FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a week in which New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick tied Curly Lambeau for fourth place in career victories (229, including playoffs), it's timely to shine the spotlight on the unique parts of his coaching philosophy.
One of them is the "game-plan offense" -- an attack that morphs itself into something completely different each week.
Perhaps the best example of the effectiveness of the game-plan offense was seen during a key point in the Patriots' season, a mid-November stretch that included back-to-back convincing victories over the Indianapolis Colts (42-20) and Detroit Lions (34-9).
Against the Colts, the Patriots used a sixth offensive lineman as a power-based run-blocker on 37 snaps and bulldozed their way to a dominating 246-yard rushing performance.
While the emergence of out-of-nowhere running back Jonas Gray was a sizzling storyline in the aftermath, when coaches returned to work the next day and began plotting out the game plan for the Lions, they knew they would be shifting gears extensively.
The Lions had the No. 1-ranked run defense in the NFL, and Patriots coaches decided the best way to beat it was to push the tempo, throw the ball often, and try to keep Detroit's defense on the field for about 15-20 more plays than it was accustomed to in an attempt to tire the players out.
The plan worked to perfection. The Patriots ran the ball only 20 times while throwing it 53 times. The Lions had averaged 64 defensive snaps per game entering that day but were forced to defend against the Patriots for 81 (including penalties).
This is the essence of the game-plan offense, but to share more insight on the approach we've gathered three people who have an extensive background in what it's all about: ESPN NFL analysts Tedy Bruschi and Damien Woody, both former Patriots, and ESPN.com NFL Insider Field Yates, a former scouting assistant with the club.
Based on your leaguewide study, how unique is what the Patriots do offensively with a game-plan type of attack?
Damien Woody: It's very unique. They're the only team that's really game-plan specific, the only team that week-to-week can morph into something totally different. As an opponent, it is so hard to play against a team like that. With a coaching staff, you draw upon tendencies -- what a team does on this down-and-distance and so forth -- and tend to build a game plan from there. Everyone has them, but the Patriots do a very good job masking tendencies. Most teams have a system with a head coach and a front office that fits players in that system. They're going to run what they're going to run, but they might just window-dress it differently, dial up some different formations. With the Patriots, it's just completely different from one week to the next. When you're an opponent against that, it's almost like going in blind. They find your weakness and attack it.
Tedy Bruschi: This is the opposite of what I call a "do-what-you-do" team -- offenses that do one thing really well and perfect it as part of their system. A team like the old Pittsburgh Steelers comes to mind. They were a power running team with certain plays, and they'd run those plays continually and adjust to whatever fronts were given to them. They essentially were saying, "We think we are stronger and better than you are." New England is completely different and stands out because of it. The Patriots want to attack weaknesses. They're going to look at an opposing unit, figure out where there is weakness and find a way to attack it.
Field Yates: In watching teams around the league, it's clear the Patriots are not the only ones who ride a game-plan attack. But I would be hard-pressed to find an offense that is as willing -- and capable -- of changing what it does from one week to another. This isn't anything new from the Patriots, but consider the recent three-game stretch against Denver, Indianapolis and Detroit. The Patriots threw the ball 53, 30 and 53 times in those games, respectively. At its core, every NFL team understands that if something is working you must stick to it. But while the temptation after the Denver game would be to say, "Throwing the football is what works," the Patriots understand what really was working was attacking vulnerable areas of the Denver defense. A week later, they did the same thing -- attacking Indy's weaknesses -- just in a different fashion.
What do you think are the key ingredients to having that type of approach?
Bruschi: You have to have coaches who have the guts to try it, plain and simple. You're not 100 percent sure it's going to work because you're coming up with this stuff a week before the game. Granted, you have coaches with years of experience doing it and they can look back and say, "This is how our plan worked against this team, or this specific player, at a certain time." You have research and notes from past game plans. But it still takes guts for a coach to take this type of approach, and you also have to have assistant coaches who are committed to it as well. Those coaches need to coach different techniques on a week-to-week basis, and the more they do it, the more they can remember and bring up old film and say, "Here is what we did in Week 2 of 2007," or "We ran this against this team in 1998." This is how extensive they are, going back to game plans that did and didn't work. Hey, Belichick still remembers the time we wore blue pants with our blue uniforms. It didn't work and we lost, so he made sure it never happened again. If he remembers that, can you imagine the notes he has on past game-plan successes and failures?
Yates: You have to be willing to resist routine and rely on something until it no longer works. Also, team intelligence. And not just from the coaching staff and the quarterback -- the trigger man of the operation. It requires intelligent players along the offensive line who will be responsible for a variety of assignments, plus receivers who understand checks, alerts, etc.
Woody: Versatile players. Belichick often says the more you can do, the more valuable you are. With so many versatile players, it allows them to morph and do so many different things. Also, go back to the core values they talk about all the time: You have to be tough; you have to be smart, with an emphasis on smarts. I don't know the statistics, but I know at one point they had the most college graduates. When you have smart guys that can take loads of information and process it faster, it allows you to do more things. And obviously talent plays into it. Everyone is talented in the National Football League. I played for 12 years, and one thing I know: The difference between great teams and bad teams is minute. It's all about coaching and putting players in the right position.
Any sense on why more teams don't do it?
Yates: While the Patriots' offense has had significant turnover personnelwise since Belichick took over as the head coach, the offensive principles -- and the quarterback -- have largely remained the same. The fact that this has been their approach for so many years makes it adding a layer on top of previous layers each year, not building a foundation during a single offseason. When you look at other teams that are successfully relying on game-plan offenses -- Denver and New Orleans are two teams that come to mind -- you'll notice that they have stability in the system and at quarterback. That helps.
Woody: A lot of it has to do with the coaching. In being around the NFL so long, Belichick has been in different systems with various coaches, so he takes bits and pieces of all the different people who influenced him. All those things made an impression on him. It's an environment, a culture. We've seen the system change -- go from a 4-3 to a 3-4 back to a 4-3, then go from a high-flying offense to power rushing with Corey Dillon. Everything possibly you can think of, they've done it all.
Bruschi: It might simply be that they trust their system and their football upbringing. If your football upbringing was to trust a certain offensive philosophy, and it's tried-and-true against whatever defense opponents try to run, you might be more inclined to stick with that. A lot of those systems have had success and won Super Bowls, so why change?
What are some of the possible negatives to approaching things this way?
Woody: At certain points late in the season and in the playoffs, we always talk about defense and how running games win championships. Sometimes, when you morph so much, what do you really have to hang your hat on? When you are changing so much, and demanding so much from your players -- doing this one week, something else another week -- it can possibly catch up to you when you need that one thing to pull you through in the end.
Bruschi: You might run into problems if your coaching staff is too young and not experienced enough to communicate properly with the team. Then that can create more stress for the head coach. I've recognized it in the past. When Belichick first got to New England in 2000, he was doing a lot to make sure all the coaches were on the same page. Also, you might have some players who are stubborn in their ways. They have had success doing something different, and they ask, "Why are we doing it this way?" We had players like that in our locker room who didn't always believe and buy in, which can be a negative.
Yates: To start: It's not easy, as has been explained in some of the answers above. Additionally, game flow. If, for example, you want to attack a defense on the ground but fall behind early, do you stick with the running game? Or air it out to try to score faster? It felt as though this happened when the Patriots played the Packers in Week 13, when Green Bay scored 23 first-half points. Sometimes the circumstances of the game can dictate how you have to/want to play offense more so than you anticipated during your week of preparation. But at its best, a game-plan offense is a handful for any defense to slow down.
As a former player, is it tough to accept such an approach?
Woody: A lot of it is in the culture. What is it about? Winning. That means so much for an organization. If you talk to guys off the record and ask how they really feel, some might acknowledge they aren't thrilled with their playing-time percentages and stuff like that. But they're not going to say that publicly, because guess what? They're winning, in great position for the No. 1 seed, and have a great opportunity in front of them. They don't want to rock the boat. Winning is the ultimate deodorant to cover up all that stuff.
Bruschi: We had some players like that, but in the end, you have to understand that if certain defenses call for certain ways to attack it, that's the way it is. So if the game plan is to throw it, if you're the short-yardage running back, you know this might not be a big week for you. While that was the case, Belichick would always stress for everyone to be ready because things can always change. You never really know the flow of a game, so you go in with one plan and then maybe there is bad weather that changes it. Or the coaches get to the game and they realize what they thought might be slightly off. We've had players who weren't ready when that happened. They got caught off guard.
Why do you think a game-plan type offense can be so effective?
Bruschi: You're attacking weaknesses with a purpose. A benefit of that is if you have the right players, it keeps them interested. You come into a Wednesday meeting -- offensively or defensively -- and you wonder what you're going to do. There's a level of excitement in seeing how you might line up differently, possibly play a different role or position or have a different role on third down. It's a different plan, so you're always on your toes. It's never boring. It's a fresh mentality rather than the same old thing every week.
Woody: Everyone talks about being game-plan specific, but let's not forget players are going to drive this whole thing. Even within a game-plan-specific type system, you still need certain players to make it go. Rob Gronkowski wasn't right, wasn't fully healthy through the first month of the season, and where was this game-plan specific [system] going? It wasn't going fast. Some thought this might be the end of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady dynasty at that point. So you still need individual parts to really make it go. That's why Gronk is so valuable; he creates so many different matchup problems. That's what the Patriots are all about, doing a variety of things to attack those matchups.
Yates: Football can be a complex 11-man operation, but to boil it down: Good offense stems from the ability to dictate, while good defense stems from the ability to react. When you run a game-plan offense, the defense faces this conundrum: How do we prepare? You can't ignore what a team has successfully done in recent games, but you also can't count on that happening again. Additionally, when a team's intent is to expose your weaknesses, it's going to be difficult to stop that. After all, they're weaknesses for a reason (personnel, scheme, etc.).