“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war.”
— Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The Patriots will be ready for battle Sunday when they face the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. They may have the world’s greatest quarterback in Tom Brady, but talent alone won’t get the Patriots their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
The Super Bowl will be a match of wits: Bill Belichick and his coaching staff against Doug Pederson and his staff. Football, more than any other sport, relies on coaches who can out-scheme, out-think and out-prepare their opponent.
And as Belichick has proven time and again over the last 18 years, no team prepares better, and no team alters its attack more on a week-to-week basis, than his Patriots.
“It’s a ton of fun,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “If you didn’t enjoy it, it’d be hard to do this job, because there’s not many things in your life that you spend 19 hours doing.”
This week in Minneapolis, Patriots coaches and players offered rare insight into the game-planning process — how they study the opponent, develop a plan, teach it during the week, adjust it as necessary, and execute on Sundays.
“You have to start with a plan, and then you go out there and try to get your guys to execute it,” McDaniels said. “And the marriage of those two things, if it ends in the result you’re looking for, it’s the greatest feeling you could have as a coach.”
Review and Correct
The coaches report to Gillette Stadium bright and early Monday morning, and the page hasn’t flipped to the next opponent yet. The Patriots just played a game the day before, and the coaches have to review what happened and go over it with their players.
Each position coach watches the film once (twice at most), and grades his players on their performance. By mid-morning, the coaches come together for a meeting before the players arrive.
“We come together to talk about the problems, good and bad,” running backs coach Ivan Fears said. “Then you come up with a plan as a staff for how you want to attack it with the players.”
Mondays are light days for the players. They come in for treatment, get in a lift and a run, and go over the film with their position coaches. Sometimes, the coaches correct the plays in a walk-through. Most of the time, the corrections are made in the position rooms.
“That’s the flexibility that goes with the day,” Fears said. “You do whatever you do to make sure they get the message.”
The players are excused from the facility early in the afternoon. That’s when the Patriots coaches officially are on to the next opponent.
“When the players leave Monday afternoon, you start really flipping the page onto that next team, late into Monday night,” McDaniels said. “That Monday, when that switch gets flipped, it’s pretty fun, because you start to get your hands on a new team, new players, what do they do well, how they do it, and every team is different.”
McDaniels is in charge of the offense, and is also the quarterbacks coach, so every aspect of the game plan runs through him. But he gets a ton of help.
The Patriots divvy up responsibilities with their assistants, in addition to their positional coaching duties. Wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea is the red zone coordinator. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is in charge of goal line plays. Fears is in charge of blitz protection. Assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski does the two-minute drill.
Well into Monday night, the coaches generally work by themselves, formulating an early plan of attack.
“We’re fortunate enough to have our staff intact, so we all know each other a little bit,” Schuplinski said. “We all have different parts of the game plan, so we just kind of go, and it’s more along the lines of bring it together Tuesday morning.”
The assistant coaches also get a ton of help. The Patriots, like all teams, employ a small army of researchers — advance scouts in the personnel departments, and “quality control” coaches who are usually youngsters starting out their careers — who compile reports detailing some of the opponent’s tendencies.
The use of iPads and tablets allows information to flow freely among the coaches, including statistical trends and video cut-ups of key plays.
“We have a bunch of guys that do advances, which are about personnel, scheme, injury updates, availability,” said McDaniels. “They report on everything.”
Belichick added: “Then they come back to you and say, ‘OK, well, I’ve looked at 60-70 plays of X, red area, 15-yard gains. Here’s the theme. Here’s what we’ve got to do,’ or ‘Here’s what they’ve had trouble with.’ Something like that.”
The players are off — they do community events, relax at home, a few come in for treatment or film study — but the coaches are grinding away. The individual game-planning extends well into Tuesday morning, but the coaches are constantly communicating.
“We’re sitting in cubicles more or less,” Fears said. “Dante’s right here, I’m right here, Chad’s right here, so we’re always exchanging thoughts. By the time we get to the meeting, we’ve already talked a lot of things through.”
The Patriots will then hold a staff meeting early in the afternoon to collaborate on the various game plans and talk about how the week is going to unfold. McDaniels puts it all together, and of course, Belichick reviews it and adds his two cents.
One key for game-planning is to not become overwhelmed by information. That is especially tricky at this point in the season, as the Eagles have run approximately 1,200 snaps on offense and 1,100 snaps on defense over the last five months.
“One of the best things I’ve learned from Josh is to really get it down to where our players can be good with it,” Schuplinski said. “It can get a little crazy because you see something that happened once or twice. We have to be ready for it, but we might not want to overload our guys with it.”
Brady, obviously, has plenty of input over what plays will be run each week. But McDaniels said “not much” of the Tuesday game-planning involves Brady.
“He’s doing a lot of research on his own, watching a lot of tape, as all our players do,” McDaniels said. “And we’re trying to do the same thing as coaches — getting our feet underneath you, in terms of what that opponent does, who their players are, and figuring out what can we do well on Sunday to try to beat them.”
Tuesday may be an off day for the players, but they know they’d better do some advance work before coming in on Wednesday.
“We had iPads and stuff, so you can look at film from home,” said a former Patriots player who asked not to be named. “You watch film, look on the Internet, put some names with some numbers, try to figure out who their guys are, what college they went to, what’s their background, what’s their story? Because on Wednesday, you’re probably going to be asked about it.”
Those tablets also allow the position coaches to distribute the game plan immediately. Players will often wake up Wednesday morning with the game plan — or some of it, anyway — waiting on their tablets.
“I’m going to bed at like 9:30 or 10, so if it’s not there by then, I’ll catch it in the morning,” said backup quarterback Brian Hoyer.
Introduction, First and Second Down
The coaches have been grinding away for two days, and now it’s time to put the plan into action.
The Patriots convene at the crack of dawn for a full team meeting. The coaches were hesitant to discuss the specifics of their hours, but on the team’s weeklong trip to Colorado this season, the full team meeting began at 6:45 a.m.
This is where Belichick introduces the next opponent and discusses in general terms what he wants to accomplish for the week. This meeting is also the setting where Belichick puts his players on the spot with questions about the opponent.
“He comes in, he’s like, ‘I hope you guys are ready for questions,’ and he starts rattling off questions and calling different people,” the former Patriot said. “It’s more likely geared more towards the game. ‘How do they use this guy? What situations do they use this guy? What are his strengths, what are his weaknesses?’
“And sometimes he calls your name every week, and sometimes he doesn’t. He always keeps you on your toes.”
After the full team meeting, the Patriots break off into offense and defense for more meetings. McDaniels runs the offensive side and Matt Patricia the defensive meetings, and they give their major talking points for the week. But every position coach is allowed to address the room and talk about his specific area.
“We all have the opportunity to present our own things to the team,” Schuplinski said. “Bill is cool. He gives us the opportunity to present it to the team, then he adds his part in, too.”
After offense and defense meetings, the Patriots split into positional meetings, where the nitty-gritty of the game plan is taught by the position coaches.
“Josh, he’s like Bill — he’s the overseer,” Fears said. “He covers the general, the emphasis that he wants to make, and you cover the specific that applies to your position.”
The Patriots teach the game plan via PowerPoint, video presentation, or walk-throughs. Each week is different.
“We often change the way we present our information, because we never want anything to be stale,” O’Shea said. “We feel like what works best is when our players can actively be involved and when we teach them that, we ask a lot of questions, we want a lot of answers. It’s a very enjoyable part of our process.”
The players spend the rest of the morning cramming. Practice begins at 1 p.m., and there are no excuses. The players had better know their stuff.
“What we say is it’s very similar to testing at school,” O’Shea said. “Once we teach and present something to them, once we install it, they’re responsible for it throughout the remainder of the week.”
The emphases of Wednesday’s practice are first- and second-down plays. The Patriots also work on special teams at every practice.
“That’s pretty generic across the league,” the former Patriot said.
They work on fundamentals, and install new plays that they want to use that Sunday. Sometimes the Patriots will run a play four times in practice, sometimes only once.
“That’s expected of us as professionals,” Hoyer said. “To be ready to go out and execute that play, regardless if you repped it four times or maybe one time.”
Practice ends after about two hours, but the day is not done. The Patriots then reconvene for offense/defense meetings to review the tape from practice.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, now I see that the guy’s going to run this route this way,’ or, ‘We’re trying to move this guy and attack this side of the defense,’ ” Hoyer said. “My routine is we have the meeting, we go over the film as a team, then I’ll go home and re-watch it by myself, go over what was installed that day, then you put it to bed.”
The Patriots again reconvene early, and begin the day with the same routine as Wednesday: full team meeting led by Belichick, then offense/defense meetings, then positional meetings.
The Thursday emphasis is third down. They practice, then review the film afterward. Of course, Belichick reserves the right to switch up the schedule based on the mood and tenor of the team.
“That’s generally what everyone in the league does,” Fears said. “That’s what we do too — generally.”
Belichick keeps the entire team on its toes, and the players appreciate it.
“Sometimes Bill may go long, or Josh goes long, or we might get out early to go to position meetings, depending on where we were at in the season and how well we were playing,” the former Patriot said.
“That’s one thing I liked about Bill. He wasn’t a cookie-cutter coach. He was like, ‘We’re going to do whatever we need to do to win.’ ”
Like coaches, players can be overwhelmed by information. So the Patriots often don’t distribute the entire game plan all at once. They will send out the first- and second-down plan on Tuesday night, the third-down plan on Wednesday night, and so on.
“We just feel like that works best for the players, being able to learn the volume of information and limit the amount of stuff we give on a daily basis,” O’Shea said.
Delivering the game plan in piecemeal fashion helps the players focus on the task at hand each day.
“You’ve really got to take it one day at a time, and at the end of the week you go back and kind of review it, piece it all back together, and by the time Sunday rolls around you’re ready to go,” Hoyer said.
When formulating a game plan, the Patriots have an enormous advantage over their opponents: a wealth of experience and continuity. Most of the coaching staff has been in New England for a decade or more. The team’s film vault and institutional knowledge are far more advanced than those of their opponents, who can switch coaching staffs and front offices every five years.
Brady often pitches in as a teacher, as he actually lived the plays that are being reviewed on film.
“We literally just pull up tape and we go, ‘Look, we ran this in the ‘07 divisional game, this is what we’re going to do this week, here’s exactly how to do it,’ ” Brady said.
Red Zone and Two-Minute Drill
Fridays are lower-key, and often don’t start with a full team meeting. But the players report early for positional meetings and learn the final aspects of the game plan: red zone and two-minute drill.
The routine is similar: practice, review the film, and go home in mid-afternoon.
At this point, some of the assistant coaches start preparing for the next opponent, nine days away.
“During your free time, as we’re preparing for the opponent we’re on, you start gathering information, gathering your scouting report,” Fears said. “Not really studying the opponent, just gathering information and putting packets together.”
But McDaniels said he doesn’t like to look that far ahead.
“I’ve never been able to feel comfortable doing that as a play-caller, because I don’t want to get into two teams at the same time,” he said. “I’ve always thought that’s been difficult for me when I’ve tried it in the past.
“But the other coaches may get onto some of their other sections of the next opponent prior to the game being played. But for me, Monday night is the night, that’s when I transfer to the next team.”
Walk-Through and Meetings
Saturday is the opportunity to review all of the information and put it all together, via a walk-through practice and final meetings.
“There’s a large volume of information, so we have to constantly go back and review some of those areas,” O’Shea said. “We don’t just leave it there and see it on game day.”
Brady reviews the game plan with Belichick, and spends much of the day talking strategy with McDaniels.
“He knows me so well,” Brady said. “He knows me by the look on my face, and vice versa. I communicate with him more than I communicate with probably anybody in my life.”
But the game plan is hardly finished. The coaches will evaluate how plays unfolded in practice, listen to their players about their comfort level, and add or subtract plays as necessary, all the way until kickoff Sunday.
“If any player says, ‘Hey, I don’t feel good about this,’ it’s your responsibility as a coach to listen to them,” McDaniels said.
“Everything is up to being reviewed,” added Fears. “Nothing’s done.”
One of the most famous examples of a Saturday switch came before the Super Bowl win over Seattle in February 2015. The game-winning touchdown to Julian Edelman late in the fourth quarter was installed in a hotel room on Saturday.
“If we’re going to add something on a Saturday night, we don’t even make a big deal out of it,” McDaniels said in the original “Do Your Job” documentary. “Our guys are tremendous. They don’t flinch. It’s, ‘OK, you got it.’ ”
The Patriots continue to adjust and tweak the game plan throughout Sunday morning.
“The hay’s never in the barn for us,” O’Shea said. “We’re constantly going to try to gain an edge. If there’s a play that we add late in the week that’s going to help us in the game, we’re not afraid to do that. And our players are very good with their ability to adjust.”
The game finally kicks off at 1 p.m. The game plan may unfurl exactly how the coaches anticipated. Or it may have to be completely scrapped by the end of the first quarter.
“If you come out in the first quarter and someone’s doing something totally different, you’ve got to be able to adjust,” Schuplinski said.
The coaches put in long hours during the week, and don’t see their families much during the season. But their ability to research, game-plan, teach, adjust, and execute have helped the Patriots win 74 percent of their games under Belichick and five Super Bowls.
“We feel like we can make a difference,” O’Shea said. “It’s kind of a process, one that I really enjoy watching — from us actually in the film rooms, putting it in the game plan, having ideas, and then those ideas coming together and communicating to the players and the players go out and execute it. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of our job.”