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Patriots offensive guru Charlie Weis will change up his style in a heartbeat

Posted: Wednesday October 6, 2004 2:16PM; Updated: Thursday October 7, 2004 1:45PM
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QB Tom Brady has shown the ablity to succeed in both the long- and short-passing game under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

I remember toward the end of the 1973 season, as the Dolphins were heading for their second straight Super Bowl championship, their offense had turned almost completely one-dimensional. Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris had one of the great running games going, for the second straight year. The team was calling almost double the number of runs to passes.

Then in the last regular-season game Bob Griese put on an aerial show, hitting Paul Warfield for four touchdown passes. His postgame quote has always stayed with me:

"Well, I thought that heading into the playoffs, we had to polish up our touchdown passes," he said.

Polish up our touchdown passes. Just turn the crank and out they came. Touchdown passes. Was there anything more calmly self-confident, almost arrogant?

I thought of that Griese quote as I watched the Patriots strike long and deep against Buffalo last weekend. When I talked to New England's offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, a day later, he wouldn't say anything as self-assured as Griese's statement of 31 years ago. It was more in the typical game-planner's language -- "Well, we felt it was there."

And I thought, what an interesting collection of individuals this team is, as it stands poised on the brink of breaking one record (most consecutive victories, counting postseason) and zeroing in on another (most consecutive regular-season wins). The common perception of the Patriots, which should someday occupy a historical place in the pantheon of outstanding teams, is of a collection of defensive role players, somehow slotted into the master plan of a genius head coach. A unit working under a system so complicated that no one with a journalistic pedigree could even begin to understand it, let alone explain it.

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The Patriots are seen as a team devoid of super-stars, with the exception of Tom Brady, the quarterback, who only now is beginning to get his due as a Joe Montana-type -- a player who raises the quality of his performance as the stakes get higher.

It is much more, of course, and as I've watched this team for a number of years, I've become increasingly fascinated with the workings of their attack, an aspect of their operation that's been overshadowed by the complexities of the defense. I've tried to guess along with it, with Weis, actually. Which is a kind of silly thing to do, since, as Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas says, "Don't even try to type him. It's a waste of time. He'll never repeat tendencies."

It's the same thing middle backer Hacksaw Reynolds once said about Bill Walsh, when Reynolds came to the 49ers from the Rams. "Don't look at his last game, or the one before that, or before that. Go back seven or eight games, or maybe a year or two, if you want to try to see tendencies, and even that won't help you."

But what the heck, it's fun to try to figure out what coaches are going to do, so when New England opened the season against Indy, I knew what to expect. The Patriots had beaten the Colts in the AFC Championship last year by controlling the clock and bringing the high-flying Indy attack to earth, and their own Antowain Smith had rushed for 100 yards. And now they had a premier back, Corey Dillon, so it didn't take a genius to figure out that they'd run him down Indy's throat.

And of course they came out throwing, all those nippy things that Brady is so good at -- the quick hitch and the slip screen, and the darts and digs. Super annoyances. He completed 19 passes under 10 yards in the Super Bowl. That's his style, of course it is. Dillon was an afterthought in the opener against Indy. How could I have been so dumb as not to have seen that you go with your style?

More of it against the Cardinals in game No. 2, right? Right, except that it was a complete volte-face. Forty-two running plays, 32 carries for Dillon, 158 yards, the most by a New England runner in six years. Now I was certain it had to be that formula against the Bills -- heavy running, plus the dinks and dunks again, since I knew that Buffalo would come out blitzing. They'd have all the jets turned up high.

Which they did, of course. They blitzed like crazy. "Two thirds of the time they were using pressure," Weis said, which is coaches' language for blitzing. And the Patriots beat it by going long. New England normally is not a down-the-field team, but four of Brady's completions were for 30 yards or more, the same number as there were under 10 yards. The average of all his completions was an inordinately high 17.5 yards. It was the highest average of any quarterback over the weekend. And this coming from a team that likes to dink it.

It was almost like a Bob Griese echo: "We had to polish our long passing game."

The cerebral nature of the Patriots' offense usually takes second billing to their defense, but it's a very high-toned affair, very high indeed, and you get the feeling it can operate any phase of the game if it chooses to. Make that, if Weis chooses. And this is what I think -- if the Patriots are going to be beaten, it will be because their defense is starting to show cracks.

Against the Bills they feared Travis Henry's running more than Drew Bledsoe's arm, so they brought in their run-stopper, Ted Johnson, in place of the quicker, rangier Roman Phifer. Running teams facing that same lineup will come out throwing against New England, trying to get Johnson in coverage.

Indy bruised the Patriots severely on the ground. It was a real punishment. Buffalo inflicted its share of damage, too. The statistics are padded by the punter's long scramble, but Henry recorded a serviceable 98 yards on a 4.1 average. Whom are they banging away at? I keep hearing how happy they are about their rookie nose tackle Vince Wilfork, but I don't see him making plays. Maybe he's not supposed to, just fill the gaps and keep the linebackers clean. I don't see much of anything from Keith Traylor, who was supposed to be the answer to the departed Ted Washington.

Ty Law started out slowly last season then came on with a rush at the end. Well, the slowly part is in place. We're waiting for the rush. Right now he looks like just another guy, but maybe remembering last year, teams are hesitant to really test him. They've been going instead at the other corner, Tyrone Poole, who's a pretty good player.

What if somebody really decides to give Law a workout and see how he measures up? Who? Certainly not Miami, with its desperate offense. But I'll bet the Seahawks do the following week, and the Jets after that, and the Steelers with Hines Ward, and then, look out, the Rams with their track stars. I thought safety Rodney Harrison really worked well with Law last year. The two of them had a thing going. Now I don't see it.

No, I think that right now this defense is vulnerable, but I also think that the Patriots are capable of winning their share of shootouts, if it comes down to that, just as they did in the Super Bowl. I'm still intrigued by Weis reaching into the drawer and pulling out a deep passing game, by his philosophy of beating the blitz by constantly going long as he did against Buffalo.

"There are two mentalities involved in working against pressure," he explained. "You can throw quick, throw hot, or block 'em up and throw deep. Pick your poison. Against the Bills we did a little of both, but we had our best success going deep."

David Patten caught five balls for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Bills last Sunday.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Block 'em up means maximum protection, the old max-protect game. Seven people to block, or what's really the max, eight players. Max protecting with eight means you can only send two receivers out on their patterns, into a mob -- usually into double coverage -- but your quarterback won't be touched.

"Well, we were protecting with eight when we hit that crossing route to David Patten (43 yards)," Weis says. "You shouldn't be able to complete a pass into double coverage, but fortunately they were in an all-out blitz. We used all our protection schemes in that game. From empty in the backfield to five-protect, up to eight.

"We try not to tip our hand as to what it's gonna be. Sometimes you want to bait 'em, let them think it it's gonna be one thing, then give them something else."

Here's another thing about Weis' system. You never know who the featured receiver will be, which package will be presented. Against the Colts, Deion Branch and tight end Daniel Graham were featured, and they led the team with seven catches apiece. David Givens was the top catcher against the Cards, Patten against Buffalo, although the other tight end, Christian Fauria, who had hardly been used in the first two games, came through with two clutch catches. It would be impossible to name a go-to receiver for Brady.

"Scott Pioli and the personnel department and coach Belichick give you the players," Weis says, "and our job is to figure out how to use them. Whoever you have, whether its your sixth receiver or your third tight end, you know he's going to be a player and he's going to help you some time along the way."

Weis, along with the rest of the team, is blessed with some terrific position coaches. Dante Scarnecchia, the line coach, for instance turned in one of the great underrated coaching jobs last season, taking an injury wracked unit that lined up with a fifth-round draft choice at center and first-year street free agents at left guard and right tackle, respectively, and holding off the feared Panther defensive line in the Super Bowl. The common strain that runs through the Patriot linemen -- intelligence. You won't see many scheme screw-ups along that unit, or unblocked pass rushers pouring in.

"Intelligence in the offensive line is greatly underrated," Weis says. "A smart lineman can compensate for a lot of things. It starts with the center and works its way out. And we're lucky to have a quarterback who works very well with them."

Well, we don't really know at this point how many records the Patriots will set, or how long they'll stay unbeaten. But right now the offense is a fascinating production, every bit as cerebral as the vaunted defense, equally unpredictable. I wonder how history will evaluate it.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.