We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.
In 17 years at the helm in New England, Bill Belichick has coached the Patriots to 14 AFC East titles, 25 postseason wins, and five Super Bowl victories. Along the way, he’s garnered a reputation as an uncompromising leader, an outstanding judge of talent, a cunning tactician, and as a bit of a, uh, curmudgeon.
Before Belichick was known as the Hoodie, he was a Giants position coach and coordinator under Bill Parcells, and Big Tuna nicknamed his brusque, short-tempered assistant “Doom and Gloom.” In Belichick’s more public role as the head coach in New England, we’ve seen why. His press conference antics are the stuff of legends: He does not suffer fools. He does not answer questions that he does not want to answer. He’s often obnoxiously terse, especially after a loss, and much of the rest of the time, he alternates between wry, snarky, and condescending replies in his dealings with the media.
But Belichick’s grumpy demeanor and monotone delivery belies the fact he does actually seem to want to share his superlative knowledge of the game. Fans get a glimpse into the mind of a football genius with Belichick’s educational "Belestrator" breakdown segments on the Patriots website, where he delves into the X’s and O’s of New England’s previous or upcoming games. And every once in awhile, he’ll launch into an illuminating dissertation on some nuanced football strategy or emerging schematic trend. Belichick is a football junkie; if you ask him the right question, ole Doom and Gloom turns into a font of football wisdom.
I went back and read every Belichick press conference transcript from the past two years and collected a few of my favorite moments. Here are the best examples of how the coach famous for one-word replies can ditch his normal M.O. and break down the minutiae of the game in incredible detail—along with what I learned.
The 579-Word Breakdown of the Challenges of the Hurry-up Offense
“It's being able to think quickly, make decisions. If Tom [Brady] changes a route or we call a play, and then they run to their look and we need to change it, there is some quick thinking, quick decision-making that needs to go on. … It's definitely challenging to do that with new players. There are a lot of things that can happen when you're trying to go fast and you don't have a lot of time to think or communicate. You kind of got to know what to do, so terminology and communication and anticipation of all three of us, four of us, whatever it is, we all kind of see the same picture; but we all need to see it the same way. We don't have time to talk about it because the ball is being snapped and we're going to go.”
The Lesson: Employing a no-huddle, hurry-up offense is a great way to confuse and tire out an opposing defense, but while Brady and Co. are adept at getting quickly lined up and snapping the ball, it’s a strategy that’s very difficult to pull off. On any given play, multiple players—some combination of the receivers, tight ends, running backs, and offensive linemen—must survey the defensive look and draw the same conclusions that Brady does. Because depending on the defensive look, their routes, blocking schemes, or responsibilities can change, and everyone must be on the same page and adjust on the fly in order to make it work—often without verbal communication. Making things more difficult, when New England’s going fast enough, the defense might never even get fully lined up before the ball is snapped, making these visual cues nearly impossible to pick up.
Bottom line—it takes an awful lot of chemistry and experience in the scheme to run an offense like that, and as Belichick notes in the full quote, it’s often easier to do it with guys that have been together for a long time.
The 1,306-Word Treatise on Game-Day Decision-Making
“There are so many factors in football, that it’s really hard to find two situations that are the same. Even in some situations that are similar, there’s usually something in there—the conditions on the field, or the game, or the wind—or something else that adds another variable besides just point differential and time and timeouts. … There’s really a lot of moving parts there, a lot of factors. Just for example: On a simple thing like two-point conversion chart, you can’t necessarily get everybody to agree with that, and we can tell what the score is, how many points you’re behind by or ahead by, about just whether to go for two or not. Forget about everything else and we can’t even all agree on that in certain situations.”
The Lesson: In chess, there are 400 different possible positions after the opening two moves. There are 72,084 move combinations after each player’s gone twice, and after each player has moved four times each? Over 288 billion possible scenarios. There’s simply no way to create a list of guidelines that would tell you how to respond to any potential scenario you encounter. I don’t know whether or not the game of football can claim to be as complex, but there’s certainly no easily referenced road map out there to aid in game-day decision-making. Coaches encounter a countless number of scenarios during the course of a game or a season, and there may be a few general rules to follow when determining the course of action that gives your team the best odds for success—but like the best chess players, they often must rely on gut instinct. Sometimes, when all else fails, the strategy in key situations just comes down to the faith coaches have in their systems and players. As Belichick explained, “I’ve always felt like going for it on fourth down had a lot more to do with how confident I was in the play that we were calling as opposed to really anything else.”
The 656-Word Explanation of In-Game Information Processing
“A lot of times just making sure that you're right is more important than identifying what [your opponent is] doing. … Until you get that cleared up, you're kind of spinning your wheels in the sand and you're not making any progress because you don't really understand exactly what the issues are. You have the information from players, [who are] in the heat of the battle. You have information from the press box, who can get as much of an overview as you can get. You have sideline information. So sometimes that's the same, sometimes information—you don't see it quite the same way. The way one coach sees it, the way the press box sees it, the way the sideline sees it, the way a player on the field sees it, it's not quite all the same way. So you've kind of got to sort all that out. And then there is the balance of fixing what is in the rearview mirror and looking ahead.”
The Lesson: Football is chaotic. On every play, there are 22 of the world’s biggest, fastest, and strongest humans flying around and hitting each other at unbelievable speeds. The play clock between snaps moves nearly as fast—and considering there’s often barely enough time for a team’s offensive or defensive play-callers to get the next scheme or play communicated to their players, imagine the difficulty of doing so while evaluating what has just happened on the previous snap. The job of the head coach on game day is, I imagine, something about as stressful as an air-traffic controller directing planes to takeoffs on three different runways—i.e., the dealings of the offense, defense, and special teams. These coaches are relying on their own eyes, the opinions of coaches on the sideline, the feedback of players on the field, and the input of coordinators up in the booth—and they must piece that web of information together to determine what’s working and what’s gone awry. All that happens before they can even start trying to figure out what weaknesses in the opponent they could exploit.
The 819-Word Explanation on the Difficulty in Teaching Players the Rules
“… Once you get into the kicking game, you can multiply everything that happens on offense and defense exponentially, because you not only have the possession plays, but then you have all the plays that happen when the ball is kicked, and those rules are sometimes different than plays of possession, like a runner or a receiver or a returner who's carrying the ball. There is the whole handling of the ball, and the kick, and did it cross the line of scrimmage? And so forth, and so on. It's a lot for the officials to understand, it's a lot for the coaches to understand, and it's a lot for the players to understand. But in the end we try to look at the rule book as a useful tool, something that can benefit us if we know what we have to work with, how to make the best of a situation based on the way the rules are written and try to maximize our opportunities there.”
The Lesson: Look, there’s a reason all the major networks employ former officials and rules experts as their go-to commentators on official review situations. The NFL rule book is a morass of intricacy and subjectivity; the 2017 version is 93 pages long, and unsurprisingly, most fans don’t really know most of the peccadillos officials must keep an eye on on every given play. More surprising, though, might be how many players are fuzzy on what they can and cannot do in certain situations, especially if the plays in question are relatively rare. It’s up to coaches, then, as Belichick points out, to constantly drill their players on the rules of every imaginable scenario. And the Patriots have become notorious for exploiting less-understood rules and regulations to work in their favor; New England toyed around with eligible receiver rules during the 2015 playoffs and got a few big plays out of it—all by taking advantage of disoriented opposing defenders that clearly weren’t brushed up on the rule book.
The 584-Word Breakdown on Hybrid Defensive Backs and Linebackers
“As the offenses have gotten more spread out, as the offenses have put more skill players on the field, as the tight ends have become more athletic and less of the conventional kind of power-blocking type guys, those matchups keep getting tougher and tougher. I'd say there's definitely a movement toward safeties that can play corner or have some corner-like qualities to them and that extends to the linebacker level as well. You see less of the big run-stopping Ted Johnson–, Brandon Spikes–type players. It's just harder when the offense spreads you out and then they go fast and you can't substitute and you're stuck with whoever you have out there, out there.”
The Lesson: God, I love it when he starts talking about the evolution of the game. The long and the short of this Belichick quote is that teams simply need players that can cover. Offenses are spreading out. They’re throwing more. Tight ends, traditionally big and lumbering, are now more explosive and dynamic down the field. If you have a slow, heavy-footed linebacker out on the field, your opponent’s going to go to the no-huddle, trap that player out there, and just go at him mercilessly. Now more than ever, each and every back-seven defender must be able to run stride for stride with pass catchers of all shapes and sizes. New England has always been ahead of the curve in that area—hell, before he made the switch and turned into an All-Pro free safety, Devin McCourty started his Patriots career at cornerback and earned All-Pro honors at that position, too. This hybridization is also why it was so important to the Patriots to re-sign Dont’a Hightower over the offseason. The versatile playmaker packs punch against the run like many of the big, hulking middle linebackers of old, but also has excellent instincts and top-tier coverage skills that mean he’s never a liability against the pass.
The 728-Word Essay on the Challenges Fullbacks Face
“The hard part about that position is dealing with what's in front of you. A lot of times, the way a play is drawn up on paper isn't the way it happens. [Defenders] move [at the snap] and blocks that should be made cleanly in front of you aren't clean, and there's another body—or half a body—that's in the way, and do you take that guy instead of the guy you're supposed to block? Or do you go around him and let him penetrate? When there's too much penetration you have to take him. When there's not enough penetration, then the running back can get by him and you still go to your player, and then of course sometimes that changes. The guy you were blocking moves and stunts and somebody else is there and you have to figure it out on the run. There's a lot more of that from the fullback position than there is on the line of scrimmage. There's some of that on the line of scrimmage, but more of that at fullback.”
The Lesson: This explanation offers some interesting contrast to the last quote, because while they’re slowly being phased out of most offensive schemes, some teams still do utilize old-school fullbacks within their offense. The Patriots remain a last bastion for the position, and trotted James Develin out there on 31 percent of their offensive snaps last year while running with at least two backs on 346 plays, second most in the NFL.
Belichick’s quote stood out because it highlights just how much is happening on any given run play: Defenders are rarely static, both before and after the snap, and often the defender an offensive player is assigned to block is not where the play calls for him to be. The gaps between each offensive lineman change quickly as they fire out into their blocks and either fail or succeed in moving their target. As fullbacks fly downhill, they must take in all this information before deciding where they’re going to block—it reminds me a little bit of a hitter in baseball having to decide almost instantaneously whether he’ll be getting a fastball, changeup, or curve. If the fullback reacts quickly enough, he can spring the running back behind him for a big gain. If not, an untouched defender’s coming through the line to blow the play up.
The 555-Word Breakdown of the Cat-and-Mouse Game Between Running Backs and Linebackers
“Probably the hardest thing [running backs] have to do is to figure out whether the [linebacker] is blitzing or not. When [the linebacker] comes across [the line of scrimmage], he's trying to come across like he's blitzing so that you'll stay in and [block] him, but if he really has you in coverage and he's coming across just to hold you in and you get out, then you're out, you don't have to block him and he has to cover you. That's a real cat-and-mouse game there between the back, who has the pickup, and linebacker, who's in man coverage and who’s trying to keep [the running back] in by using a blitz technique.”
The Lesson: Football is so great. This is a fun example of the games within the game, where running backs go head-to-head with linebackers tasked with man-to-man coverage or blitz duties. As Belichick explains, a linebacker can feign a blitz in order to keep a running back in the backfield in pass protection next to the quarterback—a strategy that essentially takes the running back out of the play as a receiver. But, say that running back doesn’t bite on that fake blitz, and instead heads downfield on his route—that leaves the linebacker in no-man’s-land, out of position, and potentially giving up a big play downfield. At the same time—maybe that running back guesses wrong, the linebacker does come in on a blitz, and the now-downfield back watches as his QB gets shellacked. Nothing is easy in this game.
The 726-Word Explanation of How Playing-Field Conditions Factor In
“Re-familiarizing yourself with the conditions: the sun, the lights, the scoreboard, the 40-second clock [is important]. I would say in most of these stadiums, the way they're built, there's a difference in the wind between in the end zone where it's more protected and out at midfield and usually the flags are no indicator of anything other than it's the opposite of whatever they are. The turf, the footing, the consistency of that, if cleats are an issue. [If] it's a turf field then obviously it's not the case, but if it's not then what are the conditions? Cleveland's surface versus, let's just say Arizona's surface--I mean, they couldn't be more different. So each game is different, so even if you've been in the stadium before, if it's a day game, if it's a night game, whatever the wind is, whatever the sun is, it's different for that day. I think fundamentally you just always want to go through that process and re-acclimate yourself to the specific conditions for that particular game.”
The Lesson: The sheer amount of variables that a coaching staff has to consider on a week-to-week basis is mind-blowing. In addition to all the game planning, matchup exploiting, and scenario considering, coaches have to take into account all the inconsistencies and natural elements that make up the different stadiums around the league. These factors are even often different based on what time of day the game begins or what point of the season the games take place.
A Belichick press conference is, as Forrest Gump might say, like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get. If you ask a bad question, you’re not going to get much in return. And there are times, too, when he’ll respond to perfectly respectable football questions with one- or two-word answers. Then, if you’re lucky, there are times when something piques his interest, and he responds by offering up a graduate-level course on the inner workings of football. When you’re lucky enough to get that lesson, make sure you’re taking notes, because Belichick might just be shedding a little bit of light on what’s made him so successful.