FRISCO, Texas — Bill Belichick torments opposing quarterbacks and coordinators. The New England coach will target a strength or weakness then devise a scheme to frustrate and confound his opponent.
With this reputation, it won’t surprise anyone to learn that over the last 50-plus years, Belichick’s teams have fashioned the best turnover differential in the NFL. It might surprise you to learn who is tied for second.
Hint: His team faces the Patriots this weekend.
Mike McCarthy trails only Belichick in this key indicator of success. The Cowboys head coach places second on the list along with Seattle’s Pete Carroll. All three have won a Super Bowl.
That’s a common thread. In a survey of the best turnover differentials since 1969 — only head coaches with at least 10 full seasons on the job can apply — 16 of the top 19 coaches on the list have the phrase Super Bowl champion next to their names.
“It’s the No. 1 focus for me and it always has been,’’ McCarthy said. “It’s such a big part of winning, yesteryear and today.’’
Every coach talks about the importance of protecting the ball and forcing turnovers. It’s not like McCarthy and every other coach on this list stumbled across a classified document they’ve kept hidden from peers.
What McCarthy has done is find a way to incorporate this concept into his culture. It’s about emphasis and implementation. It’s about repetition and teaching the proper techniques in a way that resonates with players.
It’s a daily focus.
“We are teachers,’’ McCarthy said. “You get what you emphasize.
“Time on task. That’s really a big part of our process.’’
Diligent and disciplined teaching is a requirement. One jugs machine was being used in practice to fire footballs at players to work on their ball skills and hand-eye coordination when McCarthy took over as head coach.
There are now eight. Circuit drills are set up for the players on the machines. A different educational video about ball security and forcing turnovers is dropped into two of the four team meetings every week.
“There’s not been a day since I’ve been here in our practice environment where we’re not using these drills,’’ McCarthy said. “As the season goes on, you look to cut time out of practice because the season is so long. A lot of time fundamentals are cut out.
“That’s something I’ve always been adamant about not cutting. Team fundamentals never go away. Fine motor skills and ball extraction are a part of our daily training.’’
Tackling, blocking and ball security (protection and extraction) are the fundamental pillars every coach emphasizes. McCarthy expanded his list of fundamentals during his days in Green Bay to what he now calls the Cowboys Six.
Four is finish. This applies to pursuit and coverage.
Five is big-play production. McCarthy is convinced you can’t win in today’s NFL unless you have that on both sides of the ball. This is an emphasis during the team’s practice in competitive periods.
Six is mannerisms and disguise. So much transpires the moment the offense and defense steps to the line of scrimmage. Winning the pre-snap factors increase an offense’s ability to avoid a turnover and the defensive’s chances of forcing one.
“Fundamentals, that’s king,’’ defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “We practice taking the ball away and we drill it and put it as part of fundamentals.’’
Belichick and Carroll have defensive roots. The same goes for Tony Dungy, who ranks fourth on the list. McCarthy is the only one with an offensive bent in the top four.
But, this isn’t about being an offensive or defensive coach. It’s about being a head coach. It’s about complementary football, something McCarthy constantly preaches to his players.
It speaks to paying attention to what happens on both sides of the ball. This week, McCarthy is shining the light on an offense that has turned the ball over in all but one game this season and demanding they do better.
McCarthy broke into the league back in ‘93 as an offensive quality coach under legendary Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer. He admired Schottenheimer’s approach and passion and adopted his mentor’s conviction about the importance of the turnover differential.
“It didn’t matter who you were,’’ McCarthy said. “If you turned that ball over, you felt the wrath of Marty Schottenheimer.’’
Wrath and fear aren’t valued teaching tools the way they once were in the NFL. Coaching methods have changed.
Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t threatened with a loss of snaps when he was fumbling last season. The coaching staff focused on the technical flaws that led to those mistakes.
Tight end Dalton Schultz put several balls on the ground against Carolina. Did he lose opportunities against the New York Giants?
No. He was drilled on how to protect the ball and told the Cowboys are always willing to get fewer yards after contact in the interest of holding onto the ball.
“Consequences need to benefit the team,’’ said McCarthy, whose team currently ranks second in the league in turnover differential with a plus-seven. “I don’t think anybody makes it in this business without at least some level of being stubborn. But, you can’t be stubborn beyond the reality that what you do affects the team more than you as an individual.