You think you've been following a guy long enough that you understand how he thinks. And in Bill Belichick's case, I do. More or less. But when there are so many gigabytes stored in his vast mental database and his algorithm doesn't reveal more than a few bytes at a time, he can still impress you at any given time. That's the case here. Just casually opening up on why his team has never valued sacks as much as everyone else seems to on a random midweek presser. And in doing so, explains an enormous amount about the core philosophy that has guided his decision-making, his game plans, his personnel moves over the course of his career. More on that in a minute.
It's just weird to me how obsessed the world is on this one simple, rudimentary stat. As advanced stats have evolved to the point where traditional metrics like batting average, RBIs and even pitcher's win totals have become less and less relevant, replaced by VORP and WHIP, to the point you can win a Cy Young with a losing record, we still cling to sack totals like it's a sacred tome, passed down from our elders to gauge defensive play. And at positions like defensive tackle and end, to the exclusion of all other measurements. To the Hall of Fame voters, it's almost a fetish. Which is why one of the great 2-gap, 5-technique tackles of the modern era Richard Seymour is not in. Or a great nose tackle like Fred Smerlas never got serious consideration. But Warren Sapp, who also deserved to get in, was a no brainer.
And in the league today, high sack totals equal recognition and hours upon hours of TV face time, as well as endorsement deals. I've yet to see anyone sell a t-shirt of him doing his signature QB Pressure dance. And with that comes huge paydays from personnel departments who wildly overvalue sacks. Which is why the Patriots have repeatedly moved on from guys like Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers. Hell, if you go back far enough, Tully Banta-Cain got 5.5 one season as a part time rush specialist, cashed right the fuck in with the 49ers and was back a couple of seasons later playing for ordinary money in New England where he hit double digits for the 2009 Pats. Which is remembered as the most unlikeable, underachieving team in the Dynasty Era. Remember the year both Andre Carter and Marc Anderson had 10 sacks each? That was 2011, when the defense finished 15th in the league.
This is the thing even among Pats fans, that we become obsessed with this team "not having a pass rush" because they're not among the league leaders in this one category. But that again is because the head coach doesn't value that stat as a measure of excellence. This year they're 15th in the league, but have given up the third fewest points among teams that have played nine games. In 2019, they were seventh in sacks, but allowed the fewest points and the lowest passer rating by far. And then held the then-12th highest scoring team in NFL history to a field goal in the Super Bowl.
In fact, here's where they've ranked in sacks while winning their last three rings:
- 2018: 15th
- 2016: 16th
- 2014: 14th
I can be frustrating to see them going after a mobile quarterback without actually bringing him down, but that's not a bug; it's a feature. Take for instance the Super Bowl against Seattle where the last thing Belichick wanted was for them to ball out trying to bring down Russell Wilson, but to just keep him hermetically vacuum-sealed in the pocket and force him into mistakes. Just as he described in this press conference.
Flip the script and the same principle applies to the other side of the ball. Tom Brady has talked about how Belichick would coach him to understand that he's never going to be coming off the field past the punt team on 4th down saying "That incompletion or that sack just cost us the game." Obviously there are exceptions. When a sack knocks you out of field goal range, for example. But in general, more self-inflicted damage is done by a QB trying to rush the ball out to avoid a sack than by going to the ground while a guy with an eight-figure contract celebrates over him.
By way of examples, look at QB sack totals going back, a few years and see how often some of the best passers in the league are in the top five or six in sacks. Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson are fixtures on that list. And Aaron Rodgers has a locker there as well.
I'm not saying they don't mean anything. It's better to have 20 pressures and 5.5 sacks than 20 pressures and zero sacks. But as a a determinant of how good your defense is, they are way more sizzle than steak. Not to mention that, while I admit it's entertaining as hell to watch your guy drop the opposing passer and fire everyone up around him, you pay a lot for that thrill ride.
Now if Belichick would stop explaining this so that lesser coaches and GMs don't start to figure out how right he is, that would be great.