Before moving to Boston in May to start writing for the Globe, I feel like I had the typical outsider’s impression of Bill Belichick. He’s grumpy. Cold and calculating. Hates fulfilling his media duties. And takes no joy in winning, sucking all the fun out of a kid’s game.
Then I moved here, got a front-row seat to the action, and even a few peeks behind the curtain. I quickly discovered that Belichick is hardly a monster; his press conference soliloquies on scouting matchups and NFL history are always fascinating, and he occasionally displays a sarcastic wit and even breaks into a smile.
And while covering the Patriots can be at times frustrating — I’ve never seen players scurry away from reporters after winning a division championship quite like they did on Sunday — you gain an appreciation for Belichick’s methods and start to understand how he has guided the Patriots to 11 AFC East titles in 13 seasons, an incredible accomplishment in a league that is designed to drag teams back to the mean.
The Patriots enter Sunday’s regular-season finale against Buffalo with an 11-4 record (again), and a chance to wrap up a first-round bye and possibly even the No. 1 seed (again). When making preseason predictions, many of us expected the Patriots to be in this position, but the way they have gotten here has been pretty incredible.
The list of injuries and obstacles the Patriots have had to overcome has been talked about ad nauseum, so we don’t need to go over it again. There has been a lot of talk locally and nationally about Belichick deserving the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, and whether this has been the finest coaching job of his 14-year Patriots tenure. That’s not something to take lightly given the three Super Bowl championships and perfect regular season on his résumé.
So I asked Belichick Monday if he has allowed himself to reflect at all on what an amazing season this has been for himself, his players, and his coaching staff. Belichick is famous for his “on to the next one” approach, but surely someone as well-versed in NFL history and machinations as he is could appreciate the success his team is having despite the obstacles.
“I don’t really think that’s what it’s about,” he replied. “We’re in a week-to-week business. We all see in the NFL every week that games that you think are going to go one way go another way.
“This game, this league is so even. All the teams are so evenly matched. Every team has good players, good coaches, good schemes, they work hard, they have experienced guys, they have guys that are explosive and playmakers.
“Every week we line up across from those challenges. If you don’t move ahead and meet the next one, if you sit back there and spend too much time feeling good about what you did in the past, then you’re going to come up short the next turn at bat.”
Of course, that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. We in the media are always begging for our subjects to show their human side, to reveal emotions that show us that they think and act just like the rest of us mortals. I was hoping he’d tell us a story about kicking up his feet Sunday night, lighting a stogie and telling his friends and loved ones that this is the most rewarding season of his career.
But that is the kind of mentality that gets teams bumped early from the playoffs. Belichick’s answer, as unexciting as it was, explains why his Patriot teams have reached the conference championship game seven times in 13 seasons.
I’ll bet that in private moments Belichick is awfully proud of the job he has done this season. And it’s only natural to let your mind wander and start comparing this season to others.
But the last thing he wants to do is give off the impression that he is satisfied. The players follow their leader, and the best way to ensure an early playoff exit is to start patting each other on the back and let complacency set in. Super Bowls are the standard around here, and there’s still a lot of work to be done this season.
“I don’t think it’s really about looking at the past, whether it was good or bad — and we’ve had both,” Belichick said. “It’s putting that behind us, learning from some of the things that happened yesterday, both good and bad, reinforcing some positives, correcting some negatives and then moving on and turning our attention to Buffalo.”
That’s not to say that the Patriots aren’t allowed to have a little fun and show some emotion now and then. I walked past Julian Edelman in the tunnels of M&T Bank Stadium about an hour after last Sunday’s game, and before I could even say, “Congrats and have a safe flight home,” he reached back and slapped me five so hard that it almost knocked my hand off.
Edelman is usually quite reserved with the media, and I’m not 100 percent sure he knew who I was. But he couldn’t contain his excitement, and who could blame him?
Edelman has been the perfect embodiment of this Patriots season. He was barely used on offense in his first four NFL seasons, hardly got a sniff on the free agent market, and came back to the Patriots at a near-minimum salary.
Now here he stands with 96 catches, 991 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a nice payday likely coming to him this offseason. Wes who?
Belichick may not want to dwell on past successes, but he is smart enough to give his players their due. He needs them to run through a wall for him, after all.
“Obviously, he’s had a tremendous year for us,” Belichick said of Edelman. “Fundamentally, I think he’s still the same player. But the consistency and the ability to build on where he’s been has really been impressive this year.”
It’s a fine line for a coach, knowing when to revel in success and when to keep things in check. And Belichick is proving once again this season that few coaches tiptoe that line better than he does.