Coaching staffs try not to go overboard

The Panthers and Patriots must avoid over-analyzing game plans with an extra week before the Super Bowl.

Updated: January 22, 2004, 1:18 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

One of the most effective defensive game plans in championship contest history, the design with which the underdog New York Giants blunted the explosive Buffalo Bills attack for a one-point victory in Super Bowl XXV, was drawn up on the fly.

Literally.

Bill Belichick
Belichick
Jammed into an airplane seat, on the way to Tampa after having upset San Francisco on the West Coast in the NFC championship game, then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick scribbled out the obtuse X's that stymied Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. Because there was only one week between the conference title games and Super Bowl XXV in the 1990 season, the devious and devilish doodles that morphed into the Giants' defensive scheme for the silver anniversary Super Bowl were essentially hatched at 35,000 feet and somewhere over the nation's heartland.

Belichick's two-word recollection of having to prepare for the NFL's sixth-rated offense in a condensed time frame: "Never again."

Oh, but there was an again -- actually, two of them, for Belichick -- in preparing for Super Bowl games. In four previous Super Bowl appearances as an assistant and head coach, Belichick has been forced to complete his game-planning in a one-week pressure cooker. Oddly, there have been just seven Super Bowl matchups that did not include a usual "dark" week following the conference championship games, and Belichick has been party to three of them.

The latest for Belichick, of course, came in 2001, when Belichick and his New England Patriots staff had just seven days between their AFC title game win at Pittsburgh and the Super Bowl XXXVI meeting with the St. Louis Rams. The results of that game, a 20-17 Patriots win in which the New England defense outwitted and "out-hit" a mighty St. Louis passing attack, could serve as graphic evidence that the Super Bowl should always be contested the week following the conference title games.

But don't try telling that to Belichick, whose success under the one-week format still isn't enough to convince him it's the way to go. And don't bother pitching the idea to Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox, either, who prepared under the two-week stretch when he was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

One week to prepare
Game Result
XXXVII Bucs 48, Raiders 21
XXXVI Patriots 20, Rams 17
XXXIV Rams 23, Titans 16
XXVIII Cowboys 30, Bills 13
XXV Giants 20, Bills 19
XVII Redskins 27, Dolphins 17
IV Chiefs 23, Vikings 7
There are so many ancillary elements involved in the Super Bowl, things like arranging for families to travel to the game and disseminating tickets to players and staffers, that the counterpart coaches agree that two weeks are necessary. Don't count on Belichick putting his New England coaching staff into a jumbo jet, and flying across country while game-planning in the air, just for old time's sake.

While history indicates that the Super Bowls contested just one week after the conference championship games are statistically more competitive -- an average winning margin of 11.6 points in the one-week games and of 17.3 points when there is the two-week split -- most coaches still prefer the extra preparation time.

Four of the seven games played with just one week of preparation were decided by 10 points or less and three were determined by seven points or fewer. Of the 30 Super Bowls played under the two-week format, 10 featured winning margins of 20-plus points and four of the games were decided by more than 30 points.

Although the two weeks between games is anathema to players, who face it only during the "bye" week in the regular season, coaches don't seem concerned that it gets the team out of the normal seven-day cycle with which it typically operates. And while there is a school of thought which posits that a coach with too much time on his hands might be apt to actually "over-plot" under such circumstances, that isn't likely to occur even with a mad scientist like Belichick, or even Fox, another notable defensive schemer.

Both the Super Bowl coaches debunk the notion that they could suffer from paralysis of analysis or that, with an additional week to pore over videotape, their game plans could resemble the Manhattan telephone directory when disseminated to the players.

"It might seem like a long time to prepare and maybe there's a little bit of luxury time to tweak things," Fox said. "But with all the logistical stuff going on, the little extras that have to be addressed before you even leave (for Houston on Sunday), that supposed extra time disappears pretty fast. I've tried to create an atmosphere for the players that we have to treat it like another road game. And that goes for the coaches, too, you know, in what they have to get done."

One assistant on the Belichick staff acknowledged Monday that, in game-planning for a Super Bowl that features the two-week split, a staff doesn't want to "cross the same T's 10 times." The inference is that a coaching staff can "out-think" itself if it has too much time to think about the magnitude of what is about to transpire and spends time fretting to excess over the details.

Noted the assistant: "We just stopped the best offense in the playoffs (the Indianapolis Colts) with maybe our most basic defensive game plan of the season. OK, so maybe the extra time to get ready for Carolina helps some, from the standpoint we haven't played them, but you still don't want to over-do things, you know?"

In fact, Belichick and Fox have gone out of their way to set schedules this week which will maintain some semblance of normalcy. The Carolina coaches, for instance, spent much of Tuesday poring over tape and game-planning, while the players had the normal day off. It appears that both coaches will, at least mentally, install the game plan, or its rudiments, before arriving in Houston for the week of practice there.

In 1997, when Belichick was the defensive coordinator for the Pats under Bill Parcells, this scribe served as the "pool reporter" for the New England practices. And what I observed was a Pats defense that had already assimilated the game plan during the extra week, then spent its Super Bowl practices focused on fine-tuning the blueprint. The Pats lost that game to Green Bay but it was hardly for lack of preparation and Belichick did not over-coach his charges that year.

It's doubtful, even given the inherent temptations of preparing the most extensive game plan ever plotted, that either he or Fox will do so this time around, either. There may be, as the noted late-night savant David Letterman often reminds, "no off-switch" on the genius control. But the collective genius of the coaches involved in this game should dictate game plans that are rare and not over-done.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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