I Scouted The Patriots Using Steve Belichick���s Scouting Manual. Here���s What I Learned
Page 96: RECEIVING THE KICKOFF
Once the receiving team is set for the kickoff and the ball is kicked (do not watch the kicker), maximum concentration should be directed to the five front men to see what they do. They are going to make their moves before the ends and the backs, since the latter must wait to see where the ball is going before they can initiate their action. These five front men, by their actions, will often quickly indicate what the direction of the return will be.
After the Titans blasted the opening kick out of the back of the end zone and Tom Brady took the field, I wondered which AC/DC song had played just after the anthem—a superfluous detail that clouded my headspace and diverted my attention.
That, too, was against the rules.
Page 26, paragraph four:Do not permit your interest to be aroused to the point that you become a spectator. This will hinder, and often prevent, you from obtaining essential information.
To understand Steve Belichick is to understand Bill. Imagining Football Scouting Methods being read in the Patriots coach’s terse, monotone press conference voice is to imagine William Faulkner in a southern drawl, or James Joyce with a brogue. It gives the words a third dimension. It brings to life theories about punt coverage.
Steve is the single greatest influence on the single greatest head coach in football history. Journalist and historian David Halberstam once wrote, “[Steve] was by all accounts a brilliant coach, an exceptional teacher and arguably the best and most professional scout of his era. No one, it was said, could scout another team and break down their film quite like Steve Belichick; no one could pick up on a giveaway mistake of another team—say, a runner who involuntarily gave a small tip-off before the snap when he was going to get the ball—like Belichick.”
And Bill was there next to him in the car, soaking up each thought and theory from the time he was seven years old. The first game Bill had an actual memory of was, fittingly, a 43-12 pounding of Army by the Naval Academy in 1959 at Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia. In front of 100,000 fans, Navy, no doubt armed with a bulletproof scouting report from Steve, and scored the most points in the series’ history—a margin that has only been topped twice since.
Steve’s ideas are exhausting and innovative. Before the days of high-resolution broadcasts or on-demand coaches film, he discovered and wrote about a fail-safe way of identifying a defense with just “four rapid looks”:
• Look 1: Defensive backfield to determine two or three deep coverage while the offense is breaking the huddle
• Look 2: The defensive players inside the “guard box”—a square area that encompasses both offensive guards and center.
• Look 3 &4: Two rapid looks to place the remaining players
His goal was to look away from the field as little as possible, often creating shorthand that allowed him to remain locked on the action without shifting down to his notebook even once. Everything was about creating more time and opportunity. The scouting report itself would give the staff a two-day jump on studying an opponent before the film arrived. The coding system would allow a few more seconds to jot down intricacies between plays. The methodical organization would make it easy to pack up, getting him down to the locker room to discuss what he saw with the coach or fellow scouts sooner.
Bill Belichick’s mantra—Do Your Job—has come to simply encapsulate the complex Patriot Way, but it seems so disproportionate to the weight of his father’s work. Steve Belichick wasn’t just doing his job. He was smashing it to pieces in secret and reengineering the parts. Teams were fighting with sticks and rocks back then. Steve had tanks and howitzers.
Against the Titans on Saturday night, the Patriots proved an immense challenge for a first-time Belichick-trained scout. They buzzed in and out of no-huddle offenses. As always, they employed a mind-numbing amount of pre-snap shifts to set up the play.
Coming into this game, New England presented 44 different personnel deployments on first down alone this year, according to NFL GSIS. They had 234 lineup combinations offensively and 307 on defense, and while those numbers aren’t astronomical by NFL standards, the low rate at which Belichick relies on any particular lineup creates the headaches for opposing coaches. (An example: With those 300 different defensive lineups this year, Belichick used the most common lineup only four percent of the time.)
It does not take a seasoned football mind to theorize that, after watching his father deliver the master class on opponent identification for 43 years, Bill did his best to prepare himself against the most experienced safe cracker, and not just the average thief.
Steve did leave some breadcrumbs in his book that are hard to for players to mask even after decades of refinement, though. Brady, for example does at times backpedal just a tad during his drop-back. In Football Scouting Methods, when a passer does that, “They are usually going to throw the ball to the left.” In rewatching Patriots games from this season, I picked 10 randomly selected, non-play action passing plays to the left side and found that seven times, when the receiver appearing to be Brady’s first read was on the left, he tended to backpedal with both shoulders facing the defense just slightly. I compared each pass to a standard drop-back where the intended receiver was on the right or over the middle, and it looked like Brady would settle into a more traditional, one-shoulder forward, sideways drop just a split second quicker.