Choose your weapon
The beauty of the Belichick offense is that he changes it week to week, tailoring it to the specific opponent, an approach he learned during his formative years. If it works again tonight, the Colts won't know what's coming at them . . .
FOXBOROUGH -- When the Patriots opened last Monday's blowout win over the Vikings in a spread offense -- and ended up throwing the ball 43 times against 15 rushes -- it served as another reminder of the team's diverse attack.
Only four weeks earlier, in a blowout victory over the Bengals, the Patriots had run the ball 41 times with only 26 passes.
Two wins, two dramatically different approaches.
That, in a nutshell, is the Patriots' offense, a unit that differs from many teams because of the dramatic changes it makes on a week-to-week basis. Some weeks it's running, some weeks it's passing, and tonight against the Colts, it's anyone's guess.
That's the way coach Bill Belichick likes it.
"I think you want to keep the other team off-balance, and more important from my standpoint, you want to be able to attack your opponent where they might be vulnerable," said Belichick. "That's going to be at the core of our game plan every week."
Although Belichick might be best known for defensive wizardry, one of the lesser inspected areas of his 32-year NFL coaching career is where his favored offensive approach was born. Before landing his first head coaching job in 1991 with the Cleveland Browns, Belichick had spent just one year on the offensive side of the ball, in 1977 with the Detroit Lions when he worked with the tight ends and receivers.
But his background on offense, not surprisingly, stretches back much farther than that.
Lee Corso remembers seeing a young Bill Belichick in the Naval Academy coaching offices, tagging along with his father, Steve.
"All the time, he used to come and watch films with me, and he'd be sitting there, talking about why we put players in motion, or what we were doing to find a mismatch," recalled Corso, the ESPN commentator who was Navy's offensive coordinator from 1966-68.
Belichick reflected on those early years this past week, noting that the first time he became conscious of offensive strategy was watching Navy in the early '60s, when Wayne Hardin was the coach and Roger Staubach the quarterback. He said Hardin and Corso were "two guys who kind of really got me started."
Because Navy lacked great athletes, the offense included a lot of motion and shifting of formations, with the hope that all that movement would force the defense to tip its coverage before the snap. Corso described the style as "survival" although Belichick saw it as something altogether different.
"I just remember how creative and innovative they were with plays and formations," he recalled. "Every week they had something new, and you wanted to see what the new wrinkle was. It was how they tried to play off what was successful the previous week or from other games, and made it look like something else, whether it was reverses, play-action passes, or off-running plays."
By the time Belichick arrived at Annapolis High School and was suiting up for action himself, he was introduced to the other extreme of offensive football. The Annapolis attack had few shifts, few motions, and actually very few plays. If Navy was adding new plays and formations regularly, the Annapolis High squad was possibly adding one wrinkle per year, if that.
"We had a very good coach who had a tremendous record, and we only had four plays," Belichick recalled. "He called every play and there was only one way to do it. The kids that played in that system, we'd talk about how it never changed, but it was still very successful."
Then came one formative postgraduate year at Phillips Andover Academy, where Belichick played for the late Steve Sorota, and he remembered a thick offensive playbook that not only included a lot of plays, but gave the quarterback the freedom to call them.
That varied taste of offensive football helped form a foundation that Belichick would carry into the coaching ranks and expand upon while working with numerous talented coaches. He had seen the benefits of motion and constant shifts at Navy and Andover, but also saw how a more limited but precisely executed offense also could be effective at Annapolis High.
"I learned both of those lessons, and both have applications," he said.
When he was defensive coordinator for the Giants in the 1980s, Belichick said, there were games when his coaching approach was similar to what he experienced at Annapolis High.
"There were times we played Cover 2 up to 50 plays in a game and anybody could have called the defense, because we were doing the same thing every play," he said. "If you line up in something and opponents know what you're in but know they can't stop it, that's very demoralizing. That can be a huge psychological edge."
On the flip side, Belichick recalled one of the biggest wins of his Browns coaching career as an example of how a more varied offensive plan can make a difference. That game, perhaps more than any other, shaped his philosophy on favoring an approach in which the game plan drastically varies from week to week.
"It was the '94 season and we went down and beat Dallas [19-14] at the end of year, and they were a real good football team," said Belichick, who ran the offense at the start of his coaching tenure in Cleveland (1991-95). "They played their system, the [Jimmy Johnson] system, and we had to change our plays to specifically attack their system, which was very good. That was a good example of adjusting what we do very specifically, focusing on how to attack them. It was one of the biggest wins we had in Cleveland."
Much like those Browns in '94, the current-day Patriots -- with Tom Brady pulling the trigger and coordinator Josh McDaniels calling the plays -- carefully tailor their approach each week. It's their trademark, as evidenced last week when the team decided not to run against the Vikings' top-ranked rush defense, and instead air it out.
Fullback Heath Evans was recently explaining the team's offense to his former teammate, Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander.
"The coaches put in the game plan, we come in and swallow it, digest it, and then we do our best effort to put it into motion," he said. "In Seattle, their offense is the West Coast. That's what it's called and they do what they do. Here, I don't know what to call it. There is no name for it. It's about the game plan, week to week."
Because of that, several opposing coaches have noted the challenge in preparing for the Patriots each week.
"You can't always anticipate what you're going to get from those guys," said Colts coach Tony Dungy. "They've come here and played us here on the Astroturf and played [smaller backs] Kevin Faulk and Mike Cloud and didn't play their big backs. Then you get up there and they have a different style, more tight ends and run inside.
"They always seem to have a little wrinkle, a substitute package, whether it's three wides or the four wides like they were [Monday] night. They do a good job of keeping you off-balance."
Make no mistake, the Patriots aren't the only NFL team that can run and pass the ball, but what seems to make them stand out is their willingness to significantly change their approach from week to week. Some teams have a specific calling card, such as the Broncos and their zone rushing attack, or the Colts and their three-wide passing attack.
The Patriots' calling card, on the other hand, is their ability to be amoebalike on any given week, able to morph into a style based on the makeup of their opponent.
Corso believes it takes a specific type of player to pull off those ever-evolving plans -- those who are smart, tough, and dedicated. He feels it's the type of player Belichick saw in those early years at Navy.
Meanwhile, Evans said players in the game-plan offense have to be egoless, "willing to die for the betterment of the team."
The idea, Belichick said, is to have a plan that "falls in the middle, to have some offensive flexibility where you can attack all areas of the field with the running game, short and deep passing game, different formations." Such flexibility helps the coaching staff utilize different players with different types of skills.
Belichick added that one key to any offense is disguising successful plays by running them out of different looks, thus making it harder for the defense to recognize them. Because the Patriots are now in their seventh year in the same offensive system -- and Brady, who could make any offense look good, is in his sixth year -- the possibilities have expanded.
"I think we've broadened it a bit every year," Belichick said. "There have been a number of things we've added over the course of the years that have been helpful and productive, and looking back on it, we wish we had them in earlier years. But maybe we weren't in a position to execute those things, for a variety of reasons. As we've grown and evolved as a football team, our system has grown."
When considering the roots from which that system has grown, and why Belichick prefers that approach, look to the past.
Think Navy, with Hardin and Corso. Think Annapolis High. Think Phillips Andover Academy. Think about Belichick coaching his own defense, but spending hours upon hours studying film on opposing offenses.
In his often understated way, Belichick had a simple description for what he favors on offense.
"The goal," he said, "is to move the ball and score points."