For a man who likes to go about his public job as discreetly as possible and can be taciturn with the media, Bill Belichick has still let his guard down and the cameras in often enough for us to have some idea how he’s made the New England Patriots one of the two most consistent, successful and admired franchises in all of 21st century north American professional sport.
Back in 2009, he allowed NFL films for the purposes of a documentary access to team meetings, practise sessions, and in one particularly fascinating scene, a meeting in his office with his quarterback, one Tom Brady.
The scene takes place the Tuesday before a regular- season clash against the Baltimore Ravens who feature Ed Reed, someone who Belichick days later will personally tell in a convivial pre-match onfield exchange is “the best free safety that’s ever played this game”. Watching video of the Patriots’ upcoming opponent, Brady, equipped with a pencil and writing pad, can only smile at the challenge ahead and Reed’s various strengths and tics. “One thing playing against Ed, you’re always so aware of where he is.” As player and coach process some more film together, Brady starts to suggest possible ways and plays to minimise Reed and score some touchdowns.
“I’ve gotcha,” nods Belichick. “Maybe have two plays like that,” says Brady.
Belichick nods again. “That’s a good idea. That sounds good.” Sure enough, the following Sunday, the Patriots secure another hard-won W, courtesy of a few Brady touchdown passes.
For 16 years they’ve been meeting like that, at least twice a week. Even in as magnificent a history as the NFL, no player and coach have spent more time in each other’s company, scheming success together like the tandem that is Brady- Belichick.
Even allowing for the fact there can’t be another individual position in all of team sport that the fortunes of a team hinges so much on one player as gridiron sides do on their quarterback, such a collaboration and trust between a player and a coach is rare in team sport.
Consider for a moment how many inter-county GAA managers do you know of that would ask their star player to pull up a chair and welcome that kind of input into a game plan and potential matchups as Belichick does of Brady? Very few would be secure enough, even though, as Paudie Butler pointed out at the GAA Coaching Conference last month, players should be more regularly consulted on such matters; more often than not the players know their opponents better than management do. There is though one another example very close to the Brady- Belichick model. For 20 seasons, Gregg Popovich coached Tim Duncan. Between the two they would make the San Antonio Spurs the New England Patriots of the NBA. The similarities between the programmes are striking. They’ve each won the most coveted prize in their sport five times. The Patriots have never failed to win at least 10 games each of the last 14 seasons; the Spurs have never failed to win at least 50 games the past 16 seasons. Despite being based in what would be termed medium-market towns. Despite having to operate in a league with a salary cap and which allows the worst teams draft the best talent. They just find a way with the Spurs and Patriots Way.
Long before James Kerr’sand the All Blacks became so trendy, popularising the notion of culture, the Patriots and Spurs were valuing and preaching its significance.
“A great deal of time and energy in the world of the New England Patriots went into selecting players who were at least partially immune to displays of ego and self,” David Halberstam would observe in his 2005 study of Belichick,.
Popovich has lived by the same principle, telling his scouts to be less concerned about a player’s jump shot as his demeanour in a timeout when his team is losing; is he being respectful of his teammates and coaching staff? “We talk about wanting players who have gotten over themselves,” he’d say at the 2015 world association of basketball coaches conference.
It helps of course when you’re superstar is as selfless as a Brady and Duncan.
“He doesn’t walk around saying ‘I’m Tom Brady and I’ve done this,” Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots tight end, has said. “He just does it, quietly, and in a way that makes you want to do it that way. Because you don’t want to disappoint Tom Brady.” “You mightn’t think Tim [Duncan] doesn’t even speak,” Popovich has said, “but he does it [lead] differently. Before practice he’s out shooting for 20 or 30 minutes. Practice ends and he’s shooting again or on the block, doing moves. And he leads with a tactile sense. It sounds strange but he touches people all the time and it’s magnetic. We’ll have a timeout and he’ll grab a [Tony] Parker or Patty Mills and pull them over to the bench and have his hand on their head, rubbing it.”
Both Brady and Duncan have accepted wages well below their market value to help their team accommodate better talent under the salary cap. And significantly, they could both take scathing criticism from their coach. In that same timeout that he might have guided a Parker or Mills to, Popovich could well chew him out. “Timmy, you getting a rebound tonight or are we just going to leave and go to dinner?” Popovich would emotionally elaborate on that theme up on Duncan’s retirement last autumn. “You allowed me to coach the team,” he’d say at a ceremony in Duncan’s honour. “If you’re superstar can take a little hit or two now and then, everybody else can shut the hell up and get in line.”
Henry Shefflin would come to a similar understanding regarding Brian Cody’s genius. At the first team meeting after the 2001 All Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway, Cody offered what Popovich would term ‘total, brutal, between-the-eyes- honesty’. “You!” he’d say, his eyes fixed on Shefflin. “You were too soft, you were pushed around, you were bullied. BULLIED!” A mortified Shefflin took it as a marker and so did the group.
Brady had to take such tirades from Belichick, not least because the coach appreciated that he could. Brady’s father told the writer Gary Myers that his own son had confided to him that in Brady Junior, Belichick had “a perfect soldier”.
Go through it and nearly every sporting dynasty that has lasted more than a decade has involved a level of stability involving the front office, coach and a standout player that is a “perfect soldier”. Kilkenny have had it, between a Ned Quinn, Cody, and a Shefflin. The great Boston Celtics of the 1960s likewise with Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. Belichick with Brady. Popovich with Duncan.
For a while there, Roy Keane’s relationship with Alex Ferguson approximated it but finished with an acrimony impossible to imagine ever developing in the case of all the others. This season the San Antonio Spurs have the second-best record in the whole NBA, thanks to the brilliance of Popovich and the culture created by the departed Duncan, but Popovich admitted he still misses him. “Off the court, we’re soulmates.” Shefflin didn’t go that far upon describing his relationship with Cody but forecast they’d “be friends for years”.
Belichick and Brady never went swimming together like Popovich and Duncan did upon the Spurs drafting Duncan back in 1997. They did play three rounds of Pebble Beach one summer yet for all the time they’ve spent together and will be forever synonymous with one another, their relationship has supposedly never extended to sharing some pizza or a slice of carrot cake which Popovich would routinely and endearingly leave in to Duncan on road trips. When it has come to football though, they’re undeniably soulmates.