I’ve been writing about the now five time Super Bowl-winning coach’s penchant for white players for a long time, maybe a decade now. For example, in this Super Bowl, even with superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski out injured, Belichick’s white receivers (Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan) combined for 17 receptions for 222 yards. Before Gronk got hurt, the Patriots would sometimes look like the 1986 NBA Boston Celtics and play four white receivers.
From the New York Daily News:
Hogan, who helped push New England to its second Super Bowl in three seasons by making nine catches for a franchise-record 180 yards in the AFC championship win over Pittsburgh, joins Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as a trio of white pass-catchers forming the backbone of the Patriot receiving corps, an anomaly in a league where just one other team (the Green Bay Packers, with Jordy Nelson and Jeff Janis) even rosters as many as two white receivers.
They’re the latest products of an aerial assembly line made up of players the rest of the NFL might have considered spare parts, but even without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, they’ve been more than enough for Tom Brady, who’s thrown at least two TDs in four of his last six games. And next Sunday in Super Bowl LI, they’ll aim to outdo the far more prototypical Atlanta Falcons receiving corps of Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
This is not a complete accident. Under Bill Belichick, the club has become known for gambling on stereotypical white receivers, players considered to be “workmanlike” “gym rats,” who bring “intangibles” and “high motors”.
They used to say in corporate America that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, and in the NFL nobody gets fired for putting black players at the majority of positions. On average, black players are somewhat better than white players, so a general manager / coach has to worry about looking bad if he signs or starts white players.
For example, Belichick, like everybody else, always starts blacks at cornerback, the position most demanding of full-body athleticism. As far as I can tell, since Jason Sehorn retired after the 2003 season, no whites have started at cornerback in the NFL. (Belichick has occasionally used the highly athletic Edelman as a substitute cornerback.)
But Belichick isn’t worried about being fired, so he can consistently exploit the NFL’s modest race bias against whites to find undervalued players. Edelman was a 7th round draft pick, Amendola went undrafted despite having similar college statistics at Texas Tech as Wes Welker had a few years before. (Amendola had 204 receptions for Tech versus Welker having 259 for Tech.) Welker, who had been undrafted out of college, had led the NFL in receptions for three seasons under Belichick. So when Welker got a good contract offer from Denver, Belichick replaced Welker with Amendola.
Hogan was undrafted as well. Although that’s understandable because Hogan concentrated on lacrosse in college, playing only one year of football. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that Belichick was an old lacrosse player.
Some of this is luck, of course. For example, the Patriots didn’t pick even Gronkowski until the 2010 second round, taking Pro Bowl black defensive back Devin McCourty in the first round. (Gronkowski missed his final year of college ball with an injury so he was more of a risk when the draft came around.)
And if you read Belichick’s comments in 2001 after his now famous pick of Tom Brady in the sixth round, you can tell he had no idea he just picked the most valuable player in the history of the NFL. (If he’d had a clue he’d have picked him earlier rather than risk losing him.) Belichick just thought Brady looked a little more promising than the other long shots still available in the sixth round.
One possibility is that Belichick figures that white guys take a year or two longer to mature, so he can pick up guys later and use them during their mid-to-late 20s prime. For example, Belichick got three productive seasons out of Danny Woodhead, a rare white running back, from age 25 through 27.
The really interesting thing is that everybody more or less recognizes that Belichick has repeatedly made use of overlooked white players, but nobody ever says they’re going to imitate the most successful NFL coach since Lombardi. It’s another example of my observation that if you aren’t allowed to talk about something, it’s hard to remember to do it.