Living up to billing a major challenge
There's a sense that Belichick has all the answers
By Ron Borges, Globe Staff, 09/01/00
FOXBOROUGH - The National Football League is a conservative establishment, but in recent years some of the league's best defensive coaches have taken advice from the late radical activist Abbie Hoffman.
Hoffman titled his autobiography, ``Steal This Book.'' Those coaches took his advice one step further. They stole Bill Belichick's playbook.
Belichick is regularly paid the highest compliment a tactician can be paid. Other coaches lift his game plans. They don't borrow something here and a play or two there. They look at what he's just done to an opponent and they try to do the same thing. They know nobody in the league understands defensive football better than Bill Belichick.
``He's a football genius,'' insists Roman Phifer, the linebacker who played for him last year with the New York Jets, using a word often connected to the Patriots' new coach when the subject is defensive football. ``He's like a whiz kid of football. I can picture him watching film to all hours of the night.''
Before the Titans played the Indianpolis Colts in last season's playoffs, Tennessee defensive coordinator Gregg Williams watched film until all hours of the night. It was film of the Colts' two razor-thin victories over the Jets. Williams studied how Belichick had attacked Peyton Manning, the Colts' phenomenal young quarterback.
Although the Jets did not win those games, they played the best offense in the AFC close, losing, 16-13 and 13-6. They baffled and bewildered Manning, taking away his receivers and forcing him to eat the ball or throw it away. When he handed it to star running back Edgerrin James, there were few holes to run through.
Realizing that, Williams watched and analyzed and watched and analyzed. Then he did the simple thing. He copied it.
``Bill Belichick was not afraid to challenge them,'' Williams said after the Titans beat Indianapolis, 19-16, by holding Manning to a dismal 19 of 42 for 227 yards and no touchdowns. ``The big thing we felt was that 85 percent of their offense was built around playing against zone coverages.
``Most people aren't as fast as we are and are afraid to play man coverage on them. Belichick did and it worked. Once our guys understood that they were zone-concept pass routes and they didn't have a lot of options against man-to-man, it was an easy sell.''
It was easy because the proof was already on the screen. There were the lowly Jets limiting Manning to an average of 208 passing yards in those two games. He threw as many interceptions (one) as touchdown passes.
``Belichick certainly gave us a lot of trouble,'' Manning conceded. ``He'll really test your patience and your discipline.''
Belichick ran that same kind of mind-breaking defense in New England in 1996, and he has brought it back this year with some new wrinkles and a familiar face running it. His own.
Although Belichick is now the head coach, he is also the defensive coordinator. He calls the plays and installs the game plan and the system, which isn't yet fully in place and won't be any time soon.
``We have 55 plays of blitzes alone,'' Belichick said of his two-gap system that centers around quick, strong linemen filling two gaps to free the linebackers to make plays by flowing freely to the ball against the run while his pass defense attempts to disguise its weaknesses while breaking down the opponent's.
``There is a learning curve there,'' Belichick added. ``I'd say we have a grasp of about 75 percent of what the system is but we're going to have to go through half a season to a season worth of regular-season games before we have it down. That's true for our players and it's probably about the same rate with our coaches.''
With the exception of one, of course.
``I can't say enough about him,'' says Jets cornerback Aaron Glenn. ``He's by far the best coach I've ever had in my career. I don't think I'll ever get another coach that can call plays and defenses like that. He puts guys into position to make plays. He knows what it takes to get it done.''
What Belichick knows, or at least what he learns through study, is an offense's weak point and how to dismantle it. He studies an opposing team and then tries to unravel it, deciding from week to week which of his players will be pivotal against a particular foe.
This changes constantly, as does his approach. While almost always on the attack, his defenses come from so many different fronts and formations that the quarterbacks who face him grow weary trying to guess what is coming next.
``I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out whether I'm going to get zoned or manned or blitzed [by a Belichick-coached defense],'' said future Hall of Famer Dan Marino, the recently retired Dolphins quarterback. ``Bill Belichick changes it every single week.''
Indeed he does, because every week the environment changes. With a new opponent comes a new set of problems. In some ways, it is that constant effort to match and outmaneuver his alter egos on offense that has kept Belichick's mind focused on a boy's game well into his manhood.
``Football is always changing,'' Belichick explained. ``There are always new trends, new ways to attack each other. I've always loved the competition against great coaches. I enjoy coaching against good [offensive] coaches like Bill Walsh and Tom Landry and all those guys.
``It's a constant challenge on both sides of the ball. That's the way it will always be. You keep moving those 11 guys around. It won't get stale because of the number of people involved.''
Belichick's system attempts to move those people from angles the opposition is unprepared for. It is based on speed and power, with the former probably more important than the latter. It is a system he has been installing since his arrival last winter.
Eventually, Belichick said, he will name a defensive coordinator. ``Right now nobody on the staff knows it as well as I do,'' he said. ``That will change at some point.''
Until it does, Bill Belichick will handle both the Patriots' business and his team's defense with an assist from guys like recently signed cornerback Otis Smith, the ex-Patriot and Jet who learned this defense under Belichick and said, ``I know it as well as he does.''
Hearing that, Belichick smiled, saying, ``Otis knows it pretty well. Otis knows things we'll do that we haven't done here yet. I can tell him things that will trigger other things for him in his mind because he's seen the situation and done them. Players like Otis and Bobby Hamilton and Pepper [Johnson] know this system so they give us someone who can talk to the players about what we're asking them to do. That way they get it not just from a coach but from someone who's done this.''
Done it and knows it works, even if those who haven't yet experienced it aren't quite as sure.
``There are certain things as a group we can adjust to pretty easily but there are other things we aren't able to do yet,'' Belichick said of his defense. ``There are some things we can't ask them to do yet. You can't learn to divide until you learn to multiply.
``The volume of offenses in this league are quite extensive. With seven weeks trying to get your system down, it isn't enough time to do that and see all the ways teams will attack you.
``This is a game of matchups, so a player might be a big factor [on defense] one week and not in another game. Some weeks there are one or two central players. Other times it shifts.''
Part of Belichick's genius is his ability to recognize those people and alert them to what to expect. He is legendary for telling players what will happen and what they must do to counter it, and then having it unfold just as he said it would.
It is a vision one of his first bosses in the NFL, ex-Detroit Lions coach Rick Forzano, says is a gift. Whatever it is, Bill Belichick is bringing it to New England inside a large spiral notebook.
The answers to his defense - and perhaps the Patriots' short- term future - are inside those covers. Inside those covers and inside the mind of the coach.
One person who can vouch for its effectiveness is Drew Bledsoe, who has had some of the worst games of his career against Belichick's defenses in New York. One was last year, when he went a dismal 15 for 36 and was sacked three times and threw three interceptions in a 24-17 loss. It was a typically long day for Bledsoe against someone he's had trouble matching up against.
``Bill Belichick has the best game plans we face all year,'' Bledsoe said after that defeat. ``They double the right receivers and they jump the right routes.''
In other words, Belichick's defenses know what they're doing and they know what you're doing, but you have no idea what they're doing and because of it pretty soon you don't know what you're doing, either.
``You don't know how they're going to line up,'' lamented Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie. ``Are they going to be in a five-linebacker set with two defensive backs? What are they going to do? They make you do your homework.''
They do that because they know somewhere Bill Belichick is doing his. By the time he's done, nobody knows what he's going to do but the people closest to him know this: Do what he says and things will work out most of the time . . . which in some ways is the definition of genius.