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Should the Cowboys copy Bill Belichick’s leadership style?

Is that even possible?

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images

It is an axiom that the NFL is a copycat league. To understand this consider the shotgun formation. Tom Landry (re)introduced the formation in the mid-70s. By the 80s every team was using shotgun; by the 90s it was the primary passing formation and by the aughts it was the primary formation for some teams. Success begets success.

And no one can argue the New England Patriots, behind head coach Bill Belichick, have been the most successful team of the century. So, I wonder why more teams don’t try to copy Belichick’s methods. I also wondered if the Cowboys do in fact emulate some of Belichick’s strategies.

Today we’re starting a 3-part series looking at 10 Belichick leadership traits, why they’re hard to copy and how the Cowboys rate in comparison.

Much of the information, including a number of quotes, come from a Greg Bedard article for the Monday Morning Quarterback; it’s a worthwhile read for those interested.

The “Belichick leadership rules” can be broken down into three categories:

  • Culture
  • On-field strategies
  • Player acquisition and retention

Culture

Establishing a successful culture is perhaps the simplest and most direct measure of a leader. Regardless of the profession, strategies and talent acquisition won’t matter if the leader isn’t able to establish a culture of success. There are four ways Belichick has developed such a culture at New England. Let’s look at each one.

  1. Establish high expectations

Belichick is notorious for making clear, in no uncertain terms, the expectations he has. This is at every level: as an organization, as a team, as a coaching staff, as a position unit and individually. He also makes it clear that failure to live up to the expectations will result in - well, something bad.

It’s really interesting reading how Bill does this, it’s mostly about doing your homework and being prepared. Belichick doesn’t get on guys about physical mistakes or failures; but mental mistakes are simply not accepted and mercilessly exposed. No excuses are accepted. Here’s former assistant coach Rick Venturi from the MMQB article:

“In Cleveland, we ran a cover 2 technique -- where the defensive backs had to jam and run-that was not easy to teach, and my guys were really struggling with it. Bill just turns to me in front of everyone and says, ‘This s--- is getting really hard to watch.’ And that’s it. And you’re just going, ‘Aw, goddamn it,’ and your whole body is tense-I don’t know how to put it in words, but you went home and just said to yourself, ‘I will never let this s--- happen again.’”

Belichick does not rant and rave to make his points. He is, however, clear, direct and uncompromising with his expectations. Many of his ex-players and coaches say it’s a high stress environment to work under but also say the expectations brought out their best. That’s often the way it is with such things, Tom Landry’s players testified repeatedly they feared disappointing their head coach (who also wasn’t a screamer).

2. Prepare for everything - then prepare some more

We’ve seen the evidence of the Patriot’s outstanding preparation many times over the years. There’s simply no game situation that comes up where the players don’t know what to do.

  • Just failed on a 3rd-and-short inside the red zone? No hesitation; the Pats immediately line up and Tom Brady falls for an easy first down before the defense even knows what happened.
  • Just threw for a questionable 25-yard completion? No hesitation; the Pats immediately race down the field and snap the ball hoping to avoid a possible video review.

I could give example after example regarding this. You never (okay, rarely) see the Patriots wondering what to do, looking to the sideline for guidance. Belichick is known to have virtually no small talk at all inside the Patriots offices, but he’s also known for quizzing a player or coach for 30 minutes when he runs into them at the water cooler.

Don Jones (Patriots Safety, 2014):

Tuesday they would give us the scouting report, and on Wednesday morning Bill would go around the whole room -- from Tom Brady down to the bottom man on the roster -- and ask everybody about the person they were going against. You really didn’t want to be the one not to know.

Heath Evans:

You’re in a Friday red zone meeting, Bill pulls out a sheet of paper and starts asking, ‘Hey, Kevin Faulk, what’s the Indianapolis Colts’ favorite blitz on third down and short in the red zone in the fourth quarter?’ Kevin would give an answer and he’d be like, ‘Heath, do you agree?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yes sir, I agree, but they also like to run this one.’ Corey would just make up answers if he didn’t study. Bill would ask, ‘Hey, Corey Dillon, what do you think about their two answers?’ And if Corey would say, ‘Yeah, I agree, Coach,” he’d be like, ‘OK, Corey, if you agree, then tell me what’s their favorite blitz on first-and-10 inside the red zone?’ He never let anyone get away with maybe knowing or not knowing.

3. Always evolve

The Patriots’ coaching staff starts every offseason with the same task: review and evaluate everything the team did the previous season and figure out why it will or won’t work moving forward. Envision how opponents will adapt and react and make pro-active adjustments now, before the new season.

This is an area where Belichick and the Patriots really stand out from most NFL teams. I would argue both the 2015 and the 2017 Cowboys teams entered the season with a strategy to recreate their 2014 and 2016 seasons. The lack of evolution no doubt played a part in both of those team’s disappointing results.

4. Bring in young coaches and “coach the coach”

NFL coaching staffs are littered with coaches who got their first coaching job under Bill Belichick. While the team will bring in experienced coaches at times the preference is to develop from within.

The reasons Belichick likes this approach:

  • Belichick can “coach the coach”; showing him exactly how to do the job he’s been assigned.
  • No bad habits or competing schemes or strategies are brought in.
  • Staff consistency. Because the staff often is young and inexperienced they tend to stay around for a while and don’t get poached by other teams.

So, why don’t more teams copy these culture traits?

Mostly because it’s hard. Consider expectations: lots of coaches and leaders establish high expectations. How they go about getting others to reach them is the real challenge. Simply saying you expect X to happen won’t make it happen. There are numerous other skills needed to achieve that goal (many we’ll touch on).

Also, it’s a very fine line between “getting the most from your players” and “being an unreasonable tyrant”. Professional sports are littered with ambitious task-masters who enjoyed some level of success (often in different locations) but wore their welcome out after a few years.

I believe teams do establish expectations, they simply aren’t able to help their players reach them as well as Belichick does.

Regarding the Cowboys I think Jason Garrett has done pretty well in this area. The players seem to understand what the team is trying to accomplish, but it’s hard to evaluate without knowing what goes on inside The Star on a day-to-day basis.

Preparation: this is the area the befuddles me the most. You’ll see teams routinely confused by normal, predictable situations. Super Bowl winning coach Mike Tomlin was confused against the Patriots this year after a touchdown call was overturned despite having had several minutes to consider the two possible outcomes when the call was overturned and his team was totally unprepared. They ended up throwing a horribly ill-advised pass that was intercepted and the game was over. How can an experienced NFL head coach be confused when there’s only two possible outcomes and you’ve had several minutes to think about it?

Yet we witness such confusion and uncertainty in virtually every NFL game. You almost never see a Belichick team uncertain about what to do. Belichick combines an encyclopedic sense of possibilities with a relentless work effort to simply be better prepared for every situation. In a league where inches can mean the difference between winning and losing this is a significant advantage.

Jason Garrett has proven one of the better coaches in terms of preparation. We see it in how the team repeatedly goes for it on fourth down without any hesitation; that’s a sign they had prepared for the situation and knew what to do. In general, I find the Cowboys to be less confused or ill-prepared than most teams.

Still, Garrett has had significant gaffes at key times. The 2016 playoff loss to the Packers comes to mind, when a combination of poor strategic decisions and lack of preparation cost the team an opportunity to advance to the NFC Championship game.

Evolution: This is where I feel many NFL teams should be looking at themselves and asking, is there a better way? Coaches attach themselves to strategies and schemes and seem uncomfortable getting away from them, many times plain unwilling to change. If they’re successful they’ll ride those same schemes until the rest of the league catches up and then they’re usually out of a job.

I’d rank Jason Garrett very low in this area. He believes in his way of approaching NFL football and isn’t much interested in making adjustments. This applies to both long-term thinking (schemes) and short-term thinking (in-game strategies).

Coach the coach: this is an area I think is unique to Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Most NFL front offices would be uncomfortable with this approach because it would require knowledge and commitment in the head coach that is hard to find. Belichick can coach his coaches because he’s capable of coaching any of the position groups.

Phil Savage:

Most coaches specialize on one side of the ball. But he’s one of the few out there who have a global perspective of the entire game and all 22 positions. He’s a true coach of all 22 positions plus every specialist. That’s a rarity. He’s one of the few coaches out there who, if you dropped him on the staff at Drake University and said, ‘Hey, be the tight ends coach,’ he could absolutely coach those tight ends to the nth degree.

Belichick’s also had success in teaching coaches, not all head coaches possess that skill. This is likely a strategy that is limited to the Patriots, at least to the extent that they practice it.

Next in the series we’ll look at on-field strategies.

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