January 25, 2015


Bill Belichick and The Big Seep (NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF, 1/25/15, The New Yorker)

Belichick is the sport's longest-tenured and most-revered head coach, because in this age of salary cap-induced parity, only his team consistently wins. To other coaches he is The Master, a brilliant tactician and motivator whose commitment to victory is absolute. Patriot games are beautiful Harvard Business School-like case studies of how to win at football. Defense is Belichick's specialty, and New England defenses are famed for deception--shrewdly disguised coverage schemes and pass-rushing pressures. Whatever the Patriots show the opposing quarterback pre-snap is not likely to imply what's really coming.

Similarly, on offense, from week to week the game plan may radically shift in emphasis from mostly run to mostly pass. Everything gets re-imagined: plays historically employed in one formation will, without warning, be shifted to another; pass routes created for a receiver may suddenly instead stipulate the tight end. A receiver who played quarterback in college, like Julian Edelman, may throw, and an offensive lineman with tacky palms, like Nate Solder, may receive. In the N.F.L.'s surfeit of rules, Belichick sees opportunity. The Patriots substitution patterns and creative use of receiver eligibility make a mockery of teams that don't scour the small print.

Pettine, of the Browns, also likes to say, "There are no moral victories in this league." The Patriot's week-to-week expertise can only be accomplished with a rigorous attention to detail, and a ruthless lack of sentiment. Belichick has said, in another press conference, that his approach to football follows that of Dwight Eisenhower's to military tactics: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable." I spent a year embedded with The New York Jets, and the coaches used to talk about Belichick's immersion in everything. He made himself familiar, they claimed, with each N.F.L. field; he thought about the surfaces in relation to weather and footwear. One year, the coaches said, the Patriots beat the Bears in Chicago under stormy skies in part because the Patriots had traction and "The Bears were slipping all over the place." Make no mistake, the Patriots feature excellent players. But they, too, better not slip up. The list of former stars Belichick has abruptly traded or released onto the street, as they say in N.F.L., is not short. In November, young Patriots running back Jonas Gray ran for more than two hundred yards and four touchdowns against the Colts, earning him the cover of Sports Illustrated. The next week his alarm failed to sound and he was late arriving to the facility. Belichick removed him from the game plan more or less for good.

Belichick's success naturally makes him compelling to others, but the man mostly remains aloof. His press conferences after games are so notably unrevealing that that the Patriots may as well play Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" instead. In private, Belichick is said to discourse about his sport in riveting ways, but good luck to the rest of us. Belichick never explains. His hooded personal style reflects his introverted football approach, and, as other teams note his success and go similarly quiet, it's Belichick we have to thank for the paranoid style in American football. Pretty to watch for an hour on Sunday, but not a lot of fun otherwise.

Brady is the coach's tuxedo-poised, efficient on-field expression of self. The quarterback is also Michael Jordan to Belichick's Phil Jackson in the sense that the ingenious tactician triumphed at the lead only when abetted by a great player. Belichick was a losing head coach until, in 2001, serendipity in the form of injury to another quarterback put the low sixth round draft choice under center for the Patriots. That good fortune, incidentally, is also another example of Belichickian acumen. He prefers to trade down during the college draft, exchanging high choices for extra low ones, amassing as many choices as possible, reasoning that, since drafting science is inexact, more picks mean better odds of hitting on a Pro Bowler. Football players are young people; you can't be sure what kind of a man they'll grow into. At the N.F.L.'s Scouting Combine for draft-eligible players, Brady looked gangly and unathletic. Nobody, including Belichick, could have known how competitive Brady was, how he would drive his talent with study and application and exercise to join Peyton Manning as one of the two lethal modern impresarios of the game's most important position.

Last week, defensive lineman Chris Canty, of the Baltimore Ravens, appeared on NBCSN's "Pro Football Talk," and said, "The Patriots are habitual line-steppers." The Jets thought the same: when the team travelled to play in Foxborough, Massachusetts, I was advised by more than one person to leave my playbook at home because "funny things tend to happen up there." After the game, all the trashcans the Jets players used were emptied and everything was carted away--just in case. There were rumors of Patriots defensive players calling out Jets plays before the snap. In 2007, when the Jets coach was a former Patriots assistant, the Patriots illegally videotaped the Jets defensive signals, in a scandal that came to be known as Spygate. Something that brazen, which could offer the Patriots only a small advantage, told other teams that Belichick might try anything to get an advantage. Creating such a distracting anxiety in opponents was itself an edge for Belichick. But the Jets coaches I knew, including head coach Rex Ryan, admired Belichick, and considered him, in Ryan's emphatic words, "the best"--the Ur football coach. "He's true to himself," Ryan used to say approvingly of his dour rival. Mike Pettine often says that the coaches for whom players won't extend themselves are those who affect qualities unnatural in them. The game is so blunt and physical it can't tolerate a phony.

A week that could been filled with lively back and forth anticipating a promising Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, two marvellous, well-balanced teams, devolved into a national debate over whether and why Belichick keeps scuffing his peerless, leaderly standing with jim-jim maneuvers that afford him what appear to be trivial advantage. Since Belichick is footballs' most suspicious mind, it would seem that his character-destructive flaw is that he is so driven he validates his own suspicions. Every football coach wants to win. Belichick's darkness, it would seem, is that he wants to win too much.

How is it anyway that the N.F.L. allows quarterbacks to choose their own game balls? Isn't this just inviting trouble, ushering a Saint Bernard into a meat locker and then shouting treachery when all the sirloin's gone? Baseball pitchers have to take what the umpire gives them. Why do quarterbacks get all the soft treatment? The reason is touchdowns. America loves touchdowns, and just as the N.F.L.'s blocking, tackling, and pass-defense rules have skewed towards the protection of quarterbacks and the freedom of their receivers, allowing Brady and his positional cohort to get a good grip is good business.

In such a fast, precise game, where passing windows are narrow and quick to close, ball preference matters. Just as another Boston perfectionist, the Red Sox's Ted Williams, was particular to the fraction of an ounce about the heft of his bats, it stands to reason that quarterbacks can be very fussy about their equipment. So can cornerbacks. During my time with the Jets, on Friday afternoons following practice, I often joined a group of defensive players and coaches in a game called "crossbar." The object was to stand thirty yards from the goal post and try to hit the crossbar with a thrown football. To begin, a bag of footballs was emptied and each contestant selected his ball for use. Given a choice, everyone had preferences. Some of these preferences were strong. After balls were thrown, it was the job of two rookies standing under the goal post to retrieve and toss them back out to us. Once, somebody threw me the ball that All-Pro cornerback, and current Patriots star, Darrelle Revis had been using. Rev is a wonderful guy, but don't get between him and his crossbar gamer. He ripped it out of my out-stretched hands, pivoting off of my extended index finger in such a way that there was splintering sensation.

We've established a few facts in this kerfuffle--atmosphere impacts psi (lowering it in colder weather) and Tom Brady likes the ball set at the lowest legal psi to begin with--but a number have gone begging.  Here are a few that would be interesting to know:

(1) what psi does Andrew Luck prefer and what were the Colts' balls at when they were measured?  If he likes them at the max and they measured closer to the min during the in-game weigh-in, then that's a point in the Pats' favor.  If they were still at the max that's damaging.

(2) what psi do the rest of the qbs in the League prefer?  Is Brady the only one who is setting them at minimum?  We've already heard that Aaron Rodgers prefers them over-inflated.  If the preference is generally at the max (or over), then the Pats do stand to reap a big advantage from the underinflation that occurs later in the season, especially at Foxboro, where they're generally playing until the Super Bowl.

(3) does the NFL have any record on in-game measurements, or was this a one off?  If re-weighs historically show that balls always remaion at their initial psi, that's pretty damaging for the Pats.  If this is such a rarity that there is no data, then the Pats will have to get a pass.

Posted by at January 25, 2015 4:48 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus