It’s been about five years since I ran my last scientific experiment, but the lead-up to this New England Patriots season makes me feel like I’m throwing on a lab coat and staring through a microscope.
This time, I’m observing grown men crash into each other instead of bone cells drifting across my lens, and I’m writing 500-word(ish) articles instead of 27-page sermons on mouse bone development. (That, and my old Masshole boss, got me re-thinking my life real quick.)
But you don’t just do experiments for fun. You do them to test a hypothesis — to answer a question you have about some process or other that in turn tells you more about the world.
Right now, I feel like I’m watching Bill Belichick pouring ingredients into a solution, swirling them around and waiting to see if it blows up in his face.
He’s been tinkering to find a championship football formula for almost 30 years as a head coach, and he’s done it more often than any coach in NFL history. (Of course, it helps when you get to use the full-fledged GOAT protocol for a few of them.)
The challenge: every single season is different. The experiment is never perfectly repeatable year from year to year, even when said GOAT was involved. Now, with limited funding at his disposal and a less-than-elite set of ingredients, he’s going off-script and trying things most sane people wouldn’t.
He’s not most people, after all. He’s Bill Belichick, M.F.S. (Mad Football Scientist).
Now, as often happens in the scientific community (and the football one as it turns out), “weird,” out-of-the-box stuff is often treated with skepticism — even flat-out ridicule — at first.
Sure, there’s a big chasm in fundamental importance between “the Earth is round, 6 billion years old and revolves around the Sun” or “birds evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs” and “Matt Patricia can be a competent NFL offensive coordinator and teach a new offense to a second-year quarterback" or “Mac Jones can win a Super Bowl despite not being able to throw the ball over a mountain or scramble for 15 seconds."
But the backlash comes from the same general place: “I don’t believe that’s possible; therefore, it can’t be true.” And it can take years and years to move people off of their presuppositions — we’re talking mountains of data and several papers demonstrating the same thing. (Of course, some people will still find ways to disregard well-tested facts just because they feel like it. Can’t please everybody.)
Then, once people have decided you're a crackpot, everything you do, including trying to get your team better acclimated to a place you've lost seven of your last nine road games at, is immediately clowned. (I mean, it's not like doing things the old way has been working too well for the Patriots when playing in Miami. Why not try something else?)
Like all the (albeit more important) renegade scientists before him, Belichick is dying to prove you wrong — still reveling in the (football) scientific method as he approaches the end of his football career.
Did he HAVE to start an experiment that feels more likely to end with the creation of Frankenstein’s monster than a Super Bowl champion? No. But for whatever reason, he believes something about this process will tell him something about how to win football games in the future — perhaps at the expense of trying to win this very moment.
And it’s possible — quite likely, in fact — that he does know a lot more than we do about the minute details of each step in the process and how they’ll influence the final outcome.
Now, let’s not get it twisted: it’s fair to put aside the old “In Bill we trust” mentality and question his unorthodox moves, especially now that he doesn’t have the greatest quarterback of all time in place to smooth things over. Any observant person should.
You can make a hypothesis one way or the other about how it will look in the end — mine is somewhere around a .500 finish without a playoff berth.
But there’s a difference between being skeptical and rejecting something out of hand because we simply don’t get it or believe in it.
Because even if you’re pretty sure you know how the experiment will turn out, the truth is that you don’t. You still have to keep an objective mind while you gather the data. Sometimes, the results can surprise you.
Either Belichick or the rest of us — who knows, maybe both parties — could be questioning everything we thought we knew about football when the research comes due in January. Until then, we don't know jack about where this will end up, and a lot of us can't stand it.
Unfortunately, my honorary fellow scientists, thems the breaks.