In his often-quoted 13 chapter volume The Art of War, Sun Tzu spends the very first chapter, titled "Laying Plans," elaborating on his famous bromide, "All warfare is based on deception."
"Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable," he writes. "When using our forces, we must seem inactive. ... Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him."
I bring this up because few people outside the military have made more of a study of Sun Tzu's seminal work than Bill Belichick. Or put the old general's ideas to more practical use. And right now, this NFL offseason on the whole and this week in particular, no one has invested more effort into seeming unable, inactive, and disordered than the forces Belichick commands. And no enemies are more enticed than his.
The Pats have begun working out the rookie class of 2022. Though practices are closed and all the outside world has gotten are a few photos like in that Instagram post and these three dozen others. Plus, for the first time all offseason, we're hearing from some of the assistant coaches. And yet even this small peek behind the Black Gates of Mordor seem to reveal some small portion of the Dark Lord's plan. And maybe answer some of the most pressing questions and clear up some of the issues that have confounded every Patriots fan for months.
Let's begin with the coaching staff, which is the number one topic people have been asking me about, aside from "What did you think of the draft?" and "How much have you had to drink?"
Defensively, I think we're all assuming Steve Belichick is the de facto coordinator without a title. Yet when asked that simple question about it today, he answered like a judge trying to get on the Supreme Court being asked about Roe v Wade. Or me being asked to count my drinks:
By the same token, we assume Jerod Mayo is a defensive assistant. Probably (though not necessarily limited to) assigned to the slinebackers and inside nickel backs. But event that is classified:
"Honestly, I just like to say I'm a football coach. I'm not trying to be ambiguous here," Mayo said very ambiguously. "I coach football players. I'm a teacher."
So who will be working with which defensive unit and who'll be on the sidelines covering his mouth with the laminated placemat/breakfast menu from a Bob Evans while calling the plays in, is information that is strictly on a Need-to-Know basis.
Which brings us to the other side of the ball. Which has the populace nervous, if not straight up panicking. I'm not lying when I say a friend texted me earlier saying he's had two bad dreams this week about Joe Judge calling the offensive plays. And while no one is confirming that will become a waking nightmare for this buddy of mine, we did find out that Judge is working with the most important player of the post-GOAT era:
There's also been a ton of speculation that Matt Patricia will be the voice inside Mac Jones' helmet, but at least one of those camp photos (No. 7, if you've still got that window open) shows him running a blocking drill with Cole Strange and Kody Russey, indicating he's calling on the training he got as a young man working alongside offensive line legend Dante Scarnecchia. Which Patricia seemed to confirm:
But no one knows for sure. It could be subject to change. It's very possible that there will be some other arrangement entirely. It could all be still undecided and they'll make it up as they go along.
What we do know is that you can get on the website of any of the other 31 franchises and easily find two coordinators and a dozen or so other assistants with specific titles that clearly lay out their job descriptions for the world to see. In Foxboro, that's considered too much information. It's giving away an advantage somehow.
Belichick is famous for stopping guys at random in the hallway and asking them not just who the opponent's coach is that week, but whose coaching tree he was picked from, where he went to school, if he was a tree what kind of tree he would be, and so on. But on this team this year, he's playing a game of Three Coach Monte with the rest of the league. Making it so they don't even know who'll be making the calls, never mind what their backgrounds and tendencies are. In other words, deception.
I get that this is small potatoes what with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals after a huge win. I'm invested in that. But I don't apologize for being utterly fascinated with the inner workings of this team and this head coach, turning a simple rookie workout in mid-May into spycraft. A cloak and dagger mystery that has the NFL's collective brain tied into a balloon animal. Even when there's nothing going on, it's something with the Patriots. Which is why there were 42 reporters on the Zoom call to ask questions of assistant coaches without job titles. May it never change.