Do you guys read about other sports? I love reading about accomplished athletes and coaches in other sports. I find discovering their process that took them from average to greatness fascinating. I know hockey. I know it better than any sport but learning that coach or an athlete utilized the same mindset and/or approach to refine their skillset in a different sport, is compelling. It goes to show that beyond our specialties we are all basically built and thrive through the same fundamentals.
This week Coach Littler has an article by Jeff Howe (No relation to Gordie, Marty or Mark) about NFL Head Coach Bill Belichick and his process and how his competitors react and prepare for the Patriots on Sundays.
BILL BELICHICK’S RIVALS SPEAK OUT:
How the Patriots coach causes the AFC East coaching carousel to constantly spin -Jeff Howe
Nick Saban has seen Bill Belichick’s brilliance from both sides. Saban, the Alabama head coach, has worked with and against Belichick, admiring his diligence and execution up close and recognizing the challenge of competing against him from a distance. As Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Browns in the 1990s and his divisional foe as the Dolphins boss from 2005-06, Saban has a better understanding than most of what has made the Patriots coach a peerless competitor for two decades.
Belichick and the Patriots have won 16 of the last 18 AFC East titles and sent their competition into a tailspin along the way.
It’s not easy to coach against Belichick — from the midweek planning and game-day execution, to the offseason team building and organizational pressure to complete the chase — and it’s broken many along the way.
“What Bill does a great job of: the preparation they do against any team they play, they’re going to be really sound and solidand have answers for just about everything that you do.It’s just attention to detail and he has a lot of experience. He’s been in the league for a long, long time, so there’s not a whole lot that he hasn’t seen. So you’re really not going to ever trick him. They’re going to be prepared for just about everything that you do.”
The Bills, Jets and Dolphins have tried it all. They’ve hired defensive minds like Rex Ryan to attempt to stifle quarterback Tom Brady. And they’ve hired offensive innovators like Adam Gase hoping to go score-for-score with Brady.
(Amazingly, both Ryan and Gase got hired twice, and the Jets have to pray Gase’s new tour will be more fruitful than Ryan’s second chance with the Bills.)
They’ve plucked away Belichick’s most trusted lieutenants like Eric Mangini and Brian Flores. They’ve tapped into college legends like Saban. They’ve collectively spent seven first-round picks on quarterbacks since 2000. They’ve even turned running backs into quarterbacks, with the Dolphins introducing the Wildcat offense to the NFL.
The AFC East has tried and routinely failed to solve the Belichick riddle by cycling through coaches at a wild rate, somehow hoping to find the man who can topple the orchestrator of the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
Since the Pats hired Belichick in 2000, the Bills (10), Dolphins (10) and Jets (six) have employed 26 head coaches, including interims and retreads. Those three teams have employed more coaches than five other four-team divisions, trailing only the current AFC West teams (29 coaches since 2000) and NFC West (27). The AFC East is the only division with double-digit coaches on multiple teams.
The pursuit of Belichick and the Patriots has been futile. One on three, it hasn’t been a fair fight.
It’s not a stretch to think Belichick knows his opponents better than they do.
During the regular season, it’s not uncommon for the coaching staff to work 18-22 hours per day, and players routinely walk into Gillette Stadium to find someone on the staff slept there the night before.
Their preparation, learning opponents’ tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, is both ruthless and unparalleled.
That’s why, when it’s said Belichick takes away what an opponent does best or makes them play left-handed, it’s not just an accepted cliché — it’s the truth.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Saban said.
“One of the things Bill always does is he defines — here are the things we have to do in this game to win. Included in that, this is what they like to do, and we have to take that away. Then we’re going to build the game plans so you do those things.”
In Super Bowl LIII, for example, Belichick changed the game on Rams coach Sean McVay. The Patriots played more man coverage than any team in the league in 2018, but they strictly deployed zone coverages against the Rams. McVay refused to adjust, and the Patriots happily watched Rams receivers stem their routes into covered zones.
McVay never utilized a Plan B.
“You better be totally prepared, and then you better have another game plan,” said Herm Edwards, who coached the Jets from 2001-05 and now runs the program at Arizona State.
“You can’t go in there with one game plan because it’s going to change and they’re going to change. And you know it.”
Belichick’s opponents also marveled over the degree in which the Patriots execute fundamentals and perform situationally.
While Belichick has a couple Super Bowl game plans in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he doesn’t often reinvent the wheel as much as he makes sure it still spins on its axis.
“What separates him and that team from a lot of the other teams in the league, first and foremost, they never beat themselves,” said Joe Philbin, who coached the Dolphins from 2012-15.
“I used to tell the team, look, we’re going to have to beat these guys fair and square, and we’re going to have to beat them at their own game. They’re not going to hand us the game.They’re not going to make a ton of mistakes.There aren’t going to be a ton of penalties.They’re not going to give us the ball a bunch. Number two, the turnover margin that they’ve had since they got it rolling in 2001 is ridiculous. It’s impressive. That’s tied into not beating themselves.”
Philbin wasn’t lying. The Patriots’ plus-187 turnover margin since 2000 is otherworldly, as the Chiefs’ plus-84 mark ranks second. Belichick has said countless times there is no more important stat in relation to winning than turnovers.
Obviously, with six Super Bowls and 225 regular season wins — nearly two full seasons’ worth more than the second-ranked Steelers (197) — the Patriots of the Belichick era are going to rank highly across the board in a number of areas.
They’re also No. 1 in points scored and point differential, No. 2 in penalties, No. 3 in points allowed and third-down conversions, and No. 6 in time of possession. “When you play them,you’re going to have to go earn a victory,” Philbin said.
“My view of football is fundamentals, discipline, hanging onto the ball, execution. Not to take anything away from (Belichick’s) schematic expertise, but if you were to ask me, schematics are the second part of the equation. The first part of the equation is the execution and discipline. “When you play that team, you’ve got to hold onto the football. And it’s not easy to force Tom Brady into a mistake, and Dante (Scarnecchia) does such a great job with the (offensive) line — they know where you want to go when you blitz. That ball security is off the charts, and that gives you a great chance of winning. The third thing we always stressed was they do a really good job of situational football. You had to have your third downs detailed, your red zone thought process on both sides of the ball. Special teams was another area where they were very sound.”
Aside from that, it sounds easy to beat the Patriots.
Saban’s program at Alabama has essentially been the college version of Belichick’s Pats. Yeah, they occasionally fall. And no, they don’t win it all every year. But anyone who topples the premier team in the league, or country, has to play well for 60 full minutes and hope that’s enough.
“They’re going to try to win the game beating you with their execution,” Saban said. “And it’s sound. It’s solid. It’s difficult.”
Without a full 60 minutes, an opponent would leave itself vulnerable to one of Brady’s legendary comebacks. Just ask the Falcons, who were daydreaming about the Lombardi Trophy when Brady delivered a wakeup call in Super Bowl LI.
Philbin, who went 2-4 against the Patriots, can still recall some of the more difficult defeats. The Dolphins had a 17-3 halftime lead at Gillette in 2013 but squandered it in a game that spiraled out of control quickly after a few Dolphins mistakes in the third quarter when they had the Pats on the ropes. The Patriots scored two quick touchdowns and then ran away with a 27-17 victory.
Philbin had flashbacks last season with the Packers, for whom he was the offensive coordinator when they visited Foxboro in November. The teams were tied, 17-17, at the start of the fourth quarter and the Packers were moving when Aaron Jones fumbled at the Pats’ 29-yard line. The Patriots then scored two touchdowns in less than three minutes to win 31-17.
“They’ve done that to a lot of people over the years,” Philbin said.
And when’s the last time Belichick looked out of sorts on the sideline? Even in Super Bowl XLIX, when it looked like the Seahawks were about to waltz into the end zone for the win, Belichick’s calmness was perceived as maniacal in real time. He let the clock run down in the final minute and forced Pete Carroll to make decisions on the fly. And you know how that turned out.
“(Belichick) appears to be extremely calm. I think that’s important to manage a game,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said.
“The game slows down (with) the more preparation and more experience you have. I’ve found that just in different seats that I’ve sat in along the way. The game slows down significantly, which is good. He does a really good job of situational football.”
Patriots on the mind
This isn’t just a Sunday haunting.
The Bills, Jets and Dolphins are always thinking about the Patriots. They build their teams with the Patriots in mind.
“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t. I learned from Dave Gettleman (in Carolina) that you always want to look at the Super Bowl rep from your conference,” McDermott said.
“It’s New England. Kansas City is up there with a really strong squad. How do we match up against those teams? That has to be the benchmark for how we’re doing things, and the quality of players we’re looking for, and how we match up against them and how we generate a whole lot of problems for other people, too.” Philbin added, “That’s what you do in the AFC East — take a good, hard look at those guys.”
That’s how teams construct their rosters. They look up at the division champ, the conference champion and the Super Bowl champion. In half the seasons since 2001, the Patriots have checked off at least two of those boxes, so the AFC East would understandably centralize its focus. But opponents can’t necessarily predict what Belichick will do from year to year because he is consistently trying to evolve.
Just last season, for example, the offense — which has morphed from running-based to high-flying to quick-hitting passes — shifted back toward a power running style and reinforced that depth chart for this season.
Also, Belichick knows how to build his own team, and he does a better job of putting players in positions that highlight their strengths than anyone in the NFL.
Opponents are chasing. The Patriots are hunting. -There’s a difference.
“My philosophy on building a team was really a lot learned in Cleveland with Bill,” Saban said, “and how you define what you want at every position, what the critical factors are, so you really sort of develop your team and get the players that can do everything at every position that you want them to do systematically.
“So that was the first order of business in Miami, to try to do that. And then I think you always have to look at the teams in your division that you have to beat. Look at, OK, here’s what we have to play against. This is what we have to do and these are the kinds of players we’re going to have to do it, and make sure you have some of those people on your team.”
To that point, continuity is of the utmost importance. Change is the only constant.
Belichick has said it took until 2003 to fully get his system in place, acquiring a full roster of players who could execute the scheme.
With that in mind, it’s asinine how quickly coaches get fired around the NFL. Patriots owner Robert Kraft deserves credit for his perseverance, giving up a first-round draft pick for the Jets to break Belichick’s contract and then sticking with him through 13 losses in his first 18 games and backlash from league and television network executives who didn’t like the coach’s personality.
It’s fair to wonder how many other owners would have considered firing their coach after a 5-11 season and an 0-2 start to the next.
There were 19 full-time head coaches among the Bills, Jets and Dolphins since Belichick arrived in 2000 — plus five interim coaches and the offseason hires of Flores and Gase. Of those 19, only seven got a chance to start their fourth season. Six were fired within two years of taking the job. That impatience has reached impressive levels of incompetence.
“The great thing for them — and this is a compliment to Bill and the staff and ownership and Brady — in that division, there are always coaches changing,” Edwards said. “The only thing that stays the same in that division is Bill and the quarterback. Everything else has changed. I had a five-year run before I got traded (to the Chiefs). There aren’t too many coaches who last beyond that. There’s always a change or two in the division.”
In Miami, Dave Wannstedt was fired midway through his fifth season in 2004. Since then, the Dolphins haven’t had a coach who got through his fourth season, and back-to-back firings of Saban after two years and Cam Cameron after one left the roster in chaos.
McDermott, hired in 2017, has actually stabilized the situation in Buffalo, where the Bills haven’t had a coach last four full seasons since Marv Levy’s retirement after the 1997 season. Prior to McDermott, Rex Ryan was fired during his second season, and Doug Marrone only lasted two years before him.
“Look, a lot of coaches have come to the AFC East and haven’t lasted, mostly because of the Patriots and Bill Belichick,” McDermott said. “That is what it is.”
There’s a lot of damage that can be done with those quick coaching turnovers, as a new coach inherits a team that spent draft capital and cap space on players who fit a different scheme, and sometimes works for a front office that might have misaligned objectives. When job security comes into question, politics sometimes take precedence to winning.
“I think what’s important in the NFL is not just the coach,” Saban said. “I think you have to look at it more from 1,000 feet. The advantage you create when you have stability in a program is you get everybody in the organization on the same page. So the personnel people are trying to get the players you want. You’re getting the kind of coaches that you want to coach the things that you want done in your organization the way you want them done.
“I think what happens in a lot of cases when you have this turnover, OK, I go to Miami and I define the kind of players that we want that are completely different than a lot of the players that were there in the past, philosophically. Well, you’ve got to make a lot of changes to get there, and that takes time. There’s a lot of parity in the NFL, and you’re limited as to how you can bring players to your team relative to salary cap, free agency, the draft, how many draft picks you’ve got. All these things start to add up.
“And is everybody in the organization really trying to do the same thing the same way with the same goal of how we’re going to bring players to the team, who are those players going to be, what kind of players are they going to be?
And you define all that rather than, OK, you’ve got the personnel people over here thinking one way, and the coach is thinking the other way and the right hand is not sort of congruent with the left hand. And now you start spinning your wheels.”
There’s organizational pressure to beat the Patriots. Sometimes, a guy like Ryan will advertise it. More often than not, it’s a quiet pressure.
These coaches know what they signed up to do. And if they don’t, well, there’s plenty of history to prove what will happen.
“You don’t have to say it,” Edwards said. “You know it.”
Belichick is 89-31 against the AFC East since 2000, including a 1-1 playoff record, beating Mangini and falling to Ryan, who is one of the very few who can boast a dose of success against the Patriots.
Edwards’ Jets won the 2002 AFC East title (beating the Patriots on a tiebreaker), and Tony Sparano’s Dolphins took it in 2008 (also beating the Patriots on a tiebreaker) when Brady was down with a torn ACL. Chad Pennington was the quarterback on both teams.
Of the AFC East coaches who have had a crack at Belichick, only two have a winning record, and the circumstances of those victories are actually comical. Al Groh was 2-0 against Belichick in 2000. Groh, a longtime friend of Belichick, went 9-7 in his lone season with the Jets but quit to take over at Virginia, his alma mater. (It’s fair to assume Groh recognized the same ownership issues with the Jets that caused Belichick to quit a year earlier.) And Jim Bates beat the Patriots in his only chance as the Dolphins interim coach in 2004, a game that has long been known as the biggest regular-season upset of Belichick’s tenure.
Saban (2-2), Wade Phillips (1-1 with the Bills in 2000) and Dan Campbell (1-1 as an interim with the Dolphins in 2015) are the only others with a .500 record against Belichick.
Including Jim Mora when the Colts were in the division from 2000-01, there are 17 AFC East coaches with a losing record against Belichick. Some of the worst include Dick Jauron (0-7), Mike Mularkey (0-4), McDermott (0-4), Todd Bowles (1-8), Gregg Williams (1-5, with the lone win coming the week of Lawyer Milloy’s release), Chan Gailey (1-5) and Edwards (2-8, with one of the wins in the game when Drew Bledsoe got injured). Ryan (5-12) and Wannstedt (4-5, with two wins in 2000) are the only AFC East coaches who have beaten Belichick more than twice.
“There’s a tremendous amount of respect because you have to respect that greatness of what they’ve been able to do and how they’ve been able to sustain it,” McDermott said.
“Certainly, it’s a challenge and a little bit of a unique situation because of who it is and how long they’ve been in that seat.”
The cycle repeated this offseason when the Dolphins replaced Gase with Flores and the Jets fired Bowles for Gase. Too often, teams expect different results after making the same decisions, and the Dolphins increased Flores’ level of difficulty this weekend by trading several key veterans, including left tackle Laremy Tunsil. It’s gotten so murky that Flores was asked Sunday if the Dolphins were intentionally tanking.
Meanwhile, Belichick has constructed another roster with Super Bowl aspirations. Those divisional foes keep swiping at his legs, and he’s never broken stride.
The constants are still in place: Belichick, Brady and the recipe for impending dominance.
It’s a tale as old as Belichick’s tenure in the AFC East.
Even if you are not a Patriots fan you have to admit that’s impressive. Hope everyone plays well this week.
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