Love him or hate him, Belichick has players' respect
Bill Belichick is a man of contradictions.
A defensive guru, he was the architect of the most prolific offense the NFL has ever seen this season.
An avid student of the game’s history, he has refused to discuss his record-setting team’s place in it all year long.
Rarely will a smile escape from under his rumpled hoodie in public, yet he hangs out with rock stars in his free time.
Understanding the man is a challenge. For some, liking him is unfathomable. But appreciating what he has accomplished here in New England isn’t hard, especially for the guys who play for him.
“Coach Belichick is obviously the best coach you can ever have,” said linebacker Junior Seau, who has played for his share of coaches in his 18 years in the NFL. “What he does is so many other things besides the X’s and O’s. He communicates well with his players and he’s established himself in terms of his integrity and his ways of playing football. I haven’t met a guy that has so much passion and so much love for the game and so much knowledge and he’s able to transfer that over to the players so they can learn from it.”
Belichick the tactician and Belichick the taskmaster are familiar images. But Belichick the teacher may be his most important role.
“There’s always a learning curve from here,” Seau said. “All you have to do is listen. You want to play for a man like Belichick. You really do and as much as he doesn’t show it, he has a lot of love for his players. He really does.”
Sometimes he does show it. After the Patriots beat San Diego last Sunday in the AFC Championship Game to earn the club’s fourth trip to a Super Bowl in the last seven years, Belichick let his emotions show through in a rare glimpse of his softer side.
“I’m happy for all our players, I really am,” he said. “I’m happy for the guys who have been there before and the new guys that have come in this year -- Junior and Randy (Moss) and Wes (Welker), all those guys.
“It’s been a total team effort all year,” Belichick added. “You can’t single one person out. You know we did it as a team and I think we love each other as a team.”
That doesn’t mean that Belichick doesn’t still practice a little tough love when needed.
His favorite method is to pull out old tapes of his Giants squads from the 1980s, a crew of Hall-of-Famers on defense who set a standard Belichick would like his current troops to believe can never be matched.
“They’ve always done it better than us, every play,” Seau said. “The compliments coming our way are very slim.”
At least a few Patriots are bold enough to fire back with some good-natured jabs at the boss.
“I think that any time you have a certain comfort level with somebody,” linebacker Mike Vrabel said, “I think that certainly if he’s able to give it to us, I figured why not give it back to him.”
Belichick takes the barbs from his veterans in stride, and doesn’t overdue it with that footage. It’s strictly for special occasions.
“Only when we mess up,” Seau said. “He’ll break out the black and white film. He definitely makes sure that we’re definitely humbled by it, but he has a library of great athletes on the Giants team. He has some fond memories there.”
Belichick won his first two rings in New York as an assistant under Bill Parcells. His added three more in New England as a head coach, while Parcells has since moved on to a front office position with Miami without ever winning another championship as a coach.
“My 12 years with the Giants was a great time in my career,” Belichick said. “I enjoyed really everything about it. It was a great organization. We had good teams. I was fortunate enough to be a part of an outstanding defense. We had a lot of great players there and we all had a lot of success. We had a great coaching staff. That period of time was a good one for me and so I have very fond memories of it, particularly the two championships in ‘86 and ‘90. But that being said, that’s all in the past.”
Belichick’s tenure in New England has been even better, and there are no divided loyalties for him as he prepares to face his old club in next week’s Super Bowl.
“I take a lot of pride in this organization and the fact that I’m a part of it,” Belichick said. “I’m proud to be a New England Patriot. I’m proud to work for Robert Kraft and I’m proud to wear our insignia.”
Belichick doesn’t revel in such sentimental moments for long. He was quick to turn his focus back to the task at hand.
“That being said, right now I don’t think is a time to sit and reflect and go back over what has or hasn’t happened in the past,” he said. “Right now we’ve got a huge challenge ahead of us and that starts with the whole preparation for the entire event.
“The travel, the logistics, the scheduling and so forth and we have a huge challenge in terms of facing the New York Giants. That’s really were I’m focused and where our team needs to be focused right now. There will be a time and a place maybe to do that at some other point but not right now. Not for me anyway.”
Belichick isn’t complaining about the lack of time to reflect on what the club has already accomplished. Getting back to work is what he likes most.
“You know, there’s a lot of different things that go into this job, but really I enjoy all of it,” he said. “I enjoy the preparation. I enjoy the practice. I enjoy the offseason, team-building, working with the younger players, working with older, experienced players, the game planning, the game decisions, practice - all of the things that go into it. They’re all challenging, they all have their own place, they’re all important and so in the end, you try to put it all together and get a good product.”
That product has been better than good this year, and Belichick is quick to share the credit for that.
“The players, they just did an awesome job,” said Belichick after the AFC title game. “They have all year. It's a real privilege to coach this group of guys, and they stepped up and made the plays again (against San Diego) like they have all year and I really think it was the players' game. They did everything they needed to do.”
Of course, Belichick is the one making sure he has the right players in place to perform in his system.
“He’s not really caught up in the guys that are supposed to be good players or allegedly good players,” Vrabel said. “He wants guys that are going to go out there and work, be smart and are dependable and consistent. Those are the kind of guys we have on this football team.”
That and guys who have learned to trust Belichick’s judgment.
“I think obviously I have a lot of respect for Bill and what he’s done with this football team and the decisions that he makes,” Vrabel said. “I certainly don’t always agree with everything that he says or does, but I think ultimately the end result is very positive.”
Three Super Bowl titles and a shot at a fourth to cap a perfect season are proof positive that Belichick has earned his place in history -- whether he has time to talk about it or not.
Douglas Flynn covers the Patriots for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.