The NFLs top two quarterbacks of the last decade plus, square off this Sunday in the AFC title game. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Both of these QBs run an offensive system called The Erhardt-Perkins system. It may be the smartest way to run an offense for long term success, no matter who you surround your quarterback with.
In part one of this series, I looked at the Ravens offense under Cameron/Caldwell, the Air Coryell scheme (A favorite of OC Candidate, Norv Turner). Now lets take a look at Erhardt-Perkins.
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Erhardt-Perkins is named after two men. Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins, who ran the offense under Patriots head coach, Chuck Fairbanks in the 1970’s. The object of the system was to maximize efficiency in cold weather. They placed emphasis on the run game and the short passing game by showing the defense multiple looks, formations, and combinations of personnel while running simple plays found in all playbooks. Simple to learn, simple to run, easy to call on the fly, hard to defend. It has evolved over the years from coaches Bill Parcells, Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Cowher, Bill Belichick and all his disciples, (Charlie Weis turned Brady Quinn and Jimmy Claussen into 1st and 2nd round picks with this system at Notre Dame).
The E-P is currently run by six NFL teams: Broncos, Patriots, Chargers, Panthers, Steelers, and Giants. In other words, Erhardt-Perkins has won seven of the last 12 Super Bowls with a chance to make it eight with the Broncos or Patriots representing the AFC this year.
With the help of his assistants, Belichick’s primary innovation was to go from an Erhardt-Perkins offense to an Erhardt-Perkins system, built on its method of organizing and naming plays. The offense itself would be philosophically neutral. This is how, using the terminology and framework of what was once thought to be the league’s least progressive offensive system, Brady and Belichick built one of the most consistently dynamic and explosive offenses in NFL history. From conservative to spread to blistering no-huddle, the tactics — and players — have changed while the underlying approach has not.
That’s what resonates with me (in bold). Flexibility, taking what defenses will give you. Being neutral and not committing to just one theory to make the offense go. There isn’t a set of definitive traits of the E-P system, which is why the Broncos and Pats look different than the Giants and Panthers. The Patriots are known as a spread it out and pick you apart, up-tempo, throw it around all day long team. However, they just eviscerated the Colts defense in a divisional playoff game by running the ball 46 times against just 25 Brady pass attempts.
The backbone of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that plays — pass plays in particular — are not organized by a route tree or by calling a single receiver’s route, but by what coaches refer to as “concepts.” Each play has a name, and that name conjures up an image for both the quarterback and the other players on offense. And, most importantly, the concept can be called from almost any formation or set. Who does what changes, but the theory and tactics driving the play do not. “In essence, you’re running the same play,” said Perkins. “You’re just giving them some window-dressing to make it look different.”
The biggest advantage of the concept-based system is that it operates from the perspective of the most critical player on offense: the quarterback. In other systems, even if the underlying principles are the exact same, the play and its name might be very different. Rather than juggling all this information in real time, an Erhardt-Perkins quarterback only has to read a given arrangement of receivers.
The Patriots have gone through different strengths on the offense from a balanced attack in Brady’s early days, to the record setting Randy Moss era, to leaning on slot guys like Welker and now Edelman, to a duel tight end threat with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez that was a red zone defenses nightmare. No matter the strengths surrounding the QB, the offense works as long as the QB is competent.
Fast forward to 2013. New England loses Welker to free agency, Hernandez for being an idiot, Gronkowski to injury, Vereen for most of the season with injury. Musical chairs at running back until they land on one that won’t fumble and an offensive line that was below average and without RT Sebastian Vollmer for half the season. All of that and yet the Patriots offense doesn’t miss a beat. They finish 7th in the NFL in overall offense and 3rd in scoring. Sure, there’s some times you could pick out where Brady could have benefited from more time to gel with the new players. But they are few and far between because the E-P playbook is simplified. It doesn’t take long for everyone to get on the same page. (More on that later).
Tom Brady didn’t even have a great year. 25 TDs, 11 INTs, 87.3 rating. Pretty pedestrian by Brady’s standards. Yet the system still produced the third best scoring offense.
The Ravens faced that same adversity in 2013. Boldin was traded, Pitta injured, Jacoby Jones missed some games, poor line play, running backs with different problems but still problems nonetheless. In the Ravens scheme, Air Coryell, it’s very specific pertaining to the guys you need to make it work and it’s no surprise that the Ravens offense fell off the map when the right pieces weren’t in place.
Would things have been different if Baltimore ran a simpler offense with some new faces in the mix across the O-line, at TE, and new receivers? Even in the West Coast offense run by some other guys the Ravens have interviewed, like Gary Kubiak, it’s pretty specific what you need to make it work including a stout O-line because RBs are used primarily as pass catchers instead of extra blockers.
In the E-P system, there are no requirements, except for a competent QB which any team in any system will take. Joe Flacco is certainly a competent QB. You don’t have to worry about missing one guy and the system failing because of it.
The E-P simplicity
If you’re like me, you can’t help but shake your head when watching guys like Manning and Brady operate. They make it look so easy. Come to find out, they make it look easy because it is easy. Brown made mention in his article that a play-call in the Air Coryell system the Ravens run might sound like, “Scatter-Two Bunch-Right-Zip-Fire 2 Jet Texas Right-F Flat X-Q.” In the EP system, one word the Patriots use is “ghost” which a two man route combination, or “tosser” which is a three man route combination. That’s how these up tempo offense operate so smoothly. Brady is coming to the line shouting just two words, and everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s so much easier for the players to memorize, enabling them to get on the same page faster if unexpectedly called upon when injuries happen. Besides, the few times Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense were actually clicking like a well-oiled machine was when they had to go up tempo and a little no huddle. When Flacco was basically calling the shots. Entering his seventh year, can we give this guy the keys, permanently, please?
It’s a system that is made to be easier for the offense to understand and confusing for the defense on the other side to figure out. In an up-tempo style, the defense is on its heels the whole time as the offense runs practiaclly the same plays from a number of formations and looks with the same 11 guys on the field. The Ravens did a little of this under Cam Cameron in 2012, calling it the “Sugar Huddle”, but were afraid to really commit to it. Why? Defenses were calling out the Ravens plays by seasons end in 2013. Wouldn’t a little element of surprise or window-dressing be a good thing?
Who runs the E-P system that could be in line for an OC job?
I mentioned before, six teams currently employ this offense according to Pro Football Reference.
New England and Denver - Josh McDaniels in New England and Adam Gase in Denver, are two guys who have been linked to the Cleveland Browns HC position. If they don’t take the Browns job, these are the top two names to look at. Although I doubt either one leaves for the same job in Baltimore. McDaniels has a long relationship with Belichick, and Gase has Peyton Manning. They would likely stay put until more HC positions open up next year. Why leave unless they are looking to prove that they can build a great offense without one of the best QBs ever. (No offense, Joe).
Pittsburgh - Todd Haley’s job is safe in Pittsburgh after allowing Roethlisberger to be in more control, utilizing the no-huddle in the E-P system more, en route to an 8-4 finish to the season. However, his QB coach, Randy Ficthner could be a target. He was the OC for a Memphis team in 2003-2004 that set some offensive school records. He replaced Bruce Arians as the Steelers WR coach in 2007 and has done good things for Mike Wallace, Emanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. He’s been the QB coach since 2010.
New York Giants - Kevin Gilbride has retired from the Giants and Ben McAdoo takes his place. QB coach Sean Ryan could promote. Gilbride used E-P as a base, but incorporated some “run and shoot” from his days with the Houston Oilers. Run and shoot is very dangerous because the QB and receivers have to be on the same page every single time without communicating it. When they’re not, you get 27 INTs like Eli had this year. No telling if Ryan is hired somewhere if he will keep some of the run and shoot trend in his playbook.
Carolina - Ron Rivera “expects all his coaches to be back” including OC Mike Shula. However, Ken Dorsey would be a name worth exploring. Panthers QB coach after spending two seasons in their scouting department. So he’s already got a leg up on watching tape of some other team’s players. Dorsey still holds plenty of QB records at “The U”.
San Diego- Mike McCoy made former Terp, Frank Reich his new OC. His former OC, Ken Whisenhunt has taken the Titans HC job and will likely be the play caller down there meaning seven teams could be running this offense next year.
McDaniels and Gase would be longshots, but it’s no secret that the Ravens are one of the best organizations to work for. Could sway some people. Fichtner would be a realistic hire. Dorsey is probably staying put, but maybe a name down the road.
The E-P system is a simple one. Take what the defense will give you. You can be a power running team one week, a spread out air raid offense the next, a balanced attack that keeps teams guessing the next. You can put up points in a hurry, or slow the pace down to a crawl. It doesn’t need specific personnel. Since specific types of players aren’t required, it opens up more possibilities when drafting players or signing free agents. For a team that drafts best player available and not necessarily positional need, like the Ravens, this is a great fit. In fact, in the modern NFL where players are changing teams all the time, and some guys are fits at multiple positions, it’s anyone’s best guess why teams would still chose to run offenses with little wiggle room for personnel changes.