Bill Belichick sat near the back of the meeting room. He flipped through a notebook as Jim Daopoulos, the NFL’s supervisor of referees, addressed the Patriots’ coaching staff. Despite appearing uninterested, Belichick was paying close attention to the video on the screen. “Wait, rewind that,” he’d say over and over until he got the hang of the new points of emphasis for the league’s officials.
This was in the mid-2000s, and the league, mindful of the Patriots’ defensive dominance, was emphasizing illegal contact, which is when a defender gets physical with a receiver 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But according to Daopoulos, Belichick was not griping about the rule change. He just wanted to know the specifics of what would be called on the field. According to Daopoulos, no one asked the referees at these sessions more specific questions than Belichick, and no team’s staff was more attentive and alert than New England’s. “He was asking, ‘Are you going to call illegal contact at 5 yards, 5 and a half yards? Six? Just tell me how you’re going to call it, and that’s how I’ll coach my guys.’ That’s all he wanted.”
“No one was better prepared than Bill and his staff about the rules,” Daopoulos said. This intense preparation, former star Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said, then trickles down to the players.
“He comes in [to team meetings] and says, ‘OK, we have this set of officials this week,’” said Harrison, now an analyst at NBC Sports. “‘They’ve called 18 pass interference penalties, they call a lot of holding, illegal procedures.’ He briefed us. Belichick, when he coaches, everyone is prepared. Probably too much.”
The strategy is simple: Adjustments are made depending on what referees will call. If the Patriots are sure a crew is reluctant to call pass interference, they can adopt a more physical game plan. If the crew throws lots of offensive-holding flags, they’ll be more likely to ramp up the defensive pressure, knowing the offensive line cannot get away with much.
This season, there’s been a constant drumbeat of analysis about why the Patriots commit so few penalties in the playoffs. Their one penalty against the Jaguars in the AFC title game was the fewest in the playoffs since … the Patriots in the 2011 AFC title game. Mainstream outlets have floated the idea that the referees have somehow rigged games for the Pats. But not only do these theories hinge on a faulty premise—the NFL is a $14 billion industry, and 100 million viewers will watch the Super Bowl no matter who’s playing—they also miss the point.
So, here’s a better theory: The Patriots understand the rules, nuances of officiating, and individual referees’ tendencies better than any team in the league. Have calls gone the Patriots’ way? Sure. Is the NFL rigged? No. The big reason the penalty numbers so often skew in New England’s favor is that they know what they can and cannot do on the football field. (I’m sure the irony of a team that’s been embroiled in two cheating scandals also being the best rule-followers in the league won’t be lost on anyone.)
“It is something we continually work on,” defensive line coach Brendan Daly said. “It is our responsibility to educate ourselves on what that [referee] is looking for and what are the things that are gonna get called versus not going to get called, and then call the game appropriately.”
Players say Belichick is constantly plucking obscure penalty situations from across the league and showing his players tape every week. Veterans who’ve been with multiple organizations in their careers say New England’s position coaches are better than anywhere else they’ve been at correcting would-be penalties in the middle of practice.
“People say ‘bias’ because New England is penalized a lot less,” said Mike Pereira, a former NFL official and supervisor of officials who’s now an analyst for Fox Sports. “Is it a bias or is it better discipline on behalf of the Patriots?”
Belichick thinks about the rules. A lot. Pereira said that when he was with the league, a referee could automatically accept or decline a penalty on behalf of the team if the choice was totally obvious. “Things like a holding penalty that was 10 yards enforced at the end of the kick. A hold on a third-down sack where it’d be fourth-and-15 instead of third-and-18. Obvious things,” Pereira said.
Every coach seemed fine with this arrangement—except for one. “Belichick was not a happy guy when you didn’t give him the decision.” Belichick simply wanted to analyze all the options—no matter how obvious they may be, because this is a man who loves thinking about penalties.
In a given game, Pereira said, Belichick wants to know the exact parameters of how a rule will be called and as much additional information as possible. When Pereira was the head of officials, Belichick only complained to him about particular referees because he didn’t like the way they communicated, not because of how they called the rule book. “Sometimes you feel like coaches are trying to work you—they’d talk to me because another team is doing something and they want to complain. Bill was never like that,” he said. “I never used to get complaints about the way he treated officials.”
Position coaches, of course, are in charge of the granular details since they have to hone in on specific penalties. New England cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, for instance, said he’ll study pass interference far more than neutral-zone infractions. Belichick’s role is to oversee all of the analysis.
I asked Daly what rule-related things defensive linemen have to be thinking about on a given play. He said: “Roughing the passer can get complex—is he in the pocket or out of the pocket? Whether you’re pushed into a low hit, hands, hitting him in the helmet—there’s a lot of complexity. There’s targeting, the framework of the body, whether your head’s up, where the crown of the helmet is—the nuances of that can be very difficult to understand. You’ve got the post-chop [block] or interior play at the line of scrimmage play. There’s a lot of moving parts and elements to those rules that affect defensive linemen, none of whom want to get blocked below their knees, so they are always screaming and looking for calls on that. Sometimes on that, they understand the rules. … Sometimes they don’t want to understand the rules on that.”
So, yes, it’s complicated.
Each week, New England’s coaches get a refresher on the rules from Belichick. “I’m up in the booth and there are so many times I’m like, ‘Yep that’s what just we talked about,’” said Boyer, when I asked him how often a discussion on penalties can lead to in-game results. It’s long been thought that secretive Belichick aide Ernie Adams helps the coaching staff game plan for referee tendencies. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia revealed in the NFL Films documentary Do Your Job, Part II that he knew he could afford to bring pressure on passing downs in the second half of the Super Bowl win against Atlanta because some referees on the field had been a part of a Chiefs-Steelers divisional-round game earlier in those playoffs in which a crucial holding penalty was called on a potential game-tying two-point conversion.
Pereira, for his part, pointed out that officiating crews are not single units in the playoffs as they are in the regular season. Rather, they’re all-star crews made up of the best officials, so it’s harder to gain an edge with referee tendencies. “The notion that you can track all 131 officials, even if you study all the pass interference calls, is hard. You don’t know if it was the back judge, the side judge, or what,” he said. “If he can glean anything in the playoffs, it means he knows more than the league office.”
“The first thing we do is teach them the rules in the National Football League and, in particular, make them aware of the changes between the college rules and the pro rules, which there are a significant number,” Belichick said in 2015. “And we don’t really assume because we have no way of knowing how educated or uneducated they are on the rules, if they even are the same between the two—between college and professional football.”
You would be shocked by how many players do not know a whole lot about the NFL rule book. When Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said in 2008 that he didn’t know a game could end in a tie, for instance, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger estimated that half of the NFL was in the same boat.
“You constantly teach them as they come up—you spend some time on the front end with the initial education [as rookies], but then it’s a constant, ongoing process,” Daly said. “You work on it through the offseason, through training camp, through the season and things are constantly coming up.”
Patriots linebacker Marquis Flowers said that the rule book—which, by the way, is Infinite Jest–level big—is so dense and long that the Patriots’ insistence on teaching players about specific situations and not just reading the rules is crucial.
The Patriots’ knowledge of the rule book is not just to keep players disciplined and help them avoid penalties, Pereira said. It’s also proved to be a game-planning edge. That showed itself most notably when the Patriots disguised their eligible receivers in a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens three years ago, a move John Harbaugh labeled “clearly deception.” In response, Tom Brady said the Ravens should “study the rule book.”
“Belichick knows the rules. The Ravens and other teams go crazy because they don’t know the rules, and then people think it’s a conspiracy,” Daopoulos said. “He just does a better job on this. He’s better prepared than anyone.”