Among all the many things that makes Tom Brady such a great quarterback, perhaps the most valuable and overlooked trait is his ability to change schemes through his career, master those different concepts, and keep playing at an elite level. Most quarterbacks, especially when they become superstars, tend to take their playbooks with them (in a figurative sense) when they switch teams and/or systems.
Drew Brees went from Cam Cameron's vertical concepts to Sean Payton's Mardi Gras of receiver formations when he moved from San Diego to New Orleans, but Peyton Manning ran the same base offense for most of the last decade — the Colts went with more three-wide, single-back sets on an annual basis through Manning's tenure there than any team in the league. And if Manning switches teams in the offseason, you can bet that he'll take a lot of his "check-with-me" play-calling options with him.
Rarer still is the quarterback like Brady, who has seen a kaleidoscope of offensive systems since he became the team's starter in 2001 — and he has mastered them all. When I asked Brady about this in April of 2011, he reacted as if such schematic versatility was the norm.
"I think I've been very fortunate to play in the same system my entire career. So even though the coordinators have changed, even though the players have changed, I think what our offense has always allowed its players to do is be flexible within the system. We're going to do what best suits the talents of our players. So I've been in the … like you said, the Corey Dillon-type offense, I've been in the more of a spread offense, more of a shotgun. And I think that I'm very comfortable in doing whatever it takes for us to win. That's the goal. It's not 'Ok, we need to throw it 60% of the time', we need to get the ball in the end zone, and however we're going to get the ball in the end zone, that's how we're going to run our offense."
Sounds easy when he says it, but it's a bit like Jerry Rice explaining how he beats coverage — what works for the true greats won't for most of the rank and file. And given the number of quarterbacks who have fallen apart when asked to make one major scheme change in their careers, Brady's metamorphosis from the run-heavy attacks of his early time in Foxboro, to the spread/shotgun concepts of the 2007 team, to the fast-break offense of the present, is truly unique.
Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's "NFL Matchup," who's studied pro football for a living since 1979 and has done a weekly podcast for Shutdown Corner through the 2011 season, was good enough to help us review those different systems, and Brady's role in them.
In Brady's second season of 2001, when Drew Bledsoe was injured and Brady became the starter by default, he wasn't at all the main man in the system. "Brady was more a component part than he was a lead quarterback, and I think that's one reason he became the starter back then -- because they felt he would execute the offense better," Cosell said. "But it was not an offense that was built around him or the passing game, and it's really changed. They had stretches, even when he got better, when they were run-heavy. There were stretches with Antowain Smith, where he was really the feature player. And they were a very effective running team. They did not have what you'd call big-time receivers. Troy Brown was obviously a nice NFL receiver, David Patten filled a role — I think they sort of had guys who filled roles. The talent got better at receiver, and that started with Randy Moss and Wes Welker [in 2007]."
But it was Brady's ability to maximize his game when it mattered in Super Bowls XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams, and Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers, that cemented his legacy. From there, it was about getting better skill players around him, and that started when the Pats picked up running back Corey Dillon. The former Cincinnati Bengals star didn't rack up several productive seasons for the Pats, but his 345-attempt, 1,635-yard season was a watershed for the team. It was also the last time running the ball more than passing it would be a staple of the team's offensive philosophy.
Through 2005 and 2006, Brady led a group of undermanned sub-stars, and that became supremely apparent in the 2006 AFC championship game, which the Indianapolis Colts won. Brady was a better quarterback by then, but Reche Caldwell's drop-a-minute performance in that game, and Deion Branch's departure to the Seattle Seahawks before the 2006 season, let everyone know that new blood was needed.
Enter Randy Moss, Wes Welker, the first truly modern spread-style offense to succeed wildly in the NFL, and a new way of thinking. In their 18-1 season, the Pats became the first known team in NFL history to run more than 50 percent of their offensive plays from the shotgun. And with Moss destroying deep coverage and Welker flypapering everything Brady threw underneath, there was a new and nearly unstoppable passing game afoot.
"I'm not sure that 2007 was the absolute line of delineation, but that was the year they got Moss and Welker in the same season," Cosell said. "That really changed things, because now, they really had to become a three-receiver offense. Because Welker is a slot player, and Moss obviously was a perimeter player.
"When you have Moss, who was in his prime then, Moss dictates coverage. You know that going in, and I've had this conversation with Josh McDaniels. He said, 'The first week of the season against the Jets, they didn't play Moss as Moss. They just played straight up, and we killed them. After that, everyone clearly started to try and take away Moss, and we know that going into every game.' Another body was always allocated to Moss, and I'm not sure they have a receiver like that now. We know that Gronkowski and Hernandez are good, and I'm not saying teams aren't concerned about them, but none of these guys are going to beat you on a 60-yard bomb."
But over time, Moss lost a step, and then another. Welker was used more often, but he was the football equivalent of the leadoff hitter who was asked to bat cleanup because nobody else could. The selection of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 NFL draft was the next step in the evolution of Brady's offense, and Belichick had seen the value of that particular position in ways other teams had not.
"We know that every team would like to have a deep threat who can dictate coverage," Cosell said. "I think the genius of Belichick is that he's realized how the tight end impacts that. Gronkowski and Hernandez would not be viewed as true vertical threats, but they present different issues for defenses now — personnel issues. How do you choose to play Gronkowski and Hernandez? Are they tight ends, or are they not tight ends?
"Now, even though they're not a big three-wide team, they've continued to evolve and they've used Welker in ways we probably never thought three or four years ago. Even he will line up in the backfield, and he's much more of a move guy now than when you knew he'd be in the right slot or the left slot. Since 2007, they've evolved into a team with a lot of different formations, a lot of different looks, a lot of emphasis on spread offense."
Now, the Patriots offense is far more about getting receivers in spaces with timing and direction as the keys. There are still elements of the spread, but those elements show up more in the quick pace of the offense, the spacing concepts the receivers are expected to execute, and the formation diversity employed to offset the lack of a deep threat.
"They've always used the up-tempo/no huddle at various times, but they do it more now, just because Brady is better. With Brady, the magic happens before the ball is snapped, and as he's gotten better, you can do that more. Because he can control the game at the line of scrimmage. And I think this is critical in today's NFL — now, they have three receivers in Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski who can line up anywhere. And that gets into receiver distribution and location. How do you play these guys? And I think that in this Super Bowl, you'll see Hernandez and Welker all over the place."
Through the last decade, this all goes back to Brady and his unparalleled ability to embrace different schematic overlays at a genius level. "Well, we know that his work ethic is legendary," Cosell said. "He's smart, and a very overlooked element which plays into all of this is that he's willing to be coached. That's so critical, because the quarterback position is a position where you must know everything that's happening on the field. He strikes me as a guy who views football as an intellectual exercise. He's not of a mind to go out there and say, 'Let's just make some plays.' I think it's a real tribute to him that he wants to be coached, and that he's willing to accept any new idea. He'll never say, 'I'm Tom Brady — I'll do it my way.' He's not going to be that guy."
Asked if he could remember any other quarterbacks through history who have been asked to deal with so many different systems, Cosell was succinct. "I'd have to think about that, but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a name."
That's because there's only one. And when the Tom Brady story is told in total down the line, his tour around the world from a playbook perspective should be recalled in bold type.