FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ mantra is “Do your job” and not “Have fun everybody” for a reason. What’s fun and what’s necessary for success don’t usually intersect. Patriots coach Bill Belichick obviously believes that fun is a byproduct of winning, not the source of it.
The Patriots’ culture is a reflection of their coach — businesslike, focused, exacting. Having fun isn’t a professional priority. The three-letter word Belichick worships is win. His gloomy disposition is as legendary as his coaching.
The cries of no joy in Foxborough have more resonance and relevance when disgruntled stars Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski avoid the Patriots’ organized team activities. Their voluntary absences come on the heels of Brady, via a supermodel surrogate, expressing in his docuseries that he wants to “feel appreciated and have fun,” and Gronkowski telling departed Patriots receiver Danny Amendola in an Instagram post to “Be FREE, Be HAPPY.” This week, former Patriot Cassius Marsh added more fuel to the no-fun fire by describing his Patriots experience as like being sent to a secret CIA prison, saying, “They don’t have fun there. There’s nothing fun about it. There’s nothing happy about it.”
Going to seven straight AFC Championship games sounds fun to me. But strategies, schemes, and training methods evolve in the NFL, as has the expectation of the players about their work environment. Winning might be enough for Belichick, but it’s not enough for some of his players anymore. Entering his 44th year coaching in the NFL and 19th as Patriots head coach, Belichick has to factor enjoyment into the player commitment equation.
Belichick resembles the impossible to please parent — the stern demeanor, the scowl, the icy glare of disapproval. At this stage of his career, he is sufficiently intimidating to opponents, media members, and his players. It wouldn’t hurt to lighten up and loosen the reins a bit. He could take a page from the book of Tom Coughlin and be slightly less imperious and demanding to garner praise and gratitude from his players.
Don’t bet on it. Just for fun, Belichick was asked Thursday before the team’s OTA session whether it was important for him to come up with ways to sprinkle some enjoyment into the gridiron grind. He stayed true to form.
“We feel what’s important to us is to win. So, that’s really what we’re trying to do,” said Belichick.
Contrary to popular belief, there is actual laughing and smiling allowed in the Patriots locker room. The suppression of personality and pressure to conform is not unique to New England. Yes, it’s greater here, but so is the winning. The only mistake is linking the two, thinking that commonality is causality.
Marsh provided validation and ammunition for those who maintain the Patriot Way saps the pleasure out of professional football no matter how many games or Super Bowl rings one wins. You know what wasn’t fun for Belichick? Watching Marsh try to set the edge in the run game.
Patriots safety and seven-time team captain Devin McCourty said that philippics against the Patriots culture from Marsh or Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, who said he would “much rather have fun and win a Super Bowl than be miserable and win five Super Bowls,” are missing an important element.
“I think the thing when you look at that is that no one talked about the relationship with the players. To me, that’s the thing,” said McCourty. “When Cassius was here we would all be chopping it up, we’re talking, we’re laughing on the plane. When we come out here and we have to practice, that’s not always fun. Our head coach isn’t the head coach that comes in and we throw a big party, and he laughs and jokes with us.
“But I think the fun part of this is the relationship with the guys. You’re not always going to be wearing a ring or wearing all of your Patriots hoodies, but to me the best memories will be when me and Matthew Slater are in the locker room, and we’re laughing and joking . . . To me, that’s what’s fun here.
“We got great guys here. Obviously, it’s a lot of hard things, and it’s hard to win championships. I had an opportunity to leave, and I’m still here, so I can’t sit over here and say I’m miserable.
“I think Cassius had a frustrating time here, so I didn’t expect him to walk away and say, ‘I had the time of my life there.’ I didn’t expect that.”
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who played for a freewheeling and free-rein coach in Buffalo who is seen as the anti-Belichick in Rex Ryan, gave his imprimatur of enjoyment. “I have fun here, so it’s just no shortcuts,” said Gilmore. “You have to work for everything, and I like that. If you don’t want to take any shortcuts you’ll like it here.”
There’s a method and a message to Belichick’s Joyless Pursuit of Perfection mien. He forces players to go above and beyond what they’re capable of. That’s ultimately the job of a coach. Belichick does it exceedingly well.
But the message of self-discipline, subjugation of ego, and self-sacrifice can grow stale for those who have already experienced success like Brady and Gronk. It can also ring hollow when you lose out on another Super Bowl ring while your erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Malcolm Butler, rots on the sideline without explanation.
If there were ever a season for Belichick to slightly alter his disposition this would be the one, coming off the Butler benching and the cold war with Brady. It’s not about deviating from the core message as much as tweaking the delivery.
Belichick’s players understand that warm and fuzzy isn’t Belichick’s way. But the biggest misconception about Belichick and the Patriots is that they operate with robotic dispassion.
Passion for football is at the core of the Patriot Way.
“I think the thing that we see with him, it always surrounds football. That’s Bill. He is football,” said McCourty. “If I see him in the cafeteria we’re going to talk about some technique or what happened in the game before. To me, that’s his makeup. That’s how we all relate is our passion to play football and as players our willingness and eagerness to try to pick his brain and learn from him. I think there is a level of maturity that you need to have to understand that.”
Belichick is the first to admit he’s not the easiest coach to play for. Maybe it’s time to make it a skosh easier. Sometimes you have to give some ground to gain some ground.
Unless Belichick wants scorched earth with Brady and Gronk then His Hoodiness has to acknowledge fun isn’t a four-letter word in Foxborough.