The Patriots are swirling in the same uncertainty as every other NFL team, the unavoidable byproduct of football in the time of a pandemic. New England is simply facing more, given the league-high eight voluntary opt-outs that further altered a depth chart seismically changed by one free agent opt-out at quarterback.
Yet to listen to Bill Belichick, you’d never know it.
He is the Patriots’ secret weapon.
OK, maybe he’s not so secret. Belichick is, after all, the best-known coach in the NFL and one of its most successful ever. He built that stature by maintaining one of the most consistent approaches to coaching we’ve ever seen, behind a public persona that has always reflected stability and calmness above all else. The verbal fortress he has built over the years is as impressive as it is maddening, confounding the best attempts to draw out anything beyond what he intends to release.
But in a season of chaos characterized by far less time and far more restrictions on how to prepare, Belichick’s even-tempered, unflappable ways are more valuable than ever. Every time he answers a question about the changes with a “no big deal,” he is modeling the precise behavior that will help his players get through these strange times.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t say any of it has just been overwhelming,” he said during a call with reporters Friday, a week after his first call during this training camp period reflected the same attitude.
Not even the absence of preseason games could get a rise out of him, and those are something Belichick has relied on so heavily as he’s kept at least one undrafted free agent on his roster for 16 seasons running.
Instead, Belichick pointed out that college programs have been going without preseason games since football was invented by Rutgers back in the 1870s, a point he reiterated this week, relating how he has spoken with colleagues in college to learn their best practices. That was but one of the many points Belichick made about the world as we currently know it, his absolute refusal to panic or overreact offered up like a gift of predictability and familiarity in this world of uncertainty.
“We wear masks. There’s not a buffet line for food. The food is ordered, boxed, and packaged,” Belichick said, as if ticking off a grocery list rather than life in the time of pandemic. “We have meetings in bigger rooms, they’re more spread out. It’s essentially the same meeting, we’re just distanced and wearing masks.
“Everyone is more conscious of hand washing, sanitizing, distancing, we wear monitors and all that. There’s a higher awareness. But fundamentally we’re still going over the same material in the same progression.
“I wouldn’t say it’s monumental. None of [the changes are] inhibiting. Different, maybe more time consuming, precautionary.”
His attitude matters. He sets the tone. If a coach can’t handle changes to a locker room setting, or having to use a visitors locker room in addition to his own, or having to walk down a long hallway to get to a bigger meeting room than usual, or incorporating video meetings along with in-person ones, or wearing a mask while watching player workouts, or reimagining seating charts for any of those various settings, how will he ever handle the bigger stuff, like a player having to enter quarantine for being exposed to the virus, or, God forbid, a positive COVID test the night before a game?
As baseball has surely taught us, the only thing guaranteed in sports life outside a bubble is that something will go wrong. Being able to handle that, to be flexible, to find solutions is going to require a playbook just as important as the one that details a game plan.
“We take it as it comes,” Belichick insisted. “Each step of the way may be a little bit different, may require a little bit more thought, possibly creativity. For right now, we’re basically in a Phase 1 situation or environment, and that’s what we’re doing, what we always do in Phase 1, with a few modifications. It’s fine. We’re being productive, using the time we have to make strides.
“There are some things we can’t do, but we’re not going to focus on those. We look at the things we can do and focus on those.”
If that sounds familiar, give yourself a gold star. The foundation of Belichick’s coaching success is built with this same attitude as one of its pillars. His ability to accentuate a particular player’s strength rather than obsess over his shortcoming has been so vital to the Patriots’ dynastic success, the reason a Cordarrelle Patterson or a Jamie Collins or a Patrick Chung always seems to find himself in the right place to succeed.
With Belichick as their bottom line, the Patriots have a chance. There’s no Tom Brady. No starting linebackers from last year. No idea yet who will start at quarterback, and almost no tight ends to throw to no matter if it is Cam Newton in the pocket. Those are all big hurdles to clear, changes on the field that threaten to derail the AFC East dominance that has defined the Belichick era.
But this year, it’s the consistency off the field that may matter as much or more than what happens on it, because if the former isn’t done safely and responsibly, the latter can’t happen at all.
And in that realm, the Patriots have a secret weapon. OK, not so secret. But a weapon all the same.
If Bill Belichick, a 68-year-old self-described technophobe, can take these behavioral changes in stride, how can his players not do the same?