When it comes to NFL coaches, nobody compares to Bill Belichick in the strategic department. If this was up for debate prior to the New England Patriots’ Monday Night Football matchup against the Buffalo Bills, it certainly isn’t now. Belichick and the Patriots came close to tying an NFL record for fewest passing attempts since the NFL/AFL merger (2), throwing just three times in their 14-10 win over the Bills.
Conceptually the idea was simple: It was so windy in Buffalo that there were huge concerns about pass accuracy and ball placement. However, knowing this and executing on it are two very different things. The NFL is a passing league, and everyone knows it. Even the Patriots operate on this ideal. Entering the game on Monday night New England had a pass/rush split of 394/334 in 2021, throwing on 54 percent of their offensive snaps. On Monday this shriveled to just 6 percent.
On Monday night there were constant winds above 20 miles per hour, with gusts over 40 miles per hour. It was enough to blow kicks off course and totally alter how the game needed to be managed.
The opening kickoff just blew right into the stands lol pic.twitter.com/ViOJDwPAuK— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) December 7, 2021
Belichick not only understood that the wind was going to be a huge factor all game long, he realized the personnel he had.
Mac Jones has been an incredible rookie quarterback for New England, but arm strength and zip were two major concerns prior to the draft. Jones simply isn’t the kind of quarterback to rifle in fastballs that could begin to cut through the wind (especially considering the big-armed Josh Allen was struggling with the wind for the Bills). There was essentially nothing good that could come from having Jones throw the ball 30+ times, as he’d been doing in recent weeks, so Belichick showed ultimate faith in his cadre of running backs by committee to get the job done, as they ran the ball 46 times right down Buffalo’s throat, and dared the Bills to stop them.
Of course, this made the whole game a lot easier. If the Patriots running backs were only gaining 2.0 yards per carry this would have been a disaster. However, Belichick bet on the strength of his offensive line and numerous change of pace backs, all of whom have different running styles, to keep the Bills defensive front on their back feet all game.
Damien Harris, the smaller and shiftier of New England’s backs, ran the ball 10 times for 111 yards. Rhamondre Stevenson, their power back, carried it 24 times for 78 yards. Brandon Bolden, the elder statesman of the rushers, carried it four times for 28 yards. Hell, even wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, as well as tight end Jonnu Smith got carries (albeit without much success). The point is, the Patriots were able to replicate a punctuated, change of pace attack, and did it all on the ground.
The best part of all this: Belichick might have told everyone it was coming.
Bill Belichick wore a Navy Midshipmen mask in his pregame interview and promptly ran the ball 46 times pic.twitter.com/euXwnxuiTC— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 7, 2021
Sure, it’s not like Belichick to hide easter eggs inside of his pre-game routine. But gosh, do I want this to be his intention. Belichick has familial links to Navy where his father was an assistant coach, but there could have been a little more to this.
Navy played Tulsa on October 29 in a game where quarterback Tai Lavatai attempted just three passes. Relying entirely on their varied rushing attack, Navy ran the ball 57 times in the 20-17 win, showing that it is possible to still win entirely though a ground game.
It’s tough to imagine that Belichick was inspired by a college program, but the link between his overwhelming rushing game and his Navy facemask are just too good to ignore. Hell, even Bills players said they were prepared for the Patriots to run the ball all game long, but simply couldn’t stop it.
We tend to think of “genius” as thinking outside the box and solving problems in wildly creative ways. This really wasn’t a case of that. Instead it was seeing a clear problem, an obvious solution, and having the guts to execute on it anyway. The Patriots have now won seven games in a row, and are the top team in the AFC, and it’s because of Belichick. The 2021 season might be his coaching magnum opus.