Curran: Why is ‘outside zone' so hard to master? Ed McCaffrey explains


The storyline dominating Patriots training camp so far is the implementation of a new offense. The post-Brady/McDaniels switch to a scheme that’s going to be more user-friendly has been a slow and hard-to-watch slog on many days.

This is not an entire "out with the old, in with the new" undertaking, sources have told me. Elements of the offense the team’s used for years will remain. But there’s a pivot in the run game to using more stretch or "outside zone" concepts that, ideally, will become the basis for incorporating new pass-game concepts.  

Don’t expect the Patriots to just throw up their hands because it’s looked ugly. Mac Jones' words last week were all the evidence you need to see that’s not happening.

Curran: Why the heck did Patriots have to change their offense anyway?

"I’m going to figure it out," Jones said, via Mike Reiss of "I always have. I always will. At the end of the day, you’re going to have your ups and downs with anything new, but I’ve learned a lot of different systems and the guys around me have too. We know what football looks like, we know what a good play looks like. ... It just needs to be more consistent. We all trust in each other at the end of the day. When there’s 10 people that look into my eyes, I know they’re going to trust me to do the right thing on game day."

Why’s it been so hard to master and why’s it looked so rough in practice? Because the outside-zone scheme is complex.

Last Thursday, I asked former Denver Broncos great Ed McCaffrey, who came up in the Mike Shanahan offense that beautifully employed outside zone (and sometimes took Bill Belichick’s defenses to the woodshed) what a switch to outside zone would entail.

McCaffrey, who was co-hosting on SiriusXM NFL Radio when I asked him, went into a detailed explanation that really lays out the intricacies.

"Some offensive line coaches are insulted when you call it outside zone," McCaffrey began. "They like to call it wide zone and they call inside zone 'tight zone.' Rarely when you are running an outside zone play does it go outside. It usually cuts back somewhere in between the edge defender and the hash mark. Some people call it stretch, doesn’t matter what you call it, it is a whole system.

"But just the outside run play itself is an entire system involving multiple two-man combinations on the front side and back side of the play. It gets more complicated when you introduce different formations and different personnel groupings. So, for instance, you could run a wide-zone play out of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) which is what most pro-style West Coast offensive coaches consider their base offense. That involves a fullback and a tight end.

"(The complexity rises when you get into) are you running a full-flow to the tight end with the fullback? Are you running split-flow to the tight end with the fullback going the opposite way? Are you running to the open side with the fullback?

"In addition to that, every one play is actually two because you’re coaching the front side and the back side. Center and guard have to communicate, guard and tackle have to communicate, tackle and tight end have to communicate. And then there’s 36 minimum basic fronts that involve different two-man combination calls. So if defenders ‘mug and bug’ bringing linebackers up you can potentially turn that into a three or four-man combination play. Communication on the line just for that -- we aren’t even discussing 11 personnel or 10 personnel motions and shifts -- is a whole entire language."

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McCaffrey mentions the fullback. The Patriots made an interesting move with that position in the offseason, saying goodbye to Jakob Johnson and letting him know the straight-ahead battering ram style was going away from their offense. 

So the outside-zone style McCaffrey’s referencing from 21 personnel may not be the Patriots' base formation. Either way, the concepts are still complicated.

"If you haven’t done it then it does take time just to install the outside zone scheme,” McCaffrey explained. "Just one play is really like 20 plays (because of the variations in personnel and options). So to put in an outside zone scheme with multiple personnel groupings … think of the time it takes to put that in.

"In the NFL you have time to put in multiple blocking schemes and all teams do. But how much time are you going to spend doing that? Time is our most valuable asset. So to get guys up to speed and be really good at the outside zone schemes which involve multiple combination blocks versus various fronts, to get really, really good at that takes time.

You can’t be great at everything but as a playcaller you still want enough variation to keep defenses on their heels and attack certain fronts. But the big decision is, ‘How much time am I gonna spend on this other stuff? What am I gonna live out of?’ It takes time to learn. A lot of time. And really repetition. Practicing their fits on those two-man combinations and communicating."

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McCaffrey, whose son Christian is a standout with the Panthers, currently coaches at the University of Northern Colorado. He’s got an appreciation for what the Patriots staff is wrestling with.  

"Think of wide zone as a whole language in and of itself," he said. "And with that, you only have so much time in a day to get really good at something. And that’s the question for head coaches and coordinators. ‘What do we want to be great at?’ If you want to be great at outside zone, you gotta spend a lot of time running outside zone.

"Then you have to pair that with all of your play-action passes. Your play-action passes are gonna work off of the runs you run well and have success running. ... and with play-action it all comes off of the run game. What are you gonna be good at? You can’t be great at everything. You just can’t. So what are you gonna hang your hat on? And if it’s gonna be outside-zone it takes time."

And it’s going to take time for it to look good. Which is what we’re seeing in Foxboro currently.

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