Bill Belichick's ability to adapt is his defining trait as a head coach. That includes changing the plan during a game, during a season and often during the team-building phase of the offseason.
They are a game-plan organization, looking for smart, versatile players who can help the organization shapeshift on a weekly basis depending on their opponent. Belichick and Tom Brady don't stay married to a specific offensive philosophy for long. Belichick repeatedly says he only worries about putting points on the board, no matter how it gets done. They adjust their offense to their personnel perhaps more than any team. Their philosophy is change.
Their two playoff games this season illustrate the point perfectly. Against a stout Baltimore Ravens front, the Patriots barely tried to run the ball. They finished with 14 rushing yards, which was easily the fewest by a winning playoff team ever. In a game in which the Patriots were overmatched physically up front, Belichick pulled out all the stops. The team rolled with a four-man offensive line and declared a skill position player ineligible on many plays, causing confusion for the Ravens. They also had receiver Julian Edelman throw a touchdown pass. They got the ball out of Tom Brady's hands quickly. It was the ultimate case of "finesse" football winning.
One week later, LeGarrette Blount pounded the Indianapolis Colts on the ground for 148 yards. The team employed extra offensive linemen often and played power football. Tom Brady led the team on slow, workmanlike drives highlighted by manageable third downs. This was closer to the Patriots team we saw most of the season. But as we mentioned above: You never see the same Patriots offense for long.
Let's take a look back at how the Patriots have changed their offensive identity during the Belichick-Brady era:
2014: Slow, but steady dominance
The Patriots scored more than 40 points six times including the playoffs, easily more than any other team. But they did it in a far different way than their previous up-tempo approaches. They slow played the opposition with long, painful marches. The Patriots had 39 drives over 10 plays in the regular season, which was second in the NFL. They added five more such drives in the playoffs.
This is a short-passing offense. They threw the ball on 59.2 percent of their plays, the third highest ratio of the Belichick era. But Brady was not accurate throwing the deep ball down the field, focusing mostly on short passes and looks up the seam to Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Gronk, Edelman, and Brandon LaFell combined for 248 catches, 3,049 yards, and 23 scores. Brady gets the ball out of his hands quickly, which helps save an uneven offensive line.
As Brady gets older, the team relies more and more on using his smarts to quickly assess mismatches, while saving the pounding his body takes. There are fewer long "option routes" for receivers other than Edelman. Brady has the options.
2013: Landing on power running
Last season perhaps represents New England's malleable approach more than any other. We can break down the season into three distinct phases. Early in the season, Tom Brady struggled more than he had since his first season as starter. He could not get on the same page with receivers. It was a below-average offense that struggled to overcome massive departures (Hernandez, Welker) and injuries (Gronkowski, everyone else). The run game was solid throughout.
Things turned around dramatically Week 9 against Pittsburgh, not long after Gronkowski returned to the lineup. The Patriots figured out how to create yardage inside the hashmarks with Gronk, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Brady was suddenly leading one of the best offenses in the league. The running game also picked up.
Since Gronkowski was lost for the season in Week 14, the Patriots have settled into their power-rushing approach. LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden represent the deepest and most versatile backfield in Belichick's tenure. This is still a top offense, just different. They have few options on the outside in the pass game, so they are playing to their strengths.
2012: Hurry up!
New England starts playing fast-break offense, helped along by one-word play calls. The emphasis on tempo leads to a lot of tired defenses that can't substitute. The Patriots lead the league in total plays, points and yards. Many teams around the NFL spent the subsequent offseason working on hurry-up approaches. It's not the first time the Patriots helped kick start league-wide trends.
2010-2011: Gronkowski and Hernandez
Everything changed in the 2010 NFL Draft. New England transitioned to a two-tight end offense under new coordinator Bill O'Brien. The approach made life difficult for opposing defensive coordinators who tried to match up to the Patriots. In the preseason, magazines had the Patriots possibly missing the playoffs, but New England wound up leading the league in points and got the No. 1 seed after the 2010 season. (They lost to the Jets.) By the end of 2011's AFC title season, many teams around the league were copying the Patriots' approach.
2008: The Cassel year
This was the ultimate proof that Belichick (and coordinator Josh McDaniels) can adapt at the highest level. The Patriots managed to win 11 games and finished eighth in points with Matt Cassel at the helm. They led the league in first downs by playing a ball-control offense, with an emphasis on play action and an effective four-pronged rushing attack, including guys like Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan. There's an argument to be made that the Patriots were better on offense in '08 than in some of their early Super Bowl seasons.
2007: Star Wars
The ultimate proof that Brady was a fantasy football rock star waiting to happen; he just needed the weapons. The Patriots set every record imaginable while spreading defenses out and throwing like a college team. Randy Moss set the receiving touchdown record. Wes Welker led the league in receptions. Even Donte' Stallworth got some. The rest of the league wasn't ready for New England's bombs-away aggressiveness, especially early in the season. Spread offenses soon became the norm.
2006: Talent craters
Brady seems to get more credit for the beginning of his career, when he won titles, but this is the season when Brady's career really took off. He's played far better from 2006 to 2013 than he did early in his career, which is a reminder of how many things have to come together to win a title.
Brady's best receivers in '06 were Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Doug Gabriel. The run game, led by a declining Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, was below average. And Brady still came a few minutes away from dragging the team to the Super Bowl.
2005: McDaniels shift
McDaniels wasn't officially the offensive coordinator until 2006, but the team's quest for a three-peat started a big change in philosophy. The Patriots were second in the NFL in pass attempts in '05, only one season after being 22nd. They had to throw because the defense and running game fell apart, much like '02. Early in Brady's career, the Patriots threw as much as they needed to. They didn't truly embrace a pass-first philosophy until they had more weapons.
2004: Dillon dominates
Perhaps this is the group most similar to the 2013 Patriots. Corey Dillon spearheaded an effective power-running game. The Patriots didn't throw the ball much, but they were far more efficient and explosive than when they threw in previous seasons. Deion Branch, David Patten and David Givens all took turns as favorite receivers, with Branch dominating the Super Bowl.
2003: Spreading the wealth
People think back on the '03 and '04 Patriots teams as juggernauts, but their offense battled for everything it got. There were no stars beyond Brady. The '03 team relied on winning insane, close games. Teams were never quite sure how the Patriots beat them (sound familiar?). The defense was first in points allowed, but the passing game only had one receiver over 550 yards -- Branch at 803. Four other players gained between 400 and 550 yards -- Kevin Faulk, Daniel Graham, David Givens and Troy Brown. Brady was below the league average in yards per attempt. No running back topped 650 yards rushing.
This was the height of New England's no stars, no frills, limited offense.
2002: Growing pains
Brady was forced to throw a ton in his second season as starter because the running game and defense both slumped. Brady made some personal strides, but he wasn't terribly efficient during a 9-7 year.
2001: Staying out of trouble
In Brady's first season as a starter, the offense was a run-heavy group that tried not to turn the ball over, allowing the defense to win games. Antowain Smith was the team's bell-cow running back, while Brown enjoyed his only season as a true No. 1 option.
It's remarkable that the Patriots have been title contenders for 14 seasons, and Brady is still atop the game. In most ways, he's a superior player to the one that won his three titles. Belichick has kept that window open by never staying the same for long.