Bill Belichick strode to the podium on July 29 and greeted a room full of reporters with his first words of the 2015 season.
“It’s good to see everyone back here,” Belichick said.
Ha ha, very funny. Now back to the grumpy, monotone, “On-to-Cincinnati” persona that we’ve all grown to expect from the Patriots coach over the last 15 years.
Except something strange has happened this season. Belichick, it seems, can’t stop talking.
Belichick is required by the NFL to talk five times per week — after each game, and on four other days. And many his news conferences and conference calls have been surprisingly good this season, with Belichick consistently giving detailed and candid answers about how he runs his team, evaluations of players, lengthy explanations of seemingly mundane details, and how certain situations unfolded in games. Believe it or not, he even cracks the occasional smile.
“Yeah, I always have a smile here on Wednesday,” Belichick said before facing the Bills.
Before the season opener, Belichick dropped a Dwight Eisenhower quote in the middle of a news conference. “What did General Eisenhower say? ‘Before the battle, preparation is everything. Once the battle starts, preparation doesn’t mean anything. You’re fighting the battle.’ ”
In October, Belichick gave an 889-word response, lasting more than eight minutes, about the preparation involved in the decision to replace an injured offensive tackle with either a guard or a big tight end.
“Honestly, I think it would be pretty irresponsible if we got a player hurt and then we had a meeting on the sideline like, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” he said.
In November, he was asked about the NFL possibly expanding rosters next season, and in a 926-word diatribe he bemoaned the increased specialization of football players and explained that expanding rosters won’t help teams if they lose star players to injury.
“Sorry to take so long on that,” he apologized afterward.
And if you really want to get Belichick going, ask him a question about special teams. The question, “After one preseason game, where are you at in the kicking game?” produced a 550-word response. In November, a question about how to field a punt deep in your territory produced a 628-word answer.
“It’s certainly an interesting point of discussion, and . . . there is certainly variability on that subject,” Belichick said after speaking for seven minutes.
He jokes with the skeleton crew of reporters who show up for his Friday 9 a.m. news conferences, calling them his “Friday warriors.” He even went out of his way, unprompted, to thank the media for its coverage when the Patriots practiced on Thanksgiving morning.
“I appreciate the professional way that this group covers us, and being the conduit of information from the team to the fans,” he said.
Of course, Belichick’s players say the coach hasn’t gone soft with them this season.
“I think he’s pretty similar to the way he always has been,” Tom Brady said. “He’s a very disciplined coach, and he gets us prepared every week. It may be different for you guys. He coaches us hard.”
“Same old Bill, I guess,” is how special teams ace Matthew Slater put it. “A guy who is always going to challenge us to improve every day and every week. A guy who’s not going to settle for less.”
Topics for discussion
But Belichick has been downright pleasant with the media for most of this season. I asked a few of the longtime Patriots reporters if they observed the same from Belichick, and they each answered definitively, yes. Words used to describe Belichick’s demeanor this season were “expansive,” “upbeat,” “chipper,” and “fascinating.”
This is Belichick we’re talking about, right?
“Just trying to be cooperative and help you out,” he deadpanned on Dec. 2 when asked about the statement the team released about Rob Gronkowski’s injury.
The general rule of thumb for years in Foxborough was that Belichick was always pretty good on Fridays, when most of the preparation for the week is complete. But this season even his Wednesday news conferences can be filled with humor, anecdotes, and insights.
So, what gives? Theories abound: He’s a happier guy now that he’s won another Super Bowl; it’s hard to be grumpy when your team starts 10-0, and now is 12-4 and has a first-round bye; he’s filibustering to get through the news conferences with as few questions as possible; and one longtime Patriots media member jokes that Belichick knows this is his last season coaching.
Of course, there are still topics he won’t touch.
Don’t ask him about Deflategate or Brady suing the NFL.
“You heard what Robert [Kraft] just said. It’s already been addressed. Maybe you ought to go back and look at your notes,” Belichick said.
Don’t ask him how he has evolved over 40 years as an NFL coach.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
And definitely don’t ask him about the bye week before the bye week arrives.
“Honestly, we’re not even thinking about the bye week right now,” he said.
Class in session
But to listen in on Belichick’s news conferences this season is to get a master’s-level education from one of the smartest football minds in the world.
He’ll go in-depth on the fundamentals of football, and game management (at least when the team wins). In September, Belichick went five straight minutes and 499 words on the five skills needed for cornerbacks to consistently deflect passes. After the first Jets game in October, he described how Julian Edelman got inside split safety coverage and Brady delivered the ball with perfect anticipation to convert a crucial third-and-17 play.
Also in October, Belichick described his philosophy for when to go for 2-point conversions.
“The less time there is to go in the game, the more I think you want to just stick to the chart,” he said. “That gives you the best mathematical probability of doing the right thing. Sometimes that can get you into trouble if there is enough time for there to be multiple scores, and then the numbers change.”
Two Thursdays ago, while wearing a Bruins knit hat in advance of the Winter Classic, Belichick unprompted told us all about his hockey days in the “huff-and-puff” league when he was a coach with the Giants. He then, of course, transitioned into a 192-word lecture on the differences in scheming defense in football vs. sports with a goalie such as hockey and lacrosse.
“It’s a lot different when you’ve got to defend a line as opposed to a basket or a goal or just a small space,” Belichick explained. “It changes the defensive and offensive [strategy] because everything is funneled to that one [area]. And of course you’ve got the goalie that is so critical to those sports. That adds another dynamic. We’ve had a lot of conversations about that. That’s really the big difference in terms of football and defense, and defense in basketball or lacrosse or hockey or those goal-oriented sports where you’re defending a point as opposed to defending a lot of width.”
Belichick also gives a surprising amount of insight into how he runs his team. When facing an uncommon opponent early in the season, such as Jacksonville in Week 3 this season, he and his staff study film starting in April.
“We spent a lot of time on Jacksonville. I’ve seen probably well over half their season from last year,” he said.
In a normal week of preparation, his team studies 300-400 of the opponents’ previous plays on each side of the ball.
“You have to overprepare, because as you said they can only run so many plays — let’s call it 70 plays,” Belichick said. “You go in with a general plan, a general idea, but then as the game unfolds, then you can generally start to see, ‘This is how they’re going to try to attack us.’ You certainly know more after 15 plays into the game than you knew going into the game.”
He went on for seven straight minutes about how he evaluates and scouts opposing kickoffs when so many of them are kicked out of the end zone. Belichick said he could “talk for weeks” about how he teaches his players all of the new rules each year. He went for five minutes straight about how he coaches important situational football each Saturday before a game — reviewing safety kickoffs, squib kicks, and other uncommon situations.
“Usually over the course of three to four weeks, you can pretty much get them all,” he said.
He hates the concept of “halftime adjustments.”
“I mean, that’s ridiculous. Why wait till halftime?” he said. “There it is. The first series of plays you can see what they’re going to do, so you better start dealing with it.”
Belichick detailed how important it is to evaluate players based on their current ability and production.
“At the beginning of each year, I always try to remind myself to just go back and be objective and look at each player objectively — not judge them on the past, but judge them on the current year,” Belichick said. “I talk about that ad nauseum, but every year is its own year . . . I learned a long time ago that you don’t take that for granted. You go on what you see.”
We discovered his thoughts on the new offseason practice limitations, spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement.
“From the end of the season to the middle of April, we can’t work with the players. We can’t do anything with them. We can’t instruct them. So, that’s the way we wanted this CBA created,” he said. “So that’s what it is. There’s no coaching, there’s no guiding or getting players to do whatever it is you want them to do in the offseason. There’s zero of that from the team, and then all of the sudden they show up here in April, and all of a sudden it’s like, well, there’s some problems.
“Is that really the best way to develop a guy in the NFL — go train somewhere else, come back, and then figure out what the team wants you to do? I don’t know.”
He also detailed the most important lesson he learned from working under Bill Parcells.
“Bill has got a lot of strengths. One of them would be the big picture,” Belichick said. “What are the three, four, five most important things we have to do this year, this week to be a good team? I mean, there are a thousand things, but he would identify what the big things were and concentrate on those. You can’t lose sight of those.”
Belichick still doesn’t discuss much about injuries or roster moves until after they have happened, but last month a reporter pressed his luck.
“I have another [question], but I didn’t think you’d like it so I didn’t want to end with it,” the reporter said.
“You want to end on a high note? No problem, I’ll go out on a high note then,” Belichick answered, channeling his inner George Costanza.
“There is a report out that Steven Jackson . . . ”
“Let’s just end on a high note,” Belichick said smiling, walking off.
Five of Belichick’s best answers, in full
Click each picture to read Belichick's full answer.