Bill Belichick’s prized library of pro football literature includes a tome entitled Oklahoma Split T Football, written in 1952 by legendary Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson.
The book is kept today inside a display cabinet at Ricketts Hall, the U.S. Naval Academy’s football building in Annapolis, Maryland, as part of the "Belichick Collection." The lineup is heavy on literature passed down to Bill by his late father, longtime scout and Navy coach Steve Belichick.
When SI’s Jenny Vrentas visited in 2015, a Navy assistant pulled Wilkinson’s Split T love letter off the shelf to reveal a handwritten dedication: "To Steve Belichick — With best wishes. Bud Wilkinson."
And above the signature, an observation written by Steve: "Said Napoleon — ‘Battles are won by the power of the mind.’ So are Bud’s football games."
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Psychological warfare has long found a home on the gridiron, used masterfully today by Bill Belichick — and Bill Parcells before him — as the secret sauce to football’s hourly, daily, weekly and seasonal preparation of a 53-man roster.
Parcells was celebrated for his ability to rile up Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor just minutes before kickoff, while treating hushed tight end Mark Bavaro with an entirely different approach, once saying: "I don’t believe in consistency as it relates to handling players. I believe in being right for each guy. I tried to do my best to understand what a particular player needed to be pushed to do his best."
In special situations, the job calls for fueling certain athletes with a desire of revenge. The master manipulator, eschewing any sense of closure, allows the previous season’s open wounds to serve as an engine.
I would argue those emotions run deep inside these locker rooms below:
New England Patriots
BELICHICK LIVES. While massive chunks of the public find sport in dismissing the post-Tom Brady Pats as a carcass, New England’s coach operates in the shadows. Refusing to do what everyone insists — sign Cam Newton, sign Andy Dalton, trade up for Tua Tagovailoa — Bill authors play-calling sea poems on a napkin designed around second-year arm Jarrett Stidham.
With Brady gone, Gronk un-retiring to play in Tompa Bay and roughly 19 ex-Patriots landing in Detroit, the future is cloudy in Foxborough.
Who can blame Football Heads for thinking January’s loss to the Titans marked the decisive end to New England’s two-decade run in the AFC? The changes on paper look drastic, but the franchise still houses the ultimate X-factor: The greatest coach in Earth history, one with the power to turn Judy Blume into a functional slot corner.
While chuckleheads giggle away and get hammered on Zoom chats with their office buddies, Belichick sits in a spare, silent den authoring future wars.
The entire AFC North
Those same Titans operated as a chaos-inducing, third-party candidate by marching into Baltimore and thrashing the Ravens. To the naked eye, Baltimore appeared lost in the latter stages of a belladonna voyage as Derrick Henry flung dazed defenders into the terrible Maryland night. In a flash, the mighty Ravens — their 14-2 record, their MVP quarterback and all their boasts — were reduced to salt. Few teams burn more brightly for a chance to make things right.
The North also houses the Browns, who hit the field as an overhyped, unprepared, absurd mess that left Baker Mayfield’s Q-rating riding the ocean floor. This offseason’s under-the-radar status feels right for a Cleveland club with a stacked roster. The Steelers missed the playoffs due to a Biblical plague of injuries, while the Bengals — suddenly hot to trot with Joe Burrow under center — refuse to be dismissed. Talent alone suggests three teams from the North should qualify for the AFC’s new seven-slot playoff field — or something went very wrong.
New Orleans Saints
It’s somehow underrated how the past three seasons have crumbled for the Saints:
2019: Despite a shiny 13-3 record, New Orleans mistakenly taps the ejector seat in a gory 26-20 overtime loss to the 10-6 Vikings.
2018: Unless you stumbled upon pro football 14 minutes ago, you know what happened in a controversy-doused 26-23 overtime loss to the Rams in the NFC title game.
2017: New Orleans submits in unthinkable fashion to the Vikings in a divisional-round tilt known to humans as THE MINNEAPOLIS MIRACLE.
Chip on the shoulder? That checks out.
Their 8-8 record can’t be blamed on anyone else. Jerry Jones believes every Dallas iteration pieced together is clear-cut Super Bowl fodder — and the league plays along by gracing the ‘Boys with endless prime-time appearances and a BREAKING NEWS strip every time the long-snapper dials up Chinese takeout. The talent, though, leaves last year’s swoon as unforgivable. New coach Mike McCarthy has arrived, eager to prove his naysayers wrong and bring Jerry back to the promised land.
Both L.A. teams
Last year’s Rams never quite found their groove. Feelings were hurt when, at 8-5, Los Angeles received a 44-21 lashing by Dallas before falling 34-31 to the Niners. Squeaking by the upstart Cardinals in the finale wasn’t enough to quell the Super Bowl hangover inside a top-heavy NFC. The low point came much earlier in a nationally televised 45-6 loss at home to the soaring Ravens. Fresh off a transformative offseason, coach Sean McVay now plans his comeback.
The Chargers have changed plenty, too, waving farewell to Philip Rivers for a combination of Tyrod Taylor and first-round passer Justin Herbert. A boatload of injuries plus an off year from Rivers turned this high-expectations club into a 5-11 afterthought. Competing for eyeballs in La La Land, the Bolts shouldn’t lack motivation to (finally) overachieve.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.
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