FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s no mystery that new wide receivers — veterans and rookies alike — have had trouble learning the Patriots’ playbook in the past. Joey Galloway, Taylor Price, Chad Johnson and countless others have come to Foxboro and seen an early exit because of difficulty grasping the complex system.
This year, the new players are taking a group approach to learning Josh McDaniels‘ system, despite competing against one another for roster spots. There are eight new players in the wide receiver group, and only two of 11 wideouts on the roster have caught a pass from Tom Brady in the regular season.
“Everybody’s new, so everybody’s working together so that we can learn the playbook together,” free agent acquisition Donald Jones said. “It’s not like one guy is coming in and every guy is above him in terms of the playbook and things like that. Everybody’s coming in at the same level. So we’re all working together to learn the playbook. We’re all working together in the weight room, things like that, so we’re ready to compete against the defense come next week [in OTAs].”
Jones said the rumors of the Patriots’ playbook being a difficult one are not off base. The offenses he played under at Youngstown State and in Buffalo are nothing compared to the intricate system New England runs.
“Here, the playbook is a lot more difficult than anywhere I’ve been,” Jones said. “Youngstown was easy. It was a simple college playbook. Buffalo it got harder, but once you get it, you get it. Here, they keep you on your toes. They switch a lot of things up week to week, so you have to constantly be on your ones and twos and paying attention to what they’re saying. Because if you get out there and mess it up, you’re going to be on the bench and Tom’s not throwing to you.”
Galloway and Johnson learned the hard way that if you don’t get the system, you won’t be receiving passes. The artist formerly known as Ochocinco played in 17 games with the Patriots (including playoffs) and caught just 16 passes. Galloway made it through three games in New England and caught seven.
If you’ve ever wondered what could be so difficult about the Patriots’ system in particular, Jones gave some insight into what makes New England’s offense so tough to grasp.
“As far as the playbook, I guess you all know it’s different systems — some systems are digit systems, some systems are concept based — and for some guys it’s harder to make that transition from a digit system to a concept system to west coast and things like that,” Jones said. “So, you know, this playbook is very complex and if you’re not studying at all times, if you don’t put the work in, you really won’t be able to contain it because they’re always switching things up.”
Johnson in particular worked in a digit system in Cincinnati. The Bengals gave every route a number and Johnson knew what to run based on that number. In New England it’s not that simple. Wide receivers aren’t just responsible for one route on a given play. They run their routes based on what the defense shows.
With so many new players coming in, the competition at wide receiver would seem to be at an all-time high in New England, but Jones doesn’t see it that way. Jones said he’s always had to compete for a roster spot in the NFL. This year is slightly different for the Patriots, though, because only Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater have any real experience playing in McDaniels’ system. Danny Amendola played under McDaniels for one year in St. Louis, but he was injured for all but one game.
“Well, when you get into the NFL, every year is going to be competition,” Jones said. “Every year in Buffalo we had 10 receivers, 11 receivers, so you have to have a bunch of receivers going into camp because guys get hurt, things like that. As far as the competition, I’ve been competing every year since I got into the NFL, so it’s not going to be any different here. I’m working with the quarterbacks so when we get into OTAs and moving forward into camp and the preseason games, everybody is on one accord.”
The slot and Z receivers seem to be locked down with Amendola and Edelman in those roles, but the X receiver will be up for grabs throughout the preseason and training camp. Jones will competing with veterans Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins and Kamar Aiken and rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins not only for a starting role, but for a spot on the team.
In New England, getting a starting role in the offense isn’t merely about who has the most talent or skill, it’s also about grasping that complex playbook Jones spoke about. And whoever can learn the playbook fastest and easiest may have the inside track to a roster spot and a big role in the offense.