When a new trend emerges in the NFL, the New England Patriots are usually responsible. The 2007 Patriots ushered in the age of the spread offense, turning Randy Moss and Wes Welker loose on an unsuspecting league and setting several major offensive records in the process. Their innovation continued into this decade, as their usage of smaller slot receivers and the middle of the field became the standard. Now, teams spread the field as much horizontally as they do vertically, and the Patriots are largely responsible for that.
They are so ubiquitous in NFL coaching decisions that teams even steal their plays. Sean Payton admitted as much to Peter King of NBC Sports (h/t Dakota Randall of NESN). He copied a play that the Patriots used to score with Rob Gronkowski in the Super Bowl to get a big play for Michael Thomas in the New Orleans’ Saints 48-7 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
“I look at all the scoring plays every week. I look at (Bill) Belichick and New England. I look at Sean McVay. I found a good one last night. I hadn’t watched all of New England’s offensive plays in the Super Bowl against Philadelphia in a while, and so last night, I put the tape on and I found something.
“Gronk (tight end Rob Gronkowski) caught a ball inside the 10 and scored, but it’s how he caught it. It was like catching an inbounds pass, using your body to keep the defender off you. That’s perfect for us. I told Mike Thomas, ‘This is a touchdown.’ We practiced it today. I think we’ll use it.”
Thomas is about as close to a tight end physically as exists among NFL wide receivers. At 6’3”, he is a few inches shorter than Gronkowski, but he plays with a similar physicality. He is among the NFL’s strongest receivers, and it shows in stealing routes from the NFL’s best tight end.
But more to the point, even the NFL’s best coaches can’t help but take concepts from the Patriots. Payton is widely viewed as among the best minds in all of professional football offensively. Yet he looks at what Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels come up with as innovative. It says something about the ever-evolving nature of the Patriots as an organization that they are still on the cutting edge nearly two decades after Belichick took over.
The NFL exists on theft. Nothing is proprietary for long. What makes the Patriots special isn’t solely the plays they come up with, but their ability to execute them with the players that they have. That is what makes the Patriots inimitable. Other teams may copy their plays, but the Patriots design those plays to succeed with the players that they have. They build schemes to perfectly suit their players, and as long as other teams are taking concepts meant for Patriots players, they won’t be able to find the same success with them that the Patriots do.