Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have become almost unimaginably successful and rich and famous and, in terms of their shared history, inseparable.
But the secret of their unprecedented partnership is the two or three hours they spend together each week, far from the public view, scheming in a drab meeting room under Gillette Stadium. Most NFL head coaches operate like CEOs, delegating the messy, monotonous details of game planning to underlings. And yet in their 15th season with the New England Patriots, Belichick and Brady, along with the other quarterbacks, meet every Tuesday -- technically the players' day off. They sit in the flickering semi-darkness and break down coaching videos with something that approaches a forensic fervor. They scout the weekly opponent, doing their diligence, searching for weakness, strategizing on how to best exploit it.
"Bill's done his homework by then, and he tells them what the secondary will be trying to do to them, the linebackers, the defensive front," explained owner Robert Kraft, who has sat in on some of these meetings. "The two of them go back and forth about where the best opportunities are.
"Oh, yes, it can be lively."
Today's videos are awash in color, but their world is starkly black and white, a simple, logical function of down and distance.
Back in late September, after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs 41-14 in a Monday night game, the Patriots found themselves 2-2. The media jackals, sensing weakness, wondered aloud if the Pats' ridiculous run was coming to an end. There were even whispers that friction had developed between Belichick and Brady.
Bill O'Brien, head coach of the Houston Texans, remembers laughing out loud at the time. He spent five years in those offensive meeting rooms in Foxborough, Massachusetts, neatly spanning the team's two most recent Super Bowl appearances, and he understands the crackling dynamic as well as anyone. That accrued knowledge was an important factor in the Texans' 9-7 record this season, an improvement of seven victories from the previous season -- three more than any other team.
"I was kind of immersed in things here, but I heard some of that," O'Brien said recently, laughing again. "Don't believe all that stuff you read. These are two competitive guys who work really well together. There is no ego there.
"Bill actually coaches Tom two, three times a week. He appreciates Tom's intelligence and toughness. And vice versa."
In 28 seasons of football -- from high school to college, arena football to NFL Europe and the NFL -- quarterback Kurt Warner said he never once watched film with a defensive coach. Warner was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV for the St. Louis Rams, but he was on the opposite sideline when Brady snatched away the game and that award two years later against the Rams in New Orleans.
"They complement each other incredibly well," said Warner, now an NFL Network analyst. "If Brady struggles, Belichick keeps him in the game with great defense. In those games when the defense is exposed, Brady picks up Belichick with his great play.
"I think they make each other better -- and they're both pretty good to begin with."
More, if it is possible, than the sum of their considerable parts.
On the surface, they are an odd couple: Belichick in his sideline gray hoodie, bangs plastered to his forehead; Brady sporting a GQ-worthy wardrobe (and world-class coiffure) after games. But parse their public words, and they seem to finish each others' sentences. Those close to them say that winning is virtually the only thing they care about.
The bottom-line, quantity/quality numbers: Together, Belichick and Brady have won 160 games - 44 more than the Dolphins' Don Shula and Dan Marino, who are next in line since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and 53 more than the Steelers' Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw. Their record is a staggering 160-47, a winning percentage (.772) that is ahead of the Raiders' John Madden and Ken Stabler (.756), the Bears' Mike Ditka and Jim McMahon (.754) and the Colts' Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning (.753).
"I feel like I have a good player-coach relationship with Tom," Belichick said in a 2011 interview with ESPN. "We talk regularly during the week about what's going to happen, how we're doing it, and then we review what did happen and move on to the next stage."
Earlier that same year, with the Patriots headed to their fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons, the quarterback also sat down with ESPN.
"Coach comes in and says, 'These are the things we need to do to win,' and he's right damn near 100 percent of the time," Brady said. "It's, 'This is what we need to do, and this is how you're going to do it, and if we don't do it, we're going to lose.'"
Brian Billick, former Ravens head coach and now an NFL Network analyst, marvels at the Patriots' continuity and consistency of structure.
"Tom Brady is an extension of Bill Belichick, and Belichick an extension of Brady," Billick explained. "The offense and defense is totally integrated -- not only structurally, but philosophically, too. I don't know if we've had a relationship like this ever in the league.
"The wealth of knowledge, their database is unparalleled. Imagine their frame of reference: 'Remember six years ago when the Dolphins tried a four-wide blitz on second-and-long?' Six years ago? Are you f--ing kidding me? I can't remember yesterday. The synergy between head coach and quarterback, it's stunning."
Their shared experiences have evolved into a collective memory, a vast encyclopedia of X's and O's, an iCloud embedded in their brains. At a critical juncture in New England's Week 15 victory over Miami, Brady surprised the Dolphins with an uncharacteristically unbridled 17-yard run.
"He did a good job of seeing that in the pass rush," Belichick said afterward. "It's something we've talked about this week. He made a big play on that last year against them."
'Absolute, maximum position'
Their fathers both adored the game of football and, in a short time, so did they.
William Stephen Belichick was always underfoot, a fixture in the film room, at the U.S. Naval Academy's football facility in Annapolis, Maryland, where his father, Steve, was a scout and assistant coach for 33 years. The boy was 8 when Navy halfback Joe Bellino won the Heisman Trophy and 11 when quarterback Roger Staubach also captured college football's top individual prize.
Over the years at Giants training camp, where his son was an assistant for a dozen years, Steve would tell stories over a scotch or two about Young Bill, a Mozart-ian prodigy, asking technical questions about linebackers' run-support responsibilities or a running back's blitz keys.
Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. was born into a Bay Area family of rabid 49ers fans. The boy was 4 years old, wearing a tiny No. 16 Joe Montana jersey, when he witnessed Dwight's Clark make "The Catch" in person. Later, he'd join Montana as a multiple Super Bowl champion and MVP.
Belichick probably saw something of himself in Brady as he rose from the No. 199 pick in the 2000 draft to No. 1 on the Patriots' depth chart in the narrow span of 17 months -- intelligent, driven and committed to the process.
For 27 consecutive years, Bill Polian ran the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts. But after working six Patriots games over the past two years as an analyst for Sirius XM Radio, he has an even greater appreciation for the duo.
"Week in and week out, in every facet of the game, they're the best-coached team in football," said Polian, an ESPN analyst. "With respect to situational football and matchups, they do that better than anybody.
"And as much as it is Tom operating the offense, it's also Belichick and the coaching staff putting those guys in the absolute, maximum position. Especially in Foxborough, you almost have to play a perfect game to beat them. Give them even an inkling of daylight -- and they'll grab it."
Running back Jonas Gray was cut three times in one year, but when Stevan Ridley tore two knee ligaments earlier this season, Gray was activated from the practice squad. He carried 37 times for 201 yards against the Colts, becoming the first NFL rusher in 93 years score his first four career touchdowns in a single game. The next week, after oversleeping and missing a Friday practice, Gray didn't get a single snap as the Patriots hung 34 points on the Detroit Lions' No. 1-ranked defense.
"A lot of teams just do what they do," said Ty Law, a Patriots cornerback from 1995-2004 and a five-time Pro Bowler. "They say, 'We'll stick with our bread and butter.' Outside of Brady, they don't have a bread and butter. They always adjust to what the other team does on both sides of the ball."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Law said, Brady isn't in the business of stroking the egos of diva receivers.
"When you have the star wide receiver with big numbers, most quarterbacks feel obligated," Law said. "They want to make the big guy happy. They force the issue -- and they lose games.
"Tom, he'll throw it all over the field. Always to the open guy. For Tom, it's about winning. It's way more important than stats."
As Rodney Harrison, a Patriots strong safety from 2003-08, is quick to point out, making friends isn't Belichick's first priority, either.
"I think a lot of coaches do things for public perception because they're afraid of getting criticized," said Harrison, an analyst for NBC's "Football Night in America." "And that's why he's had so much success. Bill doesn't give a crap what people outside the locker room think. Whatever he thinks is in the best interest of the team, that's what he does."
Suspending their disbelief
Kraft is widely viewed as one of the best owners in professional sports. He knows that reputation rests largely on the successful marriage of Belichick and Brady.
"The coach and the quarterback share a lot of stuff," Kraft said on the last day of 2014, from a yacht cruising the Caribbean. "The main thing is they are obsessed with every minute detail. Obsessed."
Amidst all the accolades this season is one that might have gotten lost in the sauce: The Week 16 victory over the Jets earned Kraft his 250th win (in his 368th game), tying him with the legendary George Halas as the owners fastest to 250 victories.
It was Kraft who was impressed when Belichick served as the Patriots' defensive backs coach under Bill Parcells in 1996. It was Kraft who parted with a first-round draft choice as compensation for Belichick's services when he abruptly stepped down as the New York Jets' head coach -- after one day with the title -- following the 1999 season. And while Kraft does not take credit for drafting Brady, he has managed to keep him happy and in uniform.
"Look, there have been situations over the past 15, 16 years where the coach and the quarterback could have gone another way," Kraft said. "I worked hard to keep them together. I've learned in my other business that continuity is critical to success. That's the underlying factor in what we've achieved."
Their rare skill sets and willingness to experiment gives each of them the confidence to suspend his disbelief of the other.
"When you respect and trust someone, you're willing to go outside the box and change things," Harrison said. "They care for each other so much, on a professional level and on a personal level. They've become stubborn in their belief in each other."
And 15 years into their relationship, the two are still clearly motivated by previous failures.
As Parcells' wizard of defense for the Giants in the 1980s, Belichick controlled the movements of Hall of Fame linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson and helped the team win two Super Bowls. But as the Cleveland Browns' head coach from 1991-95, Belichick was 37-45, including 1-1 in the playoffs, and was left behind when the franchise moved to Baltimore.
Brady was never a stand-alone star at Michigan. He arrived as the seventh quarterback on the Wolverines' quarterback depth chart and struggled to find playing time. He even shared the job during his senior year with Drew Henson -- who would later play professional baseball and football, neither with much success. To this day, Brady can spit out the names of the six quarterbacks taken ahead of him in the 2000 draft, including, incredibly in retrospect, Giovanni Carmazzi and Spergon Wynn. As a rookie, Brady was the Patriots' fourth-string quarterback, behind Drew Bledsoe, Michael Bishop and John Friesz. But in 2001, when Bledsoe was injured against the Jets in Week 2, Brady became the starter.
Today, Belichick and Brady are full-fledged peers, intent on wrecking opponents, sometimes even to the point of embarrassment.
Their biggest challenge? Keeping the other honest and engaged.
"He's a hard guy to coach because he's so well prepared," Belichick said in 2011. "He's seen all the tape. He's studied the film. You really have to know what you're talking about when you talk to him, because if you tell him something that's not quite right, he'll say, 'Hey, what about this game 10 weeks ago, when this happened and that happened? We can't do that.'
"It really forces you as a coach to be well prepared to make sure that you can really give him information that is helpful -- not things that he's already seen. You can't B.S. your way through a meeting with Tom Brady. I'll tell you that."
'No one works harder'
Troy Brown, who caught a critical pass in the game-winning drive of the Patriots' first Super Bowl win, says that Brady is as competitive as any player he has ever seen.
"He'd lose a game of trash-can basketball -- and he'd get upset," Brown said. "Belichick hates to lose, too. It's always the team first and everything else second."
Kraft remembers a golf tournament outside Boston when he was paired with Brady.
"We needed a putt on the 16th to take our first lead," Kraft said, "and he just dialed into that laser focus that he has. Eighteen feet. Yeah, he sunk the putt."
Harrison respects Brady's work ethic as much as his competitive drive.
"The best player has to be the hardest-working player, and that's what you have with Tom Brady," Harrison said. "They call him a pretty boy, with the mansions and the model wife, but he deserves those things. At the same time, no one works harder, or longer, than Belichick."
Brown, a Patriots receiver from 1993-2007, said as a result players feel accountable to both men.
"You feel you need to do a little bit extra for them," said Brown, an analyst for Comcast SportsNet New England. "No matter how much praise they get, you say, 'We need to do the same thing all over again.' Everybody feels that."
If any former player has a reason to hold a grudge, it is Lawyer Milloy, a strong safety who made four Pro Bowls in seven years as a Patriot. Belichick banished him to Buffalo when he wouldn't agree to restructure his salary before the 2003 season. But he remains in awe what his former team has accomplished.
"The one constant in the last 15 years of Patriots success, all this talk of dynasty, is Brady/Belichick," Milloy said from his Seattle home. "It happens once in a lifetime, and you really can't explain it.
"They just get each other."
Said Kraft: "To have these two guys working together, winning games for the people of New England ... it's pretty cool."
They are separated by 25 years and a sense for fashion, but that's about it. Down and distance -- so, what are you seeing here?
"He can recognize things, he can anticipate things, manage the clock, manage personnel, down and distance, formations, a lot of moving parts going on at the same time," Belichick said of Brady in 2011. "He's able to sort them all out, put them together and do the right thing for the team.
"It gives you a lot of ability as a coach to put responsibility on him to take advantage of certain situations because he's able to process it and manage it, not just himself but to get the team to do it."
He might have also been talking about himself.