The most impressive thing about this two-decade run for the Patriots is they’ve done it in the salary-cap era. That ain’t easy to do with how teams must constantly shuffle their rosters. Yet, New England keeps finding the right formula to pair with the nucleus of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.Constrained optimization means not shuffling your roster to go along with whatever is in fashion elsewhere.
Belichick’s genius lies in his refusal to wed himself to one overriding philosophy. He’s a shape-shifter, constantly evolving his team’s style – and that flexibility has been on show this season. As modern schemes have expanded the field and the focus has been on the dominance of quarterbacks and smaller, more mobile defensive players, Belichick has returned to an old-school, power running system.Of course the idiots at The Guardian are going to claim market inefficiencies where what's really going on is the quintessence of efficiency, namely, identifying and acting upon gains from trade.
According to a recent study, New England are the third-heaviest team in the league. And that’s by design. Belichick, an economics major, is constantly looking to find market inefficiencies to exploit. He has had great success with quirky schematic innovations, but, for the most part, he takes tried and tested methods and adopts them.
The brilliance is in the timing. Belichick reintroduced the 3-4 defense to the league back in the early 2000s. When it got too popular (thanks to the Patriots’ success), he switched back to a 4-3, where he could unearth some cheap gems. He was also an early adopter (around 2011) of the up-tempo spread offense that’s become ubiquitous in 2018. And he helped change the meaning of what a two tight-end team looked like, using Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in ways we had never before seen: plodding tight ends were out, pass-catching polar bears were in. Naturally, Belichick now pretty much ignores that tactic. The Patriots have played a total of 12 downs with a running back and two tight ends on the field, far and away the lowest total in the league. What used to be the team’s base strategy is now an afterthought.It's not as easy as the writers make it sound. There might be "cheap gems" on the free-agent market. Or, as prices are signals, there might be not-quite-professional-grade players selling their skills at a discount. When that opening whistle blows, it's still up to the players on the field to do their jobs.
Belichick saw a new way to take advantage of opposing teams and morphed. As defenses across the league have evolved to counteract spread offenses, they’re left vulnerable to run-heavy teams. So Belichick’s Patriots have poured resources into developing a sturdy offensive line to power that run game, including the huge left tackle Trent Brown, who stands at 6ft 8in and weighs a hefty 380lbs. They’ve also concentrated on developing the deepest, most flexible running-back room in the league. Sony Michel was the Patriots’ first-round pick in 2018 – a cardinal sin among the more analytically minded who consider running backs less important in an era dominated by the passing game. The other New England running backs are made to feel like they matter too: James White and Rex Burkhead both make north of $3m while fullback James Devlin is the fourth-highest earner at his position in the league. All of them play a bunch of snaps, and they’re routinely deployed together in any number of pairings – the Patriots have used two backs on 36% of downs this season, trailing only the San Francisco 49ers.