What led to charting snap counts

In his post-game news conference following the Patriots’ preseason victory over the Buccaneers on Aug. 16, Bill Belichick highlighted the reason I first began charting playing time about five years ago.

Covering football is a challenge because reporters don’t often know the play-call and responsibilities of the players involved. There is a lot of gray area.

This is what Belichick said: 

“That happens to us too. That’s why I say, ‘Let’s take a look at the film’ sometimes. It might even look to us like somebody made a mistake but then we look at it more closely maybe somebody besides him made a mistake and he was trying to compensate. I think we need a little closer analysis a lot of times. Sometimes the play calls or what was called on the line of scrimmage might be something that we’re not aware of. That could happen in any game. You think a player did something that he shouldn’t have done but maybe he got a call, a line call or a call from a linebacker or he thought the quarterback said something so he did what he thought was the right thing or maybe it was the right thing but that call shouldn’t have been made or should have been on the other side.

“But yeah, I think we need to be careful about what we’re evaluating. Like right now, walking off the field, until we get a closer look and fully understand what happened on every play. It’s just more accurately to do it. But believe me, I’ve watched plenty of preseason games this time of year and you’re looking at all the other teams in the league and you try to evaluate players and you’re watching the teams that we’re going to play early in the season and there are plenty of plays where I have no idea what went wrong. Something’s wrong but I don’t … these two guys made a mistake but I don’t know which guy it was or if it was both of them. You just don’t know that.

“I don’t know how you can know that unless you’re really part of the team and know exactly what was supposed to happen on that play. I know there are a lot of experts out there that have it all figured out but I definitely don’t. This time of year, sometimes it’s hard to figure that out, exactly what they’re trying to do. When somebody makes a mistake, whose mistake is it?”

I’ve always found that dynamic frustrating from a reporter’s perspective, especially when coaches and players seldom provide the details. It doesn’t mean we can’t analyze what unfolds on the field, and make some solid educated guesses, but I’ve never felt comfortable writing with a strong I-have-this-nailed-down tone in that area.

So back in 2008, I remember asking questions like these, “What are the absolutes? What isn’t negotiable? What can be black and white in football?”

That led me to charting personnel on the field. It was something that couldn’t be argued — a player is either on the field or he isn’t.

Soon enough, it opened my eyes to a new way of looking at football.

We might not know the play-call, or the responsibilities of players involved, but in charting playing time I began to better understand how coaches valued certain players and game-planned differently against opponents on a week-to-week basis. It also helped me chart injury situations better.

Now I can’t imagine watching a Patriots game without doing it.

That said, there can be a danger of sometimes reading too much into the snap counts. For example, last year Wes Welker saw a scaled-back workload in the early games of the season. Conspiracy theories began to abound.

Were the Patriots trying to revamp their offense to make it less Welker-centric? Was it because he was entering the final year of his contract and they didn’t want him to put up big numbers?

Tom Brady, for one, would be the first to say he wanted to see more of his go-to target on the field early in the year.

But like anything else, there is usually a method behind the madness. We just don’t know it at the time.

First, as was later learned, Welker admittedly didn’t have a great 2012 training camp. Second, Welker was having some trouble separating from opponents late in the 2011 season and a collective decision had been made to try to manage his workload early in the year in hopes it would help him later in the year.

So even though I think the snap counts provide great value, and are a resource that often sparks other story ideas, they aren’t perfect either.

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Mike Reiss
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Patriots reporter/analyst for ESPNBoston.com.
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