Finding a Competitive Edge, Part 1

I don’t like Bill Belichick.  He strikes me as grumpy and dour, and intensely smug.  But I’d give anything – anything – if he would coach my beloved Chicago Bears.

It has nothing to do with the intangible characteristics we’ve come to associate with him and his current team, the New England Patriots.  It’s not the systematic, even quasi-militaristic approach to weekly practices.  Nor is it the egalitarian treatment of players, from the lowly practice squad schmo to the Golden Boy.  And it’s certainly not the creative and supremely-honed game-planning.  Yes, these are all desirable traits in a football coach, but at the margin they’re not really that special.

No, the reason I want Belichick is that he’s found his competitive edge.

In Saturday’s playoff game he rolled out a new strategy designed to confuse the Baltimore Ravens’ defense.  The details get tricky, but basically the NFL rules require that 7 players on offense must line up on the line of scrimmage.  For whatever reason – history, evolution of the game, best practices – at least 5 of those players are the gigantic, sumo-esque linemen, leaving every other offensive player on the field eligible to catch passes.  It’s just common knowledge; That’s how football formations work.

But it is this “common knowledge” that Belichick so deftly exploited because nowhere in the NFL rulebook does it specify exactly which 7 players are required to be on the line of scrimmage.  There’s no rule requiring that there be 5 down linemen, nor is there a rule requiring that a wide receiver who’s split out away from the formation be eligible to catch a pass.  This misalignment (between the common practices that all other NLF teams follow and the specific rules for what is allowed) is where guys like Belichick thrive.

When the offense lines up, the defense has precious few pre-snap moments to respond to the formation and recognize their assignments.  Can you imagine, then, how difficult that recognition becomes if some Bond-villian-cum-head-coach turns the generally accepted practices of offensive formations on its head?

What Belichick did was legal, innovative, unintuitive and effective.  Like I said, this guy has found his edge.

Of course, this isn’t the first example of an athlete innovating in search of an edge.  Olympian Dick Fosbury couldn’t straddle over a high jump bar so he developed the now-ubiquitous method of flopping over on his back.  That’s competitive edge.  Hall of Famer Candy Cummings invented the curveball because at 5’9 and 120 pounds he couldn’t exactly put a lot of “mustard” on the ball.  That’s competitive edge.

The spread offense.  The 4-3 defense.  The neutral zone trap.  The suicide squeeze.  Low friction swimsuits.  Maple baseball bats.  Pulling the goaltender.  The zone blitz.  Groove-faced golf irons.  Curved hockey sticks.  The no-huddle.  The bank shot.  The forward pass.  The jump-serve.  The shotgun formation.  The fade-away jumper.  Set-up pitching.  Butterfly goaltending.  The Fosbury Flop.  The curveball.

All advances made by competitors in search of a competitive edge.  Like athletes, investors also operate in a highly competitive field where winners need to find their edge.  That doesn’t always mean making revolutionary breakthroughs; Belichick’s formation shenanigans are unlikely to change football as we know it.  But it does mean scouring the landscape for innovative, unintuitive and effective strategies.

It’s operating from first principles.  That’s what we do…and we’ll be back in a couple days for Part 2 where we discuss what we mean.