FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In lieu of the weekly Sunday quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL during vacation week, the following is a summary of a recent public, football-specific talk I gave on 17 seasons covering Bill Belichick’s club.
Let’s call it the top 10 things a reporter has learned about team-building and covering a four-time Super Bowl championship franchise:
10. No shying away from tough decisions. While many attempt to emulate the "Patriots Way," it’s easier said than done. This means making unpopular, unemotional decisions that can create a level of initial unrest in the locker room, such as releasing safety Lawyer Milloy (2003) and trading Deion Branch (2006), Richard Seymour (2009), Logan Mankins (2014) and Chandler Jones (2016). The merits of each decision can be debated, but the intent can’t: Belichick thought it was best for the team and was willing to absorb initial internal turbulence with the big picture in mind. Having a top-of-the-line quarterback and leader in Tom Brady often played a significant part in keeping things on a positive track.
9. Reaction to adversity/clutch situations helps define greatness. Outside of the obvious Super Bowl championships, the teams that ultimately could be considered Belichick’s best were those that rose up through adversity and in crucial situations. It helps explain, in part, why Belichick works to create adverse situations for players and coaches to handle on a daily basis, such as pop quizzes and end-of-practice conditioning runs on the hill. Over the years, players have remarked how games were often easier than practices. Belichick's top teams have been both physically and mentally tough, and they've been filled with intelligent players.
8. Public relations 101. When in doubt on how to answer a question, "It is what it is" can be most effective. And in stressing a short-term focus when others would like to consider the big picture, simply say, "We’re on to Cincinnati," and you never know; it just might become a rallying cry of sorts that is repeated by other coaches around the league.
7. Fun is allowed and encouraged at times. With all those hours spent on the job, and an overall approach that is extremely demanding on staff members and players, it’s a good idea to leave time for some light moments. A team trip to the movies fits well, especially late in the season, when everyone might be wearing down. A good give-and-take between players and coaches is good, too; when Mike Vrabel wore a Giants helmet to practice in 2007, it reflected playful banter that helps lighten the mood at times.
6. Leadership takes on different forms. Every successful team needs quality leaders, and players can lead in different ways. Belichick once said Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown was one of the best leaders he has been around, yet Brown seldom spoke up or addressed the team. Then there was linebacker Junior Seau, a top-of-the-line leader who spoke to the team regularly before everyone took the field for games. When the core leadership group is strong, it usually leads to a high-quality overall locker-room dynamic. One year, 2009, stands out. When the Patriots lacked an abundance of that leadership, owner Robert Kraft said that games can be won and/or lost in the locker room before a team even takes the field.
5. It’s all about the details. Just last month at practice, Belichick was seen drilling Brady on the finer points of the handoff. There isn’t a better example of how the focus on even the most fundamental details is a significant part of Belichick’s approach. He’s a teacher at heart, still getting his hands dirty on the types of things position coaches usually handle. His approach extends to his coaches, with a general preference to hire young and groom staffers (e.g. Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia) with an all-encompassing approach that includes personnel evaluation.
4. Always choose comfort on the sideline. The story of how Belichick made the hoodie with cut sleeves a best-selling item is hard to believe: He was seeking comfort, liked the idea of putting things in the pouch and apparently wasn’t thrilled with being told what to wear. The moral of the story: When unsure what to wear, go hoodie and you might unintentionally start a fashion trend.
3. Hardcore preparation and adjusting on the fly. Belichick has long preached “situational football” as he attempts to cover all possible scenarios because they might come up over the course of the season. That includes having the team practice outdoors regardless of most weather conditions (outside of lightning and dangerously high winds). One of the classic examples of stellar preparation was how the team, in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, practiced the play (with a slight variation) in which cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted quarterback Russell Wilson. But preparation alone isn’t enough; the ability to adjust on the fly is also crucial, with Belichick quoting president Dwight Eisenhower in 2015: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
2. Power of the team. One of the messages that players see on the door as they enter Gillette Stadium is to “put the team first.” The shining example from Belichick’s tenure came when the Patriots were introduced as a team prior to Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams despite the NFL’s initial insistence that either the offense or defense would be introduced. Getting a team to come together is one of the great challenges for any coach, and one way to try to move a group in that direction is asking an offensive lineman (Matt Light) to catch a punt after an arduous stretch of training camp, and if he executes, the entire team gets the weekend off. Next thing you know, the punt returners are coaching the offensive lineman, and everyone is celebrating after Light brings it in. Depth and versatility are two buzzwords most often associated with Belichick's approach of building a complete team.
1. Do Your Job. A trademarked phrase in New England, Belichick is always reminding those in his employ to do their job. I once heard him describe it like this: There is no "I" in "team" but there is an "I" in "win"-- and that stands for "individual performance." Nothing is more important than that.