FOXBOROUGH — It starts, like it always does, with the eyes. They scan the field, back and forth, searching for signs. Once spotted, those signs are sent to the brain, immediately decoded, and transferred to the mouth, which is ready to alert teammates what to look for or expect on the upcoming offensive play.
The eyes belong to Patriots safety Steve Gregory. So does the brain and the mouth, which speaks in a thick, quick, unmistakable New York accent. Combined, they offer solid proof that Gregory is one of the smartest players, at least when it comes to football knowledge, the Patriots have. Maybe the smartest.
“It’s something I’ve never, ever seen in someone before, how smart of a football player he is,” said fellow safety Duron Harmon, a rookie. “The ability to dissect an offense, before the snap, at the snap, after the snap? His football knowledge is at a different level.”
There’s a scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Matt Damon’s character is trying to describe to his love interest how he can solve math problems that stump everybody else. To help make his point to a skeptical Minnie Driver, he compares his uncanny ability to Beethoven and Mozart playing the piano.
“I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play,” Damon says in the movie. “When it came to stuff like [math], I could always just play.”
That’s Gregory on the football field. Pretty much since he began playing.
“I’ve always had an understanding for the game, whether it’s the X’s and O’s of it, or schemes and things like that. I just seem to ‘see’ the way it’s supposed to be,” Gregory said. “It’s a combination of the years of playing, film work, and just having a sense for football, I guess.”
Gregory’s smarts will be tested at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night in an AFC divisional-round playoff game. He’ll be matching wits with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who has had similar adjectives describe his own football intelligence.
Luck, 24, is in just his second season, and already has shown a maturity well beyond his years and NFL experience. Gregory, who turned 31 on Wednesday, is in his eighth season. He views his ability to figure out what’s happening or about to happen just as highly as his physical skills.
“Yeah, I’d probably say that’s right at the top, it’s something I rely on a lot,” Gregory said of his football smarts. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play in the league eight years now, and I’ve grown a lot over those eight years: I’ve played in a lot of football games, a lot of playoff games, a lot of big-time games, so those valuable experiences that I’ve gained throughout my career have paid dividends.”
Gregory’s mental edge can take many forms. In the film room, where he can spot tendencies of an offense and point them out to teammates. On the field, where he’ll pick up presnap hints of what play might be coming: a formation, personnel grouping, anticipating motion, who’s on the line of scrimmage, who’s off, where a specific playmaker is lined up.
Then, when the snap is made, Gregory can frequently figure out in a split second, based on a receiver’s initial break, what routes are being run on that particular play.
“There’s only so many combinations of routes that a team can do, and understanding those concepts and being able to recognize them quickly and react to them quickly, those things help you out,” Gregory said.
He’s also not shy about speaking up.
“If he’s on the sideline and I’m in and I make a mistake, he’ll come and tell me, ‘This is what you need to look for, because if you look for this you would have seen that, and you wouldn’t have been in that position.’ Or in the film room, he might say, ‘See this right here? That will give you the tip that they’re about to run this,’ ” Harmon said. “It’s crazy, because you start looking at things different now.”
Gregory’s helpful observations aren’t limited to his teammates.
“When we’re preparing for games, he’s not only able to watch film and see things coming, but he’s able to go to the coaches and say, ‘Why don’t we tweak this defense this way, because it better fits what they do?’ ” said Devin McCourty, who started alongside Gregory at safety in nine of the Patriots’ 16 regular-season games this season. “When we’re in meetings we’ll have something in the defense and we’re watching [film] and Steve will say, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ We’ll all sit there and look at him and be like, ‘You’re right, that probably would be better.’ I think that’s what makes him so good.
“Steve always has something each week we play that he sees and things we can do. That’s why we call him a future head coach.”
Gregory has heard that before, that when his playing days are over he’ll naturally be drawn into coaching. Maybe, maybe not.
“I haven’t really thought about that much, to be honest with you, so I don’t know. Could I do it? Probably,” Gregory said. “I could see it happening, but I don’t know if that’s something I want to pursue. Those guys put in a lot of time. Hopefully I’m playing a few more years, and I’ll cross that path when I get to it.”
The path for Gregory and the Patriots to cross now comes from the Colts, who stand between the Patriots and a third straight trip to the AFC Championship game. Gregory’s current coach knows how important it is having his safety on the field; Gregory missed two games after breaking his thumb. He wore a large, cumbersome cast when he returned.
“Steve is a very instinctive player, not only smart but he has good anticipation and awareness of what’s happening back there. I think that’s definitely one of his strengths,” Bill Belichick said. “He’s very instinctive in the running game and the passing game, [with] formations. Yeah, we’re really fortunate.”
It takes some level of intelligence to play football in the NFL, no matter the position, and Gregory is hardly the only player who has been singled out by coaches and teammates for his ability to read, interpret, and react to things an opponent might be doing. It’s a trait he’s developed into a strength, one that manifests itself to those around him on a regular basis.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I definitely appreciate that,” Gregory said, when told about some of his teammates calling him the smartest player they’ve ever played with. “I’m just a guy that goes to work every day. I study as much as I can.”