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Colts Copying The Patriots With Two-TE Offense

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There is a common statement going around the league that teams like the Colts (who just drafted two high quality TEs) are copying the offensive success of the 2011 AFC Champion Patriots. Part of the reason it's common is because the Colts leadership has consistently cited the Patriots as a source of inspiration.

Colts head coach Chuck Pagano on 5/5/2012, answering a question about why the Colts are using a two-TE offense:

It's a match-up nightmare. Coming off the AFC Championship Game, nobody knew that better than the Ravens going into that game with the two guys [the Patriots] have. It's across the league. You can see it more and more every year.

Now, for someone like Pagano (who has spent the last four years in Baltimore before landing the Colts head coaching job), installing this new system is indeed copying the Patriots. Pagano was Baltimore's defensive coordinator last season, and it was his job to stop New England's two TEs (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) in that AFC Championship Game. To put it mildly, he didn't succeed. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 12 receptions for 153 yards. On the drive that would eventually give the Patriots the lead, Tom Brady hit Gronkowski for a 23-yard gain on first-and-ten from the Pats 37 yard line.

From my vantage, Pagano is frustrated by how those two TEs helped defeat his defense in the AFCCG, and that is one of the reasons why he hired Bruce Arians as his offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. Arians, a friend and disciple of Tom Moore, is a flexible coach who maximizes the talent available to him. Just as the Colts utilized two TEs back in 1998 (when Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger were still in the league), so too will the 2012 Colts.

Bucky Brooks at recently wrote an interesting article about the Colts "new" offense, which really isn't all that new for those of us who have followed the team for decades.

For all of the conversation about the Colts copying the New England Patriots' offensive approach with multiple tight ends, the team is actually returning to the original blueprint used to help Manning during his formative years.

During the late 1990s, the Colts befuddled opponents utilizing a two-tight end set that featured Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard. These two were interchangeable as playmakers in the Colts' "12" personnel package, and their ability to make plays over the middle of the field put defensive coordinators in a quandary. If opponents stayed with their base personnel, the Colts would displace one of the tight ends to take advantage of a favorable matchup against a linebacker in space. If the defense trotted out a nickel package, the Colts would routinely align in an ace formation and run the ball off tackle on a stretch play or post up one of the tight ends against a smaller defender in the passing game. The defense rarely came up with effective answers, and the success of the offense fueled the Colts' ascension in the AFC.

From roughly 1998 to 2005, the Colts deployed a base two-TE offense. When Ken Dilger was unceremoniously dumped by Bill Polian following the 2001 season (Dilger was informed of his termination via a FedEx package delivered to his house), the Colts still used a first round pick in 2003 on a tight end named Dallas Clark. Clark and Pollard continued to work in the offense for two seasons. Over the years, as Peyton Manning got more comfortable throwing out of a three-WR set (and less mobile due to knee and neck ailments, preventing the Colts from running the stretch run play), the two-TE offense was phased out despite having Clark and (later) Jacob Tamme on the roster from 2008-2011.

So, it could be argued that the Colts are returning to their roots, so to speak, with their new two-TE offense. It could also be said that they are copying the Patriots, which is pretty much what Chuck Pagano has been admitting to since draft day.

In the end, it doesn't matter. When the Patriots couldn't stop Brandon Stokley tearing up their defenses in the mid-2000s, they copied the Colts by trading for Wes Welker. When Dallas Clark destroyed them in the 2006 AFCCG, they eventually found their own "Clark" in Gronkowski. When Peyton Manning shredded them in '05 and '06, the Patriots shifted their offense from a short passing attack with virtually no audibles by Tom Brady to a no-huddle aerial assault complete with QB calls at the line of scrimmage.

It's a copycat league. Innovation is rarely rewarded. The only thing that matters in the NFL is winning.