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Bill Belichick’s hidden playbook – the 19th century origins of ‘The Patriot Way’

The coach’s legendary terseness and his rejection of technological trends belie a wealth of knowledge about the game and its history.

Bill Belichick during his last game as head coach of the New England Patriots. Winslow Townson/Getty Images

To the New England Patriots fans enrolled in my Story of Football class at Quinnipiac University, Bill Belichick is the only Patriots coach they’ve ever known.

The 71-year-old coach and team owner Robert Kraft amicably parted ways after 24 years on Jan. 11, 2024, following the end of a dreary season.

Despite my students’ familiarity with the image of Belichick stalking the sidelines, the coach’s world – at least, as far as technology goes – has had little, if anything, in common with theirs.

When he began coaching the Patriots in 2000, and for years afterward, Belichick seemed to ignore the digital revolution erupting around him. He’d joke about a reporter being on “Snapface,” or he’d call Facebook “Your Face.”

Meanwhile, Belichick’s moments of social media virality have been rare – and usually limited to his abuse of the blue Microsoft Surface tablets NFL coaches and players use on the sidelines to study instant replays.

Most of the time, though, he exudes stoicism – some might say arrogance – offering little words of value to the fans and the media.

Yet his legendary terseness and his rejection of the latest technology belie a wealth of knowledge about the game and its history. If there ever were a living historian-coach, it was Belichick.

Historian at the lectern

Most reporters covering the Patriots learned the drill during Belichick’s news conferences: ask him about next week’s starters, and you’d get a vague retort, perhaps followed by a snort or a sneer.

But prompt him on football history, and he’d respond like a scholar.

During a 2021 new conference, he delivered a 1,500-word soliloquy on the history of the long snapper, which is perhaps the most specialized, obscure position on a football team – a player tasked with snapping the football during punts and field goal attempts. Before a 2020 game against the Denver Broncos, Belichick analyzed the evolution of a defensive formation consisting of three linemen and four linebackers, known as the “3-4 defense,” which he learned in 1978 during his one year as an assistant to Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Greg Bishop described Belichick as “part librarian in addition to all coach,” and the more than 400 football books that the coach donated to the Naval Academy Athletic Association in 2006 reflect his lifelong love of the game’s history.

That passion was spurred on by his father, Steve, who started collecting the works after World War II. The elder Belichick even published a book himself in 1962: “Football Scouting Methods,” a respected primer on how to properly assess opponents by observing their games and detecting tendencies and patterns of play.

The father of football informs ‘The Patriot Way’

The oldest book in the donated collection is “American Football,” written in 1891 by Yale football coach Walter Camp, who’s credited with inventing rules, such as the line of scrimmage, which made the game distinct from rugby.

In the book, Camp also detailed the physical requirements and roles of each position, such as guard and quarterback, and included a chapter for spectators to teach the game to the growing number of fans.

In 1896, Camp updated the book, this time with a co-writer in Harvard coach Lorin Deland. They simplified the title to “Football.”

One chapter, titled “Football Don’ts,” lists 40 tips to help coaches and players win. Belichick never used the expression “The Patriot Way,” the phrase the New England sports media used to describe the Patriots’ team-first culture and disciplined approach under Belichick. But a sampling of the “Football Don’ts” reveals that The Patriot Way has 19th century origins.

Walter Camp is known as the ‘Father of American Football.’
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

“Don’t answer back to a coach upon the field, even if you know him to be wrong. Do exactly what he tells you to do, so far as you are able, and remember that strict obedience is the first requirement of a player.”

In short, “Do Your Job” – the mantra that Belichick drilled into his players to remind them that he’s given them each a specific task to accomplish. Everything else is noise.

“Don’t fail to play a fast game. Line up instantly after each down. Your game is twice as effective if there are no delays.”

In 2012, the Patriots ran 1,191 plays, the second-most ever at the time.

“Don’t be satisfied with a superficial knowledge of the rules. Master every detail.”

“Players say Belichick is constantly plucking obscure penalty situations from across the league and showing his players tape every week,” wrote The Ringer’s Kevin Clark in February 2018.

“Don’t be an automaton. Thoroughly master each principle, and then vary your play as emergencies arise.”

In 2019, in the two weeks before Super Bowl LIII against the high-scoring Los Angeles Rams, Belichick overhauled the Patriots’ defensive line formation and pass coverage.

The Patriots held the Rams to three points en route to Belichick’s sixth Super Bowl title as a head coach.

On to the next challenge

Belichick routinely credits other coaches for his success: Bill Parcells, whom he worked under for the New York Giants and Patriots, and Paul Brown, the co-founder and first coach of the Cleveland Browns, a franchise that still bears his name.

Brown was the first coach to use a playbook and the first to suggest that coaches and players communicate via headsets.

“It was very insightful to see how far ahead of his time he was. What a great, great football mind,” Belichick said in a 2016 interview.

“Everything I do today, Paul Brown did. It all started with Paul Brown,” Belichick added in 2019.

The Cleveland Browns were named after Paul Brown, their co-founder and first coach.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Even the deflection and praise seem to be an intentional part of Belichick’s approach to the game.

In “Football,” Camp also discussed coaching, delivering a lesson about the importance of coaches’ keeping a low profile.

He wrote: “The thoughtful man who finds himself appointed to such a position will make his influence felt in all important matters, but he will himself be rarely. His power is well-nigh paramount, but the public display of his exercise of that power might easily become intolerable.”

Belichick has certainly heeded Camp’s advice in his refusal to make himself the story. After losses, there are no excuses, no second guesses, no calling out individual players. Instead, he’ll often reiterate that he has to do a better job – that everyone has to do a better job.

After a brutal 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014, Belichick infamously responded to a barrage of questions from reporters with the same phrase, repeated ad nauseam: “We’re on to Cincinnati,” the team’s next opponent. One reporter noted that Belichick used the word “Cincinnati” 15 times.

Now, Belichick will stalk the sidelines in his trademark hoodie somewhere else.

If not to Cincinnati, Belichick will almost certainly coach again. He has interviewed with the Atlanta Falcons. Other teams are also rumored to be in the mix.

Maybe the interviewers should add a question about long snappers. That way, they can see how they’ll be getting more than just a coach.

Rich Hanley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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