There is an old adage: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” While it pertains to many life situations, it’s also a prevalent theme in the NFL. When teams show success in certain plays and formations, other franchises attempt to play catch-up—both as a way to emulate that success and in an effort to build a roster to defend the teams who are paving the way with innovative styles.
Professional football has become a copycat league. In the 1990s, the key to a quest for a Lombardi Trophy was often built with a highly-efficient quarterback, coupled with some form of a workhorse running back. As the mid-2000s hit, the league seemed to shift to more of a spread offensive game, giving more value to defensive backs and wide receivers.
In terms of said innovation, almost every team around the NFL has been attempting to copy what Bill Belichick has created with the Patriots and his five Super Bowl championships since his arrival in 2000. While they have a star quarterback and tight end, New England has amassed a slew of role players whose skill set fit into exactly what they are trying to do in all facets of the game.
This was especially apparent with their approach in Super 50, as it also was with their opponent in the championship game, the Atlanta Falcons. While Atlanta has supplied Matt Ryan with a number of big weapons at wideout in the form of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, they have also supplied him with versatile running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
New England also had an impressive stable of running backs last year, including LeGarrette Blount, James White and Dion Lewis. White was a huge key in the Patriots’ concocting of the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history this past February, grabbing 14 catches for 110 yards and a score, while also rushing for two more.
This offseason, the rich got richer. Deciding to not rest on their championship laurels, the Patriots grabbed two more versatile backs in free agency in Mike Gillislee and former Bengal, Rex Burkhead.
Since their rebuilding of the roster back in the 2011 offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals have also attempted to surround their quarterback with a multitude of weapons. One of the positions they have strategically replenished in recent years is at running back as well.
Giovani Bernard remains a roster staple, while the team has also attempted to use a power back in Jeremy Hill. Both have had their ups and downs with the team, with Bernard suffering some injuries at key points in the season, and Hill failing to be as effective as he was as a rookie back in 2014.
Because of those issues, the Bengals took a major roll of the dice on Joe Mixon in the second round of this year’s draft. Like many of the above-mentioned names, Mixon provides versatility to a position group that already has talent.
Is this a sign that the Bengals are attempting to create an offense similar to the highly-effective ones the Falcons and Patriots currently employ?
Signs that point to the Bengals’ imitation:
Similar running back profiles: Even though Blount’s future with the Patriots is unsettled at the moment, they do have set roles for their backs. Like Hill, Blount is the between-the-tackles guy, who is tasked with grinding out the tough yards. He has been supplemented with versatile backs, who also act as receivers in certain packages. The same could be said with who the Bengals currently employ at the position.
While Freeman and Coleman aren’t “thumpers”, Freeman does use his his compact frame to attack the middle of defenses frequently. Both are very effective third down options for Ryan—especially when Jones gets bracketed coverage. Sound familiar? (*cough, A.J. Green, *cough).
It’s unclear if the Bengals view Mixon as the immediate workhorse back in 2017, but on-field comparisons liken him to his do-it-all division rival, Le’Veon Bell. And, like White, Bernard is a Jack-of-all-trades, who has also lined up out as a wideout for Andy Dalton. Early predictions have Mixon getting significant snaps, with Hill being the short-yardage guy. Hopes are the Bernard will continue to be the Swiss Army Knife-kind of player he has been since 2013, but he is coming off of a late-season ACL injury and is still rehabbing it.
Ancillary weapons in the offense to help the backs: New England has Rob Gronkowski, while Atlanta has Jacob Tamme to assist the offense at the tight end position, while the Bengals have Tyler Eifert. The Patriots might be deemed as limited at the receiver position, in terms of the star power that Cincinnati and Atlanta have on the outside, but even Belichick saw the limitations from the 2016 roster and swung a trade for Brandin Cooks. All of these players help the passing game, obviously, but they also open up running lanes for the backs on their respective teams.
Because of the Patriots’ having Tom Brady under center, perhaps they felt that they could often get by without often having star power on at wide receiver. Still, there are great similarities between what Cincinnati has done with their roster lately, particularly this offseason, in conjunction to what both of the conference champs showed with their rosters last year.
The weird recycling of players between the franchises: Though the Falcons and Bengals don’t have much of a history of grabbing each other’s free agents, Sanu is a recent acquisition to point to between Atlanta and Cincinnati. However, the back-and-forth dealings of players between Belichick and Marvin Lewis has been a bit eyebrow-raising and much more frequent in their respective tenures as head coaches.
Lewis has taken on the likes of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Brandon Tate, who were Patriots cast-offs, while Belichick has acquired Deltha O’Neal, Corey Dillon, James Develin, Chad Johnson, or, most recently, Burkhead, New England has grabbed talented players from Cincinnati. While this argument is more of a recent nature, it’s obvious that these teams see the skills of players and realize they fit into their somewhat-similar systems. It’s revisionist history that doesn’t wholly point to the running back position, but a pattern is clear.
If the Bengals are copying the Falcons and/or the Patriots, it’s not necessarily a slight against Cincinnati. While there are some differences between the backs all three teams employ, there are similarities in the offenses and their quarterbacks.
Sure, Dalton might not be ranked as highly as Brady or Ryan, in terms of accolades, but their offenses do similar things. In terms of passing schemes, snaps under center are often under center with throws that are either controlled or go-for-the-throat types out of play-action. All schemes also use a number of plays out of shotgun in spread formations to maximize the strengths of all of their skill positions.
Are the Bengals copying the two teams from Super Bowl 50, are they creating their own mold, or is it somewhere in between?