ATLANTA – If there is a lesson to be learned from the New England Patriots’ dynasty, it is that anyone who uses the word “culture” should be sentenced to spend a week in a hotel ballroom listening to self-proclaimed motivational speakers use words like “synergy.” And “culture.”
Modern sports figures use the buzzword to imbue their work with new-age mystery, to pretend that every decision they make flows from some embedded and overarching wisdom.
Search the internet for “Bill Belichick” and “culture,” and what you find are analysts, journalists, current and former players and coaches invoking the word “culture” to describe what he’s built.
But it’s hard to find Belichick saying it.
Belichick doesn’t quote modern marketing terms. He quotes “The Art of War.”
The artistic part of the war that is defensive football was on display Sunday night, when Belichick and defensive coordinator Brian Flores shut down the celebrated Rams offense. The Patriots won 13-3, and the Rams never made it to the red zone.
How does Belichick win, year after year, while drafting at the bottom of every round?
Search through his interviews, and he talks about teamwork, preparation and attention to detail. He talks about relying on his most dependable players instead of his most spectacular athletes, and being adaptable during games.
He once agreed to an interview with the business network CNBC and said, “The only sign we have in the locker room is from ‘The Art of War.’ ‘Every battle is won before it is fought.’ You [have to] know what the opponents can do, what their strengths and weaknesses are ... [and] what to do in every situation.”
Belichick believes in exhaustive preparation, and ditching that preparation. He is beholden to no individual player or idea, with the possible exception of Tom Brady.
Belichick doesn’t believe in “culture.” He believes in ruthlessness.
That’s the problem with the term “culture” — it attempts to make a brutal business sound endearing. Some coaches try to instill a notion of a team as a family. But this is inherently false. You don’t trade your mother to Buffalo for a draft pick if she has a bad year. Belichick would trade or cut any player at any time if they stop serving his purposes.
Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t use flowery language. By avoiding stated philosophies, he is always free to make independent decisions.
The opposing team is weak against the run? Sony Michel will be his star. The opponent is weak against slot receivers? Cue up Julian Edelman. The opponent can’t cover tight ends downfield? Cue up Rob Gronkowski.
The Rams had better players on Sunday, and the Patriots made those superior talents look inept and confused.
Despite his team’s performance on Sunday, the Rams’ Sean McVay remains a bright young coach. But he might need to learn that his philosophies are not as valuable as an adaptation.
The Rams are built to run the ball and use play-action to create big passing plays. With Todd Gurley seemingly injured, the Rams running game was neither effective nor intimidating. So the Patriots ignored play-action fakes and attacked Goff, robbing him of the time he needed.
With his favorite plays surgically removed, Goff looked amateurish. A more adaptive coach would have begun calling more screens or draws. McVay stuck with what had worked all season, as Belichick anticipated he would.
The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX over the Eagles in February 2005. When they faced the Seahawks 10 years later, the Patriots hadn’t won a Super Bowl since.
The Seahawks mounted a dramatic last-minute drive. They faced first-and-goal with the clock running and expected the Patriots to call a timeout. Belichick recognized this, ignored conventional thinking, and didn’t, causing the Seahawks sideline to panic and call a pass play.
Belichick had instructed Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler to anticipate the play and the route. Butler jumped in front of the receiver, intercepted the pass and won a Super Bowl for Belichick.
Two years later, Belichick benched Butler for the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium, then let Butler leave in free agency. Then he won another Super Bowl without him.
Put “ruthlessness” in a ring with “culture,” and culture will not make it out alive.