In 2007, the New England Patriots put together the most efficient and highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL. It was an offense based on long bombs from Tom Brady to Randy Moss, and the first documented example of a team taking snaps out of the shotgun formation more than 50 percent of the time in a single season. We're pretty sure that the old single-wing teams, and the 49ers of the Red Hickey era, probably did so as well, but there's no documented evidence. In any case, that New England offense was as close to a spread offense as the NFL would allow; there were more tight ends for protection and the route complexities were slightly more extreme, but this was the first modern professional offense to take advantage of those types of concepts to such a degree.
The NFL being the copycat league it is, other teams quickly followed suit. A decade ago, teams ran shotgun about 12 percent of the time. In 2009, we were up to nearly 40 percent of all plays. For teams like the Colts and Saints, heavy shotgun percentages in schemes were now the norm, and Super Bowls were being won with these ideas.
But if there's one thing we've learned about Bill Belichick (the genius New England version, not the jackass Cleveland Browns version), it's that just when the rest of the league started to catch up to his more evolutionary concepts, he's already on to the next thing. So it was when half the league switched to the 3-4 defense to try and get in his and Dick LeBeau's respective wheelhouses, and so it is now. Just as the rest of the league is going four- and five-wide, relying too much on big plays and not enough on drive consistency, Belichick took another left turn.
The first sign was when the Pats took two tight ends in the 2010 draft – Arizona's Ron Gronkowski in the second round, and Aaron Hernandez of Florida in the fourth. The second, of course, came when Belichick traded Moss to the Minnesota Vikings after Moss caught no passes against the Miami Dolphins on October 4. New England's offense had morphed from that big play circus to a ball-control, yards after catch system that has proven to be just as efficient, if not nearly as exciting. The Pats ranked first in Football Outsiders' Offensive DVOA metric in 2007; they rank first now. And they're doing it in a completely different way that doesn't require Moss to take coverage away from other receivers for everything to work.
One play against the Vikings last Sunday typified the balance between formation and production from the tight end position, and it's worth detailing. With 13:49 left in the game and the Pats up, 21-10, New England lined up in a shotgun, two-back set against Minnesota's base 4-2-5 nickel defense. But that two-back set had a hidden wrinkle; Hernandez (85) was the back to the left of Brady. And unlike most tight ends in the backfield, he wasn't back there to block or take a quick seam pass. Gronkowski (87) motioned from the left to the right slot and then switched positions at the line with receiver Wes Welker (83). The nickel back and right corner doubled receiver Brandon Tate (19), which gave Hernandez the tie to get open outside and cover 27 yards before finally being tackled.
This is the nature of the new Patriots offense; it's deceptively complex and effective. Belichick has put the "Bombs Away!" ethos aside and subscribed instead to death by 1,000 paper cuts. It's a different kind of danger, but no less lethal for defenses that fail to adjust.