Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Art Of War - Belichick's Adherence To Ancient Teachings A Key To Patriots' Success

"He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated...Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy...Thus is it that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory." - Art of War, Chapter IV, verses 11-14
The Art of War may be 2500 years old, but the lessons contained in its text have been appropriate and meaningful for practically any military application or in the business or sports worlds since fabled Chinese General Sun Tzu jotted them down in the five centuries before the birth of Christ...

It is timeless advice - be you a General, a business magnate or a football coach - that the contriver who assures himself of the best chance for victory is the one who wins the battle before it even starts. As that translates to football, just being the best prepared team isn't always a harbinger of success on the field, as there are many other conditions that affect the outcome of a contest.

Sun Tzu defines these in the first chapter of The Art of War:
* Which teams' coach is more imbued with the "Moral Law", that is, which coach inspires his men to follow his direction, to be "in complete accord" with him;
* Which teams' "General" has the most ability, general defined as the quarterback;
* With which team lies the advantages of "Heaven and Earth", that is which team does the elements favor;
* On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced;
* Which army is stronger;
* On which side are the officers and men more highly trained;
* In which army is there greater constancy both in reward and punishment?
Without question, the team that has most exemplified these seven military conditions since the turn of the century has been the New England Patriots - as head ball coach Bill Belichick's track record in discipline and reward are well documented,  his game plans ensuring that his men are more highly trained week-to-week absolutely screams respect, and the way he builds his team has them playing at their best when the elements are at their worst...

...and, of course, his quarterback consistently displays better ability than his peers - the result of which has been the best record in the league since Belichick assumed the reigns of the franchise. His teams have been to nine Conference championship games in his 16 year tenure, winning six times and translating those into four world titles

Bill Belichick is the head ball coach and defacto General Manager of the New England Patriots, and there is no one in the league - either on the sideline or the front office - that does those jobs more efficiently and just plain better than the Dark Master - and while Belichick gets plenty of credit for being the best coach of the generation, his record as a General Manager is just as impressive.

Forget his much-publicized misses in drafting cornerbacks and wide receivers - because just like in playing the actual games, no one wins them all, but Belichick has won more on and off the field in the past 16 years than any other coach or General Manager in the business, because of his adherence to the ageless wisdom of the Art of War in regard to preparation, a level of preparation that nearly always assures him of victory even before he enters the arena.

The fact that he is intimately and actively involved in every facet of team operations means that he scouts every player coming out of college - and even more so, the free agent market - which has resulted in some of the more interesting and artistic team building the National Football League has ever seen, as the Patriots' roster is littered with players that didn't quite make it on other teams who didn't have the solid foundation in place that allows those coaching staffs to use them to their full potential.

To be sure, Belichick has had the great fortune of being employed by an owner that was patient enough with him to allow him to implement his own brand once he was free and clear of the far-reaching Bill Parcells era and, to a lesser extent, the Pete Carroll experiment, mix-matching his philosophies with what he inherited at the turn of the century and turning the product on the field into Super Bowl titles...

...drafting names like Brady, Seymour, Light, Givens, Branch and Samuel to complete the puzzle and jump start an amazing run that has seen his teams win ten or more games in thirteen consecutive seasons - a run that even spanned what could be called the "Dark Ages" of his tenure, the 2008 - 2010 period in which the team was good enough to qualify for the playoffs, but not diverse enough to go any further.

Without doubt, this period was governed by questionable drafts after the Championships as Belichick attempted to sever all ties from the Parcells/Carroll teams, where Belichick earned his unfortunate reputation for missing on defensive backs and wide receivers, as names like Ellis Hobbs, Chad Jackson, Terrence Wheatley and Brandon Tate came in with much fanfare, only to fizzle when faced with the rigid structure of a most fundamental approach.

Because of this, Belichick doesn't go after players who will fit his system, he goes after players who accentuate his system and makes it possible to open up more of his playbook. Its a subtle difference, but one that allows him to be just as diverse in his game planning as his players are on the field.  If a starter goes down, his game plan morphs and his play book adjusts, allowing for what the backups bring to the table.

It's not as black-and-white as most understand, but that's the beauty of having the company credit card with a $143 million dollar spending limit - and it's amazing what value the man gets for his dollar.
"What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease" - Chapter IV, Verse 11
On the field, Belichick adheres faithfully to the tenets of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive philosophy along with a loose interpretation of the Fairbanks-Bullough defense - "loose", because that philosophy has traditionally been interpreted as a 3-4 but the Patriots' recent history of their linebacker depth being taxed due to injury has precipitated what amounts to a 4-2-5 "Big Nickle"...

...most of the time the fifth defensive back being a third safety rather than a third corner. The Patriots feature great depth in their safety corps - by design, as Belichick has been stocking it with "reaches" in the draft for the past four seasons, and now allows him to run with a single high safety while one safety drops into the box and another reduces down and either doubles up or covers the slot.

But the key to this alignment is that at the snap, the Patriots have eight players within seven yards of the line of scrimmage, making it very difficult for the opposing quarterback to be sure of where pressure will be coming from, and which defensive players are covering his receivers. This offers the Patriots a distinct advantage, particularly in obvious passing situations and in run-heavy schemes where the safeties act as linebackers in plugging the gaps.

The same versatility is required by the "skill" position players on offense, as the concept-driven Erhardt-Perkins scheme relies on a particular brand of athlete - pass catchers that can run every route on the tree, and have the mental capacity to realize the importance of knowing not only where his teammates are aligned, but also to understand why.

It's complicated, but it also causes the defense to have to defend the entire field, as tight ends and wide receivers are classified merely as pass catchers and all are expected to run the entire tree if called upon to do so, and all are expected to become excellent blockers because they know that the concepts require them to be so.
"Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valley. Look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death" - Chapter 10, verse 25
But perhaps Belichick's greatest attribute is that he treats every player who comes through the doors to Gillette Stadium with respect.  He doesn't play favorites - though one could be inclined to believe that he has a soft spot for safeties, given his penchant for carrying an excessive number of them on his roster - and sees a way to incorporate a players' skill set into a game plan.

Every player counts, and all of them have a job - from one to 53 - and he respects his players so much that the ones that end up on his practice squad are typically paid more for their work than what is required by the CBA - and he values their work through the week to get the active roster players ready for Sunday.

Many see him as cold and heartless, releasing players when they cease to be useful in his scheme, but he also understands the big picture that the NFL is a business and the 53 players that give his team the best chance at success are the ones that stay - and people who think he's got a heart of stone don't realize the anguish he goes through when forced to make a tough decision.

Former players universally have nothing but kind things to say for Belichick, and the sentiments are reciprocated. Players around the league want to play for him, but not all can - and he understands that. There are good players that wouldn't be able to pick up the concept-driven offense and good players for whom the defensive strategy escapes them...

...which is one reason why he rarely signs the big name receiver, pass rusher or cornerback when all of Patriots' nation is up in arms about one of them being available, not that they wouldn't get it, but all you have to do is think back to names like Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth to realize that many times, the roster spot and resulting cap hit are most times not worth the risk.

Those were expensive lessons, and mistakes that still resonate in Foxborough as their inability to pick up the team philosophy is just one of many reasons why the G.M. Belichick isn't inclined to move on a top free agent, even if cap space isn't an issue - Darrelle Revis being an exception to that rule, but at $7 million was a relatively inexpensive rental for one season and a very appropriate bridge spanning the gap created by losing Aqib Talib in free agency... Belichick knew that he had his freakish safety corps almost completed and his front seven approaching dominance, setting the stage for a big nickle defense that leads the NFL in points allowed, is second against the run and second in the NFL in sacks, all of which supports a thin cornerback position.

So, in accordance with the Art of War, Bill Belichick not only knows his opponent, but also knows his team and exactly what he has to work with, getting the most out of his players and limiting the effectiveness of his foe going hand-in-hand. There are many reasons why the Dark Master is regarded the best football coach of his generation, and perhaps ever, but if one makes themselves familiar with The Art of War, perhaps Belichick would be better understood.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." - Chapter III, verse 18

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