Despite the New England Patriots going just 8-9 in 2022 and missing the playoffs for a second time in three years, there is no denying Bill Belichick is still among the very best coaches in all of football. What he also is, is one of the most conservative.
A new analysis by Football Outsiders compared the NFL’s head coaches based on their aggressiveness on fourth down. The idea behind that “Aggressiveness Index” is measuring which coaches are more willing to go for it under a select set of game-specific circumstances).
In order to find Belichick, one has to scroll down all the way to the 31st spot. Finishing with a score of 0.49, and therefore below the 1.0 benchmark set as average, New England’s head coach decided to go for it on just six of 109 qualifying situations. His rate of 5.5 percent is well below the Patriots’ expectation of 12.2.
Only the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh was more conservative, scoring a 0.49 on a 5.4-percent go-rate versus a 12.3-percent expectation. For comparison, league-leading Nick Sirianni of the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles finished at 1.57/26.7/17.8.
Football Outsider’s Aaron Schatz wrote the following about Belichick conservatism:
Other very conservative coaches included ... Bill Belichick, whose career has been very strange in this area. As we’ve written about in the past, Belichick was one of the most aggressive coaches in the league year after year back when the league as a whole was much less aggressive. He inexplicably became much less aggressive on fourth downs around 2012, strange timing because it doesn’t fit the two most common explanations for why Belichick became less aggressive. It wasn’t timed to the failed fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis on a big Sunday night game in 2009, and it wasn’t timed to the departure of Tom Brady which of course made it harder for the Patriots to convert in any situation, much less fourth down.
Belichick turning into one of the more conservative coaches in football over the last decade is curious given his aggressive nature over the first half of the Patriots’ dynastic run. As pointed out in the excerpt above, there are no clear indicators why he changed his ways.
The bottom line, however, did not speak against him: New England won three Super Bowls since, making Belichick the NFL’s most successful head coach over that span. Of course, the question is whether or not the team can find similar success in the future with its current conservative approach.
As far as 2022 is concerned, the numbers have to be viewed in light of a New England offense that struggled for much of the regular season. With the unit failing to find any consistency under first-year leadership of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, Belichick playing it safe on fourth downs — and trusting one of the better defenses in the league by extension — makes sense under these circumstances.
The numbers would support this theory as far as this particular season is concerned. In 2021, after all, Belichick ranked slightly higher compared to his peers (29th) while posting a superior aggressiveness score of 0.76 with a 9.1-percent rate versus a 10.5-percent expectation.
Of course, the nuances when comparing 2022 and 2021 can be explained by last year’s at-times inept offense. The gist remains the same, however: the Belichick-led Patriots were still highly conservative in both seasons, and for most of the last decade even when Tom Brady was still under center.
In that sense, Belichick zags in a league that zigs toward more aggressiveness. The question is whether or not that is a sustainable way of game management in today’s risk-taking NFL.
That all said, conservative does not necessarily equal successful. While Sirianni’s Eagles advanced all the way to the Super Bowl, and the second spot on the list went to the playoff-bound Miami Dolphins, the next four teams on the list all failed to make it to the tournament. The Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, ranked 21st.