Last night saw the return of Tom Brady, and, in a wild finish, he led the Pats to a waning-minutes 25-24 victory. There were several remarkable aspects of the game, but the most interesting to me was that Belichick obviously made a choice to put the game in the hands of his great — but returning — quarterback. I discussed the nuances of the Pats’ passing game last week, but Brady’s two touchdowns last night were remarkable in that it was the exact same play against the same defensive scheme and the ball was thrown to the same receiver.
The play was a variant of “smash” to one side, with the tight-end, Ben Watson, running a post route. I don’t have all the possible reads and route adjustments available, but the Pats ran the play the same way both times. To the two receiver side the Pats ran the smash concept, with the inside receiver on a corner and the outside on a quick hitch. To the other side the outside receiver, Randy Moss, ran a type of under route, presumably to settle in a hole against zone or run away from man coverage. The runningback just ran the flat — Brady always had this option against man coverage to hit Kevin Faulk if he could outrun the linebacker.
The tight-end of course ran a post route. His job was to jab like he was going to the corner (and I believe the Pats have run a variant where he ran a corner route), and then break for the post inside the near safety. The corner route on the other side runs away from the safety to his side. Brady’s job is to read the safeties first and if the corner or post doesn’t come open, work to the underneath guys. Both times last night, he didn’t get that far into his progression. The first time Watson was simply wide-open. On the second touchdown, the linebacker did a better job getting down the deep middle in a “Tampa Two” defense (Tampa two is simply cover two where a linebacker tries to get deep down the middle). But the pass was good and the catch even better, and the rest is history.
Here is a link to video of the Pats’ final two minutes, though it is low quality. Here is a link to Brady’s passing highlights from NFL.com; if you watch this you can see how often the Patriots ran the above play, though they often hit other receivers besides Watson, before hitting the game winners.
Relatedly, one of the ongoing questions was how the Pats’ offense would be after Josh McDaniels left. Brady recently told ESPN.com, “As long as we have Belichick, I always think that we’re going to be just fine.” Coach Bill knows offense, and is heavily involves. This gets to the other point that I enjoyed about last night: with Brady back, Belichick did not pull any punches, as, partly because the Pats got behind in the game, Brady threw it 53 times and set his own career record for completions with 39. Indeed, Belichick knows for Brady it is about getting reps to get the rust off. A lot of coaches take their rookie quarterbacks or a guy returning from injury and want to “ease them in.” Besides ignoring the fact that it is repetitions that make you better — you learn and improve by doing — the conservative playcalling often forces the passer into a lot of third and longs anyway.
But Belichick, never afraid of set his own path, knows that his team will rise and fall with Brady and he was going to let his guy throw it. Early on Brady was rusty, but that rust clearly began to wear off. It reminded me of Joe Tiller’s famous quotation when he first got to the Big 10 and caused waves by throwing it around sixty, or even eighty (!) times (against Wisconsin): “We’re going to throw it ’til we got hot, and then we’re going to keep throwin’ it.” It’s how you get better.
Finally, I wanted to highlight a great quote from Belichick about the passing game, passed along by Coach Mountjoy.
What the passing comes down to is the timing and execution. That’s true of every team in this league. It doesn’t matter what level you throw the ball at. It’s a combination of the throwing and the catching of the skill players and the protection of the blockers, which includes backs and tight ends. If a team pressures, they are involved in the protection, too. What you want to do is protect the quarterback. Whether you’re throwing three-step drop or seven-step drop or whatever the pattern is, protect him long enough so he can drop back and get set and throw the ball on time. The receivers need to get open and come open on time when the quarterback is ready to throw. Not a second before he’s ready, not a second after he’s ready. That’s just not the way to do it. You might get away with one here or there, but that’s not the way to do it. So all of that needs to be synchronized and if it is, then you have a well executed passing game. If it isn’t, then something’s going to go wrong. We are all part of that. Sometimes the receiver is open and the quarterback can’t throw. Sometimes the quarterback can throw and the protection is good and the receiver is not able to get open on the route, or the distribution of the receivers is wrong and then the quarterback doesn’t have a clear throwing lane. Sometimes the guy drops the ball. Sometimes the quarterback makes a bad throw. Sometimes it gets tipped. There’s a lot of things that could happen in the passing game.
If you throw the ball well, you’re completing in the mid-60s, the high 60 percents. Not 90 percent, that’s a good passing game. You’re completing 68, 67 percent of your passes, that’s good. If you’re the best passing team in football, you’re probably going to miss one out of three. The difference between hitting one or two more per game is the difference between having an okay passing game and having a good passing game.