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Blanket Coverage: Lessons new coaches can take from the Belichick Blueprint

You don't have to be Bill Belichick to succeed in the NFL, but it wouldn't hurt to learn these six lessons from his careful construction of the Patriots dynasty.

It’s regime change time in the NFL. We’ve already seen three of the six head-coaching openings filled (Jaguars, Broncos and Bills) this week. We’re still waiting on the Rams, Chargers and 49ers.

The results, as always, will be mixed. In last year’s crop of new coaches, we saw the good (Adam Gase, Ben McAdoo, Dirk Koetter, Mike Mularkey), the bad (Doug Pederson) and the ugly (Hue Jackson, Chip Kelly), with more time needed for full evaluations, of course.

But it’s safe to say none of those coaches, or the newbies added for 2017, will develop to be Bill Belichick. That’s O.K. Just as not all journalists will be Pulitzer Prize winners, not all coaches will win four Super Bowls, or win at least 10 games for 14-straight seasons. But they (and we) can still be good. Even Belichick was fired from his first head coaching job. But the lessons he learned over the years can be applied by others.

To help the newbies entering the ranks of NFL he coaches and those charged with supporting those newbies (owners, executives, front office), here are some of the macro philosophies that allow Belichick to be better from the rest, gleaned from up-close coverage of Belichick’s teams the past six years, along with another 10 years of reporting on them from afar. They are not listed in order of importance.

1) Bring in green assistant coaches, then train them: With a few exceptions (Dante Scarnecchia, Ivan Fears, Chad O’Shea, Brendan Daly on the current staff), future assistants will come to the Patriots for their first-ever jobs in the NFL—some in scouting, some in coaching. Belichick does this for a few reasons. First, it allows him and the new hires to see whether or not they have the right traits (hunger, work ethic, smarts) to stick around. It also lets the aspiring coaches learn how precisely Belichick wants the players coached and his message disseminated, by not only listening to Belichick but by serving as an underling to a more experienced coach who has been around longer.

By working only for the Patriots, the coaches are relative unknowns in league circles, so they are less likely to be poached by other teams, which would cause disruptions in the process. The Patriots have one of the most consistent coaching staffs from year to year. Assistants also often change position groups to foster a better understanding of the unit or team.

2. Have one playbook for each side of the ball: This is a critical yet vastly underrated reason for the Patriots’ success. The Patriots have had several coordinators (Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, Bill O’Brien, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Dean Pees, Matt Patricia) but the playbooks for both the offense and defense have remained largely the same, only expanded. The terminology is the exact same as it was in 2000, just with more volume. This allows remarkable consistency from one year to the next.

When other teams fire one of their coordinators, that entire unit has to start over. New philosophies have to be taught and often a starkly different language has to be learned by the players and coaches. All of this takes an extraordinary amount of time away from the players actually improving at their craft. Instead of using the off-season to figure out how a play can get better within the scheme, all the time is spent learning the new scheme. When a Patriots coordinator moves on, the playbook remains, another coach gets promoted and the team continues moving forward. One other important aspect of the playbooks: On both sides of the ball, the scheme is multiple and adaptable both to personnel and to specific opponents. The Patriots are never a team that just “does what it does” on either side of the ball. There must be a level of unpredictability.

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3. It’s about the right 53, not the best 53: Can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard some general manager say something to the effect of “We’re in the talent acquisition business.” No, you are in the team-building business. Every prospect, whether in the draft or free agency, is evaluated only in the context of the Patriots’ system. It doesn’t matter how a player would be evaluated by the other 31 teams; it only matters how and where that player would perform in New England. Belichick also doesn’t want to hear all about what a player can’t do—tell him what the player can do well for the Patriots. Football must be the most important thing in a player’s life, at least during the season, and he has to be willing to sacrifice personal goals for the goals of the team. Football maturity (fitting into the team setting and within the scheme) is the most important aspect for players. If they can’t do that, then whatever physical gifts they have will never be fully realized. They also must be willing to perform any role deemed necessary for that specific game—“Do Your Job”—without regard for how that may affect their stat line.

4. Play the percentages: This is the biggest catch-all of Belichick’s philosophies, and basically it means do whatever increases the team’s chances for success. It applies in several areas. Drafting is difficult for many reasons, so accumulate as many draft picks as possible to increase your chances of finding good players. (More draft picks also allows you to be flexible in the draft, moving up or down depending on where your targeted players are. Another draft-related note: First-round picks should be safe plays with little risk. Save the risk for the second round.) Don’t overpay in bonuses and years in free agency because it could cause salary cap problems down the road if things go south. Don’t overextend defensively with blitzes or aggressive coverage unless absolutely necessary because giving up big plays is one of the quickest ways to lose in the NFL. Belichick would much rather force a QB known for being impatient to go 11 or 12 plays to score a touchdown than to force a three-and-out by being more aggressive. And, lastly, go all-out to get a first-round playoff bye. Obviously, needing to win just two games to get to a Super Bowl instead of three is just smart math.

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5. Always leave yourself an out in personnel: Prior to the draft, Belichick will sign veteran free agents, even cheap ones, at every “open” position so he isn’t locked into drafting for need (this also clouds whom the Patriots might pick in the eyes of opponents). Veterans also help the competition in training camp, and those that make the roster are experienced, proven NFL players. Often, the draft isn’t even about that coming season. It’s for one or two seasons down the road when an incumbent starter might be coming to the end of his contract. Having an alternative who has proven his ability within the system allows the Patriots not to overpay out of desperation when a player hits free agency like many other teams do. On a related note: Belichick is always churning the bottom of the roster and practice squad. There are no sacred cow late-round draft picks here. The Patriots will bring in cast-offs from other teams, and if they’re better than a player on the roster, that player will be replaced.

6. Evolution is eternal: As soon as one season ends, the Patriots’ coaching staff evaluates the team for weaknesses and looks for ways to get better. The Patriots never rest on their laurels or past successes. They are always looking for ways to get better and figuring how defenses will defend them in the coming season. They will anticipate those changes and figure out counters. Often, assistant coaches are tasked with off-season study projects and then asked to recommend changes to Belichick. A need to get back to running the ball and to move Brady from shotgun to under center led the Patriots back to the two tight-end system and the drafting of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010. After not being able to run the ball against the Broncos’ subpackages in the AFC Championship Game last year, the Patriots changed offensive line coaches and inserted two new starters on the line (center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney). Additionally, they acquired another high-caliber tight end in Martellus Bennett to combat Denver’s cornerback-heavy secondary and help slow down the pass rush.

Those are just some of the tenets that make Belichick and the Patriots so consistently successful. There are certainly others, like the “next game is the only game” mindset, the emphasis on player valuations and the reluctance to constantly restructure contracts for short-term goals at the expense of the future, that have helped the Patriots avoid being one of those teams that can beat anyone one week and lose to anyone the next.

Barring a miraculous upset by the Texans on Saturday, the Patriots will be going to their sixth-straight conference championship game, a league record. It certainly hasn’t hurt that Brady has been there the entire time, but Belichick is also 14–6 in games since 2001 in games not started by Brady, including 3–1 this season. The Patriots’ success is because of Belichick and his time-tested system. It might not work for everyone—even Belichick disciples like Weis, Crennel, Mangini and McDaniels have failed because they’re not Belichick. Houston’s O’Brien is probably the most successful of Belichick’s former coordinators because he hasn’t tried to be Belichick (that’s likely because he developed his own style in 12 years as an assistant before his five in New England). But he has used many of these principles with the Texans. Why shouldn’t he? The success speaks for itself.

Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing NFL storylines this week:

Go crazy, folks

Shame on Spanos, NFL on Chargers: After 56 seasons, the San Diego Chargers are no more, according to many reports. Like the Rams before them, and with the Raiders right behind them, deep-pocketed owners and the league are leaving behind a loyal, passionate fan base to move to an unfamiliar locale all because a city was smart enough not to contribute more than nominally to a new stadium. Good luck, Dean Spanos, sharing the new Los Angeles stadium with the Rams and developing a fan base. See how that works out. And this is what happens when commissioner Roger Goodell is only worried about reaching his goal of $25 billion in revenue by 2027. God forbid the NFL took money out of its own pockets and stocked and fixed the G-4 stadium fund program so that it could assist these owners in building new stadiums. That would help the league in the long term too, but it might cause Goodell to miss his revenue goals. We wouldn’t want that to happen.

San Diego faces reality of NFL stadium frenzy with Chargers move

Elway takes another risk: One year after going with inexperienced quarterbacks and a mess on the offensive line to defend a Super Bowl title and ultimately missing the playoffs, Broncos general manager John Elway took another big risk by hiring Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph as his next head coach. Joseph was certainly going to be a head coach in the NFL sooner rather than later, but he got the job after just one season as a coordinator in which the Dolphins did not fare well statistically. Additionally, the Broncos may now have to make wholesale changes to the coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, and that’s a lot of change for a team that wasn’t far away from being a contender before Gary Kubiak retired. The Broncos also have a lot of strong, veteran personalities that could prove hard to corral for a first-time coach (this was a strength for Kubiak). Elway had to be right about a lot of things to get that Super Bowl ring on his finger. We’ll have to see whether or not he still has that deft touch.

Slow your roll

McDermott a fine hire for Bills: Maybe the Pegulas finally got one right. After completely botching Rex Ryan’s tenure and sticking with GM Doug Whaley, Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula actually made an inspired hire when they tabbed Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott as coach. McDermott is well respected around the league and is well-prepared to be a coach after eight-plus seasons as a coordinator with the Eagles and Panthers. Actually, McDermott was a rising star in the coach ranks before Eagles coach Andy Reid scapegoated him after his first full season as coordinator in 2010. Not surprisingly, that was Reid’s last winning season with the Eagles, and he lasted just two more seasons in Philadelphia. It worked out for the Bills, however. Let’s just hope McDermott got a lot of promises about his autonomy and authority over the team in writing. The Pegulas’ track record is not good.

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Continuity not a good thing for Jaguars: Usually it’s a good thing when a franchise keeps continuity with a new coach, but that’s not the case for the Jaguars in hiring interim coach Doug Marrone on a full-time basis. This is all about the Jacksonville hierarchy of the Khan family and GM Dave Caldwell doubling down and needing to be proven right. They need to prove they were right in drafting QB Blake Bortles with the No. 3 pick and playing him as a rookie. They need to prove the Jaguars were a talented team in 2015 messed up by recently fired coach Gus Bradley. That’s a dangerous way of thinking in the NFL. At least the Khans hired Tom Coughlin as team president, so from this point on, he gets to judge who was right and wrong, and who needs to go after this season.

More pregame reading: In case you missed it, I gave thoughts on the divisional round of the playoffs earlier this week. My analysis of the weakness of every playoff team, and the team poised to exploit it, is here