Bill Belichick’s Ultimate Flex
8-4 record. First in the East. #1 seed in the AFC. Perennial Coach of the Year. These records and accolades all stand true as of this writing, but none will be more legendary than what Bill Belichick did Monday night in windy Buffalo. 14-10 Patriots. Three pass attempts. You must go back to December of 1982 when Miami visited Foxboro in the famously “Snowplow Game” to find anything close to what the Patriots pulled off Monday night. The 1982 New England QB Steve Grogan attempted 5 passes in that game and led New England to a 3-0 victory. The game featured heavy winds and was buried in thick, glorious snow. Almost every NFL fan has seen a highlight of this game. Games like this, and the Ice Bowl, where teams brave the elements, are some of the best moments of NFL lore. Monday night’s game which I’m playfully calling “Blustery Bowl” will be part of that lore for all time. The stat we will most remember from this game is three passing attempts.
Bill Belichick daringly wore a Navy sweatshirt heading on to the field. Paying homage to one of the greatest run-only offenses in College Football history and he seemed to be thumbing his nose at all of us. Telling us all what his strategy would be in this game. Play after play the Patriots lined up, in 2 tight-end sets without any hint they were interested in throwing the football. Buffalo would “stack the box” with 9 players daring the Patriots to throw. But, New England was going to run. They knew it, Buffalo knew it and yet the Bills could not stop them. 222 rushing yards against a defense who knew they were only going to run. It is utterly mind-blowing.
Running the ball and trusting your defense to win games was a huge part of the NFL past. Famous coaches like Vince Lombardi would rely on his running game and defense on his way to numerous NFL Championships. But in today’s NFL, where teams feature 4 wide receiver sets, lining up to the run the ball almost looks odd to the casual fan. Highlight reel catches, the speed on the outside wins you games, plus it’s more exciting. Battling it out in the trenches with 300lbs men pushing the pile, trying to grind 4 yards a carry seems more like grab-and-hold boxing compared to the shiny spin kicks and takedowns of MMA. Yet it proved to be entirely effective for the Patriots, the Bills seemed shocked.
Analytics is the buzzword this season in the NFL. Teams like the Chargers love going for it on 4th down, claiming to always follow the analytics. More and more teams are foregoing punting and field-goal attempts to try for more first downs and more time of possession. Denver had a 20 play 10 min drive with multiple 4th down conversions on Sunday Night Football. The Ravens went for 2 on the last play of the game instead of taking the extra point by sure-footed Justin Tucker. Old school coaches have been less enthusiastic to follow these analytics. Maybe you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Or maybe they are not sold on their effectiveness.
This leads me to the last part of the Belichick Ultimate Flex. New England ran the ball 40 times. Belichick wore the Navy sweatshirt and told us this was the strategy. Buffalo dared them to throw, and they didn’t. They attempted 3 passes. But maybe, just to thumb his nose at all those analytics fanboys, he decided to go for 2 when they scored a touchdown. I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation for going for 2 there. But it wasn’t because he was afraid to kick with the wind. They attempted two field-goal attempts. Nick Folk made both kicks, including one over 40 yards. It wasn’t because the score dictated a 2-point conversion was needed, it was 6-0 at the time. No, I think Bill Belichick went for 2 because he could. Because he isn’t too old. The game hasn’t passed him by. Because he sees all the analytics and he thinks he does it better. At 8-4, first, in the east, #1 seed in the AFC, the odds-on favorite to win Coach of the Year, who won a game on the road attempting 3 passes, is anyone going to tell him he is wrong?