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POD Book Club review: Football Scouting Methods by Steve Belichick

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Steve Belichick’s lessons on observing football from the 1950s hold up well.

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Army vs Navy Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

[Editor’s note: In the future, we plan on doing these Book Club reviews as more of a roundtable, most likely in podcast form. Unfortunately, things didn’t come together in this first edition. So rather than a roundtable discussion, I give you Andrew Kato’s take on the book. I’ll provide some additional thoughts in the comment section. - Jeremy]

Hello Pride of Detroit readers, and welcome to the first installment of our offseason book club. As explained by fearless leader Jeremy Reisman about a month ago, our staff will be reading through interesting and relevant material and holding discussions on what we’ve learned. From the intro post to our first installment, Football Scouting Methods by Steve Belichick, here is what led Jeremy to select it:

There are several reasons I chose this book. First and foremost, I want to become a better scout. With the draft three months away, what better time to improve upon my scouting eye? Also, it’s Steve Belichick, father of Bill. Bill obviously drew a lot of his football knowledge from his father, so to know how Steve Belichick views football is to learn more about Bill. And if we understand how Bill sees the game, we probably have a pretty good idea of what both Bob Quinn and future Lions coach Matt Patricia are seeing.

Setting the stage: Navy football in the 1950s and 1960s

The context for Steve Belichick’s experience as a scout is crucial to understanding how and where his views on football and scouting came from. The bulk of the elder Belichick’s career was on the US Naval Academy’s football staff, and of particular interest is his early years in the 1950s as scout for head coach Eddie Erdelatz. Near the end of the book in a section on offensive analysis, Belichick references his coach by name to make a point. The notable thing about Erdelatz’s influence, given the career outcomes for Steve Belichick’s son, is that:

  1. A former defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the 1940s, Erdelatz took the helm at the Naval Academy for nine years before becoming the first head coach of the AFL’s Oakland Raiders. Erdelatz rebuilt Navy’s reputation, coaching such players as collegiate hall of fame end Dick Duden and future coaching legend George Welsh.
  2. The particular example in which Belichick name drops Erdelatz and Duden is to use their defensive philosophy to describe how to scout the opponent’s offense. We will come back to this later.
  3. Belichick throughout the book comes back to the importance and difficulty of recognizing and understanding defense. “It is much easier for the average beginning scout to recognize offensive formations than defensive alignments. Special attention, therefore, is directed to the problem of recognizing the various defenses.” (p. 53)

Putting the book in its historical context is a must, recognizing that most football at the time was about running the ball and stopping the run. Reading descriptions of the Navy teams of the Erdelatz era, we can see the emphasis on rushing and ball handling, both keys for the various T formation inside-outside attacks. Also interesting is the fact that the book predates the modern 4-3 defense, and so much of the formation and personnel analysis by Belichick deals with five and six man (run-stopping) fronts of the period like the 5-4 Okie and Greasy Neale’s Eagle defense.

Quality control today is Belichick-era scouting

Today, the term “scout” in football is generally indicating talent scouts looking at college prospects or other players an NFL franchise might choose to offer a contract to. In the parlance of Steve Belichick, “the objective of scouting has been, and still is, to get as much useful information about a future opponent as possible.” (p. 3) The overall structure of the first half of the book deals primarily with the different kinds of forms and techniques for spotting how a team lines up and the plays it calls. According to Belichick, “every football team has a pattern. It is the purpose of scouting, and the analysis of scouting, to establish what the pattern is and how to defend as best you can against the strength and take advantage of the weaknesses.” (p. 5)

Today, we call these types of staff members quality control coaches. The Lions have added several coaches of this type, like Brian Picucci on offense and director of football research David Corrao. One interesting reason such positions exist is because in college football you cannot have more than nine coaches who do certain on-the-field activities. Many current and former head coaches in the NFL got their start in quality control like Jon Gruden and Mike McCarthy. Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News wrote the following about Bills quality control coach Kathryn Smith:

A quality-control coach will break down what formations and personnel groupings an opponent uses. Specifics like down and distance and field position are charted. Even details like the direction and hang time of punts, for example, would likely be noted by Smith. That report would then be given to Crossman when the Bills begin their game-planning.

”What you do is chart the tendency of that coach, so that you can tell your team that ‘in this situation it’ll always be a run or always be a pass,’ “ current Chicago Bears coach John Fox said in a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes, describing the role of quality control for his team. “So your team knows what to expect.”

In Smith’s case, it will be less about whether teams run or pass, obviously, and more about the formations and personnel used specifically on special teams.

In particular, she’ll be looking for tendencies. Do the Patriots call a rush of the punter every time their opponent is punting from mid field? If so, Crossman needs to be aware of that.

Do the Bills kick off to the right side of the field more often, and if so, how does the opponent handle kickoffs to that side? Smith will also likely be on the lookout for tendencies displayed by the Bills, so as to not expose potential weaknesses.

That sounds a lot like how Steve Belichick described the purpose of scouting in Football Scouting Methods more than 50 years ago. Charting formations, personnel on the field, down and distance tendencies and the like are all elements recognized at the time as important which Belichick explains how to observe and record in his book.

While quality control coaches are being written about as a hot new topic (probably for the last decade), even those positions are not new to the NFL. As Skurski points out, the position was not created by Mike Holmgren and the San Francisco 49ers, but in fact existed all the way back to the days of Tom Landry and the Cowboys in the 1970s.

In 1972, Cowboys president Tex Schramm called an out-of-work/retired Sid Gillman and asked him to take on a position with the club. Josh Katzowitz in Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game wrote that the old coaching legend’s new job was almost exactly the same as the present-day version (p. 216):

His role was to analyze the personnel and tendencies of Cowboys opponents, assist with game preparation, and work on the team’s offensive scheme. Gillman would brainstorm ideas and present them to coach Tom Landry. Gillman would not be on the field during games. Instead, it was a quality control position that left him in charge of research and development, and it allowed him to look at game film for everything and anything.

Years later, Gillman would many of the same things with some added on-the-field tasks with Dick Vermeil’s Philadelphia Eagles. Per Katzowitz, “his official title in Philadelphia was director of research and quality control. . . Gillman wasn’t officially coordinating the Eagles offense under Vermeil, and he wasn’t installing the weekly game plan. But he was supplementing the scheme with his knowledge.” (p. 251-254)

The emphasis on recognizing formations, play responsibilities, and breaking down film and notes in detail by Steve Belichick naturally made its way into his son Bill Belichick’s operation. In Michael Holley’s War Room, there is a chapter titled “The Patriot Way” in which current New England offensive coordinator and former Indianapolis Colts head coach Josh McDaniels talked about his early days on the bottom of the totem pole (p. 36):

“I used to do what were called pads, which were the game breakdowns,” McDaniels says. “Everything you saw on film, you had to draw and put on those pads. It wasn’t easy and they took forever to get done. I remember the first time I handed them in to Bill, he sent them back with what must have been sixty sticky notes on them. ‘This is wrong. . . That guy wasn’t there. . . This was the halfback, not the fullback.’ On and on. And I thought, ‘Okay, obviously I have some work to do.’

“The next one I did had twenty notes on them. The one after that came back with four. And then they weren’t sent back anymore. It was simple: If I was given something to do, I was expected to do it absolutely perfectly, as best as I could, every time I did it. And if I did those things right, i’d get something else to do.”

Genesis of the Bull’s-eye game plan

Those pads correspond to the detailed diagrams that went with the scouting reports Belichick’s methods would churn out for Erdelatz’s staff. When McDaniels talks about describing accurately everything that was seen in the scouting diagram, that is the same goal as Belichick’s breakdowns of in-person observation and movies (p. 127 - emphasis in the original):

The information condensed into the offensive part of the scouting report should show in complete form what the opposing team has done, both running and passing, from each formation. Therefore, it is this information which should determine what defensive adjustments should be made, or whether new defenses are needed to combat the strength of the opponent. Such concrete knowledge of an opponent’s previous offense should be the basis of defensive game planning — not what a team might do, or what it should have done or could have done in past games.

That belief, that “every effort should be made to stop what the opponent does best,” (p. 5) is what Belichick got from Erdelatz’s defensive thinking. According to the master scout, “One of Eddie Erdelatz’ (and Dick Duden’s) theories of defense was to present a defensive alignment that made it uninviting for the opponent to run the plays with which it had previously had great success.” (p. 125) Playing defenses strong against the opponent’s best plays in the situations the opponent liked to use them the most would either put Navy’s defense in a great position to stop the play or force the opponent to use plays it did not like. The elder Belichick believed “it is logical to think that a coach’s philosophy should be: ‘Be strong against a team’s strength. Be alert for anything that they have shown. If they do beat you, make them do it with something that they haven’t shown before.’” (p. 5)

Decades later, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would focus on the strength of the Greatest Show on Turf and take it away through a game plan called the “Bull’s-eye” by Ron Jaworski in The Games that Changed the Game. The former Eagles quarterback (who had gotten his throwing technique fixed by director of research and quality control Sid Gillman at the end of the 70s: “Let’s see your fingertip control. . . Shit Ron, your palm’s touching the leather!”) was amazed that in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, Marshall Faulk “took a physical beating that must have left him sore for a month. Not just in running situations or third-down plays but just about every play, no matter where he was on the field. I never saw anything like it. There’d be a defensive end who couldn’t care less about rushing the quarterback — he’d totally ignore Warner, sprint right to Faulk, and knock him on his ass. Marshall took hits from everybody: corners, linebackers, even defensive tackles.” (p. 235)

Why did the Patriots do this? Analysis of their opponent revealed to the New England staff that the Rams relied on Faulk as the thing that made their offense go. Jaworski quotes Rams head coach Mike Martz as saying “Marshall was the glue for everything we did.” (p. 235) Instead of chasing quarterback Kurt Warner, the Patriots would hit Faulk to be sure he couldn’t run a draw, run a pass catching route, or hit a trap play. Heavy blitzing by the Patriots also forced the Rams to frequently hold Faulk back in max protection to pick up the extra rusher. (p. 255) Such a game plan would force the Rams to go to options they preferred less than their strongest weapon.

A simpler time with a simpler game? No way.

While there may have been fewer formations, fewer plays, and less sophistication in the football being played in the mid-20th century, the feats accomplished by the scouts of Steve Belichick’s time were still amazing. Simply being able to observe and record in real time without the benefit of rewinding and playing back the film of a play from multiple angles over and over — and getting it correct — leaves me in awe of what these scouts did in the 1950s without easy access to comprehensive tapes. “Concentrate on the action that is taking place. It may well be the only time you see that particular thing happen in the game.” (p. 26) When I do film review here on Pride of Detroit, it takes so many viewings to get everything right, and as Josh McDaniels noted to Michael Holley, even trained professionals can make mistakes until they get a ton of practice.

The technical details on how to record and chart information is useful, but the really important lessons central to Belichick’s Football Scouting Methods are philosophical. It is in the very first item in his “scouting check-off list and instructions” on page 27 (emphasis in the original):

It must be remembered that the primary objective of scouting is to gather as much pertinent information as you can. In order to do this, you must carefully observe and record what the opposition does. . . We want to know what the other team does, not what you think they could or should have done. We want to know what they do, how many times they do it, and how successful they are. Do not give them credit for doing or being able to do anything that you have not seen them do.

How important is such information and preparation? It is the first thing that Belichick assumes is to blame if the team cannot stop the opponent’s strengths (p. 5): “If you are unsuccessful in accomplishing this, it can generally be attributed to two things: first, that adequate preparation was not made, or second, that proper preparation was made, but the opponent had better personnel and you were unable to cope with them. If they had the advantage in personnel, there is little else that could have been done.”

Better personnel assembled by general manager Bob Quinn and the football philosophies passed down from Steve Belichick through the Patriots organization to head coach Matt Patricia puts the Lions in a great position to start putting some of these time tested Football Scouting Methods to work:

With that attention to detail, Patricia, a lowly coaching assistant, established himself as one of the smartest coaches in any room. When Belichick rattled off the daily practice schedule, Patricia organized everything down to the minute, in his head. When Belichick approached the coaching assistants with special “projects”—opponents’ tendencies he wanted studied on film—Patricia juggled eight, nine, 10 of them at a time. “He’d be helping crack the code for that week’s opponent,” says Judge, the coaching assistant who worked alongside Patricia in 2005. “There were guys in the building that didn’t see [a tendency on film] until he pointed it out.”

[Note: Later in the week, we will be presenting Book 2 of the Pride of Detroit Book Club. If you missed out on this one, be sure to join in for the next one. We promise the reading won’t be as dry and technical as this one.]