Before this last Super Bowl, a friend said to me that Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, is the greatest coach of all time. Maybe, I said. Or maybe he’s just lucky. My friend said his success is too consistent to be due to luck. And I think my friend has a lot of company. Most people would argue that the five Super Bowl rings Belichick has acquired make the claims for Belichick’s greatness undeniable.
But even though I am a Patriots fan (since 1962 — lots of misery along the way before this incredible run of the last 16 years) and even though I love that Belichick was an economics major who seems to have a deep understanding of trade-offs and opportunity cost, I am not completely convinced.
One talk show host tweeted a friend at half-time of Super Bowl 51 that the utter failure of Brady and Belichick and the Patriots in the first half meant that Montana and Lombardi were now secure in the pantheon. Even after the second half and the Patriots improbable victory, he argued that the Patriots had been incredibly lucky — Atlanta’s decision to pass late in the game, just like the decision by Pete Carroll to pass at the end of Super Bowl 49 — allowed the Patriots to win a game they had no business winning. Change the outcome of those two games, and Brady and Belichick would now be 3 and 4 and not 5 and 2. They would like like mere mortals and not the immortals they appear to be.
This same talk show host said that the decisions to pass instead of run were such blatant mistakes that any casual fan could see that they were enormous blunders and that no one could dispute this claim, the evidence was undeniable. That host was evidently unfamiliar with the narrative fallacy, the ease with which we tell stories to ourselves with the available data that we often cherry-pick to confirm our narrative. He forgot that if the runs had failed and the Seahawks and Falcons had lost, a different narrative would have been available — the Seahawks and Falcons played into the Patriots hands by being unimaginative, that by sitting back and trying to run out the clock in the case of the Falcons, they had let the Patriots back in the game. Ex post, the Falcon decision to throw on 2nd and 11 that led to a 12 yard sack looks atrocious. But Ryan had incredible success throwing the ball and the pass was unexpected.
But there is some luck or seeming luck in the Patriots run. In their seven Super Bowls, only the latest was decided by more than 4 points and this one was essentially a tie, broken only by overtime. (My favorite stat of the game is the answer to the question: for how many minutes and seconds did the Patriots have the lead? The answer is zero. The Patriots never had the lead. There must be a calculus point here about infinitesimals…) They easily could have lost their last two Super Bowls. They also benefited from poor clock management by Andy Reid in their Super Bowl win against the Eagles.
If Belichick was 2–5 in Super Bowls, he might look a lot more like Marv Levy than Vince Lombardi. Then there’s Brady. Of course, Belichick looks like a genius. He has the greatest quarterback of all time.
So that’s the luck story. Outcomes alone do not prove very much. Ask Marv Levy. Or Dan Marino. Or Charles Barkely.
Having said all that, I don’t think Belichick is just lucky. After all, it was his decision to go with Brady 17 years ago which seemed crazy at the time but it turned out pretty well and I don’t think that was just luck.
And while it can be argued that Belichick has benefited from bad coaching on the opposite sideline — the Reid clock mismanagement, the passing calls by the Seahawks and Falcons — it is also true that there are very few bad decisions ex ante by Bill in big game situations. The only blatant one that comes to mind is his failure to call a timeout as the clock ticked down in the Seahawks game. Had Butler not made the play (and how lucky was he to hold on to the ball rather than merely break the play up), that decision might have looked very foolish a day later. Though Belichick has claimed that the Seahawks looked confused and he deliberately let the clock run rather than giving them a chance to collect themselves.
And Belichick does exude an other-worldly calm on the sideline that seems to help his coaches and players stay calm and do their job. The only time I saw him upset the other night as his team was getting their collective head handed to them on a platter in the first half was when the ref apparenly made a mistake on the attempted block of a Falcons extra point. The lunch-pail do-your-job attitude of everyone on the team does seem to be very effective.
And then there is the hidden side of Belichick’s decision-making. There is tape of Butler practicing the very route he blew up in the game. The Patriots were ready. Even though Lagarette Blount should have run wild on the Falcons (their run defense was very suspect), when Blount was ineffective, Belichick went relentlessly to James White who had the greatest receiving day of any running back in the Super Bowl. He never just dances with the one he came with. He creates a roster that allows him to scheme creatively. And Belichick gets rid of great players when they are too expensive or detrimental to the team and show goes on and goes on surprising well year after year after year.
Finally, winning Super Bowls is overrated. Getting to them, not so much. To get to seven in 16 years does suggest Belichick is doing something right even if it is only as a GM who brilliantly makes good players great with the system he has created.
So sure, Belichick is lucky. But I think he does know a little bit about football. And his knowledge along with his talent for molding coaches and players (did you see him coaching players on technique during the Super Bowl — crazy) is, I suspect, a big part of his success. My belief in his greatness is based on much more than his team’s record. But football is a very complicated game and there is a large random element in every dimension of the game. Having said that, there are few superstars on the Patriots roster and I am sure the Patriots are already the favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl with their 40 year old quarterback. And when that happens, we will be even more convinced that Belichick is a genius.