FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick rarely swings through the New England Patriots’ locker room while reporters are present. Media members during the season typically see the coach at the podium, on the practice field or on the sideline — that’s it.
Yet on Tuesday, there he was, chopping it up with Brandon Bolden and James White in front of the running backs’ lockers after the team wrapped up its Christmas Eve walkthrough. The subject of the trio’s discussion wasn’t clear to observers, but within minutes, all three were doubled over in laughter, including the typically stoic Belichick.
Bolden has that effect on him.
A few hours after his locker room powwow, Belichick was asked about Bolden — who returned to the Patriots this season after a one-year stint with the Miami Dolphins — during a conference call with reporters. He responded with effusive, overwhelming praise for a player who rarely receives much public recognition.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to have Brandon back, and I think our team and our coaching staff feels the same way,” Belichick said. “He’s been such a great readdition to the team. I think we all knew and appreciated and loved having Brandon on the team, and last year, I think we missed each other. But sometimes that’s the business side of this game. But he’s back, and I think he’s enjoyed it. I don’t want to speak for him, but he certainly seems to have enjoyed this season. I know the team and the staff and I love having him back, as well.”
Bolden spent his first six NFL seasons with the Patriots, serving as a core special teams player and occasional offensive contributor after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2012. In 2017, the Patriots released Bolden during final cuts for roster management reasons but quickly re-signed him. They let him go for real in 2018, leaving him off their initial 53-man roster and allowing him to sign with the rival Dolphins.
That, Belichick soon realized, was a mistake.
New England’s punt and kick coverage teams were a mess for much of the 2018 season before finally stabilizing following the additions of Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber. When the NFL league year opened this past spring, one of Belichick’s first calls was to Bolden, whose locker had remained vacant since his release. He signed a two-year contract on Day 1 of free agency, delighting his Patriots teammates.
“I certainly don?t think I?m alone when I say that (Bolden) was missed last year,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said in April.
In addition to being one of the Patriots’ most reliable special teamers — he’s blocked one punt this season, and only Slater has played more snaps in the kicking game — Bolden also has taken on a more prominent offensive role in his second go-round in Foxboro. The 29-year-old has more rushing attempts (15), receptions (nine) and offensive snaps played (94) than he had in any of his previous three seasons, and his four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) are a new career-high.
Bolden also was installed as the Patriots’ primary kick returner this summer despite having not returned a single kick in a regular-season game since 2009 — his sophomore season at Ole Miss. His 21.7 yards-per-return average thus far ranks near the bottom of the NFL, but he did register a season-long 34-yard runback during Saturday’s 24-17 win over the Buffalo Bills.
“He’s so valuable in so many ways,” Belichick said. “In the field, off the field, his preparation, his experience, his energy level, his ability to do so many different things well, both offensively and in the kicking game. He’s embraced new roles like, for example, being the kick returner this year. That’s something that he hasn’t really done a lot of in the past, and he had probably his best return of the season last week against Buffalo, and we really needed it.
“He’s really come through for us in so many ways, with offensive production, but his leadership, his competitiveness, his toughness and his dependability are outstanding. It’s really great to have him back here. We missed him last year, but we’re so glad he’s back.”
The Patriots will close out the regular season by welcoming Bolden’s old team, the Dolphins, to Gillette Stadium on Sunday.