Why you should care
Because football’s puppeteer is pulling new strings.
Bill Belichick knows better than anyone that there’s only one victor in a game of chess.
New England’s head coach is a man known by many names. Enigma, grouch, cultivator, champion. Perhaps most fitting, though, is “innovator.” For nearly two decades at the head of the Patriots, the NFL’s longest-tenured active head coach has time and again proven to be steps ahead of his peers. Whether it’s roster building with undervalued talent, grooming green assistant coaches or play calling, the leaderboard starts and ends with Belichick. So, in 2012’s Super Bowl XLVI, when the Patriots let New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw saunter into the end zone untouched, it was just one more audacious example of Belichick disrupting football convention.
Down two points with just over a minute to play and the ball inside the 10-yard line, the Giants had a 90 percent chance of converting a game-winning field goal that would leave precious little time for a Patriots’ response. Instead, Belichick let New York score immediately in order to give his prize pupil, quarterback Tom Brady, time to manufacture a game-winning touchdown drive. The move was unprecedented — at least in Super Bowl play. One minute after Belichick issued that risky order, the Patriots learned that the “right” move can still get you whacked. The Giants defense thwarted Brady and his offense, upending New England’s undefeated season. Nonetheless, a precedent was set.
This tactic is gaining traction, specifically at the collegiate level where high-tempo spread offenses can race back up the field. NFL coaches have been slower to adopt the seemingly twisted psychology, mainly because professional defenses are more potent and, even with a world-class quarterback like Brady, marching down the length of the field is a brutal task. None of that stopped Pittsburgh this past November, though. The Steelers allowed Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott to score with 1:44 to play. Pittsburgh responded with a potentially game-winning touchdown, only to be outdone by a second, contested Elliott touchdown with 0:09 on the clock. Alas, the team that can’t beat Belichick ended up sharing the hoodied Enigma’s fate when it copied his strategy.
“Bill is most definitely a tone-setter.”
Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich has been a staple of New England’s defense since 2009. Unlike some now former Patriots — like middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who found himself on the unemployment line after questioning Belichick’s failed gamble against the Giants — Ninkovich understands that the power structure in New England is thoughtfully designed. “Things happen so fast during the game that you just get the call [from the coach] and do it to the best of your ability,” he tells OZY.
Belichick’s culture of sustained excellence, dually rooted in loyalty and fierce exploitation for the greater good, is why Patriots lifers are so quick to fall in line. Numerous late-round draft picks, like Brady and wide receiver Julian Edelman, have blossomed under Belichick’s tutelage, as have young entry-level assistants whom Belichick grooms with delight. Current defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are prime examples, becoming Belichick’s most trusted henchmen — and visionaries in their own right — after more than a decade of service. But, in the same manner that he annually finds new loopholes to exploit in the NFL rule book, Belichick is incredibly quick to can suboptimal performers. “It doesn’t matter what round you were drafted; if you’re not doing your job you won’t be here,” Ninkovich tells OZY. “If a free agent can do better than the first-round pick, he’ll get the job.”
If a change needs to be made, [Belichick will] change the plan the night before a game. That’s how they keep everyone on their toes.
Tedy Bruschi, former Patriots linebacker
Every expansive kingdom generates adversarial imitators. As Belichick’s coaching tree spreads throughout the NFL, his second-hand insights are soaked up by rising contenders. Coaches have no problem expropriating proven tactics like offensive misdirection or his militaristic approach, but a coach’s mettle is tested when deciding whether to intentionally allow an opponent to score. Belichick was the first coach to embrace the statistical benefit of this strategy, but the situation is so specific that it rarely arises. When confronted, most less-established coaches choose the safer — albeit misguided — route of goal-line defense. For the trend to truly take hold in the NFL, Belichick or another respected coach will have to successfully execute the tactic on a big stage. Who knows, perhaps Super Bowl LI will spark that change.
According to three-time champion and former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, Belichick is no stranger to Super Bowl tinkering. While preparing to face St. Louis’ speedy receiving corps in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, the Patriots’ defense spent all week practicing against scout teamers who were lined up three yards offside. “Everything he does is organic,” Bruschi tells OZY. “If a change needs to be made, he’ll change the plan the night before a game. That’s how they keep everyone on their toes.”
If it’s up to Dan Quinn, Atlanta’s second-year head coach (and the former Seattle defensive coordinator whom New England bested two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX), the title game will come down to intangibles. “There’s nothing that we can do to offset their experience,” Quinn told OZY this week in Houston. “What we will focus on is our attitude, our mindset, our toughness.”
Unfortunately for Quinn, many hard-nosed bulls have been goaded by New England’s most famous matador. If Super Bowl LI is contested late, watch for Belichick to wave his red cape. Whatever the ploy, it will be cool, calculated — and eventually copied across the league.