clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tales from the SunnySide: McDaniels and Belichick, Part I

New, comments
Tales from the SunnySide: McDaniels and Belichick Part I:
The Tale of Bill Belichick


"'Tis a happy thing to be a father onto many sons..." Shakespeare, King Henry the VI, Part III

It's the week that some of us have been waiting for: the week when the Denver Broncos will wrestle with the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have a relationship and a friendship; the roots of both go deep. They are far more than mentor and disciple. They are currently professional equals, and their teams will meet on a level playing field and fight for victory in a single contest. It's a great story, and a great opportunity for the Broncos. Many will be the discussion of each team's strengths and weaknesses, and that's as it should be. I wanted to know something a little deeper.

I love to study football; its history, its systems, coaching, scouting, formations and schemes, film breakdowns and stories. I love to know where the players come from, what has driven them, why they traveled the road that they have. And I've been just as interested in its coaches. for those that know me, I also promise to keep this one substantially shorter than Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples.

Back in the early years of the 21st century, Bill Belichick took over the New England Patriots in a time of low expectations. The Pats were a team of tradition, it was true, but theirs was a tradition of losing. In fact, the first year that Belichick was the head coach, the Pats only had a record of 5-11. If that had happened to Josh McDaniels, the 33 year-old head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009, McDaniels might have been ridden out of town on a rail. But learning the story of Bill Belichick helps you to understand Josh McDaniels. Bill's story contains the principles, errors, strengths and successes that young Josh McDaniels would later use to create and carry out his own theory of team building. This is the story of how the Broncos are being built - and why it's working, the first time. When he came on, he noted that his whole life was been a preparation for becoming a head coach. This is the story of the experience that Josh McDaniels drew upon - the one that put aside the need to come in and have a bad experience before succeeding as some of his detractors insisted would happen.


"The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has gone on for three hundred years." Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

A Tradition of Coaching

Bill Belichick's coaching story goes back to the early days of his childhood - and before. He came by his love of football honestly - his father, Steve, had  only gotten in college by the power of a football scholarship. At first a fullback, Steve Belichick soon saw that he wanted to move into coaching. He had an innate love of breaking down film, of pattern and position, that changed the fortunes of every team that he worked for. From his first job, as an assistant for Vanderbilt, onward through his years at Annapolis, Steve Belichick understood the game from its most obvious principles to its most esoteric variations. He would spend long hours coaching, with young Bill playing on the sidelines. Long before Bill reached the age of 10, Steve was educating him in the principles of scouting and game analysis. Steve would also go on to write a book on scouting, and young Bill would spend hours, entranced, absorbing every fact, thought and perspective. Bill's own love of order and pattern would lead to a football scholarship of his own - he played center - and a degree in economics that would later help him to change the way NFL teams dealt with the esoteric mysteries of the salary cap, contracts and team-building. The apple didn't fall far from the tree. Steve Belichick came from a family of Croatian immigrants, a family to whom hard work, thriftiness and moral responsibility meant a great deal. Bill would absorb those principles into his life as well.

Steve had become a well-liked, highly respected institute in college coaching. He made a conscious decision to devote himself to his craft and to stay under the radar. He was offered a higher paying position at Army; Hank Stram asked him to come to Kansas City to coach and scout for the Chiefs. He turned down every offer and stayed out of the politics of the university. He loved the dedicated young men of the Naval Academy whose sole opportunity for relaxation and letting off steam was the few hours they were allowed to play football; motivation was simply never a problem. Bill Belichick learned from this the value of the team over the individual, the importance of dedication and having a higher cause than personal glory. He was, as a boy, given an envelope each Friday from the defensive line coach of Navy, giving him the game plan. He was able to dissect what he was given, absorb the plays, why and where they were called, all at the age of nine. He was able to translate this lessons into the way he would eventually coach. He also saw the respect that his father was treated with, and came to understand why it came and what that meant. 

Bill's mother, Jeannette, had her own unique contributions in young Bill's life. She and Steve had met when they were both teachers; he in PE and coaching and she in languages, for which she had a natural gift. Jeannette loved classic music, its logic and patterns as well as its emotion and innovation. She learned football when she noticed that her husband's friends were usually coaches themselves, and coaches tend to surround themselves with other coaches so that they can talk endlessly in the language of their careers. Later, she became so proficient that she would help Steve with his scouting. She also edited his book on the subject. 

She was a stable influence on a life that was often strained; football didn't pay much, and for many years, the Belichick's would live hand to mouth as Steve's jobs took him from here to there. Steve soon noticed that even he best of head coaches would often be suddenly uprooted,sometimes for things beyond their control. A committed recruit suddenly changes his mind after an offense or defense is built around him. Injuries and player actions change the outcome of a season, but it's the head coach that is blamed. Steve took higher degrees in PE and became first an assistant instructor and them a tenured assistant professor, which permitted him a measure of stability and a decent income for his family at Navy. No matter which coaches came and went, Steve Belichick had a job and a life that he loved. But young Bill heard a different calling, and chose a different path. From an early age, all he really wanted was to be a head coach. That drive, and that passion, made him a good assistant, a great defensive coordinator, and eventually led to an offer from Art Modell at Cleveland to become what he'd always wanted to become. 

Over the years, Bill learned from every coach that he was fortunate enough to study under and work for. He learned George Allen's system from Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore. Allen put a premium on breaking down film, and Belichick got his start by working for free, then for $25 per week. When Detroit offered Bill $400 per week, he left and stepped up the ladder. From there, he came to Denver, learning the 3-4 system from Joe Collier under Red Miller. It was a different 3-4 from what Belichick would later prefer - Collier's players were mostly lighter than average - but the hallmarks of versatility were already in place and Belichick learned both the offense and defense while he was there. Belichick also learned a lot from Bill Parcells, but eventually outgrew that relationship and needed to move up on his own. His first head-coaching position was at Cleveland. 

Belichick and the Browns 

Before Bill Belichick took over as head coach of the Patriots, he had taken a job as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns under owner Art Modell. The experiment was a disaster; Belichick made all the usual errors of a first-time HC. He didn't comprehend the vast array of responsibilities of being the head coach as the first among them. Belichick was brought into a troubled franchise and was nervous as he began to map out how he would attempt to build this team into a winner. Belichick quickly made the mistake that 100,000 managers and coaches have made before him - he tried to be someone he wasn't.

Belichick had been a defensive coordinator of considerable success. He recognized, accurately, that the relationship between his players and he would have to be different as he moved into the HC functions, but he decided to move back into a past that had included time at Annapolis, a place where the older Belichick, Steve, had spent decades coaching. Steve had been the primary influence on Belichick as a boy growing up - Steve's book on the methods of football scouting had only sold around 400 copies, but Steve had poured into it his knowledge of the game, his understanding of the principles of scouting and his reasons for the approach that he took. Bill, and his best friend from childhood, Ernie Adams, who still is a personal coaching assistant and one of the brilliant minds behind the Patriots (due to his ability to break down film and to seek out the weaknesses of another team), had lived and breathed that book and many others like it for many years. Ernie also followed Bill to Cleveland. Art Modell would soon comment that he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could tell him what it was that Adams did for the team, but Belichick had no illusions. Adams was Bill's gentler side, a man who had majored in Latin and coaching, who had attended Northwestern University for its Latin prowess rather than its football prowess, Belichick's intellectual equal and his compatriot in deciphering the intricacies of other teams' weaknesses. 

Adams was seen by Ray Perkins as something rare and remarkable. Adams has a photographic memory, and has memorized pro football teams' playbooks in a matter of days. He also has a stratospheric IQ and a knack for understanding not just the plays, but how they fit together into a system - what it means, and what doors that might open. Adams is generally a quiet, pleasant, soft-spoken man and is a huge help to his more visible friend. 

But when Bill came to Cleveland, he let his own angriest inner-self out and tried to be a drill instructor as much as a head coach. He screamed and cursed at the players. He was hard on his own coaches and assistants. The franchise itself was dysfunctional, it was true, but Belichick was unready to take on that particular move in his career and the experiment ended in failure. Ironically, given later events for both Belichick and Josh McDaniels, Belichick also benched the 'franchise' quarterback, Bernie Kosar, and that time he failed to have a proper replacement ready. He was hammered in the media, disliked in the locker room and beaten on the field on Sundays. Eventually, he was fired. The experiment hadn't lasted long.

Belichick in New England 

When the Patriots spent a 1st-round draft pick to get Bill Belichick as their head coach, several things were being said. One was that Belichick had moved out from under the shadow of Bill Parcells. Another was that Bob Kraft, the owner, had a lot of faith in Bill. Belichick had convinced him that the goal wasn't to win the Super Bowl. It was to manipulate the current salary cap and free agency system to permit a team to establish a dynasty, the likes of which hadn't been seen in the NFL since the cap system matured into something of its current form. Kraft quickly agreed - the team had been to 2 Super Bowls and lost both. They had nothing to lose and a great deal to gain. Even Belichick didn't realize at the time just how much they could accomplish together. 

There were many reasons why it worked. It required a change in paradigm, a new way of viewing how to build a team and how to maintain one. Several things worked in the Patriots' favor here. 

1. Not needing to win right away was first.

Given the history of the team and all that was wrong with it, Kraft didn't expect instant results. This lessened the pressure on Bill, and he wasn't going to make the mistakes that he's made in Cleveland again. Belichick wanted to do more than win a championship. He knew that if he built the team the right way, he'd achieve that championship. But he wanted to build a team that would compete year after year. That was what was different. Belichick could take the time he needed to put his own basic principles into action. 

2. Second was the Belichick view of a team from the standpoint of economics. 

This was in the early era of the salary cap. BB was an economics major in college - he looked to Arthur Miller, one of his economics professors for guidance. He also took the counsel of Jerry West, the architect of the LA Lakers dynasty, one of the most successful teams in the history of sports. He needed to figure out why the Lakers were so successful, how you could match its principles in the NFL, and how to build a team that defeated not just the other teams, but the economics that tend to cause other teams to fail. 

Belichick admired Paul Brown to the point of near worship. He emulated him in many ways and used what Brown created to a higher advantage. Much of what Brown developed  Bill Walsh would take and developed further. Just as Walsh did, Belichick also used whatever seemed to him to work best and he found a lot of that in Brown's work. He also drew from the principles of George Allen, from his high school, prep school and college coaches and from his own father and mother. His football principles were based in the way that he viewed and lived his own life. And always, the ability to analyze the other teams, to outwit as well as outplay them, would serve him and the team in good stead. 

3. Team over talent

Belichick likes to say, "We're not accumulating talent. We're assembling a team". You'll often hear one commentator or another, including a lot of good coaches, say, "This is a talent-driven league. Talent wins every time." Belichick eschewed that approach. He wanted players who bought into the concept that they were a team - first; that sponsorships, endorsements and lines of shoes and clothing - every marketing ploy that can make you money - starts with the team winning. If they do that, They soon saw that you will make that money - and more. The players quickly bought into it.

4. JAG players

As a part of the above principle, a 'JAG' player is an anagram for Just Another Guy. Often, they are men who didn't work out in another system but who offer your team strengths that other teams either didn't see or didn't take advantage of. This is an example of the principle that talent is important, but not always the deciding factor. New faces often find new positions. 

Mike Vrabel was a DE who just never fit in at Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a deep team and opportunities are rare, so Vrabel never quite found his place and Bill Belichick knew that. Instead of using him as an undersized DE, Belichick moved him outside and he became a strong, powerful LB. In a similar vein, Belichick also took on Roman Phifer. He told Roman, "We'll teach you the techniques and positions and you will define what your role with the team will be." Later, BB would tell the press wryly, 

"We didn't realize that his role would be being on the field for 98% of the snaps..." 

Does this sound like any of the players Broncos fans might know? Players like Darrell Reid, Elvis Dumervil, or Andra Davis? Josh McDaniels got this principle from Belichick and is using it to best advantage. 

5. Leadership can't be taught, but it can be taken advantage of

Belichick also began looking for players who were leaders in the locker room. That's another thing that Josh McDaniels did when he got to Denver. He brought in leaders like Brian Dawkins, Andra Davis, Andre' Goodman and Renaldo Hill. Then he set out to draft players who had been captains and leaders throughout their college careers. He was doing what he had seen work in New England, and doing it well. 

6. Constant teaching

There is a phrase in our language that is in vogue right now - 'A teaching moment'. That's great, but EVERY moment is a teaching moment in the NFL. Every moment can be used to get better, to see what you've done that you want to do differently and to see what worked and should be recreated. Teaching needs to be constant, as does striving to improve. The two should go hand in hand. 

7. Getting great coaches - and leaders - and letting them do their jobs 

There are many, many other similarities between Bill Belichick's situation in New England and Josh McDaniels' with the Denver Broncos. For one, both chose assistant coaches that could make the team better. Belichick has developed a lot of coaches who later went on to do well for other teams, as well as several who did well in New England but could not recreate it on their own. 

In another similarity between Belichick's foray into NE and McDaniels' into Denver, it wasn't that long after coming into town that Bill decided to replace Drew Bledsoe - an excellent QB whose skillset didn't suit the gameplan as well as the 6th-round pick, Tom Brady. Bledsoe had originally gone down with an injury, but when he became healthy, Belichick realized that it was Brady who fit his needs far better. The fans were generally infuriated. Statements flew that the man obviously didn't know a danged thing about quarterbacks, or football for that matter. He was trying to ruin the franchise, etc., etc. (It's interesting to note that few of the insults, inquiries and inanities have changed much over the past two decades). When Josh McDaniels was told to trade Jay Cutler by Pat Bowlen, a plethora of conspiracy theories leapt to life, much like Aphrodite, fully grown, from the brow of Zeus. But in the end, Josh McDaniels was able to choose a quarterback who fit his system: calm, intelligent, mentally and physically tough and an established leader, just as Belichick chose one to fit his own. 

But in the end, Josh McDaniels would learn from Belichick in many areas. The younger man was also a talented analyst of film, obsessed with finding weaknesses and capable of establishing either the offensive or defensive schemes and approaches. Both were the sons of coaches and both grew up on the sidelines. Both of them got to learn from their own fathers, and both fathers would help the sons by talking to their own contacts in the often insular football world, helping here and there while letting the sons become their own men. And both young men took the opportunities they were given, and created from them winners molded in the image that matches the head coaches' beliefs and ideas. 

Later today, I'll add Part II of this report: The Tale of Josh McDaniels.