Monday, January 12, 2015

The Unlikeliest Showman

Bill Belichick faced a crisis a little after five p.m. last Saturday evening. To win against the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots were going to have to play an exciting game.

Coaches hate exciting games. It's easy to see why. An exciting NFL contest is one in which both teams have roughly equal chances to win or lose. The more time spent in that situation, the more exciting the game. In other words, the more stress faced by the coach, the more pleasure given to neutral couch potatoes who face no consequences from the results.

However, when a team gets down 14-0 in the first quarter of a playoff game, it really has no choice. It can try and win an exciting contest, or it'll wind up losing a very dull one. That's way worse than excitement on the coaching stress scale.

Thorough preparation, indeed, overpreparation, is the activity which consumes well over 90 percent of every coach's time. The rest is spent on game days making those "adjustments" one hears so much about. An adjustment is nothing more than a decision made in reaction to the new information and circumstances created by the chaos of game action All coaches make them in every game, unless, like poor John Fox yesterday, they are faced with an insoluble problem such as "the Hall of Fame quarterback's injury we've been covering up for a month has not healed!"

Among the most notable ways Belichick stands apart from his peers are his quickness in reacting to information and his willingness to go whole hog in a new direction if he deems it necessary. Against Baltimore, Belichick became P.T. Barnum in a sweatshirt. If thrills were required, he'd provide 'em or go down trying.

In chronological order, here are Belichick's decisions helping create what was without question the most entertaining game of New England's 2014.

1. Fuck the run. What's OUR Hall of Fame quarterback for? Tom Brady threw 50 passes, and the Pats needed each and every throw.

2. The delightfully arcane formation making Shane Vereen an ineligible receiver. If this one doesn't work, it could get Brady killed. It should also only work once. It worked three times against the Ravens, because John Harbaugh, a fine coach, could not bring himself to believe it was within the rules.

I am willing to believe that that formation was part of New England's original game plan, created as a means of discombobulating Baltimore's front seven. No way I will ever believe that's true of the next bullet point.

3. The double pass from Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola. I don't know how many pages are in the Pats' playbook, but I'll bet the one with this play is much closer to the appendices than to the title page. It was a trick play called in the heat of the moment by a staff and head coach who had embraced the need to use every possible bullet in a shootout. It was a brilliant decision with an extremely high chance of going terribly wrong (which wouldn't have made it any less brilliant). If  fortune always favored the brave in the NFL as it did on that play, we'd all see many more exciting games.

It all sounds so simple, doesn't it? When a coach sees which way the game is flowing, he issues instructions accordingly. As often in sports, what's simple isn't easy by a long shot. Coaches are trained from their unpaid college assistant days to be risk averse. It's the line of least resistance to assume that a game with early scoring won't be a shootout, that a defense of the Pats' caliber will recover its equilibrium, letting the team run a "normal" offense. It is psychologically difficult for a coach to throw away hours and hours of careful study and preparation to embark on a new strategy under duress. That's why so many of them wait to do so until it's too late.'

I'm sure it was difficult for Belichick when he realized his team needed 30 or more points if it was to have a chance to win. Point is, the difficulty didn't slow him down. He may not be a born gambler. But when he bets, it's always for the table limit. If nothing else will do, he'll be an entertainer with a headset.

Of course, right now the coach is in his office or a meeting room at Gillette Stadium, planning how and hoping that Sunday's game against the Colts is as humdrum a victory as possible. He's had enough excitement for these playoffs.


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