On the road with Bill Belichick: an education in scouting and football
The infrared dot zips across the oversized screen in the Alabama quarterbacks meeting room with impressive quickness and precision.
It makes stops at several points, landing on the backs of Alabama defenders’ Crimson jerseys, just before the snap of several plays against Oklahoma in the national semifinal. The man in control of the beam is a man that is always on the beam. He’s in one of his comfort zones.
Bill Belichick, clad in a brand-spanking-new Alabama sweat shirt, is sitting in the front row of this mini amphitheater, ticking off the names and classes of all the players as they move through their motions.
The Patriots coach is doing some last-minute cramming in the moments before he’ll join dozens of other coaches, general managers, and scouts at the school’s massive indoor facility in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to watch some of those same players work out live and in person at the Tide’s Pro Day this past week.
It was the first stop on a sojourn through SEC country that would take Belichick to Athens, Ga., the following day.
“Just catching up on some film on some of these guys,’’ Belichick says as he welcomes a visitor. “Plenty to see with these guys.’’
The film rolls on and the Patriots coach stops it, rewinds it, and stops it again as things catch his eye and he jots down notes.
Some are obvious. As Alabama nose tackle Quinnen Williams continually splits two behemoth blockers to create pocket pressure on Kyler Murray, the coach says matter of factly that Williams “is basically ruining [Oklahoma’s] scheme right now.’’
Others are not so easy to spot. As Oklahoma rips off a nice run out of what appears to be a passing formation, Belichick rapidly identifies what went wrong for the Tide and what went right for the Sooners.
Progressing at a nearly frame-by-frame pace, the coach uses the red light to drag out the route a Tide defender takes before getting “washed out” by a swarm of Sooners. Belichick then maps out what would have been a more prescient path to the ball.
In another example, Alabama is showing a “double robber” scheme, a concept designed to muddle the middle of the field. Ideally it confuses the quarterback and makes him hesitate, even if it’s just for an extra heartbeat.
As an Alabama safety charges forward, a teammate on the edge drops back. Suddenly a second level that appeared as open as a four-lane highway at midnight is as clogged as the Southeast Expressway at rush hour. Murray tries to squeeze the ball into an impossibly small window and it’s predictably knocked away.
“[Alabama] should just kill this,’’ Belichick predicts before the play. And it did.
Though the session is focused mainly on Alabama’s draft-eligible players, it serves many other purposes. It’s a chance to watch the players who are finished at Oklahoma.
It’s a chance to get a head start on the players who will be returning to both schools in the fall. Belichick is taking advantage of it all.
Alabama is dominating the point of attack on most of the sample plays on this day, but the coach is quick to note that Oklahoma’s offensive line is “really good . . . a bunch of these guys are going to get drafted or at least have an impact on the draft.’’
No sooner did the coach mention this than Sooners left tackle Bobby Evans swallows up an Alabama edge rusher. Belichick stops the tape during Evans’s backpedal and the red dot lands on his chest. “You’re not just going to run through him,’’ Belichick says.
Belichick is impressed by several plays made by underclassmen on both squads and on both sides of the ball. Those players will be on the backburner for now, however.
When the film session is over, it’s time for some live viewing. Belichick outlined why Pro Days, to him, are invaluable and how they are different from the NFL Combine.
“You’re standing right next to the guy — you’re getting a real good look at him,’’ he said. “The Combine’s great, but here, you’re up closer than what you get there.’’
When it comes to judging an offensive lineman, for example, Belichick is looking to see “how heavy-handed a guy is. How’s his strike?’’
Speaking about all positions, the big questions include: “Is he as explosive in person? Does that explosiveness match what’s on film?’’
Belichick is aware that his presence can cause some nervousness for some of the players. He tries to ease it with a dose of reality and a bit of humor.
“I usually just tell them, ‘I plan on being at all the games next year, so if I make you nervous now . . . ’ ’’ he said standing inside the “House of Payne,’’ Georgia’s new indoor facility.
Like watching film, being on the field has more benefits than just watching the NFL hopefuls.
“It’s great to get out and see the players, talk to the coaches and scouts,” Belichick said. “Some of the coaches you don’t get to see much during the season, you can actually have a conversation with them now. Before games they don’t always feel like talking to me and I don’t feel like talking to them — and after the game [there’s no time]. So, this is a good chance to catch up and say hello.’’
As Alabama coach Nick Saban said, sometimes those conversations involve football, sometimes they’re about family, and sometimes they’re about shared memories.
And sometimes, as Belichick noted, they’re about busting chops.
The coach relayed a story about some back-and-forth he had with Raiders general manager — and longtime friend — Mike Mayock, at Alabama’s practice facility on Monday.
“I was talking with Williams when Mayock said, ‘Quinnen, don’t waste your time talking to him,’ ’’ Belichick said with a smile. Mayock was making reference to the fact that New England will draft last in the first round, well below where Williams is projected to go.
“Hey Mike, you ever hear of a trade?’’ Belichick shot back.
“Not from where you’re at,’’ Mayock countered.
According to Belichick, Mayock’s barb is a common one lobbed in the Patriots’ direction, especially considering the team’s recent run of success.
Toward the end of each Pro Day, Belichick checks in with Patriots scout Matt Groh, who has been watching players and taking notes throughout the sessions.
As the events wind down and the players and NFL officials head toward the exits, a few prospects introduce themselves as Belichick blends into the crowd. Their school days are over, his are rolling on.