It may be time to add a new branch to the Bill Belichick coaching tree: ex-players. Specifically, players who were part of the 2004 Patriots team.
That group distinguished itself on a number of levels, including winning a Super Bowl. But the 2004 roster is also making a name for itself as a group that has churned out a dozen coaches at the pro and college levels.
In the NFL, that includes Mike Vrabel (head coach, Titans), Adrian Klemm (assistant coach, Steelers), Bill Yates (assistant coach, Lions), Ty Warren (assistant coach, Lions), Larry Izzo (assistant coach, Seahawks), and Troy Brown (assistant coach, Patriots).
In college, there’s Kevin Faulk (running backs coach, LSU), Terrell Buckley (cornerbacks coach, Mississippi), and Hank Poteat (cornerbacks coach, Toledo).
And this doesn’t include Roman Phifer, who has become a scout for Detroit after serving as a Broncos assistant, or former offensive lineman Stephen Neal, an assistant wrestling coach with Cal-State Bakersfield. Or Joe Andruzzi, David Patten, and Shawn Mayer, who worked as assistant coaches or in administrative roles before moving on to other opportunities.
“A lot of the guys on those teams, a lot of the guys Bill brought in, they were coaches on the field, and so seeing them taking that step when they are done playing, it’s no surprise,” said Faulk.
What was it about that team that set up so many players for success at the next level?
For one, they checked all the boxes that define a smart, successful team: They went 17-2 and won a Super Bowl. Only two teams had more takeaways that year. They were disciplined, with just 101 penalties (not counting those declined or offset), good for sixth best in the NFL that season.
But it went beyond the numbers.
It’s one thing to say you love the game as a player. As a coach, that devotion can be tested with 18-hour days that include working with players, breaking down film, prepping for game day, and, for college coaches, recruiting. It’s a life of long hours and little public acknowledgment. A willingness to embrace the unglamorous part of the job is a fundamental part of a coach’s DNA.
According to Izzo, that 2004 team had plenty of guys willing to endure the thankless elements of the game to achieve something greater.
“The guys on that team who went into coaching, all of them were grinders when they were players,” said Izzo, who coached with the Giants and Texans before joining the Seahawks staff in 2018.“ They were the type of players who would do anything they were asked to help the team win.
“They were all hard-working guys with a great work ethic. Those sorts of things translate well when you’re talking about coaching.
“It’s a unique lifestyle, but it’s a natural progression for us who really loved the game. If you were a hard-working player who was all about sacrifice, a grinder who would do anything to help the team win, well, those are the same skills you need in coaching.”
Becoming a successful coach can be a long journey and a humbling experience for someone who earned a Super Bowl ring as a player. For Faulk, it meant taking a high school coaching job in Louisiana after he retired as a player following the 2011 season. He joined the staff at LSU in 2018 and was promoted to running backs coach by Ed Orgeron earlier this year.
“The thing to remember is that a lot of guys don’t necessarily have to or want to be coaches,” Faulk said. “You can have that football knowledge, but just want to go on and do something else.
“To be a coach, you do have to be able to sacrifice and give of yourself and start at the bottom again. Football knowledge is obviously important, but there’s more to it than that.”
Some players entertain the thought of coaching only when their playing career is done. But in other cases, it’s clear they’re simply wired for the job. By all accounts, it would have been a surprise if Vrabel had done anything other than coach.
“We knew as a group, on both sides of the ball, that he would be a coach one day,” Faulk said of Vrabel, who was an assistant at Ohio State and with the Texans before becoming head coach in Tennessee. “He made sure a lot of things were taken care of.”
Another thing that can help shape a future coach?
“We were well-coached,” Izzo said. “Bill and that staff … it’s not a surprise that so many of us have gone into coaching, especially when you consider we got such an understanding of the game in terms of how we were taught. It just seems like a natural progression.”
Poteat agreed with that assessment.
“I always tell everyone, all of the things I do today as a coach come from what I learned in that system," he said. “I still use the core characteristics I learned in New England in my coaching. Your time there as a player, it forces you to study, study, study, and that preparation takes your game to the next level.”
As other former New England players emerge as coaches at the college and pro levels, the success of Vrabel, Faulk, and others suggests this branch of the Belichick coaching tree will continue to bear fruit.
“Being a part of that program, specifically that year, you just learned a lot, and it prepared you well for coaching,” Poteat said. “That year, whether it was the coaching staff, the veteran leadership in the locker room that held you accountable — Ty Law or Mike Vrabel or Rodney Harrison — it all went into setting a standard that would pay off down the line.”
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.