FOXBORO -- Through half a season, it feels like a good time to ask the question: What is the Bill O'Brien offense, exactly?
There was a great deal of conjecture as to what it might be once he was hired and once the Patriots completed training camp. But now we have enough of a sample size of live reps to get a much better feel for what it is in actuality.
O'Brien, of course, was here for the spread-it-out-and-launch attack in 2007 as an assistant. He engineered the two-tight end attack that lit it up in New England a few years later. He coached college kids at Penn State. He squeezed what he could out of backup-caliber quarterbacks in Houston and then tapped into Deshaun Watson's rare traits. He went back to the college game, and helped an undersized quarterback in Bryce Young -- now struggling after being drafted at No. 1 overall -- win the Heisman.
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While O'Brien has had to coach around significant injuries along the Patriots offensive line -- Mac Jones is seventh in the NFL in screen attempts this season, per Sports Info Solutions -- his offense has formed a bit of an identity. It seems to be an amalgamation of his prior experiences as well as a very real departure from what the Patriots wanted to be under former offensive coordinator and O'Brien colleague Josh McDaniels.
What the Patriots have done this season, when compared to what the Raiders did under McDaniels prior to his Week 9 firing, might be described as decidedly more... "modern."
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Some of what the most efficient (and creative, depending on your viewpoint) offenses in the league do, O'Brien has apparently tried to implement.
The Patriots are 12th in the NFL in RPO attempts this year, per SIS. And while O'Brien's scheme won't be confused for Mike McDaniel's in Miami, the Patriots rank 10th when it comes to pass plays that incorporate jet motion. They are ninth in terms of their number of passing snaps that use any type of pre-snap motion.
And though this could be indicative of a passing game trying to mask issues with its protection by throwing the ball quickly, the Patriots are also one of the most spread-heavy teams in football. They're ninth in the rate at which they use empty formations, according to Sumer Sports.
Feels like a modern approach.
Just look around the league. The Eagles, Bengals and Bills use RPOs in the highest numbers this year. The Dolphins, Lions and 49ers are the top-three teams in terms of jet-motion usage. The Dolphins and Eagles lead the league in empty-usage rate. All six of those teams mentioned rank within the top 10 in the NFL in offensive success rate this season.
The Raiders, meanwhile, did things much differently under McDaniels. Given the opportunity to mold his offense in Las Vegas however he wanted, the former Patriots offensive coordinator recycled some of that which brought him success in New England.
According to Sumer Sports, the Raiders led the NFL in I-formation usage this season under McDaniels. They ranked 30th in empty rate and 31st in no-huddle snaps. While their use of motion ranked within the top half of the league (12th), their use of RPOs did not (24th).
O'Brien has taken the "Patriots offense" and updated it. Given his background, that should come as no surprise.
His offense is still near the bottom of the league in terms of play-action usage -- Jones ranks 29th out of 37 quarterbacks in play-action rate this season (18.5), per Pro Football Focus -- but that can be impacted significantly by the scores of games. (For instance, running a high rate of play-action passes when trailing as the Patriots often have isn't a reasonable expectation.)
The Patriots' pass rate over expected also ranks 21st, per Sumer Sports, indicating that they may not be as pass-happy as some of the most efficient offenses in the game. (Cincinnati, Kansas City, Buffalo, Philly and Miami all rank inside the top 10 in that particular metric.)
But it's fair to wonder if those numbers would shift if the personnel in New England was different. During O'Brien's last full season in Houston, Watson ranked 12th in the NFL in pass attempts in just 15 games. Watson's play-action rate that season (24.5) wasn't among the league leaders (21st), but it was six percentage points higher than Jones' in 2023.
The Patriots rank near the bottom of the NFL in a number of statistical categories. They rank 31st in points scored. They're 30th in EPA per play. They're 24th in success rate. But O'Brien is running a modern offense.
He's trying to get what he can out of an undermanned group. And given what he's shown -- despite what the numbers would suggest -- he should remain in his position for 2024, no matter who the quarterback and head coach are.
A closer look at his choices as a play-caller would suggest he's advanced the Patriots offense to adjust to the modern game, and the results should improve when the personnel does.