Bill Belichick is a leverage junkie.
Just ask him, he’ll admit it. What head coach at any level of football doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the way to consistently win football games is by influencing the outcome by dictating terms to the opposition?
It’s not the only way, of course, but it is by far the most fun.
The ability to move the ball at will, to line up against your foe and force them back on their heels before the ball is ever snapped – hell, before the game even starts – that is solid gold in the eyes of a coach. It’s a licence to gain a psychological advantage – to mess with their minds, as it were, and there is a certain swagger that results from this ability.
That swagger is made possible by having a Quarterback that is a master of your system; who is capable of standing at the line of scrimmage, surveying the field, the alignment, the packages that are in place – and he has an athlete at his disposal so versatile, so dangerous from as many as five different positions in the offense that you can move him around to take advantage of any mismatch just by calling an audible – and when you have that kind of leverage at your fingertips, that kind of leverage can be intoxicating.
And when a Leverage Junkie loses that edge, the results can be disastrous. Panic ensues, tensions rise, judgement becomes suspect, confusion reigns and the patient begins reaching for things that just aren’t there…
He may never admit it, but Bill Belichick centered his entire offensive playbook around that ability. And now that his “X-factor” is shelved for at least a few weeks with a severe ankle sprain, his offense has become suddenly vulnerable – not merely because he has lost the ability to dictate to the defense, but because his team has lost it’s swagger because of it.
It was a powerful thing to witness, the offense’s collapse last Sunday. After Hernandez went down early in the game, the offense became dormant, but somehow the Patriots still had a 3 point lead - but when the tides turned on a special team’s miscue in the third quarter that effectively allowed the Arizona Cardinals to take the lead, the defense then allowed a long scoring drive to hand the upstart Cardinals an 11 point lead that they never relinquished.
The ending to that game will live forever in annals of Patriot lore, so there’s no reason to go into that, well documented as it already is. What does need exploring, however, is how do the Patriots rediscover that swagger? Aaron Hernandez will not be back until mid-October, and the offense resembles something more kin to last season than what Belichick has envisioned for this one…
…and what is wrong with that? It was prolific. It featured Rob Gronkowski, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Tom Brady and, yes, Aaron Hernandez. The running game has improved with Stevan Ridley. At this point they don’t have the Juggernaut offense that they had hoped to feature this season, but they have an excellent one if used to it’s potential. Throw in the fact that the Defense appears to be markedly improved, and you have a better version of last season’s AFC Champions.
It’s a luxury that no other team in the NFL can boast. Belichick was changing the offense from the one that came within inches of winning the Super Bowl to one that would march into New Orleans and take the Super Bowl by force - but having to temporarily fall back on the former may just be a blessing in disguise, and Belichick knows this. He resigned Branch on Tuesday to go along with his short-term (?) plug & play option at Tight End in Kellen Winslow, so his options remain intriguing, and the Patriots remain one of the top teams in the NFL.
So for now, the distracting talk of Wes Welker’s status has been abated – he’s going to get his reps. Julien Edelman has emerged as a solid slot guy in his own right, Branch is the intermediate threat that Hernandez is so good at, Lloyd will continue to make defenses respect the game outside the numbers and Gronkowski will continue to bulldoze any and all defenders in his path – throw Kellen Winslow into the mix and we are left to absorb the possibilities. If this offense gets on a roll, imagine what it will look like once Hernandez is fully healthy and ready to rock…
In the interim, for the Patriots’ offense to regain that swagger and confidence, the Patriots must go into Baltimore this coming Sunday Night and beat the Big, bad Ravens – and not just beat them, but to go in there and take the game from them, to dominate them, just like Bill had it drawn up all along.
Anything less would mean failure, and Leverage Junkies like Bill Belichick are not in that business.