Meeting of the Minds

The NFL title game boils down to a battle between the innovative coaching staffs of New England's Bill Belichick and Philadelphia's Andy Reid. What strategy will they cook up, and which team's countermoves will win out?
The NFL title game boils down to a battle between the innovative coaching staffs of New England's Bill Belichick and Philadelphia's Andy Reid. What strategy will they cook up, and which team's countermoves will win out?
February 07, 2005

The New York Jets' colossal upset of the Baltimore Colts in January 1969 was the Namath Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers' last-minute win over the Cincinnati Bengals in '89, with Joe Cool driving the Niners 92 yards, was the Montana Super Bowl. Two years ago the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rout of the Oakland Raiders, with countless TV shots of the Bucs' fiery coach, was the Gruden's Revenge Super Bowl. Look for this Sunday's NFL championship game in Jacksonville, between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, to be the Coaches' Super Bowl. What makes the title game intriguing is that it matches coaching staffs—headed by Bill Belichick in New England and Andy Reid in Philadelphia—that are equally self-assured and creative. As Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said last week, the Patriots and Eagles are capable "of morphing 180 degrees from game to game, from half to half, into something completely different. That's the sign of a great coaching staff: having the trust and confidence in your coaches and your players to take on new tasks each week and perform at a very high level."

For Reid and his alter ego, offensive coordinator Brad Childress, mutual trust grew out of the time they spent crammed in a Volkswagen in 1986, two assistants talking strategy on their daily drive to the football office at Northern Arizona. For Belichick and his defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, their strong ties date to 1981, when they were on the staff of New York Giants coach Ray Perkins. In fact, the chemistry top to bottom on the staffs of both Super Bowl teams must be pretty good. Over the last three years, the staffs have had a total of only four significant departures, and each of those men moved on to accept a coordinator's position with another NFL team. (After Sunday's game, however, New England loses offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who takes over as coach at Notre Dame, and probably Crennel, who is expected to be named coach of the Cleveland Browns.)

“This is our 23rd, 24th week together, working every day,” Childress said last Friday. “If you don't get along with the people you work with, working the hours we do, it'll eat a hole in your stomach and you'll never be as productive as you have to be to win in this league.”

It gets to the point at which the coaches and their assistants are of the same mind. Leading the Atlanta Falcons 20–10 in the NFC Championship Game, the Eagles had third-and-four at the Atlanta 14 with 5:34 left. As he looked at his laminated play sheet, Reid heard Childress's voice in his headset. “Andy,” Childress said from the coaches' box upstairs, “I'm thinking the quarterback draw might ....”

“I just had my finger on that,” Reid interrupted. “Let's do it.”

Reid relayed the play to quarterback Donovan McNabb, who set up in the shotgun and ran for six yards. The clinching touchdown came three plays later.

The best teams are usually an extension of the coaches ... I really see that in these two teams

Terrell Owens, Philadelphia's big-play wideout, was the only offensive player on either Super Bowl squad to be named to the AP's All-Pro team, yet the Patriots scored the fourth-most points in the league during the regular season and the Eagles ranked eighth. Owens missed the last four games with an ankle injury, while New England's two best defensive players, cornerback Ty Law and lineman Richard Seymour, have been sidelined since Oct. 31 and Dec. 26, respectively. Nevertheless, excluding meaningless Eagles defeats in their last two regular-season games, when they flooded the lineup with reserves, the two teams are a combined 31–3.

“The best teams are usually an extension of the coaches,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said last week. “I really see that in these two teams.” How will they game-plan and adapt as the action unfolds? That's the Super Bowl within the Super Bowl.

New England's versatility on both sides of the ball makes it a unique team. Until late in their reign, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s methodically mashed defenses with their running game. The 49ers under Bill Walsh always ran the ball well, but they moved the chains with the pass. And the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s delivered a steady dose of Emmitt Smith, with Troy Aikman passing just enough to keep the defense honest.

The Patriots? Look at New England's play selection in its past three meetings with the Indianapolis Colts:

• January 2004, Patriots 24, Colts 14: 46% runs;

• September 2004, Patriots 27, Colts 24: 30% runs;

• January 2005, Patriots 20, Colts 3: 57% runs.

“People ask me what offensive system the Patriots run, and I say, ‘They don't have one,’” Schwartz says. “[Every week] some coaches say, ‘This is what we do.’ The Patriots ask, ‘What do we need to do to win this week?’”

When each was asked separately to think of a recent play that best illustrated New England's offensive diversity, Belichick and Brady came up with the same one: Brady's 60-yard strike to wideout Deion Branch for the first touchdown against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game. The plan had been to get the speedy Branch one-on-one against cornerback Deshea Townsend on a deep post pattern.

In the week before the game Belichick watched tape of the Steelers with Brady and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, and the three noticed the tendency of safety Troy Polamalu to line up over the slot receiver on certain two-wide, two-tight-end formations. In practice, receivers coach Brian Daboll told the slot receiver who would motion across the formation to the right, David Givens, to run his crossing route 16 yards, rather than the usual 12, so that the Steelers' corner on that side, Willie Williams, would have to commit to Givens and be out of range for a throw to the deep middle. The Pats thought that if Brady eyed Givens, Polamalu would double-team the wideout. At the same time, safety Chris Hope would be occupied underneath by the traffic in the middle and Townsend would be all alone on the faster Branch.

“Charlie, Josh, Brian and I all participated in the coaching and design of the play,” Belichick says, “and it was called at the perfect time.”

Says Brady, "What was so great about the play is it happened exactly the way the coaches said it would."

On defense, look at the different schemes the Patriots used in playoff wins over the Colts and the Steelers. Against downfield-minded Peyton Manning, New England often dropped an inside linebacker (usually the mobile Tedy Bruschi) deep, freeing the safeties to cover the outside. What Manning saw were three punishing hitters ready to separate his receivers from the ball 20 yards downfield; his longest completion was 18 yards. Against Pittsburgh the conventional wisdom was that the Pats should heavily blitz rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Instead they rushed six or more defenders only once, preferring to fill the secondary with cover players; Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, and two more passes were dropped by New England defenders.

Fred Vuich for Sports Illustrated

“Romeo encourages differences of opinion [in meetings],” says Rob Ryan, a Patriots assistant for four years who left after the 2003 season to become the defensive coordinator of the Raiders. “He'll listen to everyone, then say, ‘O.K., who do we have to stop this week?’ He likes new ideas. I remember our first Super Bowl year [2001 season], we’re getting ready to play Atlanta. We hadn't run any 46 [the high-pressure, high-risk defense perfected by Rob's father, Buddy] all season, but I thought it would work because Atlanta was a big two-tight-end team we could take advantage of. I said to Romeo, 'How about nickel diamond?’ That's what we called our 46. We had nine sacks and won the game.”

New England has been the NFL’s premier team over the last four years, but Philadelphia isn't far behind. Their records, including playoffs, since the start of the 2001 season: Pats 56–16, Eagles 54–19. Like Belichick, Reid gives his coordinators and assistants plenty of authority. On Tuesday mornings, when Reid and his staff devise the passing game plan, 39-year-old quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur has as much of a say as the more experienced Childress, 48, and assistant head coach Marty Mornhinweg, 42, the former coach of the Detroit Lions. “We’ve all coached quarterbacks, so we’re all opinionated,” Childress says. “But if we want to use a play and Pat says Donovan's worried about the backside blitz on it, no problem, we'll change it.”

That confidence is passed on to the players. Early in a December road game against the Washington Redskins, Eagles wideout Todd Pinkston, who has a reputation for not making the tough catch, appeared to get alligator arms on a catchable ball in traffic. Pinkston told Reid he lost the ball in the lights, and the coach accepted his explanation. Later in the quarter Childress suggested that Reid call 94 Seal X Slant and Go, a risky play-action pass with only one wideout, Pinkston; he would have to run hard at the safety, then sprint downfield. Pinkston caught a strike from McNabb, and the play went for 80 yards. “Todd practices hurt, he plays hurt,” Reid says. “I never doubted him. If he says he lost it in the lights, he lost it in the lights.”

After Belichick, the most admired coach in the NFL may be Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Belichick doesn't gush about many opponents, but he says Johnson is difficult to prepare for “because you don't know what you're going to get, and then, when you see it, he'll adjust to what you're doing pretty quickly.” Johnson is known for calling exotic blitzes from all angles, but he has concentrated more on containment and coverage in this postseason, holding quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper of the Minnesota Vikings and Michael Vick of the Falcons to one touchdown pass combined. Over the last 47 minutes of the NFC title game, a frustrated Vick didn't run with the ball once. “The thing about a Jim Johnson game plan,” says Eagles defensive end Derrick Burgess, “is when you look at it, you don't think you have to do anything special. If everyone does his job, there's no doubt in our minds we should win.”

So how will these teams attack each other? Last year stopping Carolina Panthers running back Stephen Davis was viewed by the Patriots as the key to winning Super Bowl XXXVIII; Davis was held to 49 total yards. This year containing the mobile McNabb will most likely be their primary focus on defense. Look for Crennel to have one of his fast linebackers (Bruschi or Mike Vrabel) stay home to make sure McNabb doesn't run far. “The one thing you can count on is, McNabb won't have time to ad-lib,” Ryan says. “I’m sure he’s not going to beat them.”

But McNabb has been unflappable in and out of the pocket all season. He has completed 64% of his passes, up dramatically from his 57% career mark. Philly will probably continue to play Where's Waldo? with running back Brian Westbrook (box, page 48), who will be even more effective if Owens can contribute.

The New England offense will have to stave off two aggressive and quick defensive ends, Burgess and Jevon Kearse, as well as run-stuffing middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. This could be a game in which Weis turns Brady loose because the Patriots can attack Philadelphia's corners more effectively than they can the front seven.

All of which means that the Eagles will probably run it 45 times, and New England running back Corey Dillon will butt heads with Trotter all night. That's the beauty of both the Patriots and the Eagles. You just never know.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)