Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bill Belichick's Legacy Should Not Be Defined by One Game

It is harsh and unrealistic to define any person's legacy by one moment or one game. A legacy is, by definition, an accumulation of moments and games. Bill Belichick can add to his legacy if his New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX but, considering his long track record of success, his legacy cannot possibly be defined solely or primarily just by this game. The reality is that Belichick's legacy has already been largely defined by a series of great moments and games, dating all the way back to his time as an assistant coach. Belichick's defensive game plan from Super Bowl XXV resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Belichick, then the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells' New York Giants, came up with a brilliant strategical approach to slow down the seemingly unstoppable Buffalo Bills' offensive machine headlined by quarterback Jim Kelly. Parcells never made it to a Super Bowl without Belichick by his side.

Belichick has won five Super Bowls--two as an assistant coach with the Giants, three more as the head coach of the New England Patriots--and today he will be making his ninth appearance (three as Parcells' assistant, six as New England's head coach) in arguably the biggest, most prestigious game in all of sports as his New England Patriots face the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. This is expected to be one of the most competitive Super Bowls ever (I'll go on record picking the Patriots to win 24-21 in a contest decided in the waning moments of the fourth quarter) and many people perceive this to be a legacy-defining moment for Belichick. If the Patriots lose, Belichick's critics will crow that Belichick still has yet to win a Super Bowl since the so-called "Spygate" scandal, when the Pattiots had an employee in full team regalia openly and publicly shoot real-time video of football games. If the Patriots win, Belichick's critics will whine about The Most Overinflated "Scandal" Ever and confidently declare that the victory is somehow tainted. In other words, no matter what happens in Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick's legacy will supposedly be tarnished.

This narrative--that Belichick loses no matter what--is ridiculous. I much prefer Kevin Clark's take in The Dueling Legacies of Bill Belichick. Clark writes that Belichick's defining legacy is "bringing value investing to football." Belichick had great success with a 3-4 defense when few NFL teams used that alignment. Belichick was a master at finding players who other teams overlooked who could fit perfectly in that scheme. Belichick did so well with the 3-4 that most of the league's teams copied him and started looking for the same kinds of players. Belichick used to have his pick of the litter among nose tackles because few other teams were looking for nose tackles, but when many other teams started running the 3-4, the Patriots--who always fell to the bottom of the draft because they were at the top of the standings--could not so easily draft the players who they needed. This is when Belichick's genius became fully apparent. Clark explains, "Free agency became even harder. It was no longer cheap or easy for Belichick to get the players he needed. So he did something insane. He completely changed the system." Belichick switched back to the 4-3 defense.

Clark describes what happened next:

He found the cheap and great players there. New England kept winning and he's swung back and forth a handful of times in the remaining decade. Whenever one system gets too costly, he jumps to the other.

This sort of value-searching is common with anything Belichick, who operates as the Patriots' general manager and has full control of the roster. While the NFL waits around for its "moneyball" revolution, the search for inefficiencies is actually long over. Belichick found them all.

A handful of teams have tried to imitate this but have failed. That is because adopting the Belichick model is akin to trying to adopt the Usain Bolt model for running. It takes talent that is really, really hard to acquire.

People who are jealous of Belichick's success and/or spend their lives looking for snipers in grassy knolls fail to appreciate the hard work and intelligence that is the foundation for New England's success during the Belichick era.

1 comment:

Andy said...

David, good post and great Super Bowl prediction! We have strongly disagreed in the past on tennis (I feel differently about Rafa's place in history now by the way - he became a legitimate GOAT candidate after 2013 to me), but on this football point I very much agree with you.