Bill Belichick’s downfall, as explained by Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Bill Belichick is a student of history, particularly Sun Tzu. He used the famed Chinese general’s words from “The Art of War” to inspire his coaching style, but now they haunt him.
Belichick’s empire is crumbling, and there’s a real chance that next season opens with someone else prowling the Patriots sideline for the first time this century. Whereas once Belichick lived by Sun Tzu’s notion that, “every battle is won before it is fought,” now his downfall can be captured in some of the tactician’s other guiding principles.
Here are 10 Art of War quotes that highlight how the Patriots and Belichick have reached this seeming point of no return.
1. “If there is disturbance in the camp, the general’s authority is weak.”
Belichick’s rule was always tenuous, and occasionally exposed by a particularly malcontented team, like the infamous 2009 squad of Adalius Thomas and Co. His grip on power was similarly shaken after the mysterious Super Bowl benching of Malcolm Butler.
An unspoken pact always existed between Belichick and his players: as long as we win, we’ll bury our egos and put up with your crap. Once the winning stops, the disturbances arise, however, whether it’s Mac Jones screaming at last year’s coaches or Jack Jones being passive-aggressive on social media following last week’s partial benching.
If Belichick loses the room, the battle is over.
2. “Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.”
We all know Belichick’s long-stated desire to take away what the opponent does best. That once meant beating up the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, daring Peyton Manning to run, or throwing the ball 40 times against the Vikings’ stout defensive line.
Those days are gone. The Dolphins want to run you off the track, 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 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 intended to highlight, since they did absolutely everything they wanted in a 34-0 shutout. Even against the Raiders, the plan was to neutralize pass-rushing demon Maxx Crosby, who recorded the game-clinching safety.
Whatever you do best, it’s safe to say today’s Patriots have no answer.
3. “Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of 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 about speed, quick-strike scoring, applying constant pressure to the opposing sideline. Belichick, meanwhile, still believes in featuring the tight end, in winning the special teams battle, and in paying defenders.
The result is a team that falls in immediate holes, can’t mount an attack, and leaves its defense completely overwhelmed.
4. “Rewards for good service should not be deferred a single day.”
Speaking of Brady, this one is obvious. The Patriots nickel-and-dimed their franchise quarterback for years, and he took it out of an extreme sense of loyalty, which the team happily exploited. When Brady decided he had had enough, the Patriots let him walk over the relatively paltry sum of $25 million, and he promptly won another Super Bowl in Tampa.
They are still paying the price for a decision that may deny Belichick Don Shula’s record.
5. “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”
Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, anyone? All this talk of generals and officers merely puts a spotlight on the coaching deficiencies that have plagued the Pats the last two years. They make the same mistakes week after week, calling the quality of their coaching into question.
But the arrival of Bill O’Brien, a respected offensive mind, and the continued regression of Jones under center suggest that what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. And that comes back to Belichick, who seems flummoxed over how to connect with today’s players.
6. “Wheels of justice grind slow but grind fine.”
For two decades, Belichick’s Patriots trampled the rest of the NFL, running up scores, flouting norms, and operating by their own rules. They thought those days would last forever, but now they’re tasting their comeuppance. The Saints and Cowboys didn’t call off the dogs, and the Dolphins were still chucking it down the field in the final two minutes of their latest victory. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots find mercy in short supply over the final eight weeks.
7. “If you fight with all your might, there is a chance of life; whereas death is certain if you cling to your corner.”
One of the toughest parts of watching the Patriots in the post-Brady era has been their consistent passivity. Even former players have noted that Belichick often coaches not to win, but to keep from being blown out.
Sometimes that’s reflected in clock-chewing drives late in games while down multiple scores. Other times it’s taking a knee to run out the half rather than trying to advance into field goal range. Or maybe it’s punting from midfield rather than going for it on fourth down.
Today’s Patriots lack fight, and it has landed them in last place.
8. “Foreknowledge cannot be gotten from ghosts and spirits, cannot be had by analogy, cannot be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from 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 belong to the past, but Belichick hasn’t adjusted for the present.
In addition, the list of people he’s consulting has grown stale, whether it’s his own insular coaching staff, or the Friends of Bill from the college ranks that are overrepresented in his drafts.
If there’s one area where Belichick and Sun Tzu still agree — that numbers alone can’t guide decisions — it’s at odds with the data-driven world we now inhabit. Whoever runs the Patriots next will almost certainly incorporate analytics into more of their decision-making.
9. “Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.”
You know what? Not touching this one.
10. “It is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for the purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.”
Yeah, this one, too.