New England Patriots: The Science of Performance


As a performance improvement specialist one has to admire the “leave-nothing-to-chance” approach of Bill Belichick, the head coach of the NFL New England Patriots. Among the many things he and his staff do to help prepare for games is to hire second-string football players to imitate key opposing players his team will face in upcoming games. Jonathan Clegg and Kevin Clark in the Wall Street Journal elaborate:

Ahead of their playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts last weekend, the New England Patriots signed to their practice squad someone named Reggie Dunn. Dunn is an undrafted, unheralded wide receiver. But he also is roughly the same height, weight and speed as Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, who had scorched the Kansas City Chiefs with 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the wild-card round.

As a practice-squad Patriot, Dunn was charged with imitating Hilton, giving New England’s defense a head start. Apparently it worked: In a 43-22 win over the Colts, the Patriots held Hilton to four catches for 104 yards.

The Dunn hiring illustrates a little-known scheme that Patriots coach Bill Belichick employs for slowing down opponents: He clones them, stacking his practice squad with replicas of some of the NFL’s most dangerous players. “I don’t know where he finds these guys,” said former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt. “Every week, they bring in someone. Same height, same speed. It’s like they practice against your twin brother.”

To prepare for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Denver against the Broncos, the Patriots in recent weeks signed to their practice squad 6-foot-3-Greg Orton, a doppelgänger for 6-foot-3 Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas. “It’s something Bill does,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “To (practice against) a guy with the same height, weight, speed, it helps a lot.”

Belichick’s rotating-cast-of-ringers approach relies on a mostly overlooked element of NFL roster construction: the practice squad. NFL teams are permitted to keep just 53 players on their active rosters. But they also have a practice squad of up to eight players who are eligible to participate in midweek practices, though unable to suit up for games.

Most teams use the practice squad as a means of keeping hold of competent backups who are familiar with their systems and can step in as ready-made replacements in case of injuries.

“A lot of teams just see it as eight more practice bodies,” said Russ Lande, a former NFL scout. “But the Patriots are one of the few teams that understand how to manipulate the practice squad. They’re using those guys to fill specific roles based on their opponents.”

By bringing in players who are the same size and speed as upcoming opponents and instructing them to run plays the coaches have identified from film study, the Patriots say they are able to get an accurate idea of how to attack or defend a specific player. The team also can try out different blitzes and coverages. “Our big thing is taking the practice field and bringing it to the game,” said Patriots safety Kyle Arrington. “The saying here is ‘practice execution means game reality.'”

Belichick’s grand strategy is consistent with his philosophy of taking away what an opponent does best.

Not surprisingly, “Silent Bill” declined to talk about this strategy or its origins. One theory is that Belichick happened upon this approach while facing the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. To practice defending against Rams running back Marshall Faulk, Belichick was able to lean on a replica in his own backfield: Kevin Faulk, the superstar’s cousin. In winning that Super Bowl, the Patriots held Marshall Faulk to 76 yards rushing.

“That’s Bill for you,” said Brandt, the former Cowboys executive. “He’s ahead of the curve in about 99% of the things he does.”

We’ll see this coming Sunday whether Belichick’s preparation of his team results in a win over the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game.

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