Breaking Down Belichick
6. A Survivor’s Tale
By Will Leitch, New York magazine columnist and Deadspin.com founder
Everyone remembers back in 2000 when Bill Belichick resigned after pretty much just one day as head coach of the New York Jets (I’m sorry: "HC of the NYJ"). It’s so odd, when you watch footage of Belichick’s rambling press conference—which caused several New York scribes to question his sanity—that this man turned out to be a mad, controlling genius. To see him at the time, you wouldn’t have hired the guy to run your Dunkin’ Donuts.
But you have to remember what Belichick’s concern was. Sure, he would have remained in the shadow of Bill Parcells, an egomaniac to rival Belichick and one equally obsessed with protecting his own myth. But looming perhaps as large were his worries about the Jets’ future owner. Woody Johnson ultimately bought the team, but when Belichick had his press conference, Johnson wasn’t the odds-on favorite to take over the franchise as owner. No, the favorite was one Jim Dolan. You remember Jim? The owner of the New York Knicks? The steward of the worst franchise in sports? The man who presides over the organization that upon learning that an intern had had sex with the starting point guard in the back of a truck, opted to promote her? That Jim Dolan.
He could have been Bill Belichick’s boss. Jim Dolan. Why does Belichick act so erratically? Why is he obsessed with secrecy? Why is he willing to do anything—ANYTHING—to win? Because he escaped the gallows. Bill Belichick had a near-death experience: He almost worked for Jim Dolan. It’d cause me to treat every moment as if it were my last, too.
7. The Smartest Guy in the Room. (But About That Room…)
By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone political writer and author of Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire
Anyone looking for insight into the behavior of Bill Belichick need only look at a few sample questions from the Wonderlic, the SAT-style test administered to college players before the NFL draft. Graded on a scale of 1 to 50, players are asked questions like "When rope is selling for 10 cents a foot, how many feet can you buy for 60 cents?" Players get 12 minutes to answer 50 questions, and it’s a Herculean struggle. Scores of 10 and 12 out of 50 are common. Isotoner spokesman Dan Marino is said to have scored a 16. Steve McNair reportedly managed a 15.
This is the intellectual environment in which Bill Belichick works. Remember that a great many coaches are ex-players. Whiz-kid coach Jon Gruden was a third-string quarterback at Dayton who spent his high school years filling notebooks with X’s and O’s—not actual plays, mind you, but just the letters. Mike Ditka, you wouldn’t bet even money that he could write his name in the ground with a stick. And he nearly ran for the Senate! That tells you something about the sea of mental mediocrity that is the United States in general, let alone the NFL. It also explains why Belichick didn’t seem particularly intimidated by the sight of Senator Arlen Specter doing his apocalyptic-bloviation act on ESPN.
Bill Belichick’s problem isn’t that he’s "too smart," as some have contended. His problem, actually, is that he’s just smarter than everyone else he sees on a daily basis. He gets up every morning to work alongside people who need to be reminded that it’s easier to run behind a tight end than a wide receiver.
Someday in the near future, he will be asked for the nine-thousandth time to "talk about the value of team chemistry" by yet another balding sportswriter with a huge spare tire who’s slogging through the sad terminal adolescence that is his professional existence. On the road, Belichick looks into the stands and sees grown men wearing dog masks and hats fashioned to look like big pieces of cheese staring tearfully at the field alongside their plump sons, idiots-in-training with mustard-stained faces, both generations mystified and devastated by whatever B or B-minus plan he cooked up to beat their team that day.
An able man working in this environment long enough will naturally develop some problems in the area of taking other people seriously. And not just other people’s opinions about his job performance, but their rules, their expectations of conduct, their moral outrage. In the Spygate scandal, it didn’t help that the so-called infraction was a thing patently absurd on its face—filming signals made out in the open for the whole world to see, the equivalent of filming a third-base coach. Belichick is not wrong to be frustrated by what a big deal everyone is making over this. Where he is wrong is in not seeing that only a madman films a third-base coach. A real genius would never lose sight of the fact that football is just a game, and there are certain lines he would never cross to win one. That is the difference between being really smart, and just smarter than most—and we can all hope that Bill Belichick is smart enough to figure even that out, someday.
8. Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game
By Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and Michael Norton, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School
Whether on tax returns or football fields, potential cheaters have two fundamental motivations: the desire to see themselves as honest, good people, and the desire to gain the benefits that come from skirting the rules. These often conflicting impulses can be gratified simultaneously, however, if people can cheat but also justify their unethical behavior.
Research in the field of behavioral economics has demonstrated that we are marvelous at accomplishing this balance. For instance, we might steal Post-it Notes from work but feel justified in doing so because everyone steals from work—even if we have no firsthand evidence of such theft. And because cheating is easier when we can justify our behavior, people often cheat in small amounts: We can come up with an excuse for stealing Post-it Notes, but it is much more difficult to excuse taking $10,000 from petty cash.
At the same time, people—including Bill Belichick—still find ways to justify "big" cheating. How? In a world where everyone is behaving honestly, any dishonesty constitutes a big infraction. But in a world where many people are behaving dishonestly, even a big infraction can feel small to the perpetrator. While it’s easy to single out Belichick, unethical behavior is often a product of a community where dishonesty is pervasive. It’s not the bad apple that should most concern us, but rather the system that turns them out by the bushel.