The NFL’s Best Coach*

February 8, 2015

bill-belichickTwo days before Super Bowl XLIX this article about Bill Belichick appeared in Grantland.  It starts with a terrific journey back in time to young 9-year Billy cutting a homework-for-game-reports deal with his father – a well-known college football scout – and then travels forward to how he first made his bones as a defensive coach and then grew into an offensive master by constantly learning from his fellow coaches.

The author sees Belichick “bombarding opponents with shrewd, coldly rational tactics” and thinks his greatness “has never stemmed from the Big Idea, unless the Big Idea is the relentless application of many Little Ideas.”

It’s hard to win in the NFL, where most games are decided by small, often overlooked moments.  The great coaches, however, are adept at finding and exploiting seemingly infinitesimal advantages.  There’s a reason Bill Walsh called his book Finding the Winning Edge [for more detail, see The imperfect perfectionist – ed] and Don Shula called his The Winning Edge:  Gaining an “edge” is often the difference between winning and losing.  One doesn’t steward his team to 12 consecutive 10-plus-win seasons, as Belichick has, without an uncanny ability to identify and exploit the on-field edges that add up to wins.

But what about edges off the field?  It’s impossible to write about Belichick this week without raising the question.  Like almost all of his peers, Belichick isn’t above a little gamesmanship if it might help him win:  According to Halberstam, in order to slow down Buffalo’s no-huddle offense in Super Bowl XXV, Belichick told his Giants players to “accidentally kick the ball” away from the officials after it had been set up for play.

Each of the Patriots’ six Super Bowls is a testament to just how small that winning edge can be, with margins of just +3 +3 +3 -3 -4 +4.  But for two unbelievable catches by Giants receivers we’d be talking about an unprecedented 6-0 dynasty that averaged a championship every other year.  But for an unbelievable goal-line INT by an undrafted rookie community college graduate, we’d be talking about two different Brady/Belichick eras:  the first resembling the Aikman-led Cowboys of the early 90s, the second resembling the can’t-win-the-Big-One Vikings of the mid 70s.

The Grantland article includes a bit of catnip for those of you who like the X’s and O’s:  a defensive play designed around which way the center slides after the snap.  Talk about your “callous detail freak” looking for any edge.

We suspect his efforts to gain those “edges off the field” will also be a permanent part of his legacy.  His team hasn’t been in 6 Super Bowls over 15 years because of deflated balls, or illicitly videotaped signals, or (pre-Belichick) a snowplow driven by a convict on work release.  But you earn the reputation and invite the asterisks when you proudly display that same snowplow in an exhibit at your stadium.

To paraphrase the old adage: reputations are built over the long-term, and can be forfeited in just a moment.  In our business failure can be counted on to make (at least) a cameo, so it’s critical to learn how to fail the right way and make a distinction between business failure and personal failure.  An entrepreneur (or coach?) can try too hard to avoid an enterprise failure and pressure himself into a career-damning ethical lapse.

BPV often backs the same entrepreneurs in more than one business, and we view honesty and consistency as critical to sustaining long term relationships for long term growth as opposed to trying to squeeze maximum value from a single transaction.  We also put a premium on transparency, as it’s easier to remember the importance of being honest when everyone involved in a business relationship can observe how decisions are being made.

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