Thursday, September 10, 2009

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

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in sync when it comes to delivering the message. Photo from this site.

Below is the third and final part of my chapter about the Patriots and the media. Parts one and two can be found here and here. Today’s final installment delves into Bill Belichick’s famously secretive approach to the release of injury information (and how it compares to the rest of his coaching brethren) as well as how he dictates the message his players deliver to the press and how the Patriots in general have become adept at managing the news.


By the end of 2005, reporters were so accustomed to Belichick’s evasiveness regarding injuries they an entire news conference could come and go without anyone asking about a hobbled player. Defensive leader Tedy Bruschi, whose comeback from a February stroke was one of the top stories of the season, suffered a leg injury against the Jets on Dec. 26. Belichick fielded just one Bruschi question during his Dec. 28 press conference (“I’ve seen Tedy. We’ll release the injury report after practice. I think the best way I could characterize it is he’s day-to-day.”) and none at all during his press conference the next day. (Bruschi suited up for the game against the Dolphins Jan. 1 but did not play)

Part of this secrecy was a byproduct of Belichick’s famous focus: If a player could not help the Patriots this week, then it did Belichick or the team no good to talk about him because it distracted them from the challenge of winning without the player.

But most of the elusiveness was rooted in competitive interests. Belichick did not want to reveal anything that could help an opponent in its preparation. And though the Patriots were considered the least-revealing team in the NFL when it came to injury information—the Boston Herald’s Michael Felger wrote in October 2005 the Patriots are so secretive in revealing injuries “…that the NFL felt the need to institute the current policy in an attempt to keep things on the level”—Belichick was no different than most NFL coaches, who have grown increasingly secretive over the years.

Even former Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards, considered one of the most cooperative coaches in the NFL, wanted complete control over the dissemination of injury news. According to the Jets 2005 media guide: “Head Coach Herman Edwards is the only spokesperson in the organization to report injuries to the media…(Players are not permitted to talk about their injuries to the media and should defer all inquiries to the head coach).”

When asked if his policies were similar to those of his contemporaries, Belichick—speaking through Najarian—referred to the Patriots game against the Atlanta Falcons Oct. 9, 2005, when the Falcons started backup quarterback Matt Schaub instead of first-stringer Michael Vick even though Vick—who strained a ligament in his right knee the previous week—was listed as probable (meaning there was a 75 percent chance or better he would play) on the NFL’s injury list until Saturday, when he was downgraded to questionable (50 percent chance to play).

However, Vick sat out most of the previous week’s practices, which would typically reduce a player’s status to doubtful. Given the differences in Vick, the most mobile and improvisational quarterback in the NFL, and Schaub, a prototypical pocket passer, it’s not difficult to ascertain the Falcons figured they were gaining an advantage in pronouncing Vick likely to start.

Felger wrote Oct. 12 that others in the league believed Falcons coach Jim Mora “out-Belichicked” the Patriots and theorized the Falcons should not be believed when they said Vick’s condition worsened despite barely practicing the previous week.

In 2003, Felger wrote the Patriots believed the Philadelphia Eagles’ openness about game plans and injuries helped the Patriots beat the Eagles, 31-10. The Eagles announced the Tuesday prior to the game three defensive starters would likely sit due to injury. Later in the week, their defensive coordinator announced the replacements and admitted the team would cut back on its original game plan.

The Patriots exploited the Eagles’ three new starters in their lopsided win. Meanwhile, the Eagles were almost certainly surprised to see rookie Eugene Wilson playing safety for the Patriots. Wilson spoke to Felger for 15 minutes two days prior to the game and never indicated he would move to safety against Philadelphia.

“I’m not sure why they would [reveal so much information], all I know is that we don’t,” Patriots center Dan Koppen told the Herald. “All I know is that we don’t. You don’t know who’s out there until they come out of the room on Sunday.”

“I’m not saying we’ve got all the answers,” Belichick told the Herald. “I’m just saying it’s right for us. There is some element of a competitive edge there. Maybe sometimes it’s negligible. Other times it may be more.”

While Belichick’s perfunctory press conferences would indicate he didn’t pay much attention to the media, his interest in controlling the words of Patriots players—as well as his ability to scour comments made by opponents and other outsiders in order to find any slight that could whip the Patriots into an “us-against-the-world” lather—suggested otherwise.

Before the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004, Belichick showed the Patriots the parade route the Philadelphia Eagles had planned in case they won. The Patriots went 16-0 in 2007 and posted their most dominating victory—a 56-10 trouncing of the Buffalo Bills Nov. 18—after Don Shula, who coached the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in league history, said the fact the Patriots had been caught stealing signals against the New York Jets in the season opener “…diminished what they’ve accomplished.”

Three weeks later, Steelers safety Anthony Smith guaranteed his team would beat the Patriots. Smith was beaten on two touchdown passes as the Steelers fell, 34-13. After one of the touchdowns, Brady yelled at Smith.

“We’ve played a lot better safeties than him, I’ll tell you that,” Belichick told reporters after the game.

The Patriots’ eagerness to punish anyone who doubted them appeared to make Belichick doubly determined to make sure his players didn’t provide bulletin board material for anybody else. Conformity was encouraged under Belichick— the most vocal Patriot of the Pete Carroll Era, Chad Eaton, was typically nowhere to be found when the media was allowed locker room access during the first several months of Belichick’s tenure—and players followed a carefully prepared script when speaking to reporters.

At Super Bowl XLI media day Jan. 29, 2008, Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel told the New York Daily News that 30 minutes of the daily team meeting is spent discussing what to say to reporters and how to say it.

Nobody echoed Belichick’s thoughts better than Brady—appropriate considering the two were the most indispensible parts of the dynasty. The Patriots were 5-13 under Belichick before Bledsoe’s injury forced Brady into the starting lineup—and 86-24 in regular season games with Brady behind center through 2007.

Unlike his coach, Brady enjoyed the perks of his success: He appeared on the cover of GQ, dated celebrities, guest-hosted Saturday Night Live and even occupied a choice seat at George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2005. But there was never a sense Brady let his off-field interests interrupt his preparation, and his focus and disdain for excuse-making made him a younger, more telegenic version of his coach.

It seemed, finally, Belichick had found someone he could trust as much as Parcells trusted the likes of Dave Meggett and Steve DeOssie, each of whom he coached with the Giants before he arrived in Foxboro. “Guys from the Giants, they were very open,” Boston Globe reporter Nick Cafardo said. “They wouldn’t just regurgitate what he said. They were very comfortable in being able to give you more than the norm. And I think [Parcells] made them feel comfortable doing that.”

Unlike those players, Brady could be counted on to toe the company line. Belichick declined comment when asked if he and Brady went over what they would say prior to their separate meetings with the press. But their answers were remarkably similar.

On Dec. 29, 2005, both men were asked to explain the Patriots’ recent red zone success. They did so by pointing out the offense had produced fewer “negative” plays inside the opponents 20-yard-line.

Belichick: “Fumbles, sacks penalties—it’s hard enough to get it down there in the condensed field anyway and then when you take one play that loses yardage or makes it a 15-yard series of downs instead of 10, then it just makes it that much tougher. If you lose a down, like we did…then the odds are really against you. Us or anybody else. Eliminate negative plays and going forward toward the goal line instead of backwards, away from it.”

Brady: “I think the one thing that sets you back in the red zone is if you lose yards. If you can keep going forward and eliminate negative plays and eliminate penalties in the red zone, you’ll be pretty successful. The hard part is when you lose 10 or you lose five or you take a sack or run the ball in early downs and come up with no yards or lose yards, those are hard to overcome.”

Belichick’s ability to dictate his players’ words spoke to a fundamental difference between the NFL and Major League Baseball as well as the Patriots’ uncanny knack for managing the message and dictating the news cycle.

The active Major League Baseball roster features barely half the players (25) of the active NFL roster (45), but baseball’s potent player’s union gives its members far more security. The mostly powerless NFL Players Association and the lack of guaranteed contracts meant conformity was good business for football players.

“No one’s going to toss Coco Crisp for saying I want to be traded or [Jonathan] Papelbon for complaining about his contract,” WEEI.com editor Rob Bradford said. “Everyone was saying Theo wants this team to be like the Patriots—there’s elements of truth to that, but he’s a smart guy. And I’ve got to imagine he understands the road goes in a different direction when it comes to what they can do with the players. Even the young guys who they do have some sense of control over—there’s just no way they can do everything and cover every angle.”

The Patriots, on the other hand, could not only control how their players spoke but also how the news was released. They were the first American professional sports team to embrace new media in 1995, when patriots.com was launched. That year, the Patriots also became the first sports team to publish its own full-color weekly newspaper (Patriots Football Weekly).

In 1997, the Patriots began a nightly online program called “Patriots Video News.” The team also has an online radio station, carries all Belichick and Brady press conferences live online and archives the audio and transcriptions of these press conferences online.

The Patriots remain the standard bearer of online and team-sanctioned media in a league which encourages fans to view its official outlets as the source of record. Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette would often decline comment by telling reporters to refer to the team’s website for information on the club, but he didn’t break news like the Patriots, who revealed, via Patriots.com, the trade of Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills in April 2002.

Today, the other 29 teams often break news via NFL.com and the NFL Network, the latter of which carries regular season games and formerly employed Adam Schefter—a well-respected former Denver Broncos beat writer for the Denver Post—as its lead reporter.

Even when the Patriots don’t break the news on Patriots.com, they have a knack for timing leaks, press releases and their comments to ensure maximum—or minimum—impact. ESPN.com reported safety Rodney Harrison was suspended by the NFL for violating its substance abuse policy on Sept. 1, 2007, a Friday night. The Patriots held a conference call with Harrison shortly thereafter, assuring the crux of the story would break during the lightest news cycle of the week.

On Sept. 16, just hours before the Patriots hosted the Chargers in a prime-time game on NBC, ESPN.com reported that “…league sources and sources close to the coach” confirmed the Patriots had extended Belichick’s contract through at least 2013. The terms of Belichick’s deal were previously a closely guarded secret—“I don’t talk about contracts,” Belichick told reporters in July 2007—and the Patriots had not acknowledged his contract since July 2003, when they announced he inked an extension through 2006.

The news of his new deal arrived seven days after the Patriots were caught videotaping the Jets’ signals during the season opener. On Sept. 12, Belichick issued, via the Patriots, a one-paragraph statement apologizing to the organization and said he would “…have further comment” once the league made a ruling on his punishment.

The punishment came down the next day, when the NFL fined the Patriots $750,000--$500,000 of which was to be paid by Belichick—and took away a 2008 draft pick. But during his press conference Sept. 14, Belichick refused to discuss the incident and used the term “moving on” a reported nine times while continually saying he was just worried about the Chargers game.

The response to “Spygate” provided the most resounding proof yet: Under Belichick, the Patriots talked about what they wanted to when they wanted to and on their own terms. And in keeping with his low public profile and general air of mystery, Belichick was reluctant to explain his media relations philosophies.

His longtime friend Najarian declined to be interviewed for this book, and after numerous unsuccessful requests for an interview with Belichick over a 13-month span during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Najarian asked the author to send the questions to him with the promise he would get Belichick’s answers.

Of the 10 questions sent to Belichick via Najarian, Belichick declined to answer six. His four answers comprised a total of 59 words—42 of which occurred in one answer about the media not traveling with the Giants during Belichick’s tenure with that club.

His second-longest answer was in response to whether or not he was surprised that the Sox received more media attention during the Patriots’ run of three Super Bowl victories in four years.

“I honestly am not very cognizant of it either way,” Belichick said.

When it came to the media and the Patriots, Belichick had proven to be quite cognizant of everything else.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

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