Jim Davis/Globe Staff
The Patriots’ man behind the curtain
Is little-known Bill Belichick confidant Ernie Adams the secret to the Patriots’ success?
PHOENIX — You can see the Ernie Hotline in the phone bank near the Patriots bench. Sometimes when Bill Belichick is prowling and scowling on the sideline, you get a glimpse of the wall of black phones behind the coach.
Under an NFL-shielded Microsoft Surface blue awning, in the middle of the row of old-timey wall phones, there is one handset with a strip of red tape affixed to the receiver. Somebody with a black Sharpie has identified the man on the other end of this line.
The five letters run from top to bottom of the handpiece.
Who is Ernie Adams? What does he do? These are the eternal questions surrounding the Mystery Man of the Patriots.
Adams declined a request to be interviewed for this story. No big surprise there. Ernie Adams interviews are like J.D. Salinger interviews. Like Garbo. Like Koufax. They are rare. Adams prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
Adams, who is officially listed as “football research director,” is the man behind the Patriots’ iron curtain. He is the man who has Belichick’s ear. He is a football genius, a statistical savant, the Rain Man of the NFL. In the words of late author David Halberstam, Adams is “Belichick’s Belichick.’’
The magic game plan that beat the unbeatable St. Louis Rams in the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win? Hiking the ball off your own goal post to win an unwinnable game in Denver? Skull-imploding substitution plays that paralyzed John Harbaugh in New England’s playoff win over Baltimore? Adams’s DNA is sprinkled over all Patriot strategy and trickeration. History and anecdotal evidence suggest that Adams would know a lot about the PSI of a pigskin.
Adams is Belichick’s trusted football brother and confidant. He is like Robert Kennedy serving as attorney general for brother JFK in the New Frontier. He is Dick Cheney, behind the scenes with George W.
Who is the Patriots’ true decider? We’re never quite sure.
Asked to assess Adams’s contribution to the Patriots’ success, Belichick said, “Ernie’s really a great sounding board for me personally and other members of our staff. Particularly coaching staff. Strategy, rules, decisions. Ernie’s very, very smart. He has great historical perspective. Sometimes that comes into play.’’
Nobody closes the walls tighter than the New England professional football franchise. Foxborough is a fortress of paranoia, self-importance, and secrecy. The Patriots are the proverbial Churchillian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and within this Russian nesting doll — inside all the other baubles — there is Ernie Adams.
Nobody knows him. Nobody knows what he does. Nobody remembers much about working with him, even if they worked with him for more than a dozen years.
When Adams worked with Belichick in Cleveland, Browns owner Art Modell famously said, “I’ll pay anyone here $10,000 if they can tell me what Ernie Adams does. I know he does something, and I know he works for me, and I know I pay him, but I’d love to know what it is.’’
No one on the Cleveland staff came forward with information for the reward.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, when asked about Adams this week, was hard-pressed to recall anything about Adams even though Adams worked with the Tuna for six seasons.
“I can’t really tell you anything about him,’’ said Parcells. “I just don’t know the guy.’’
Informed that Adams was the New York Giants’ “director of pro personnel” in 1983 and ’84 — when Parcells was head coach of the team, Parcells said, “He was? I don’t remember that. I don’t remember him being on my staff.
“If he was on my coaching staff, I don’t remember what he was doing. I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I have a pretty good memory, and I didn’t have any interaction with him.’’
It’s a pattern of Adams’s past. In the football world, Adams is tethered only to Belichick.
Adams works up to 100 hours per week during the season. He studies film, devours statistics, reports on trends, and develops strategies on 2-point conversions, fourth-down attempts, and timeout preservations. He runs the vaunted Patriot “value chart,’’ helping Belichick on personnel decisions regarding free agents, trades, and the draft. He appears to be the voice inside Belichick’s head for 60 minutes every Sunday, but no one will say for sure.
There’s more. Adams has recently become involved with the Patriots Hall of Fame and is known to make passionate pleas for worthy players at nominating committee meetings. Adams was a bachelor for most of his life, living with his mother in a house near Coolidge Corner until she died in 2004. He has since married a woman named Christine and, according to the meticulously detailed Patriots press guide, Ernie and Christine “live in Massachusetts.’’
In 2008, Adams told Northwestern magazine (his alumni periodical) that when he files his tax return, he lists his profession as “research.”
When Adams granted access to Halberstam for the author’s “The Education of a Coach,’’ Halberstam described a team meeting in which “a giant photo of Adams had been punched up on the immense screen, instead of a play, and under it was written, ‘What does this man do?’ ’’
The image of the nerdy, silent, ubiquitous man with the giant glasses no doubt inspired an outburst like the one that greeted the photo of legacy Kent Dorfman when Delta House leaders were vetting freshman pledges in “Animal House.’’
(Adams, a history buff, struck a deal that allowed him to ask Halberstam a Vietnam question after every three football questions.)
Oh and did you enjoy “Friday Night Lights”? Adams is the guy who told former Andover school chum Buzz Bissinger that Odessa, Texas would be a fine place to probe high school football.
“I really can’t tell what Ernie’s role is, but my guess would be he’s an overseer,’’ said former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who studied under Adams in the 1980s. “Anything he sees relating to the football team, he relays that to Bill.
“I think it is a great source of information for Bill. There’s nothing like somebody that can stand back and get a different view of what’s going on.’’
Long before kickoff in Super Bowl XLIX, Adams will be on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, watching the Patriots and Seahawks warm up. Wearing his oversized 1970s eyeglasses, a lightweight Patriot windbreaker, khaki pants, and sneakers, with a Patriots cap pulled down on his head, Adams will stand alone with his arms folded and watch everything.
He’ll pay special attention to both teams’ kickers. It’s a matter of timing and range. Typically there are wind, weather, and surface issues to consider. Not so much in Arizona.
Adams will watch Stephen Gostkowski but he will not interact with the Patriots’ affable young kicker. “Do Your Job” does not mean small talk with the players. Adams will save his observations for Belichick. Only Belichick.
“He doesn’t talk to us,’’ said Gostkowski. “I couldn’t tell you what he does. No one knows.
“There’s a lot of stories about him. I don’t know what’s true, but it’s fun having him around. I always see him lurking, watching us warm up. In practice, he’s always standing behind our snapper when he’s snapping.
“He watches me before the game and gets a feel for my range, but it’s never really talked about. Other than that, I just stay out of the way. I kind of just try to do my job and not ask any questions.’’
“I never talked to him when I was a player,’’ said Troy Brown, who played 15 years with the Patriots. “Now that I’m an ex-player we’ll have a conversation once in a while. He’s a really nice guy.’’
When the game starts, Adams is upstairs in the booth with the Patriots’ eye-in-the-sky team. He wears a headset. He has Belichick’s ear. When the Patriots have allowed NFL Films to record some of Belichick’s in-game dialogue, you hear a lot of, “What have we got, Ernie?’’
Down on the field, the dedicated Ernie Hotline is available for Patriots assistant coaches. Or in case there’s a scramble with Belichick’s headset. The Ernie Hotline is the backup. In case of emergency. Belichick’s lifeline.
Adams is the one who tells Belichick whether the Patriots should toss the red challenge flag after a questionable call. At halftime, Adams hustles downstairs with several other coaches and tells Belichick what needs to be done in the second half. The Patriots annually lead the league in effective second-half adjustments.
Tom Brady knows what Adams does. Sort of.
“Ernie’s been around for 15 years,’’ Brady said, smiling. “He’s the football historian. He always adds his insight into what he thinks we’re going to see into what the offense and defense both do. He’s got a really unique perspective on the game and he’s a great asset to our team.’’
Is Brady involved with Adams on game day?
“No,’’ said the quarterback. “I’m on the field, so whatever his involvement is, Coach would know better than me.’’
So what about it, Bill? How much interaction do you have with Adams on game day?
“Enough,’’ answered Belichick. “It varies.’’
“In a minute, we can get a lot communicated,’’ Adams told Northwestern magazine. “We don’t have to talk a lot.’’
He told the New York Times in 2004, “My responsibility is to do whatever I can think of to help us win. Part of it, I make up as I go along. Bill and I work together. If I think I can help us win, my job is to do it.’’
Ernie Adams was born on March 31, 1953, in Waltham, Mass., the son of Helen Adams and an often-absent father who was a career Naval officer. Ernie went to elementary and junior high at the Dexter School in Brookline.
He was a football historian at a young age, and his personal syllabus included the little-known tome, “Football Scouting Methods,’’ by Navy assistant coach Steve Belichick.
Ernie was coach of the intramural football team at Dexter. After Dexter, he attended Phillips Andover Academy, where, according to Halberstam, he was “a true eccentric” and the school’s best Latin scholar. During senior year, at football practice, Adams discovered that his new teammate, Bill Belichick, was the son of coach/author Steve Belichick.
At Andover, Adams played guard and wore No. 81. Belichick played center and wore No. 50. When Steve Belichick came to Massachusetts to scout Boston College, Adams went to dinner with the Belichicks and told Steve he wanted to become a football coach.
After Andover, Adams went to Northwestern, where he was an asset to the Big Ten team’s football staff. Belichick went to Wesleyan. After graduation, while Belichick was running errands for $25 per day for Baltimore Colts coach Ted Marchibroda, Adams used his Northwestern connections to get a job with Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks.
Patrick Sullivan, son of Boston Patriots founder Billy Sullivan, was a young Patriots staffer when Adams showed up in the summer of ’75.
“Ernie was there with Chuck [Sullivan], and he was the mad scientist,’’ recalled Patrick Sullivan. “He was sort of the predecessor to game tendencies. He started charting plays and scouting the opposition and developing a system where he could deliver it to the coaches. Eventually all that stuff got crunched by a computer, but he started it.
“I don’t know how he got hired by us, or who his guardian angel was, but he basically reported to Fairbanks. Fairbanks had assembled his own coaching tree: Hank Bullough, Red Miller, Jim Ringo, Raymond Berry, Sam Rutigliano, Ron Erhardt. It was a coaching “Who’s Who.’’
“Every one of those guys had a level of skepticism for other human beings, and the fact that they trusted Ernie says a lot about the guy.
“I’d see Ernie in the morning, say hello, and that would be it. He’s really invisible.’’
Adams was something of a legend in the corridors of the old Sullivan Stadium. Every time one of the grizzled coaches threw him a playbook, the kid would memorize the entire thing in a couple of days. Adams’s scouting reports on upcoming opponents were spectacular.
Young Ernie certainly impressed Patriots assistant coach Ray Perkins. When Perkins was hired to coach the Giants in 1979, he hired the 26-year-old Adams and made him quarterbacks coach, even though Adams had never played the position. It was Adams who persuaded Perkins to bring Belichick to the Giants as a special teams coach.
As quarterbacks coach, Adams’s first student was rookie Phil Simms, a top-round pick from Morehead State.
“When I think about it now, I want to laugh,’’ said Simms. “The team meetings started at 9, and we started our quarterback meetings at 7:30. We’d meet in a small room with those old projectors and the film was always breaking.
“The hours were a lot. I would say we were meeting more than any other organization in football. Ernie’s job was to make sure I learned the offense and knew what was going on.
“I liked Ernie. It meant a lot to me what he did. He wasn’t an ex-player or any of that stuff, but he knew what he was talking about.’’
Before Simms became a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the 1986 season, Adams left the Giants (after 1984) and went to work on Wall Street as a municipal bond trader. Everyone says he did very well. In 1991, when Belichick became head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Adams came back to football.
Ernie Accorsi was general manager of the Browns for one year while Belichick and Adams were there and went on college scouting junkets with Adams and Belichick.
“Ernie never said much, but you knew he was smart,’’ recalled Accorsi. “Bill never had people around who weren’t smart.
“I was never really sure what Ernie did, but you could tell he was important to Bill. He was upstairs during the games and he had some say in things. He was an analytics guy before there were analytics.’’
When Belichick was fired by the Browns in 1996, Adams left football again, this time starting his own investment business. He made another bundle.
“I said to him once, ‘Man, I could use a stock tip,’ ’’ recalled Simms. “And he deadpanned and said, ‘Look, I got a great tip for you.’ I thought it was going to be about Xerox or something, and he said, ‘Buy low, sell high.’ That was Ernie.’’
When Belichick was hired by the Patriots in 2000, Adams came back to football. The rest is history. Super Bowl history.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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