Steve Belichick learned how to be a football coach from his famous father. But he’s learning to be a better coach by constantly picking the brains of other members of the New England Patriots organization.
Among them: New England’s players, and not just the seasoned veterans like Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower who he’s coached directly.
A question Tuesday from Patriots Wire’s Henry McKenna about Belichick’s previous interactions with former Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge launched the outside linebackers coach/defensive play-caller into a fascinating and incredibly in-depth response that spanned nearly seven minutes and 1,000 spoken words.
In it, Belichick mentioned the names of 15 current and former Patriots players and assistants, explaining in great detail how soliciting insight from, say, wide receiver Nelson Agholor can help him grow as a defensive coach.
“I just like to learn about football,” Belichick said in a video conference. “You can always learn a lot, just defensively, being with other guys, how players see the game at different levels. It started with Chung in terms of that sense — seeing the game from the deep part of the field, talking about it with him and Dev (McCourty), and then seeing the game from a linebacker level and how that plays in with the front with guys like (Rob) Ninovich, who I spent a lot of time with and still do.
“And then applying that to offense and how different linemen block, how interior linemen play, how tackles play, how tight ends play. Running backs — the different styles of running backs, which we have lot of good ones on our team between Damien (Harris) and James (White) and now Rhamondre (Stevenson) and (Brandon) Bolden — all these guys. And then there’s Jak (Jakob Johnson), and then there’s Jonnu (Smith), and then there’s Hunter (Henry). Then you move out to the receivers, and then there’s all those guys. Picking Nelson’s brain; he played against us last year, now he’s on our team. Kendrick (Bourne), we played against him last year, now he’s on our team. Guys like Jules (Julian Edelman), who I spent a lot of time with.
“And then to your point about (talking with) Joe Judge, translating it to the kicking game and space play and physicality and tackling and defeating blocks and blocking out in space. A lot of football fundamentals carry over between that stuff if you simplify the game, which I try and do by just learning as much about it as possible.
“I think that especially linebackers, working with these guys specifically right now and back when I worked with the safeties, I try and look at it as being a football player, not being a strong safety or a left outside linebacker or an off-the-ball Mike linebacker. You’ve got to be able to play in the kicking game, which means you’ve got to be able to play in space, which means you can adjust where you play, but the level that you play on — whether you’re the front line in kickoff return or a gunner out in space or vice and double vice … — all that stuff, I try and relate to it so that I can coach football.
“There are obviously specific techniques that fall into certain buckets, like outside linebackers don’t need to play half the field like Dev does, but they do need to play out in space. There’s a lot of similarities between those and concepts and how to see the game. With Dev, we always talked about how he’s got 21 guys in front of him. And they’re not always at the point of attack, but he doesn’t know when they’re going to be at the point of attack, so there’s that element of seeing what’s in front of you. It’s the same idea with a quarterback — how the quarterbacks see those 21 guys.
“I just like football, just like seeing the game. There’s no one way to do it. There’s a bunch of different ways to be successful, so there’s not one right way, one wrong way. That’s the fun part about the game. So going back to your original question, I used to always talk to Joe. Joe’s a smart guy, Joe’s a tough guy. We came in together back in ’12 or whenever that was when he worked for Scotty O (Scott O’Brien), who’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. I just enjoy to learn about football.”
In the case of players like Agholor and Bourne, Belichick uses those conversations as a form of self-scouting. Since both wideouts played against the Patriots last season — with the Las Vegas Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, respectively — Belichick wanted to know how their former teams viewed New England’s defense.
“Me and Nelson ran into each other early in the morning with our routine,” Belichick said, “and we had about 10, 15 free minutes to just kind of talk to each other (about) what he saw, what the challenges were that (the Raiders’) offense had coming into the game, what challenges changed within the game, what they were trying to attack, what worked with their attack plan, what we did to try to — we don’t know what the game plan’s going to be going into the game. We can guess on stuff and we can chase some ghosts, but sometimes, what do we want to take away? And if we take that away, what are they going to do? Did they attack a player? Did they attack the scheme? Did they attack — just, what were they thinking? And going back to the point before, there’s no one right way or one wrong way to do it. How that team attacked us is different than how Kendrick’s former team attacked us.
“So just hearing different perspectives and learning about that, I obviously come from one tree, one branch, so just (learning about) those two different offenses and the pieces that those guys had and how they used those. We played one team earlier in the season, one team (later) in the season, so how much — and obviously their coordinators, their scheme, their players, all that stuff’s different, but at the same time, maybe both of them saw one thing that was like, ‘Hey, no matter what, we were going to do this against you guys. I don’t care what was going to happen.’ So I’ve just got to take it for what it’s worth and try to put it into perspective.
“Like I said, I’m not going to try to change everything I do based on what Nelson thinks, but it’s good to listen to that stuff. It’s good to gain knowledge. Every player looks at the game just a little bit differently, so maybe I could take some nuggets here and there from what I get from those guys. But I always try and develop relationships with different players on the team — guys who come back to the team, young guys on the team. A fun part about football is there’s a lot of different personalities out there. I just enjoy that when I’ve got my free time.”
The 34-year-old Belichick is in his 10th season as a Patriots assistant and his sixth as a position coach (four with safeties, two with outside linebackers). This attitude and thirst for knowledge will serve him well if he pursues a head-coaching position — his dad’s perhaps? — down the road.