Sports & Recreation
September 11, 2018
One of the best books I read in 2018. One of the best books about football. One of the best books about leadership. I am going to hold on to this one for a long time and break it out in 5 years when my daughter is ready to coach her first field hockey team.
Lombardi has found himself in unique positions with some of the greatest minds in football. He shares insights from Bill Walsh, Al Davis, and Bill Belichik.He provides a blueprint for building a championship organization. He gets into the details from personnel to practice to game-day decisions that win titles,
Gridiron Genius explains how to evaluate, acquire, and utilize personnel. Lombardi explains how the smartest leaders script everything: from an afternoon's special-teams practice to a season's playoff run to a decade-long organizational blueprint.
To make sure he was valued properly and might fit into our schemes. Our grades, which were closely monitored by Jim Schwartz, deviated from other systems, which graded players as starters and backups. Mike and Jim categorized nonstarters into roles, and three-down players were valued more highly than first- and second-down “starters.” Also, special teams players had real value in this system.
He is a five-tool leader, adept at strategy, tactics, preparation, execution, and what you might call situational intuition, the rare ability to know which among the first four is required and when.
Champions behave like champions before they’re champions. —BILL WALSH
Walsh first changed the course of NFL history with his invention of the West Coast offense. His intricate evolution of the passing game was built around precise timing and movement. It attacked the defense by stretching the field horizontally with short passes that served almost like handoffs, getting the ball to playmakers just as they reached top speed in open spaces.
Walsh took over a team with no high draft picks, no quarterback, and no hope. Three years later, that team won the Super Bowl. It got there by following Walsh’s formula, what he called his Standard of Performance: an exacting plan for constructing and maintaining the culture and organizational DNA behind the perfect football franchise.
His obsession with perfection meant he constantly pushed his people, regardless of experience or position in the organization, to learn more.
He was trying to build a lasting, self-perpetuating culture to counter the groupthink that was then pervasive in the NFL and still is today.
Walsh began an impromptu dissertation on the merits of In Search of Excellence, the book that Peters, a famed management consultant, wrote with Bob Waterman.
In the book, Peters and Waterman offer a list of eight attributes that drive organizations to become excellent. The similarities to Walsh’s Standard of Performance were no coincidence. Walsh himself said, “Running a football franchise is not unlike running any other business: You start first with a structural format and underlying philosophy, then find people who can implement it.”
Walsh’s mind never turned off, and writing things down seemed to be the best method he had to catalog his thoughts. He used 3-by-5 index cards and short sharp pencils like the ones golfers keep score with, and when he wasn’t doodling, he made lists of things that needed to get done in an elegant left-handed handwriting that was part cursive, part print.
Walsh, by the way, liked to say that whereas Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott had character, Hacksaw was a character.
Walsh honed his Standard of Performance,
Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement. Demonstrate respect for each person in the organization. Be deeply committed to learning and teaching. Be fair. Demonstrate character. Honor the direct connection between details and improvement; relentlessly seek the latter. Show self-control, especially under pressure. Demonstrate and prize loyalty. Use positive language and have a positive attitude. Take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort. Be willing to go the extra distance for the organization. Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation. Promote internal communication that is both open and substantive. Seek poise in myself and those I lead. Put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own. Maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high. Make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark. The Standard of Performance was Walsh’s attempt to instill a winning attitude in every member of his organization. In fact, as he admitted in his book The Score Takes Care of Itself, he was far more focused on the process of creating a culture, of establishing a foundation for sustainable success, than in drawing up the perfect game plan.
It was the compass that guided everything he oversaw—coaching, scouting, management—allowing him to transform the 49ers from a laughingstock to a powerhouse in fewer than 1,000 days.
Peter Drucker: “Culture can eat strategy for lunch.”
if he managed to perfect the culture, the wins would take care of themselves.
Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic. Work smarter, he said, not longer. He wanted us to see players not as a collection of data and stats but in the context of the schemes they ran. To Walsh, grading a player without understanding the role coaches were asking him to fill was not only scouting blindly, it was just plain lazy. We needed to scout “inside out, not outside in”; that is, our analysis had to be informed by a detailed understanding of each position on the field as defined by each particular organization and scheme.
He hired guys who were intelligent before they were anything else, guys who were not typical products of the football industry.
Walsh wanted men he could mold and develop. He firmly believed that coaches with too much experience in other systems would have a hard time clearing their heads of old ideas to make room for new ones.
Walsh was a big believer in the business and leadership philosophies of Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, whom the author Tom Peters often referenced in his speeches. “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind,” Hock said. “But how to get old ones out.”
You can’t cook up a success unless you have created the right culture.
As I studied former Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, I had my Jerry Maguire epiphany: Coaches are first and foremost great leaders. Good coaches may be clever play callers or demanding drill sergeants or organized middle managers. But in the ultimate team sport, real success doesn’t depend on tactics or discipline or order. It always comes down to how well a coach leads. I substituted the word leader for coach, and my research was transformed. I needed to define what made a great leader. I immediately turned to the works of Tom Peters and Warren Bennis, the management gurus we studied during my days with the 49ers.
COMMAND OF THE ROOM Followers need something to commit to. Great leaders know how to grab a team’s attention and then show them what they’re all fighting for. As Belichick says, “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes but no plans.” You can’t buy into a plan unless one is laid out clearly and plainly for the entire franchise.
He cared only about what was ahead and how to move forward with a collective blueprint that gave them the best chance of victory.
COMMAND OF THE MESSAGE
Players can’t accomplish anything unless they can visualize the path.
COMMAND OF SELF
Personal accountability is the ultimate sign of strength. When a leader admits mistakes, it shows the team that he expects as much from himself as he does from his players.
He never asks players or staff to do more than he’s willing to do.
In his play Antigone, Sophocles sums it up best: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”
Walsh most definitely had an ego; he did not deny the “genius” label that others gave him. He loved attention, but it never clouded his vision for the franchise. Likewise, few in football have ever managed their egos the way Belichick has. He is not worried about where an idea comes from; he cares only about whether it makes the team better. He knows that as the man running the organization he’s going to get the credit by default, so he makes sure to spread it around. That’s a rare thing in the NFL.
Command of self means sharing the blame and the credit alike, and this offers the advantage of allowing Belichick to step in at crunch time and say, “We did it your way, and it didn’t work—now we’re going to do it my way.”
COMMAND OF OPPORTUNITY
The difference people perceive is not with Belichick but with the owner. In New England, Robert Kraft approved of, even demanded, a culture change and gave Belichick nearly total control of football operations to achieve it. In Cleveland, Modell was both a meddler and a steadfast proponent of the status quo.
I found myself circling back to Marv Levy, another example of a coach who overcame failure to grow and improve as a leader.
But four years later, when Bill Polian became the Buffalo Bills’ general manager, he looked past Levy’s one bad year and hired his old friend (from their days in the USFL with the Chicago Blitz) at midseason.
Becoming an NFL head coach is a process. You learn on the fly. It’s a lot like the advice the late, great Glenn Frey, front man for the Eagles, once got about songwriting from Bob Seger. The veteran Detroit rocker told Frey that to make it in the music business he would have to write his own songs. “What if they’re bad?” Frey asked. “Oh, of course they’re bad; just keep writing until they’re good,” Seger told him. That’s what being a first-time NFL head coach is like. It is more than likely you’re going to be bad at it. You just have to keep working at it until you get good and pray that you don’t end up a one-hit wonder.
COMMAND OF THE PROCESS
Every move a leader makes is analyzed by the team, and any one of them can have far-reaching consequences.
When rules don’t apply to everyone, the ensuing chaos collapses whatever foundation a leader has tried so hard to build.
Section 1 featured the background and a summary page for every successful coach currently working in the NFL: Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Jimmy Johnson, Marv Levy, Bobby Ross, Marty Schottenheimer, and George Seifert. At the end of the section was an introduction to my tenets of coaching leadership.
Section 2 dealt with out-of-the-game coaches who might be available for hire. This featured a breakdown of their skill sets as well as a section called “If You Hire This Guy…” that described what things would be like working with that coach: how he operated, how he treated his staff and players, how driven he was.
I included a section with specific questions to ask during any potential interviews (see this page). This chapter had Bill Parcells, Jim Mora Sr., Denny Green, Dan Reeves, and Mike Ditka, with the prospects ranked in order of who I would recommend, starting with Parcells.
Section 3 featured current coordinators who displayed the leadership qualities I laid out in the first section. My guys (and in my ordered ranking): Chan Gailey, Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive coordinator; Emmitt Thomas, Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator; Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator; Pete Carroll, 49ers’ defensive coordinator; Vic Fangio, New Orleans Saints’ defensive coordinator; Sherman Lewis, Packers’ offensive coordinator; Bill Belichick, Giants’ assistant head coach; Jon Gruden, Eagles’ offensive coordinator; and Cam Cameron, Washington’s quarterback coach.
Section 4 covered college coaches and focused on Michigan State’s Nick Saban, Northwestern’s Gary Barnett, Florida’s Steve Spurrier, Miami’s Butch Davis, and Cal’s Steve Mariucci. Most of my recommendations in this section included a caveat. Because I hadn’t worked with most of those guys, I’d need to interview them before I could give them the full Lombardi stamp of approval.
Section 5 was devoted to organizational structures of successful NFL teams. It was a not-so-subtle message to the Rams’ brain trust: This is how winning franchises operate.
Section 6 was my gratis breakdown of the Rams roster and how Shaw should tweak it if he wanted to win.
Section 7 was my official recommendations. I graded my top choices in all the leadership areas and offered examples to illustrate my assessments. I explained that any candidate who wasn’t strong in these pillars simply didn’t make the final list.
Many head coaching candidates come to their interviews with a huge notebook filled with a season’s worth of practice sessions. I don’t understand why this is perceived as a selling point, but I know how it became one. Blame it on Mike Holmgren’s former teaching colleague Bob LaMonte, who quit his school job and began to represent Holmgren in 1992 after he became head coach of the Packers.
Andy Reid, now the head coach of the Chiefs, was an early LaMonte success story, hitting the ground running in his first head job with the Eagles even though he had never even been an NFL coordinator.
WHAT TO ASK AN NFL HEAD COACH CANDIDATE
PHILOSOPHY (GENERAL) Offense Defense Kicking game Player development Player procurement
OFF-SEASON What kind of program? Define it: Goals and objectives? Fat guys: How are you handling them? What are your mandatory lifts? What schedule do you adhere to? Coaches’ involvement? Individual player development: How and why we train? OTA [organized team activity] days What is the objective of these? Team or individual? Minicamps Objective: Team or individual? What is the emphasis? What players are to take part? Is it a veteran-based camp or a player-development camp? Meals: What do we want to pay for? Which meals? Incentive clauses in contracts Mandatory? How much do we pay? What will the housing situation be like? Rehab of injured reserve players Plan? Where and when does it start? Clearing of players: Who will make this choice?
TRAINING CAMP Philosophy Schedules Meetings Objectives Players who fail physical : How do we handle them ? Rules different for them ? Count on the 80 – man roster ? Breaking of team rules : Fines or waived ? Veteran workdays : Different ? Conditioning of team : Two – minute drill run or what ? If failed , what is the punishment ? Practice for players that are not in condition ? Treatment of players ? Deal with major injuries to starters ? Do we stay at home or go away ? Meals : Who sets the menu ? What extent do we spend ? Fan access ? Media access ? Family members ’ access ? Coaches ’ kids ball boys ? College coaches ? Give out any information to visitors ? Scrimmage philosophy : With another team ? With our team ? Contact ? How much ? Player development days ? How much padded work ? Player personnel movement in training camp Work roster ? Improve the eightieth man ? What do you want ? Move players ’ positions around during camp ? Put players in right spot ? Depth chart evaluation : Who plays where ? Do we reward practice or games ? Personnel meetings and evaluations ? Retired players at camp ? How do we treat that with other players ? Preparation for opener in terms of personnel ? Preseason games Philosophy : Offense Defense Kicking game How do we travel ? Who goes ? Who stays behind ? If not playing , then go ? Kind of plane ? Reps of veterans , reps of rookies ? Schedule of game day , schedule of the day before the game ? How do we handle injuries ? Who cuts the players ? Coaches talk to players cut ?
REGULAR SEASON Philosophy of the week What do you want from the pro personnel department ? Scouting reports Meetings with director ? Matchup notes Weekly workouts Emergency list Practice squad philosophy : For reps or player development ? After – practice schedule for practice squad ? Young player workout ? Who will work with them ? Weekly schedule Players Coaches Players who miss one day of practice , or two , or three , or on injured reserve Team meetings versus individual meetings Holiday schedules Bye week schedule Player discipline Philosophy How do we handle : Weight problems ? Sleeping in meetings ? Missing meetings ? Travel Dress code ? Kind of plane ? When do we leave ? Who makes the trip ? Job at the game ? Do they come ? No job at the game ? Do they come ? Return policy : Can players stay in the town ? Dress for return ? Airport bars ? Curfew on trips ? Hotel rooms : Singles for players ? Pay own or club ? In city or out ? Isolated part of town ? Movies in the room ? Who is allowed in meals ? Family rates ? Friend rates ? Security on floor ? Room check ? Who gets suites ? Two – day philosophy and one – day philosophy ? Buses : Who rides them ? How many do you want ? Taxi for players ? Mandatory for buses ? Monday Night game away ? Planes : Coaches in with players ? Players ’ seats ? What beverages are allowed on the plane ? Boosters on plane ?
COACHES AND SUPPORT STAFF What is your role on game day : Calling plays , game management , or both ? Instant replay : Whose responsibility ? Rules : Game day and during the week ? Time – outs ? Personnel ? Special teams decisions : You or coaches ? Onside kicks : What is the primary option call ? End – of – the – game play : Do you have one ? Fourth – down calls ? Who has final say , you or coordinator ? Handling officials ? Report to the NFL office : Who ? Conduct on the sideline ? Who is allowed to be there ? Where should coordinators sit ? Pregame talk ? Who decides on who gets introduced ? Leave to PR ? Halftime talk ? Locker room access ? Video of game ? Handling of the computer printouts ? Media after game : How much time after game ? What staff members can talk to media ? Briefing before meeting the media : Who ? Radio show ? Any one – on – one media commitments ? Assistant coaches Do you have candidates for offensive , defensive , and special team coordinator ? Who calls plays ? Will you have overruling power ? Who are your candidates for offensive and defensive line coaches ? Your choice or coordinator’s ? Who will decide on the staff once the coordinators are picked ? Salary of staff ? Your call or GM’s ? Years of contracts ? Rollovers ? How many staff members ? Secretary or assistant ? What kind of people are you looking for ? What kinds of personalities are you looking for ? Level of experience ? Friends ? Do you need to have known them ? Film breakdown coaches ? Who coaches the younger players ? Evaluation of staff : Do you welcome any input ? Off – season role for assistant coaches : What do they work on ? Trends ? Visit other places ? Evaluation of own team : Draft role ? UFA [ undrafted free agent ] role ? Media responsibility for assistant coaches : Can they talk ? When and to whom ? Reporting process : How will it work ? Player personnel staff How do we work the roster ? Players 46 – 58 : Who controls them ? What day is a workout day for emergency list ? Training staff Who will handle their schedule ? Vacation time ? Who handles the players before camp — July ? What needs do you have ? Treatment of players : Schedule of times ? Home treatment ? Players getting operated on : Who handles them ? What do we send to them in the hospital ? Rehab in season : Who handles ? Rehab out of season : Who handles ? Medical meetings ? When ? Who is involved ? Who has final say on who is cleared to play ? Medical definitions of injuries ? Out – of – town second opinions ? View on second doctor doing the operations ? Weight coach involved in rehab ? How many trainers at camp ? How many team medical people are involved ? View on massage and rub – down people ? Who pays : Players or team ? Dietary experts : Who handles ? Equipment personnel Who will handle their schedule ? What needs do you have for them ? Who assigns jersey numbers ? Needs for players ? Shoes ? Equipment deals ? Game role in pregame , postgame ? Travel : Extra people ? Locker access : All allowed ?
ORGANIZATION Free agency Coaches involved ? Who will recruit them ? Pro board or coaches ’ board ? Salary cap knowledge : Coaches know numbers ? Can agents call coaches ? Can players ? Projects Coaches ’ schedule in off – season ? What do they work on , not personnel – related ? Trends ? Vacation time ? Owners meetings ? College draft How much involved ? Philosophy of draft : Aggressive , team needs ? Best player ? Coach reports : Grades ? Coaches work out players ? Coaches in draft room ? Indy Combine ? Interview of players ? Who comes in to visit ? Our 20 – players list ? College free agents : Who sets that list ? Who recruits ?
If someone needed to be critical of a player’s talent, he was to keep it professional. Stay clean and to the point, and don’t denigrate. Words such as sucks or blows had no part in a report. “It’s our job to find talent, not dismiss it,” he told me. His dignified single-mindedness led us to work harder than ever that spring.
The game of football might be ruled by perfectionists, but at its core, success in the NFL comes down to managing the maddening, inexact science of talent evaluation and team building. And when it comes to predicting human performance on a football field, the only thing for certain is that nothing is ever for certain.
Both Davis and Walsh understood that digging deep into a draft pick’s background could be indispensably informative. For one thing, Davis believed that any player who demonstrated rare talent in high school needed to be considered carefully regardless of how he played in college. After all, his prep potential could have been squandered by poor coaching or a mismatch in talent and scheme.
Another background area that Davis taught Walsh to care about was track and field experience. Davis was forever on the lookout for 100-meter champions from states he deemed “fast,” such as California, Florida, Lousiana, and Texas. (Impressive times from places such as Minnesota didn’t carry the same weight because Davis assumed they were wind-aided.) Davis, by the way, also was obsessed with shot-putters, discus throwers, and state wrestling champs: athletes who displayed rare balance, great footwork, and explosive power.
If you ask me, Davis’s most important lesson in scouting was this: Focus on the level of competition. It seems obvious now, but Davis was one of the first to understand the huge variation of talent in college—from program to program and conference to conference—and how not being able to compare apples to apples could severely affect draft evaluations. Davis was drawn to players who were at their best against the best.
Confirmation bias, which holds that the human mind is just plain bad at seeing things it doesn’t expect to see and a bit too eager to see what it wants to.
Never begin with the end in mind.
Evaluators get caught up in groupthink, settle on an opinion about a prospect, and then arrange the evidence to support it, sometimes for years. Biases in scouting are the main reason many NFL teams fail to make substantial progress in the standings from one season to the next.
The second destructive form of bias we see all the time in NFL team building is “scouting blinders”: whenever drafted players are kept around long after it has become obvious that the evaluation that got them where they are was dead wrong.
Love is blind in most NFL front offices, and the destruction caused by it gets compounded when the object of affection is the leader of the team. You can’t bullshit an NFL locker room. Everybody on every team knows who the good players are, who the bad players are, and who the team’s favorite (a.k.a. untouchable) players are. The best teams force players to prove their value. They don’t give—or save—jobs on the basis of draft status. As a result, when a head coach stands in front of his team and supports a player—quarterback or otherwise—who doesn’t deserve it, the rest of the players are almost assuredly mumbling their doubts under their breath to one another, and this lack of integrity and transparency erodes team chemistry faster than anything else in the game.
Nate Silver’s popular website FiveThirtyEight has calculated the success ratio of every position in every round. Drafting a quarterback in the first two rounds has less than a 50 percent chance of succeeding, and with each round those odds dwindle. Overall, the chances of finding a franchise quarterback in any round is closer to 40 percent.
Making matters worse, bias-affected decisions inevitably snowball into a series of poor decisions that can bring down an entire team.
Character assessment is by far the hardest challenge for team builders. More than any other factor, inaccurate character assessment is why draft boards are to this day littered with so many mistakes. That’s never going to change, either, because there are so many variables involved. For starters, let’s be honest, there’s a sliding scale of morality in the NFL (as in every industry), in which the more talented an employee is, the more he can get away with.
Belichick has established such a strong locker room chemistry that he can take risks on players with questionable character because he knows they will be policed by their new teammates.
But if he has “football” character—he practices hard, knows his assignments, isn’t a disruptive force in the locker room, and plays hurt—that’s far more important even if no one in the NFL would be caught dead admitting it.
Character can be assessed only face-to-face.
Of course, there is no ignoring Lewis’s subsequent connection to two stabbing deaths.
It was Moss who helped teach Belichick how to see the downfield passing game from a player’s standpoint, how the routes looked on the field in three dimensions, not just as a circle and lines on the blackboard.
Most of all, Moss displayed another Belichick staple: mental toughness, which the Patriots define as “doing what is best for the team when it might not be best for you.”
In New England, Moss was a “program guy”: someone who works hard, is a supportive teammate, and cares deeply about winning. In other words, someone with football character.
Finding the real truth about a player’s character can be done only with feet on the ground.
Whether the Patriots season ends with a Super Bowl parade or a first-round loss, Belichick’s off-season approach to building his next team is always the same and always masterful. Every tactical assumption and roster decision made during the previous season is fair game. No one is grandfathered onto the next year’s team—not for draft status, not for financial commitment. Year after year, roster spots are earned.
The autopsy begins. Every facet of the organization is probed, examined, and challenged as he looks for ways to improve the team. Belichick’s off-season team-building meetings are probably better run than most Fortune 500 board meetings. They start with each positional assistant assessing each player in his unit: strong and weak points, relevant medical history, projected role for the upcoming season and beyond. The conversation eventually comes around to developing a plan specifically tailored to help each player get better. Off-season roster planning in New England always includes figuring out how to tweak the ways we teach our lessons. Like his mom and dad before him, at his core Belichick is a teacher and believes strongly in the idea of “taking the lessons from the meeting room to the classroom to the field.”
That’s another one of Belichick’s secrets: He can connect emotionally with players as a coach in a way that extracts their very best on the field, but then he can go upstairs, put his GM hat on, and make cold-blooded financial decisions regarding that same player without so much as a second thought.
He encourages everyone to have an opinion as long as there is data, insight, or experience to support it. No one dares to operate by the seat of his pants for fear of being called out by the boss. In essence, Belichick’s open and transparent process at the beginning of each off-season helps remove personal biases so that the room can reach clean conclusions on how to spend the rest of the off-season. The autopsy also covers the more ephemeral aspects of team building, such as attitude, relationships, and chemistry.
Belichick takes all the information from the initial off-season meetings and synthesizes it into three lists—for offense, defense, and special teams—prioritizing the most deficient positions in each unit. Then we spend the rest of the spring and summer fixing those problem spots.
Every team has a need list. What makes Belichick’s different is that it is a living, changeable document. He revisits it constantly throughout the year, alone and with staff.
Walsh believed that a team needed to make at least 10 postdraft moves. (No one knows how he came up with 10 as his magic number, but it would be easy to surmise that he wanted to add one upgrade to each position group except quarterback.) Belichick thinks of NFL team building the same way: as a never-ending process. Needs change as injuries arise and skill levels evolve. To ignore that is to fall behind.
Contentment is the enemy.
Draft rule corollary: Know the objective of every trade. In this case, time trumped value.
One of the things that shows how Walsh and Belichick operate on a different level than the rest of the NFL is the way both coaches understand the value of trading down. If everyone in the NFL is missing on nearly half their draft picks, the only way to increase your odds is to make more picks, especially in the second to fourth rounds, where you generally find the best values (cost versus talent). It’s simple math, but it’s amazing how few NFL minds understand it.
To Belichick, special teams are the heart and soul of a team, the ideal way to establish culture, chemistry, and toughness and develop the talent of the entire roster.
A study done by Angela Duckworth for her book Grit found that the factor most predictive of whether a pledge will endure at West Point is mental toughness.
If players can fight past exhaustion, if they can focus when they’re completely drained, well, that’s mental toughness. It’s easier to commit penalties when you’re exhausted and easier to take a play off, too.
Covering kicks is a show of bravery that eliminates the weak.
If you want to determine a player’s mental toughness, ask him to help out on kickoffs and punts.
Emphasizing special teams toughness helps instill an “all-in” vibe up and down the roster.
Here’s what separates the most subtle football thinkers from the rest: They know that special teams account for nearly 20 percent of all plays during a game, and they’re not willing to forgo the chance to gain an advantage over an opponent in one-fifth of the available opportunities.
Guys like Belichick, though, believe firmly that an “all-in” culture is an essential piece of the championship equation and that special teams are the fastest path to it.
All-in teams are in fact a bit like tornadoes: disparate energies that band together into a single destructive force that cuts down everything in its path. The greatest example of this concept is the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Coach Herb Brooks didn’t collect the best hockey players in America for his squad. Rather, he found the right players. To help put together the roster, Brooks, a psychology major, gave each prospect a lengthy test in which he was looking for high scores in three areas: open-mindedness, willingness to learn, and coachability. He felt those interrelated qualities would allow him to build a team that could overcome the large talent gap it would confront as college kids playing against the best teams from around the globe.
That Soviet team was the best hockey team in history, but Brooks beat it with a bench full of misfits and maybe the greatest all-in culture ever created.
So when a head coach like Belichick makes special teams a priority, treating these mostly unknown and underpaid players with the same respect as the All-Pros on offense and defense (and sometimes with more), it’s a powerful message about trust and accountability that resonates with all 53 men in the locker room.
NFL players are still helpless before the power of the T-shirt. To help create the culture he wanted in Cleveland, Belichick gave the special teams a nickname, the Strike Force, and each week rewarded top achievers with a brown shirt that proclaimed “Strike Force Champion” across the chest. The top performer got a leather jacket. From high school to college to the pros, locker rooms don’t change. Sure, NFLers own expensive cars and thick financial portfolios. It doesn’t matter; competitive sorts aren’t about to let the opportunity to snag a free shirt pass. In fact, stars might covet those shirts most of all.
What Walsh knew better than anyone in the game was that the key to success in the passing era of the NFL was to marry the right quarterback to the right scheme. (It’s much harder than it sounds, trust me.)
In a story Walsh repeated many times, including in his posthumous book The Score Takes Care of Itself, the inspiration for his West Coast offense was the Bengals quarterback Virgil Carter.
The West Coast offense is chess, and it requires a quarterback who can instantly react, without thinking, to any of the dozen or so twists and disguises a defense throws at him before and after the snap.
Walsh let the rest of the football world focus on a quarterback’s arm. He was focused on the feet.
Quick feet, quick arm. Balanced feet, balanced arm. Coordinated feet, coordinated attack.
Every play in Walsh’s offense was designed around precise timing. All routes were synchronized such that as the quarterback hit his third (or fifth) step, the ball would be out of his hand and on to a ball catcher.
Walsh’s passing game was essentially the triangle on turf.
When you break down any of the fundamental plays of the West Coast offense, the same geometric shape forms inside the defense: a triangle.
The formation means the West Coast quarterback is never looking at a particular receiver. Rather, he looks toward the apex of the triangle and then decides where the ball should go, depending on the coverage or the spacing.
Spacing, timing, and rhythm.
Walsh pored over the old tapes of teams coached by Clark Shaughnessy, a longtime college mainstay and a big believer in the T formation—quarterback behind center, two running backs spread perpendicularly behind him—finding them intriguing even though there were few forward passes in any of them. Rather, he watched for the blocking schemes, which set off offensive linemen at angles to defenders instead of having them face the rush head-on. Those side blocks made it easier for less talented players to seal off defenders while providing a more unobstructed path for the back to follow. Many disparaged the West Coast offense as more finesse than power, partially because angle blocks outnumbered drive blocks. But helping players get an edge is not finesse; it’s just smart. Similarly, with the old T formation, the ball handling confused the linebackers, as they watched the ball instead of the blocking scheme, causing them to be slightly out of position.
Defenses always set their fronts and coverage packages against the strength of the offense—that is, the side on which the tight end lines up.
Walsh was the first NFL coach to foresee the paradigm shift on offense and how the run one day would become more about preserving the lead than establishing
The best thing an offense can do for its quarterback is throw on traditional run downs so that the QB doesn’t have to deal with obvious passing situations. Throwing the ball makes running the ball easier, and that’s how Walsh succeeded with the Bengals.
Quarterbacks have to be slipped into systems that best feature their skills. Very, very few players can make a bad fit work. Too often, though, teams think that the player makes the system rather than the other way around.
Walsh and his West Coast offense have proved that’s just not how it works.
“7 QB Qualities” that, though not foolproof, have helped me formalize my beliefs on the quarterback evaluation process.
- A WINNING WAY “Winning is a habit,” Vince Lombardi said. “Unfortunately, so is losing.” Bill Parcells’s golden rule was to draft prospects with at least 23 wins in college.
Trubisky started only one year at North Carolina, and his numbers caved against top-25 competition. Let’s look at his yards per attempt in particular. This statistic is telling because it is a representation of what a quarterback is seeing and where he is looking. It’s an eye-level test. Higher yards per attempt—say, 7.5 or better—indicate a quarterback who is looking long, looking for big plays. Lower numbers indicate a quarterback who may be too concerned about being hit or is playing it safe and thus takes the quickest completion.
Deshaun Watson, drafted the same year as Trubisky, averaged 7.7 yards per attempt when his team was ahead and 9.4 when it was down. In other words, he turned up the heat when his team needed it the most, when it was time to catch up.
2. A THICK SKIN “The measure of who we are is how we react to something that does not go our way,” says San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.
If past performance is the best indicator of future achievement, those who have fought through bad times are likely to be able to do so again.
3. WORK ETHIC “Your best player has to set a tone for intolerance for anything that gets in the way of winning,” says NBA coach and TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
Taking care of your body is a pretty accurate indicator of commitment to the job. Being lazy gets in the way of winning.
Your star quarterback needs to be a gym rat, pure and simple—first at practice, last to leave.
No one does. Assuming you can change a guy is magical thinking.
4. FOOTBALL SMARTS Here’s the thing: Everyone watches game tape, but precious few benefit from it. Watching and studying are two different things. A quarterback who really studies tape will learn what the defense is trying to do. If he knows what he’s looking for, he also can note individual strengths and weaknesses as well as the particulars of the attack.
You need a great work ethic to study film long enough to build your football smarts.) But on Sunday that translates into wins.
Brady, like Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and a few others, knows that success on Sunday comes from time spent Monday through Saturday preparing yourself to think and play faster. A quick mind comes with preparation. You prepare so well that you don’t have to think; you just react. This is hard for young players, though, because they often enter the NFL with little or no understanding of what it means to study tape even though they obviously watch plenty of it in college. Don’t blame their coaches. Blame the time restrictions of the NCAA, not to mention classroom responsibilities. Today’s college offenses are controlled from the sidelines—every play, every audible. Quarterbacks never have to call anything.
NFL games aren’t just more complicated, they’re also faster, so how quickly a quarterback can process information and make decisions often makes the difference between winning and losing. And that processing can happen only if a quarterback is football smart.
5. INNATE ABILITY “Some quarterbacks are just born with such instincts and intuition,” Walsh wrote in his book Finding the Winning Edge.
6. CARRIAGE The University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, benches players—even stars—if he doesn’t like the way they are carrying themselves, correcting the problem before it subverts the team.
Quarterbacks have to inspire. And if they can’t always do it with pinpoint throws and blitz-facing courage—everyone has a bad day—they can always look as if they have it all under control and that somehow they will figure out how to lead the team to victory. No one wants to follow a sulker.
7. LEADERSHIP Quarterbacks who fail to gain the respect of teammates leave a team rudderless.
Is his competitiveness contagious or overbearing? Are players willing to go to war with him? Does he command the huddle? Finding the truth isn’t easy. College
Belichick might not be much for change, but he’s a big believer in adaptation.
The NFL has a version of the run-pass option: Two plays are called in the huddle—one run, one pass—and the quarterback determines which to go with once he gets to the line and peruses the defensive formation.
In the Red 2, a corner was responsible for carrying a receiver for a distance before passing him to a safety and waiting for another receiver to enter his area and become his responsibility. What made the Red 2 so hard to learn—but nearly impossible to game-plan against—was that each week it could be tailored specifically to the opponent’s passing designs. One week the corner might carry a receiver for 10 yards through his “zone,” and the next week he might cover him for just 8. Depending on any number of factors—matchups, scores, personnel, speed, injuries—the parameters could and often would change.
More than anything, the goal was to make sure that the “run force” player (the defender who “forced” a rushing play in a certain direction) was never compromised. Setting an edge to contain an outside run and redirecting it inside toward the teeth of the defense had to be that defender’s primary focus, so much so that he needed to be free of the responsibility of handling pass plays, too. Whatever adjustments or sacrifices needed to occur in coverage schemes to make that happen, well, they just had to get done.
11 essential rules of good defense.
- THE DISGUISE IS AS IMPORTANT AS THE DEFENSE
At his peak as a defensive coordinator in the mid-1980s, with everyone watching and trying to reverse engineer his schemes, the tight-lipped Belichick convinced everyone that the New York Giants’ defense was nothing more than a 3-4 Cover 2, with no complexity to it.
Yes, the call was 3-4 Cover 2, but what the defense did out of it depended on the strengths and weaknesses of the particular opponent, not just from week to week but from play to play.
Belichick’s simplicity-first ruse on defense was inspired by Washington Redskins Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs was a masterful offensive tactician, with a scheme that featured a power running game that won three Super Bowls under three different quarterbacks, none of whom are household names. (Think about that next time you’re engaged in one of those best-football-coaches-of-all-time debates.) His offense appeared complex on first glance, but when Belichick broke it down, he found that it all could be reduced to 13 base plays (3 runs, 10 passes). Gibbs believed, as Belichick does, that repetition breeds execution.
Gibb’s playbook had 13 pages.
New plays don’t win consistently, he preached; using old plays in new ways does.
2. STUDYING AN OFFENSE IS THE FIRST STEP TOWARD STOPPING IT
Like chess champion Bobby Fischer, he wanted to know how he was going to be attacked.
To “own” an offense, first you have to know how it works. But incredibly, most teams misidentify what opponents do best because they don’t spend enough time studying them.
“Padding” the games was a job for young wannabe coaches. It took at least four or five hours to do a game, to make sure Belichick would have the exact details he needed in front of him. The notes on each play went far beyond just basic X’s and O’s. For starters, Belichick wants to know how, when, where, and why every player on the field moved during every play. He wants to know, for example, if there is a variation of even a couple of inches in the offensive line’s splits or if the quarterback likes to throw to his right or is especially deadly on out patterns.
Belichick believes that coaches who learn their craft by padding games are much better coaches on Sunday, even though the task is so labor-intensive that it basically requires them to go without sleep. It’s exhausting work, and Belichick knows it because he often padded games himself. But to him, learning every detail of how an offense plans to attack is far more valuable than rest.
3. DON’T COACH DEFENSE, TEACH IT “In a very real way,” Bill Walsh once wrote, “everything I did was teaching in some manner or other.” The truth is that at their core all good coaches are great teachers and communicators.
4. MAKE THE OFFENSE PLAY LEFT-HANDED This is a classic Belichick tactic: taking offenses out of their comfort zones by preventing them from doing what they do best.
Take away what the Colts do best, and force other players to step up. That’s making them play left-handed. (Belichick’s overall record against the Manning-led Colts? 12–8.)
Belichick takes away what the opposing team does best, but he also takes away what specific players do best. It’s a subtle but crucial difference. He personally breaks down every offensive player to understand his strengths within his team’s scheme. Then he moves around his defense’s talents to best serve the system he has created for the week.
5. TIMING IS EVERYTHING, SO DISRUPT YOUR OPPONENT’S
If the Colts’ record-setting offense is based on timing between the quarterback and the receivers, the easiest way to defend it is to throw a wrench into that intricate mechanism. Belichick did it through the art of rerouting: hitting a receiver on his route to alter his prescribed direction. Rerouting is not holding or interference; it’s a stab or a push intended to momentarily disrupt—and effectively blow up—the precise timing of a pass play.
A little messed-up timing plus an onrushing linebacker meant big trouble for the offense, plain and simple.
6. DEFUSE EXPLOSIVE PLAYS
If we couldn’t make them play left-handed, we could do the next best thing: take away their big play potential with sure tackling and an awareness of where their chunk plays came from. Most NFL teams convert about 35 percent of their third downs, and that’s not going to get you down the field. A drive is far more likely to end up putting points on the board if it includes at least one run or pass of more than 20 yards. When coaches talk about a game or an entire season coming down to just a handful of key plays, this is what they’re talking about.
7. REMEMBER NEWTON’S SECOND LAW
Belichick prefers to work with few checks and adjustments because above all he wants his defense playing fast. He wants them doing, not wondering what to do. He wants them reacting, not thinking. He hates mistakes, but if they happen, he wants them to happen while his defense is going 110 miles per hour.
Defensive team speed starts with the middle linebacker, the Mike. He is the quarterback of the defense and needs to be both mentally and physically fast. He is the one responsible for calling the defenses and getting everyone positioned correctly before the snap. But he is also the one who dictates the tempo. A Mike who can get from sideline to sideline in the run game and fulfill coverage or attacking assignments in the pass game keeps a team moving apace.
Show me a fast-thinking, fast-moving defense and I will show you harder hits, more balls on the ground, and—all other things being equal—more wins.
8. THINK PRESSURE FIRST, SACKS SECOND
Vince Lombardi once said, “Blitzing is a form of weakness.”
To this day there is nothing more powerful than a defense that can bring adequate pressure with a four-man front. When you can create pressure with just four players, that means you can flood passing zones with the remaining seven defenders, which makes a quarterback feel like he’s facing a 13-man defense.
Only now the goal of blitz pressure isn’t to sack the quarterback; it’s to make him throw the ball prematurely and under duress. Forcing a quarterback to throw the ball “hot” is a huge win for the defense, especially on third down, because it will force a receiver to catch the ball short of the sticks and get the defense off the field.
In today’s pass-first football, pressure matters more than sacks do, as long as it’s strategic. What does it mean to be strategic with pressure? Simply put, it means to run the blitz that will attack the pass protection most effectively and give you the greatest chance to get a defender to the passer unblocked.
On TV you can hear the sideline microphones pick up a quarterback in passing situations screaming at his line, making sure they know where the Mike backer is. That’s because most pass protections designate a specific player—the running back or one of the linemen—to block the blitzer. The “point out” isolates the focal point of the defense, and all blocking schemes and responsibilities stem from that identification.
One way to be strategic with pressure is to save something for the second half of the game.
Time your blitzes for maximum impact while keeping a quarterback under constant pressure, and sooner or later he’ll crack.
9. ELIMINATE FOUR-POINT PLAYS
Analytics will tell you that the outcome of a third down in the red zone can swing the score by four points, and you don’t have to be a math whiz to see how. If a team holds an opponent on third down in the red zone, it takes the prospect of a touchdown largely off the table, leaving the offense to settle for three—a difference of four points.
“Force them to take small, harmless gains in the red zone,” Belichick often told his defense, “and they will get impatient and make a mistake.” Then we counterpunch.
Quarterback movement is a killer for a third-down defense because once the guy gets out of the pocket, all hell breaks loose. Think back to when you played touch football in the backyard. If you are covering a receiver, once the pass rusher yells his fifth Mississippi, the play becomes something else entirely. The quarterback scrambles, the receivers break their routes to get open, and chaos reigns.
This is why in Belichick’s scheme, defensive ends don’t have nearly as much freedom as they would like in any part of the field but especially in the red zone.
Letting a quarterback convert a third down in the red zone with his feet absolutely breaks a defense’s back.
10. GAMES ARE WON OR LOST IN THE FINAL FOUR MINUTES—OF THE FIRST HALF
To this day, when the Patriots win a coin toss, they often defer possession to the second half.
It’s a pretty ingenious tactical maneuver. All those years of facing Peyton Manning taught Belichick a great deal, but most specifically they taught him that the best plan on defense is to keep the offense on the bench.
Belichick actually built an entire game management theory around this simple realization. If the Patriots could manage a drive at the end of the first half and another at the beginning of the second, that would keep the opposing offense off the field for almost an hour of real time. For a guy like Manning, that’s an eternity. No offense, no points.
No plays, no rhythm.
Belichick’s tactic usually tips the number of total possessions in the Patriots’ favor. In chess, the player with the white pieces goes first, and that extra move often gives him or her a slightly better chance to win the game.
At the start of the game, home fans are riled and loud. An away team that elects to receive has to deal with the crowd at its most rested and clear-throated.
At the start of the second half, though, the stadium has a different feel. Fans are still in the bathroom or on the concession lines, and the stands are half empty; it’s certainly not as intimidating as it is at the beginning. Visitors who have deferred receiving the
But the thing is that Belichick’s tactic pays off only if the receiving team in the second half ends the first half with the ball.
In basketball, coaches talk all the time about closing out quarters, but in football, the concept doesn’t garner much attention. Except from Belichick, who sees it is an opportunity to take over the game.
The ends of the halves are when those talented players rear their heads. For another thing, he knows that most offenses wait to take advantage of the way teams simplify their defensive calls in two-minute drills.
11. IF YOU’RE NOT TALKING, YOU’RE NOT WINNING
Once in New England, Belichick ripped all the numbers off the preseason practice jerseys. Everyone thought it was intended to confuse the media and other onlookers, but really it was to force the Patriots defenders to learn one another’s names and get used to talking during the play. Belichick always said that if you want to know how well a defense is working, just listen. Defenses succeed only if the players know the scheme. But they really thrive when the players are talking to one another on the field. When it comes to adjustments, reads, and coverages, everybody needs to be on the same page in the lead-up and in the moment.
Some lessons about playing defense are more painful than others.
Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. —MIKE TYSON
There is a delicate balance to a bye week. You need to give the players a chance to rest and recharge while making sure they are properly focused for the next game.
“Playing well with precise execution and avoiding mistakes will determine the winner,” he reminded the players, “not where the game is played.” He then made it clear that the holidays could not be a priority. He wanted his team focused on nothing but being the best they could be when next they hit the turf. “We can celebrate the new year some other time,” he said while staring right at Rob Gronkowski, a tight end known for his enthusiasm for partying. “Put everything in a back drawer for now. Focus on preparation. Nothing. Else. Matters.”
Mental mistakes, turnovers, an abandonment of fundamentals—these problems are hard to overcome in the regular season and nearly impossible to survive in the no-wiggle-room scenario of the playoffs.
Experience is not preparation.
Having previously participated in a playoff game means nothing.
The first thing I learned was that Belichick’s playoff game planning is informed by three things: (1) what his team does well (these things will require time to hone but not in-depth work), (2) what it doesn’t do well (these things will be the focus of practice), and (3) what he thinks it will take to win the playoffs in a particular year.
Winning the Conference Championship or the Super Bowl has been a result of great defense—simply put, keeping people from scoring: covering, rushing and tackling.
We had chances to put the game away early, but we failed to execute big plays and failed to convert pressure third downs, which would have allowed us to end up in scoring position.
MAKE PRACTICE AS COMPETITIVE AS WE CAN THIS WEEK. Playoffs are a different level of competition; our practices have to simulate the change.
We NEED to be better in the second half. WE NEED TO KEEP FINDING WAYS TO CREATE NEGATIVE PLAYS.
WHEN WE MAKE TEAMS PLAY LEFT HANDED, WE CAN WIN.
TACKLING DRILLS EVERY DAY.
EMPHASIS FOR PLAYOFF BYE
RED ZONE WINS—Teams that play well in the RZ during the playoffs win. We allowed Baltimore to be 4 for 4 the last time we played them in a Championship game.
SIMPLE GAME PLANS WIN—Players knowing what to do and doing it at a high tempo win. We must simplify and play without hesitation.
PRACTICE CRISP, FAST AND SHORTER—
This is a mainstay of the Belichick process: Practice execution becomes game-day reality. Unless we can make our practice cut blocks convincing, we won’t be prepared to defend the Ravens’ go-to running play.
The hallway leading to the team meeting room is decorated with portraits of the Patriot of the Week, an honor handpicked by Belichick and awarded after wins to the player who demonstrates selfless team-first behavior.
They are the last thing players pass as they head to the team meeting room each day.
The Ravens lead the NFL in hidden yards: yards that don’t make the stat sheet but have an impact on the game. The Patriots are so thorough that we even focus on things you can’t see. Stuff like a gunner on the punt team fighting through three blocks to down the ball at the 1 instead of letting it bounce into the end zone for a touchback. It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but that guy just saved the Ravens 19 yards in a game that will be determined by inches. Hidden yards.
Brady, like any quarterback, is far less effective when he’s taking a beating and fearing for his life.
In football, proper pad level—knees bent, ready to strike, whether blocking or getting off a block—is everything. Broken down to its simplest terms, football is a game of leverage, and when pad level is too high, players lose that leverage. When pad level is at the correct height, though, the leverage it allows gives a player control at the point of contact.
The last part of practice, the one called the “Opportunity Period,” in which development of our youngest and taxi squad players continues, even this late in the season.
Most teams don’t even consider this contingency. In fact, as the season progresses, most teams increasingly give all meaningful practice reps to their starters. (That’s what the Colts always did with Peyton Manning. When a TV announcer asked their offensive coordinator about it, he said if Manning ever went down, they were “fucked” and “we don’t practice fucked.”)
The Opportunity Period ensures that Garoppolo will be ready: maybe not Tom Brady–ready but more than ready enough.
The cafeteria sends a positive message to the players the same way companies such as Apple and Google pamper their employees with plush modern campuses. Some teams talk about being first-class; the Patriots are.
THURSDAY: TWO DAYS BEFORE KICKOFF Today is Gotta Have It Day.
“The Ravens gotta have it, so who is getting the ball?” he asks. A few faint votes for Owen Daniels echo in the dark room, and Belichick confirms, “Right, when they need a play, it’s going to be Daniels. We have to get him.”
This is how Belichick inserts his game plan into the team’s collective subconscious one vital detail at a time. He plants the message—stopping Daniels is a key to winning—then he proves it and repeats it using several different media until it’s ingrained in our brains. Then Belichick shows us what happens when we don’t follow the plan. The tape rolls, Daniels gets free, and the Ravens convert on their way to another field goal that puts them up 23–15.
Belichick then reiterates that he wants the team to play fast and aggressive but most of all poised. It’s a fine line. We cannot let the Ravens push us around, but we cannot lose our composure.
One of the big problems is that the analysts are almost all former players who are blinkered by the perspective of the position they played. They don’t see the whole field. It’s not their fault; it’s just their background and, to be fair, the nature of their sport. In baseball, players play offense and defense. In basketball, same thing. Football is way more specialized. You can go to positional meetings all week—heck, all year—and never have any idea of your team’s overall game plan.
Thanks to Andy’s ill-timed time-out, the offense can throw on third down without worrying that an incompletion will help the Chiefs by stopping the clock. The two-minute warning is going to do that, anyway. If Reid lets the clock run to the two-minute warning, though, everyone in the stadium knows the offense will be running the ball on that crucial third down to keep the clock running. Once it ticks past 2:06, the defense has to let it run down to the two-minute warning. Has to. When Reid calls that defensive time-out, he thinks he’s saving seconds for his offense. He’s not, but even if he is, he’s missing the point. For a trailing offense at that stage of the game, the entire focus needs to be on the potential number of plays it still can run. As football math has it, each play takes about six seconds. So, if you want to think like a coach, don’t look at the clock and think there are 54 seconds left in the game. Think: Best-case scenario, I have time to run nine more plays. When a team is down late and the game is on the line, offenses have to recalibrate to value plays more than time and yards more than first downs. The goal is to win. To win you need points. To get points you need yards. To get yards you need plays—but more than the three seconds Reid saved.
Bill Parcells, one of the best game managers ever, was schooled by Davis. Both Parcells and Belichick have been mocked for not celebrating after big late-game touchdowns, but it’s not because they’re joyless so much as because they’re already deep in thought about calculating time scenarios to decide the next thing the team needs to do. You can celebrate after the game.
To me it was just as obvious: No, we didn’t. (Unless it was fourth down, of course.) Last I checked, they don’t give points for first downs. What we really needed was the maximum yards we could get in the smallest amount of time. I tried to explain to those scouts that throwing a checkdown in that situation is actually a big-time favor to the defense because you voluntarily burn what you need most (time on the clock) in exchange for what you need the least (first downs).
When a world-class pool player makes a shot, where she leaves the cue ball matters almost as much as pocketing the ball.
Few things demonstrate a nearly total lack of understanding of even the simplest aspects of clock management than late-game kickoff returns. Here’s the situation: Team B, down to its last time-out and trailing by four with less than a minute left, fields a kickoff three yards deep in the end zone and advances the ball to the 22-yard line as eight seconds tick off the clock.
The geniuses on Team B just gave up eight seconds—or one or two extra chances to win the game—in order to lose three yards on the kick return.
The first rule of ball carriers is to protect the rock.
Most defenses, in fact, run daily drills in which they practice stripping the ball. It’s time well spent when you consider that teams that win the turnover battle win the game nearly 80 percent of the time.
In New England, players are reminded that carrying the ball is a privilege. If a player abuses that privilege with fumbles or by carrying the ball carelessly, he will lose that privilege until he earns it back.
The point isn’t to get into field-goal range. The point is to get into surefire field-goal range. This is no small difference. An offense that can move the ball just 11 more yards and decrease the length of the attempt from, say, 50 yards down to 39 has increased its odds of scoring points by more than 20 percent.
More conservative once they get the ball into field-goal range because they don’t want to give up the chance to get three points. But they shouldn’t just want a chance; they should want a real chance. Why pile more pressure on an already pressure-filled situation?
MISSED FIELD GOALS ARE ACTUALLY TURNOVERS
They’re not missed field goals; they’re turnovers. Think about it: After a miss, there’s a change of possession and a loss of yardage as the ball placement is seven yards behind the original line of scrimmage.
There’s a moment in the fourth quarter of every close-ish game in which it transforms into an “onside kick game.”
Teams are so focused on scoring a touchdown first that they fail to leave themselves enough time to kick a field goal even if they can get the ball back.
You need two scores; it makes no difference to anyone but the gamblers what order you get them in. Doesn’t it actually make more sense to move the ball into makeable field-goal range as fast as possible to give yourself the most time to get that touchdown? I learned this by watching Parcells when he was coaching the Patriots. Whenever he found himself in an onside kick game, he’d factor in intangibles such as time-outs left, weather, the kicker’s confidence and range, and the moment a drive feels like it has stalled. But he was never afraid to follow his gut and attempt a field goal first even if it meant facing the wrath of the media and all the other armchair quarterbacks out there. You know why? Because it was the right move.
I’m sorry, but isn’t the goal to score? Who designs plays to gain three or four yards? Shouldn’t you call every play with the idea that it could break for a big gain?
Third down in general is a tough position to be in. The game buckles down on third down. Defenses are designed for just such situations. Even the best teams convert third downs at only about a 45 percent rate. (The league average in 2017 was 38 percent.)
In the end, the best third-down strategy is to avoid third downs altogether.
The CFL gives offenses three downs, not four, so they never have to concern themselves with third and manageable because they have only two chances to make a first down. In the CFL, every play call needs to be aggressive.
Sweetening the pot, most defenses are still in their basic schemes on second down, and so their best pass rushers aren’t even on the field. Why not take a shot when you have the advantage?
NFL football today is about one thing above all else: matchups. In basketball, analysts highlight changes in the lineup all the time, announcing stuff such as “Team A has gone small to cause problems for the much slower Team B.”
All a quarterback cares about is this: Is the middle of the field open or closed? That’s it. If the middle of the field is open, it means the safeties are playing a Cover 2 shell, and that in turn means that the front will be a seven-man defense. If the middle of the field is closed, however, it means that a safety is covering the middle third of the field and therefore the front will be an eight-man attack. When a quarterback comes to the line of scrimmage, one of his primary presnap reads is to determine where the safeties are. Yours should be, too. Because once you and he pin down that placement, the wheel of possible plays in everyone’s heads can begin to spin. If the read is “open,” that means the middle seam may be vulnerable, and you can think play-action pass to a tight end who releases straight down the field and sneaks behind a slower linebacker. If the read is “closed,” start looking for routes that head toward the sideline.
If the wideout or tight end comes in motion, is anyone on the defense following him? If the answer is yes, that’s man. If it’s no, it’s zone. How simple is that?
On a snow-covered field the passing game has the advantage.
As long as pass catchers can handle the slick, hard balls, the slippery field conditions favor the player who knows where he’s going, not the one who is reacting and trying to keep up. Snow games are like target practice for a quarterback. Running the ball, in contrast, requires dependable footing first and foremost—not least for the blockers, who need a firm base to drive defenders off the ball.
Belichick, as I mentioned before, dabbles in meteorology maybe more than any other coach. He knows what the conditions will be wherever the next game is because he wants to make sure to prepare his team properly. He wants them to have the right shoes. He wants them to have a feel for frozen or wet footballs, so he introduces greased-down or frozen footballs into practice. Sometimes, when the forecast is for rain, he justs dunks the ball in a jug of water before every snap.
But there are six staff spots—call them rainmakers—that are in a position to make a significant difference one way or another and should be paid accordingly.
Obviously, head coach is one of them. All three coordinators, too. And the offensive and defensive line coaches. Offensive line coaches are often well paid, and deservedly so, because if they can mold one post-third-round draft choice into a capable NFL starter each year, they have more than earned that salary. The defensive line coach, by contrast, is much like a lion tamer—he might as well be wearing a top hat and coat—because his players come from a pool of what is traditionally the most high-strung and hardest-to-control players. Those giant divas on the d-line need a demanding taskmaster.
With barely a hello, he handed me a three-holed sheet of notebook paper on which he’d outlined in his meticulous handwriting an evaluation he wanted me to perform on every player on the roster: strong points, weak points, summary, injury history, playing time, special teams role, contract information, production in every phase the player participated in, and general prediction for his role the next year and the year after.
Most people focus on Belichick’s five Super Bowl rings as his ultimate achievement, but I think that in light of the parity in today’s NFL, guiding seven straight teams to the AFC championship game will go down beside Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak as one of the unbreakable records in sports.
By now, I think my admiration for Bruce Springsteen is abundantly clear. I love the songs, but I admire the singer more, because he works so hard at what he does. I’ve seen him play “Born to Run” in concert dozens of times, yet at each concert it is as if he is playing it for the first time. It’s what informs my Born to Run Theory, a corollary of the 10,000-hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell popularized. The idea is that to master anything you need at least 10,000 hours of practice. What Gladwell left out of the theory he documented so well in his book Outliers was that once mastery occurs, boredom can set in and undermine that mastery. It’s hard to do the same thing day after day; it’s human nature to fall prey to the grind. But Springsteen has played “Born to Run” almost every night—night after night after night—since 1975, and it’s always with real enthusiasm and passion. He never seems tired of playing the song and therefore never cheats anyone in the audience who might be hearing it live for the first time.
Reading and research is the best remedy for boredom.
“To live in the past is to die in the present.”
Walsh forged a deep friendship with Harry Edwards, a sociologist from the University of California, who over the years assisted the coach in many endeavors that made the team better—from interviewing prospects to understanding the challenges facing players from disadvantaged backgrounds. Edwards might have had the title of consultant, but he was more than that. He was a team builder, a culture builder, a unifier.
Just as Bobby Kennedy pointed out, the art of decision making begins with knowing what to concern yourself with.
Belichick is a master at measuring the risk/reward of any potential transaction. He also is the rare football mind who can lead players on the field with a deep personal connection as a coach and then, when acting as a general manager, instantly and ruthlessly set aside those feelings to calculate a player’s true economic worth. He never lets the emotions of one role interfere with his calculations in another.