New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was not going out of his mind when he told his team after its first playoff victory this year: “A big day for Rutgers!” Three of the Patriots’ players—Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon—had gone to college there, and all three had intercepted passes in the game. This was not just a statistical improbability. It was a vindication of Belichick’s style of personnel management—the most idiosyncratic in the history of pro football, and the most successful.
Football players, however athletic, are pawns on a chessboard. All teams have playbooks. The Patriots’ is thicker and more complicated than most. So Belichick has constructed his team around players capable of seeing the game as he does. This does not mean “delegating.” On the contrary—it means drilling every player to master his role (or “job”) and avoid mistakes. Mistake-avoidance is probably more important than inspiration. Aside from points scored, turnovers (fumbles and interceptions) are the statistic most closely correlated to wins. Belichick-coached players have internalized his phobia of turnovers. Thus Patriots running back Dion Lewis, who scored three touchdowns in that first playoff game, was mystified by those who called him a hero. Having also lost a fumble, he said, with undoubted sincerity, “I feel like this was my worst game ever, actually.”
Belichick believes games are won through mental preparation. He has built his team around jocks who can think and grow. This requires more than mere “football sense.” It requires a capacity for studying, the kind of studying you do to get an “A” in Algebra 1. “You’re in a Friday . . . meeting,” former Patriots running back Heath Evans told an ESPN interviewer last fall. “Bill pulls out a sheet of paper and starts asking, ‘Hey, Kevin Faulk, what’s the Indianapolis Colts’ favorite blitz on third down and short in the red zone?’ ” When Belichick himself was asked in a recent interview what he thought his quarterback Tom Brady and the great Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown had in common, he stressed only mental traits. Both were “astute and aware.” They had a “full-field comprehensive view.” And “when it’s time to work they’re locked in.”
How does one go about finding people studious, gifted, or patient enough to master complex offensive and defensive schemes? Belichick’s father Steve was a scout and a coach at the U.S. Naval Academy. For Bill Belichick, football is a culture, a body of tips, wisdom, and lore, the relevance of which is not limited to the gridiron. Belichick has always gravitated to people who feel the same way—second-generation coaches, like Jim (of Michigan) and John (of Baltimore) Harbaugh, sons of a coach at Michigan and Stanford. Among players, too, Belichick trusts ones from football families. Matthew Slater, his special-teams captain, is the son of Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater. Offensive lineman Ted Karras is the great-nephew of the late Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras. Defensive end Chris Long is the son of Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long (and, for what it’s worth, the great-nephew of Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back).
A number of Patriots went to prestigious universities—Tom Brady and defensive tackle Alan Branch to Michigan, Slater to UCLA, and fullback James Develin to Brown. But elite institutions do not guarantee the intellectual preparation necessary to compete at the top level. (A truth of wide application!) Instead, to an unusual extent, the Patriots have chosen players from football programs that are complex in the same way the Patriots are. The Rutgers defense as it developed under Greg Schiano in the first decade of this century is the best example. But the Alabama defense run by coach Nick Saban is similarly confusing—to both the opponents who face it and the players required to learn it. Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower is one of the few players Belichick has ever sacrificed draft choices to obtain, in large part because he has a rare combination of size and quickness but surely also because, as the Crimson Tide’s defensive captain, he was the chief on-field strategist for the most complicated (and successful) defensive scheme in the country.
Belichick’s focus on specialization, paradoxically, rewards versatility. What qualifies players for specialized Belichickian roles is a general ability to learn and train. Star receiver Julian Edelman was a quarterback in college. Fullback Develin was a defensive tackle. Receiver Chris Hogan played lacrosse, a sport the Maryland native Belichick loves. Defensive back Nate Ebner was a rugby player—he competed with the U.S. Olympic squad in Brazil last summer.
Certain excellent players will prove unsuitable, for whatever reason, to a system built on study, direction-following, and interlocking responsibilities. Belichick will cut anybody. This midseason, the Patriots traded gifted linebacker Jamie Collins for a song. On the other hand, since suitability to the Belichick system is the only requirement, the Patriots can offer redemption to temperamental stars who have worn out their welcomes elsewhere: Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, LeGarrette Blount . . . the list is long.
There is a Zen element to all of this. One of the highest compliments Belichick pays is to call a player “instinctual.” By this he does not mean that they wing it. He means that having drilled, day in, day out, they react to a variety of situations as if by instinct. The Patriots’ game is free and original, unlike the plodding play of supposedly loosey-goosey NFL teams. You follow rules to attain your freedom. You learn by rote so that you can live with abandonment. This, too, is a truth of wide application.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard