Some Patriots report to Gillette Stadium as early as 5:30 in the morning. Others will watch film at the facility until midnight or 1 a.m. Belichick, every one of them says, has been in the building at each end of that spectrum. They know there are nights when Belichick sleeps at Gillette, and some Patriots have wondered — seriously, jokingly, whatever — if he ever leaves.
See, that’s the thing about Belichick, who in the last decade has unquestionably become one of the greatest coaches to ever walk the sidelines. When everyone else is sleeping, or tweeting, or playing Madden, or lounging around, Belichick is studying the game, whether it’s that week’s opponent or one of his old playoff itineraries. He is always working to implement improvements for the good of his team’s success, and he’s always been willing to adjust something he thought he once screwed up.
That’s why his players follow him and fight for him. They believe in Belichick — that he has put in the work that week to study every last detail to put them into position to maximize their ability.
“You see his work ethic,” Patriots captain Jerod Mayo says, “and if you try to match it, you might not make it a couple days. He’s always working.”
More than anything, they trust Belichick, and that conviction has meant a lot this season. Initially, most of New England’s players didn’t understand why Belichick traded star wide receiver Randy Moss in Week 5, less than 24 hours after a defining victory in Miami. Frankly, they were confused, at a loss for words, kind of questioning the decision-making process. But when they returned to Gillette two days later, Belichick expressed his most popular phrase in the team’s morning meeting: The motive was to improve the football team.
When players hear the same thing over and over, it’s easy to tune it out. Yet, the Patriots had seen the locker room turn over since January, and October’s trade of Moss was the culminating move.
At one point or another, linebacker Adalius Thomas, cornerback Shawn Springs and running back Laurence Maroney had all been exiled from Foxboro after the Pats’ humiliating wild-card loss to the Ravens, and the players who were retained knew things needed to change. Thomas, Springs, Maroney and Moss were all popular in most quadrants of the locker room, but in the back of many minds, the players recognized what was happening, and they had no choice but to continue buying into Belichick’s message.
That’s what has made Belichick’s 11th season in New England one of his most impressive. As of Thursday, 18 players on the active roster were either drafted by the Pats or signed as rookie free agents in 2009 or 2010. For the 2010 Patriots to be successful, the young players had to grow quickly, accept coaching as gospel and align themselves in perfect harmony. While listening to them talk this season, there has been little doubt they’ve been willing to buy into all of that.
“At the end of the day,” Mayo says, “you’ll run through a wall for coach Belichick.”
This isn’t so much the story of Belichick’s career-long body of work — 36 seasons, 16 as a head coach, five Super Bowl rings and 177 total victories — as it is of Belichick’s job for one season.
He has mastered the pulse of this team from day one, working them in a grueling manner for the first nine days of training camp before seeing enough results to let his foot off the gas. Later, Belichick gave the players an extra day off during the Week 5 bye before practicing twice, letting them go for the weekend and then practicing four times prior to the Week 6 matchup against Baltimore.
Three weeks later, the Monday after the Patriots’ sky-is-falling loss to the Browns, Belichick corralled the team for an intense film session at Gillette. While they looked long and hard at an ugly set of tapes, Belichick and the coaching staff never jumped all over the players, and they in turn appreciated that a great deal. They knew they laid an egg in Cleveland, and after bracing themselves for a verbal berating, they realized that Belichick was on the same page as them. Basically, they served their punishment Sunday, and Monday was about moving forward. It’s not much of a coincidence the Patriots haven’t lost a game since.
“Being able to connect with people, that’s what makes a coach special,” defensive lineman Gerard Warren says. “The way that he connects with us is special.”
Belichick did it again on a Wednesday in Week 13 when he gave the players the day off after they turned in a great practice Tuesday. The thing about that week, though, is that the Patriots were preparing for their rematch with the Jets, and the outcome of that game was set to determine the difference between home-field advantage in the playoffs and opening the postseason with at least two road games.
The easy thing would have been making the team practice every day — for what it’s worth, that’s what second-year head coach Rex Ryan did with the Jets — but Belichick traveled the unconventional route. Five days later, of course, the Patriots won 45-3.
“He’s a genius,” Patriots captain Vince Wilfork says. “This is what he does. This is his life.”
Obviously, 14 wins aren’t about the occasional day off, and so many times this season, Belichick has deferred all of the credit to the players. There’s a lot of merit to that, too. Players win games on Sundays, while coaches get it done Monday through Saturday.
Those six days, Belichick’s players say, are the most captivating. They’ll bring pens and pads to every meeting and write everything — really, Deion Branch says, everything — down and revisit it later. Even if they don’t understand what he’s talking about, the BIC hits the Five Star, and they’ll do the research at their earliest chance.
“He’s so good,” safety Patrick Chung says of Belichick’s meetings. “He just gets you prepared. It’s hard to explain. You just learn. We learn. As far as being in there, you’re going to learn, and you’re going to learn fast. You’re going to learn efficiently. He’s a good coach. He gets you right.”
Belichick’s players always wax poetic about his situational preparation, and that happens throughout each day, either in meetings, on the practice field or as he strolls through the locker room. What are you looking for on second-and-5? Who do they like to blitz on third-and-8? When do the Jets run behind Dustin Keller? What gap do you take in the Wildcat? Who has the corner’s help when he’s lined up on Reggie Wayne in the nickel? When is the quarterback most likely to use a hard count?
“He’s asking us questions about what’s going on, who we’re playing, making sure that we’re well prepared,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich says. “It’s just the repetitiveness of hearing certain things that he talks about, maybe two minutes to go in the half, or the final minute of the game, maybe those are things that other teams don’t emphasize.”
They’re emphasized in other locker rooms, just not as ruthlessly as they are at Gillette Stadium. Players talk, whether they’ve been with other teams or have close friends with other organizations. Notes are compared, and the Patriots know how good they’ve got it.
Ninkovich, though, recognized Belichick’s ability to evaluate talent. Look around the room, and there are undrafted players starting on both sides of the ball and once-unwanted free agents contributing on a regular basis.
Ninkovich is a golden example. He was a long snapper with the Saints, who cut him the day before their training camp opened in 2009, and he feared his career was in major trouble. Belichick called a day later and asked Ninkovich to add depth at outside linebacker in training camp. Now, he’s a starter.
Things like that motivate the Patriots. Belichick won’t jump on a table like Rudy or bust out an Al Pacino-like speech to fire up his players, but he knows how to get them going. Before the first meeting with the Dolphins, the Pats’ coaching staff hung up a wall’s worth of media predictions that expected Miami to pull out a victory. Belichick also went through the room and told each player why they were so flawed, why no one outside the locker room believed in them and why they were cast aside and left for the proverbial scrap heap.
And Belichick can motivate in simple ways, too. There doesn’t always have to be big speech or shining example, and he doesn’t need to find the Eagles’ post-Super Bowl parade route to get his team champing at the bit. Sometimes, if the Patriots put it all in perspective, a straightforward game plan can be enough to get them ready for a win.
“Just knowing that this guy is a legend, a Hall of Fame coach,” Branch says, “if that doesn’t get you moved, there’s something wrong. If you don’t listen to this guy … “
Branch trailed off, smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Sometimes, it’s the things that go unsaid that speak the loudest of one’s respect. Then, Branch finished getting dressed for practice, walked out of the locker room and strolled down the long corridor underneath the stands that serve as a backwash to the Patriots’ game-day sideline.
It’s a bland walk, and it trails through the bowels of Gillette. Some of the cement walls are painted white and blue, and others are still a dark shade of gray. Really, there’s nothing along the way that will make the mind wander astray from anything other than football and the task at hand. Some joke that those hallways are as bland as Belichick’s simple office.
In its most basic form, that walk can epitomize what has made this season a special one for the New England Patriots. With a roster that has been nearly turned over from its last Super Bowl, the Patriots have found a way to get back to their roots, as Belichick has kept things on the straight and narrow.
The players love the way Belichick aggressively harps on the details. When they follow through with the minutia, the big picture will take care of itself, and a handful of players, in separate discussions, all said that same thing.
Whether or not it’s the mark of greatness, well, that will be determined in the next month. But as far as the regular season is concerned, Belichick got more out of his team than anyone on the outside dared to imagine in the summer of 2010.
That’s why his players gush about his greatness, and they’ve busted it all season to reciprocate that hard-working performance. Because they know, while they’ve got this weekend off to rest up for the divisional round of the playoffs, Belichick will be at Gillette Stadium, poring through three game plans for their potential opponents, and they refuse to let that hard work go unnoticed.
“I think we all understand when we walk into this building that it’s all business,” Branch says. “We know what we’ve got to do. We know what it takes to get it done. The ship is steered by coach Belichick, and we’re doing all the rowing for him. He tells us which way to go, and we do it for him.
“We have the luxury and the blessing to be coached by the greatest coach in history, period.”