The task awaiting Redskins coach Jay Gruden seems, charitably, daunting. A head coach’s first “opportunity” to prepare for a Patriots team led by the combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady?
On the surface, one can imagine such a phenomenon as akin to turning loose a pair of wolves inside a pen of lambs. The outcome seems as unavoidable as it is cringe-worthy.
Gruden’s challenge seems particularly unenviable given the Patriots’ recent history against first-time coaching opponents. Dan Campbell of the Dolphins was the latest foe who seemed overmatched in his initial crack at New England, suffering a 36-7 defeat last Thursday in his first matchup with the division rival.
Campbell’s defeat represented the continuation of a trend. The Patriots have won each of their last seven games against coaches who were facing them for the first time, following Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley, San Diego’s Mike McCoy, Chicago’s Marc Trestman, Oakland’s Dennis Allen, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, and Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski.
The last coach who claimed victory in his first matchup with the Patriots was Carolina’s Ron Rivera, who won Nov. 18, 2013.
Yet upon further examination, it’s hard to suggest that Gruden’s task is any more imposing than it would be for more experienced coaches. During the Brady/Belichick era (interpreted liberally to include the start of the 2001 season, when Drew Bledsoe was quarterback, as well as the 2008 season in which Matt Cassell was the primary signal-caller), New England has a 65-19 record (.774) against coaches who were facing it for the first time. That mark is nearly indistinguishable from the Patriots’ overall winning percentage of .762 during that time.
While one might think Belichick and the Patriots can play Jedi mind tricks (“These are not the rushing plays from the 1-yard-line that you are looking for”) on opposing coaches who are either seeing them for the first time or who, after multiple matchups, are known quantities, the evidence is murky at best.
In the last 15 seasons, the Patriots own winning percentages that run anywhere from .774 to .788 against opposing coaches who are working against them for the first, second, or third times. They have done slightly — but not significantly — better against opponents whom they’ve faced six or more times, with an .813 winning percentage beyond their fifth matchup with a coach.
There is an intriguing dip in the Patriots’ effectiveness against coaches whom they’re facing for the fourth or fifth time. New England owns “just” a .660 winning percentage against coaches they’re playing for the third or fourth time.
Perhaps that’s a testament to opponents getting a bit of a read on the Patriots’ tendencies after a few challenging introductions. Or perhaps it merely represents a statistical anomaly.
All of that said, taken as a whole, the track record of the Belichick/Brady Patriots doesn’t point to a particular disadvantage for opposing first-time coaches like Gruden. But there are stretches that are intriguing — notably, New England’s current seven-game run against first-time opposing coaches and another more far-reaching stretch earlier in the Brady/Belichick pairing.
From 2003-07, the Patriots did enjoy a striking stretch in which they won 27 of 28 games against first-time opposing coaches, including 15 straight wins from late in the 2004 season to the end of the 2007 season. But that run proved unsustainable, with the Patriots losing five of their next 11 shots at first-time opposing coaches, with Tony Sparano (2008), Rex Ryan (2009), Sean Payton (2009), Jim Caldwell (2009), and Josh McDaniels (2009) all claiming W’s. First-time coaches have beaten the Patriots. It can be done.
If the exercise of coaching against the Patriots for the first time seems Sisyphean, it’s because the general task of coaching against New England has become formidable. Game-planning for the Patriots isn’t difficult because of inexperience — it’s just difficult altogether.