Bill Belichick fact: There’s a proper way to do a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Belichick spreads peanut butter on both slices of bread. That way the jelly does not seep through.
* * *
Let’s begin with a story that, on the surface (and maybe beneath the surface too), has nothing at all to do with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Chris Jones, the marvelous writer for Esquire, was talking with Teller, the marvelous magician who serves as the second half of the Las Vegas act Penn & Teller. They were talking about a certain trick, The Red Ball trick, a kind of wonderful manipulation of a ball. Chris had heard from an expert in magic that there had to be a secret to it, something complicated and curious.
Teller shook his head, no. It was done, he said, with a single piece of thread.
Chris was incredulous. What? How could something so beautiful, so mysterious, so powerful, so spellbinding be done with a piece of thread?
“Sometimes,” Teller explained, “magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”
* * *
Belichick fact: Meteorologists do a lousy job. “If I did my job the way they do theirs,” he said, “I’d last about a week … Look I’m not saying I could do better than them. I’m just saying they’re wrong a lot. That’s a fact.”
* * *
Everyone in football has a Bill Belichick story. The man has been a dominant figure in the NFL for 30 years or so, going back to his days as a defensive coach for Bill Parcells’ New York Giants. He has spent most of those 30 years winning and deflecting. The winning is in the record books – his Patriots have won three Super Bowls, appeared in two more, earned a winning record every year since 2001 and so on.
The deflection makes his magic seem as mysterious as Teller’s Red Ball trick. “It is what it is.” “The past is the past.” “Stats are for losers.” These are the clichés he wields whenever someone tries to pierce through his shell.
“We’re on to Cincinnati,” he said to reporters this year after his Patriots lost to Kansas City by 27 in Week 4.
“You mentioned Tom’s age at the draft,” a reporter began.
“We’re on to Cincinnati,” Belichick said.
“Do you think have a 37-year-old …”
“We’re on to Cincinnati.”
And so on.
How does he do it? Well, yes, he works hard. Then: All NFL coaches work hard. He’s smart. Of course NFL coaches tend to be pretty smart. He’s driven. He’s imaginative. These are things you can say about dozens and dozens of men who coached professional football teams; many who barely lasted long enough to get their names put on the office door.
He’s had quarterback Tom Brady. People often say that Brady has made Belichick’s career. And he might agree with that. But if you look at the Patriots’ three Super Bowl victories you find something striking – Brady did not have great numbers in any of those seasons, nothing close to the numbers he would put up later. And the year he got hurt, the Patriots went 11-5.
Truth is, look at Belichick’s five teams that won the Super Bowl – including the two when he was defensive coach for the Giants – and you find five COMPLETELY different teams with different styles, different rhythms, different strengths. But they all won.
How does he do it? He’s not saying. Magicians never reveal their secrets.
But everyone has a Bill Belichick story.
* * *
Belichick fact: Bill Belichick is not mechanically inclined. He can’t fix anything. If his computer has even a slight problem, he is stumped. In 2009, when he granted access to NFL Films for “A Football Life” documentary, he had a two-week stretch when he did not know how to change his car clock to daylight savings time. It drove him nuts.
* * *
A story: Bill Belichick loved Miami defensive end Jason Taylor. This is something people don’t always see in Belichick – he admires good football players, whether they play for his team or the opponent. Bill Belichick’s father, Steve, was a renowned coach and scout at Navy, and while Steve was demanding (“Way tougher than me,” Bill says) he also would just light up happily whenever he came across a real good football player, someone who played with passion and intelligence and audacity. Bill learned that regard for football players at the same time he was learning the alphabet. It’s been with him almost all his life.
After every Patriots-Dolphins game, Belichick would find Taylor for a handshake and speak a few words. Every game. Heck, sometimes DURING the game, Belichick would make some positive comment to Taylor, something like, “You’re killing us today Taylor.”
Funny thing, Taylor began to notice something: He played DIFFERENTLY against New England. It was subtle, something no one else might have picked up. But you know that feeling of sitting in a rowdy classroom that straightens up when the principal walks in? That’s how Taylor felt. One time he made a tackle on the Patriots sideline, and some Patriots started trash talking — people have no idea just how much players come after each other verbally on the field. Anyway, Taylor turned to say something to the guy … and he saw Bill Belichick in the background.
“I see Coach Belichick,” Taylor says. “And I don’t say a word. I thought, ‘Coach Belichick is here, that’s not how I should be.’” He laughs.
“I didn’t want to disappoint Belichick,” he says with wonder in his voice. “And he wasn’t even my coach.”
* * *
Belichick fact: He keeps his five Super Bowl rings (two with the Giants, three with the Patriots) in a box somewhere – he does not wear them, and whenever a media person asks him about them he dismisses them. But every summer, he spends his time on his boat at Nantucket, a boat he called “V Rings.” Its original named was “III Rings” – he has changed it twice. He would like to change it again.
* * *
A story: Rodney Harrison was heading out to Oakland to talk to the Raiders about a job. He was 30 years old, a free agent, a two-time Pro Bowl safety many felt like had seen his best days. Harrison had already talked with Denver, and he had all but decided to sign with the Broncos. Then his phone rang. It was Bill Belichick.
The two talked for only a few minutes. Belichick said the Patriots wanted him. They didn’t need to talk to him in person. They didn’t need to check out if he was healthy. They just wanted him. Harrison was curious why.
“I saw you in warmups one time, and I saw you level a wide receiver,” Belichick said.
“You saw that?” Harrison asked in wonderment. He remembered the exact moment Belichick was talking about. A teammate was running over the middle in a drill, and Harrison knocked him down hard. He did get fired up for football.
“Yeah,” Belichick said. “And I knew right then that I wanted you to play for us.”
“After we hung up,” Harrison says, “I called my agent and told him, ‘I don’t care what you have to do, I don’t care how much money we have to leave on the table, I want to play for Bill Belichick. … I probably could have gotten a million dollars more a year with Denver. But after he said that … what other coach would even be watching a drill? And who else would remember that? I knew. I had to play for Bill Belichick.”
* * *
Belichick fact: Bill Belichick is not superstitious. Most coaches and players are superstitious, they cling to things that connect with past victories – wear the same clothes, eat the same meals, drive to the stadium the same way and so on. Belichick’s obsession for winning seems like it would lend itself to such habits, but it doesn’t. When asked about superstitions, he sighs deeply. “If only it was that easy,” he says.
* * *
A story: Pittsburgh’s star wide receiver Hines Ward was lined up against the Patriots for a third-down play in the 2001 AFC Championship Game, and he noticed something unusual: The Patriots defensive end Willie McGinest, one of the team’s best pass rushers, was lined up near him … no, wait, right across from him … like McGinest was covering him. All 6-foot-5 of him.
Well, that couldn’t be right. What was McGinest doing out here? The ball was snapped and McGinest hit him, pushed him, held him back. And then, when Ward finally freed himself, he found himself covered by the usual Patriots cornerback. The next third-down play, the same thing happened. And again.
At first, it didn’t even compute. Why would Belichick take one of his best pass rushers out of circulation just to hit him? And then he understood: Belichick had decided that the pass rush wasn’t his priority. Belichick had decided that no matter what else happened, Hines Ward was not going to beat the New England Patriots.
“I had never faced that before,” he says. “I had never seen a team put a player out there whose sole purpose was to disrupt me. … It was crazy, Willie has those long arms, he’s so strong. I remember thinking, ‘Man, what am I supposed to do here?’”
Ward caught six passes in the game – but he was helpless on third down. He caught one third-down pass all day and he lost two yards on that one. Late in the game, on third down, Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart tried to stuff a third down pass to Ward, and the ball was intercepted by Tebucky Jones. The Patriots won 24-17.
“Every time you played a Bill Belichick team, you knew they would have some trick formation or they would just take somebody away,” Ward says. “I remember going up to him after a game – I’m not sure if it was that game – and saying to him: ‘That was a helluva gameplan, coach.’ He didn’t say anything. He just kind of smiled and nodded. He doesn’t say a lot of things.”
* * *
Belichick fact: Bill Belichick loves Charles Barkley. He has loved Barkley going back to when he was coaching in Cleveland and Barkley was playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. It boggled his mind that Barkley, at 6-foot-6 or less, could lead the NBA in rebounding. That is the sort of magic that leaves Bill Belichick awed.
* * *
A story: Jonathan Vilma and his college teammate D.J. Williams were scheduled to work out for Belichick down in Miami. They were both big-time prospects – both would end up first-round picks – and the Patriots had two picks in the 2004 first round. So this was an important workout. Belichick showed up with his son Steve and said two words: “Hi guys.”
“Then he worked us out for the maximum time allowed,” Vilma says. “I mean: To the minute. At the end we were dog-tired, sweating, we had worked and worked. … And as soon as we stopped he said, ‘All right guys.’ And he walked off.
“We were just standing there, and we looked at each other like: ‘Did that just happen?’ Our agent called – we had the same agent – and he asked: ‘How did it go?’ And we just said, ‘No idea. He didn’t say anything to us.’”
Vilma and Williams were both off the board when Belichick and the Patriots selected, but New England did select another Miami teammate, Vince Wilfork. Vilma went to the Jets where he won defensive rookie of the year. But when they played the Patriots, he noticed that Belichick never said a word to him. They would cross paths – Vilma would go talk with Wilfork – but he never said a word.
In 2009, Vilma was a Pro Bowler with New Orleans and they played the Patriots, and he had a spectactular game. One more time, after the game, he saw Wilfork next to Belichick. The coach did not say a word to him.
The next year, at training camp, the Saints and Patriots had a practice. Vilma was warming up and, suddenly – “out of nowhere,” in Vilma’s memory – Belichick just appears behind him.
“I’m glad you’re out of my division,” Belichick said, without any words of introduction.
“Thanks coach,” Vilma said hesitantly.
“No, I’m serious,” Belichick said. “You’re a hell of a player.”
“No smile, no nothing,” Vilma says now as he remembers. “He just said it so matter of factly. And that’s it. He walked away.”
* * *
Belichick fact: He will NOT coach in his 70s the way Marv Levy did. He could not make that more clear. People think he can’t live without football. They’re wrong. He CAN live without football, and he will not coach when he’s in his 70s, and he says you can take that to the bank. Bill Belichick turns 63 in April.
* * *
Everyone has a Belichick story – here’s the best one I’ve ever heard. Tony Gonzalez told me this a few years ago over a home-cooked dinner. The story took him about 20 glorious minutes to tell. We’ll condense it.
Gonzalez played in 14 Pro Bowls – he loved playing when it was in Hawaii. Things were always so relaxing there, so fun. One year, Belichick was his coach, and Gonzalez was curious what made this guy so good. Great players are as bedazzled by Bill Belichick’s magic as anyone else. They have all played for good coaches. They have heard all the inspirational stories, all been screamed at for not doing something right, all been shown something on tape that perfectly foreshadowed what they would see in the game. What’s so different about this guy?
On the opening kickoff, Gonzalez was out on special teams – there are no backup players at the Pro Bowl, so the stars have to do some menial things – and he went through the motions and didn’t block anybody. Gonzalez jogged happily to the sidelines.
“Why don’t you (bleeping) block somebody Gonzalez,” Belichick grumbled as Gonzalez jogged by.
What? Did he just say that? Gonzalez turned and Belichick was just glaring at him, “like I was a piece of dirt.”
Gonzalez felt himself fuming. This was how the great Bill Belichick treated people? They were at the Pro Bowl, for crying out loud. This was Hawaii, for crying out loud. It was a beautiful day, blue sky, blue water, this was supposed to be a reward, a way to honor Gonzalez for working absurdly hard and having another extraordinary season. And this was what he gets? To have the game’s most famous coach swear at him for not blocking on special teams in an exhibition game?
Oh, yes, he was mad – who did this guy think he was? Gonzalez played football the right way. He didn’t deserve this. He stewed on the sideline, furious. And then it was time to go back on the field for another kickoff, another special teams moment, and the ball was kicked. Gonzalez locked in on a guy running down the field. “Why don’t you (bleeping) block somebody?” Sure, he heard it again. OK coach, fine, check out this block.
And Gonzalez absolutely mashed the defender, took him completely out of the play.
Then Gonzalez walked over to the sideline, and you better believe he walked right by Belichick, wanted to see the grimace wiped right off the man’s face. But Belichick showed no signs of even noticing him. He was looking out on the field, seemingly oblivious to Gonzalez’s presence. So Gonzalez kept walking. And as he was a few steps away, he heard Bill Belichick say this:
“Nice block, Gonzalez.”
He looked back, and there was no hint of a smile on Belichick’s face. Bill Belichick just kept looking at the field, and in that moment Tony Gonzalez understood. The man had coached him into blocking on special teams in the Pro Bowl.
* * *
Belichick facts: Bill Belichick loves the Grateful Dead and Bon Jovi, will quote “The Art of War,” has read all the Harry Potter books, preferred lacrosse to football as a player and is probably breaking down film right now, no matter when you are reading this.
* * *
In 2009, Bill Belichick tried one of the most famous gambles in recent NFL history – the Patriots went for it on fourth down from their own 28-yard line in the final minutes against Peyton Manning’s high flying Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots didn’t make it, the Colts won the game, and there was a backlash that Belichick mostly ignored.
After the game, though, he told the team this:
“It didn’t work out, and I’m not apologizing to anybody for being aggressive and trying to win. That’s what we’re here for, OK?”
This is the point: He coaches to win, always. Yes, sometimes it goes overboard. Spygate – when the Patriots were caught videotaping the New York Jets defensive coaches signals – that certainly was overboard. Some would argue that his surliness, his remoteness, his hoodies, unstoppable hunger for perfection sometimes all goes overboard too. Well, Rodney Harrison says it’s easy for people to miss the magic.
“I remember the 16-0 season,” Harrison says, “we would be winning games by 25 points. And in the Monday film sessions, he’d be saying, ‘Brady, you can’t hit a 260-pound tight end on that play, that’s terrible.’ And, ‘Do you guys on defense think maybe you can stop somebody for once?’ I mean he’d just light us up. We’re winning games by 30 and he’s just killing us.
“I loved it. He just wouldn’t let us have a letdown. I’ll tell you what separates him from every other coach – he always has a short-term plan and a long-term plan. And he’s always working both at the same time.”
Teller’s secret for magic – spending more time on something than anyone might reasonably expect – at first seems like no secret at all. It sounds like that one of those vague riddles. You know: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.
But, if you think a little more about it, you can see that Teller’s secret is the only way to make real magic. Yes, you can devise a magical device with trap doors and perfectly angled mirrors and nearly invisible cables. But is that real magic? Or is that just engineering?
Bill Belichick spends seemingly every minute of every day thinking about how to win the next football game. He focuses on winning that game in a way that even in a sport famous for coaching obsessives stands out. No, he’s not necessarily smarter or tougher or more competitive than other coaches. But maybe he will focus on it just a little longer.
In other words: The Patriots are on to San Diego. And Belichick will make sure there’s peanut butter on both slices of bread. That way the jelly won’t seep through.