Is the Patriots spread going dead?


Last year, we detailed how the Patriots were changing their offensive identity on the fly. After being in three- and four-receiver, and shotgun sets more than any team in football was in 2007 and 2008, New England scaled it back down the stretch in 2009.

Could it be that the NFL had caught up to the New England spread? Well, it’s easy to point at the team ranking third in total offense, and dismiss the idea. But the offense’s difficulty in the red zone, churning it out in short-yardage situations and even some on third down (atypical to what this team was in its championship years) show the drawbacks of the spread — Those teams can generally move it fine between the 20s, then struggle in tight spots.

This is a subject that our pal Tim Graham of tackled over at the AFC East blog with ex-NFL QB and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who believes the Patriots’ style of spread was “exposed” in 2009.

“I trust the fact (Bill Belichick) can fix it. That’s why they went after tight ends,” Dilfer told Graham. “They might be the model of why the spread can’t work in the NFL. When you’re around great coaches in the NFL long enough, you learn why tight end is such a valuable position because it allows you to (use multiple sets) offensively. You can protect your quarterback with quick throws, with maximizing protection, with the run game.

“If they can incorporate those tight ends soon enough and change their system, they can be highly effective again offensively. But if they go back and try the shotgun with three-receiver sets — I think the numbers were up to 70 percent of the time — I think they’re going to struggle.”

The tight end dynamic is an interesting one … Players like Dallas’ Jason Witten and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, who can play all over the formation and block, are the most dangerous types of weapons coming out of the huddle. Versatile enough to split out, players like that make it hard for defensive coordinators to match up and substitute accordingly, since they allow the offense to line up every which way while keeping their personnel stagnant.

Dilfer’s question — Can Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez (a “move” type of tight end typical of the college spread) develop fast enough to change things in 2010? — is a good one in that sense. Here’s another one: If the offense is changing, who’s toting the rock?

If the Patriots revert to becoming more of a traditional offensive team in 2010, they’ll need to find a more traditional tailback. Drafting Ryan Mathews, as we mentioned back in April, would’ve addressed that problem, but the Fresno State product obviously wound up far out of reach on draft day.

It’s also easy to forget that Laurence Maroney showed some promising signs before contracting a case of the dropsies, although after four disappointing years, it’d be awfully tough to count on him as a bellcow now. Hard too to rely on thirty-somethings Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor, with their respective injury histories.


And then there’s the question of how changing the offense would affect players like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, receivers that seem born to play in the open spaces the spread creates, or even a lineman like Sebastian Vollmer, who has played in the spread for almost all of his football life.

Lots of moving parts here, and thanks to that little talk between Graham and Dilfer, the face/identity of this evolving offense is something I’ll most certainly be keeping an eye on as we get to OTAs and minicamp and into training camp.

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