Belichick as Artist in Pats’ Defeat

Coach uses theater techniques in big game

Plato argued that theater is destructive for society because it presents a false picture of reality. Once viewed, a play leads its audience to adopt ideas or emotions based on “fictio,” or amoral falsehood, and not on “praxis,” or the world as it truly exists. Plato’s theater traffics in the subtle and pernicious art of deception.

Though he affects a Plato-friendly stoicism in sporting hoodies midwinter and making characteristically stony replies to news conference reporters, Pats coach Bill Belichick proved himself last Sunday to be the ultimate Platonic deceiver. Belichick, who runs his team with the mechanical efficiency of a trash compactor, has married success with bland ruthlessness even more thoroughly than the fat cat Yankees. While the Yanks’ fortune is in money, however, the Pats’ unmatched asset has been Belichick’s genius. His powerful mind is unafraid of a turn to the dark arts.

The score: 17 to 15 Pats. One minute and four seconds left. Second down. The Giants are in the Pats red zone, well within kicker Lawrence Tynes’ field goal range. With only one timeout, the Pats look fated to watch the Giants score a field goal, go down by a point, and receive the ball with too little time to respond with a drive of their own. Giants quarterback Eli Manning hands the ball off to runningback Ahmad Bradshaw, whose only job is to kill time. Bradshaw strides up the middle with the humble wish to fall quickly and watch as the clock winds down. Instead, he finds himself past the line of scrimmage, in the open field, and running to the endzone. But that’s not what he wants; a quick score would give the Patriots’ Tom Brady the ball with ample time to march down the field in terminating heroics. An inch away from the threshold, Bradshaw stops in his tracks, and, like a child dipping his toe in the ocean, totters into six points.

How could Bradshaw have mistakenly scored? Only due to genius play-acting. Belichick, suddenly a theater director, had instructed his defensive line to fight back just enough to create the appearance of conventional football effort—and so to induce Bradshaw to run as he normally does—without trying so hard that they would get near to actually stopping Bradshaw. The physical impetus of the game—motion meeting motion, advancing drive against backward repulsion—was replaced, in the most critical moment of the 2011-2012 season, with concept art. Bradshaw’s accidental touchdown was a charming testament to his unthinking faith in football conventions, especially in the face of Belichick’s counter-intuitive performance piece. The running back was simply too tied to the ingrained desire to score; the gravitational pull of the endzone was too strong. Belichick, on the other hand, saw past the brute instinct to immediate success. He realized that the self-destruction of allowing the score was his only path to victory.

The trick proved insufficient, and the Giants won 21-17. That does not mean, however, that Belichick’s perversion was anything short of a miraculous success. It gave the Pats a potent dying breath. Harvard students in particular ought to appreciate this Pyrrhic victory of mind over muscle. Plato would have called him a great liar, but Belichick’s artful trap does not ask for moral understanding. It demands a round of applause.

—Staff writer Alexander E.. Traub can be reached at atraub@college.harvard.edu.

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