One thing we hear a lot at Gillette Stadium: "Do your job."
How about we get more specific: "Do your job, which can change in an instant depending on a number of outside factors, and which may not become immediately clear until the job has begun."
Perhaps wide receivers in the New England Patriots' offense should live by the more specific version of those two similar but different mantras. For years, we have seen the headaches of what should be a dream job: catching passes from Tom Brady.
How many times have you heard someone say something like this about Brady:
"He expects you to be exactly where he wants you to be every route. Not a yard off, not a yard too deep, not a yard too short. He expects you to be exactly where he wants you to be because he's going to put the ball placement exactly right."
That quote comes from wide receiver Brandon LaFell, but it could easily have come from any receiver to walk through the halls of Gillette Stadium. Learning the Patriots offense can be difficult for receivers because of the heavy verbiage, the importance of understanding coverages, and the range of factors that can determine a receiver's assignment on a given play.
With so much to learn, it makes sense that the jump-off point would be the most simple point of the offense.
"First things first, you've got to learn formations," said LaFell. "Man, we've got a million formations, and we've got a million personnel groups. I was just trying to get all that down pat, because at least if I know where I'm lined up, I can kind of figure out what everybody else is doing based on the concept of the play. And second, learning the terms of the plays that we use and different code words we use, because one play I can be the X receiver and if we go to a hurry-up offense, depending on where the ball is spotted, I can be the Z receiver the next play. I have to know the whole play, but first, learning the formations, personnel groups, second, learning the plays and the concepts and just go from there with it."
It's not enough to simply know one or two assignments. Receivers can be asked to carry out multiple assignments based on alignment, coverage, personnel groupings, where the ball is spotted, and myriad other factors.
With so much to learn, it can be difficult to get it all right in one offseason — as we learned last year.
Then-rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce were thrown into the spotlight, with the tall task of learning the offense and getting in synch with Brady just a few months after entering the league.
"It was tough," Dobson said of the learning curve in the Patriots offense. "Just coming in, it's definitely a hard offense to learn. Very demanding. Tom Brady expects a lot from you, so just coming in, and not knowing anything, just trying to learn it all, and learn the different positions, it was tough. I think me and a couple of guys I came in with — Kenbrell and Josh — I feel like we kind of grouped together and just helped each other study and just kind of depended on each other and leaned on each other, and I think that helped us out a lot."
Those tribulations have not been limited to rookies and young players. Talented veterans like Joey Galloway, Chad Johnson, and Brandon Lloyd have struggled, and ultimately crawled to their demise.
It's a difficult offense to learn, but it's not enough to simply study the offense. One of the defining characteristics of the Erhardt-Perkins offense — the system the Patriots run — is that receivers and quarterbacks must see the defense through the same set of eyes. The receivers run their routes using sight adjustments, in which they are responding to what the defense is doing.
"You have to be smart to play in this offense," said wide receiver Brian Tyms. "You can't be — I don't want to say a dumb football player — but if you don't know coverages, you might as well go somewhere else. The quarterbacks expect you to be in a certain spot. It's kind of like basketball: set a pick, got a roll, got a motion here, it's the same thing."
The basketball analogy works perfectly to describe the receiver's job in the offense, because the receivers will usually run their routes to open spaces in the field. The spacing concepts, and how they affect the receiver's job, are sometimes determined by whether the middle of the field is open ("MOFO") or closed ("MOFC").
But it goes even deeper than that.
"Most places I've been, it's been more so — you know, if it's Cover 2, you have a small adjustment. But over here, it's like if there's a different coverage, there's a different route, for every route," Tyms said. "Usually, in most offenses, the receiver's job is simple. It's like ‘okay, if it's Cover 2, I've got this. If it's off, I got this. If it's man, I got this.' But in this offense, it's like, ‘if this dude comes (on a blitz), I've got this. If the linebacker floats under me, I have this now. If it's Cover 2, I have this that converts to this if the corner keeps funnelling with me.' You've got to think as you go, man."
That's a lot of information to process, and the receivers don't have a lot of time to process it once the ball is snapped.
"After your first one or two steps into the route, you should know exactly what you've got to do," said LaFell, "based off if the safety is rolling, if the corner is rolling down hard to Cover 2, or if he's bailing. Off your first one or two steps, you should have a great idea of exactly what you have to do."
The receivers and quarterback can gather information based off pre-snap reads, but those reads can change significantly if a defense is disguising coverage. If a defense shows its hand, the offense's job is easy; if they can conceal their assignment until the last possible moment, they can make things tougher for the offense.
"It's difficult because defenses are going to try to trick you," Dobson said. "They're going to try to stay in one-high as long as they can, and then at the snap, roll to two-high. Receivers just have to be alert to what they're doing, really pay attention in the scouting reports, really be alert to what the down and distance is, what are they expected to do on second-and-long and other situations. We've just got to put ourselves in a situation to know what coverage they like to use and try to stay ahead of the game."
If a defense does a good job of hiding what they're doing, they can cause bad reads that create miscommunications between the quarterback and receivers. For that reason, it is supremely important that the quarterback and receiver see the defense through the same set of eyes. That's not always easy to do, especially when playing alongside a quarterback who has seen it all in his playing career.
"It's difficult," Dobson said. "You've really got to be alert to what he's seeing and what we're seeing. In meetings, we've all got to be on the same page. We've got to pay attention and see what the quarterback is seeing. What's he looking for first? What side of the field is he reading first? Things like that, just so we can all know when he's likely to throw us the ball and when he's not. For us, it's good to get a better understanding so we can all be on the same page."
That should all happen a little more readily this season, now that these receivers have spent a full season in the offense and working with Brady. That being said, they probably won't be at Brady's level of understanding just yet.
Brady has played his entire 14-going-on-15-year career in the Patriots offense, which gives him a much deeper level of understanding not only of what the Patriots are trying to accomplish, but how opposing defenses might try to attack it.
That sometimes leaves his receivers awestruck.
"It's not no blame, he's just that good," LaFell said. "We were watching film one day, and we were looking at this different set that this team was showing us, and he's giving us the play, and we're like ‘Man, I don't think that's going to work,' and he's like, ‘No, just wait, because if this guys comes on a blitz, then these two guys have to drop.' Nobody had ever seen the play yet. As soon as the ball was snapped, the guys did exactly what he said. So being on the same page with him, he's going to make you right, no matter what."
One of the keys to last season was the lack of familiarity between Brady and the receivers, and the receivers' lack of experience in the Patriots offense. The Patriots infamously lost 76 percent of the team's receptions from 2012 to 2013, and 72 percent of the team's receiving yards. This year, however, they will carry over no less than 95 percent of the receptions and 94 percent of the receiving yards.
Last year, the only receiver with any prior experience in the Patriots offense was Julian Edelman. This year, the only receiver without any prior experience in the offense is LaFell.
With a year of playing time and a year with Brady under their belt, the Patriots receivers should take a step forward. Just remember, no matter how hard it looks to play wide receiver in the Patriots offense, it's probably harder.