HOUSTON -- Last week we asked Bill Belichick how far along the Patriots were in their preparations for the Super Bowl. He said the team was about 50 percent done, and we nodded dutifully.
If you asked me directly what that meant, I’d have answered with a sentence making liberal use of the words “game plan,” “installation,” and “installed.”
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The noun “game plan” is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a preconceived plan for playing a game. But what does it look like, how is it created, how is it disseminated? I didn’t have a concrete answer.
So I asked four Patriots -- wide receiver Danny Amendola, left tackle Nate Solder, defensive end Rob Ninkovich and punter Ryan Allen -- to give their definition of a game plan and take us through how it gets “installed.”
People seem to like the “oral history” type structure these days, so that’s how I’ll deliver this. In their words:
“The game plan is just something you create during the week to give yourself the best opportunity to win the football game.
“The day after the game (usually Monday) is when you get on personnel [for the upcoming opponent]. I'll go into a computer and I'll look at the most recent game. I’ll look at tight ends, running backs, O-line, where they've been for the last 10 games with different guys starting. You don't watch a game from the second week of the year. You watch the last four to six games and take notes on that. Take notes on what both backs are like, what are the strengths? Who's the catch-and-run guy? All different types of things. (Patriots offensive tackle Marcus Cannon strolls by). If it's Cannon in there, what's Cannon gonna do? It's all different things that you have on paper to the point where you can run through it with your eyes and find the information. Then you put [tendencies] to a uniform number so when you see the number, you see what are his strengths, what are his weaknesses. Boom.
“Then the coaches begin to give the game plan. A different day means a different section (gets explained). You don't just do everything at once. It would be too much. You can go running downs, early downs, then goal line. There's all different types of parts of the game that you have to focus on."
(Asked if studiousness is a valuable attribute for a Patriots player) “I wouldn't say I was the best student in school. If it was math, I had a hard time. History was fun, so I enjoyed history. It's something that over time becomes an easier thing. Early in my career it was a little tiresome to sit down and look at different plays and schemes, but as I've gone along it’s gotten easier as I've gotten it down. I understand, ‘Okay, this is what they run.’ And then I focus on the players because it's the players who run schemes. Coaches don't run the schemes. They have a scheme. The players have to execute the scheme.”
“A game plan is really where you measure tendencies. What do teams do in certain situations? Who is on the field? What do they like to do and who does it? And then you game plan against the percentages that we play on third down, third-and-short, third-and-long. And then you construct your plays in regard to what they're gonna do, third down just being an example.
“It progresses though the week. Usually teams do early down and run game on Wednesday. We watch a lot of film on early downs, what are they doing percentage-wise in terms of stunts, coverages, schemes, what’s their D-line and DB combinations on early-down run game, early-down pass game. Thursday is third down and two minute. Friday you're closer to the game, you don't want to run too much closer to the game so it's red zone because there's not as much running down there. You’re closer to the game so you don't want to kill yourself running, so it's red zone and goal line."
(Asked if he takes a lot of notes) “Every guy’s different. If you watch the film and can take mental notes, you don't have to write it all down. It's all about business, your success, your role on the team so you gotta do whatever you gotta do to remember your [stuff]."
(Do you get handouts or files with information from coaches?) “We are given information throughout the week that we have to know.”
“The game plan is the way you plan on attacking a team. What plays you think will work against them, what's worked against them with other teams. Some of their weaknesses and strengths so you can attack them.
“We study fronts. Different fronts correlate to different blitzes so we have to take care of that. (The coaches) give presentations. You take notes. They'll give bullet points. Sometimes you hear the same bullet points several times during the week, which is part of the plan. Then you'll see it on the field to see what they're talking about but you'll hear the same bullet points several times during the week."
(Is the game plan often scrapped when the game starts?) “Any good team is changing throughout the course of the game. I don't know if you abandon the plan per se, but you have to adapt to what they're doing.”
“When we talk about game planning we’re looking at each team as its own entity. Each week it will be different. It's us focusing on who that opponent is. Are they made up of speed people in their special teams unit or are there bigger guys, linebackers? That's where the schematics comes in. Who they are along with what we do and your own technique. That's what we're doing all day here for eight or nine hours a day.
“I watch film and we go through it as specialists as a group and go through it and hits our keys each week based on who we’re playing. There's a lot more that goes on with offense or defense.
“Everybody has their keys. I need to know who I'm kicking to. I need to know in certain situations we may want to do something differently depending on who we’re playing. What are their vise guys doing (to the Patriots’ gunners or outside punt coverage players)? Do they double him? Do they single him? Do they like to bring guys in at the last second and surprise pressure you? You never know what they do. Tendencies are what we key on.”
Game-plan formulation, of course, starts with the coaches. Depending on the time between games, some may be done in the immediate aftermath of the game the Patriots just played. Advance scouts will have delivered a team’s recent situational tendencies to the coaches in the hours after a game is completed. With a team like Atlanta, there’s more work to do because the Patriots haven’t played against them directly since 2013.
On a normal week, Monday is split between breaking down the game just played and getting into the next opponent. Tuesday is when the game plan is formulated. When Jerod Mayo was a player, he would sometimes leave an interview he did with me for Quick Slants on Tuesday night and go over to the Patriots offices to be introduced to the plan for the week and give feedback. Wednesday is when the game plan is generally introduced and the course for the week is set in a team meeting. A message is delivered to the players stressing the points to key on regarding the upcoming opponent. Belichick will also get ahead of any possible media storylines that will be plumbed and -- in anticipation of that -- may deliver a team-wide response that results in us in hearing a virtually identical response from various players during the week. That’s part of the plan too.
So how has Belichick gone about creating the Super Bowl LI game plan? He was asked last week if it’s a working document and his answer was insightful in terms of how he approached it.
“I’d say it’s the same as a normal week,” he began. “It’s just spaced out a little bit more. Instead of seven days, call it 10 – like we weren’t [as far along] on Monday where we would normally be on a Monday because we didn’t know who we were going to play [until Sunday].
“Normally, we know who the next opponent is so all the work is done on that team, so when we open the book on Monday morning, it’s all there. [You’re just] adding in the game they just played the day before . . . In this case it wasn’t, so we had to get all the information on Atlanta and that took a while to compile all of that, so once that’s done, it’s done.
“We have a couple days at the end of the week in Houston that are a little different than our normal two days before the game, so we kind of get squeezed on one end or the other . . . We have to travel and there are some other obligations that just kind of cut into a normal preparation time, but we have more time to do it. What was tough was the one-week (prep time before the Super Bowl), because then you have all of that crammed into a normal week of preparation. When that happened, I was involved in that in 1990 when we played Buffalo [when] I was with the Giants, but we had played them in December. Then of course in 2001 we had played the Rams in the middle of the season so it helped that short week in terms of – from a coaching preparation standpoint.”
This past Saturday, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and tight-ends coach Brian Daboll showed up in the locker room during the media access period. That’s a little unusual. Both men were looking for specific players, moving fast, preparing. It was clear that the planning and installation was in high gear.
Monday night, the Patriots will meet with the media. The pace will have lessened for everyone. They already know by now the tendencies of the Falcons, the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent and have done all the studying they can. They may have gone through some of the early-down work, installed some running game.
So what is the plan? In less than a week, all will be revealed.