Studying opponents’ plays is a gross simplification of the “padding” method. The term refers to the labor-intensive process of watching past all-22 game videos of opposing teams and recording detailed diagrams of each depicted play on paper.
Arguably the most passionate NFL coach in history when it comes to the practice is New England Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick. He holds his staff to a strict regime of regular padding sessions. Coach Belichick wants every possible detail, from every single play, on paper.
Intensive padding has become the Patriots’ Way under Belichick’s reign
Young assistant coaches for New England take up the responsibility of padding games prior to the Patriots taking on an opponent.
Padders watch the film of a past game with excruciating attention to detail. They then draw out the specifics of each individual play onto paper. Offense and defense are drawn, and each player’s assignment and movement on the field is mapped out for each individual play.
Every detail of every play is poured over and noted on paper, including:
- Schematic tendencies
- Receiver splits down to the inch
- Distances between quarterback and tailback
- Route depth
- Defensive alignments
- Linemen slanting or shading
- Player tells
- Foot positioning
- Suspected player strengths and weaknesses
- Speculations on variables
Each side of an 8 ½ x 11-inch piece of paper holds two plays, and the plays are cut out and taped into a binder. Patriots padders refer to this binder as The Cookbook, and it stands as the go-to guide for the team’s coaching strategy.
Dante Scarnecchi, retired 34-year coaching vet for New England, understood the importance of padding in the Patriots Way. “So we could all see the game through one set of eyes,” he said.
Long hours go into New England padding each NFL game
Furthermore, when it comes to New England’s padding process, any past or present member of Belichick’s staff will respond to the term with both pain and awe. Assistant coaches for the Patriots put in endless, sleepless hours padding countless games.
Patriots’ assistant coaches have said that detailing one play could take up to 20 minutes. Since NFL games easily contain up to 100 plays, padding one game alone can take several hours or even a couple of days.
“Get a lot of sharpened pencils, with some caffeine and patience,” special teams coach,
Joe Judge, said. “When you’re young in it and you’re getting used to the hours, it pushes you to the brink.”
It’s not uncommon for four or five-game films of opponents to be padded prior to each game. Additionally, it’s not unheard of for padders to get their painstakingly made play papers back from senior coaches with notes for revisions or complete rewatches.
On top of it all, each New England coaching assistant is commonly tasked with padding three-game breakdowns per week.
“It was exhausting work,” said Michael Lombardi when he discussed the padding process in his book, Gridiron Genius. “And Belichick knew it because he often padded games himself. But to him, learning every detail of how an offense planned to attack was far more valuable than rest.”
Past padding pros attribute coaching success to early years under Belichick
When interviewing candidates for coaching positions, Belichick is known to toss out the list of questions. Instead, he has prospective hires padding with pencils and paper.
Once candidates pass the test of padding several games for Belichick, which easily takes days, he tosses them into the painful task full-time.
The sleepless nights and monotonous work associated with padding, however, seem to be a small price to pay for the benefit it brings. Patriots coaches, both past and present, wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
Offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, padded games for three years for the Patriots. He attributes the experience as the primary source for his attention to detail in the game.
“I think the most important thing young people have got to understand is, it’s not a punishment,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn how important everything is at this level.”
Steve Belichick, Bill’s son, and the Patriots’ current outside linebacker coach, also praises the practice for young coaches.
“You can’t look at it as a burden,” he said. “It’s a learning experience. You get to learn about football, different schemes, different styles of play. You understand how different and creative you can be to win.”
New England successes attributed to padding
After all the hours, lost sleep, and monotony, the triumph of padding work eventually pays off in the form of wins.
In Super Bowl XLIX, cornerback Malcolm Butler’s interception was likely made possible by hours of padding and examination of Seahawks plays.
The Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII win is also widely attributed to padding efforts zeroing in on a single Rams play.
“We had to put together something that would neutralize the running game and their big play – action passes on early downs…” Belichick said.
Bill Belichick has won 17 division titles, nine AFC championships, and a whopping six total Super Bowl titles. While not all NFL teams practice padding as diligently as the New England Patriots, Belichick’s Patriot Way has earned its keep.