INDIANAPOLIS – In a league home to J.J. Watt, Ndamukong Suh and others capable of considerable violence, the most intimidating figure is a 63-year-old who likes to cut the sleeves off his sweatshirts, although not because of an over abundance of muscles.
"Short arms," Bill Belichick said of the fashion alteration.
What was long suspected is becoming increasingly apparent: Belichick's ability to teach, coach, game plan, precisely exploit arcane rules and, most of all, rarely panic in the biggest of moments, cast a daunting shadow across the NFL.
The New England Patriots are now at an advantage not simply because what Belichick does is so smart but because what other coaches do is so stupid. At least when competing against him.
Rival coaches will, of course, dismiss this thinking, arguing that no one knocks them off their game. Perhaps they are correct. If so, this sure is a coincidence that keeps on happening. Consider just 2015:
There was Seattle's Pete Carroll deciding to throw rather than run from the one-yard line at the end of last year's Super Bowl. There was some strategic philosophy behind it … but that's overthinking things when you've got Marshawn Lynch. Either way, reading a play they'd gone over repeatedly in practice, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted the pass and delivered a fourth Lombardi Trophy to his coach.
There was Sunday, when Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano committed to being extremely aggressive in an effort to neutralize Belichick. That included a bizarre and ill-conceived trick punt play that New England never flinched in the face of, causing the Colts to foolishly snap the ball, turn it over on downs and give Tom Brady a short field for what would be the game's decisive touchdown.
Belichick being Belichick likely seeps into everything else too, whether it's Baltimore's John Harbaugh ranting at referees in last year's playoff that the Patriots were using illegal formations – they weren't – to Buffalo's Rex Ryan getting whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and having his overheated team follow suit in Week 2, to Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin fuming in the season opener over crisscrossed coaching headsets that by all accounts wasn't even Belichick's fault.
Real or imagined, many of the league's coaches are now reacting to what Belichick is doing, or to what they think he is doing, rather than just sticking to what they wanted to do in the first place.
All the while, Belichick tends to stand alone on the sideline, away from his team and assistant coaches, arms folded, headset on, taking all the action and nuances in as the picture of cool competency.
Even that becomes oddly intimidating.
Consider Tomlin, a Super Bowl winning coach himself. During the season opener at New England his headset began receiving the Patriots' radio broadcast. The league controls the technology, but that didn't stop Tomlin from bitterly commenting during the postgame press conference.
"That's always the case here," he said, causing another firestorm.
Yet in Week 5, when 18 seconds mistakenly ran off the clock during the fourth quarter in San Diego, causing the Steelers into a do-or-die last-second rush for a subsequent touchdown, he later shrugged the problem off.
"I'm not looking for an explanation," Tomlin said. "I'm looking at moving on."
One came in a win at San Diego, one came in a loss at New England and on neither occasion did the Steelers formally complain to the league, but can you imagine the uproar if that clock error came in Foxborough?
You think people wouldn't be demanding an explanation, not from the league or the ref, but the opposing coach?
Some of it is born of spygate and other allegations of cheating for which Belichick has to accept. That's his legacy, too.
In this case, however, it may be a good thing – coaches seemingly convinced Belichick has some magical edge, whether he does or doesn't.
Numerous teams have reportedly swept the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium for bugs. None have ever been found.
Other teams wonder about drink temperatures and television angles and a million other unimportant, or non-existent items. Sports Illustrated reported that before February's Super Bowl, Seattle added extra security around its practice field to sweep parking garages, perimeters and even a nearby mountain to guard against espionage. Nothing was found.
Mostly it's been a waste of pregame time and energy. Now it's in-game stuff where Belichick's advantage seems to be growing.
Pagano said the gameplan Sunday was to be extremely bold in all three facets of the game, the coach believing that the Colts couldn't beat the Patriots by simply playing normally; he was likely correct. That meant going for it on fourth down (worked) and a first-half onside kick (would've worked if the refs didn't get the call wrong).
"We didn't want to leave any bullets in the gun," Pagano said.
It also meant, though, making the game's critical error, a bizarre fake punt formation on fourth-and-three in the third quarter. The Colts had been working on it since last year, which is stunning considering its near historic failure.
"It turned out to be one of the most failed fakes probably of all time," punter Pat McAfee said. "… it was a complete cluster."
Surprisingly, Pagano tried to use a play that was designed to catch New England ill-prepared, either by making a substitution error, jumping off sides or in a panic lining up all wrong.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots did none of those things, just calmly readjusting to defend it perfectly. Belichick wasn't goaded into calling a timeout; his players knew exactly what to do.
The mistake came via the Colts snapping the ball. But it stands to reason that slot receiver turned center Griff Whalen did so because during drills, the shift had always caught the punt coverage team out of position, so that's all he knew.
"The look was not there that we normally have in practice where it's a go," McAfee said.
Yeah, because Bill Belichick isn't coaching the Colts' scout team.
The NFL is a macho, a grown-ups league, an ultra competitive league full of Type A personalities. To have one coach loom over so many others – not all of his peers, but many – is almost unfathomable.
Yet New England's opponents keep making terrible decisions, keep obsessing over shadows, keep sweeping locker rooms for bugs, keep complaining to the refs, keep staring across the way and wondering what the Hoodie is up to.
Pagano was so fearful of this habit of bowing to New England's aura, that in the run up to Sunday's game, he and his players didn't publicly acknowledge the Patriots by name.
"It had nothing to do with a lack of respect," Pagano said. "It had to do with us focusing on us."
And then came that fourth-and-three anyway.
"It wasn't desperation," Pagano said of the trick plays.
No, it was probably out of intimidation.
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