When you get past his three SuperBowls as a head coach, New England Patriots Bill Belichick is perhaps best known for his gruffness with the media. Ask about an injured player, receive a horrifying death glare and a quick one-sentence response that sheds no light on the original question whatsoever.
But close observers of the team know that this characterization is only half true. When presented with questions that pertain to football history or strategy, and decidedly not personnel, and when they’re not presented immediately following a game, Belichick is a regular chatty Kathy.
And so it was last week, when the coach opened up and laid some knowledge during a midweek press conference about the sports’ good ol’ days.
Courtesy of Patriots.com, Belichick considers the development over time of special teams play in the NFL.
Q: Specialists have become better, kickers are better from longer distances and punters are stronger. Are all those hidden yards in special teams even harder to come by than they were when you were a special teams coach? Does that make those plays even more vital?
BB: I think it kind of evens out. Their punters are better, our punters are better; their kickers are better, our kickers are better. I think it’s all relative. But yeah, certainly there’s a lot more coaching technique, I’d say, sophistication in the kicking game than what there was 15, 20, 25 years ago, no question, or 35 years ago when I was coaching special teams.
A lot of it is the same, but a lot of it is different. Some of the rules have affected it. Also just the evolution of seeing things work, seeing schemes evolve and for lack of a better word, copycatting them. As we’ve talked about before, when I came into the league, as an example, there was no spread punt. Nobody would spread and if they did, the first thing anybody would do was rush them. That was because the snappers weren’t involved in the protection so you were a guy short.
Now every team’s snapper is involved in the protection. Every team spread punts, even against rushes. That really, I would say, started when [Steve] DeOssie went to Dallas and they did it with Steve. Other people saw it and found guys and started teaching it and got comfortable with it. That’s a scheme and a thing that’s involved – I’m not saying that the snappers are that much better now than they were in the ‘70s or in the early ‘80s but once Steve and once that became – Cardinals did it, there were two or three teams doing it – once that was effective then everyone was looking at it saying, ‘We should be able to find somebody who can do that. Give us an opportunity to have two split guys and not get them held up from a tight position on the line of scrimmage.’
I think there are other things like that, other aspects of the game that have schematically evolved, just like we’ve seen on offense or defense whether it be blitz-zone schemes or multiple receiver sets and so forth and so on. That’s a little bit of an evolution and sophistication of the game.
If that all sounds dumbfounding to you, modern football fan, it apparently did as well to one reporter, who followed up:
Q: Were punts on first down common back then?
BB: Sure. Well, inside your 10, yeah. Inside your 10, sure. Absolutely. That was like [Robert] Neyland’s – it was a rule. There was no decision. It was, you’re inside your 10, punt on first down and play defense. [You] wouldn’t take a chance on turning the ball over if you had bad field position. Again, it was a running game and there were less first downs but that was very – and again, all of his disciples which were numerous, that yeah, I would say back in the ‘20s, ‘30s…and then you get the players like Don Hutson that, everybody talks about how great of a receiver he was, and he was, he was the first great receiver in the National Football League, he was a great kicker too. That was another important part of his job. Back in those days, you had to have a kicker, you had to have a punter and the punter was probably the most important position on a lot of teams. That kind of took priority over, like I said, passing or running for the single-wing tailbacks for us.
Historian is a hat Belichick has been known to wear in the past. He is regarded as one of NFL Films’ biggest proponents — which is all the more ironic given the media spite he’s so often accused of (often deservedly). Belichick himself was followed around by NFL Films crews in 2009, as he was featured in the organization’s documentary series, A Football Life. At the time, he spoke like a regular archivist:
“It is beyond measure what NFL Films has done to promote football, preserve its history and entertain generations of us who love the game,” said Belichick. “When the legendary coach of the NFL Films team, Steve Sabol, approached us about capturing [the Patriots’] 50th anniversary season in 2009, it was an honor to participate.”
However, ask Belichick if he ever wants to put all that historical knowledge to work somewhere outside the realm of coaching, and you suddenly (and hilariously) get regular ol’ Bill again. From that same press conference:
Q: You have such a great voice and command and you’ve been doing it for so long – I know you just want to coach the football team – but will there be a point in your career when you want to help at the level when you can help shape the game?
BB: Right now I’m just trying to help our football team prepare for the playoffs. I’m not here to solve the world’s problems. I’m just trying to win a football game.