Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
* * * **
One of the things every NFL head coach, general manager and scout does at the end of each season is spend a little time studying the Super Bowl winner.
These folks scour the championship roster to see if any undiscovered trends have emerged in the team-building process. Moreover, they will discuss how the champs acquired and utilized their notable players to see if there are lessons to take away.
Given some time to study the New England Patriots and how they've been able to sustain their success over the past two decades -- with heightened focus on the 2018 group -- I've come up with five key takeaways:
1) Focus on each player's best traits.
The Patriots have become masters at creating ideal roles for their players, thanks to Bill Belichick's superb evaluation skills and keen understanding of each guy's strengths. The six-time Super Bowl champ (eight-time, if you include his work as Giants defensive coordinator) not only has an eye for talent, but he knows exactly how to utilize players within New England's system. In the scouting community, general managers frequently encourage their scouts to think about how a player fits into the team's designated scheme. While that works for plenty of organizations, the Patriots have dominated the NFL over the past 20 years with an "American Idol" approach that has players auditioning for various roles.
New England will identify the strengths of each player's game and put him in a position that only enhances his best traits. For instance, the Patriots picked up two-time All-Pro kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and used him as a receiver/running back because he was electric with the ball in his hands. Sure, he's not a refined route runner or the most consistent pass catcher, but the Pats found a way to put him in a position to contribute as a playmaker, as evidenced by his 63 touches (42 rushes, 21 receptions) for 475 scrimmage yards and four scores.
Trent Brown is another example of the Patriots spotting positive traits in a player viewed as an underachiever with his previous squad. The 6-foot-8, 380-pound tackle was criticized for his work ethic, commitment and preparation during his three-year stint with the San Francisco 49ers, but he emerged as a key contributor in New England after being acquired in a draft-day trade last April. Brown capably filled the void at left tackle following Nate Solder's free agency departure, exhibiting outstanding balance, body control and movement skills on the edge. Most importantly, Brown started every game this season, giving New England a consistent performer at a key position on the offensive line.
"I think we're all pleased that he's been as good as he has," Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said of Brown prior to Super Bowl LIII, via NBC Sports. "The guy has a great skill set and I know he cares. He doesn't like to mess up. We're all pleased. He's been our left tackle the whole season. We've needed him bad to come through, and he has come through."
Although Brown might've pleasantly surprised the Patriots with his performance this season, it took him buying into the team's approach to maximize his talent.
"He had to understand the culture," Scarnecchia said. "There were some tough times out there on the practice field.
"There are ways we want things done. We want guys to practice in a certain manner. We want guys to prepare in a certain manner, and that can't be compromised. I think he ultimately got the message. And I think ultimately Trent wants to be a good player. So, I think he understands if he does things the way we want them done, he has a chance to be a better player. That's served him well so far."
With that in mind, I don't think it is a coincidence the Patriots have successfully scoured the trade market to find key contributors at bargain-basement prices. Brown and Patterson joined Danny Shelton, Phillip Dorsett, Kyle Van Noy, Dwayne Allen, Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe as unheralded trade pickups who emerged as timely contributors in New England after being dismissed by previous teams. The Patriots spotted a few positive traits in all of these players and put them in positions to contribute when they were needed. Sure, it took each guy buying into the team's approach and embracing his role, but it is hard to dispute the results when all of the aforementioned players made some plays that helped bring another Lombardi Trophy to Foxborough.
2) Build a roster that features a number of versatile players.
In NFL meeting rooms, coaches frequently tell players something along the lines of, "The more roles you can fill, the better chance you have of making the squad." When you look at the composition of the Patriots' roster, it's clear New England's decision-makers buy into that mantra. Players are expected to play more than their primary positions -- and the ability to thrive in a variety of roles enhances a guy's chances to fill a key role on game day.
Take, for example, Van Noy and fellow linebacker Dont'a Hightower. They can play on the inside as punishing run stuffers or hunt the quarterback from wide alignments as edge rushers. With the Patriots constantly shuffling between a 3-4 and 4-3 front, the versatility from Nos. 53 and 54 enables Belichick to throw a variety of looks at the opponent without changing personnel.
The McCourty twins also illustrate the importance of versatility, with each capable of playing safety or corner. Devin is a two-time Pro Bowl safety, but he spent the first few seasons of his NFL career playing on the island. His coverage skills make him a compelling playmaker at safety because he can play slot receivers or tight ends in the Patriots' base defense. Meanwhile, Jason has spent the bulk of his career at cornerback, but the team trained him at safety during the preseason to enhance depth in the secondary. While many teams employ "swing" players (guys capable of manning multiple spots within a position group), the Patriots expect many of their guys to seamlessly shift between a number of positions, training them to do so during training camp.
"A lot of playing players in different positions in preseason relates to building depth on our roster," Belichick said in August in reference to Jason McCourty's safety work, per NBC Sports. "Sometimes players have to be ready to back up at that position or play at that position. I think it was a good experience and hopefully, whether he does or doesn't play safety down the road, it might have given him have a better understanding going forward."
New England's preference for versatility doesn't always result in a player manning multiple positions on game day, but it is about possessing a variety of skills that enable coaches to use you in a variety of ways. James White and Rex Burkhead fall into this category as hybrid running backs with receiver-like playmaking skills in the passing game. Both are capable of grinding out tough yards as downhill runners positioned at the top of the I-formation in run-heavy sets, but they also excel in the screen game and out wide as pseudo-receivers. Their individual and collective versatility creates opportunities for Josh McDaniels to use them as mismatch creators on the field.
Considering how the Patriots ultimately cracked the code on the Los Angeles Rams' defense using empty formation with 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver) down the stretch in Super Bowl LIII, the ability to acquire and utilize multi-faceted playmakers is clearly a game-changer in today's NFL.
3) Place greater value on intelligence than athleticism.
During my scouting days, the Patriots were one of the franchises that placed significant emphasis on acquiring college graduates and former team captains on draft day. The thought behind the strategy was to add as many smart, tough-minded players to the roster as possible, because it enabled the coaches to put more on their plate when it came to learning schemes and responsibilities.
Now, there isn't a documented correlation between book smarts and football intelligence, but it is sensible to believe great students in the classroom will be able to take information dispensed by coaches and routinely apply it to the field. That's why I wasn't surprised to read in Peter King's postgame column that the Patriots were able to execute plays on the game-winning drive that weren't included in the Super Bowl LIII game plan or practiced in the weeks leading up to the game. It takes a group of high-IQ players to process and flawlessly execute an in-game adjustment without having practice reps to commit it to memory. The Patriots' collective intelligence gave McDaniels enough confidence to make a radical change on the fly and it ultimately helped the team win another title.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots' individual and collective intelligence show up in their ability to execute complex schemes that change weekly. New England is one of the few teams that morphs its defensive fronts each week between a variety of 3-4 and 4-3 alignments which complicate things for the offense. In addition, the Patriots will combine their multi-faceted fronts with exotic pre-snap disguises and post-snap movements that require players to fully comprehend the coverage concepts. Not to mention, they have to understand the defensive coordinator's motives for using those tactics in games.
Against the Rams, the Patriots threw out a variety of pre-snap disguises and exotic looks to confuse Jared Goff and Sean McVay. The "AFC" (automatic front and coverage) calls and post-snap movement disrupted the flow of the Rams' offense and kept them guessing throughout the game. In addition, the Pats' utilization of more zone coverage -- as opposed to their traditional man-to-man tactics -- threw a wrench into L.A.'s plans. None of those tactics could be executed without a group of high IQ defenders with the capacity to process a vast amount of information without it affecting their individual and collective execution of their assignments.
Reflecting on the Patriots' success over the past two decades, the attention to detail and the flawless execution of situational football speak to their intelligence, which is one of the traits the team covets in each of its players.
4) Toughness matters.
The veteran safety was sidelined with a broken arm early in the third quarter, but refused the cart, instead walking off the field with his arm in an air cast. A bit later, he returned to the sidelines to support his team. The scene reminded me of watching Rodney Harrison suffering a broken arm in Super Bowl XXXVIII against my Carolina Panthers. Like Chung, Harrison was unable to finish the game, but returned to the sidelines to cheer on his teammates as the wise leader. I don't believe the similarities here are a coincidence, based on how Belichick and Co. value physical and mental toughness. I've had former Patriots staffers tell me how the team practices outside in inclement conditions and runs hills throughout the offseason to develop the grit to handle adverse situations. In addition, New England routinely hits its players with pop quizzes in meetings to test their knowledge of upcoming opponents.
Although those things don't seem like big deals on the surface, the constant stress and strain of detailed preparation on and off the field helps players handle the bright lights of championship games.
With that in mind, I believe the Patriots purposely target players who've experienced a little adversity or display the necessary toughness (mental and physical). Just look at how Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and others jump up after big hits or repeatedly return to the action following injuries. Their perseverance sets the tone for the Patriots -- and that's a direct reflection of the coach and the team's culture.
5) It's always about the team.
The term "The Patriot Way" elicits eye rolls from some NFL executives, but there's no denying that the franchise's culture under Belichick has produced outstanding results. New England has claimed six Lombardi Trophies in nine tries over the past 18 seasons -- and the team-first premise remains the common denominator in this run. The Pats aren't a star-driven outfit and their balanced approach to economics is one of the reasons why they've been able to sustain such unprecedented success.
Sure, Tom Brady is regarded as the "G.O.A.T." But he's never commanded a top-of-the-market contract. The cash saved from paying the quarterback at a reasonable rate has given New England the flexibility to add pieces on both sides of the ball. Now, it's not like the Patriots have used all of those savings on marquee free agents or overpaid their own players, but the decision to keep the quarterback on a sensible deal has allowed them to hold the line on others when their respective contracts are up. That's why their blue-chip players (TB12, Gronkowski, Edelman, Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore) are on deals that fall short of the high-end market values we've seen other stars grab from their respective franchises.
Studying this team-over-me mentality that appears to define New England's locker room, I believe Belichick not only acquires those kinds of players (again, I cite the Patriots' preference for former team captains), but the team's culture also demands individuals sacrifice their own agendas for the sake of the team. Look at how Brady always discusses wins over individual stats when pressed on his legacy by media members. Moreover, pay attention to how each player talks up embracing his role in postgame interviews.
Now, I know some of that stuff is coachspeak, but the Patriots have won enough games over the past two decades to encourage each of their players to fully buy into the culture. If this team-first culture consistently produces exceptional results, I think more NFL execs should look for selfless players who relish the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than individual glory. It sure is working in New England -- and I think it can work for other franchises intent on building the best team.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
Now, I'm certainly not dismissing Edelman's remarkable feats in the playoffs, but spots in Canton are reserved for transcendent stars who are the gold standard at their respective positions. I'm not NFL Media's resident expert in Hall of Fame credentials, but I've played with enough guys who have a bust in Canton (Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Brett Favre, Reggie White, Marcus Allen, Derrick Thomas, Will Shields and Tim Brown) to understand the difference between very good players and the extraordinary players in the league.
That's why I'm hesitant to anoint Edelman as a Hall of Famer. Sure, he ranks second in postseason receptions (115), behind only Jerry Rice (151), but that doesn't warrant HOF enshrinement. Edelman is currently tied for 148th in career receptions (499) and 248th in receiving yards (5,390). In addition, he has posted just two career 1,000-yard seasons with 30 receiving touchdowns.
No, not at a time when receivers are routinely cracking the 100-catch mark and posting 1,000-yard seasons each year. Are you ready to size up Edelman for a gold jacket when he hasn't consistently hit those marks throughout his 10-year career? Better yet, he's never earned Pro Bowl honors or All-Pro accolades as the Patriots' Option 1B in the passing game.
It's hard for me to consider him an all-time great when he's failed to dominate the game or serve as a standard bearer at his position. He's a clutch playoff performer, no doubt. But I wouldn't give Deion Branch a gold jacket based on his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIX -- and I'm not going to give Edelman a ticket following his extraordinary showing in Super Bowl LIII.
2) Texans, Titans starting a trend in the coaching ranks? At a time when it has become popular to appoint coaches with quarterback-development experience to the offensive coordinator position, it appears there could be a subtle trend emerging in the NFL that goes against the grain. More NFL head coaches are elevating former tight ends coaches to the offensive coordinator position. The Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans are at the forefront of the trend after promoting tight ends coaches Tim Kelly and Arthur Smith, respectively.
These developments didn't garner a lot of national headlines because they were internal hires that lacked the sexiness associated with adding a quarterback guru, but I believe these moves will eventually be part of a bigger trend in the NFL. Tight ends coaches are uniquely qualified to run an offense based on their experiences teaching and developing all of the facets of the offense.
Remember, tight ends are not only extensions of the offensive line with their responsibilities as in-line blockers in a traditional Y role (attached tight end), but they are also key contributors to the passing game from a variety of spots, including the Y, H (flex tight end) and F (fullback) positions. Whether in pass protection as an additional blocker or as a mismatch player in space or from the backfield, tight ends are essential pieces on the chess board when it comes to building an explosive offense.
Given the position's impact on an offense, it makes perfect sense for head coaches searching for new offensive leaders to turn to tight ends coaches to direct their attacks.
"The tight end coach touches every facet of the offensive plan," said former NFL offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom, who has 25 years of experience coaching in the pros. "He works hand in hand with the offensive line coach on the running game and pass protection. Plus, he knows the passing game and route concepts.
"When it comes to putting together the entire picture, it makes sense to put guys with that kind of experience in the play-calling spot."
To that point, I think we can look at Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as a prime example of how a former tight ends coach can become an offensive wizard in today's game. The veteran play-caller helped guide the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl XL win with a second-year quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), and he also helped Philip Rivers earn the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2013, when he posted a team-record and NFL-leading 69.5 percent completion rate and a team-record-tying 105.5 passer rating.
In 2017, Wiz directed a Chargers offense that was the NFL's best in passing yards per game (276.9) and sacks allowed (18), with Rivers ranking second in passing yards (4,515) while Keenan Allen was third in receiving yards (1,393) and fourth in receptions (102). With Melvin Gordon also posting a career-best 1,105 rushing yards and topping 1,500 scrimmage yards (1,581), the Chargers' offense flashed the kind of explosiveness and balance that most head coaches covet -- and it was on display again in 2018, when the Bolts finished sixth in the league with an average of 26.8 points per game, up from 22.2 in '17.
Looking at the Texans and Titans, the promotions of their respective tight ends coaches were made with the development of their young quarterbacks in mind. Deshaun Watson and Marcus Mariota have shown promise in directing playoff teams, but they each could benefit from playing in a more balanced offense that features a dependable running game and a quarterback-friendly aerial attack that emphasizes stout pass protection and high-percentage throws.
In Kelly, the Texans are promoting a coach with five years of experience with the team. He spent the past two seasons tutoring the tight ends after spending a season assisting the offensive line (2016) and two seasons as the offensive quality control coach (2014-2015).
Interestingly, the Texans' new offensive coordinator has experience as a collegiate defensive assistant, including as the defensive coordinator/defensive line coach at Minnesota State Moorhead (2010), which came after he starred as a defensive tackle at Eastern Illinois. That experience not only gives him an understanding of trench play but of defensive schemes, particularly for the front seven. Considering the importance of the running game and pass protection, Kelly's history of working with the big bodies should help him build a solid foundation in front of Watson.
With Smith, the Titans are elevating a former collegiate offensive lineman (North Carolina) with 12 years of coaching experience. While he's worked primarily with the O-line and tight ends during his eight seasons with the Titans, I find it interesting that Smith did spend a total of three NFL seasons working as a defensive quality control coach studying opponents' offensive strategies and schemes. That knowledge, coupled with his experience working under different offensive coordinators, should give the Titans' new play-caller a unique perspective when it comes to crafting an offense around Mariota and his explosive skills.