Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fighting Words The Director’s Cut: The Patriots Chapter (Part Two)

Bill Belichick wasn't hired by Robert Kraft to become a media darling, but the coach knew he had to have a better relationship with the press in New England than he did in Cleveland. Photo from this site.

As noted Friday, I’ll be unveiling this week, in two or three parts, the chapter about the Patriots and the media that I had to cut from Fighting Words. Though I still have no regrets about axing this chapter—there was just no way to put this in the book and maintain some sort of flow—it is a little sobering to re-read the chapter and to be reminded of how many edits it went through for something that didn’t make it to print.

Part one, about the Patriots’ checkered first three decades and how the hiring of Bill Parcells made them relevant, appeared yesterday and can be found here. Part two is about Bill Belichick, his decidedly anti-Parcells approach to media relations and how he went about fixing a reputation in tatters after a rocky four-year stint with the Browns and a historically brief tenure with the Jets.

(I haven’t done too much editing here, hoping to preserve the chapter as I intended to present it in the summer of 2008.)

Bill Belichick is to the gray sweatshirt what Tom Landry was to the fedora.

Landry, the legendary former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, lent a stately air to the savagery of football by wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and a suit and tie on the sidelines Belichick’s apparel—a gray hooded Patriots sweatshirt with his initials on the waist pocket—only deepened the belief he was football’s brilliant mind, a man so consumed with digging through film in search of that elusive advantage that he had little time for such non-essentials as finding anything other than the most basic of wardrobes.

Belichick is the son of a former football coach (Steve Belichick, who died during the 2005 season, spent more than 30 years as an assistant at the Naval Academy) who was breaking down film as a teenager. He graduated from exclusive Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he played lacrosse and squash, but little is known of his off-field interests other than an affinity for hard rock and a friendship with musician Jon Bon Jovi, who dedicated his band’s 2002 song “Bounce” to Belichick.

Between his monotonous voice, typically expressionless face, and reluctance to say much more than absolutely necessary, the gray sweatshirt is a perfect symbol of Belichick’s public persona and unyielding focus. And according to those who cover the team, it’s a personality as natural as it is painstakingly maintained.

The Patriots dynastic run is built on the belief nobody is bigger than the team. Belichick has embodied that by refusing to parlay his success into celebrity.

While some coaches unveil a more accessible personality with television networks and/or during appearances on the national stage in order to polish their reputations, those who cover the Patriots regularly say Belichick is less revealing than usual during heavily attended playoff press conferences.

When Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a concussion and a sheared blood vessel in his lung—the latter a potentially life-threatening injury—against the Jets September 23, 2001, a Patriots staffer told CBS sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein Bledsoe’s benching was a “coaches decision.” Bernstein later told the Boston Herald she was “discouraged” the Patriots did not tell her Bledsoe was injured.

Parcells—whose most famous quote, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries,” was uttered at a packed press conference announcing his departure from the Patriots Jan. 31, 1997—capitalized on the Giants’ first Super Bowl win by penning his autobiography with powerful New York columnist Mike Lupica and has remained a multi-media machine in the subsequent two decades.

With co-author and Boston sportswriting legend Will McDonough, Parcells penned a book called “The Final Season” during his last year with the Jets in 1999 (four years later, he returned to the sidelines as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys) and became a well-known endorser and media personality during his four seasons with the Patriots, when he appeared on one weekly television show and made two weekly radio appearances. Parcells also worked at NBC and ESPN following each of his three “retirements” from coaching.

Belichick endorses nothing, and when he agreed to an authorized account of his life, it was with the noted journalist David Halberstam. Though Belichick appears each Monday during the season on WEEI, he surprised most observers when he agreed to appear on the Super Bowl XL pre-game show in February 2006.

And unlike the scathingly honest Parcells, Belichick was unlikely to provide colorful assessments of a player. He reinforces the team-first mantra by rarely singling out individuals, and even in victory, his post-game comments are as generalized as possible and tempered with the reminder the Patriots can always do better.

After a 31-21 win over the Jets Dec. 26, 2005, he did not praise one player, even when presented with a seemingly easy opportunity to do so. Asked about Hank Poteat and Monty Beisel, who replaced the injured Tedy Bruschi and Asante Samuel, Belichick said “We’ll take a look at the tape. Some things I’m sure could have been better than others, but overall it was a solid effort. A lot of players did contribute, so I’m sure it was good enough.”

Such reluctance to discuss particular players runs counter to the needs of writers, who often need a quote about a particular player for a feature. And Belichick’s singular focus doesn’t leave much room for reflection or prognostication, which are also regular topics for writers.

In many ways, Belichick is the football version of Bill Mueller. While teammates cherished Mueller for his grind-it-out nature, reporters were often frustrated by his reluctance or refusal to discuss his individual achievements in anything other than the most clichéd of terms. In fact, when he won the American League batting title on the final day of the 2003 season, Mueller ducked out of the clubhouse without speaking to reporters.

While Belichick was typically distant and perfunctory in his dealings with the media, he did show glimmers of personality in greeting reporters at the start of press conferences. Though he did not provide much headline fodder, he spoke at length on a variety of topics and complimented reporters whom he thought asked pertinent and informed questions.

Belichick also took the unusual step of occasionally hosting film sessions with reporters. While he would not break down any current film for obvious competitive reasons, this willingness to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation process helped reporters better understand the game.

The film sessions also helped humanize a coach who is often perceived as robotic. A willingness to occasionally offer a glimpse at his relaxed side could only help, even subtly, how he was viewed by the reporters who cover him.

It was a side he never exposed during his first stint as a head coach with the Cleveland Browns. On Feb. 5, 1991—nine days after he designed the defensive game plan that shut down the powerful Buffalo Bills and lifted the Giants to a 20-19 victory in Super Bowl XXV; the game plan is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame—Belichick accepted the Browns head coaching job.

But despite his impeccable pedigree, the Browns went 37-45 with just one playoff berth under Belichick, whose struggles on the sidelines were compounded by his troubles with the local press. The Browns were known for their open ways under previous coach Marty Schottenheimer, but one of Belichick’s first acts was to drastically cut back on the amount of access print reporters received to the Browns. Reporters were no longer allowed to watch practice and Belichick put up curtains around the field to further safeguard the premises.

Belichick gave off an air of paranoid disinterest. He once accused the rival Cincinnati Bengals of spying on Browns practices from rooftops near the Browns’ facility in a residential area of Berea. And some reporters were convinced Belichick had spies within the media who reported back to Belichick with negative comments the other reporters were making when the head coach was out of the room.

Belichick once conducted a teleconference with reporters from his office instead of meeting them in the media workroom. In 2001, longtime Cleveland Post-Dispatch Browns beat writer Tony Grossi told The Standard-Times of New Bedford, MA Belichick would hold press conferences on his exercise bike or during lunch.

Grossi and Akron Beacon-Journal beat writer Ed Meyer were regular guests on local sports talk radio station WHK, where they mocked Belichick weekly during a two-hour show called “Doom and Gloom.” Grossi so infuriated the Browns that some Cleveland reporters believe Browns owner Art Modell pressured the Post-Dispatch to remove Grossi from the Browns beat during Belichick’s tenure. And the “Doom and Gloom” segment created so much controversy that all Plain Dealer writers were barred from appearing on WHK, which eventually became a religious station.

“To read some of this stuff, you would have thought that Bill was down there in the bunker at the end of World War II with Eva Braun,” Browns offensive assistant Ernie Adams told the Akron Beacon-Journal in 1994. Adams later joined the Patriots as their football research director.

Belichick’s image was further soiled in October 1993, when he cut quarterback Bernie Kosar—a native of nearby Youngstown who directed the Browns to three AFC title game appearances in the 1980s and was enormously popular with fans and media alike—in favor of recent signee Vinny Testaverde.

Belichick’s instincts were eventually proven correct: Kosar was never again a regular starter in the NFL while Testaverde directed the Browns to the playoffs in 1994 and a wild card win over Parcells’ Patriots. The Browns were expected to contend for the Super Bowl in 1995, but they fell apart after Modell announced he planned to move the franchise to Baltimore. Belichick was fired amid nearly unanimous roars of approval from fans and writers alike after a 5-11 season.

“There were people who made it personal,” said Patriots vice president-player personnel Scott Pioli, who was a member of the Browns’ personnel department during Belichick’s tenure, in an interview with the Standard-Times.

“Some people wrote some mean-spirited things about Belichick and some went out of their way to make it confrontational,” Pioli said. “That’s what happens when you hear only one side of the story. Bill wasn’t defending himself and there weren’t people running to his defense.”

Shortly after he was dismissed in Cleveland, Belichick rejoined Parcells in New England and began restoring his reputation as the game’s finest defensive coordinator. Belichick followed Parcells to New York after the 1996 season and was contractually obligated to replace Parcells upon the latter’s retirement. But Belichick, uncomfortable with the specter of Parcells remaining as general manager and the uncertainty surrounding the Jets (the franchise was in the process of being sold following the death of longtime owner Leon Hess), stepped down Jan. 4, 2000, one day after Parcells retired—and one day after the Patriots fired Pete Carroll.

Belichick was criticized for his hasty departure—moments before he stepped to the podium, he handed shocked team president Steve Gutman an abbreviated 68-word letter penned on Jets stationary in which Belichick informed Gutman and Parcells he had “…decided to resign as HC of the NY Jets”—as well as for the rambling hour-long press conference in which he tried to explain his decision. The notoriously press-shy Belichick seemed to realize he was losing the battle of public opinion as he invited reporters to call him at home to further discuss the surprising move.

Middletown (NY) Times-Herald columnist Kevin Gleason wrote Belichick exhibited “…all the grace of a bug splattering on your car windshield” while Gutman followed Belichick to the podium and said he believed the ex-coach was in “obvious turmoil.”

Few believed Belichick would suddenly resign from the Jets without another job lined up, so no one was surprised less than three weeks later when the Patriots agreed to send three draft picks to the Jets in exchange for naming Belichick head coach.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who said he was mailed copies of Belichick’s press conferences in Cleveland by someone who did not want the Patriots to hire Belichick, admitted Belichick had made media-related mistakes and was not a natural public speaker but said he was more concerned with landing a quick mind than a quick wit.

“I’m not sure it would have been my first choice for how I liked my head coach to present himself,” Kraft told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer prior to Super Bowl XXXVIII in January 2004. “We chatted about that. In the end, I’m not into lipstick and powder. I’m into substance, and substance is winning football games.”

Still, crafting a better relationship with the press was important enough to Belichick so that one of his first moves upon becoming the Patriots’ head coach was to hire his friend Berj Najarian—a Jets public relations assistant whom New York beat writers believed was tutoring Belichick on how to handle the media—as the executive administrator to the head coach.

And Belichick admitted he made mistakes with the Browns, most notably in his attempts to adoptive a Parcells-like combative tone with reporters.

“I watched what Bill did with the New York media when I was there, and maybe I tried to do some of those things,” Belichick told the Boston Herald in December 2001. “And he was in a position where honestly, he could get away with some things that other people can’t get away with. And I don’t think I really realized that.”

The man Belichick once unsuccessfully tried to imitate made it possible for him to limit the media’s access to the Patriots without incurring a firestorm. Local reporters had grown accustomed under Parcells to closed practices (under Belichick, reporters were allowed to watch the first 10 minutes of practice, which typically consisted only of light stretching), assistant coaches who were almost always off-limits to the media, vague information regarding injured players and the game plan for the upcoming week and the concept of a coach serving as the voice of the organization.

Belichick described a player’s injury in the most general of terms—for example, an ankle injury would be dubbed a “lower leg injury.” When asked about an injured player, Belichick would tell reporters he didn’t know his short- or long-term status because he wasn’t a doctor. In addition, players were not allowed to speak to the media about the condition of another player, and those who were injured tended to be absent from the locker room whenever the media was allowed access.

“The only reason for an injury report is the betting line,” said former Patriots backup quarterback and Boston College legend Doug Flutie. “Otherwise, it’s nobody’s business.”

Belichick and the Patriots were so adept at concealing injuries that it was not revealed that quarterback Tom Brady, the team’s most recognizable and valuable player, had what the Patriots dubbed “minor” shoulder surgery following the 2004 season until several weeks after the procedure. And after the Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs in 2005, it was revealed Brady played much of the season with a sports hernia even though he was never listed as suffering from any type of groin or hernia injury.

Belichick also seemed to mock the injury report by listing Brady, who, prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 season opener, had never missed a start since taking over for Drew Bledsoe prior to the third game of the 2001 season, as “probable” with a shoulder injury for 74 straight games—until Super Bowl XLI, when Brady was listed as “probable” with an ankle injury.

(Part three tomorrow)

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