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'Playmakers in space': What Joe Brady brings to Panthers offense

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What could the Panthers get in return for McCaffrey? (0:59)

Dan Orlovsky and Mike Tannenbaum discuss what they believe the Panthers would get in return if they decided to trade Christian McCaffrey. (0:59)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He simply was "Joey" in 2009, when he arrived at William & Mary as a transfer wide receiver from Air Force. He never became a star on the field, but there was something about Joey's work ethic and leadership that allowed then-coach Jimmye Laycock to go out of his comfort zone.

He offered the kid a full-time coaching job the spring before the end of his college career.

"The assistant coaches lobbied for him, which was a pretty strong thing," Laycock recalled.

Eight years later, the kid is Joe Brady, the 30-year-old offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Laycock and others who watched his meteoric rise from linebackers coach at William & Mary to the youngest offensive coordinator in the NFL aren't surprised.

"It's his attention to detail," Laycock said. "I came in one night and he was vacuuming the recruiting lounge. We had a recruit coming in the next day and he saw something that needed to be done and he did it."

Yet because of Brady's quick rise, there is mystery surrounding what his offense will look like at Carolina. Even Brady has been vague beyond what he did as the passing coordinator at LSU last season.

There was a mix of run-pass-option (RPO) and zone-read with what Brady learned as a graduate assistant (2015-16) in the spread offense at Penn State and as an offensive assistant (2017-18) in the West Coast-like scheme with the New Orleans Saints.

"Our system is going to be what our players do best," Brady repeatedly said at his introductory news conference.

Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and others who were with Brady in 2019, during LSU's undefeated run for the national title and quarterback Joe Burrow's run to the Heisman Trophy, cut through some of that vagueness last week at the NFL combine.

Edwards-Helaire said the eyes of running back Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Cam Newton, if healthy and starting, are going to light up when they see the playbook.

"Playmakers in space," Edwards-Helaire said. "The athletes they have, it's going to be pretty fun watching them."

The scheme

"Playmakers in space" sounds vague and oversimplified, but it's really not.

"Joe will utilize whatever skill set is on the Carolina roster," Michigan safeties coach Bob Shoop said.

Shoop has seen what Brady does from three perspectives. He worked with him at Penn State in 2015 and faced him last year as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in a 36-13 LSU victory. He also helped recruit Brady to William & Mary.

He called the talent Brady inherited at LSU the "perfect storm."

Shoop anticipates the transition of Brady's offense to the NFL will come down to three formations.

The most basic is three receivers to the strong side of the field with one receiver to the boundary. The running back lines up to the weak side. The No. 1 receiver might be the tight end, who runs a decoy route while trying to create a one-one-one mismatch to the back side.

That happened with 5:54 remaining in LSU's win against Florida the week before facing Mississippi State. Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase got one-one-one coverage and turned an intermediate pass into a 54-yard touchdown.

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Burrow connects with Chase for 54-yard TD

Joe Burrow throws to Ja'Marr Chase, who takes off for a 54-yard touchdown.

Brady used a lot of formations in which receivers run in bunch or snug formations to create mismatches. They run a multitude of different routes off that, based on the defensive formation.

Burrow's 37-yard, third-quarter touchdown pass to Derrick Dillon against Mississippi State was a 3x1 bunch. The snug formation was used for a 60-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

Brady also used a lot of five-receiver sets on third-and-long, often with an empty backfield. That helped produce the winning 61-yard touchdown against Texas on a third-and-17 in the fourth quarter.

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Burrow and Jefferson deliver knockout punch for LSU

Joe Burrow completes a pass to Justin Jefferson on third-and-17, and the receiver goes 61 yards for his third touchdown of the game.

"They always seemed to be in the right call at the right time, and that was not a coincidence," Shoop said.

Tempo, talent

Because LSU was loaded with speed at receiver and running back, and because Burrow was such a pinpoint passer, the offense clicked in a way few have in college football history.

"Joe [Brady] will utilize tempo as a weapon," Shoop said. "He won't always go fast, but he'll go fast at times to keep the defense on their heels."

McCaffrey is an ideal fit in that he can line up at running back as the receiver or play any of the receiver positions. He'll allow Brady to use different groupings without having to substitute.

No current running back in the NFL is more versatile than McCaffrey, who in 2019 became the third player in league history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

Carolina receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel also fit the mold Brady worked with at LSU in that they are fast and can line up in multiple spots.

Brady will likely bring in receivers similar to them through the draft and free agency, and he likely will work some with them as he did LSU receivers.

"Joe Brady definitely helped us out with our eye coordination, just our ability to catch in traffic," LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson said. "He helped us with our hands tremendously and that showed on the field in not having as many dropped balls."

Newton factor

Newton is the wild card here. Even if healthy, he's not known as a pinpoint passer such as what Brady had with Burrow at LSU or Drew Brees at New Orleans.

Newton also relies more on his legs than any quarterback Brady has coached. Burrow and Brees, in particular, are effective at buying time in the pocket, but are not a big part of the running game.

So those who know Brady suggested three options: Brady adapts his system to Newton's running skills if Newton fully recovers from Lisfranc surgery and is the starter; a healthy Newton adapts to less running and is more accurate, as he was starting to become under former offensive coordinator Norv Turner; or the Panthers go with a new quarterback.

All options are viable until Newton's full health is determined.

Shoop offered a reminder that Burrow completed only 57.8 percent of his passes in 2018, before Brady arrived, and 76.3 last season, suggesting Brady could do the same for Newton.

"I didn't think much of Joe Burrow in 2018," said Shoop, recalling that Burrow threw for 129 yards and an interception against his defense in 2018, compared to 327 yards and four touchdowns this past season. "What that guy did from then to last year, I don't think I've ever seen anything like it."

Edwards-Helaire believes Brady would "have fun" with a healthy Newton.

"One of the freakiest athletes that this game has ever saw," Edwards-Helaire said. "The talent around him is going to pretty much relieve Cam from a lot of stuff. Ultimately, him being able to pick that [defense] apart, just like Joe [Burrow], crazy athlete."

Experience, communication

Brady doesn't have a lot of experience, but has worked with renowned offensive coaches such as Joe Moorhead at Penn State, Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael at New Orleans and Steve Ensminger at LSU. Brady also worked with Laycock, an offensive-minded coach who was a mentor to NFL head coaches Mike Tomlin, Sean McDermott and Dan Quinn.

"The quality of his experience is probably more valuable than the amount of experience," Shoop said.

Brady also doesn't mind putting in the time it takes to be successful.

Former William & Marry offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers said Brady and DJ Mangas, another former William & Mary offensive coordinator, were "like mad professors," working all hours at LSU to come up with plays. Rogers expects more of the same at Carolina, where Mangas is an offensive assistant.

"Joe's idea of a good time is getting to work at 6 in the morning and going home at 1 a.m.," Rogers said with a laugh.

Brady also has a reputation for being able to communicate his ideas to players and remaining calm under pressure. That also should help in his transition.

"He's going to bring a cool and [collected] personality," Edwards-Helaire said.

Shoop agreed.

"I know the moment is not too big for him," he said. "Every time I talked to him, it's the same Joe Brady coming in as the wide-eyed transfer from Air Force in 2009."