by Aaron Schatz
Bill Belichick is not a guy who gives a lot of interviews. As everybody knows, he's not a guy who gives long answers in press conferences either.
But there is an exception to this rule. Belichick is happy to share his extended thoughts about football history and strategy as long as your question does not relate to the team he is coaching right now and the game he is playing next Sunday. For an example, just ask him about sometime about the history of punting in the NFL.
So when we ran our 1987 DVOA stats and Mark Bavaro came out with one of the greatest tight end seasons in history, trailing only Rob Gronkowski's 2011 season, it suddenly occurred to me: Who better to compare Bavaro and Gronkowski than a man who is well-acquainted with both of them, and is already known to wax rhapsodic about Bavaro's talents when talking to the press?
So as we prepared to finally publish DVOA ratings from 1986-1988, I got in touch with Belichick's right-hand man Berj Najarian with a proposal: Would the coach be willing to do an interview with Football Outsiders if we only asked questions about his Giants teams rather than the current Patriots? We got the okay and the results can be found below. Coach Belichick shares his thoughts on great players of the '80s Giants such as Bavaro and Lawrence Taylor; the horrible 0-3 replacement team the Giants put on the field during the 1987 strike; the difference between the game in the '80s and today; and more.
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The impetus of this interview was the transcendent season that Mark Bavaro had in 1987. Based on our metrics, it's one of the three best seasons any tight end has had in the last 30 years. What skills and talents made Bavaro such a great model of what you want at the tight end position? When younger fans today hear people comparing Bavaro with Rob Gronkowski, what's the most important thing they should know about Bavaro's game?
The 1-on-1 matchups in training camp between Bavaro and Banks/Taylor were incredible… three great football players competing at the highest level with tremendous pride to win the matchup. With one exception, I heard all three players say that their toughest opponent was on the Giants' practice field. When the Giants did not make any adjustment offensively for Reggie White in the running game, I scratched my head. But going back to watch the film, Bavaro blocked White very well with no help whenever we played the Eagles – it was astounding to me to see Bavaro block White lined up in a 6-technique on outside runs with no help. I would say I saw White get blocked more by Bavaro than in all the other games COMBINED that I saw while watching Reggie on film play against the offenses we were preparing for. Bavaro had great in-line strength, technique, quickness, and balance – and he was a ferocious competitor who took no plays off. Bavaro blocked White in the running game and, at times, in pass protection. A large part of Joe Morris’ production came from Bavaro’s blocking on outside plays – Joe was able to use his speed because Bavaro created space on the edge of the defense.
The 1986 team started its playoff run with a dominant 49-3 victory over San Francisco. The 49ers had only lost to the Giants by just 21-17 a month before. What changed about your scheme between the two games? Or was it just a case of great players making great plays while the 49ers just had a bad day?
I have never seen a team as focused and hungry as the Giants on that day. We couldn’t wait to get on the field. On that day, the Giants could have beaten any team soundly. The intensity and desire to play and coach our best football was at the highest level. When we went out of the door of the locker room on the way out to the field, I knew the 49ers were in for a long day, the likes of which they had never seen before.
A lot has been written about your great strategies to slow down the Bills offense in 1990 and the Rams offense in 2001. A lot less has been written about the first Super Bowl championship. What was the focus of the game plan for stopping John Elway and the Broncos offense in Super Bowl XXI?
Stop the run, limit Elway’s big plays down the field and his extended plays from scrambling. We felt confident in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
How did winning a Super Bowl with Jeff Hostetler affect the way you handle the backup quarterback position as a head coach?
The backup QB is one play away from having the biggest responsibility of the team on his shoulders. I learned that when I was 8 years old watching Navy play and my dad scout.
The next year was the strike. At what point did the coaching staff know about the plan to go forward with replacement players? What did the Giants coaching staff do to prepare for the strike?
We found out around the middle of the week. By the time we coaches started contacting players (the personnel department had very few), any decent player was already signed. I signed three guys off a semi-pro team in Hartford after they finished practice in front of car headlights. Unfortunately, the three best players from that team were signed two days earlier by other NFL teams.
Was there frustration that the Giants front office did not put together a particularly strong strike roster?
Yes. We had a good team, but did not compete during the strike games. We had an incredibly bad roster. Several of the players had never played competitive football. Our best player was a kicker [George Benyola], but we never kicked. We only had a handful of decent college players.
Do you have any particularly memorable stories from those three weeks?
I have plenty of memorable stories from that time. The ineptitude of the players was staggering. We had a very limited defensive system and if we didn’t have a good tackler at weak safety (Steve Rehage, who made almost every tackle), we could have given up a TD on every play.
Just how much did game plans get simplified or changed during those three strike games?
Beyond simple. A decent junior high school team was better than we were.
You were fortunate enough to coach Lawrence Taylor, a defender so great that he influenced a shift in offensive philosophy throughout the league (specifically, the rise of two-tight end sets so tackles would never have to face him one-on-one). Did the Giants defense experience the reverse? Were there any offensive players you faced that forced you as a head coach to make drastic changes to your overall scheme, and can you give examples of those changes?
There were plenty of them. We faced one or two every week. That isn’t to say we made drastic changes to our scheme, but we had to account for the outstanding players we faced. We made some scheme adjustments to handle the Gibbs and Walsh offenses as well as Mouse Davis’ (see below), or for scrambling QBs like Randall Cunningham. Of course, we double-covered the top receivers we faced.
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Great players like LT would obviously be great in any era, but which Giants players from that era would be even better players in today's game than they were back then?
That is a tough question. The 1980’s had a different style of offense, which the defenses had to react to. The most similar style of offense from that era (and it really is different than today’s offenses) was the Run and Shoot which came into the NFL in the late 1980’s. Up until that time, we didn’t play much nickel or dime defense on early downs. We had to defend the Run and Shoot with nickel on every down, which is similar to what you are seeing in the NFL today.
With five teams in the NFC East and fewer non-conference games, plus fewer personnel packages and less player movement before real free agency, could game preparation go deeper against most opponents than in today's game?
Absolutely. We got to the point in our division where we would really only look at the last 4 or 5 games against the Giants, and not really worry about the way our division teams played other opponents.
Between 1986 and 1989 in the NFC East, you had to face Washington teams quarterbacked by Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien. Joe Gibbs is, of course, famous for winning three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. How much different was the preparation for facing Washington under Gibbs with different quarterbacks?
Not that much. [Joe] Theismann was a much bigger problem. Gibbs’ offense stayed the same throughout his tenure in Washington from my perspective. He changed formations every week, but the plays stayed the same and the QBs were system-oriented.
Finally, I know that I said that I would limit questions to your time with the Giants, but I have one more that does somewhat relate to the Patriots today. We've measured the Patriots with above-average special teams in every season since you took over, and it's obvious you take great pride in having special teams that can execute well. A big part of the streak has been good specialists, of course, the kickers and punters. But the Patriots are also known for great players who make their names in the other parts of special teams, such as Larry Izzo and Matthew Slater.
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What skills and physical characteristics are most important for a player to make a significant contribution on special teams? What do you look for that helps you identify a player who can specifically help the special teams unit?
It starts with the player’s attitude. He has to want to be in the kicking game first and foremost. From there, you want guys who are unselfish, competitive and aggressive. You want players with size and speed. He has to be able to play in space, play with speed to close space, and be a contact player.
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A big thank you to Coach Belichick for participating in this interview. If you're looking for our ratings and extended commentary for the seasons discussed in this interview, you will find them here:
One last oddity: Whatever happened to strike-week safety Steve Rehage? Well, he never played in the NFL again but later became the second-most important big-time music promoter among 1987 strike players, creating New Orleans' Voodoo Fest.