Whenever I watch the New England Patriots, I find it striking how often Tom Brady finishes the play on his feet. Brady does take his hits and does get sacked, but on an average Patriots’ play, the ball is out before the pass rush can even sniff him. It’s no secret that the Patriots, from front office to coach to quarterback, are among the smartest teams in the league, and certainly the smartest team of the last decade and a half; so when the Patriots do something different, it’s worth exploring why. You may think they specialize in quick passes simply because it works, or because it suits Brady, but it’s actually more complicated and based in economics and football philosophy as much as specific Patriot personnel.
The factors underlying the success of the Patriots’ offense also happen to be the reasons that the Green Bay Packers rallied to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday night once Aaron Rodgers was hurt.
The Quarterback of the Defense and Big Bucks
It is NFL orthodoxy that edge rushers (defensive ends or outside linebackers, depending on the defensive scheme) are the most important players on the defense. The underlying theory is that a strong pass rush will disrupt the passing game by reducing the time a quarterback has to throw, causing negative chunk plays via sacks, causing fumbles, and causing errant throws. In theory, edge rushers help out the entire defense by limiting the time that defensive backs need to cover receivers, and causing inaccurate throws.
Teams spend a lot of money on good edge rushers (and occasionally on mediocre edge rushers, since it’s commonly held that having anything worse than average players at the position dooms you). Ziggy Ansah of the Lions is currently being paid 10% of his team’s total cap as he was franchised in the offseason, which is second on the team only to quarterback Matthew Stafford’s 14.5%. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry are two of the five highest-paid Packers this season, taking up 6.2% and 5.9% of the team’s cap, respectively. Khalil Mack will be the highest paid player on the Bears for years to come.
In the Patriots’ division, the Miami Dolphins’ two highest paid players, Robert Quinn and Andre Branch, are pass-rushing defensive ends. Buffalo defensive end Jerry Hughes is that team’s highest paid player, and while things have changed this season, the Jets’ highest paid player last year, by far, was current Packer Muhammad Wilkerson.
You may find it interesting that the highest paid New England edge rusher is Adrian Clayborn, who makes 2.22% of the salary cap, or slightly less than placekicker Stephen Gostkowski. The Super Bowl Champion Eagles’ highest paid edge rusher is Brandon Graham, at 4.5%. The champs are not breaking the bank at the position.
There are a few different ways to deal with opposing edge rushers. Many teams simply attempt to out-talent the defensive line by spending a pretty penny or substantial draft capital on the offensive line, but that has consequences for the rest of your team. If you pay for an elite line, you won’t be elite somewhere else. The smart teams, and the Patriots in particular, found an easier, cheaper way.
If you throw quickly, the pass rush is irrelevant. Tom Brady is one of the most accurate passers in history, and the Pats loaded up with slot receivers and pass-catching running backs (themselves undervalued assets, at least at the time), in addition to Rob Gronkowski. That created a stable of players who specialize in getting open immediately and generating YAC. Brady is still perfectly capable of throwing a good deep ball, as he proved last season with Brandin Cooks, but they use it sparingly, content to let their opponents’ edge rushers fire off the line in constant frustration as Brady delivers another strike to James White.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers
Mike McCarthy is not a tactical play-caller. He relies on the receivers to beat their defenders one-on-one, and for Aaron to find the players who do. It’s antiquated, ineffective except for Rodgers’ brilliance, and hopefully will change with Joe Philbin back in the organization. Rodgers loves to hold the ball waiting for the big play, and his offensive line has been accommodating for the most part.
In 2016 the broken play was one of the best plays the Packers ran. But last season it really wasn’t, and since Nelson’s’ ACL injury in 2015 (and without James Jones) their personnel hasn’t supported a deep passing game of any kind. Adams and Cobb are very good receivers, but they are are both better as all-around YAC machines. That hasn’t stopped Rodgers from holding the ball forever, and in the first half against the Bears this week, that habit was getting him killed as Mack and Akiem Hicks made mincemeat of the line. DeShone Kizer was (obviously) no better, and took hit after hit holding onto the ball far too long, until Mack took it away.
Now, it’s possible that Rodgers would have figured out the Bears after a few series. After all, Mike Pettine made some great adjustments on defense. But I suspect Aaron would have continued with his old habit of holding out for the big strike, waiting, waiting, and allowing Mack the opportunity to earn his money.
Everything changed when Rodgers came out for the second half, largely unable to move. Without the ability to extend plays through mobility, Rodgers was forced to throw on time. As one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, he was unsurprisingly good at this, firing dimes into tight windows, hitting brilliant bombs downfield, and offering plenty of opportunities for YAC to Adams, Cobb, and Geronimo Allison. He also completely eliminated Mack, Hicks, and Floyd, and millions of dollars of Bear salary cap space that they represent, in the process. While the Bears secondary isn’t awful, it’s much worse than the front seven. Changing the focus of the offense from “blocking Khalil Mack” to “repeatedly targeting Prince Amukamara’s backup” turned into a winning strategy, and the Bears had no answer for it.
It would be nice if this were an intentional strategic change, and it would be nice if McCarthy learned from the experience, but I’ll believe that when I see it. For the moment, assuming Rodgers plays, they will be forced to play an offensive style that they are well-equipped to play, that opposing defenses hate, and that capitalizes on league-wide trends of resource allocation. It’s just too bad it took an injury to the league’s greatest player to force the Packers’ offense to finally evolve.