— Steve Belichick, “Football Scouting Methods”
Bill Belichick is fighting his personal culture war clad in the heavy armor of uncommunicativeness. He chooses craft and concentration over celebrity confession. The only problem with this choice is that the public tends to fill in the blanks with negatives, so Belichick pays a certain price when it comes to being understood, his self-restraint interpreted as sullenness and his calculation as cruelty. Which might bother him if he had more vanity, but who needs vanity when he has posterity?
It’s another weekly NFL news conference, and the head coach of the New England Patriots is doing his best impression of a snoring hound on a pile of old blankets. He stands up there with lowered lids, falling voice and slumping shoulders, swathed in drab, emitting exhalations that barely can be characterized as sentences. He objects on general principle to “verbal vomiting,” as former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy says.
Belichick loathes social media, which he dismisses as “Instaface” or “Chatrun.” He cuts off useless jabber and ostentatious braggadocio the way he does the sleeves of his sweatshirts. He doesn’t wear jewelry — not even his five Super Bowl rings as a head coach. Belichick has a sure sense of what he values and why, and what he values about a Super Bowl ring isn’t that it sparkles on his finger.
“It’s not anything you can buy or get lucky and win,” he says.
If ever there was a moment when Belichick, 66, might wish to explain or excuse himself, it would seem to be now. It has been a year of uncharacteristic stresses and indiscretions for the usually buttoned-up Patriots. There are continual reports of small mutinies from 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady over Belichick’s gruff motivational tactics, including a suggestion in a new book that the future Hall of Fame quarterback wanted a “divorce” last season. The painful postmortem of their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII was compounded by nagging questions about Belichick’s wordless decision to bench cornerback Malcolm Butler. The Patriots have started this season sluggishly at 1-2 and Sunday will meet the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins (3-0), a loss to whom would put them in full crisis.
A certain amount of fraying would seem to be inevitable: The Patriots have won nine straight AFC East titles and 14 of the past 15 and have appeared in a record seven straight AFC championship games. If you count up all of those extra playoff games, they amount to a full season’s worth. In other words, over the past seven years, Belichick and the Patriots contested eight seasons worth of games. Who wouldn’t be weary?
Yet when asked whether there is any trace of burnout, Belichick simply says, “I’m good,” and seems to mean it. He spent his offseason vacation on Nantucket, where he let his friend, CNBC correspondent Suzy Welch, capture him at his shingled home in Sconset, playing cheerful tug-of-war games with his Alaskan husky puppy. His girlfriend, Linda Holliday, named the dog Nike. “I wanted Jack,” Belichick said, with that voice from the bottom of a drain. Tennessee Titans Coach Mike Vrabel, who spent a decade playing linebacker for the Patriots, says, “I feel like I’m the one who got older, not him.”
When Belichick reveals anything of himself, he tends to do so quietly in unexpected venues, such as CNBC or a story in Nantucket Magazine. Or, in this case, a surprise returned phone call just before the season opener, with the proviso from an intermediary that he didn’t “want to make a headline.” On those occasions, he transforms into such a suddenly amiable conversationalist that NBC football analyst Rodney Harrison, who played for the Patriots from 2003 to 2009, observes, “It’s almost like he goes into a phone booth and changes his demeanor.”
Even so, reserve remains Belichick’s governor. The man who emerges in conversation is less a self-regarding genius or master of dark arts than a technician intent on his trade and a contrarian who refuses to be sucked into the story of the day. What matters to him, he says, is that the 53 players in his locker room understand him.
“There are a lot of things that have changed since I’ve been in the league,” he says. “There have been general changes in technology and society that we’ve all been a part of, and then there are changes in the rules. The game itself has changed . . . and then of course teams change, your opponents change. That being said, there are core axioms and fundamentals that I believe in, that I don’t think will ever change for me. What it takes to win and the things that cause you to lose, I don’t think those have changed.”
'He is all ball'
Belichick’s armchair psycho-analyzers thus search in vain for his molten depths. What he possesses more than anything is expertise, the cool mechanical ability to work efficiently through manifold complications and evolutions of the game. Crack open the highly regarded book “Football Scouting Methods” written by his father, Steve, the legendary Naval Academy assistant coach, and what you read is this: A young scout should chart “the alignment, assignment, and execution of every move of every player visible on the screen.”
Belichick’s film-seared eyes have been charting the game this way since he started at the bottom of the league in 1975 as an errand boy for the Baltimore Colts. It’s a startling fact that he has been in the NFL for 43 years. According to friends in the profession, this gives him a knowledge that is as finely detailed as it is broad. Former assistant Jeff Davidson has remarked that Belichick could coach every spot on the field as well as any position coach. Former rival quarterback Peyton Manning, who has become friendly with Belichick from rounds in charity golf tournaments, says he dismantles player weaknesses like tinker toys. Manning has tried to quiz him about various great players he has faced.
“What I came away with is that he’s not that impressed with anybody,” Manning says. “I remember telling my dad once, ‘I hope nobody ever asks Bill about me because I don’t want to hear what he says.’ ”
What little Belichick doesn’t know, he fills in through relentless prying. Most conversations with him devolve into brain-picking, according to his friends in the business. “He’s always game-planning,” Mike Shanahan says. For the past 20 years or so, Belichick has visited former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson in the Florida Keys. At first Johnson thought Belichick’s visits were purely fishing trips. Then Johnson realized, “Each year he almost had an agenda.” One year, Belichick wanted to talk about the draft. “He knew some of the players I had drafted better than I did,” Johnson says. “Because he had studied before he came down.”
The paradox of Belichick is that he is able to reduce his exhaustive knowledge to a few bedrock principles and teach them with unparalleled effectiveness. This too is an inheritance from his father. Steve Belichick’s book is widely regarded as an essential primer for anyone who wants to coach football, but what’s seldom remarked on is its clarity.
“I first went [to New England] thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, this’ll be complicated, and I’ll have to really be on my game,’ ” says Houston Texans Coach Bill O’Brien, a Patriots assistant from 2007 to 2012. “But he has a very unique ability to boil it down to what you need to know to win the game. He makes it so they can go out and play fast.”
Manning, who as quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos met the Patriots regularly in AFC championship games, called Belichick’s ability to emphasize a few simple pressure points the toughest thing about facing him on the field.
“He has sort of a way of pulling out plays and saying, ‘Hey, look, they’re good, but let me show you five plays where they look pretty average or human, and let’s play sound football and we can beat these guys,’ ” Manning says. “He still coaches like an assistant coach. A lot of guys get the head job and stop doing what they did in order to get that job. They stop doing the football. . . . But it’s almost like if the Patriots said, ‘We’ll pay you the same, but you’ll be the linebackers coach,’ he would love it. ‘Oh, great, I get to coach football.’ He’s still coaching the ball. He is all ball.”
Ask Belichick what his most foundational, unchanging principle is, and he replies that it’s the insistence on stamping out “unforced errors,” simple execution without committing halting penalties or game-killing mistakes. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” he says. “They don’t even have to be out there. If you can’t do things properly without resistance from an opponent, it doesn’t matter who they are, you’re in trouble. So start with that.”
But that consistency, which has been alternately praised and jeered as almost cultish, “The Patriot Way,” has been conspicuously lacking through the first three games of 2018. One reason may be that Belichick was concerned about giving veterans enough offseason time for recuperation. “Those games pile up,” he said. Then there has been a scramble to refurbish the roster with enough playmakers. Belichick has long preferred what he calls “dependables” to the surging and ebbing of star players, but for once the Patriots look thin. Belichick’s gamble on acquiring unpredictable and troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon has yet to pay a dividend.
“He just doesn’t care what people think,” Harrison says. “He’s not a people-pleaser; he’s not afraid to step outside the comfort zone and do something you may deem weird or irregular. That’s the bravery of Belichick.”
The Patriots are obviously a work in progress; the question is whether they can reassert their habitual discipline as Belichick layers on the work going forward. He relies on what players say is an extraordinary amount of monotonous repetition, until a concept is ingrained deep into their bones. Hand technique, foot placements. Precisely how to bat down a pass, how to shed a blocker, how to gain leverage. “There was no number on it until we got it right,” Milloy says.
One agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says he has told players: “I’m going to get you to New England because you will flourish there. And you will see the difference.”
It is, of course, a grim endeavor to play for such a tedium-loving workaholic, whose dry rustle of a voice can make it difficult to tell a serious remark from a joke. Milloy says, “It took the first vet to laugh before the rest of the room would laugh.” Ask one longtime NFL acquaintance whether he likes Belichick, and there is pause. “Yes,” he replies, “by 51 percent to 49.”
But if everyone liked Belichick and his methods, he would be doing something wrong. “You know what? Winning doesn’t suit everybody,” says Carl Banks, who played linebacker for the New York Giants in two Super Bowls when Belichick was the defensive coordinator. “There are no shortcuts to it. It takes a certain player to match his commitment to them. Bill’s not a hardass; he just demands good core fundamentals. Most players, when they go on to another team, football seems slow to them.”
Finding the greatness
The basic template of what Belichick seeks in a player was impressed on him as a boy by the Naval Academy midshipmen who played for his father: overachieving, disciplined in their mode of living, on time, alert, attentive, team-oriented extra-milers. Players who Steve Belichick always felt like “gave back more to him than he gave to them,” Belichick says. Players willing to meet Belichick’s work habits more than halfway.
Exactly how Belichick identifies those players, what metrics he uses, remains closely held. But there are some clues. Forbes magazine noted he has a particular affinity for players who captained their teams in college: 11 of 22 starters and eight reserves on the Patriots’ roster last season were collegiate captains, including undrafted free agent center David Andrews, defensive end Trey Flowers and safety Devin McCourty. Rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, a DeMatha alum, is merely the latest example: He had been a team captain for all four years at Purdue when Belichick drafted him in the fifth round, and he vaulted into the Patriots’ starting lineup in Week 1 and became an instant star before being placed on injured reserve this week. The only person not shocked was Belichick.
“It’s not that big a surprise to me,” he said. “That’s what he’s done his whole career in football.”
Belichick is also prone to signing players based on a show of effort when no one else is watching. He went after Harrison when he was a free agent exiting the San Diego Chargers because he remembered Harrison’s fierceness in a pregame drill from a couple of seasons earlier. Belichick told him, “Hey, I remember you in 2001 in warmups when you hit one of your guys and knocked his helmet off.” Harrison was so impressed by Belichick’s recall that he turned down a better offer from the Denver Broncos. “He remembered something from two years prior during a warmup,” Harrison says. “Tell me that’s not something special. Details are why he has separated from everyone.”
But even the most Belichickian players are not immune when his cost-benefit analysis tilts, and he decides they are too expensive. For Vrabel, the phone call came on “an unseasonably warm day,” he recalls. Vrabel was a legendarily versatile mainstay at linebacker and tight end who helped the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories. In 2009 he had a year left on his contract when he told the Patriots, “I’d like a new deal.” If he didn’t get one, he suggested, he would go play somewhere else. Belichick promptly dealt him to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“In typical Bill fashion, he opted with ‘somewhere else,’ ” Vrabel says. “You should always be careful what you ask for.”
The phone call lasted about 30 seconds. Vrabel answered his phone as he was walking off a golf course and heard that voice like dry dead leaves saying, “Hey, I traded you to Kansas City.” Vrabel just said, “Okay.” It was the last word he spoke to Belichick for three years.
“I knew why he did it,” Vrabel says. “He was going to make a mistake by getting rid of me a year too early rather than a year too late.”
That same principle governed Belichick’s decision to draft quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014, despite Brady’s stated intention of playing into his 40s. “I think you’re better being early rather than late at that position,” Belichick said at the time. The remark reportedly made Brady wary and resentful that he too could be jettisoned, despite years of loyal service. Asked this spring by broadcaster Jim Gray whether he felt appreciated by the organization, Brady replied, “I plead the fifth.” Last week, a new biography by author Ian O’Connor, “Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time,” quoted a source as saying that Brady had tired of Belichick’s manipulations.
It’s not at all clear that Belichick minds his quarterback’s agitation. He is notorious for keeping players in a back-to-the-wall state of insecurity to prod better performances from them. Brady seems to have reconciled himself to that chronic creative tension, at least for the time being. “He would say, ‘Look, I’m not the easiest coach to play for,’ ” Brady remarked this spring at the Milken Institute Global Conference. “And I agree. He’s not the easiest coach to play for.” But Brady also added, “He’s the best for me,” and called Belichick a “great mentor.”
Belichick undoubtedly values Brady more than he lets on. According to Johnson, whenever he and Belichick have discussed where Brady belongs on the list of all-time greats, Belichick says, “I take Brady over all of ’em.” At least some of his withholdingness with the quarterback stems from the conviction that stars get enough false praise from their adoring families and friends or fans on social media. As Brady admitted, “They’re not giving you the truth.” Belichick insists on frankness and also on an egalitarian locker room. One of his longest, most unbending mantras is that if he favors one player, then it means disfavoring 52 others. When he does credit players, he tends to do it collectively.
“Give ’em a chance in a fair fight, that’s my responsibility,” Belichick says. “Good players win games and can overcome bad coaching. We win because our players make plays under critical pressures, and if we didn’t have good players, we wouldn’t beat anybody.”
It’s interesting to note that many of the players who have felt hurt by Belichick tend to come back around. Milloy was the first test case of Belichick’s calculation back in 2003. Belichick stunned Milloy — and the entire NFL — by releasing his defensive captain a week before the season opener because he wouldn’t take a pay cut. Belichick called him “the hardest player I’ve ever had to release,” but he did it anyway.
Milloy, who played eight more seasons for the Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks, says he came to understand the decision as a more mature player, when he learned the importance of payroll integrity. “It starts to make more sense,” he says. He reconciled with Belichick about three years after the release, when Belichick caught him by the shoulder pad as he was jogging by the sideline and apologized for the abruptness of it.
“We did great things together,” Milloy says. “I learned how to be a pro and study the game under him.”
Even Butler, who finished his Patriots career distraught on the Super Bowl sideline when Belichick refused to insert him for a single snap, defended him once he left the Patriots for a five-year, $61 million deal with the Titans. “No bad blood,” he told ESPN. “. . . This is a hurtful game sometimes, and it can look different than what it is. But that’s my guy.”
It’s a testament to Belichick’s influence that no gossip about the Butler situation has leaked, even from players who left the organization. Belichick simply called it “a football decision” and has been resolutely laconic ever since. Milloy says: “That’s still a head-scratcher. . . . I was like everybody else. I thought the truth would come out. And it still hasn’t. He has that effect.” Wes Welker once joked that even after he was traded to Denver, he still worried about what Belichick might think of something he said indiscreetly.
Belichick may not care to be understood, but he does wish to be appreciated, his colleagues say. He’s a historian of the game like his father, who amassed more than 400 valuable books about it, including an original Walter Camp edition from the 1890s. This summer Belichick surprised his players by canceling a workout and instead showed them documentary reels from other eras, along with some old leather footballs. “He truly respects the game and cares about his role and position in it,” Vrabel says.
It’s become a race against time whether Belichick can lead the Patriots past Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, who won five NFL titles. With another ring he would join the rarest historical company with George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the only coaches to win six championships. But who will tire first, Belichick or the Patriots of his methods? Harrison suspects Belichick will win out: what absorbs him more than a numbers game is competing against the never-ending evolution of the game.
No matter whether Belichick winds up with another ring he won’t wear, his legacy will be complicated. Lombardi left behind traces of warmheartedness and dozens of sayings, some of them self-consciously legendizing. In Belichick’s case, there are just a few terse, opaque public statements such as “Do your job.”
There are hints of personality, discreet murmurs from friends about how well-read he is, what a rock-and-roll nut he is, but little from the man himself. Author Mark Leibovich, who spent months following the Patriots for his revealing new book on the NFL, “Big Game,” hopefully approached Belichick at a party following a White House reception to honor the 2017 champions. He mentioned that he had written a piece on Tom Brady that had appeared in the New York Times Magazine on Super Bowl Sunday. Belichick just said, “Yeah, I was busy that day,” and walked away.
Belichick’s silence is in itself a statement. It signifies his unwavering absorption in task and defiance in the face of media fragmentation and ever-multiplying platforms offering so much noise and myriad distraction. Which is perhaps worth congratulating, as a kind of integrity. Not that Belichick needs that sort of approval.
“He’s beyond that,” Banks says. “He doesn’t care. His goal is to put the best team out there, and history will be kind to him. You can hate him as a competitor, but history will love him.”