File/Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Since joining the Patriots, Chad Ochocinco (left) has worked hard to learn the offense, so he’s not thinking as much when he goes for passes thrown by Tom Brady (right). (File/Paul Sancya/Associated Press)
A lot to grasp for receivers
Patriots’ offense can be challenge
FOXBOROUGH - The day receiver Torry Holt picked up his Patriots offensive playbook in 2010, it didn’t feel much different from the others in his career. If anything, it was a lighter version of the one he referenced for 10 years with the Rams.
What was different about the Patriots’ playbook was the detail. The formations and concepts were intricate. The plays were like visions in a kaleidoscope - one shift, turn, or shake and the look would be completely different.
Quarterback Tom Brady had the power to shake up the play at the line of scrimmage and Holt quickly discovered he had to know more than just his responsibility.
Holt joined the Patriots in April 2010 as a free agent hoping to extend his career after a touchdown-less season with the Jaguars. He got his playbook and benefited from offseason workouts, arriving to training camp with a head start.
What Holt was able to study in a few months, veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco crammed into a couple of weeks before the first preseason games this season. Now the Patriots are a week away from their season opener against the Dolphins and the time to learn is disappearing.
Ochocinco is preaching patience along with his teammates and the organization, but there are reasons why many describe this as a complicated offense that will take time to comprehend. In 2009, veteran receiver Joey Galloway didn’t make it through October before he was cut.
“New England’s system not only challenges you physically, it challenges you mentally, because they have so many concepts and so many things going on within that offense,’’ said Holt, now an NFL Network analyst. “Tom runs that offense to a T and he has the flexibility to change things at the line of scrimmage at any given time.
“You have to know a number of things all the time. That’s just the plays. I’m not even talking about the snap counts that he has the ability to change if he wants to. There’s a lot within that offense that you have to know and be able to do quickly. And not only know it, but now you have to go out and execute it - and for a lot of young guys and even veterans, that can be intimidating.’’
Ochocinco played 10 seasons with the Bengals, settling into an offense that allowed him to gain more than 10,000 yards and haul in 66 touchdowns.
Since he joined the Patriots in late July, Ochocinco has maintained his biggest challenge will be reacting without thinking. On a scale of 1 to 10, the receiver gave himself a 7 in that department. He played in three preseason games and caught three passes for 23 yards.
The routes aren’t the issue, Ochocinco said. The challenge is learning the verbiage and being able to apply it, which Holt can appreciate.
While with the Rams, Holt processed plays whose details he could recite like familiar jingles. It’s been nearly three years since Holt played for the Rams, yet a few weeks ago he could recite a six-syllable play and break down the assignments.
But with the Patriots, getting the play out of the huddle is just the first step.
“You have 0-hash, such and such, such and such, check to this, check to this, check to that,’’ Holt said. “For ballplayers, the quicker that you can just digest plays and just line up and just run and go play, the better off that play can be or the better off your play can be.
“And it’s not only a run play that is called, but it could also check to a pass play and if you’re not certain on what it means, it can bother you. Not only does it affect you in terms of lining up and coming off the line of scrimmage, you can’t express yourself as a player or your personality as a player because you’re constantly thinking.’’
By the third week of camp in 2010, Holt said he was growing comfortable with the offense, but a foot injury ended his season.
When a player grasps the offense, the results have been proven.
Wes Welker joined the Patriots via trade with the Dolphins in 2007 and turned the season into the best of his career to that point. He caught 112 passes for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. Meanwhile, Randy Moss, also in his first season with the Patriots, rejuvenated his career with a season (98 receptions for 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns) that helped Brady and the Patriots set records.
However, record-setting performances weren’t on their minds when they first learned what it would take to operate in the Patriots offense.
“I think everybody is a little bit surprised at first, but I think you just roll with it and you learn it and you keep on going over things over and over until it becomes a habit almost,’’ Welker said.
How players pick up the offense varies. Some rely on memorization, like learning multiplication tables with flashcards. Others quiz each other. Some just resort to old-fashioned studying.
It’s all necessary because knowing the offense helps them develop trust with Brady.
“There’s a big amount of information within one call and we can have three different calls, but it’s almost like the same play,’’ Welker said. “It’s different things like that. There’s a method to the madness, but you have to learn it all.’’
They all have to catch up to Brady, who has been in this offense from the beginning when Charlie Weis implemented it in 2000 as offensive coordinator. Josh McDaniels eventually was given the reins, and now they have been handed over to Bill O’Brien, who is in his in his fifth season with the Patriots and his first as offensive coordinator.
The progression of the offense made receiver Deion Branch feel like a new student when he rejoined the Patriots last year. From 2002 to 2005, Branch established his career in New England. After four-plus seasons with the Seahawks, Branch returned to the Patriots last season only to find many things had changed. But he at least had a base to draw from.
“I think we’ve been spoiled over the years with so many guys like that that have come in and been able to understand what we’re trying to do,’’ Brady said. “We have to put a lot of time together, spend as much time as we can together talking about plays and routes and details of our offense, because what I think makes our offense very unique is the detail that is put into it. It’s not an easy offense to learn. I think that guys who are in their fourth year, like Wes, can really excel in it because he’s way past the learning stage. He can really think about every route, every detail. That just comes with time. That comes with work.’’
The work is apparent for those drawing up schemes week to week to defend the Patriots. For 11 seasons, Patriots defensive lineman Shaun Ellis watched hours of footage on the New England offense while he was a member of the Jets. Finding ways to get to Brady wasn’t always an easy task.
“They just have so many weapons with Brady as a quarterback,’’ Ellis said. “They have a lot of crafty receivers and their offensive line has always worked well together. They’re smart, and it all starts with Tom and goes down to everybody else.’’
Even though the Jets found success against the Patriots’ offense during last year’s playoffs, Ellis said figuring things out never became easier.
“If anything, it got harder,’’ he said.
This season, the Patriots’ offense is looking evolve with the addition of Ochocinco. He may not be a factor early on as he continues to adjust, but he can be a contributor, Holt said.
“It’ll be a challenge for him and I’m sure it’s a challenge for him now,’’ Holt said. “You’re going to have mistakes. He’s probably going to run some routes wrong. They’re probably going to have to stop and wait to make sure he gets lined up properly, but that just happens. That’s football. But if it means something to you, and it does to Chad, you’ll get it right. And when he gets it right, he’s going to be a problem [for defenses].’’
Even without the typical offseason preparation because of the lockout, Brady said excuses can’t be made once the season begins.
“I just know that when we go out there for the games, we’re going to be prepared,’’ Brady said. “We’re going to feel good about every play on that call sheet. We’re going to feel good about every player on that team. If guys were good players and didn’t know what they were doing, coach would never put them out there.
“When I’m out there playing quarterback and I look around, I feel good about every guy that we have, I feel good about every play that we’re going to call. I don’t think about it any differently than I always have.’’
Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.