|Despite dour image, Patriots coach Belichick rocks - and even jokes|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 01 February 2008 08:44|
So it was surprising - shocking to some - that the New England Patriots' coach would even crack a joke at a media session this week. Or curl his mouth into a smile upon hearing that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be the halftime entertainment.
``I wish I could stand out there and listen to it,'' he said.
Belichick rocks? Who'd have guessed?
And how about that quip at the expense of the Mexican TV reporter who came to Media Day in a wedding dress and suggested to him that she was more attractive than model Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady's girlfriend.
``I wouldn't go that far,'' Belichick said.
Even the Boston Globe asked, ``Who kidnapped Bill Belichick? Who invaded his body?''
Of course, he still won't acknowledge that the New England Patriots are on the verge of becoming the first NFL team to go 19-0. The ``U'' word, for ``unbeaten,'' has not crossed his lips at any point during the first 18 victories, so why should he say it now?
The 55-year-old Belichick is on his way to becoming one of the most successful coaches in NFL history - perhaps THE most successful.
If the Patriots beat the New York Giants - and they are favored by nearly two touchdowns - they will have won their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons, the most successful run in nearly 30 years in a league that legislates parity among its teams.
The only real comparisons are Vince Lombardi, who won five titles in seven seasons in Green Bay; Chuck Noll, who won four in six seasons with Pittsburgh in the 1970s; and Bill Walsh, who built a San Francisco team that won four Super Bowls between 1981-89.
But none of them operated with free agency and a salary cap that makes it nearly impossible for a successful team to keep all its stars.
Of the 53 current Patriots, only eight were on the roster six years ago when New England upset St. Louis 20-17 for their first title. Lombardi and Noll were able to keep rosters laden with Hall of Fame players intact throughout their runs, and Walsh's 49ers had the kind of depth that allowed them to back up one Hall of Fame quarterback, Joe Montana, with another, Steve Young.
Belichick, the son of a career assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, may be closest to Walsh, who was known as ``The Genius'' for his offensive innovations that are still very much in style. Belichick's innovations are defensive - especially those he used to slow down high-powered Buffalo and St. Louis offenses in the 1991 and 2002 Super Bowls, the first as defensive coordinator for the Giants, the second as head coach of the Patriots.
And like Walsh, Belichick lets people know he's smart.
He often projects an image that he's above explaining the complexities of his schemes and that he's simply smarter than his 31 adversaries. Many of them resent him for that as much as they resent him for the episode in the first game of the season when a Patriots employee was caught taping the defensive signals of the New York Jets, coached by former Belichick assistant and protege Eric Mangini. Belichick was fined $500,000 by the league.
``He's one of the smartest people I've ever known, maybe the smartest. That's why I hired him,'' said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Despite numerous calls urging him to stay away from Belichick, Kraft hired him in 2000 even though his record as the coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95 was 37-45.
Nobody ever doubted his football acumen.
He was analyzing Navy film at age 9 for his father and was an assistant coach for the Baltimore Colts at 23, his first year out of Wesleyan University, where he was a 165-pound center after a year at the exclusive Phillips Andover Academy.
He went from the Colts to the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, then settled in at age 27 with the Giants, becoming defensive coordinator at 32. He spent 12 years at the Meadowlands, helping Bill Parcells win Super Bowls there after the 1986 and 1990 seasons.
That resume made him a head coaching candidate. His personality - or perceived lack of it - stood in his way.
In 1990, when Parcells hinted that he might be stepping down, Belichick went to the equally brilliant and headstrong general manager, the late George Young, to ask if he would be considered for the job.
``No,'' Young told him, citing a personality unsuited to deal with the New York media. Belichick got the Cleveland job that year, but resents Young to this day, declining to credit him for scouting and personnel techniques that are clearly similar.
Young's instincts seemed correct, and Belichick made the playoffs in Cleveland only once, in 1994. He was fired when that version of the Browns left for Baltimore after the 1995 season. Art Modell, then the team's owner, called him a brilliant coach, ``but human relations is important, too.''
Belichick acknowledges indirectly that he had some failings in that area.
``You learn something every game you coach, every practice, every year. Certainly the five years in Cleveland taught me a lot about managing a team,'' he said this week. ``I took those experiences and tried to improve them through the years, both how to handle the team more off the field and probably delegate more responsibility than I did in Cleveland.''
One way was to reject the traditional way: using the NFL's old boy network to recycle former players and coaches into the front office and onto his staff.
Belichick has his young boy network from his days at Andover and Wesleyan, the academically rigorous Connecticut college, and he picks up other young men along the way. He molds them in his own image from their early 20s, rather than integrate assistants from other teams and systems.
The now-estranged Mangini also is a Wesleyan graduate who hooked up with Belichick (and Parcells) at age 26; longtime aide Ernie Adams was a classmate at Andover; and Scott Pioli, the former Division II defensive lineman who runs the personnel department, was 27 when he joined Belichick in Cleveland in 1992.
After Belichick was fired in Cleveland, he rejoined Parcells with the Patriots, then went with him to New York with the Jets, where he was designated his eventual successor.
But when Parcells stopped coaching and moved to the front office, Belichick was head coach for only a day, leaving to go to New England in a move that cost the Patriots a first-round draft choice after the league office arbitrated the dispute between the two teams.
Belichick went 5-11 the first year, but won a title the second as a 14-point underdog to the Rams as a young quarterback named Tom Brady, who had been just a sixth-round draft choice, led them to a game-winning field goal in the final two minutes.
The Patriots won again in 2004 and 2005 as Belichick mercilessly let go of fan favorites such as safety Lawyer Milloy, and traded others, such as Deion Branch, the 2005 Super Bowl MVP, whose salary demands were too high.
Last season, after the Patriots blew a 21-3 lead and lost the AFC championship game in Indianapolis, he filled a major hole at wide receiver by trading for the troubled Randy Moss and Wes Welker and signing Donte' Stallworth.
Moss, whose me-first personality got him run out of Minnesota and cast away by Oakland, behaved impeccably in a New England locker room with a hierarchical structure where conduct is dictated by veterans Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Kevin Faulk and other team leaders. Moss also set an NFL record with 23 touchdown catches, complementing Brady's record of 50 TD throws on what obviously is Belichick's most talented team.
But plenty of talented teams have failed. This one hasn't because it has bought into Belichick's ``one-game-at-a-time'' philosophy that he has inculcated into his players.
``Anyone can teach you Xs and Os,'' said Pepper Johnson, Belichick's defensive line coach, who has spent 19 of his 22 seasons in the NFL playing for or coaching with him.
``If you don't understand the whole concept, it doesn't do you much good,'' Johnson said. ``You see guys who come here from other teams and say, 'Man, I've never had the game explained to me this way.' Or you get guys who go somewhere else and say, 'They've don't do anything like the way we do it.'
``Not only is Bill coaching football, he's teaching football.''
And he doesn't give much away - whether it's about football or his personal life.
He was divorced from his wife, Debby, his high-school sweetheart, nearly two years ago but still remains close to his three children, Amanda, 23; Stephen, 20; and Brian, 16, who sometimes help him on the sideline during games.
Belichick also was named in a divorce suit brought by the husband of Sharon Shenocca, a receptionist with the Giants when Belichick was an assistant coach there two decades ago. He has never discussed the case.
This somewhat changed Belichick, who is friends with Jon Bon Jovi, will talk about Tom Petty, however.
``I'll have some of his CDs playing in my office this week,'' Belichick said when he heard Petty would perform. ``That'll put me in the mood: 'Free Fallin'.'''
But ``Free Fallin'''? Not these Patriots. More like another Petty hit, ``Runnin' Down a Dream.''