January 16, 2013

SYSTEMS MATTER, PLAYERS DON'T:

Speak My Language : As the players and schemes have changed, it's the way the Patriots talk that's continued their offensive dominance. (Chris Brown, January 16, 2013, Grantland)

New England's offense is a member of the NFL's third offensive family, the Erhardt-Perkins system. The offense was named after the two men, Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins, who developed it while working for the Patriots under head coach Chuck Fairbanks in the 1970s. According to Perkins, it was assembled in the same way most such systems are developed. "I don't look at it as us inventing it," he explained. "I look at it as a bunch of coaches sitting in rooms late at night organizing and getting things together to help players be successful."

The backbone of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that plays -- pass plays in particular -- are not organized by a route tree or by calling a single receiver's route, but by what coaches refer to as "concepts." Each play has a name, and that name conjures up an image for both the quarterback and the other players on offense. And, most importantly, the concept can be called from almost any formation or set. Who does what changes, but the theory and tactics driving the play do not. "In essence, you're running the same play," said Perkins. "You're just giving them some window-dressing to make it look different."

The biggest advantage of the concept-based system is that it operates from the perspective of the most critical player on offense: the quarterback. In other systems, even if the underlying principles are the exact same, the play and its name might be very different. Rather than juggling all this information in real time, an Erhardt-Perkins quarterback only has to read a given arrangement of receivers. "You can cut down on the plays and get different looks from your formations and who's in them. It's easier for the players to learn. It's easier for the quarterback to learn," former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said back in 2000. "You get different looks without changing his reads. You don't need an open-ended number of plays."


This simplicity is one of the reasons coaches around the league have been gravitating to the Erhardt-Perkins approach. "Concepts benefit you because you can plug different guys into different formations, into different personnel groups, and if they understand the concept, it gives you more flexibility," [...]

With the help of his assistants, Belichick's primary innovation was to go from an Erhardt-Perkins offense to an Erhardt-Perkins system, built on its method of organizing and naming plays. The offense itself would be philosophically neutral. This is how, using the terminology and framework of what was once thought to be the league's least progressive offensive system, Brady and Belichick built one of the most consistently dynamic and explosive offenses in NFL history. From conservative to spread to blistering no-huddle, the tactics -- and players -- have changed while the underlying approach has not.2

Let's look at a play that has long been a staple of the Patriots attack. This is actually two different concepts put together -- "ghost/tosser," which has the Patriots run the ghost concept to one side and the tosser concept to the other. Ghost has the outermost receiver, whoever it is, run a vertical route, one inside receiver run to a depth of roughly eight yards before breaking flat to the outside, and the innermost receiver run immediately to the flat. It's a form of the "stick" or "turn" concept that essentially every NFL team uses. On the other side, tosser means that the receivers run the double-slant concept. The page below is from the Patriots' playbook.

The theory here is that no matter the formation, there is an outside receiver, an inside receiver, and a middle receiver, and each will be responsible for running his designated route. For the quarterback, this means the play can be run repeatedly, from different formations and with different personnel, all while his read stays effectively the same. Once receivers understand each concept, they only have to know at which position they're lined up. The personnel and formation might cause the defense to respond differently, but for New England those changes only affect which side Brady prefers or which receiver he expects to be open. This conceptual approach is how the Patriots are able to run the same basic plays, whether spreading the field with four or five receivers or using multiple tight ends and running backs.

The most recent innovation to fall into New England's Erhardt-Perkins framework is a commitment to the no-huddle. In 2012, the Patriots were the league leaders in total plays, first downs, points, and yards -- all by a significant margin. Other teams have dabbled in the no-huddle, but they can't commit to it like the Patriots can, for one simple reason: terminology. No team that uses the Coryell or true West Coast systems can adapt easily to a fully functional up-tempo no-huddle because, simply, they can't communicate that efficiently. The Patriots are built to communicate in one- or two-word designations, and so, with judicious use of code words, it's simply a matter of translating what they already do into a no-huddle pace.
Posted by at January 16, 2013 7:13 PM
  
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