Commentary

To explain Belichick, go to the tape

To understand Bill Belichick, you must understand his obsession with film study, Greg Garber writes.

Updated: September 25, 2007, 3:55 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

"Hey," said Bill Belichick, beckoning from a corner of the Giants' vacated locker room, "I want to show you something."

It was December 1986, and in his film preparation for a Monday night game in San Francisco, the Giants' defensive coordinator had unearthed a small gem. Belichick, then 34, was in a mood to share, even if it was with a Morristown (N.J.) Daily Record reporter five years his junior.

Glancing down the hallway -- head coach Bill Parcells would not have approved -- Belichick ushered me into the linebackers meeting room and switched on the tape. It was a 49ers play from a few weeks previous and, to me, it looked fairly ordinary: Joe Montana to Jerry Rice for a dozen yards. How many times had that happened?

"No," Belichick said, frowning and pointing, "look over there, away from the ball."

Bill Belichick
AP PhotoGiants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick gets a pick-me-up after New York's NFC Championship Game victory in 1987.

Someone -- I can't remember whether it was Dwight Clark or Russ Francis -- ran a short crossing route underneath and, almost imperceptibly, took the safety out of the play. I do recall the effortless, almost unconscious way Belichick worked the remote: click -- forward ... click -- backward. Click. Click. Click. He broke down an ingenious wrinkle installed by 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, a nuance Belichick said he had never seen.

"Great play," said Belichick, admiration in his usually monotone voice. "That's why he's Bill Walsh."

It was the ultimate compliment from a professional peer; Walsh and Belichick might be the keenest minds ever on their respective sides of the ball. Belichick's defenders were ready for that pick play, and the Giants beat the 49ers 21-17. It was the sixth of 12 consecutive wins that season, the last coming in Super Bowl XXI.

That deep and abiding fascination with film, the delight in the detail (and seemingly little else), is why Bill Belichick is Bill Belichick.

We first crossed paths in 1983, when I began covering the New York Giants. Technically, Belichick was Parcells' linebackers coach then, but he already was coordinating what would become the league's best defense. For whatever reason, he befriended a rookie reporter and taught him some of the nuances of the game. He always answered my random, sometimes naive questions -- concerning Lawrence Taylor's unsavory personal habits, X's and O's, Parcells' rampant ego -- although not for attribution. Once I learned the facts, it was up to me to corroborate them through independent sources.

In the wake of Spy Games, after Belichick and the New England Patriots were found guilty of violating an NFL rule prohibiting the on-field videotaping of the opponent's defensive signals, it was open season on psychoanalysis. Belichick has been compared (unfavorably) to Richard Nixon and his fascination with tapes and his place in history, and pundits have wondered why someone so smart could be so stupid. How someone could have the arrogance to openly tape the Jets' signs -- and, at the same time, the insecurity to feel the need to do so.

The answer lies in a dark, nondescript meeting room, nearly a half-century ago, at the U.S. Naval Academy:

Bill Belichick, all of 7 years old, is wedged into a corner, surrounded by Navy players, the outline of his slight frame barely visible in the flickering light. It's Monday night, and Steve Belichick, son of Croatians Ivan and Marija Bilicic, mans the projector. He takes the Midshipmen through the plays of the coming Saturday opponent. Steve is the academy's advance scout and, thanks to his dense and copious notes, the players already have a feel for what's coming. The night before, Bill and his father had driven to the airport in Baltimore to pick up the tape. On Tuesday night, provided he has done his homework, Bill will join the entire team assembled at the family home in Annapolis, Md., for a second film session. Steve makes comments on specific formations and tendencies, and the players -- along with ever-studious Bill -- take notes.

It was a glorious environment, best detailed in David Halberstam's thoughtful 2005 book, "The Education of a Coach," for a kid who adored his father and the game of football. Future Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino (1960) and Roger Staubach (1963) were his heroes, and, thrillingly, his friends. By the time Bill was 10, Steve once told me, he was asking intelligent questions about the safety's run-support responsibilities. Steve, who played fullback for the Detroit Lions in 1941 and was an assistant at Navy from 1956 to '89, taught his son the vital lesson of due diligence. Bill never complained that his father saw only one of his football games at Annapolis High School because he was always on the road on Saturdays; more than anything, Bill looked forward to the one annual scouting trip on which he'd be allowed to accompany his father.

Through all the daily drama, film study remains a constant -- and a comfort -- in Belichick's life. Amid all his myriad responsibilities as a head coach -- enduring sessions with the media, resolving disputes between staff members, managing the cold calculus of personnel decisions -- breaking down film, alone and in the dark, represents an escape. It is no longer black and white like in the 1950s, but it might as well be. There is no gray areas with film; the images don't lie. The secrets are there for anyone willing to take the pains to discover them.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
David J. Phillip/AP PhotoPatriots head coach Bill Belichick celebrates with father Steve after winning Super Bowl XXXIX against Philadelphia.

Film study allows Belichick to do what he does best: deploy defensive personnel effectively and efficiently. His gift is assimilating a player's ability and understanding how much responsibility he can bear, then plugging him into that 11-man matrix. Although Taylor was the leading light of Belichick's Giants defense, it was linebacker Pepper Johnson who, covering more ground than anyone, was the key ingredient. In his first season with Cleveland in 1991, Belichick's defense allowed 144 fewer points than the previous year. When he joined the New York Jets as Parcells' assistant head coach in 1997, the difference was 167 -- 10 fewer points allowed per game. Those are remarkable numbers.

Belichick has always been a student of history, and by winning three Super Bowls in four seasons with the New England Patriots, he has become a part of it. Only one man -- the Steelers' Chuck Noll -- has won four Super Bowls as a head coach. Belichick, 55, has five Super Bowl rings, including his two as an assistant with the Giants, and seems destined to add to that total. With 33 years of NFL coaching experience, Belichick is the longest-tenured among the league's active head coaches.

More than anything, Belichick is committed to winning. Frankly, it's all he cares about. Every minute of his time is weighed by its ability to effect a positive result. It is not unreasonable to compare Belichick to Niccolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance political philosopher. In his well-known work, "The Prince," Machiavelli argues that successful rulers, while remaining above reproach in the public eye, may sometimes cross the line into evil for the public good. In Belichick's mind, if the Patriots are a public trust, the ends justify the means.

Most teams spend considerable time trying to decipher the opposition's defensive signals, using conventional advance scouts and the study of broadcast footage. But that is slow and ploddingly inefficient work. Capturing those signals on film speeds up the process and eliminates the possibility of error. Belichick made a point of saying that the Patriots had not used the information gleaned from videotape in the same games it was shot. Although that hardly excuses the illegal practice, it prompted Belichick to claim that his mistake was in the "interpretation" of the rules.

When details of the signal-stealing emerged a few weeks ago, I thought of something Belichick once told me about Taylor. Despite his bouts with drug use and his sometimes messy personal life, Taylor always gave his best effort -- such that it sometimes was -- on the field.

"Lawrence completely sells out on every play," Belichick said. "He doesn't care about his body -- or anyone else's for that matter. He will do anything it takes to win. Anything.

"The same thing that makes him [an unlikable] human being," Belichick added in a telling aside, "makes him one of the greatest players who ever lived."

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I believe the same is true of Bill Belichick.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.