When Bill Belichick became head coach of the New England Patriots in 2000, the team was coming off a last-place finish and had never won a championship. Expectations were low, so the canvas was his for the painting. In War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team, former Boston Globe sportswriter Michael Holley studiously charts the rise of Belichick and his two closest lieutenants — Scott Pioli, then New England’s vice president of player personnel, and Thomas Dimitroff, the head of college scouting. This trio, which came together when Belichick was coaching the Cleveland Browns, became the brain trust behind three Patriots Super Bowl victories and the architects of a 2007 team that’s the most famous runner-up in Super Bowl history.
Football games are won and lost on the field, but those sixty-minute outings are the results of months of preparation, even before training camp begins. Holley’s book follows the behind-the-scenes work of team building and tells how Belichick, Pioli, and Dimitroff aimed at victory by transforming the Patriots’ scouting.
What Belichick sought was a means of seeing not only a player’s talent but where he might fit into the larger picture, “a grading scale that was easy to understand yet complex enough to reflect, for example, the value of an average offensive lineman who could play two positions vs. an above-average lineman who could play just one…. He wanted to assign letters, numbers, and words that would accurately describe every player in pro and college football.” The ultimate goal was a system that would let them work “scientifically” to build a team with an edge in size, toughness, and drive.
The 2001 Patriots were “a starless group, the story went, that was powered by heart, luck, and Belichick’s brain.” They were led by a second-year quarterback, Tom Brady, who had been drafted in the sixth round out of Michigan. He ascended to the starting job only after Drew Bledsoe was injured, and he led the Patriots to a stunning playoff run, capped by a victory over the heavily favored Rams in the Super Bowl. But while this anti-glamour reputation made the Patriots “embraceable,” it was also true that Belichick’s icily brilliant intellect seemed at times to be paired with an equally cold heart. “Over the years, making tough decisions and replacing seemingly indispensable players would become the Patriots’ way of doing business.”
The natural tension between the good of the organization and the good of the players is the paradox at the heart of the so-called Patriot Way, which demanded that players buy into a team-first approach, sublimating their egos for the betterment of the group — an approach that had mixed results, notably in the case of wide receiver Randy Moss, who bought into the team philosophy until he became disgruntled during his 2010 contract year. The closest the Patriots came to creating the “perfect” season was in 2007, when they nearly became the first 19-0 team in NFL history but lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Thanks to the controversy known as Spygate, when the team was caught taping an opponent’s defensive signals during a game and subsequently disciplined by the league, that year’s squad has been lauded and derided in equal measure. How most football fans feel about the 2007 team is largely determined by how much they love, or hate, Bill Belichick himself.
Holley’s book goes on to detail how Pioli and Dimitroff left New England after the team’s Super Bowl successes and created variations of the Patriot Way in Kansas City and Atlanta, respectively. He follows the three franchises up through the 2011 draft, just months after all three won their divisions. The narrative is jumpy at times, and even diehard football fans will feel their eyes glaze over when years-old game recaps are delivered in toe-stubbing prose, as when Holley describes the infamous “Tuck Rule” game in 2002:
In a season of unintentional poetry, it was fitting that the next play would practically be a catch by all who had been with the Patriots since their local TV blackouts, one- and two-win seasons, and franchise coffers that had more singles than hundred-dollar bills. Jermaine Wiggins, a tight end from East Boston, was the only Patriots player who had been born and raised in the area.
If the writing occasionally suffers from such disorienting circumlocutions, Holley’s access to Belichick, Pioli, and Dimitroff unearths some intriguing revelations, as when Pioli admits that he was too focused on winning to properly enjoy the successes in New England and that Belichick advised Dimitroff “as your friend” not to trade up and select wide receiver Julio Jones of Alabama in the most recent draft.
Compared with the driven Belichick and Pioli, Dimitroff is revealed here as a relatively laid-back figure. With his moussed hair and vegan lifestyle, he runs counter to the usual man’s-man NFL type. He learned a lot under Belichick and Pioli, but he clashed with them on certain issues. For instance, he could never understand why they didn’t allow all of the team’s scouts into the so-called war room on draft day, when the front office makes its picks. And he bristled when the scouts were not given all-access passes at the Super Bowl, a perceived slight that didn’t allow them to celebrate on the field with the rest of the organization.
In the end, Holley suggests that this book is a study of friendship among competitors, and the unique bonds of camaraderie and even love that grow when men like these work together — bonds that persist even as they become rivals. “But,” he adds, “in this business, at some point, your love is forced to be conditional.” It’s a sentiment some fans might, however reluctantly, understand.