Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s relationship with Mike Shanahan dates back to his days competing against Shanahan in the 1990s as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Between meet-ups at league meetings and visits to Patriots training camp, Shanahan was added to Belichick’s coaching circle of trust as another friendly source of football knowledge.
Although Shanahan hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2013, the two elders’ relationship has somewhat trickled down to conversations between Belichick and Shanahan’s son, Kyle.
The Shanahan-Belichick connection was in the spotlight with the original Jimmy Garoppolo trade to Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers and subsequent rumors that Jimmy G could be dealt back to New England following Tom Brady’s departure following the 2019 season.
Over the years, including after Belichick’s Patriots completed the biggest Super Bowl comeback in NFL history against the former Falcons offensive coordinator, Belichick remains in contact with the Shanahan’s and other branches of the coaching tree, such as Rams head coach Sean McVay.
Although it’s usually the younger coaches picking Belichick’s brain, the smoke signals around OTAs this spring suggest that the Patriots’ offense is borrowing from the Shanahan tree.
With longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels now running the Raiders, Belichick has hinted numerous times that the Pats offense will change its scheme to cater to second-year quarterback Mac Jones and his supporting cast. This week, Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne told ESPN’s Mike Reiss that the Patriots have a “new” offense system with some new terminology.
Along with selecting Jones in the first round two drafts ago, Belichick spent $80 million guaranteed on free-agent pass-catchers in a 2021 offseason spending spree, selected Baylor speedster Tyquan Thornton in the second round this draft cycle, drafted another running back in the fourth round (Pierre Strong), and swapped picks with Miami for veteran receiver DeVante Parker.
New England has invested substantial resources into the offense over the last two offseasons and needs to maximize its return on those investments heading into the 2022 season.
Based on spring practices, the Pats could be jumping on the Shanahan-style offensive revolution to get the most out of its personnel. But what exactly does that mean?
The foundation for the Shanahan system is built around outside-zone blocking schemes. In outside zone, blockers along the line of scrimmage step at a 90-degree angle towards the sideline and flow horizontally to stretch the defense. The idea is to set up three reads for the running back: bounce (outside), “bang” (in the C-Gap), or cutback across the formation.
The horizontal action creates huge rushing lanes for ball carriers by stretching out the defense and forcing defenders to play in space, leading to explosive runs. There are then motion elements (jet motion), misdirection designs, and other tricks to confuse defenses and get the ball to dangerous playmakers on the move.
From there, the scheme marries outside zone runs with bootleg play-action concepts, where the blocking looks the same to mimic a running play to the defense. Mostly, it allows two-receiver route combinations to attack three-deep defenders while the quarterback is well-protected by the line movement.
Early-down sequencing leads to explosive plays on the ground and through the air off play-action. Then, Shanahan and McVay modernized the scheme by adding shotgun spread elements in obvious passing situations to keep the chains moving.
The Patriots have featured a downhill rushing attack with gap schemes such as power, counter, and lead designs over the last two decades-plus. Pulling guards and fullbacks as lead-blockers were staples.
Although it’s unlikely they’ll move completely away from their old reliables, using valuable practice time in the spring to drill zone techniques suggests they’re planning to feature it more this season.
For example, one could imagine tight end Jonnu Smith breaking a tackle for a big play after coming in motion to get the ball, or Tyquan Thornton or Nelson Agholor carrying two defenders deep while Kendrick Bourne or Jakobi Meyers work the intermediate crossing pattern.
After selecting the two fastest players at their positions in the draft in Thornton (4.28s 40) and Strong (4.37s 40), Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh made a point to emphasize that the onus is now on the coaching staff to create opportunities for players to use their speed.
“These guys wake up every morning, and they’re fast. It’s a great gift I was never fortunate enough to have. But we’re going to try and put them in the best position to use that speed and open things up for us,” Groh told reporters following the 2022 NFL Draft.
The Shanahan-style concepts are becoming an industry standard at both the college and pro level, making for easier transitions into the Pats’ offense for newly acquired vets and rookie receivers. By most accounts, the passing concepts are much easier to execute for receivers since there are fewer true option routes, and the designs clearly define the post-snap reads.
New England’s plan to open up its offense is coming to light this spring, but it remains to be seen if it’s a full-on transition or simply dipping their toes into some fresh water.
Without further ado, let’s answer your mailbag questions ahead of next week’s mandatory minicamp:
What non-rookie skill players would benefit most from going to a Shanahan style offense if it does trend that way?
— Drew Tessier (@Drew_R_T) June 1, 2022
The easy answer here is Jonnu Smith. The Pats could use Smith in several different advantageous ways if they adopt the Shanahan system by combining elements of Kyle Juszczyk and Deebo Samuel’s role in San Fran, which also overlaps with Smith’s role with the Titans. One of the biggest reasons why the handoffs to Jonnu were so ineffective last season is that he was hardly ever used as a decoy in motion, and New England didn’t feature enough zone blocking for defenses to take the cheese. It was predictable that Smith was getting the ball. The threat of a handoff or play-action will help Smith gain speed before first contact. Along with schemed touches on jet sweeps and motion screens, we could see Smith align as a fullback a la Juszczyk and make more blocks on the move this season. All those elements should lead to a much better season for Smith in year two with the Patriots.
Who’s running the offense the majority of the time ?
— Mike Dirt (@moreno_fuerte) June 1, 2022
Based on what we’ve seen at practice, the current setup has Joe Judge as a quarterbacks coach/pass-game coordinator while Matt Patricia coordinates the running game and works with the offensive line. All under the watchful eye of Belichick himself. When the Patriots begin to drill passing concepts, Judge’s voice is the loudest. Patricia then takes over when it’s time to work on the running game. Although confidence is shaky in Judge and Patricia, having duties split between a run and pass-game coordinator is pretty standard at the college and pro levels.
Is Wynn not showing up because of contract situation? If so do you think they deal him?
— Brady Lang (@IA_788) June 1, 2022
My understanding is that Wynn’s absence isn’t a holdout for an extension, but it probably isn’t going over well internally after he sat out the offseason program last year, too. This is par for the course with Wynn, who is a potential trade candidate because of his cap hit and lack of focus that caused him to start slow last season, and he’s heading down a similar path now. Wynn should be thrilled to make $10.4 million this season. The bigger question is, are the Patriots the team who pays him that money?
Why did the Patriots stop Nick Calley from interviewing with the raiders. No TE coach to pick up if he left?
— gs (@sgulti) June 1, 2022
The Patriots didn’t have an obvious replacement on staff for Caley, who has been the lone voice in the tight end room for four seasons. I’d also add that the Pats are very high on Caley as a future coordinator. He’s seen as a rising star in coaching circles who might eventually get a chance as a head coach someday. New England’s brain drain had to stop somewhere, and Caley is a good, young coach.
Pats need to create cap space. Where/how do you expect them to create it? obvious and unexpected trades/cuts? What about extensions, anyone you expect them to go that route on to create cap space?
— Steve L'Heureux @NHLBruins 🥃 (@Bruin238) June 1, 2022
According to cap wizard Miguel Benzan, the Patriots currently sit at around $500k in cap space, so they’ll need to create cap space. New England still needs to sign the top half of its draft class and have enough space to operate the rest of the season. In terms of where that space will come from, the most likely routes from this perspective are extending punter Jake Bailey, salary to signing bonus conversion with Matthew Judon, trading Isaiah Wynn, or trading/releasing Nelson Agholor. If the Patriots feel comfortable with Justin Herron and Tyquan Thornton filling the roles of Wynn and Agholor, parting ways with either veteran would be an easy fix to their cap crunch.
Upgrading team speed at LB has rightly been a major focus this offseason. But people haven't focused on Bentley's lack of speed. Could McMillan slide into his spot, and then Wilson and McGrone fight for the other spot? Wouldn't that make them much faster across that 2nd level?
— sohereswhatino (@sohereswhatino) June 1, 2022
As long as Bill Belichick is the head coach, there will be a role for a thumping early-down MIKE linebacker in the Patriots’ defense. It gets ugly at times for Bentley when teams get him into foot races. But his play-action coverage improved last season, and the Pats need an off-the-ball presence to help fill the A-Gaps with force, especially if they’re playing out of an odd front. Plus, he’s the front-runner to wear the green dot and direct the front seven. It would be nice to see the Pats go with more speed at the second level in certain matchups and situations. Still, there’s an early-down role on this team for Bentley.
From what you are able to see, how does Malcom Butler look?
— RYAN BRAVE 🤩 (@Superstar247365) June 1, 2022
Butler is in great shape, and teammates who were here during his first stint see similar things; aggressive in coverage, competing for the ball, and comfortable in the scheme. Physically, he’s ready for another season and is a little rejuvenated after sitting out last year. But there’s a big difference between being in shape for spring practices and running with Tyreek Hill in the season-opener. We need to see more competitive reps to get excited about Butler’s return.
How do you view the current DL room? Is there any chance at this point we bring in someone like flowers or suh or is it off the table
— #1 Pats Mascot fan (@Acasualpatsfan) June 1, 2022
There’s always a chance that the Patriots will upgrade their roster. In my view, the defensive line outlook depends on what type of scheme they’re playing upfront. If they’re sticking to two-gappers holding the point of attack in an odd front base, I have concerns about how stout they’ll be up the middle. They don’t have a true nose tackle (Godchaux isn’t the answer), Lawrence Guy might be starting to slow down, Christian Barmore is still developing as a run defender, and Deatrich Wise remains inconsistent against the run. If they’re transitioning to a more penetrating front, their group looks better on paper. We’ll see if the coaching staff agrees. The idea of Barmore as a penetrating three-technique is very intriguing.
Which RB won’t make the cut?
— Surry🃏 (@AskSurry) June 1, 2022
The Patriots currently have six running backs on their 90-man roster: Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, James White, Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, and J.J. Taylor. You could also argue that Ty Montgomery is a running back. New England carried five running backs into the season on the initial roster a year ago, so that number is likely the sweet spot. An early prediction puts either James White or Kevin Harris (redshirt year?) on a reserve list with J.J. Taylor released. The expectation here is that the Pats could stash Taylor on the practice squad, giving them an initial running back room of Harris, Stevenson, Strong, White/Harris, and Montgomery as the Brandon Bolden insurance policy.
Do you think Belichick is fighting for his job? Depending on the results this season with his unorthodox approach, he may be…
— Anthony Ferpo (@gafp7030) June 1, 2022
No. Belichick has arguably the best job security of any coach in the NFL.