The NFL has long had its dynasties. In the 1950s the Browns appeared in seven NFL Championship games – including six in a row – and won three. In the 1960s, the Packers won three NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, the 49ers won four in the 1980s and the Cowboys won three in the 1990s.
By the 2000s, the league had entered the era of “parity” following several rules intended to make it harder for one team to dominate. Despite that, since Bill Belichick took over as head coach at New England, the Patriots have appeared in seven Super Bowls and won five. As I write, they are one game away from their eighth Super Bowl in just 17 seasons.
That’s an impressive achievement, even if you’re fed up with their dominance. They have done what every team in the league wants to do. Emulating them means understanding how. Fortunately, there is no shortage of books to help us do this. Success sells, so publishers love a book about the Pats. The New England secret? A combination of luck, canny draft strategy and exceptional coaching talent.
For years after their debut in 1960, the inaugural season of the AFL, the Patriots were a shambles. Christopher Price, whose The Blueprint provides a good overview of the early years of the franchise, tells how head coach Clive Rush was almost killed when he received an electric shock from an ungrounded microphone during his introductory press conference in 1969. That season he was left short-handed after a defensive back was cut just before the game. Price writes:
“Moments later, sitting in the stands, Bob Gladieux – who had been cut by the team ten days earlier – told his friends he was going to get a hotdog. Gladieux then heard his name over the public address system, asking him to report to the locker room. When his friends saw him thirty minutes later, he was in a Patriots uniform making the tackle on the opening kickoff. (Gladieux would later tell reporters he had drunk too much earlier in the day and came to the sidelines after the tackle and got sick.)”
The team later seemed stuck in a cycle of coming close to success but never quite achieving it. A strong 1976 team lost a close playoff game to the Raiders and later fell apart when head coach Chuck Fairbanks quit after a dispute with the owner.Embed from Getty Images
A decade later the Pats beat a strong Miami Dolphins team in the 1985 AFC Championship game to make their first Super Bowl but were crushed by the Chicago Bears, 46-10. In 1996, with Bill Parcells in charge, New England returned to the Super Bowl again, only to lose to Green Bay.
Few expected Bill Belichick to change things, particularly given his public image as a mumbling grump, known to Parcells as “Gloom”.
Belichick’s staff drew heavily on people he had worked with in previous roles, whether under Parcells, with the Giants and the Patriots, or during his short-lived tenure as head coach in Cleveland. Belichick’s right-hand man, VP of player personnel Scott Pioli, was someone he had hired in Cleveland in 1992 and worked with again at the Jets. Together, they set about building a dynasty in an era when dynasties were supposed to be extinct.
The second stroke of fortune came in 2000, when the Patriots drafted Tom Brady. Their quarterbacks coach, Dick Rehbein, lobbied hard for them to pick Brady but few others were convinced. As Pioli said later: “If we thought he was going to be this good, I don’t think we would have waited for the 199th pick to take him.”Embed from Getty Images
In 2001, the injury to starting QB Drew Bledsoe gave Brady the starting job and he has never relinquished it. Brady might be the best decision the Patriots made but it can’t be described as a plan.
There was a team-building plan, however. Price argues that Belichick’s success stems from stocking his roster with mid-ranking players who are better than average, rather than relying on expensive stars. On defense, he focuses on smart, flexible linebackers to drive his schemes and worries less about other positions.
Michael Holley’s War Room goes deeper into the team-building strategy. He focuses on Belichick and Pioli as well as a third crucial figure, director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff. Another Cleveland contact, Dimitroff was a scout for the Browns, as was his father. In 2002, he became New England’s director of college scouting.
When the book was written Pioli had become GM of the Kansas City Chiefs and Dimitroff had the same role at the Atlanta Falcons. This gives Holley a broader perspective. He’s able to look at the philosophy that guided the building of the Patriots dynasty and how it spread to other teams.Embed from Getty Images
Taking us inside the ‘war room’, where a team’s experts gather during the draft, debating the merits of hundreds of players as the clock ticks, Holley gets Belichick talking about his draft philosophy and how valuable it can be to target players that other teams have undervalued. You can pick up the players you want and, if you’re smart, accumulate more draft picks.
The draft day manoeuvring is fascinating. Of the 2010 draft, Holley writes:
“Through 19 picks, the draft had unfolded the way the Patriots wanted. Tim Tebow, whom Belichick and Caserio had taken to dinner in Boston’s North End just three weeks earlier, was still there. Belichick believed the Florida quarterback was rising in other draft rooms, and he knew there was some mystery about the Patriots’ interest, so that meant there might be a market for Tebow when the Patriots picked at 22. Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant was also on the board, and the Patriots knew that Dallas coveted him and that created a trade market as well. Most important, the man Belichick wanted all along, Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty, was still available.”
In the end, Belichick traded his first round pick, number 22, for Denver’s first (24) and fourth rounder (113). Then he traded pick 24 and his fourth rounder (119) for Dallas’s first (27) and third (90). The Patriots were considering trading back behind the Jets too but decided not to risk seeing McCourty head to New York. In the end they got their man with pick 27 and picked up an extra third rounder and a better fourth rounder.
This ability to draft well – often by picking up players that the rest of the league undervalues – is part of what has kept the Patriots at the top for so long. But, of course, Belichick is a coach and it is his abilities there that have been crucial. Throughout his time, few players have been constant. Belichick has found a way to continually revitalise his team, using new pieces. How did he pick up that talent?
Raised to coach
It’s significant that Belichick’s father, Steve, made his name as a scout. His gift was the ability to see what was happening on the field – in an era before instant replays – and analyse what had happened.
His book, Football Scouting Methods, is a dense read but worth the time for anyone who wants a better understanding of the game. Many observations have not dated at all. For example, on quarterbacks: “When they ‘back pedal’, they are usually going to throw the ball to the left, and when they run back sideways, they generally throw the ball over the middle or to the right.”Embed from Getty Images
The Education of a Coach explains how Steve grew up in poverty and developed a fierce work ethic that he passed on to his son. Though Halberstam wrote several books about sport, his reputation comes from work about the Vietnam war and American foreign policy. Bill Belichick admired his work and agreed to talk to him.
It’s clear that growing up around a man as detail-orientated, insightful and observant as Steve shaped Bill Belichick. “By watching him, I learned to see the game,” Bill says, “how well prepared you have to be and how quickly your eyes have to shift.”
Bill grew up around coaches, scouts and players and was breaking down film before he was 10. Throughout the book, a picture emerges of Belichick’s philosophy, his ability to determine an opponents weakness and find ways to exploit it and his flexible approach to his schemes. Ultimately, what has kept the Patriots successful for so long is not just their ability to keep bringing in good players but Belichick’s ability to find ways to use them, continually adapting to the talent he has available.
What can the Patriots’ rivals learn from all this? Partly, it’s a lesson about luck. New England couldn’t have known that Gloom would turn out to be one of the greatest coaches of all time or that Brady would be on of the great quarterbacks. Nobody knew that.
But having got lucky, the Patriots have continually created situations that make continued success more likely. Even during their decade without a Super Bowl win, they constantly challenged for titles. And key to that was the ability to adapt to circumstances. But even once Belichick and Brady have gone, will anyone else be able to emulate their success?
Halberstam writes: “The danger of being Bill Belichick was that there might be a younger Bill Belichick out there, trying to gain on him, a younger, more cold-blooded gunslinger moving in to challenge the reigning gunslinger.”
For almost two decades, the other 31 NFL teams have been looking for just that gunslinger. They haven’t found him yet.
The Blueprint by Christopher Price (Thomas Dunne, 2007)
War Room by Michael Holley (HarperCollins, 2011)
Football Scouting Methods by Steve Belichick (Ronald Press, 1962)
The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam (Hachette, 2005)
Top photo: WEBN-TV