What Bill Belichick Can Teach Us About Rhetoric

What Bill Belichick Can Teach Us About Rhetoric

He’s the most revered and most hated, most talked about and quietest coach in the NFL. And he’s a master of rhetoric.

Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, is the hoodied wonder. Sometimes literally cloaked in secrecy, he’s known for saying little to media and eschewing the public spotlight. Yet master rhetors can learn a lot by studying Belichick at work…on the football field.

Yes, his press tactics and curt eloquence are worthy of rhetorical study, but I want to look at something I call “The Belichick Process.” It has nothing to do with what Belichick says or wears and has everything to do with how he thinks.

Let’s kick this off:

“You always try to know what you need, try to manage the game given the game situation.”
– Bill Belichick

Belichick has been a successful coach due in part to his focus on “situational” football. The concept is that you create a strategy based on the new context each game, each play, and throughout the season as a whole. This means considering all the opposing teams, their strengths and weaknesses; the stadium, indoor or outdoor; the weather, rain or snow or clear; each and every play; your own players; etc. It can get complicated.

But there’s one aspect of situational football that Belichick does particularly well. He takes away his opponent’s greatest strength. This forces the opposing team to make a huge adjustment. Most teams get in a groove. They get comfortable. They rely on what they know. Pushing them outside this comfort zone necessarily results in some chaos. And that (usually) results in a win for the Patriots.

There is no better demonstration of this strategy than the now famous Patriot v. Saints game from 2013.

The Context

The Saint’s quarterback, Drew Brees, and tight end, Jimmy Graham, were virtually unstoppable. Brees was (is) among the best quarterbacks and Graham was the number five receiver in the league, the only tight end to make the top 20. The Brees/Graham combo had been dominating all season, and the Saints headed into this game undefeated. The Patriots, who had been struggling at the beginning of the season, looked like the clear underdogs.

The Strategy

Shut down Jimmy Graham. That was Belichick’s unlikely plan to beat the Saints. If Brees could rally without his favorite receiver, then fine. Victory was certain. But Belichick was going to make Brees work for it. And that’s exactly what happened.

Unbelievably, the Patriots held Graham to zero (ZERO) catches. That was the first time Graham was without a catch in 46 games. This disruption in the Saint’s offense was enough to knock them off their schedule. It was a close game, but the Patriots won 30-27 with a game-winning drive in the final minute.

The Belichick Process in Rhetoric

How does this football stuff apply to rhetoric? Persuasion is situational. And understanding the situation correctly is the best way to accomplish your rhetorical goals. One way to do that is to follow in Belichick’s hooded footsteps. Anticipate your opponent’s strengths. Ask yourself, “What is most persuasive about their position?” A few other questions:

1. What is their strongest argument?
2. What is most emotionally appealing about their position?
3. What is most appealing about the rhetor?

Once you have a good guess at each question, it’s your job as a master rhetor to devise a counter for each point. I don’t mean that you can simply present a negative to each of your opponent’s strengths. That’s effective only if you also present a positive point. Let’s look at the issue of whether or not we should repeal the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare):

Strongest argument: Healthcare is too expensive.
Negative counter: Healthcare is not expensive for the quality we receive.
Positive counter: Increased competition and freedom will decrease costs and increase quality. Look at the technology sector as an example.

Emotional appeal: Children and the elderly suffer most.
Negative counter: Virtually no one goes without medical help if they need it.
Positive counter: In a free market, more children and elderly would be covered (and cheaper) than with ACA.

Character appeal: Medical doctor.
Negative counter: [STOP. Personal attacks are typically bad rhetoric.]
Positive counter: The first principle of medicine is “do no harm.” The ACA harms everyone.

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Clearly, the healthcare debate is more nuanced, but I’m not trying to make a robust argument for either side. This quick exchange simply demonstrates how “The Belichick Process” works in persuasion:

Identify your opponent’s best argument. Take it away.
Identify what’s emotionally appealing. Take it away.
Identify the character appeal of your opponent. Take it away. (Cautiously.)

Learn from the hoodie! Follow “The Belichick Process” and you immediately have the upper hand in the rhetorical situation. Do this enough and you’ll be on your way to becoming a better rhetor (and football coach). Happy persuading!

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Photo by WEBN-TV via Flickr.