FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It is impossible to appreciate the brilliance of a Bill Belichick news conference, to understand the purpose behind those mumbles and awkward pauses and lowered eyes, until you have sat in on one and tried to stay awake throughout it.
Wednesday’s was a classic of the genre. Behind a lectern inside Gillette Stadium, with the Patriots set to begin practice within the hour, he opened with a description of the Eagles so basic and generic that it could have applied equally well to any number of NFL teams — a steady trickle of words with no discernible fluency or inflection, as if he were reciting the most boring poem E.E. Cummings ever wrote.
“Obviously,” he said, “great football team great organization … they’ve done a tremendous job … got a lot of good players a lot of guys who are hard to stop in all three phases of the game … they make you work on everything … they’re solid all the way around very explosive team good situational football team well balanced … we’re going to have to do everything well down there Sunday need to be ready to go against a good team looks like they’re getting healthy and trying to find their rhythm.”
There is a point, of course, to Belichick’s public banality, and his six Super Bowl victories, his nine Super Bowl appearances, and his status in the sport testify to the everlasting effectiveness of his approach.
His goal is to give nothing away. He wants to be a blank slate to his opponent, offering no insight into his level of confidence or concern, no indication of what his strategy for a particular game might be.
Go ahead. Try to read him. You’re better off raising in to Johnny Chan.
Two years ago, Doug Pederson and the Eagles did dare, and by their boldness, they beat Belichick and the Patriots and won Super Bowl LII. Dan Quinn’s Atlanta Falcons had crumbled to pieces in the second half the year before, and Sean McVay, Jared Goff, and the Los Angeles Rams shriveled up at the mere sight of Belichick and Tom Brady.
But through his and his team’s intelligence and preparation, Belichick had facilitated those collapses. Give him enough time, and he’ll figure out what you’re doing and how to either stop it or exploit it.
Sometimes, as was the case against the Falcons, he needs nothing more than a few minutes during halftime. Against the Rams, the two weeks between the conference championship games and Super Bowl LIII were more than enough time for him to reduce McVay from the NFL’s young genius to just the latest in a long line of coaches who weren’t as smart or savvy as the master himself.
“Well,” defensive back Duron Harmon said, “you go back to the [Eagles’] Super Bowl, and we had two weeks for that, too.”
They did, and they surrendered 41 points to a backup quarterback. But Pederson and the Eagles had a couple of built-in advantages in Super Bowl LII, compared with most teams that face the Patriots in an important game.
One, Pederson, Frank Reich, and John DiFilippo used the two-week layoff between the end of the regular season and the Eagles’ divisional-round game against the Falcons to revamp their entire offense, to cater their play-calling to Nick Foles’ strengths.
Was the system similar to the one that the Eagles had run with Carson Wentz? Sure. But making a change that significant that late in a season put Belichick and the Patriots in an unfamiliar position all game long: on the defensive, never quite sure of what the Eagles might run.
In one example, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth pointed out during the game’s telecast that, while the Eagles usually had their receivers run slants out of run-pass-option plays, those receivers instead were now breaking to the outside — and getting open because they were. (It’s also no coincidence that the Patriots’ only loss so far this season came against the Baltimore Ravens, whose offense, because of the presence and talents of Lamar Jackson, is as unpredictable as any in the league.)
Two, the Eagles had been playing all season with exactly the sort of aggressiveness and daring required of any team to beat Belichick. In 2017, they went for it on fourth down more frequently than any other team in league history. They were comfortable living on the edge, so comfortable that they shocked Belichick and the Patriots (and anyone who hadn’t been paying attention to what the Eagles had been doing) by running a trick play they’d never used before -- on fourth-and-goal -- in the Super Bowl.
There’s a lesson from that approach that the Eagles should carry over to this one. No, they’re not the same team they were back then, and the Patriots aren’t, either. But the principle worked once, and it still holds true:
To win Sunday, Pederson and the Eagles will probably have to come up with something that surprises the Patriots. They have to be the blank slate, the unpredictable opponent, that Bill Belichick loves to be.