Why do some NFL franchises dominate year after year while others can never crack the code of success? For 30 years Michael Lombardi had a front-row seat and full access as three titans--Bill Walsh, Al Davis, and Bill Belichick--reinvented the game, turning it into a national obsession while piling up Super Bowl trophies. Now, in Gridiron Genius, Lombardi provides the blueprint that makes a successful organization click and win--and the mistakes unsuccessful organizations make that keep them on the losing side time and again.
In reality, very few coaches understand the philosophies, attention to detail, and massive commitment that defined NFL juggernauts like the 49ers and the Patriots. The best organizations are not just employing players, they are building something bigger. Gridiron Genius will explain how the best leaders evaluate, acquire, and utilize personnel in ways other professional minds, football and otherwise, won't even contemplate. How do you know when to trade a player? How do you create a positive atmosphere when everyone is out to maximize his own paycheck? And why is the tight end like the knight on a chessboard?
To some, game planning consists only of designing an attack for the next opponent. But Lombardi explains how the smartest leaders script everything: from an afternoon's special-teams practice to a season's playoff run to a decade-long organizational blueprint. Readers will delight in the Lombardi tour of an NFL weekend, including what really goes on during the game on and off the field and inside the headset. First stop: Belichick's Saturday night staff meeting, where he announces how the game will go the next day. Spoiler alert: He always nails it.
Football dynasties are built through massive attention to detail and unwavering commitment. From how to build a team, to how to watch a game, to understanding the essential qualities of great leaders, Gridiron Genius gives football fans the knowledge to be the smartest person in the room every Sunday.
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Chapter 1: The Organization
Culture Beats Everything
"Champions behave like champions before they’re champions." —Bill Walsh
Bill Walsh drove a Porsche. Well, he owned a Porsche, I should say, since I was the one who drove it. I was 25 in 1984 when I left a recruiting coordinator position at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas to join Walsh’s staff with the San Francisco 49ers. The best part of my new job as a scout was to drive Walsh wherever he needed to go. As with most things in Walsh’s world, there was no set pattern or agenda. Some days I just dropped him at home. Other days I took him to the airport or to a speaking engagement across the state. For me, the longer the ride, the better. I could hardly believe my incredible good fortune.
The assignment, considered by most to be grunt work suitable for only the youngest members of a staff, was nothing less than the beginning of my formal education in the game of professional football. What could be better? Me behind the wheel of a slick sports car as I listened to the running commentary of Bill Walsh: commentary on world events or Villanova’s NCAA tournament upset of Georgetown or military history or—his favorite subject above all others—the blueprint he was building for an advanced, all-encompassing philosophy that would transform the 49ers into the envy of and model for every other organization in sports.
By the time I arrived, Walsh was well on his way to genius status. As a longtime assistant coach in Cincinnati under the legendary Paul Brown, Walsh first changed the course of NFL history with his invention of the West Coast offense. His intricate evolution of the passing game was built around precise timing and movement. It attacked the defense by stretching the field horizontally with short passes that served almost like handoffs, getting the ball to playmakers just as they reached top speed in open spaces. After a falling-out with Brown, Walsh left the Bengals in 1975 and, after a brief stop in San Diego, spent two years as the head coach at Stanford, where he led the football team to back-to-back bowl game wins. Since he was comfortable in the school’s academic environment, the last place anyone ever expected Walsh to jump to next was the 49ers.
Most football fans today think of San Francisco as the NFL’s dynasty of the 1980s, but few remember that before Walsh showed up in 1979 the team was widely regarded as the worst in the league and quite possibly the most dysfunctional franchise in all of pro sports. The previous general manager, Joe Thomas, had gutted the organization from top to bottom. Thomas fired three head coaches in less than 12 months, including one, East Coast native Pete McCulley, who insisted that everything run on his time; that meant that the usual 7 a.m. team meetings began at 4 a.m. Thomas also cut talented players such as quarterback Jim Plunkett, who went on to win two Super Bowls with the Oakland Raiders. Worst of all, Thomas had traded away five of the 49ers’ top picks in upcoming drafts for a washed-up, wobbly-kneed O. J. Simpson. The game-day losses were so definitive and the weekday atmosphere so poisonous during a 2–14 season in 1978 that a disgusted 49ers assistant left the sideline on one embarrassing Sunday to sit with his wife in the stands.
In short, Walsh took over a team with no high draft picks, no quarterback, and no hope. Three years later, that team won the Super Bowl.
It got there by following Walsh’s formula, what he called his Standard of Performance: an exacting plan for constructing and maintaining the culture and organizational DNA behind the perfect football franchise. Let’s face it, the word perfect and the very idea of “building the perfect organization” are either clichés or fantasies to most coaches. Not to Walsh. Perfection drove him endlessly and, sometimes to those around him, maddeningly.
His obsession with perfection meant he constantly pushed his people, regardless of experience or position in the organization, to learn more. He was naturally curious, always searching for ways to fix his team or just better accomplish the simplest task, and he demanded the same thing of his staff. He never wanted us to follow familiar paths to knowledge. He was trying to build a lasting, self-perpetuating culture to counter the groupthink that was pervasive in the NFL and still is today.
Walsh, in other words, was trying to “disrupt” football long before anyone thought to use that term in business, let alone sports.
From his lectern in the passenger seat, Walsh told me, “If we are all thinking alike, no one is thinking.” He was a master communicator, deftly asking questions he already knew the answer to as a lead-in to another lesson. “Have you heard of Tom Peters?” he once asked me. My first thought was, Is he that punter in the draft? When it quickly became clear that I had no clue who Peters was, Walsh began an impromptu dissertation on the merits of In Search of Excellence, the book that Peters, a famed management consultant, wrote with Bob Waterman. Walsh loved the book and urged me to head to the store immediately to buy a copy. (There was no Amazon back then.) Which, of course, I did. And reading Peters spurred in me a lifelong love of his management philosophy, as Walsh knew it would.
In the book, Peters and Waterman offer a list of eight attributes that drive organizations to become excellent. The similarities to Walsh’s Standard of Performance were no coincidence. Walsh himself said, “Running a football franchise is not unlike running any other business: You start first with a structural format and underlying philosophy, then find people who can implement it.” But if football was his business, building the finest organization was his goal.
The best way I can describe Walsh’s philosophy is that he thought of a football team as being like a brand-new automobile, believing the finished product could be only as good as the assembly line that created it, all the way down to the tiniest bolt and the smallest detail performed by the seemingly most insignificant worker. Everything needed to mesh on and off the field. No part could survive without the others. It was a process Walsh was constantly thinking and rethinking as he built his culture of success.
His meticulousness was evident everywhere, from his spotless sneakers to his impeccable office. Once, as I was walking down the hall in the team facility, I heard him yell to me, “Are you just going to ignore that photo?” Unable to discern the offending picture, I asked him which one he meant. “The one that’s tilted sideways,” was his straightforward reply. To this day, if there is a picture hanging out of line, I am compelled to straighten it. Walsh was extremely demanding in a quiet way. You never wanted to be the source of that disappointed look on his face. He was a boxer in his younger days and a military buff as a grown-up. At the same time, he could have stepped into an economics class at Stanford and held forth quite proficiently. His was, in short, a unique and powerful presence wherever he went, particularly inside that Porsche, and his voice remains loud and clear in my ear today.
Walsh’s dedication to his Standard of Performance was a way of life for him; his intention was always to use it to influence more than the game on the field. I truly believe that’s why he left the comfort of Stanford for the challenge of the downtrodden 49ers. He wanted to test his theories in the worst possible circumstances, at the highest level of the game. The fact that those theories passed that test with honors is a surprise to no one who knew the man in almost any capacity or context.
Walsh left his legacy of greatness in players, coaches, and support staff alike. He was as concerned with how the receptionists answered the phones at team headquarters as he was with Joe Montana’s throwing motion. Once, during a preseason game at the 49ers’ home field, Candlestick Park, I was in the coaches’ box, waiting for the team to return to the sideline after halftime. Suddenly, Walsh was screaming into my headset. When I asked what he needed, he said bluntly, “Remind me to fire the PA announcer. He is horrible.” That was classic Walsh, tuned in to all things 49ers, not just the action on the field.
No detail was too small, not even the location of his parking spot at the team’s facility inside the sprawling Red Morton Park recreational complex in Redwood City. He reserved the first space, closest to and aligned perfectly with the entrance, for his Porsche. That was fine with me. Each time the call came to my desk from his assistant declaring that “Coach needs a ride” I’d get excited. My understanding of the 49ers’ unique culture was about to be expanded again.
Ever seen The Late Late Show’s signature segment, “Carpool Karaoke”? Host James Corden chauffeurs around a music star, a pop culture icon, or even a first lady as they sing along with the radio. But he also takes it as an opportunity to get them chatting about life. There’s something about a car’s interior, private yet informal—not to mention the dueting—that allows Corden to get an intimate glimpse into the thoughts of even the most guarded stars. Driving Walsh around in his Porsche was my version of Carpool Karaoke (without the warbling; neither of us wanted to hear the other sing).
I’ve worked with some of the greatest minds in football, and believe it or not, one common thread that bound them was a rather odd “game show” way they had of interacting with their staff. Starting in 1997, I spent almost a decade in Oakland working alongside the iconic owner of the Raiders, Al Davis, and he treated most of our interactions as if we were on Jeopardy! Davis, in the Alex Trebek role, required that I instantly furnish fully formed questions that were based on answers he threw my way. And Davis was nowhere as patient as Trebek. As soon as his secretary got me on the phone, he’d break in with some version of this greeting: “I have three things for you.” (The number varied, but nothing else did.) I never replied, instead just waited for answer number one. “You know that guy from Utah who missed a season with a knee injury?” Davis might say. My answer: You mean offensive lineman Barry Sims? (Technically, I guess I should have said, Who is offensive lineman Barry Sims?) “Yes, Sims,” Davis would reply. “How big are his hands?” If I wasn’t able to provide the exact measurement off the top of my head, I would be banned from Final Raider Jeopardy. The one thing you could never say to Al(ex) was “I’m not sure; let me look it up.” That drove him nuts. “Aw, fuck, Lombardi, I could look it up myself,” he’d snap. That was my daily interaction with Davis for most of a decade.
Bookended around my time with Davis, I worked with Bill Belichick in Cleveland and then again in New England. His game was closer to 20 Questions. Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn worked on Belichick’s staff for 16 years, and he recently described Bill’s quiz show interrogation better than anyone: It’s 6:45 a.m., and you’re still half asleep. As you wait in line at the omelet station inside the Patriots’ practice facility, Belichick shuffles up and asks you a dozen questions about the seventh player on the practice squad. Those who weren’t ready to engage in a half-hour in-depth conversation on the spot found themselves in the worst place in the NFL: Bill’s doghouse.
Walsh’s concert was Carpool Karaoke. He liked to doodle, and in the same way that President Kennedy drew sailboats he daydreamed about building someday, Walsh drew up football plays from every era. If he caught me glancing over as he sketched, he would delight in giving me the play’s background and origin. Walsh’s mind never turned off, and writing things down seemed to be the best method he had to catalog his thoughts. He used 3-by-5 index cards and short sharp pencils like the ones golfers keep score with, and when he wasn’t doodling, he made lists of things that needed to get done in an elegant left-handed handwriting that was part cursive, part print.
Honestly, I think Walsh cherished those pencils more than the Porsche. In 1981 he signed veteran linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds—who became the heart and soul of a 49ers defense that won two Super Bowls—in part, I’m sure, because Reynolds brought a full box of sharpened pencils to every team meeting, as if he were the world’s toughest CPA about to meet with a client. Walsh, by the way, liked to say that whereas Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott had character, Hacksaw was a character. And he was right. Hacksaw got his nickname as a senior at the University of Tennessee when, after a frustrating loss to Mississippi, he went to a Kmart, purchased 13 hacksaw blades, and proceeded to cut through his 1953 Chevy.
Anyway, with all that time to think and talk inside the Porsche, Walsh honed his Standard of Performance, writing down its 17 principles with those beloved pencils. (Walsh loved to teach more than anything, but a close second for him was making lists like this one.) These tenets would inform the creation and maintenance of a football dynasty:
1. Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.
2. Demonstrate respect for each person in the organization.
3. Be deeply committed to learning and teaching.
4. Be fair.
5. Demonstrate character.
6. Honor the direct connection between details and improvement; relentlessly seek the latter.
7. Show self-control, especially under pressure.
8. Demonstrate and prize loyalty.
9. Use positive language and have a positive attitude.
10. Take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort.
11. Be willing to go the extra distance for the organization.
12. Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation.
13. Promote internal communication that is both open and substantive.
14. Seek poise in myself and those I lead.
15. Put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own.
16. Maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high.
17. Make sacrifice and commitment to the organization’s trademark.
The Standard of Performance was Walsh’s attempt to instill a winning attitude in every member of his organization. In fact, as he admitted in his book The Score Takes Care of Itself, he was far more focused on the process of creating a culture, of establishing a foundation for sustainable success, than in drawing up the perfect game plan. His Standard of Performance wasn’t a way to define his genius; it was his genius. It was the compass that guided everything he oversaw—coaching, scouting, management—allowing him to transform the 49ers from a laughingstock to a powerhouse in fewer than 1,000 days. By accomplishing that feat, Walsh essentially used football to prove the famous dictum of another management expert, Peter Drucker: “Culture can eat strategy for lunch.” That’s why, for people inside the NFL, people in the know, Walsh’s Standard of Performance is as much a part of his lasting impact as his West Coast offense. Maybe even more.
Table of Contents
Foreword Bill Belichick ix
Jumping The Route 1
1 The Organization
Culture Beats Everything 9
2 The Coach
A Study In Leadership 27
What To Ask An NFL Head Coach Candidate 51
3 Team Building
In Search Of Program Guys 63
4 Special Teams
The Meaning Of All-In 94
Finding The Seams 111
Where Simplicity Is Complex 138
7 Game Planning
Preparing To Improvise 167
8 While I Have You
My Biggest Pet Peeves 202
What Would Belichick Do? 225
10 Fearless Forecast
The Future Of Football 241