Bill Belichick's Super Bowl XXV Defensive Strategy

In the 1990 American football season, the Buffalo Bills played the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. Most people acknowledged that Buffalo was more talented than the Giants, especially on offense. One exception was that the Giants were the best team at defending against the run.

Bill Belichick, who has since won a record six super bowls as a head coach with the New England Patriots, was the defensive coordinator (the defensive leader) for the Giants that season. His strategy was to focus on stopping Buffalo’s excellent passing attack at the expense of stopping their running attack. Passing is where yards are gained by the quarterback throwing the ball downfield to receivers.  His framework included the use of extra defensive backs and other tactics.

Most surprising, he explained the strategy to his players by saying that Thurman Thomas, Buffalo’s great running back (the position that runs with the football to gain yards), would have to have a “good day” and gain 100 yards running the ball. Gaining 100 yards by running with the ball is considered a benchmark for a good day for a running back in American football.

In essence, Belichick explained the strategy for stopping Buffalo’s passing attack by admitting that the Giant’s defensive unit would have to accept some failure in stopping Buffalo’s running attack. He had to convince his defense to accept failure and look bad in the one dimension they could be most proud of—a tough trade-off.

The Giants won the game by only one point (20-19) and would have lost if a last-second Buffalo field goal attempt had not gone slightly wide to the right. (Turns out, Thurman Thomas did run for over 100 yards, 135 yards in fact, and Buffalo was kept to a reasonable 212 yards passing.)


Test Belichick’s strategy using the disqualifiers:

Opposite? Pass. The opposite of his strategy—focus on stopping the run and accept that Buffalo would succeed with the pass—was certainly not absurd. It is an obvious “go with your strengths” strategy. And note that either strategy alternative, focus on the pass or focus on the run, were far superior to the usual buzz speak of “stop both the pass and the run—go for excellence! Do everything right!”

Numbers? Pass. Belichick, surprisingly, used an “anti” aspiration set-point number to express the strategy. While he didn’t want Thurman Thomas to gain 100 yards, he wanted to prove to his players and assistant coaches that he was dead serious about the emotionally difficult tradeoff.

Duplicate? Pass. Belichick’s strategy pertained to the defense only, therefore, the only way it could have been a duplicate with the parent strategy was if Bill Parcells, the head coach, happened to have it in his strategy. But this would have been a failure on Parcells part because his strategy would have excluded the offense and special teams, the two other functional divisions of a football team.

Excluded? Pass. The approach applied to all defensive players.

List? Pass


This strategy illustrates leadership. Belichick, and also Parcells, had the strength to ask their defensive unit to look bad (or at least a little less good) at the one thing for which they had been given so many accolades.

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