I am no football expert. But I am a student of leadership. And we have an excellent case study right down the road from me in Massachusetts: the long successful reign and ignominious end of 24-year Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
There’s a strong argument that Belichick is the greatest NFL football coach of all time. He’s second to Don Shula in games won as a head coach and his teams have appeared in more Super Bowls (9) and won more (6) than any other coach. In the 24 years he has led the Patriots, the other 31 NFL teams have had 222 different head coaches.
Unlike other head coaches, Belichick also was responsible for duties that would normally be the responsibility of the team’s general manager, such as drafting players, deciding how much to pay them, and determining when they were no longer worth the cost and could be replaced.
Belichick was an innovator. His biggest win was recognizing the talent of 6th-round quarterback draft pick Tom Brady and elevating him to starting quarterback, leading the Patriots offense to an almost endless string of success. His ability to find and coach up undervalued players — and to allow others to leave before their inevitable decline — was a huge part of his success. His plays were creative and caught other teams off guard. He was masterful at strategy and clock management.
His record as a defensive coach remains excellent. But in the years since Brady left, his trend of offensive successes has evaporated. He has a losing record in the last four years, and this year lead the team to a humiliating 4 wins and 13 losses. His starting quarterbacks — Cam Newton, Mac Jones, and Bailey Zappe — were failures, not least because the offensive line couldn’t effectively protect them and the skill of their receivers were below average.
After acknowledging his record of success and innovation, Boston Globe football writer Ben Volin expertly dissected Belichick’s fall after so many years of success:
But Belichick isn’t two steps ahead of the NFL anymore. The last four years, he has often found himself two steps behind.
Belichick has found that he can no longer coach his team to a playoff spot out of sheer will. He can’t take a career defensive coach such as Matt Patricia and turn him into a successful offensive coach. His philosophies on team-building (like not investing in wide receivers) are antiquated. His schemes seem to be more complicated than what is being run elsewhere. Belichick’s football operation is smaller than most. The NFL is full of whiz-kid coaches who are revolutionizing offense, and Belichick is left holding 3 yards and a cloud of dust.
The NFL now has strict rules on practice time, and rules that lessen the impact of special teams, sapping Belichick of other advantages. And his players don’t fear him the way they used to, like when Jakobi Meyers threw that ill-fated backward pass in Las Vegas, or when Mac Jones went behind Belichick’s back in 2022 for advice on fixing the offense.
The 2023 season also turned potentially toxic. Belichick gave up in the third quarter of a loss to the Saints, and then gave up in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs. He became one of the least analytical coaches on fourth down, consistently kicking field goals or punts in situations that strongly suggested going for it. And it’s unclear whether Belichick is responsible for destroying Jones, but he didn’t seem to help the situation.
What went wrong? A failure to listen and adjust.
Success is a funny thing. It makes leaders feel invincible, especially when the decisions they have made have so clearly led to that success.
One thing is extremely clear from Belichick’s tenure: his ability to coach, motivate, and mentor players has no equal among NFL coaches.
But coaching — and functioning as a general manager at the same time — involves countless decisions. And Belichick’s decisions in the last four years have been poor.
This includes his decisions about trading down in the draft, who to pick and put in place as quarterback, and what to do in fourth-down situations. Perhaps most importantly, his selections for offensive assistant coaches have failed to do their jobs well. Most notably, in 2022, he put Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, neither of whom had ever successfully run an NFL offense, in charge of the Patriots offense. The result was not just a losing record, but a lost chance to develop second-year quarterback Mac Jones to success.
Who was Bill Belichick listening to when he made these decisions?
Who could have told him he was making poor coaching choices, and why didn’t he listen?
Who could have told him he was making poor draft choices, and why didn’t he listen?
Who could have told him he was making questionable game-day choices, and why didn’t he listen?
Every leader needs to be surrounded with people who will challenge them and provide a different perspective. No matter how smart you are, the world is changing around you. The decisions that worked last year may not be working now. If your colleagues are not sharp enough to tell you are wrong, too afraid to challenge you, or frustrated that you never listen, you’ve lost a crucial resource.
In the 20 years when I worked for Forrester Research, I often disagreed with the CEO, George Colony. And when I did, I told him. He listened and often learned. There was never any question who was in charge, and there was never any lack of respect — in either direction. And the same applied to all of his leaders. We spoke, George listened, and George decided. As leadership philosophies go, that was ideal.
If you are a leader, who is your brain trust? Who is ready to tell you when they think you are wrong? Do you have the maturity to understand where the line is between losing your command and being arrogant and hidebound? How are you preparing to deal witih changing conditions, and who will be helping you be smart about doing that?
Most leaders will never have the record of greatness that Bill Belichick had. It’s just a shame when confidence shades into a feeling of infallibility. We all fail. Adjusting — and listening to and empowering those who can contribute — is how to keep that failure from ending your run of success.