.

Cameron Worrell, then a 27-year-old Miami Dolphins safety, was sitting in meetings, listening to his coaches detail the Patriots offense. It was October 2007.

“It’s crazy because now it’s hard to imagine a time when this stuff wasn’t everywhere,” Worrell said. “The coaches were saying, ‘They’ll be using three or four receivers, using guys in the slot, they’ll be quick at the line, they may not huddle, they’ll be in shotgun.’ And you’re thinking, ‘Whoa, this is totally different.’ But all this one-on-one matchup stuff—that’s all the NFL is now.”

Sunday came, and he was shuffling backward, trying to stop the best offense in NFL history. You hear that the steam engine was invented, but you can’t grasp that fact until one is barreling toward you.

Everything about the offense seemed different. Randy Moss had changed. When Worrell faced him in Minnesota, Moss would come streaking down the field after plays he wasn’t involved in, shouting, “If Daunte had thrown to me there, I would have dunked on you.” But now, that chatter had been replaced by something far more intimidating: silence. “He wasn’t talking because he knew how good they were,” Worrell said, “and they were just going to go do it.”

Jaws was not the first movie to be released in the summer, but it created the summer blockbuster. The 2007 Patriots were not the first team to put players in the slot, use shotgun, or spread out defenses, but they molded the modern NFL offense by doing it flawlessly and all at once. They invented nothing but innovated everything. Some teams are great but their legacy is confined only to some notable accomplishments listed on Wikipedia. The 2007 Patriots didn’t lift a trophy, but their impact is real. Ten years later, football looks the way it does because of that team.

“They forced us to where we are today as a league,” said Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

Ten years ago, the Patriots perfected the offense that every team tries to run today. The team was the “coming-out party for the slot receiver,” said former Giants center Shaun O’Hara, now an analyst at the NFL Network. The Patriots’ use of Wes Welker in the slot helped the position become not only ubiquitous but crucial—and in response, defenses now typically employ an extra defensive back. New England was among the first teams to deemphasize the fullback, which would soon become the norm. That Patriots team was also the first in NFL history to run shotgun for a majority of its plays; last year, NFL teams ran 79 percent of their pass plays from the shotgun. The quarterbacks of the four conference championship teams last season were the four best at throwing to five receivers—another staple the Patriots are credited with popularizing. “Their talents allowed everyone to look at things differently in the passing game,” said current Patriots receivers coach Chad O’Shea.

Brady threw 50 touchdowns and won MVP, Moss caught more touchdowns than any player in NFL history, and Welker tied for the 2007 lead in receptions. The Patriots scored the most points (589) in NFL history at the time. The team was the first to finish a regular season 16-0. And they are the only team since 1990 to win multiple games by 40-plus points. In the moment, their legacy seemed defined by Spygate—the cheating scandal revealed after the first week of the season—and their shocking Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. But when it comes to tangible impact, that legacy unfolds every Sunday.

Today, Worrell is able to see the connections between the 2007 Patriots and 2017’s two Super Bowl participants: the Falcons and current-day Patriots. But on that October Sunday, he was worried about just one play: He was free in the secondary to hunt for the ball, and he thought he was about to find it. Tom Brady was staring him down, and Worrell figured the pass was coming his way.

“This is a gimme. He just popped it up!” Worrell thought.

He did not see Moss looming behind him.

Donte’ Stallworth finally figured it out on August 17.

He’d signed with the team in the spring, part of an overhaul of the offense that included the additions of Welker and Moss. It was a preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Stallworth, who was most familiar with the then-popular West Coast offense, was lined up on the side of the field where he knew the ball would not go. At the time, he figured that around half of NFL teams ran the exact same playbooks and the others differentiated themselves only with minor scheme tweaks. So his job, he thought, was to simply run down the field, make sure the cornerback ran with him, and watch the receiver on the far side make a play. It’s called a dead route.

This was true in virtually every NFL offense. Many quarterbacks don’t have the time, patience, or guts to look at more than two receivers on a given play, so each receiver leaves the huddle knowing whether or not they might see the ball.

“I didn’t run full speed,” Stallworth said, “and I certainly didn’t expect the ball.” That is, until the moment he saw it sailing toward him. He frantically adjusted, but the pass was intercepted. “Tommy was pissed, obviously,” Stallworth said. “And I get back to the bench and I’m saying, ‘He actually threw me the damn ball!’”

Josh McDaniels, the team’s young offensive coordinator, found Stallworth on the sideline, looked him in the eye, and said, “Big guy, I know you’ve played in different offenses, but there will be no dead routes in this offense. Everything is live. You have to stay alive because 12 is going to get you the ball if you’re open even a little bit.”

At this moment, it all became clear to Stallworth. This offense was going to use all its options and all parts of the field. The Patriots had limitless possibilities; while they’d always had the quarterback, they now had the playbook and the weapons, too. It was one of the most perfect marriages between scheme and talent in the history of football—or any sport.

“The guys before, we were excellent route runners,” said Troy Brown, a Patriots receiver from 1993 until after the 2007 season. “But when you got Moss, you had something different—you put the fear of God into everyone. I knew when they got him that things were about to change.”

Moss arrived via an April trade from Oakland for a fourth-round pick. Brown said Moss had come to New England with a new set of abilities: He still had plenty of speed but he’d developed more route-running skills—including the ability to suddenly stop his route, turn, and catch the pass. This worked well, Brown said, because Moss still terrified cornerbacks so much that they would give him extra space to keep him from burning them deep.

Welker, meanwhile, had come a month earlier in a trade with the Dolphins. The Patriots had had to double-team him the year before in Miami, and players figured that Belichick would try to snag him the following offseason. “He was causing us so many problems that Bill had to get him,” said Rodney Harrison, the team’s star safety, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “If there’s a guy who is causing us problems, Bill is going to try to get him to make sure he causes problems for other people.”

Moss battled hamstring injuries early in training camp, but former players said they could see Welker and Brady connecting almost telepathically on short passes. It wasn’t until weeks into camp, according to lineman Russ Hochstein, that the entire offense was on display in practice. "We were in awe," Hochstein said. “Once we had Randy run some deep routes, we saw everything.”

It may seem hard to fathom after watching Brady dominate the league for the last decade, but this was new. Before 2007, the Patriots were a good-not-great offensive team. In fact, the first two Patriots Super Bowl wins featured offenses in the bottom half of the league in yardage. “They ran the ball efficiently, but they were not high-flying like the Kurt Warner Rams,” said then-Patriots tight end Ben Watson, who’s now a Baltimore Raven.

After making the “Greatest Show on Turf” comparison, Watson remembered that 2007 was the Patriots’ first full season on a turf field. New England went on to outscore the 1999 Rams by four points a game.

The guiding principle for the Patriots offense was this: make defenses declare exactly what they were doing as soon as they got to the line. They would do this by spreading out defenses as thin as they’d ever been spread before and then moving players around. There was no hiding.

“That team was the first time I was part of an offense where you could line up in pretty much any set and dictate to a defense what they could and couldn’t do,” said fullback Heath Evans. “We were the first team to get out there and make defenses show their hand. Now look: New Orleans does it, Green Bay does it and should do it more. It’s really effective.”

By 2007, NFL defenses had gained an upper hand on offenses by disguising blitzes and screwing with the offense before the snap. Spreading out the defense neutralized this. Defenses were stretched so thin they had to run more simplified coverages.

“That was the genius of it,” said Matt Cassel, the team’s backup quarterback in 2007. “Anyone in this league could have run it, but you had Tom Brady, and he’s saying, ‘I know where my matchup is and I know where I’m going with the ball.’ When you have that? Yeah, you’re going to win.”

The Patriots, Cassel said, could line up with three receivers on one side and one receiver on the other. If all of the cornerbacks moved to the crowded side, it was clearly man coverage. Once you knew, you could simply move one receiver over to the other side, call a basic man-coverage beater, such as a pick play, and get on with your day. The concept was sound, but the Patriots also had Tom Brady and Randy Moss and Wes Welker. If it was true one-on-one man coverage on Moss, the defense might as well just pack up their things and get on the bus.

The transition to the shotgun also proved crucial. Brady backed up into shotgun formation for nearly the entire season. This was so rare in those days that Stallworth said New England’s receivers had to relearn the timing of the passes after the snap. The shotgun, Cassel said, allowed Brady to quickly read the field and for the quick-passing game to flourish.

Ten years later, the rest of the league has noticed, and it’s now a default setting for offenses.

Boston Globe

In the summer of 2005, McDaniels walked into the University of Florida football offices in Gainesville. The offensive coordinator, now 41, loves visiting college coaches. “It’s us trying to figure out if we can’t steal something and help our team along the way,” he said.

This particular visit, though, was likely more important than the rest. Florida head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who’d recently moved from Utah and before that Bowling Green, were employing some of the best spread concepts in football. Utah had produced the reigning no. 1 overall pick in Alex Smith, and Meyer and Co. were considered one of the most innovative staffs in America. The Patriots wanted to learn. “I think what intrigued the Patriots,” Mullen said, “was the definition of the spread for us.”

The answer “was one-on-one matchups, getting to get the defense to declare itself,” said Mullen, now the head coach at Mississippi State. “Once you get the defense to declare as man before the play even happens, for the QB it’s easy.” They can then easily diagnose the coverage and figure where the ball should go.

There were two things within the spread, according to Mullen, that McDaniels was interested in: The first was route combinations over the middle of the field, the second was how to protect the quarterback in an empty set.

The empty set became a staple of this era of Patriots teams. It is exactly as it sounds: The quarterback is in an empty backfield while every other player goes out for a pass. The key, Mullen told McDaniels, was that there would always be one more pass rusher than the team had blockers. So it was important to recognize which direction the “extra” defender was coming from, move the play 3 or 4 feet in the opposite direction after the snap, and then get rid of the ball in exactly, according to Mullen, 1.2 seconds. Do that and voila, you’d have a cooked defense.

During the visit, Mullen and McDaniels also talked about the art of high-low runners and option routes. High-lows are common in all levels of football; they are routes designed to put players near each other at different depths on the field. But McDaniels wanted to know how to use them when the offense was more spread out. Although option routes have long been a part of football, the Patriots made them a central part of their offense in 2007. Two years after this meeting, Welker would rely on option routes to become one of the most effective forces over the middle of the field in NFL history. Meanwhile, Stallworth said Kevin Faulk also scored one of the biggest touchdowns of the season—a 13-yard touchdown reception with 3:15 left to beat the Colts 24-20 and go 9-0—on an option route. The concept, again, is simple: receivers run out and once they realize where the defense is headed with their coverage, they choose one of their two predetermined routes. Multiple former Patriots marveled at Brady and Welker’s ability to connect on these passes.

“The thing about option routes is if I have to coach you on it, you’re not the guy,” Mullen said. “People say, ‘Oh, Wes Welker, great on option routes.’ Well, that’s true. He’s quick, but that’s not why he’s great on option routes. It’s because he and Tom Brady were on the same page, he knew how to take a linebacker, fake one way, set up the fake, then pivot outside.”

Mullen also told McDaniels about how to take advantage of a spread-out defense. “You can use the slot guy to clear linebackers out of the middle of the field and then you bring a vertical option behind Welker,” Mullen said. Meyer’s coaches had been doing it since a stint at Bowling Green, when they had just one talented receiver, and thus had to rely on moving him around within the formation so defenses couldn’t key on him and take him out of the game.

In the mid-2000s, “Defenses had not caught up with this,” Mullen said. NFL teams were still using two backs or blocking tight ends at this point. This was before nickel defense was everywhere and slot corners got big money to ply their trade. The Patriots were able to move their best receivers into different spots until they drew a mismatch—like their best receiver on a linebacker. This continued beyond 2007, too, as the Patriots tweaked their spread philosophy through the years—including when they used tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at the same time. The common thread remains the same: build your offense around mismatches. And few have done it better than the Patriots.

“It was something fun to see on TV,” Mullen said. “You’d see a play, or see them create a matchup that we talked about—and they took it to another level.”

If you’re looking for the beginning of the end of the NFL fullback, you can start in June 2007. Bill Belichick pulled Heath Evans aside for a chat. Evans had played fullback admirably for the Patriots since 2005 and had helped the 2006 team score the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in the league. He still loves the idea of a traditional fullback—the big, bruising blocker who thrived on NFL rosters for decades. “Lo Neal is my hero,” he said, referring to Lorenzo Neal, a star fullback who paved the way for many of LaDainian Tomlinson’s rushing heroics and went to four Pro Bowls.

However, Belichick was here to tell Evans that that particular service would not be needed in 2007. Instead, the coach told him that he wanted him to trim down to 250 pounds from 258. Running back Corey Dillon was gone, and according to Evans, Belichick said, “It’s not going to be you banging things out. It’s going to be a different mentality.”

“What was the biggest difference with the 2007 team? My playing time,” Evans, now an analyst at the NFL Network, said with a chuckle. “I’m no dummy. It would be hard to have a Lorenzo Neal on a roster now. You’ve got to create value at the position. If you’re choosing between Wes Welker or a Julian Edelman or a fullback like that now, give me Jules and Wes every single day of the week.”

The year the Patriots deemphasized the fullback, nearly half of all NFL teams featured that position in their most common lineup combination, and 28 of 32 teams played a fullback in one of their five most common personnel groupings. Last year, one team had a fullback on their most common personnel grouping. More than 10 teams didn’t feature one on the roster at all.

“When I first got to New England [in 1993], our third-down package didn’t have a slot receiver. It was [fullbacks] Kevin Turner or Sam Gash,” Brown said. “To see the offense grow over time and, by 2007, to see the creativity and the willingness of the coordinators to go a different route and stretch the field, it was amazing. They exploded a lot of places.”

With Welker’s outsize role, the Patriots gave the league the blueprint it uses today.

“I coached Wes Welker before he was Wes Welker,” said Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, previously the Miami Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. Linehan laughs now at how Miami got one of the most productive receivers of his era off waivers from San Diego. “The thinking back then was, ‘What do you do with the guy?’ You’re going to have this personnel grouping for this little receiver? Do you have enough plays for the guy to make the team?”

Today, inside players who lack the height of typical outside players are shaping the sport. Slot stars like Doug Baldwin and Jarvis Landry are at a premium. So, too, are Tyrann Mathieu or Chris Harris, experts at guarding players in the slot.

“Now you have guys like Cole Beasley or Ryan Switzer, and you say, ‘OK, what can they do that’s close to elite?’” Linehan said. “Well, they can run really great routes in the short area, and we know by now that’s a weapon.”

New England Patriots v New York Giants Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The plays were interesting, but you should have seen the huddles. In today’s NFL, the term “basketball on grass” is thrown around a lot, but it was never as true as it was with the 2007 Patriots. Improvisation was everywhere. Hochstein remembered a trick: The receivers and Brady would never look at each other when discussing a play; they’d look around and then look only at the offensive linemen because the defense would be watching to see who Brady would be talking to.

“There was no eye contact,” Hochstein said. “They’d be looking at other people and discussing what coverage beater they were going to use.”

And so it went against Cleveland in October that year. The Patriots were running four verts (straight routes down the field) in a spread, according to Watson. Before the huddle broke, Moss matter-of-factly told Watson that when New England spread out, the safety would move toward Moss.

“You are going to be wide open, so just catch it and run with it,” Moss said, according to Watson. Sure enough, “the safety moved over to respect Moss, everything played out exactly like Randy said, I was able to take it for a big gain,” Watson said. “The thing Randy doesn’t get enough credit for is his smarts. It was amazing to see the cerebral side of the game like that.”

Stallworth said that the Patriots, and especially Brady, didn’t care about receivers running the exact depth of routes in the playbook. Brady was so obsessed with getting a first down that he would take any depth and would find the receiver once he made his break. Plenty of other NFL offenses require the playbook to be executed with precision.

Players generally agree that the best play the Patriots could run was Welker employing an option route over the middle toward the first-down marker while Moss and Stallworth ran 16-yard routes that cut inside behind Welker. The team had two plays called in the huddle, then they would pick one at the line of scrimmage. Beyond that, Stallworth said, they had 10 to 12 audibles on a given play.

“The offense forced defenses to make decisions—there were a lot of one-on-one situations, and usually someone blew it,” Brown said. The problem, opposing coaches and players said, was that even when teams threw “bracket” coverage at Moss, which is a type of double coverage down the field, or put two bodies on Welker, the player would still sometimes get the ball.

“Teams threw the kitchen sink at us,” said Hochstein. “Every defensive guru thought they had an answer.”

Any blitzes would be met with Brady putting Moss in motion and a punishing deep pass. “One high safety versus that offense was a big problem,” said Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, who was a New England assistant at the time. Brown said Moss often remarked that any team leaving just one safety deep was “playing with fire.” Yet leaving players back in coverage to prevent the deep ball would then leave huge chunks of open space available for Welker to keep moving the sticks by running into the undercovered underneath areas. Everything was a problem.

On top of that, the Patriots would still run the ball when they needed to. It may not seem to jive with his appearance in press conferences, but other coaches often praise Belichick’s humility. While plenty of coaches will stick to their preferred system at all costs, no one is quicker than Belichick to make an adjustment when they need it or to move on from a mistake. In the AFC title game against San Diego that season, the Chargers’ commitment to stopping the pass led to three Brady interceptions. So Belichick simply ran the ball. After averaging only 14 attempts per game across the regular season, running back Laurence Maroney took 25 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown.

“I remember [New England] came out in a 10 personnel,” said Rivera, who was an assistant with the Chargers at the time. “10” is code for one running back, no tight ends, and four receivers. “And then a few plays later they were in 13—three tight ends! How do you defend that?”

In the divisional playoff game the week before, Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio had employed nothing but zone defense, so New England used an “all-go” play, in which the outside receivers just took off down the sideline and Welker tried to find the first-down sticks underneath on most downs.

That game was also notable for Stallworth, who caught a long pass from the exact same “dead route” he’d run and failed at in August. “I guess I made up for it,” he said. “I knew it by then.”

When you ask 2007 team members about the legacy of the squad, they usually pause—yes, it was a frenetic experience, dubbed “magic” by Stallworth and “incredible” by Cassel, and considered some of the most fun times of their lives by nearly everyone who was involved. “But it’s haunting,” said Hochstein.

They did, after all, lose the Super Bowl to the Giants.

New York made some wild plays—most notably, David Tyree’s helmet catch—and did the one thing most teams could not do: applied pressure with four pass rushers and kept the rest of the team back in coverage. After averaging 37 points per game in the regular season, the Patriots scored just 14 points in a three-point loss. What’s most striking about the game is how the flexibility and improvisation that defined New England’s season were absent. The Giants essentially were built to stop the Patriots, but New England had dropped 38 points on New York just a few weeks prior. The Patriots were unstoppable—until the very last moment.

“They were moving guys around on the line, they were very athletic, and quite frankly,” Hochstein said, pausing briefly, “we abandoned the run.” Brady threw 48 passes, more than he had in all but one regular-season game, while Maroney took 14 carries for a paltry 36 yards. “We didn’t help ourselves,” Hochstein said. “I know we weren't that successful when running the ball earlier in the game, but sometimes you have to stick it out. We kept airing it out.”

When asked about the legacy of the 2007 Patriots, Watson first says that most people would say the season was a disappointment because of the final result. But 10 years later, he prefers to look at how the team’s legacy lives on with each wide-open offensive set that pops up across the league.

“We were trendsetters,” Watson said. “We pushed the bar, and offenses after us kept pushing it further and further.”

Super Bowl XLII Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

“I got Moss’d.”

Worrell backed up. He reached for the ball, but the “gimme” he saw coming from Brady’s hands wasn’t so. “I felt Moss on top of me. He was standing in the end zone.”

Moss came down with the ball with an almost absurd ease for a 35-yard touchdown.

Four minutes later, Worrell was backing up once again, and this time he saw Moss and he saw the ball. “Finally, a different result,” he thought. “I camped under the ball, I was ready, I put one hand out,” he said. “And he just took the ball. He pushed me. He out-physicaled me.”

In less than one quarter, Worrell experienced the entirety of the Patriots’ unstoppable machine.

Defenses used double-teams, they used Cover 2, they blitzed on nearly every play in some games and blitzed on no plays in others—and none of it seemed to work. The Patriots were so good that defenses would rarely know what was coming, and even when they did, it didn’t matter.

Worrell’s Dolphins were awful—they finished 1-15—but in the week leading up to the game, Belichick showed his team video of the Patriots’ 2004 loss in Miami to a club that finished 4-12.

“He had us genuinely believing we might lose the game,” Stallworth said. They led 42-7 at one point in the game and still Belichick wanted more.

The gas pedal was always pressed to the floor, and that is why Worrell found himself, like dozens of other players that season, an innocent bystander to history. He did not play the ball incorrectly—he was free from the man he was assigned to cover, the backside tight end, on each play. He was simply trying to make a play on the ball, same as he had thousands of times in the past. Instead, he became a minor footnote in the history of the game’s most devastating offense.

Worrell’s family made T-shirts of Moss plucking the ball from him. He hears about the play all the time. When Moss retired, he was inundated with texts from friends who saw highlights of the scores. Recently, when the “crying Jordan” craze took off, Worrell was sent a photo of the crying Jordan on his face as Moss stands over him.

“I didn’t think it was funny then,” Worrell said. “It’s funny now. Because that team was amazing.”

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