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The Lessons Sean McVay Can Learn From Each of the Brady-Belichick Super Bowls

The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl for the ninth time this century. They’ve won five, lost three, and left plenty of info behind on  how to beat (or lose to) them.

Elias Stein/Getty Images

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. As the Rams prepare to take on the New England Patriots, Sean McVay and Co. would be wise to study how the Patriots have won and lost in the eight previous Super Bowl appearances of the Tom Brady–Bill Belichick era. The Patriots have been the best organization in pro football history under Belichick’s direction, but their history is rife with examples of how to beat them (and many more of how to lose to them). Let’s run through every Patriots Super Bowl of the past 18 years to see what lessons we can glean from each.

Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots vs. St. Louis Rams

The Score: Patriots 20, Rams 17

The Lesson: Belichick is the league’s best game-planner.

A forgotten prologue to this game is the Patriots’ loss to the Rams in Week 10 of the 2001 season. In the rematch, Bill Belichick countered the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, boasting perhaps the best offense the league had ever seen at the time and a far more talented squad, by putting five or six defensive backs on the field far more often, daring them to run. (Nickel and dime defenses are normal now, but as always, Belichick was ahead of the curve.) The Pats controlled the Super Bowl’s tempo en route to a shocking upset.

“If you think about the history of the Super Bowl, this would have to rank right up there as the best coaching job ever,” legendary general manager Ron Wolf said at the time. “No. 1. They won the Super Bowl with a waiver-wire team. No one has ever done anything like that before.”

Don Shula, the Hall of Fame coach who led the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, called it “one of the best coaching jobs I’ve ever seen.”

Before this Super Bowl, Belichick was the gifted defensive coordinator who quit on the Jets head coaching gig one day after his introductory press conference. After this Super Bowl win, he was considered perhaps the brightest coach in the entire league.

Super Bowl XXXVIII: New England Patriots vs. Carolina Panthers

The Score: Patriots 32, Panthers 29

The Lesson: Belichick was the first to figure out how to build teams in the salary cap era.

With confetti falling over Reliant Stadium after the Patriots’ 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers, CBS announcer Greg Gumbel summarized the victory:

“The New England Patriots claim their second Super Bowl championship in three years,” Gumbel said. “In this era of free agency and player movement, that’s as close to a dynasty as you’re ever going to find.”

Building a Super Bowl–caliber team has always been tough, but maintaining one was considered all but impossible back in 2003. The Patriots changed that belief, and they did it much earlier than we remember. As James Lavin pointed out in his book Management Secrets of the New England Patriots, in the two years between the Rams and Panthers Super Bowls, the Patriots had replaced 10 of their 22 starters, including six of their 11 starters on offense and three of the four members of their secondary. Of the 53 men on the Patriots’ Super Bowl XXXVI roster, 31 were not on the team for the Rams victory. If we include injured reserve, that number swells to 42 of the 67 players—meaning nearly 63 percent of the team was new. Gumbel’s words sound silly with a decade and a half of hindsight, but even after the 2003 season, what Belichick was doing had never been done before.

Watching the Patriots Super Bowls, the first thing that jumps out is the turnover at specific roles. The pass-catching running back started as Kevin Faulk, then became Danny Woodhead, then Shane Vereen, and now James White. The primary ball carrier started as Antowain Smith, then became Corey Dillon, then Laurence Maroney, then BenJarvus Green-Ellis, then LeGarrette Blount, then Dion Lewis, and now Sony Michel. Belichick’s also had a penchant for cutting or trading key pieces at inopportune times without a clear replacement—like safety Lawyer Milloy, guard Logan Mankins, pass rusher Chandler Jones, linebacker Jamie Collins, and receiver Brandin Cooks—and it’s always worked out. Entire generations of players have played with and against Brady, and the Pats’ success despite constant turnover has been shocking (and now, even more shockingly, normalized) since their second Super Bowl win.

Super Bowl XXXIX: New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles

The Score: Patriots 24, Eagles 21

The Lesson: The Pats will watch you beat yourself.

This game is among the masterpieces of Andy Reid clock-management meltdowns. Down 24-14 with 8:35 to go, the Eagles had the ball on their own 26-yard line. On their first play, Brian Westbrook ran for a 2-yard gain.

“I think you’ve gotta be careful about running the ball right now,” announcer Troy Aikman said. “What Andy has shown throughout the game, trying to stay balanced even when they’ve not gotten a lot out of their running game—I think at this stage of the ball game you’ve gotta start being a little bit more aggressive with your play-calling.”

Two plays later, Donovan McNabb was intercepted by Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi. The Eagles forced a three-and-out and got the ball back on their 21-yard line with 5:40 on the clock and still down 10 points. Almost three minutes of game time after Aikman had suggested the Eagles call more aggressive plays, the Eagles got conservative. They started the drive with four passes, but those went for 4, 4, 5, and 2 yards, with the Eagles huddling up between plays while the clock was running. By the time the Eagles got to their own 36-yard line, the clock was at 3:45. The announcers (like many around the country) were in disbelief.

“How many Philadelphia fans are screaming at the TV saying, ‘Hurry up?’” Joe Buck wondered on the broadcast.

“They are letting a lot of time click away here,” Cris Collinsworth said (yes, Collinsworth was the third member of the broadcast).

“Unbelievable how much time they’re spending in the huddle,” Buck said.

“I don’t understand this at all—not getting into a no-huddle offense and trying to keep as much time on the clock as possible,” Aikman said.

The Eagles scored but took so long they had to attempt an onside kick, which they did not recover. The Eagles forced the Pats to punt, but the Patriots pinned Philly 4 yards from their own end zone with 46 seconds left and no timeouts.

Whether the Eagles didn’t realize they had to use the two-minute drill or didn’t have the confidence in it, it’s a sign of terrible preparation and clock management that still plagues Reid to this day.

Super Bowl XLII: New England Patriots vs. New York Giants

The Score: Giants 17, Patriots 14

The Lesson: *Kevin Garnett voice* ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLEEEE (if you confuse Tom Brady).

The narrative around this game is that the Giants slayed the Patriots by using a four-man pass rush to get to Brady, but this belies the complexity of how the Giants defense held the greatest offense in NFL history to two scoring drives. First, the Giants blitzed in this game far more often than people remember—a third of the time by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s estimation. The blitzes they tried were exotic, effective, and unpredictable. Take this play in the middle of the second quarter in which two linebackers stand over the center, threatening a six-man blitz up the middle. At the snap, both linebackers drop into pass coverage, showing they were faking. It’s a four-man rush!

JK, it’s a blitz. After linebacker Kawika Mitchell turns away from the line, he turns back to the line—he was faking the fake—and sacks Brady. In addition to the blitzes, the Giants would also rush four men, but not always the four men you’d expect. Here, defensive end Justin Tuck drops into coverage while cornerback Kevin Dockery blitzes the guard. Brady, who has much more time than he thinks, throws the ball away.

This is not to say the Giants defensive line did not physically dominate the Patriots offensive line. They did. But they were able to do so because the Giants confused Brady and his offensive line, and the defense then used the confusion to beat the hell out of them. Just like when the Pats defense slayed the Goliath Rams offense, the Giants had lost to the Patriots in the regular season, but in the rematch, New York was the more physical team sporting a superior game plan.

Super Bowl XLVI: New England Patriots vs. New York Giants

The Score: Giants 21, Patriots 17

The Lesson: Shrink the game, don’t make mistakes, and pray.

Underdogs benefit from small sample sizes. Just like an NBA team has better odds of beating the Warriors on one given night than in a best-of-seven series, a football team benefits by giving a superior team (the 2011 Patriots) as few chances as possible. Through a combination of discipline, luck, and prayer, the Giants shrunk the game. In Super Bowl XLII, the Giants had the ball for 30:27 and the Patriots had the ball for 29:33. In this game, the Giants had the ball for 37:05 and the Patriots had it for 22:55. The Giants shrunk the game, but they also got lucky: in a game where they did not turn the ball over, they fumbled on two scoring drives but recovered it each time.

Super Bowl XLIX: New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Score: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

The Lesson: Legacies are more random than we’d like to admit.

The Malcolm Butler interception was the inflection point of the Brady-Belichick legacy. Consider for a moment a world where Malcolm Butler does not intercept the ball thrown by Russell Wilson at the goal line and instead Ricardo Lockette catches the touchdown and the Seahawks win the game. The Legion of Boom claims they are the greatest defense of all time. After annihilating Peyton Manning’s Broncos and then stifling Brady’s Patriots in back-to-back Super Bowls in the most pass-happy era of NFL history, many agree. Brady, who threw two interceptions (and one in the end zone) falls to 3-3 in the Super Bowl, and 0-3 in the last 10 years. We can all agree that if this had taken place, there would be at least one First Take segment debating whether Tom Brady was the most overrated quarterback ever.

None of this happened, obviously. Instead, the case for Brady as the greatest quarterback of all time picked up more steam than ever before. Here’s a Google Trends chart for “Tom Brady Greatest.”

That maximum spike is the Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl. The spike before it is after the Seahawks Super Bowl. As Patriots fans will point out, they did win the game, and Brady did win his fourth Super Bowl. But think about how much Brady’s legacy swung on a play where he wasn’t on the field. This isn’t to say that Brady is overrated or simply lucky, but rather that the narratives we build around individual players are too simplistic and outcome-oriented for a team sport if they can be massively flipped by things out of their control.

Super Bowl LI: New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons

The Score: Patriots 34, Falcons 28

The Lesson: Don’t miss the forest for the trees. (Also, experience matters.)

Yes, the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead, and how they did it is instructive to all future Pats opponents. In the second half, the Falcons got conservative and began running the ball. It’s not necessarily a bad strategy, but the Falcons went astray because they lost sight of why they went conservative in the first place. The goal wasn’t to run the ball; the goal was to run out the clock. But the Falcons consistently snapped the ball well before the play clock was set to expire. On their second-to-last drive, the Falcons could have wasted nearly 1:20 of clock just by letting the play clock run down to a second or two, which might not have given the Patriots enough time to score the game-tying touchdown.

It opened up an (extremely small) window for the Patriots to win, which they did because of their superb preparation and experience, including Belichick coaching them for a longer halftime to ensure they wouldn’t see anything in the game that they hadn’t seen in practice.

Super Bowl LII: New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles

The Score: Eagles 41, Patriots 33

The Lesson: If you think you’re better, be aggressive.

The Eagles believed their offense was better than the Patriots defense, and they put their money where their mouth was when it mattered most. They famously went for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line on the Philly Special, which you’ve only heard about a trillion times. But lost in the shuffle has been that the Eagles also went for a fourth-and-1 on their own 45-yard line with under six minutes left while down one point. Doug Pederson’s brazenness has had a league-wide impact. Fourth-down attempts were up 11 percent in the 2018-19 season, from 485 to 539 total tries, and teams converted 55 percent of those, up from 46 percent. Aggressiveness around the league is up.

Aggressiveness alone is not the key—it’s important to remember that had Brandon Graham not strip-sacked Brady with 2:16 left in the game, the Eagles would’ve been liable for the sin of leaving Brady too much time to win the game and creating a very different legacy for everyone involved. But the Eagles scored 41 points because they chased touchdowns instead of field goals and first downs instead of punts when they had the chance. Considering how conservative Sean McVay has been at times on fourth down, it’s a good lesson to heed.