March 06, 2019
Four Championship Virtues, Courtesy of the New England Patriots
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Republished from LinkedIn, originally posted in 2015 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/four-championship-virtues-courtesy-new-england-patriots-damon-young/
There's a scene in my favorite movie, Apocalypse Now, where Col. Kurtz describes the moment from his first tour when the Viet Cong had brutally victimized a group of Vietnamese children who Kurtz & his men had just inoculated. In the midst of his horror, Kurtz suddenly understood, "like I'd been shot with a diamond bullet right through my forehead", in his words, that this was a ruthless expansion of the battlefield on the part of the VC that he could never have conceived. "The genius of that..."
I found myself encountering a much less lethal diamond bullet after I finally understood the major trick plays the New England Patriots employed to defeat my beloved Baltimore Ravens during Sunday's AFC Divisional Game. As I looked at the range of offensive tactics and just flat-out tricks the Patriots employed during the game, it really dawned on me that Bill Belichick's mindset with regards to coaching and game strategy seemed to be markedly different from that of other coaches in the league.
These four aspects of his approach seem to stand out for me:
Now, this is not to suggest that other coaches are not committed to winning, but, it's clear from the Patriots' playbook that they are relentless in their quest to find advantages, opportunities, and interventions above and beyond the standard conception of play. It's one thing to plan out a great defensive strategy based strictly on matchups, routes, and field position. It's another to look at all aspects of the game beyond the basics of play. Much like the Viet Cong in the earlier example, Belichick seems dedicated to discovering new ways to expand the field of battle to his advantage. This approach actually goes back to his time as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants under Bill Parcells, when they defeated the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. Buffalo had an explosive offense that had easily steamrolled many opponents. But the strategy that Belichick devised with Parcells to combat that offense was a fiendishly simple one: develop an offense for the Giants that consumed so much of the play clock that the deadly Bills offense could never get on the field to demonstrate their power. In effect, they turned the offense into an arm of the defense.
Most look at the rule book as a list of restrictions. But, as evidenced by the substitution trick the Patriots employed in the 3rd quarter, the rules are about as constraining to Belichick & Co. as a blank canvas is to a painter. Rather than looking at the practical implications of the limits for the number of eligible receivers for an offense, the Patriots looked at it from a different perspective: If the opposing defense expects certain players to play certain roles, the confusion created by declaring normally eligible and dangerous receivers as eligible has a unique value all to itself. Yet another example of looking outside of the confines of the traditional football mindset to find levers that help you manipulate the field of play to your advantage.
Of course, innovation and risk-taking are not popular, especially with competitors and authority figures. You can conceive of all the trick plays in the world, but you have to be ready to face the consequences if they fail or if the Powers-That-Be consider them to be too far out of line. The Patriots have been burned for this in the past. But that has not seemed to hinder their willingness to work far outside of the box to achieve success.
Yes, this is a post from a disgruntled football fan who's forced to give reluctant respect to those who vanquished my champions. But, in any field of battle - athletic or commercial - I think these four virtues can serve us all well on the path to our own victories. In short, it's about a bit more than football.
But, don't be misled: when the Ravens build a better secondary during the off-season, we will be coming back to Gillette Stadium.
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