Commentary

Shipp shaped Belichick's thinking

Pats' coach credits NFL offensive guru who 'had an answer for everything'

Originally Published: September 4, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- OK, so how did famed defensive mind Bill Belichick learn offense? How did he become a complete coach whose football acumen survives -- even excels -- when his assistants bolt the New England Patriots for other jobs?

The clues are in this trailer owned by Ken Shipp, an 80-year-old former coach with a ski jump nose and floppy silver hair. In the 1970s, as an offensive coordinator for the Cardinals, Saints, Jets and Lions, Shipp was known in NFL circles as an aerial wizard, a progressive thinker of the passing game, coaching the stars whose autographed pictures adorn the walls of the trailer that serves as his storage company's office: Joe Namath, Archie Manning, former St. Louis quarterback Jim Hart. Manning respected Shipp so much that he asked Shipp to tutor his sons, who loved the coach enough to pose for pictures and even sign a few.

In 1977, Lions head coach Rick Forzano told Shipp that he had hired a new assistant for him, a 24-year-old from Wesleyan University, Billy Belichick. Shipp had never heard of the Middletown, Conn., school, and when he met Belichick, the young man seemed very polite, very shy and, unfortunately for Shipp, fascinated with defense, not offense. The coach handed over his playbook -- thick even by today's standards -- and told Belichick there would be a quiz in two weeks. Shipp doubted Belichick would pass. Belichick's offensive knowledge was what he'd seen throughout his brief football life: single wing in eighth grade; wing-T in high school; Texas 'Bone at Wesleyan; I-formation stuff from Navy, coached by Belichick's father, Steve; and the stuff Belichick had learned the previous year as a gofer in Baltimore, the split backs, two-receiver formations the Dallas Cowboys used under QB Roger Staubach.

"I knew a little," the Patriots' head coach says now, "but had a lot to learn."

Every night, Shipp saw his assistant in an office, playbook cracked and film running, spotting the differences between the play design and execution. Two weeks later, after the five-hour test, a wide-eyed Shipp told the other coaches, "He damn answered everything." Shipp put Belichick through hell that year, demanding the young coach develop new plays and dissect unending reels of film. But Belichick loved it all.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Wesleyan AthleticsBill Belichick (upper left corner) was a star offensive lineman at Wesleyan.

"Ken was really smart," Belichick says. "He had an answer to everything. No matter what the situation was, no matter what the defense did, or we'd see something on film. The offense was very thorough. It was very simple, but there were a lot of variations. Similar to the run-and-shoot, where they didn't have that many pass plays but they had adjustments on every pattern based on coverage."

That lesson -- the theory of constantly adjusting while keeping schemes relatively simple -- stayed with Belichick. So did a bigger lesson: learning how to become a complete head coach. As an interim head coach with the New York Jets in 1975, Shipp thought he was one-dimensional; ceding half the game to a defensive coordinator hurt him.

"You have to be balanced," Shipp said. Belichick might have become famous in the 1980s for his Super Bowl-winning defenses, but within the New York Giants' offices, he was renowned for spotting plays run by the 49ers and Redskins, tailoring them to New York's personnel and suggesting them to offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt. In his spare time, he put together an offensive playbook, borrowing and tweaking plays from other teams, and inventing his own.

"Philosophically, I knew what I wanted to do if I ever got a chance to be a head coach," he said.

When that chance arrived, he was ready. At various times as the Cleveland Browns' head coach, Belichick called the offensive plays. And that's the side of the ball with which he's been heavily involved in New England.

It's partly due to necessity. Quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died in 2001, and then-offensive coordinator Charlie Weis almost died due to gastric bypass surgery complications in 2002. But it's mostly because Belichick knows offense. He's met with his quarterbacks privately at least three times a week for nine years. That's why, after Josh McDaniels left New England to coach the Denver Broncos, Tom Brady said, "As long as we have Belichick, I always think that we're going to be just fine." With assistants constantly leaving the Pats for other teams, Belichick takes it upon himself to sharpen New England's edge. Half of his offensive playbook is different now than when he arrived in 2000. That's why he visits Nick Saban in Alabama once a year to talk defense, then Urban Meyer in Florida to chat offense. Last year, Belichick was eager to learn about the Gators' "empty" pass protections; afterward, he adjusted them to his team.

For instance, in a victory over the Miami Dolphins last season, the Patriots ran the shotgun 80 times, using only five blockers on 19 snaps.

"He's a defensive mind," Meyer says, "who's adapted the offensive game."

Belichick doesn't forget the coaches who have helped him, either. Last year, Shipp's trailer was burglarized. Many of the autographed pictures were stolen, including everything Eli and Peyton Manning. The thieves either didn't notice or didn't care about the tiny white card tacked to the wall, sent shortly after New England won its third Super Bowl.

March 24, 2005

Dear Ken,
I still have a lot of great memories from our time together in Detroit.
I was fortunate to be introduced into your offensive system at such an early age. Thanks for your support + guidance.
Best wishes always,
Bill

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.