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Bill Belichick Remains the NFL’s Ultimate Problem-Solver

Belichick is a master at masking his team’s flaws and finding creative solutions. Even at 10-1, the Patriots face a few challenges this season that will test the limits of his expertise.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of my very few good ideas is that in retirement, Bill Belichick should host a Bar Rescue–style show in which he solves the problems of flawed NFL teams. He might, say, fix the Bengals defense this week, and fly to Detroit to smooth out Matt Patricia’s many missteps the following week. I think about what Belichick would do with different teams a lot, but what I often overlook, as does the broader football world, is Belichick’s masking of the Patriots’ flaws. New England has the best quarterback and coach of all time, and together they are the best problem-solvers in the history of the sport. Flaws exist—they have for the entirety of the Patriots’ dynasty—but they either don’t last for long or don’t matter enough to knock the Patriots from contention.

I went to the Dallas–New England game on Sunday in Foxborough. I was hoping to see a Cowboys offense with elite talent go against a Patriots defense that is playing historically well. When I saw the weather that day, an unceasing and especially gross downpour, I assumed there would be no lessons to draw from the game. Often, games played in bad weather are just a battle of which team can hang on to the ball and make a few soggy, lucky plays. I was wrong. The conditions obviously inhibited both teams’ ability to move the football—presumably, in normal weather, one of the two quarterbacks would have had a rating above 71—but pouring rain or not, we got to see who the Cowboys are, and who the Patriots are: one team with Belichick and one team without Belichick. And Jason Garrett, I must stress, is very much not Belichick.

Each season around this time, everyone wonders whether the Patriots have enough to win the Super Bowl. This year, the debate is about the offense. Bleacher Report wrote this week that the Patriots “finally have reason to be concerned” about their offense. On Sunday’s Fox broadcast, Troy Aikman said the Pats will eventually need more from their offense than they are getting. “At some point, the offense is going to do their share and maybe more than their share,” he said. These are valid points—the Patriots have scored a combined 30 points in the past two games. Their receiver depth at present is grim:

There are a couple of things to unpack here before we continue: The Patriots are 10-1, are about to win the AFC East, and are in the lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their flaws, even if valid, are flaws that about 28 teams would beg to have. The other thing to mention is that no one, when given enough time, figures it out as well as Belichick and Tom Brady, who have spent the past two decades solving problems and making the solutions look easy—even when they aren’t.

I learn a lot when I go to a Patriots game. Most of that knowledge comes from repackaged lessons I’ve already learned by watching them throughout their dynasty. The Patriots serve a function insomuch that they are the league’s measuring stick to see who is a Super Bowl contender and who isn’t. The Cowboys are not. The Ravens, as we learned a few weeks ago in their 17-point win over the Patriots, are very much a contender. The Patriots make almost everyone look incompetent, so if you are incompetent—and it appears Garrett might be, given the struggles of this talented Cowboys team—things look bleak when you play in New England, where the Pats have won 21 straight games.

Often, a team that arrives in Foxborough with expectations leaves in a crisis. That’s where the Cowboys find themselves. After the game, Dallas owner Jerry Jones gave his most pointed criticism of Garrett yet: “This is very frustrating. It’s frustrating just to be reminded that some of the fundamentals of football and coaching were what beat us out there today.” Jones was upset about the Cowboys’ poor special teams play, especially Matthew Slater’s blocked punt that helped doom Dallas. The Patriots’ special teams prowess is by design: It’s one of those seemingly marginal areas that teams like the Cowboys don’t prioritize. Meanwhile, the Patriots do:

The golf podcast No Laying Up has a funny idea called the “Tiger Tax,” which essentially posits how much money Tiger Woods has made other golfers by his mere existence and popularity. Phil Mickelson, for instance, has benefited greatly from Woods’s career. Belichick has the exact opposite effect in football: His existence gets everyone else fired. This looks like it might happen in Dallas with Garrett, though possibly not until the end of the season. There is probably a universe somewhere in the multiverse where Belichick doesn’t exist, a place where the Colts have more Super Bowl wins, the Dolphins and Jets have more division titles, and a lot of coaches are held in higher regard because they never got embarrassed by Belichick.

The makeup of the 2019 Patriots is different than in past years, but the general theme is the same: They probably don’t have the most talented roster in football, but they have enough to win a bunch of games in the regular season, and then they will rely on their elite units (their secondary, for one), on their situational football acumen, on Brady’s heroics, and on Belichick’s game plans to be competitive through January. If Baltimore continues to win every game by 30 points, as it’s done three weeks in a row, there is probably nothing for New England to do except lock Belichick in a room with a bunch of film and pray.

The Patriots’ season will probably come down to a few plays against Lamar Jackson in January. Planning for Jackson, an MVP candidate and one of the most dynamic players in the game, is the most important thing left for the Patriots, and it will be one of the challenges of Belichick’s career. Belichick’s game plan against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes improved from their regular-season meeting to their rematch in the playoffs last year. Typically, Belichick feasts on young quarterbacks, but there is nothing typical about Jackson.

It’s important to remember that around this time last year, the Patriots were getting their brakes blown off by the Titans and the Lions. New England lost two games in a row last December, including one to Adam Gase and the Dolphins on a last-second play. Not to be too existential, but nothing actually matters when it comes to the Patriots. The comparison I always come back to is that they operate like a casino: They have a slight edge in a handful of areas and just hammer them until those tiny edges become a massive advantage. Things as small as knowing the rules better than everyone else can be as important as Stephon Gilmore being the best cornerback in the sport. The Patriots expose your flaws because they are so good at masking their own. They don’t make mistakes. They miss tackles at among the lowest rates in the sport. They are mortal because Belichick has understood how to run a team effectively for two decades by prioritizing roster depth, positional flexibility, and scheme advantages. They do not go all in. They apply the same principles over and over again for sustained success.

The Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan wrote about tweaks the Patriots could make to their offense, namely throwing out of heavy formations and running out of spread ones. The typically forward-thinking Pats haven’t used those tricks as well as some other teams in the NFL, though they showed some new tactics against Dallas. Josh McDaniels, one of the best coordinators in football, should get as much of the benefit of the doubt as Brady and Belichick: On Sunday, they had some success running the football using misdirection.

The Patriots’ win over Dallas on Sunday gave them a 10-win season for the 17th straight year, an NFL record. The last time they failed to win double-digit games in a season (they won nine), it was due to losses to Jay Fiedler’s Dolphins, Herm Edwards’s Jets, and Eddie George’s Titans. The sport has turned over a handful of times since then. George is now an actor. Edwards is a college coach after a long media career. The sport of football looks completely different now, and the Patriots are its immortal contenders because they have changed with it. They have made eight straight AFC championship games and three straight Super Bowls.

The Patriots are in the midst of one of the most interesting stretches of any team this season. They already put the Cowboys away, and now will face two AFC contenders, the Texans and Chiefs, in back-to-back games. The Patriots still have a one-game lead in the conference, which, as Aaron Schatz points out, is crucial not just because of home-field advantage, but because seeding will be important for the top three AFC teams—the Ravens, Patriots, and Chiefs—to avoid each other in the divisional round. Having Jackson and Mahomes play each other in the divisional round would be a nice bonus for the Pats.

Obviously, it would be beneficial for the Patriots to improve dramatically on offense. But I don’t think it’s mandatory. They, and the 49ers, are still beating the crap out of teams:

The benefit of having a historically good defense bully people is you do not need all that much from your offense. Belichick solves problems, much like he has masked his relatively poor drafting these past few years with savvy trades for veterans. He currently has a few to solve: an offense that isn’t playing as well as it could, and a team in Baltimore that might, on the right day, be unbeatable. They are, on paper, some of the biggest challenges he’s ever had to solve. He’s good at that.