I’ve watched Bill Belichick for a long time now and as mentally tiring as it can be, I’ve spent a significant amount of time listening to him too. Through all of the typical Belichick phraseology that we’ve become so accustomed to, along with grunts, groans and increasingly frequent snorts, there are subtle clues into the process of this fascinating football orchestrator, leader and championship team builder.
If you listen closely enough and watch the game to game approach, week after week, those clues on how he views the season becomes clearer. It’s because of that, along with so many successful past seasons fresh in our minds that nobody should be surprised “we’re onto Atlanta.”
However, many are surprised and there’s a fair reason for that.
In December, coming off back-to-back concerning road losses in Miami and Pittsburgh the Patriots stood at a very un-Patriot-like 9-5. It was both easy and reasonable to feel concerned about their postseason prospects at that time. One had only to look back and cite uninspiring performances versus the likes of the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans to help make the case. The hope of two get-well home games versus the lowly Buffalo Bills and New York Jets offered the opportunity to balance the scales some, but the scent of skepticism still circled around this team. What unfolded since then simply wasn’t as easy to see as in years past, but certainly should come as no surprise.
When I think of the Patriots approach and Belichick as the choreographer, to me each season is like a screenplay. In its crafting, the closing act always ends with confetti falling and a Vince Lombardi trophy in hand. What changes is the personnel and the game plan to get there during each individual season. How many times have you heard Belichick say something to the effect of “each year is a different team?” It sounds like a blow off line, but if you understand how he views things, the message is clear. The “how” is a constant work in progress, but the endgame is always the same.
If you follow the music of any instrumentalists like Joe Satriani or Vinnie Moore then you know that despite writing songs that often have no lyrics, they title their songs first. The music then flows from there. Belichick envisions a Super Bowl every year, that’s the song title. The process of getting there is the sheet music and that’s what is unique every year. In recent years more than ever, the script has really changed, but the endgame hasn’t.
Since NFL Training Camps have softened in recent years by limiting practice in pads and 2-a-days, September football has gotten sloppier as an example. It’s a league-wide epidemic. Smartly, the Patriots have taken advantage of that. As part of their script in recent years, the Patriots have been slow to roll out the more innovative sections of the playbook, rather playing those games with simpler schemes and less wrinkles, particularly on defense. There’s a reason for the annual narrative that the Patriots play their best ball in late November and December. They show more of what they can do when the games matter most. Once they know which players they can trust to do it and do it consistently, the playbook evolves. Have you ever heard Belichick say “we need to coach better and execute better?” Of course and this is what he means, regardless of how cliché and thoughtless it sounds, it’s really not. It’s all part of the script.
Act 1, Scene 1: The Offseason:
With an aging Hall of Fame quarterback and at that time, what definitely felt like an unclear future, the Patriots 2018 script became clear as early in the process as April. Once the Patriots signed Jeremy Hill, drafted offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and then rookie running back Sony Michel shortly thereafter, the message was clear, “Balance Daniel-San, balance.” With a stable of running backs that included Hill, Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden the competition was on and the first part of the script was written. Balance has proven to be both needed and successful for them.
Act 1, Scene 4: September:
I’ll isolate the Lions game to make my point. This game is a perfect ‘let’s see what we have’ type of game. How does our talent measure up to a middling team like the Lions without much help in terms of play design or complicated schemes? This was an evaluation game. Did they want to win? Of course. Were they willing to unload the playbook in September to do it? Absolutely not. Learning how to win in 2018 as a whole was the priority here and all part of the plan. Again, did they punt the game? I’m quite sure not, but the process of understanding how they would win as a team at that point could be and likely was more valuable to them. I don’t remember any flea-flickers or safety blitzes in that game, for example, do you?
Act 2, Scene 4: December vs. the Bills and the Jets (last example):
After a freakish loss on the last play in Miami (one you may never see again), the Patriots left another one on the table in Pittsburgh the following week. Uncharacteristic mistakes highlighted the defeat and amplified the concern. So the last two weeks were all about cleaning up their own house and they did. While some scoffed at the opponents, the Patriots took care of their own business, inspiring confidence in themselves that they could. Just in time for the bye week, rested bodies and the confidence of home field, the hometown crowd and the proof in hand that their internal business was handled. The Chargers never stood a chance.
These are just a couple of examples of the larger point I’m trying to make. Though the Patriots game plan for each opponent individually and though they never look ahead in terms of their preparation, each week is another link in the chain that moves forward to its eventual and desired ending. A Super Bowl. When they need it, they get it. Sometimes like this year the need for ‘got to have it’ moments seemed more frequent and at times less satisfying, but I never doubted them. I’ve seen this play and heard this song too many times before. This year’s title?
“We’re onto Atlanta.”