The greatest coach in the history of the modern NFL — a league designed to disband dynasties and exhaust the men attempting to maintain them — jostled a microphone into place and sighed.
“All right, well,” Bill Belichick said from a podium late last Saturday, “I thought that was a real good effort by our team tonight.”
A speaker system amplified his remarks, but his voice still barely reached the back of the small auditorium on the ground floor of Gillette Stadium. During a divisional playoff weekend marked by hysteria and histrionics, from the jubilation in Minnesota to the trash-talking from Jacksonville to the wagon-circling in Philadelphia, Belichick and his New England Patriots offered low-key satisfaction, and little else.
The moment called for braggadocio. In the wake of a riveting, explosive ESPN report outlining tensions between Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft, New England responded by thrashing Tennessee to earn the right to host the Jaguars in Sunday’s AFC championship game. “Well,” a local television announcer informed his audience, just before Belichick arrived on the scene, “so much for all that turmoil.”
At the podium, Belichick declined to preen. His praise for his players was ample but measured. He answered questions with the enthusiasm of a customer service rep watching the clock. He revealed secrets like a sphinx in a sleeveless hoodie. Belichick rarely has displayed much charisma to the public. And he has never seemed to try.
“In my early days of knowing him, I used to want to say to him, ‘Boy, why don’t you show a little different side of yourself?’” said Ken Rodgers, a producer for NFL Films who has worked with Belichick since 2001. “And I’ve realized now that not only is that impossible, but it would be going against everything he believes in.”
Added Rodgers, “He’s like higher on the evolutionary food chain than the rest of us, who care so badly what other people think of us.”
Belichick is an encyclopedia of football arcana and yet its most modern practitioner. He outlines game plans in minute, exploitative detail, but possesses the situational awareness to adapt. His relentless tunnel vision has fostered a culture that has survived nearly two decades of roster churn, the scandals of SpyGate and DeflateGate, and an industry desperate to dethrone him.
He stands astride the sport like a dour, 65-year-old colossus. Belichick has won 12 games or more in 12 of his 18 seasons coaching New England. During his first decade he captured three championships and led another group to an undefeated regular season. In his second act, he has somehow surpassed that standard: The Patriots have reached seven consecutive AFC championship games.
With a victory on Sunday, Belichick will reach the Super Bowl for the eighth time. No other active head coach has been there more than twice.
“The sustained success is so unreal in modern-day sports,” said Christian Fauria, who played under Belichick for four seasons and now hosts a radio show in Boston, “I don’t think you’ll ever see anything like it again.”
Fauria joined the Patriots in 2002, a year after Belichick’s first title. Already in place was an atmosphere in which veterans challenged each other, policed team rules and set expectations for the group, he explained. They followed Belichick’s lead in public remarks and rarely expected praise. Belichick preached the importance of flexibility, and the players responded.
That culture remains secure in 2018. The lone constant is Brady, a future Hall of Famer who turned 41 in August and appears the favorite to win his third MVP trophy. The rest of the group changes, yet the values stay the same.
“Each day is its own day, and [Belichick] does a great job of just literally focusing on what you’re supposed to focus on that week,” safety Duron Harmon said. “Not looking down the road, not looking in the rearview mirror, but focusing on the task at hand.”
The Patriots practice this philosophy through crisis and celebration. Belichick’s reign has provided plenty of both. The NFL fined him $500,000 for his role in SpyGate. Brady served a four-game suspension for DeflateGate. For each brush fire, Belichick is there to smother the flames, grim but resolute in the face of questioning.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump read a supportive letter sent from Belichick at a rally in New Hampshire. Asked by reporters about the letter, Belichick emphasized it was not “politically motivated,” mentioned his friendship with Trump and insisted upon focusing on an upcoming game against the Seahawks. The aftermath approached farce.
“Coach, were you happy or annoyed that Trump read the letter?” a reporter asked.
“Seattle,” Belichick said.
“Your team has always been good at keeping outside distractions on the outside,” another reporter said. “Given the nature of this presidential race —”
“Seattle,” Belichick said.
“— did you find it helpful to talk —“
“— to your players about this?“
“Have any of your players talked to you about this? Are there —“
“— concerns about any locker room rancor as a result of this?”
Belichick pursed his lips and stared. He already had answered the question — in his way. His response exemplified the compartmentalization he requires from his players. That influence was on display this week, after Brady injured his hand during practice.
How did Brady hurt himself? “I’m not a doctor or anything like that,” center David Andrews said. “I’m just focused on what I have to do to get ready this week. I don’t really remember.”
Seriously, what happened? “I don’t know,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I was playing defense.”
Did Brady throw the ball during practice? “I was on defense,” McCourty said. “I didn’t see what the offense did.”
Belichick continued the performance during his Friday morning news conference. He provided no insight on his star’s condition. Asked if Brady would be a game-time decision, Belichick replied, “Today’s Friday.” Asked if he regretted trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garappolo, he said, “We’re getting ready for Jacksonville.”
It would be uncharitable to describe Belichick as humorless. In another lifetime, as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s, Belichick recorded a video demonstrating the proper technique for the Bill Belichick Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich: “The key to it is to spread peanut butter on both sides of the bread, so the jelly doesn’t leak through in the sandwich.”
In 2009, superstar receiver Randy Moss invited Belichick to a Halloween party. “It’s a great holiday,” Belichick said when Moss visited his office. “Candy and costumes. How can you beat that?” Belichick showed up as a roller-skating Captain Jack Sparrow. Discussing the DeflateGate crisis in 2015, he snuck in a reference to Marisa Tomei’s character in “My Cousin Vinny.”
His job description, of course, does not require comedy. Baseball rewards individualism and basketball requires collaboration. Football functions through collectivism, through 53 disparate actors cohering as a unit. Belichick crystallized this a mantra so simple it doubles as a cliche: “Do your job.”
The saying carries more weight in New England, where assignments shift on a constant basis. Outside of Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, the roster features few stars. The Patriots mine crucial performances from every crevice of their roster. It was unheralded cornerback Malcolm Butler who made the goal-line interception to seal Super Bowl XLIX. Two years later, as the Patriots erased a 25-point deficit against Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, three touchdowns were scored by running back James White, who had not rushed for a score all regular season.
“A lot of teams say, ‘This is our style of football, and we’re going to beat them by playing our style,’” Rodgers said. “Coach Belichick has been able to adapt the Patriots’ style of play for whatever the situation calls for. Not just season by season. Or game by game. Or quarter by quarter. Or drive by drive. But play by play, they can adapt to the situation.”
The process looked pristine last week against Tennessee. Behind by a touchdown after the first quarter, the Patriots scored the next 35 points. Brady set a playoff record with his 10th game throwing three touchdown passes or more. The defense sacked Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota eight times. The dominance was all-encompassing.
In the aftermath, Belichick did not gloat. He worked the locker room, saluting his players. He shook hands with Kraft. His message to the group stayed the course.