How shapeshifter Bill Belichick has beaten a league built for parity for 18 years
One of the most staggering things about the New England Patriots’ two decades of domination in the NFL is that, Tom Brady aside, their success isn’t built on a raft of superstars. That’s not say they haven’t had fine players: Randy Moss and the late Junior Seau are already in the NFL Hall of Fame and Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Adam Vinatieri will probably join them. But more than anything, the Pats’ five titles since 2001 have been about the team as a whole. And that’s down to the single most important person in the NFL: Bill Belichick.
The head coach’s ability to zig while others zag has kept New England ahead of every team in the league for 18 years, and led to a mindboggling period of sustained success that should be impossible in a league that is designed for parity through a salary cap and draft system. Belichick’s genius lies in his refusal to wed himself to one overriding philosophy. He’s a shape-shifter, constantly evolving his team’s style – and that flexibility has been on show this season. As modern schemes have expanded the field and the focus has been on the dominance of quarterbacks and smaller, more mobile defensive players, Belichick has returned to an old-school, power running system.
According to a recent study, New England are the third-heaviest team in the league. And that’s by design. Belichick, an economics major, is constantly looking to find market inefficiencies to exploit. He has had great success with quirky schematic innovations, but, for the most part, he takes tried and tested methods and adopts them.
The brilliance is in the timing. Belichick reintroduced the 3-4 defense to the league back in the early 2000s. When it got too popular (thanks to the Patriots’ success), he switched back to a 4-3, where he could unearth some cheap gems. He was also an early adopter (around 2011) of the up-tempo spread offense that’s become ubiquitous in 2018. And he helped change the meaning of what a two tight-end team looked like, using Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in ways we had never before seen: plodding tight ends were out, pass-catching polar bears were in. Naturally, Belichick now pretty much ignores that tactic. The Patriots have played a total of 12 downs with a running back and two tight ends on the field, far and away the lowest total in the league. What used to be the team’s base strategy is now an afterthought.
Belichick saw a new way to take advantage of opposing teams and morphed. As defenses across the league have evolved to counteract spread offenses, they’re left vulnerable to run-heavy teams. So Belichick’s Patriots have poured resources into developing a sturdy offensive line to power that run game, including the huge left tackle Trent Brown, who stands at 6ft 8in and weighs a hefty 380lbs. They’ve also concentrated on developing the deepest, most flexible running-back room in the league. Sony Michel was the Patriots’ first-round pick in 2018 – a cardinal sin among the more analytically minded who consider running backs less important in an era dominated by the passing game. The other New England running backs are made to feel like they matter too: James White and Rex Burkhead both make north of $3m while fullback James Devlin is the fourth-highest earner at his position in the league. All of them play a bunch of snaps, and they’re routinely deployed together in any number of pairings – the Patriots have used two backs on 36% of downs this season, trailing only the San Francisco 49ers.
Belichick still uses his crown jewel of course: the same quick passing game we’re used to from Tom Brady is still humming along, and it was needed in the fourth quarter and overtime of the AFC Championship game with the team’s season on the line. But the Patriots’ late-season revitalization has been fueled by the offensive line and running game as much as anything else. Prior to their Week 11-bye, the Patriots averaged 108.5 rushing yards per game, eclipsing the 100-yard mark only five times in 10 weeks. Belichick doubled down after the mid-season break, committing to a strategy that would work during the bad weather of December and January. In the last eight games, the Patriots have churned out an average of 160.3 yards per game, rushing for over 100 yards in all but two games.
Sunday’s Super Bowl is the culmination of Belichick’s grand plan. No team symbolizes where the sport is going as much as the Patriots’ opponents, Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams: young, fun, and innovative on offense; explosive and light on defense. The Rams are the lightest team in the NFL. And it shows on defense, particularly against the run. LA are the 28th-ranked defense in the league in rush defense DVOA, despite having the best two-man tandem in football playing along their defensive line.
Belichick’s bet that a ball-control ground game was the Patriots’ best path to clinching their sixth championship has already paid dividends. While Brady and the Rams’ high-flying offense will dominate discourse this week, how LA’s defense stands up to the Patriots’ ground game will prove decisive on Sunday.