Bill Belichick didn’t coach a game this weekend, but thanks to another win by the Browns, his name was in the NFL conversation anyway. Cleveland improved to 4-1 for the first time since 1994, when, you guessed it, Belichick was their young-pup head coach.
Hindsight proves the Browns were hasty in giving up on Belichick, and time, along with six Super Bowl wins, have proven how much the Patriots benefited from that mistake.
Yet here, in 2020, 21 seasons into his tenure in New England, Belichick may be doing the best coaching job of his life. Given the times we are in, he is definitely doing his most important, guiding the franchise’s response to an ongoing pandemic with an admirable balance of wisdom, caution, and concern for those around him.
We know already he is willing to supersede NFL guidelines with his own best practices, electing to close the team facility last Friday even when the league deemed enough time had passed since Stephon Gilmore’s positive test followed Cam Newton’s initial domino. But a league source confirmed Belichick is willing to use his influence wherever possible.
Though he wouldn’t divulge any input he gave the league regarding his team’s outbreak, avoiding, as he said, the potential for being “taken out of context,” Belichick has been vocal during calls with league officials, unafraid to express his strong belief in the importance of social distancing, mask wearing, and any other protocols that can help contain the spread of the virus. He has put plenty of action behind his words, too.
Saturday’s walkthrough included extra precautions: players wearing gaiter masks in addition to face shields, team meetings held outside rather than in conference rooms, and distance from each other respected wherever possible.
Go back even further to the last game, the Monday night contest in Kansas City Oct. 5. When Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft elected to use two planes for the team, the easy fallback was to poke fun at a move that ultimately didn’t stop more Patriots from testing positive.
But that does a disservice to a sincere attempt to honor the tenets of contact tracing, giving the 15-20 people most closely in contact with Newton a plane to themselves. It also meant Kraft, who owns two planes but because of logistical issues during the pandemic hasn’t had either available to his team, footed a six-figure bill to add that second plane.
“That’s our approach, that’s the way I look at it, and I know that’s the way Mr. Kraft looks at it, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Belichick said. “We’ll put the team first and that’s our philosophy.”
I wouldn’t bet against the Patriots having had a direct impact on the scheduling carousel announced during Sunday’s games, when the decision to move their rescheduled Monday night game against Denver to next weekend touched off a cavalcade of subsequent game changes. Given the obvious mistake made in sending them to KC before the potential incubation period was cleared, the Patriots seemed determined to avoid the same mistake.
Defensive back Jason McCourty all but said so Saturday. He wasn’t wrong, but just as newsworthy as what he said is his confidence to say it, knowing his coach has his back. Belichick has made it quite clear his decisions aren’t made with just his players in mind, but all the support personnel who work at Gillette Stadium as well. He makes them with extended families in mind too, an approach that leaves the locker room confident in so much more than the coach’s ability to design a winning game plan.
“This is more than just football," running back Damien Harris said Saturday, the one day the Patriots were in the building before a third positive test closed the doors and postponed the Denver game again. “People’s families are at stake, people’s health. I think for us to be able to have that confidence that he’s always going to do what’s best for us, it’s a great feeling."
It’s a feeling they will never forget, reinforcing how much Belichick is willing to sacrifice to keep them safe.
Maybe it comes as a surprise to some, given this is a coach who has drawn more than his deserved doses of criticism for a hard exterior and colder heart. Belichick has always made it clear the business of football is not to be ruled by emotion, the trail of beloved fan favorites jettisoned once their skills began to deteriorate more than enough evidence to support his thinking.
He also has been willing to bend any rule to his perceived favor, from Spygate to Deflategate, from toying with injury reports (how long was Tom Brady listed as probable?) to signing practice squad players just to get intel on an upcoming opponent.
For him to give away practice days or time with his team tells you how much he believes in putting health above anything else.
Because the business of football doesn’t work without the players, and as Belichick also makes sure to remind us during these wildly unpredictable times, “Without a healthy team, you don’t have a team, so that’s priority No. 1.”
Give me a choice, and I’d much rather that be the attitude than what we heard from Broncos coach Vic Fangio, whose team never did board a plane Sunday morning and wasn’t asked to do a potential same-day travel plan like the one the Patriots did for KC.
“In a weird way, I’m kind of happy to see some of this stuff happen, because you get to see who the whiners are, who the bitchers are, and who can’t handle adversity,” Fangio said. “And I’m going to try hard that the Denver Broncos don’t fall into any of those categories.”
No whining from Belichick. Just wisdom.