Why do some NFL teams dominate year after year? Some would chalk it up to talent, but my guest today says it all comes down to the culture the head coach intentionally develops for the entire organization.
His name is Michael Lombardi and he’s the author of Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level. For over three decades, Lombardi has worked as a general manager or coach for various NFL teams and alongside some of the greatest coaches of the game, including Bill Walsh, Al Davis, and Bill Belichick. Today on the show, Michael walks us through what these coaches did to develop high performing teams and how those lessons can apply to leaders in other kinds of organizations as well. We begin our conversation discussing how legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh created standards of performance and a culture of excellence that turned the worst team in the league into Super Bowl champions within two years.
Michael then shares the qualities top coaches and players possess, and how recruiters of every kind can really figure out whether or not someone will be successful at the next level. Michael then shares what leaders can learn from Walsh’s innovating West Coast offense, why Belichick obsesses about special teams, how he and Nick Saban came up with a new approach to defense, and how Belichick prepares for games and fights complacency. We also get into the importance of how a QB carries himself, and why it’s important to begin a drive down the field with an energizing play. We end our conversation with Michael’s predictions for the future of football, including how we’re starting to see a return to the game’s rugby roots.
- How Michael ended up working with some of the greatest coaches of all-time
- What made Bill Walsh different from other coaches
- How Walsh changed the culture of the 49ers and turned them into champions
- Walsh’s Standard of Performance
- How Walsh and Bill Belichick were cut from the same cloth
- The power of the “non-obvious”
- How Nick Saban retained his authenticity while building a winning culture
- Figuring out how to recruit the right team
- Why checking the references is so important
- Why Belichick obsesses about special teams (and what that teaches us about leadership)
- The ingenuity of the West Coast offense
- How to carry yourself well
- Nick Saban’s approach to defense (and applying that to your own life)
- The importance of communication
- How do the best coaches prepare for games?
- How Belichick prevents complacency
- The future of football
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Why Football Matters
- The 17 Best Football Movies of All-Time
- How to Throw a Perfect Spiral
- How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football
- Bill Walsh and his West Coast offense
- The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh
- John Wooden’s Secrets of Leadership
- The Essential Drucker
- My interview with Tom Peters on The Excellence Dividend
- The Complete Sherlock Holmes
- Bill Snyder
- My interview with Angela Duckworth about grit
- The Founder
Connect With Michael
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Why do some NFL teams dominate year after year? Now some would chalk it up to talent, but my guest today says it all comes down to the culture that the head coach intentionally develops for the entire organization.
His name is Michael Lombardi, and is the author of Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level. For over three decades Lombardi has worked as a general manager or coach for various NFL teams, and he’s worked along some of the greatest coaches of the game including Bill Walsh, Al Davis, and Bill Belichick.
Today on the show Michael walks us through what these coaches did to develop high performing teams and how those lessons could apply to leaders in other kinds of organizations as well. We begin our conversation discussing how legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh created standards of performance and a cultured excellence that turned the worst team in the league into Super Bowl champions within two years.
Michael then shares the qualities top coaches and players posses, and how recruiters of every kind can really figure out whether or not someone will be successful at the next level. Michael then shares what leaders can share from Walsh’s innovating West Coast offense, why Belichick obsesses about special teams, how Belichick and Nick Saban came up with a new approach to defense, and how Bill Belichick prepares for games and fights complacency.
We also get into the importance of how a QV carries himself, and why it’s important to begin a drive down the field with an energizing play.
And we end our conversation with Michael’s predictions for the future of football, including how we’re starting to see a return of the games rugby roots.
After the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/gridiron.
All right. Michael Lombardi, welcome to the show.
Michael Lombardi: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I appreciate you having me. I’m excited to join you.
Brett McKay: Well, tell us about your career. You have been in the game of football as a coach and as a general manager for a while. How did that happen?
Michael Lombardi: Well, it really started with a television set. A lot of people were influenced by Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was influenced by a guy that looked like he belonged at all of my Sunday dinners, it looked like he was my uncle. He had a big nose, olive skin, and I thought “Geez, this guy should be…” And he has the same last name as me. So, maybe I should try to follow his career path. And I did, and I fell in love with the game of football, I fell in love with the idea of being in the NFL, and I just really went through high school and college with the idea I was going to be in the NFL and work.
I played this game Strat-O-Matic Baseball when I was a kid. Even though it’s a baseball game it was about team building, and me and this kid Danny Reynolds, and Michael Seneno, we played countless hours on this board in my mother’s kitchen and we wore out her dining room set and I fell in love with team building, and I fell in love with drafting, and so that kind of, with Lombardi, and then that, and then listening to Springsteen telling me to go chase my dreams, those three things were the perfect storm.
Brett McKay: So, did you have any ambitions to play football, or did you know at a young age you weren’t going to play, that you were going to be somewhere doing something else with the game?
Michael Lombardi: I mean, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to play at the highest level. I did play college football option. I played high school football, I played college football, but I knew just based on those people at that Sunday dinner, we were all short, squatty, and ate too many carbs, that I probably wasn’t going to be involved in the NFL at my talent level. So, I just tried to study the game.
When I was in college, Brett, I would go to coaching seminars my freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years all throughout the country in January and February. I wanted to learn about football. I wanted to study football from a coaching standpoint because I knew this was what I was going to do.
Brett McKay: And so, you ended up working with some of the greatest coaches in the game. Bill Walsh, Belichick. Was that sort of chance that happened or did you put yourself in a position to work with those guys because you saw that they were doing something different with the game?
Michael Lombardi: I mean, it was serendipitous by far. I got a job at the 49ers to basically be Bill Walsh’s driver, and they hired me because I wanted to be in personnel, I would for relatively little money, and I worked in personnel and I got to befriend him and he needed something. The timing was right. It was the perfect storm. I had Walsh, he had a beautiful car, he needed somebody to drive him, there was no car phone, so I was there and I just worked with him, and then when I went to go to Cleveland, probably the biggest mistake in my career was leaving Walsh. I should have stayed with Bill for longer.
But then in 1991 I meet this guy named Bill Belichick and that changed my life, and really just being around him he taught me more about football, how to think about football, and we developed a grading system in Cleveland that’s universal to what they use in New England today, what they use at the University of Alabama, Iowa, and many other places.
So, a lot of it was serendipitous by far.
Brett McKay: So, in your book Gridiron Genius, you talk about the insights you got from working with these coaches about leadership, team formation, strategy, and I want to dig into this stuff because not only is this stuff applicable to football, but it’s applicable to other aspects of life.
Let’s hear about Bill Walsh first since he was the guy you first started working with. For those who aren’t familiar with Bill Walsh what’s his story?
Michael Lombardi: So, Coach Walsh started out as a player at San Jose State, a really smart, cerebral guy. Very divergent in thought. He always saw coaching as teaching. He didn’t see coaching as yelling at players, he wanted to teach, and he wanted to be divergent. And he worked his way up through the ranks. He worked at the Raiders, and he worked at a lot of different teams, and he got a job at the expansion Cincinnati Bengals, and he had a quarterback named Craig Virgil Cook who could throw the ball, Craig Cook who could throw the ball, but he got hurt, and then he had another quarterback that didn’t have a strong arm so he devised this thing called the West Coast Offense, which we know today. And it’s really a basically long hand off to get your receiver some space and not try to run the ball.
So, he was divergent in thought, and then he was all about building a cultural organization that he could adhere to, and he believed organizations won and not cultures, and he used to tell me driving in that car that you’ve got to read books about Tom Peters, you’ve got to read In Search of Excellence, you’ve got to read War in Venice, you’ve got to read Peter Drucker because we are in the leadership business. We’re not gym teachers where we throw out the kickball’s and say “Okay everybody, let’s play.” There’s an intellectual side to this game, and that really empowered me to learn that, and I spent most of my career studying that.
So, football is a business, and business can be football, and Walsh was the first one to show me that, and then when I met Belichick that all came into fruition.
Brett McKay: Well we’ll talk about the West Coast Offense innovation that Bill Walsh made here more in a bit, but I want to focus on this culture aspect because that’s what you start off talking about in the book that the foundation of the 49ers success was the creation of the culture that was done by Bill Walsh. What did the culture of the 49ers look like before Walsh came in as head coach? And then what changes did he make?
Michael Lombardi: It was completely a mess. I mean, Joe Thomas was the general manager and he controlled the game from a general managers chair, which Walsh knew was wrong right? The coach has to really run the team. He has to be in charge. There has to be a player personnel philosophy of the players that were acquired, and that wasn’t the case.
So, when Walsh took over in 1979 he basically took over an expansion team. The only problem was they traded all of these draft picks for a guy named OJ Simpson who was washed up and done. And so, not only did he take over a team that was really bad, the team had no assets, so it was worse than an expansion team, and the first thing he did was put a culture in place. He talked about what everybody in the organization needed to be able to do. Don’t even pay attention to the score board. Pay attention to your job. Pay attention to your role in this company. Always put the team first. Always behave in the manner of a 49er, and he defined the manner for what he wanted you to behave in. So, it was very detailed, and he focused on not the scoreboard but the organization and what it was going to take, and everything else, once he had built that, he felt like it would take off.
Brett McKay: And he called it his Standard of Performance? This checklist of things he was focused on?
Michael Lombardi: Yeah. That was something he would go over, 17 principles, and they were really small and minor, but he reminded you of them every day.
And here’s the beautiful thing. He never really differentiated from the woman who answered the phone, Kerry Parnham, to Joe Montana the starting quarterback. Both jobs were expected to meet the standard of performance. That’s what he expected. And so, in the book I talk about how he told me to remind him to fire the PA announcer because that guy had to adhere to the same philosophy and the same beliefs. So, he held everyone accountable, and accountability is the number one thing in creating culture where everybody is accountable. Culture can’t be for one person and not for somebody else. It has to be for all.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So, a few of these standards of performance, the 17 principles, you’d read this list and be like “Well, that’s really banal.” But I think that’s the beauty of it right? Things like “Demonstrate character.” “Be fair.” “Be deeply committed to learning and teaching.” When I read those it reminded me a little bit of John Wooden and his really homespun principles that he passed on to his players.
Michael Lombardi: No doubt. I think Wooden really influenced Coach Walsh, and I think that simple is always the best way, but so often we get caught up into thinking we have to be complex in systems and organizations, and common sense oftentimes isn’t common, and commonsense when you’re putting together an organization does go a long way, and people need to be reminded of it, and people also need to be held to a standard, and they need to be coached on it. I think people think culture is something like when you call the pest control company and they come over to spray to kill the bugs right? They spray and they leave. Well, culture, when Walsh walked into the building every morning his job is to maintain and drive the culture. He didn’t assume it was all going to be the same.
So, that’s the big difference is culture is something you have to work on every single day, and that’s why it has to be simplistic. It can’t be complex or else people won’t comprehend it.
Brett McKay: And what was the effect of the Standard of Performance? Did it turn the team around?
Michael Lombardi: It took two years, but eventually he did it, and he really wasn’t worried about… He wasn’t worried about finding a quarterback, or finding a receiver, he was more worried about finding the right players. He was much like when Belichick talks about “We’re not trying to collect talent, we’re building a team.” He felt like if he built the organization first he could get the players to play at the higher level, that he could coach them to a higher level, and that’s the same in business.
The most talented team doesn’t win, it’s the team that works together that wins the most.
Brett McKay: So, the other coach you’ve worked with in your career and you’ve spent a lot of time focused on in the book is Bill Belichick. Were him and Bill Walsh sort of cut from the same cloth?
Michael Lombardi: Other than the way they dress, completely. Never raised their voice, highly intellectual, could see problems, and the next book I’m going to write is going to be, The Secret to All Victory Lies in the Organization of the Non-Obvious. It’s a quote attributed to Marcus Aurelias, although even though he didn’t say it. It’s really the genius of these two men. They were able to see what the non-obvious is, and they could organize that, and they worked on those details, and that’s kept them so far ahead of the game that most people can’t see it.
I liken it to Sherlock Holmes, the novel, the character, the fictional character, when he walks into a crime scene and he sees seven things, and everybody sees them, but yet he can use deductive reasoning to explain what they mean further. That’s Walsh and Belichick. They have this unique ability to see the non-obvious, and they can prepare their teams, and they also understood their number one job was to drive culture.
Today Belichick’s job is not to devise new plays for Tom Brady, to devise new defenses, it’s to maintain his culture every day.
Brett McKay: And so, I mean, Bill Belichick has just created this dynasty with the New England Patriots, he got his start in Cleveland, has anything changed from when he was a coach at Cleveland to when he’s a coach now with the Patriots?
Michael Lombardi: Everybody likes to think so, especially the people in Cleveland, but having worked with him in both places I would say the only difference is Robert Kraft allows him to build the culture and Modell really didn’t understand what he was trying to do. Modell was more interested in winning the fans over, appeasing the fans, giving them something. He used to tell me all the time “Kid, we sell hope here. We’ve got to sell hope.” That’s no Belichick. Belichick is about getting the team. His message is to the 60 players in the room, not the three million. The winning will get to players, get it to the court.
So, the only difference, and the only real difference was Modell really didn’t understand what Bill was trying to do culture wise and Kraft wanted a culture.
Brett McKay: So, you’ve spent a lot of your career helping teams hire coaches. When you’re out scouting for a coach what are you looking at? How do you know if a coach is a good coach?
Michael Lombardi: Well, it’s no different than hiring talent. I tell people all of the time. The FBI doesn’t open up the phone book and look for serial killers. You must define what you want in your coach, and it really comes down to really, and I wrote about the five areas of leadership in my book, but essentially it’s four areas of leadership that must be adhered to to have a great coach.
The first one is called management of attention, and that means you have plan. You come in with a plan. When Bill Belichick walked into my office in 1991 and he handed me a piece of paper, which I will give to the Hall of Fame the day he goes in, I own that paper, and it said exactly who we were going to be as a football team. This is what he wanted, and we developed a grading system to build that. That’s management of attention.
The second is called management of meaning, which means you can explain your plan to people. You can explain it to everybody who is involved and they get it, they understand it, using metaphors, using comedy, using video, however you do it you can explain it.
The third is management of trust. Are you going to be consistent enough to where the players trust you, or are you going to have double standards for different people in the organization? Again, the standard of performance. Management of trust. Can I trust you to be consistent?
The fourth and final area is management of self. Are you going to look internally to yourself and grow, admit your mistakes, find ways to improve as you’re on the job? Every single coach that I’ve researched in my career that won Super Bowl’s was good in three of the four. The ones that are not are only good in two, and you can see it pretty clearly. You can see it in a press conference, you can see it when they talk to the team, you can see that they fail on two of the four. The ones that are good in all four like Belichick and Walsh, they win consistently.
Brett McKay: What I think is interesting is that you gained the insight eventually, you’re not looking for a coach you’re looking for a leader. I think when people think “I’m looking for a coach.” It’s a guy who has got strategies, coming up with new plays, but all of those things you talked about are the same thing you’d look for in a chief executive.
Michael Lombardi: No doubt, it’s the same position, and this is what’s happened to the NFL. That’s why there’s such a… I mean, Brett, think about this now. Belichick has won 78 games in the last five years. His next closest competition are the Chiefs at 60. He’s lapped the field by 18 games. So, he’s already lapped this field, it’s way, way, way… He’s increased his dominance over the league further, and the reason is because teams are hiring coaches who know schemes but they can’t lead groups so they’ll have a good year, and then they’ll have a down year.
As Walsh told me, “We’re only competing against eight teams here.” This was when the league had 28 teams, and I wondered what he was thinking about and I thought it was more about which team had a quarterback, or which team did this, and really it was about eight cultures, and today in the NFL there’s really only eight cultures. No team understands how to build a culture, and half of the problem is when you talk culture they have no idea what you’re talking about.
Brett McKay: So, all of these coaches Walsh, Belichick, they have a coaching tree right? Coaches that they’ve coached that have gone on and coached their own teams. Are there any other coaches in the NFL that have worked with these guys that really understood this importance of culture?
Michael Lombardi: I don’t think so, and I think they missed it. I think they’re not often… Some of these guys have had success in copying the offense. I mean, when you look at Walsh’s tree Mike Holmgren had success in Green Bay, but he had Ron Wolf with him. When he went to Seattle it wasn’t quite as successful, but it was. So, there’s exceptions.
Belichick hasn’t had that because too often Belichick disciples try to be Belichick. I always tell people “Look, when Frank Sinatra in the ’70’s was losing his audience he put on a leisure and put beads around his neck, and he wasn’t Sinatra anymore, he wasn’t authentic, nobody believed him. The people in the ’70’s didn’t like him, and the people that loved him hated him.” So, you have to be authentic in who you are. You’re a tuxedo cufflink guy, wear a tuxedo and cufflink’s even if it’s not popular, and I think that’s what the biggest issue has been with Belichick’s guys that have left.
Walsh’s guys have had some success, Holmgren, but they had more success staying at San Francisco where their culture was in place than when they went to, Steve Mariucci went to Detroit, or George Seifert went to Carolina, or Ray Rhodes went to Philadelphia, or went to Green Bay. They’d have had more success in San Francisco than they had when they try to do it on their own.
Brett McKay: Well it seems like one coach at the collegiate level at least who kind of gets it, or who gets it is Nick Saban, he worked with Belichick-
Michael Lombardi: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And he’s different. He’s still Nick Saban but he gets the importance of culture from Belichick.
Michael Lombardi: No doubt, and it was a great marriage of the two of them. They’re both different, but they’re both similar, but Nick used to complain and I’d laugh all of the time. We’d have a staff meeting at five o’clock after Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practice and Nick would always say to me “You know dog, this is killing me. I’ve got too much work to do to be sitting in this staff meeting as Bill is running the tape.” And at Alabama after Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practice they have a staff meeting and Nick runs the tapes. So, sometimes what you don’t think is right for you ends up being right for everyone.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned earlier that Belichick, he’s not interested in collecting talent, he’s interested in forming a team. What does that look like? How do these guys go about recruiting a successful team?
Michael Lombardi: It really starts with this one premise. It starts with mental toughness, and they define mental toughness as doing what’s right for the team when it might not be right for you. And so, when you value the name on the front of your jersey more than you value the name on the back of your jersey, you’re probably going to be able to play with the Patriots.
And so, he then figures out players that fit the system that he wants. So, he defines what he wants with this grading system, and then he finds the players that fit that system, but they also fit the description of mental toughness. He wants to be a physically, mentally tough team that can play in any environment weather wise, and can focus and concentrate and win in the fourth quarter, and is willing to do the things needed to be successful.
So, he’s no different than the Navy Seals. He’s trying to eliminate people, not find people, and through elimination he ends up having a core group of players that together bond. Now when his players leave and go other places, they never look as successful as they did in New England, partly because they’re not playing within their role, they’re not playing within the name on the front, they’re more about the name on the back, and things don’t go as well.
Brett McKay: Well, recruiting players is really hard because especially when they’re in college you see them, you see their statistics, they do well in college, but then when they get to the pro level they don’t do as well. There’s been a lot of recent examples of that. But then also how do you figure out those more soft attributes where there’s not a real number for it right? Whether they’re a team player, whether they’re hard working, whether they’ve got mental toughness. As a recruiter how do you figure that stuff out?
Michael Lombardi: Well, past performance predicts future achievement. So, when you interview a kid you have to ask questions, or you interview an employee you can’t ask general questions or you’ll get general answers. If I said to a young man “Do you work hard?” Every answer that I’ve ever gotten back in my 35 year NFL career has been “Oh yeah man, I work really hard.” But if I ask the question, “Give me five examples of how you’ve worked hard.” All of a sudden “Humbada, humbada, humbada.” Comes into play.
If they said “Hey, I just got back from lifting weights.” And you say then, “Give me the five exercises you did weights, and how many reps from each.” All of a sudden now they start stammering. When you ask for specifically what they do and you don’t get the answer back you need, and then you can say to them “Hey, what was your greatest moment in high school?” And they talk about “Well, I gained 200 yards against Ocean City High.” “Well, what about did you win any games?” “Yeah, well we won the State Championship.” That tells you who this guy is right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Michael Lombardi: And so, you can learn a lot, as Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot from looking.” And if you look in the right places and ask the right questions you’ll find what you want.
Brett McKay: And another thing you all did was you actually checked the references right? Besides just asking the kid questions about his performance, you would go into the town where he grew up and ask teachers, girlfriends, neighbors about the kid?
Michael Lombardi: No doubt. I mean, look, we’re in a multi-billion dollar industry and kids are going to behave the way they want us to see them, but when you go to their hometown and you start snooping around in their hometown, or you go to the college, instead of going to the football office, which the football office is never going to talk bad about their players because that hurts their recruiting. They’re going to lie to you. We know that.
So, if you go to a local tavern, or you go to the sororities and ask about player X, Y, or Z they pretty much know what’s going on. They’ll give you the real scoop, and then you can paint an accurate picture of the guy.
Brett McKay: All right. So, there’s some advice there for hiring even if you’re not in football. Check the references and then get specific with your questions.
Michael Lombardi: No doubt, and you’ve got to prepare yourself, and then the questions that they ask you back really tell you more about who they are. If they’re asking dumb questions you may not have somebody you want to hire. Really smart questions should intrigue you. It’s what they ask you as much as what you ask them.
Brett McKay: Were there any instances in your career where you were recruiting and a player numbers wise didn’t look like he had a lot of talent, or maybe there’s other talented players right? He was good, but not as great as some of these other guys, but you went ahead and went with him because he had some of those intangibles where you thought “This guy could be a part of the team.” And he ended up doing really well?
Michael Lombardi: That’s really… And if you fit them in the right role yeah. I mean, we’ve done that quite a bit. I mean, when you look at like Jimmy Garoppolo, when we drafted Jimmy in New England he was in the second round, there were four other quarterbacks picked in front of him, but we brought him in that day and we knew he could handle Tom Brady and not be intimidated by him. We knew he had the attributes to go in a room and be able to not be in awe of the greatest quarterback of all time.
So, yeah, you really need to understand what exactly you’re looking for and if the player fits, and sometimes you’re going to make mistakes, but here’s the valuable thing you have to do. When you make a mistake instead of sitting there and not admitting your mistake you’ve got to do an autopsy on why you made the mistake, and you’ve got to really dig deep and be honest with yourself to figure out why you made that mistake.
Brett McKay: Let’s dig into specific parts of the game. You look at special teams and you talk about how Belichick is actually really obsessed with special teams because that’s a part of the game that gets overlooked by fans. It’s like “Okay, the punt comes on, they punt, they’re off the field.” Why does Belichick obsess about special teams? And what do you think that shows and what insight about leadership can we get from that?
Michael Lombardi: Well, first of all he’s trying to build a culture right? And if he says to the special teams coach “I don’t really care about special teams, I just care about offense and defense.” His culture falls apart. But if he makes everybody on the team play one special team then everybody is all in, and if you have a special teams practice and you have guys engaged in special teams and they have to pay attention then they’re building a team. When you coach the players on special teams being important, you really are who you want to become.
And so, that’s what he does. He allows that to set the tempo for his team, and I write about it in the book, that’s what Bill Snyder, he took over Kansas State, I’m sure you remember how bad Kansas State was, and he built it through the kicking game because he wanted it all in. As Angela Duckworth says “Becoming all in has a tornado effect.” And Belichick knows that if he can win the special teams then he gets an all in mentality and it helps him build this culture.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And as you said, the special teams is interesting because you have players from both defense and offense working on it so that carries over to the other aspects of the game as well.
Michael Lombardi: No doubt, and you need them because when you evaluate, so now the game is on the line and we need a return, or we can’t have penalties on special teams, they’ve been educated, they have been taught this, and if you’re playing complimentary football, which means you need your offense to effect your defense, and your kicking game to effect all of it, and you’re teaching that, which Belichick does every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, then that’s really important that you engage your team in special teams.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about offense. So, we mentioned earlier Bill Walsh is the guy that developed the West Coast Offense. For those who aren’t familiar with the implications of it, how it was such a revolutionary thing, what was football like before Walsh introduced the West Coast Offense?
Michael Lombardi: It was all about establishing the run. It was about three yards in a cloud of dust. It was run the ball. Quarterbacks didn’t really want to throw it very much. I mean, Bob Griese I think threw 14 passes in the Super Bowl in 1972 that beat the Redskins. It was a game in between the hash marks. It was a trench warfare.
But then the rules changed, and like everything it opened up the game. Pass blocking became easier for offensive linemen, so then therefore you could throw the ball, and the game moved. It was always two backs in the backfield, and it was always two receivers, and I alike it to the movie industry, and I write about this in the book. Bob Evans, Robert Evans, the head of Paramount decided he couldn’t compete with all of the other studios because all of the other studios had money to hire actors. Everything was about the actor. Hire a John Wayne, hire this actor and you’re going to have a hit movie.
So, he went the opposite direction. He hired writers. So he bought books, he bought Love Story, The Godfather. He bought all of these books and turned them into movies using obscure actors because he could afford it, and that propelled Paramount back into business again, and it’s the same thing in the NFL.
Once the rules changed you had to stay ahead of the curve, and now it became a passing league, and Walsh was the cornerstone and was on the head of that, and then he became very creative and divergent in those thoughts.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I like that Evans example, because that’s an example of an executive working with what he has and at first blush it looks like you’re limited, but it can actually turn into an advantage, and the same thing happened with Walsh. The way he came up with the West Coast Offense was he had a quarterback that was okay and could throw short passes, but that was it, but he built an offense around that guy and revolutionized the game in the process.
Michael Lombardi: No doubt. And I think there’s a great scene in Apollo 13 where I think we all, whether you’re in football, you’re a high school coach, whoever is listening to this. You’re the women’s lacrosse coach, whatever, you’re like that scene in Apollo 13 where they have that giant table, and these scientists are sitting around the table and the guys are stuck up in space, and this guy walks in with a box and throws stuff on the table and says “We have to make this into that using nothing but this.” And that’s really the essence of what you are as a leader. You’ve got to figure out where you need to go, figure out what you have, and then get it done, and not complain about it. Don’t spend time worrying about what you don’t have.
You know, sometimes when you’re in companies you get “Well, we don’t have any money. We don’t have that.” Money doesn’t solve any problem, thinking solves all problems.
Brett McKay: Right. I mean, you see that in baseball, there’s a lot of teams with a lot of money, and it’s not solving the problem of losing.
Michael Lombardi: That’s right, and we see it all the time. I mean, look at the Washington Nationals. I mean, they let Bryce Harper go and they’re in the Playoffs and the Philly’s are watching.
Brett McKay: Right. That blessed idea that, again, when that happens people think it’s talent will win games, but when it’s a team, it’s a buildup of the team that wins the games.
Michael Lombardi: That’s right. And understanding what truly helps… When I used to get on the team plane when I worked for Al Davis he would always say to me “Do you know why we won?” “Do you know why we lost?” And if you can’t define in your business why you win or why you lose, most of the time most people don’t understand what business they’re really in. They’ve defined it poorly, and that’s why they’re not having success because they really don’t understand what they’re in. Ray Crock wasn’t in the hamburger business, he was in the real estate business and all of a sudden he became a billionaire.
And so, you have to understand what truly is your business and how you can benefit from that, and most of the time teams in sports don’t really get that. They’re think they’re in one thing and they’re not. People think Amazon is a you buy products on it, they’re a logistics company.
Brett McKay: Right.
Michael Lombardi: And they do it better than anybody. So, it’s how you define who you are.
Brett McKay: So, in the West Coast Offense the quarterback plays an important role in it because they have to make sometimes decisions at the last minute. You don’t go into the play knowing you’re going to throw to this guy, West Coast Offense gives you options to throw based on what’s thrown at you, so they had to be able to think on their feet, think with fluidity. How did Bill Walsh go about finding a good quarterback that could do that? What was he looking for?
Michael Lombardi: He wanted somebody with great foot quickness. He wanted somebody who could move. He wanted a boxer like Muhammad Ali that could move around the ring. He wanted somebody that could move quickly and throw quickly. He wasn’t concerned about arm strength. He was concerned about rhythm, and timing, and anticipation. He just really wanted somebody that had a feel for the position. We called it a crib thing. When your mama lifts from your crib you either have it or you don’t right?
And so, he wanted that crib thing. He wanted that mentality, and you could see it, and he wanted guys that had past performance. Typically great quarterbacks are great quarterbacks in high school. They just don’t show up… I mean, one of Ryan Tannelhill’s biggest problems, the backup quarterback at Tennessee, is he played wide receiver. He’s not instinctively a quarterback. Quarterback is not a position that you just learn into, you kind of have a feel for it, and Walsh was always looking for those guys that could.
Brett McKay: So, yeah, he spotted Joe Montana, Steve Young, and those guys were dominant in the game.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah. He went and worked out James Owens down in Los Angeles and Montana was there and there it all happened. He saw Montana, nobody loved Montana’s arm strength, they thought he was a backup, and Bill saw him and like “Okay, this is exactly what I want.” And again, it’s the perfect way to do it because he was going against the variance of the marketplace right? He picks Montana in the third round, meanwhile who get picked in the first round that aren’t as good, and what really made it really interesting is there was a quarterback at Stanford that Bill had coached when he was at Stanford, and Bill didn’t use his bias, he used the objectivity to pick the right guy for him.
So, he saw what he really needed, and Montana was better, and so he picked Montana.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And in the book you highlight some of the factors that you all look for in a quarterback, because a quarterback is essentially, he’s like a battle command leader. He’s on the field leading the team, and so you’re looking for traits that help in that. One trait was carriage, which is basically how he carries himself, which I think-
Michael Lombardi: Right.
Brett McKay: Dig in more on that. What does good carriage look like to you?
Michael Lombardi: I mean, you’re the leader of the team, your team has to have your personality right? Teams that don’t have a quarterbacks personality doesn’t have a personality, so you’ve got to carry yourself. Your job if you’re the highest picked player on the team is to make everybody else better, and you’ve got to be able to motivate, yell, demand. Your persona of who you are, the prom king, that’s the quarterback. You’ve got to have that, and it inflicts confidence into everybody else around them and you feel it as a leadership that goes on the field. “Hey fellas, we’re in a huddle, we’ve got to get this guys. Come on, we’re going to get this. Don’t you worry.” And you’ll get people to follow you, but if you’re in the huddle “Well, all right, we’re going to run this.” Who’s following you?
Brett McKay: Are there any quarterbacks in the game today that you think have good carriage?
Michael Lombardi: Oh, I think Phillip Rivers has incredible… I mean, he’s just so into it. I to watch him play. I think Deshaun Watson has got it. I think he understands it. I think that Patrick Mahomes clearly has it. You can tell, you can feel it.
And then there’s guys like, I mean Jared Goff just made a boatload of money, but I don’t feel it from him. Is he a good player? Yeah, but he relies on other people being good.
But I think you can pretty much spot it, and if your team doesn’t get its personality from the quarterback where are we going to get it from? They’ve got to get it from somewhere because the coach and that quarterback is who drives the team.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about defense. So we mentioned earlier that Belichick worked with Saban when they were at Cleveland and they came up with a new approach to defense. What did that approach look like?
Michael Lombardi: So, they understood that the best way to win games in the NFL was real simple, keep people from scoring. Not revolutionary right? But where do people score most of their points? They did an analytical study about puts right? They went through and they studied 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 puts all over the PGA and the conclusion that they found out about puts was the ones that are closer to the hole usually are the easier to make. Not revolutionary right?
So, it’s the same thing Belichick and Saban did. “If we can stop scoring we will be a better defense, but where do we stop scoring?” And that’s the red zone. And so they focused their attention on the red zone defense, the area in from the 20 yard line to the back in line of the red zone, that’s called the red zone, and they played a different style of football down there so that it became much more difficult for teams to score, and they were able to turn the ball over down there, and they were able to create field goals instead of touchdowns, those four point plays really helped keep the game down.
So, when you go down there in the red zone and you don’t score a touchdown and you have to kick a field goal, that’s four points come off the scoreboard, that hurts you at the end of the game. That’s where Belichick and Saban really, we called it Red Two, and that’s where they really had great success about being able to keep people from scoring. Real simple, but oftentimes overlooked.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, it’s deceptively simple because basically it’s a three-four cover two defense, and it’s the same thing all the time, but once the play is called and run there’s different permutations of it that can happen after the ball snapped.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah. And so, it’s like zones in basketball. It’s how do you move your zone, and at some point all zone defenses become mad based on the distribution of the receivers or the basketball players. And so that’s how they did it. And so, because people were running certain routes down there they could play certain routes, and they took those routes away, and people for a while didn’t have an answer. It took a long time for them to adjust to it.
Brett McKay: Some other insights you highlight in the book that regular folks, people who are just in business, can take from how Belichick and Saban managed their defensive teams. Things about understanding timing and disrupting your opponents timing. That’s key in a successful defense.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah. It’s all about you have to understand the 12 most important plays in a football game, or the 24 most important plays in a football game at what we call drive starters. If you start the drive with a big play, first and 10 you hit a 40 yard pass, you’re going to score probably 75% of the time, but if you hand the ball off and get three yards you’re probably not going to score because there could be one play that makes you go.
So, if you start your drive with a really good drive starter you can get places, and if you conversely if you start the opponents drive with a negative play you’re going to get off the field. So, if you spend time on those 12 plays “Hey, we’re going to start the drive with this. We’re going to start the drive with this defense, or this offense.” You can create a variance and you can help set yourself up.
Now, you’re not going to hit them all, but that’s the mentality that you have to think about.
Brett McKay: There’s also this point that I liked, it’s “If you’re not talking you’re not winning.” What do you mean by that?
Michael Lombardi: Communication is the number one thing in all of sports. It’s why Belichick doesn’t want to put jersey numbers on young players. He wants them to talk. He wants them to communicate to one another as human beings, not 49, not 63. So, communication is vital in every business. We’re in an age of communication, yet I think sometimes I think we communicate less with one another. We have text, we have email, we have phone, we have all these ways and sometimes we lack communication. How can there be an interpretation problem when we have all of this ability to communicate? And you’ve got to work at communication. You’ve got to work at it so that people are all on the same page because, once again, when you’re working as a team it’s really important that we function as a team, not just work as a team.
Brett McKay: So, at the end of the book you walk us through a week before a game of how Belichick prepares his team to play a game. This was a playoff game, but I imagine it was the same thing for every game even if it was just a regular season game. So, you can’t go into the detail of exactly what you talked about in the book, but give us an idea of how much preparation, how much thought Belichick goes into game preparation.
Michael Lombardi: I mean, he really does a wonderful job of breaking down what the team can do and what they can’t do, and then he communicates that to his team, and then he tells the team how we have to play the game to win it. “Here’s what we need to do.” He calls it the Points of Emphasis. Offensively, defensively, and naturally in the kicking game, and then we start practicing that week on those points of emphasis, and we’re driving home the critical moments of the game. “Hey, it’s third and one, we need to be able to make a play here.” “Hey, we need to do this.” And so, all week is really he’s giving a test because he truly believes practice execution becomes game reality. And so we’re working constantly on the elements of the game. Wednesday is red zone, it’s first down, it’s drive starters, it’s all the areas of the game. Thursday it’s nickel, it’s sub runs, base runs. And Friday its got to have it. When we’ve got to have a play what do we do? And if they’ve got to have a play what do they do?
And so, it all comes together, and on Saturday he sits with the coaching staff and he tells them “Look fellas, here’s how the games going to go, here’s how we prepared. It could go this way and we need to adjust that way. It could that way then we’ll adjust this way. And after the first quarter if we’re not sure where it is we’ll make adjustments.” And so everybody is constantly thinking about how we have to play the game, what their job is in the game, and what they have to do to be successful.
Brett McKay: What I was impressed by was how much preparation Belichick put in himself to prepare his team right? The game prep for him began as soon as he finished the previous game. He would start going over film to get the team ready for the next game.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah. Nobody works harder. He writes up all of the defensive backs so he can have a relationship with the quarterback, so he can call Tom Brady in his office on Tuesday afternoon and say “Tom, here are all of the defensive backs for the Baltimore Ravens. Here are their strengths, here’s their weaknesses, here’s the summary, here’s how we going to attack them.” And he keeps himself involved in the game. “Here’s the special teams.” He’s the head coach. He’s the best coach on the stands. He makes the most money. And guess what he does? He coaches the most because he’s that valuable, and I think you can really see his work ethic. He wastes no time. If he’s on the treadmill he’s reading. He’s constantly focused and he concentrates on what’s the most important things that have to happen on each and every day to get the team ready. He knows its his job to get the entire team ready, and it’s the assistant’s job to manage the team.
Remember this. This is so important. Leaders do the right thing, managers do things right. Belichick’s the leader.
Brett McKay: Got that. And did Walsh have a similar approach to Belichick?
Michael Lombardi: No doubt, always. Very involved in everything that we did, and wanted to make sure that they understood, and what Bill did, because he was intellectual, he created a think tank. He was so smart and creative it forced George Seifert to become creative in his thought, and do different things, and come up with his own way, because we’re all competitive with one another.
Brett McKay: And as you mentioned earlier, another thing that impressed about these guys, Belichick and Walsh, is that they don’t yell at their players. They’re in fact very quiet, and somehow they’re able to convey that message to them during these meetings in a way that’s very impactful.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah, they teach, they don’t yell. They don’t tell the players to play harder, they explain what they need. Everything is a detail. They treat you as a professional. “This isn’t good enough.” They have no problem telling you if it’s not good enough. They’re not scared to confront you.
Most leaders are too worried about what somebody else is going to think about them so they sugarcoat it, they lie. “Well, that’s not bad. We’re okay there. That’s good.” No, people want clear and concise instruction, and if you give it to them in an honest manner they’ll listen, but if you try to just sugarcoat it or hide behind it no one’s going to pay attention to you.
So, they’ve never raised their voice, they rarely get angry. I mean, I’ve seen them get upset, but they instruct and teach, they don’t yell.
Brett McKay: When you were working with Belichick, he has become one of the most dominant coaches in the game of football. In that sort of situation it’s easy to become complacent. How does he battle that? How does he prevent getting complacent?
Michael Lombardi: That’s a great question. He’s always about the next thing. Vince Lombardi has a great line, “The greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more.” And I think Belichick just wants to do more all of the time. He’s chasing something bigger than Super Bowl’s, he’s chasing perfection, and so therefore he’s really not worried about the scoreboard, he loves the process of his job that he loves, and so he does it really well.
Brett McKay: And this goes back to Bill Walsh’s idea of let the scoreboard take care of itself, don’t pay attention to the scoreboard, just focus on the process.
Michael Lombardi: That’s right. And most organizations focus on the bottom line, focus on the result, they don’t focus just on doing the process.
Brett McKay: But that can be a hard sell to an organization right? Where a coach says “Look. I don’t care about the score, I don’t about the wins, I want to make sure that this process, this culture gets in place, and then the score will take care of itself.” How do you make that sell to a leader to an organization?
Michael Lombardi: It’s hard. Miami is experiencing it now, but I think what you have to have is an owner who is fearful. Winston Churchill once said when the German’s were in the Channel port and he became the Prime Minister. They asked him, they said “How come they made you Prime Minister now when all through the ’30’s no one would listen to you?” He said “Because fear does the work of reason.” And I think that the only way you can get people to buy in that is if they’re fearful they’ll never get it right. It’s hard to reason with somebody who thinks they have it. The Redskins, you can’t reason with the Redskins. They think they’re going to turn it around if they get Duane Aspens to play better, or some coach, or whatever. They’re not fearful.
When you get somebody fearful, Eddie DeBartolo was fearful. He had just had Joe Thomas. Joe Thomas traded a bunch of picks. He was at wits end. He was the youngest owner in the NFL. He was fearful of losing something that he so deeply loved, and he gave Walsh the chance to do it.
Brett McKay: So, we’ve been talking about Bill Belichick and this culture that he developed at the Patriots that has helped them become a dynasty. Now, I’m sure there’s some people who are listening to this and they’re thinking about all of the accusations of cheating that have been thrown at the Patriots over the years. The sign stealing, and then recently the Deflategate. What’s your take on that?
Michael Lombardi: I think in the first instance, the signal stealing, I think signal stealing was a common practice in the NFL. If I told you some of the people that were notorious signal stealers in the NFL that are in the Hall of Fame we would all laugh about it today. That doesn’t excuse it, it’s just part of the nature of the business that people were good at stealing signals, it was a competitive thing, however that transpired, I wasn’t in New England at the time, so I don’t know exactly what was happening, what was being filmed, but obviously they were stretching the envelope and they got fined for it.
The Deflategate thing, Brett, was really ridiculous. When we first heard that I was in the building. It was the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard, and its still the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard. A quarterbacks relationship with the football is the most important thing, and how they like the football is critical. When we talk about protecting the quarterback, well there was nothing in that game that they did to the football, and after it was proven over time that it didn’t have anything to do with cheating.
So, it’s a story that manifested itself out of what, I don’t know. They even admitted the initial report was wrong. They said 12 footballs were illegally deflated when they found out that wasn’t to be true.
So, I would say this about Bill. I think Bill probably will do within the boundaries of the rules to make sure that he excerpts all of the options that he has at his disposal to handle that, and I think all organizations do that. I don’t think it’s unethical in what they did. I think it was basically a stretch of the rules and I think that ultimately that’s how it is, but it does not dismiss any of the success that they’ve had out there because truly they just beat you with their teaching, their operation, not with cheating.
Brett McKay: So, you’ve been at the game for a while. Let’s end on this. What do you see the future of football looking like? We’re in this weird crossroads with the game where people are talking about declining interest from young players, even fans. Is football going to be around in 25 years?
Michael Lombardi: I think it’s going to grow even further. Betting now has just taken over the sport. The interactiveness now of football, and we’re going to see kids play Madden. You’re going to see kids at their seats at the stadium with the ability to call plays, with the ability to play Madden as if the game was going on. So, you’re going to have this esport element at games.
I think football with betting and with all of the electronics that we have, it’s going to be bigger and bigger as we go on, and I think it’s going to always come back to talented leaders that understand the essence of what it takes to win, but I think we’re in an age where it’s only going to get more popular.
Brett McKay: What about the safety issue concern that a lot of people have? Do you think there’s going to be strides in correcting that?
Michael Lombardi: I hope so. I think we can. I think we’ve tried to. I think that there was a time where we weren’t as concerned, but I think now we’re getting better, and I think the longer we talk about team and having depth and not one player being more important than anybody then that helps the injury factory because if the Patriots don’t have player Y and he can’t play they go to player B. And so, you have to have that mindset, and I think if you force players to play if they’re not healthy that hurts the game, but I think the more you can convince your depth and develop talent, those are the teams that are going to come out ahead on this injury front.
Brett McKay: And one interesting forecast or prediction you have is that you see football going back to its rugby roots. What do you mean by that?
Michael Lombardi: I think we’re seeing it now. The Single Wing is coming back. I mean, Lamar Jackson is running the Single Wing. If Baltimore had another quarterback on the field like Lamar Jackson how dangerous would they be? I think we’re going to see…
You know, Walsh used to sit on the team bus and doodle plays from the Clark Shaugnessy era of football. The Single Wing, the Tight Wing, and he was always constantly looking back at history. Belichick does the same thing. What old becomes new, and I think we’re seeing a little bit more of that. That direct snap to somebody who can then run unbalanced lines, tight formations. I think football with metamorphose back to where we once were and it will expand in the way we’re doing it and be very entertaining.
Brett McKay: Well Michael this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and the work you do?
Michael Lombardi: Well, you can follow me on Twitter. [email protected] I’m there. I write for The Athletic. I do a podcast called The GM Shuffle every Monday and Thursday talking about the NFL. I write every day and I’d urge people to sign up for the email, it’s called The Daily Coach. It’s really a little bit about the idea came when Coach Raveling and I, one of the greatest human beings in the world, George Raveling was a basketball coach at Iowa, Washington State, and USC. He actually owns the “I Have A Dream” Speech, and we decided that everybody needs a coach. If Steve Jobs had Bill Campbell to coach him then everybody should have one.
So, we started this website called The Daily Coach, it’s in your email box every day five days a week and we hope we can inspire people to understand that they need to be coached just as much as players do.
Brett McKay: Well Michael Lombardi, thanks so much for your time. Its pleasure.
Michael Lombardi: Thank you Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Michael Lombardi. He is the author of the book Gridiron Genius. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can check out our show notes to find out more about his work, and also with links to our other resources by going to aom.is/gridiron.
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