Bill Belichick’s Downfall, Explained in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Bill Belichick studies history, particularly Sun Tzu. He used the words of the famous Chinese general from “The Art of War” to inspire his coaching stylebut now they are pursuing him.
Belichick’s empire is crumbling and there’s a real chance that someone else will be roaming the Patriots’ sidelines next season for the first time this century. While Belichick once lived by Sun Tzu’s belief that “every battle is won before it is fought,” his downfall can now be captured in some of the tactician’s other guiding principles.
Here are 10 quotes from Art of War that illustrate how the Patriots and Belichick have reached this apparent point of no return.
1. “When there is unrest in the camp, the general’s authority is weak.”
Belichick’s reign was always tenuous, occasionally exposed by a particularly disgruntled team, such as the infamous 2009 squad of Adalius Thomas and Co. His grip on power was also shaken after Malcolm Butler’s mysterious Super Bowl exit.
There has always been an unspoken pact between Belichick and his players: As long as we win, we will bury our egos and put up with your crap. However, once the winning stops, unrest ensues, whether it’s Mac Jones Shout out to last year’s coaches or Jack Jones Be passive-aggressive on social media the following Partial bench press last week.
If Belichick loses space, the fight is over.
2. “First, take action on something your opponent cares about. Then he will yield to your will.”
We all know Belichick’s long-stated desire to take away what his opponent does best. That once meant beating the Rams’ best show on grass, forcing Peyton Manning to run or throwing the ball 40 times against the Vikings’ stout defensive line.
Those days are over. The Dolphins want to throw you off, and in their last meeting the Patriots watched helplessly as Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill combined for 15 catches and over 200 yards. The Commanders wanted to control the clock and not ask too much of quarterback Sam Howell, and they ended up dominating time of possession by 15 minutes.
It’s hard to say exactly what part of the game plan the Saints wanted to highlight, as they did absolutely everything they wanted to in a 34-0 shutout. Even against the Raiders, the plan was to neutralize pass-rushing demon Maxx Crosby, who scored the game-winning safety.
Whatever you do best, it’s safe to say that today’s patriots don’t have the answer.
3. “Attack is the secret of defense; Defense is planning an attack.”
In other words, the best defense is a good offense, and there’s nothing good about anything the Patriots have done with the ball since Tom Brady left.
Today’s NFL is all about speed, quick hits and putting constant pressure on the opposing sideline. Belichick, on the other hand, still believes in playing tight end, winning the special teams battle and paying defenders.
The result is a team that finds itself in immediate trouble, unable to mount an attack and leaving its defense completely overwhelmed.
4. “Rewards for good service should not be delayed for a single day.”
Speaking of Brady: That’s obvious. The Patriots have overvalued their franchise quarterback for years, and he did so out of an extreme sense of loyalty that the team was happy to exploit. When Brady decided he’d had enough, the Patriots let him pass on the relatively paltry sum of $25 million, and he promptly won another Super Bowl in Tampa.
They’re still paying the price for a decision that could shatter Belichick Don Shula’s record.
5. “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not fully understood, then the general is to blame. But if orders are clear and the soldiers still disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”
Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, anyone? All this talk about generals and officers simply highlights the coaching deficiencies that have plagued the Pats over the last two years. They make the same mistakes week after week and question the quality of their coaching.
But the arrival of Bill O’Brien, a respected offensive mind, and the continued regression of Jones under center suggest we are dealing with a failure in communication here. And that comes back to Belichick, who seems at a loss as to how to connect with today’s players.
6. “The wheels of justice grind slowly but finely.”
For two decades, Belichick’s Patriots trampled the rest of the NFL by scoring points, flouting norms and playing by their own rules. They thought these days would last forever, but now they’re getting their money’s worth. The Saints and Cowboys didn’t fend off the Dogs, and the Dolphins were still throwing the game down the field in the final two minutes of their last win. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots find mercy in the final eight weeks.
7. “If you fight with all your might, there is a chance of life; whereas if you hold on to your corner, death is certain.”
One of the most difficult aspects of watching the Patriots in the post-Brady era was their constant passivity. Even former players have noted that Belichick often trains not to win but to avoid elimination.
Sometimes this is reflected in chewing the clock towards the end of the game and being several points behind. Other times, you have to hunker down to get through halftime instead of trying to get into field goal range. Or maybe it’s a punt from midfield instead of going for it in the fourth.
Today’s Patriots lack fighting ability, which has landed them in last place.
8. “Foreknowledge cannot be obtained from minds and spirits, it cannot be obtained by analogy, cannot be determined by calculation. It must be obtained by people, people who know the conditions of the enemy.”
Just because the Patriot Way worked for two decades doesn’t mean it still applies today. The ghosts of the Brady years are a thing of the past, but Belichick hasn’t adjusted to the present.
Additionally, the list of people he consults is outdated, be it his own coaching staff or Bill’s friends from the college ranks who are overrepresented in his drafts.
If there’s one point on which Belichick and Sun Tzu still agree – that numbers alone can’t guide decisions – it’s at odds with the data-driven world we live in today. Whoever runs the Patriots next will almost certainly incorporate analytics into more of their decision-making processes.
9. “Treat your husbands as your own beloved sons. And they will follow you to the deepest valley.”
You know what? I’m not touching this one.
10. “Only the enlightened ruler and the wise general will use the highest intelligence of the army for espionage purposes and thereby achieve great results.”
Yes, this one too.