Bill Belichick is obviously a football coach of many talents. He has a unique ability to identify players who can help his team win. Belichick motivates his players in various ways that are not always apparent but are usually successful. He prepares his team like no other coach in football.
But if I had to pick one thing about Belichick that makes him distinct -- one thing that Major League Baseball managers might take from his unprecedented football success -- it is something simple: Belichick coaches to win.
That sounds blindingly obvious, and in a way it is. Everybody, after all, coaches to win. But none do so with the steely resolve of Belichick. He only coaches to win. Belichick doesn't worry about convention. He doesn't worry about tradition. He doesn't worry about loyalty. He doesn't worry about what the second-guessers might say, what the press might write, what story history might tell or what the football experts and insiders and legends might think.
The Raiders under Al Davis used to have the slogan: Just win, baby. They might still use it. But for Oakland, it is just that, a slogan. When the Raiders were good, they played a very specific kind of football, an intimidating, throw-the-bomb, commit-lots-of-penalties kind of football. They won a lot doing that. But it was important to Davis for the Raiders to play like the Raiders.
Belichick doesn't care what his team plays like. He has Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, but if winning required running the ball 90 percent of the time, then he will run the ball. Belichick has had great pass-rushing teams, but if winning required rushing two guys and dropping back nine, he would do that.
In the Patriots' past two Super Bowls, their opponents -- Seattle two years ago and Atlanta this year -- were in position to win the game, and both teams lost the plot and made foggy decisions for reasons that made sense in the moment. The Seahawks tried to throw the ball in an obvious running situation at the goal line because they thought they had a good matchup. The Falcons tried to throw the ball while in field-goal range and with a lead because all year they had confidence in the league's best offense.
Both moves backfired, which is not really the point. They could have worked. The point is that in the moment, the coaches lacked the clarity that Belichick always seems to have. Do what gives you the best chance to win the game. That's the only thing that should be on the mind.
It's a good lesson for big league managers, too.
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Yes, let's take a moment and revisit Buck Showalter's decision in last year's American League Wild Card Game to save his best reliever, Zach Britton, until it was too late to use him.
Showalter is, by all accounts, one of the game's best tactical managers and an acknowledged maestro of the bullpen. He's a three-time AL Manager of the Year Award winner for a reason. And in the Wild Card Game at Toronto, Showalter made a tactical decision that matches his philosophy: He saved Britton for when his Orioles got the lead. This is how he had consistently used Britton; he rarely put Britton into a tie game and almost never on the road. A lifetime of baseball experience had convinced Showalter that his team's best chance of winning would mean keeping Britton in the bullpen until his team took a lead.
Of course, the Orioles never did take the lead, and so Britton -- who finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting -- never pitched in an 11-inning, win-or-go-home game.
This is precisely the sort of trap that Belichick never falls into. Belichick would more likely start Britton than not use him in the game.
Another example: In the 2014 World Series, the Royals' lefty-dominated lineup -- with Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Norichika Aoki all hitting high in the lineup -- was overwhelmed by San Francisco southpaw Madison Bumgarner. To be fair, nobody was hitting Bumgarner, but those four in particular were 3-for-29 (.103) in the series, and yet, at no point did Kansas City manager Ned Yost pinch-hit for any of them.
Again, you can understand the thinking: Those were the players who had gotten the Royals to the World Series, not limited role guys like Josh Willingham or Jayson Nix who happened to hit right-handed. Yost's allegiance to his core players is one of his strong suits as a manager.
And again: This is just not how Belichick would have looked at it. Win the game.
One more: In Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, the Mets led, 2-0, going into the ninth inning. Manager Terry Collins had to make the difficult choice of staying with his starter Matt Harvey or going to his mostly unhittable closer Jeurys Familia. Harvey was just over 100 pitches, had been electrifying, and there was no question what the crowd wanted. They chanted, "Harvey! Harvey!"
Collins decided to pull Harvey anyway. Only then, Harvey looked at his manager and shouted, "No way! No way!" The moment was emotional. Harvey had taken heat that year because he and his agent Scott Boras had been open about wanting to preserve his arm after he had underwent Tommy John surgery. Some saw that as Harvey begging out of the postseason. Fury! Rage! When Harvey looked at his manager and insisted on going back out for the ninth, Collins understood just how much it meant to his young star.
So Collins sent Harvey out. Harvey walked the Royals' first batter, Lorenzo Cain, who promptly stole second. Then he gave up a vicious double to Hosmer. Harvey was then pulled for Familia, but it was too late. Hosmer scored the tying run on a ground ball, the game went into extra innings and Kansas City eventually won and celebrated its World Series title in New York.
"I let my heart get in the way of gut," Collins said when the game ended.
One last time, you could understand Collins' decision. And like the others, the point is not to second guess. These are just examples of what everyone except Belichick seems to do; let something cloud that direct line between managing a game and winning the game. Belichick, it goes without saying, would never have let Harvey talk him out of his decision. Belichick doesn't let outside stuff like crowd reaction or player emotions shift his focus.
"That's the understatement of the year," Cleveland manager Terry Francona says. "He's undoubtedly the best in any sport at not letting anything get in the way."
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In last year's postseason, Francona managed in a way that reminds people of Belichick's singular pursuit of victory. His team faced steep odds after Nos. 2 and 3 starters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were injured. So Francona unleashed a bullpen attack unlike any in recent memory, using super relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in any and every situation imaginable.
There were numerous fascinating moves -- bringing Miller into the game in the early innings, having him pitch three innings in a game, swapping Allen in and out of the closer spot -- but the peak had to be Game 3 of the World Series against the Cubs. Scoreless in the fifth, Josh Tomlin had just allowed two hits, and Francona still brought in Miller to get the final out of the inning. It's fair to say that nothing quite like that had ever happened in a World Series game.
Francona never swayed. Win the game. That's the point.
"I don't know much about football," Francona says, "but I do think as a coach or manager, you're supposed to take your guys and get the most out of them. … That's what this is, putting players in position to do what they do well and minimizing what they don't do well.
"That's not easy. If you're a manager like me who likes to run, and you don't have guys who can run, well, it's silly to run. You see Bill taking who he has and making the most out of them. Even the year Tom Brady got hurt, they went to [Matt] Cassel, and they still kept winning. He just focuses on what his team can do well."
This is the part of Belichick that blows Francona's mind: The Patriots are always good. Always. They have averaged 13 wins a season over the past 14 seasons, and they have not once won fewer than 10. The Pats have rebounded from Super Bowl victories and Super Bowl losses with great seasons. They don't fall into the traps that are there after great years, something Francona thinks about now after the Indians' remarkable run to the World Series.
"Speaking bluntly," Francona says, "it can go two ways: Guys can come back with a little sense of entitlement. Or they can come back hungry, they tasted some success and they want it again. You're counting on your guys to have that attitude. The way I know our guys, I know that's their attitude.
"With Bill, the parts may change, the coaches may change, it doesn't matter. He's not afraid to make adjustments. He knows, we all know, that every year is a different year. You have to find that team's own unique identity. We're all trying to do that; that's what we will be trying to do with this team. Bill does that so well. We all would love to learn from that."
Casey Stengel won seven World Series championships in the 12 years he managed the Yankees, the most dominant run for a manager. On the surface, the "Old Perfessor," as he was called, was nothing at all like Belichick. Nothing. Belichick keeps his answers short; the Old Perfessor never shut up. Belichick tends to be deadly serious; Stengel was constantly clowning for reporters.
Belichick's key quote is: "It is what it is."
Stengel's key quote was: "The secret of successful managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven't made up their minds."
Nothing alike … and yet, when you look deeper, you find that in many ways the extraordinary success Stengel had with the Yankees from 1949-60 (10 pennants in 12 seasons) presages much of what Belichick has done in football.
"Look at Stengel's leadoff men in World Series games," says Bill James, baseball writer, historian and Red Sox consultant. He points out how Stengel would constantly change his leadoff hitter. In the 1949 World Series, Stengel led off Phil Rizzuto. In '50, it was mostly Gene Woodling. In '51, he used five leadoff hitters. In '52, it was Gil McDougald. And so on.
Stengel would go off the deep end with leadoff hitters sometimes. More than once, he used Bob Cerv, a part-time player, as James says, "who looked basically like a bookcase with wheels." Another game, he used Elston Howard, who couldn't run at all. At different times, he used Hank Bauer, Norm Siebern, Tony Kubek, Clete Boyer and Andy Carey. In Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Stengel took the team's regular No. 8 batter Bobby Richardson, and he moved him up to the leadoff spot because he'd been hitting.
"It didn't always work," Bill says. "But my point is, Stengel didn't use the guy who looked like a leadoff man. He didn't use the little guy who slapped the ball and ran as his leadoff man, as most managers did at the time and many still do, and he wasn't afraid to do something different than what he did yesterday -- even if it was a key game."
The leadoff hitter was just one way Stengel played to win. He relentlessly platooned in ways that no manager had before; sitting star players, blending talents, rarely giving anyone not named Mantle or Berra 500 at-bats. Stengel found down-on-their luck pitchers like Ryne Duren and Bobby Shantz, Don Larsen and Art Ditmar and so on, and put them in roles where they could be successful. He pinch-hit with wild abandon, once prompting a reporter to ask why he used three pinch-hitters in the first three innings. "Whaddya want me to do?" Stengel reportedly said. "Sit there and lose?"
Stengel also moved his pitchers around liberally to get his best pitchers against the best teams and his lesser pitchers against weaker teams. He worked things out so that stars Whitey Ford and Bob Turley would face the White Sox or the Indians, while leaving lower-level starters like Johnny Kucks or Tom Sturdivant to face the lesser teams like Washington or Kansas City.
It doesn't matter so much that these strategies worked -- some didn't, most did -- but that Stengel came up with them because he focused all of his energies on doing whatever he thought would win the game. He would not do anything just because that's how everybody did it. Stengel didn't let emotion guide him. See if this description of Stengel, from James' "Guide to Baseball Managers," reminds you of anybody:
"All managers become burdened by their success, a heavy portion of which is their loyalty to a group of players. Stengel was different. With a few exceptions (Yogi Berra, Billy Martin) he made no emotional commitment to his players. He instructed them, corrected them, yelled at them, and if they didn't respond he traded them, but he kept them at arm's length."
Francona and Belichick have crossed paths many times through the years -- obviously they both had great success at the same time in Boston. But Francona says that while they've talked sports, they've never really exchanged strategies.
"Our sports are very dissimilar," Francona says. "They play once a week. We play every day. I can't have a meeting with our guys every day; that would last about a week. With us, guys have to sense that they are at home. They have the music on in the clubhouse. They should feel comfortable. And then, when it's game time, they are ready to play. That's different."
Still, Francona thinks that there are things for baseball managers -- and basketball coaches and business executives and basically anyone trying to succeed -- to pick up from Belichick's success.
"It's Bill's relentless pursuit of perfection," Francona says. "That's why his teams win so much. That's why you're writing this story. He's relentless. We all find at times that it's hard to stay on course, to keep going forward, to not let the distractions or outside influences or criticisms or whatever shift our focus. Bill does it better than anyone else."