The Patriots act

CEO Belichick has created the model organization in today's NFL
Posted: Wednesday October 20, 2004 3:10PM; Updated: Wednesday October 20, 2004 3:20PM

Certain sports possess major cultural qualities -- even if they're contradictory. Football, for example, is both militaristic and social, a brutal game of field generals and platoons and bombs, surrounded by weekend party conviviality -- dates and drinks, tailgating and midriffed sexy cheerleaders.

That martial side of football also increasingly highlights the technological. Coaches are all attached by telephones, assistants use camera surveillance, computers are as much a part of the game now as are shoulder pads and painkillers. No team is more advanced than the New England Patriots. More important, it is as much the methods that the Patriots use off the field to build their team as it is their style on the field that makes them the juggernaut they have improbably become in a league that is supposed to be all about parity.

The four-star general who commands the Patriots is their head coach, Bill Belichick, a man with a background that might seem at odds with coaching. As a player, Belichick was better at lacrosse than football. He attended the elite prep school Andover and then Wesleyan College, with its Division-III football program. But Belichick was also the son of a football coach at the Naval Academy, so he grew up in both a football and military environment.

Presumably Belichick is a fine coach on the field, but in a way, we don't really know. Maybe it doesn't matter. We do know that he has superb assistants. Football, like the army, is a hierarchical enterprise. Staff officers are crucial. And just as crucial, Belichick has developed a system to deal with the bureaucratic intricacies of the business of football today, where the salary cap and free agency force complicated decisions on all franchises. It is primarily Belichick's ability to manipulate personnel and finances that have made the Patriots the winner of a record 20 straight games. Management executives and academics see Belichick more as a CEO than a coach.

This developed sophistication in football is something that seems to leap ahead once a generation. There are lots of outstanding teams, but Belichick's Patriots are specifically the heirs of the post-war Cleveland Browns and the 1970s Dallas Cowboys. The Browns were actually named for their domineering coach, Paul Brown. He made football coaching more organized and modern, showing how valuable game films could be. He infuriated traditionalists by using what were called "messenger guards," to send in all plays from the bench. Two decades later, the Cowboys organization, under a general manager named Tex Schramm, took scouting to new heights of engagement -- while, in tandem, introducing glamorous cheerleaders and other up-to-date marketing advances.

Like Belichick, both Paul Brown and Tom Landry, the Cowboys' coach, were dry and colorless characters, the antithesis of the classic emotional model of the American football coach -- the Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, Bear Bryant type. But as Brown's and Landry's franchises eventually influenced all their rivals, Belichick's Patriots have begun to change the way other NFL teams operate.

The Patriots are bound to lose sometime this season. They may very well not even win the Super Bowl again. But whatever happens, the 21st century organization man, Belichick, has made the Patriots the bellwether franchise of this NFL generation as the Browns and Cowboys were in their time.