Commentary

Bill Belichick and the Bullseye Gameplan

An excerpt from Ron Jaworski's new book, "The Games That Changed the Game"

Updated: September 8, 2010, 2:24 PM ET
By Ron Jaworski | ESPN.com

Bill BelichickJeff Haynes/AFP/Getty ImagesMike Martz had his hands full when he ran into Bill Belichick's versatile defense in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Editor's Note: The following is the second in a series of excerpts from Ron Jaworski's book, "The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays."

The 2001 St. Louis Rams won a league-high fourteen games behind one of the most dominating offenses in the game's history. Their quarterback, Kurt Warner, had to wait until he was twenty-seven to finally break into the league in 1998. All he did in his third full season was to lead the NFL in completions (375) and pass completion percentage (68.7 percent), TD passes (36), average passing yardage per game (301.9), and passer rating (101.4). And his 4,830 total yards in the air--700 more yards than runner-up Peyton Manning of Indianapolis--was second only to Miami Dolphin Dan Marino's epic 1984 season in the annals of the game. (In 2008, New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees bumped Warner to third place on the all-time single season list.)

It was easy to see why St. Louis rolled into Super Bowl XXXVI as 14-point favorites. Only a year earlier Bill Belichick's maiden New England season had ended in a 5-11 disaster. Just past the midpoint of 2001, the Patriots' record sat at .500, the offense was led by a rookie quarterback named Tom Brady, and a third of the roster consisted of first-year players and waiver-wire pickups. The Pats got to the playoffs by winning their last six games but rarely overwhelmed their opponents during that stretch. Winter weather and a controversial referee's decision as to whether Brady had fumbled the ball late in the fourth quarter had given them a playoff win many people felt they did not deserve over Oakland in the infamous "Tuck Rule Game." Even New England's championship game victory over Pittsburgh was closely contested, with the Patriots staving off a Steelers second half comeback to win by a touchdown.

On paper, I didn't see the Patriots matching up very well with St. Louis. You go man-for-man across the board, and it should have been lights out in the Rams' favor. I truly thought the game would be a blowout. But as we've all since learned, you can never count out any team coached by Bill Belichick.

By now, Belichick's career path is well known, even to casual fans. He's been around the game all his life, as the son of Steve Belichick, a former NFL player and college assistant at the U.S. Naval Academy. Bill played football at Wesleyan University, and after graduating in 1975, he turned to an old family friend for his first NFL job. "Don Shula and my dad went back a long way," Belichick recalled. "They both played college football in Ohio and had a relationship going back to the 1940s. When I talked to Coach Shula, I knew the Dolphins didn't have anybody doing film breakdowns on the staff, and I offered my services to him. I asked, 'Could I break down game film for you? I'd just like to learn your system and understand your organization.' He told me, 'I'm sure you'd do a great job, but I prefer my assistants do it so they'll learn those little details themselves, and not try to pass it off on somebody else.' I respected that. I think when you don't handle the details yourself, then sometimes things slip through the cracks and you miss something. Since then, I've always tried to keep that in the back of my mind. Even though we do have people handle those breakdowns for us now, I still try to be detail conscious myself, so that the 'little things' don't end up becoming 'big things' you miss."

[+] EnlargeFaulk
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty ImagesIf the Patriots locker room is big on pictures, not signs, then an image of Marshall Faulk getting pummeled must be prominently displayed.

Belichick ultimately landed that same job assisting head coach Ted Marchibroda with the Baltimore Colts, starting out at $25 a week. From there, he quickly moved up the coaching ladder, with stops in Detroit and Denver before joining the Giants in 1979. In New York, Belichick spent a dozen years coaching the defense for Ray Perkins and then Bill Parcells. Two of those seasons, 1986 and '90, ended with Super Bowl championships. That second ring got him his first head coaching job. From 1991 through 1995 he directed the Cleveland Browns but then resigned to go back with Parcells for stints with the Patriots and Jets before being named New England's head coach in 2000. After a rough first year, Belichick put together a run that has made the Patriots arguably the decade's most dominant team: nine straight winning seasons, seven division titles, four Super Bowl appearances, and three league championships.

Bill's blueprint for success is built on core philosophies, beginning with his approach toward acquiring personnel. I've heard him say again and again, "It's not about collecting talent, it's about building a team. Some players fit better into one system or style of play than they do in another." Belichick assigns specific tasks for each of his players. He wants those tasks completed the way they're taught in practice. If each player does his job as instructed, Bill's team usually wins.

This approach makes a lot of sense, but plenty of today's teams prefer stockpiling as many Pro Bowlers as possible. Good strategy is important, they'll concede, but ultimately they believe that better talent usually wins out in the NFL. And there are also a number of NFL coaches who are steadfast in going with the same strategies all the time. They arrive at the stadium each Sunday and basically declare, "Here's what we do. We do it pretty damn well. We're going to run things like we always do -- and it's the other team's job to try to stop it."

It's not about collecting talent, it's about building a team. Some players fit better into one system or style of play than they do in another.

--Bill Belichick

Belichick's view is much different. "Every week is its own challenge," he emphasized. "Every game brings its own set of circumstances, adjustments, play style, and matchups. We focus on what we want to do for that week, not what we did two weeks before or ten weeks before." Super Bowl XXXVI put that philosophy into action and showcased it as no game had done previously.

A little more than two months earlier, the Rams beat New England, 24-17, during the tenth week of the regular season. The Patriots played pretty well but ultimately failed to achieve their main goal: disrupting the precise timing of Mike Martz's offense. "They only scored twenty-four points," said Belichick, "but I never really felt like we had control of the game. It seemed like every time they needed a pass, they could hit one."

"We thought going in that night we couldn't just let St. Louis settle in and throw. We wanted to get them out of their rhythm, put pressure on Warner, force incomplete passes. So we blitzed -- a lot. Unfortunately for us, their offensive line was great. By my count, we blitzed them forty-three times and never really got much heat on Warner."

Even though the Patriots were frustrated about losing, they weren't totally discouraged. In the locker room afterward, the mood was surprisingly upbeat. Mike Martz also had high regard for the team he had just beaten. "That was the most physical game we played that year," he praised, "and I mentioned to the media at the time that this was a Super Bowl team. The Patriots were the best opponent we had played to that point."

One reason why New England was so tough was the versatility and flexibility of its defenders, the perfect example being Mike Vrabel, a free agent addition who hadn't found a home in Pittsburgh but was a perfect fit for Belichick's schemes in New England. He was equally adept coming out of a three-point stance or standing upright, and could attack from any angle. Another waiver-wire pickup, the highly intelligent thirty-three-year-old Roman Phifer, filled a specific role as New England's pass coverage linebacker. In Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law, the Patriots had defensive backs that were physical and tough, with the versatility to defend the run at the line of scrimmage and execute their responsibilities in pass coverage. They were also extremely effective blitzers.

The Rams certainly weren't fully prepared to deal with them, and the results were evident on the scoreboard. Powerful St. Louis would be held to a single field goal through the first three quarters. My first NFL head coach was Chuck Knox, a guy who won more games in his career than a lot of coaches who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Chuck was legendary for dozens of sayings his players referred to as "Knoxisms." The one I remember best is, "What you do speaks so well. There's no need to hear what you say." Bill Belichick is very much of the same mind. "We don't have many signs in our locker room," he noted. "We have a quote from the great Chinese general Sun Tzu dating back to 540 B.C. It says, 'Every battle is won before it is ever fought.' We have another sign that says, 'Penalties lose games.' But that's it. What we do have are pictures of our players from games we've won, scenes of them making plays or celebrating a teammate's success. We're not big on signs. We're bigger on pictures."

I'm not sure if one particular photo is mounted on the walls of the Patriots facility, but if it's not, it should be: the image of any New England defender from Super Bowl XXXVI knocking Marshall Faulk on his ass.

_____________________________________________________________

From the book, "THE GAMES THAT CHANGED THE GAME: THE EVOLUTION OF THE NFL IN SEVEN SUNDAYS" by Ron Jaworski, with Greg Cosell and David Plaut. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ron Jaworski. Reprinted by arrangement with ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN, Inc., New York and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ron Jaworski

NFL analyst / writer
Ron Jaworski is one of the most popular and knowledgeable analysts covering the NFL today. Since joining ESPN in 1990, the former standout NFL quarterback has covered the league from virtually every angle -- sideline reporter, game-site reporter, host and both studio and game analyst. From 2007-11, Jaworski occupied one of the most coveted positions in sports as a Monday Night Football analyst.