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The Master and the Mularkeys

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The Patriots opened the season without their most valuable player, suspended 4 games for a trivial offense the league has not remotely proved he even committed in a grotesque abuse of arbitrary power. They were missing the best tight end in football. The starting left tackle on an already extremely shaky offensive line was also hurt and inactive.* And, oh, they were on the road against a team that is arguably the best in the NFL. And yet, they won. Granted, they were pretty lucky to win, needed a botched snap on a field goal an NFL kicker should be expected to make, but that’s not the point — that the game within that margin is a triumph in itself. And the game is a reminder of what makes Bill Belichick arguably the greatest post-merger NFL coach. Mays:

Especially with New England’s patchwork offensive line, the Cardinals came into Week 1 holding two distinct advantages: Their solid front four would face another reworked Patriots line featuring second-tier options like Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras, and Marcus Cannon, and cornerback Patrick Peterson would likely smother whichever receiver the Pats were willing to sacrifice to his side. McDaniels responded by taking both matchups out of the equation. New England’s receivers ran routes that were specifically designed to exploit the man coverage that Arizona loves, and a majority of the Patriots’ plays were aimed at rookie cornerback Brandon Williams

By giving his QB quick throws dictated almost entirely by the coverage, McDaniels both simplified Garoppolo’s approach and made any offensive line deficiencies irrelevant. Wideout Julian Edelman’s ability to win early on routes when singled up on cornerbacks is remarkable, and with tight end Rob Gronkowski nursing a left hamstring injury back in Boston, Edelman was the focal point of New England’s passing game. He caught all seven of his targets for 66 yards, and made three grabs for first downs on the Patriots’ opening drive of the game. His value to this offense will probably never get its due given the planet-destroying potency of Brady and Gronk, but it was on full display.

[…]

New England’s approach in Sunday’s game is what we should now expect from the Pats — finding the smallest weaknesses (the presence of Williams at cornerback, first-year starter D.J. Humphries at right tackle, and backup Earl Watford at right guard) and exploiting them in every way possible. New England went on the road against what might be the most talented roster in the league and thoroughly outplayed it. As Belichick has constantly reminded everyone, a stacked roster can only take you so far. The way it’s deployed will always matter most, and as it’s been so often, Belichick and his staff squeezed all it could from the Patriots on the field.

As Tanier observes, another adjustment is that Belichick and McDaniels abandoned their usual uptempo style, limiting the teams to 10 possessions each. Normally, because they hold a substantial talent advantage the Patriots want to reduce the role of luck by increasing the number of possessions; against a rare more talented roster, slowing things down makes sense.

As I’ve mentioned before, Belichick does a lot of things extremely well — he’s a good judge of talent, he’s a very good motivator, and he’s a ruthless master of loyalty in Casey Stengel’s sense (i.e. your loyalty as coach should be to this year’s team and not individual players who contributed to past teams.) But one crucial reason for his remarkable success is how carefully his between-game and in-game planning is tailored to the available personnel and matchups. Sunday night’s game was his latest clinic.

The anti-Belichick of the year is, of course, Mike Mularkey and his EXOTIC SMASHMOUTH. Not only is this a pretty dumb concept to bring to an NFL team in 2016, it’s horribly tailored to his talent. Why on earth would you take Marcus Mariota — a grade A prospect who thrived in Chip Kelly’s uptempto, shotgun offense — and put him mostly under center in a grinding ball control offense? And why would the Titans hire him — particularly given his abysmal record — with Kelly himself available? It’s inexplicable, but this story figures to end something like 3-13.

*Since it came in a dead thread, it should be noted that a regular commenter has seen a Sandra Bullock movie and has an, ah, idiosyncratic explanation for the recent success of the Pats:

The Patriots are a fine team, capable of beating most of the NFL, without Brady. Because they have an excellent offensive line filled with players most fans can’t name.

This is…wow. This is howler almost on a par with saying that the 2015 Broncos were able to overcome their feeble pass rush with an outstanding passing game. The pass-blocking Patriots offensive line has been steadily deteriorating from mediocre to rather terrible. I could point to film analysis, but really that’s breaking a butterfly on a wheel. Nobody with any idea what they’re watching could look at the 2014 or 2015 Patriots and think they had a good — let alone great — pass-blocking line. They have kept winning in spite of their line, not because of it. This is not exactly a secret: I mean, you don’t coax your 68-year-old former offensive line coach out of retirement because the unit is playing well. With an already dubious offensive line missing Solder, the same thing was true Sunday — Arizona got plenty of penetration that Garoppolo was able to overcome using his mobility and quick release to receivers mostly running short routes.

But of course this is the analytical equivalent of Mike Mularkey’s approach to coaching: every square peg has to be jammed into the round hole of “the offensive line is what matters:”

But the worship of quarterbacks is the dumbest thing in sports. Any great quarterback without a good offensive line ends up with Archie Manning’s career, and with good protection, there are a lot of people who can do the job decently even if they can’t measure up to Brady’s level.

[different comment]

Every quarterback that you can ever name as an all-time great had great protection. Every single one.

This is abject nonsense coming and going. On the one hand, you can of course be a great quarterback without even good pass protection. Russell Wilson has been a terrific QB playing behind the worst pass-blocking line in the league. Another contemporary mobile QB, Ben Roethelsberger, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer although he’s often played behind mediocre or worse lines. But that’s not the only way a QB can overcome weak pass protection. Others — like Brady and Peyton Manning and Marino — can function at a high level with a weak offensive line because they have a quick release and a supernal ability to read the defense.

And on the other hand, the idea that if you have a good offensive line you can just plug pretty much any QB into the offense and be OK is even more absurd. The Cowboys have the consensus best offensive line in the league. When Tony Romo is healthy they get excellent QB play; when they play Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel, they get sub-replacement level QB play. The Browns have had a Hall of Fame left tackle since 2007 and he was joined by a Pro Bowl center from 2009 until last year, and throughout that period they had QB play that ranged from dreadful to ghastly. Give Matt Cassel to the Patriots and he can do OK, but that’s because of Belichick and his staff and the surrounding talent as a whole, not because of the offensive line per se.

To state the obvious, my point is not that offensive line play doesn’t matter. It’s important! The Seahawks are a great team, but even with Wilson their inept pass-blocking leaves them highly vulnerable to teams with effective pass rushers (even if, like the Rams or Dolphins, they don’t really do anything else well.) But the idea that the QB is mostly just a creature of the offensive line is absurd.

And unlike people on the Internet, NFL personnel types know this, which is why they pay left tackles so much money.

Uh, I happen to have NFL personnel types right here, and while they certainly (and correctly) value left tackles highly, they value QBs much more and defensive pass rushers and wideouts more. Again, this isn’t exactly a secret — Brock Osweiler was able to parlay less than a season of not-quite-mediocre play into a salary substantially higher than Tyron Smith’s. I don’t know if Garoppolo will be able to keep playing as well as he did in Week 1, but if he does it certainly won’t be his below-average-at-best that deserves the credit.

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