Among the legendary football coaches of the silver screen, those who stand out typically share things in common. Whether you’re Team Gary Gaines or Eric Taylor, Herman Boone or Tony D’Amato, movie and TV coaches tend to be intimately involved in their players’ daily lives and motivate them often by appealing to their individual experiences or personalities.
Guess what? This is the NFL. It’s not like the movies.
It’s true that many of the same impulses — to care for, incentivize, and encourage — guide how NFL coaches interact with players. But with a locker room full of professionals, many of whom will not stay with the same team for long, and no benefit of an edit bay to put together a montage of inspirational speeches, there just isn’t time for head coaches to interact with players on a daily basis.
Instead, a lot of the messaging and motivating passes through team captains, players chosen by teammates who are expected to lead their groups and communicate with coaches on behalf of them. The Patriots’ leadership has been a hot topic lately, so it’s worth understanding what these roles are and how they’re filled on a daily basis.
“I can’t meet with every single player,” Belichick said Wednesday. “That’s really not practical. I rely on those meetings [with captains] to get feedback from the players or sometimes I explain things to the players that I feel like the team needs to know and let them convey the message in their way or at least understand what the thought process is from my standpoint or the staff’s standpoint. But I talk to them and they give me a lot of feedback every week.
“They do a great job of, I’d say not telling you what you think the coach wants to hear but telling you what they think is important, what we need to do, where there’s an issue, what we need to address, and then that helps me address it.”
The Patriots captains are Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, and Matthew Slater. Brady wasn’t a captain at the start of the season as he was suspended when voting took place, but he was elevated to captain before last Sunday’s game in San Francisco. He has now been a captain for 15 years in a row.
Quarterbacks, centers, safeties, and linebackers are often captains for a simple reason: Their positions enable them to communicate with other players because they line up in the center of the formation. Linebackers, in particular, are looked to for leadership on defense because safeties can play too far back to be at the center of the action. Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel were captains, as was, until he retired last season, Jerod Mayo.
All those players had big personalities. The knock on this year’s group has been that Hightower isn’t gregarious enough to encourage others to follow his good example and that McCourty alone can’t provide that for the front seven.
Former Patriots assistant coach Michael Lombardi said on his podcast that Mayo, a captain from 2009-15, left the biggest void.
“Mayo was their leader,” Lombardi said. “Even though Mayo wasn’t a great player the last three years — he was hurt quite a bit — but his leadership has really affected the Patriots. His lack of leadership now is there. And there’s no one there, whether it would have been Jamie Collins, who was aloof and a loner, or Hightower, there’s no one there to lead in the front seven.
“Devin McCourty’s a great leader, but the back-end guys can’t lead. The front-seven guys have to lead. I think that’s what they’re missing. They’re missing that tremendously.”
There seems to be some reluctance on the Patriots’ part to single out captains as different from other players. Most teams’ captains wear “C” patches on their jerseys; the Patriots’ captains do not. Belichick is quick to laud his captains for gaining the respect of teammates, but he is typically adamant that coaches coach and players play.
As for Hightower, Belichick said he thinks he “has a good pulse on the team, on his teammates, what the defense needs to do and so forth. I rely on him and the other players that are in there.”
Belichick has weekly meetings with his captains, something he has done since he became a head coach. The playbook is the usual topic of conversation.
Captains might tell Belichick that they don’t think their unit is going to get better at a particular play, or they might get it right if he gives them a couple more shots at it in practice. They could also suggest something be added to the playbook.
“I think for us it’s the ability to give Coach the insight of the players’ perspective and the players’ point of view and how things are going that really the coaching staff doesn’t see,” McCourty said.
Captains also can take directives from Belichick to deliver to the team, or to one unit, in their own voices. They can ask Belichick to talk to a player individually. While he may not be able to spend enough one-on-one time with players to see who might be having a problem, the captains can point him in the right direction.
“They might tell me, ‘Hey, this guy is down a little bit. I think he needs a little confidence. I think if you said something to him that would really help him.’ OK, good. I wasn’t aware of that. I’ll definitely do it,” Belichick said. “I mean, it could be a million different things. There’s no set formula but it’s just about communication and feedback.”
Belichick is not known as a players’ coach, but McCourty said Belichick’s attitude in private often surprises players because publicly he is often gruff.
“I think all they see are his press conferences so you don’t really expect him to listen and understand different things,” said McCourty, “and I think guys come here and they’re a little shocked at how much goes into him listening to the players and trying to get a good understanding of how the players feel, especially as you get towards the end of the season and different things like that.”
They may not wear patches on their jerseys, but the Patriots’ captains seem to wear a lot of hats: cheerleader, coordinator, Belichick-to-English translator. Understanding their roles within the team leads to a better understanding of how the Patriots function.
The team won’t draw attention to them, but the captains are deferred to often — and not just for the coin toss.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com.