January 31, 2003
Is Hufnagel The Key To Brady's Future?
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
This begins a series of positional analysis articles for the 2002 New England Patriots. Today: Quarterbacks.
It took 17 months to finally replace Dick Rehbein.
When he was selected as Patriot quarterbacks coach in 2000, some folks raised an eyebrow or two. Rehbein had extensive coaching experience, but he had never coached quarterbacks before. Why bring this guy in to help Drew Bledsoe cut down on picks and improve his footwork when he would be literally the blind leading the blind?
What fools we were. Rehbein did manage to cut Bledsoe's interception percentage down in the one year they did work together. Moreover, Rehbein had some input in personnel decisions along the way; it was Rehbein who recommended that the Patriots draft Tom Brady and to snatch up David Patten as a free agent.
Sadly, Rehbein passed away during training camp 2001. Bill Belichick and Charlie Weis handled the position coaching duties themselves in the interim. The two men oversaw an unlikely and unforeseen transition from Bledsoe to Brady as the top pitcher on the team, and Bledsoe is now the centerpiece of the Buffalo Bills.
Weis' days of handling the quarterback duties are finally over, and mercifully so. The Patriots announced Thursday that they have hired John Hufnagel to become the new Patriot quarterback coach. Unlike Rehbein, Hufnagel has extensive experience in this area, and he himself is a former quarterback. His former protégés include Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia, Tim Couch, Peyton Manning and Mark Brunell.
Obviously, the Patriots got themselves a coach of some pedigree. In addition to the list of his former students, Hufnagel is a stickler for fundamentals and footwork (thanks, Boston Globe). Some observers felt that Brady was only a position coach away from another stellar season, which given his magical 2001 season, might have been asking a wee bit too much.
All things considered, was the lack of a quarterback coach really missed last year? Brady won a Super Bowl MVP and earned a Pro Bowl berth without a position coach. What was it about 2002 that finally convinced Belichick to go out and hire Hufnagel?
On the one hand, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn't want to make himself better. Brady has a killer work ethic; giving him a position coach could only mean great things for he himself as well as his offensive mates. As Bledsoe occasionally portrayed, footwork is both underrated and incredibly important in the overall mechanics of a pro quarterback.
But was what went wrong with the Patriots in 2002 totally attributable to Brady and his lack of a position coach?
Brady finished sixth in the conference in passer rating (Bledsoe was fifth), first in touchdown passes, and fourth in passing yardage. What drove Brady's passer rating down a bit was his 14 interceptions (middle of the pack for starting QBs) and the fact that he was 14th in the conference (25th in the league) in yards per attempt (6.3 YPA). Further symptomatic of this problem was the fact that his longest completion of the year was for only 49 yards, shorter than any other regular AFC quarterback except Chad Pennington.
If you leave stats out of the picture, it seemed that Brady was more of a victim of poor line blocking and sometimes questionable gameplanning rather than lousy quarterback technique or bad decision-making. The play of the offensive line, several cuts below the 2001 performance, went downhill immediately when Joe Andruzzi got hurt and Greg Randall was replaced in training camp by Kenyatta Jones as the starter at right tackle. Matt Light did not have a year anywhere close to his terrific rookie campaign of '01.
Perhaps Weis is at the center of Brady's problems. It seemed that Weis continually went away from what helped the Patriots in 2001, and that was balance in the offense. It didn't help when Troy Brown suffered a season-crippling injury against Kansas City, but Weis' lack of commitment to Antowain Smith and the running game resulted in a huge burden being placed on Brady literally all season long. Brady was put in the position of having to win games by himself, something that the coaching staff always tried to prevent from happening when Bledsoe was here.
Without Smith pounding the ball to make defenses more honest, Brady ran up against defensive packages which fared much better than last year in shutting down Brady's bread-and-butter, the short passing game. Brady was made to look like he had lost his magic on occasion, but the sad truth is that the league figured the Patriots out, and Weis generally decided to ride with the heavy emphasis on the short tosses anyway.
A more balanced offense would be sorely missed in all seven of the Patriot losses, all of which were to superior teams (Miami, Denver, Green Bay, Oakland, Tennessee, Jets, San Diego). The most points scored in a loss were 20 against the Raiders. Smith had only one 100-yard game (at Buffalo), and that game was the only time where Smith had 20 or more carries in a game. Brady was left to sink or swim literally on his own, with almost no help from Smith or any other running back.
Six times Brady exceeded 100 passer-rating points, all of those coming in Patriot wins. But on three occasions, Brady fell below the 60 mark (Green Bay, Tennessee, Jets at home), all crushing losses. Brady went through a stretch of eight picks in three games, all of them losses (San Diego, at Miami, Green Bay). It was crystal clear that, especially against stronger opponents, Brady needed help from his running game. But Weis either wouldn't budge or had no confidence in Smith to reprise his landmark 2001 season.
This essay is about Brady and his position, not Smith. We mention Smith as often as we have to underscore what was really off with Brady in '02. The new position coach won't hurt, but it is absolutely imperative that the Patriots bring back the running game and balance it with the passing attack for Brady and the offense to return to any semblance of their 2001 form (and by saying this we omit the 2001 postseason, where the Patriots went 3-0 despite only one offensive touchdown in each of those contests).
One thing Hufnagel might want to spend a great deal of time with Brady on is his ability to throw the long pass. Bledsoe had problems overthrowing receivers just like Brady, but in Buffalo he has greyhounds who can catch up to those thundering heaves. Brady needs to establish a better rhythm with Patten and Deion Branch (trying to do the same with Brown might not be real prudent, as Brown is older and excels at third down receptions and the shorter passing game) in passes of 40 yards or longer. If this can be done, the stretching of defenses that will follow will help loosen up things up front so that a running game can be better established.
Damon Huard did not attempt a pass in 2002, and saw game action only twice. All you'll see of this guy is preseason action, and he'll continue to make you wonder why Miami doesn't still have him. He is a wonderful backup, but one has to wonder if this guy will ever get starting pings again someday.
One thing that might be unsettling to Huard is that rookie Rohan Davey threw two more passes than Huard did in '02. In mop up work in Tennessee, Davey completed one pass for three yards. It's still not clear what this man's future in New England might be, other than to groom him for future trade bait. Maybe this guy is the future number two man. Some people even think that, in a few years, he'll be groomed to push Brady out of the starting job. He is a Daunte Culpepper clone, but it remains to be seen if Davey resembles the old Culpepper or the current Culpepper.
Hufnagel will work with all three of these guys, and not just Brady. But Brady is the undisputed ruler of this roost, and here he'll stay for the foreseeable future. Huard and Davey pretty much know where they stand. Work hard and stay ready, just like Brady did two Septembers ago.
It's exciting to imagine how much better Brady figures to become.
But if Brady is asked to be the next Dan Fouts, it will all be time wasted.
Next installment: Running backs.
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