By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Shortly before Ravens placekicker Billy Cundiff hooked what would have been a game-tying field goal wide right, Lee Evans had a chance to catch the winning touchdown pass in the endzone.
As Joe Flacco’s pass settled in Evans hands, the receiver got one foot down and was about to get his second foot down when undrafted cornerback Sterling Moore got his hand on the football and slapped it away.
That was no accident. That is Bill Belichick football. When Belichick was a defensive position coach and coordinator, he would tell his players that when a pass was thrown, the only place it could come down and hurt the defense was in the receiver’s hands. Belichick’s last message at any defensive meeting was to find a way to dislodge the football and prevent the reception.
That basic instruction typifies Belichick’s coaching style. It may seem obvious, but give the advice that matters the most when it comes to winning games. Unlike other legendary coaches – and when you have won three Super Bowls and you are going for your fourth you are a legend – Belichick is not a yeller or a screamer. But he gets his message across to his players in an authoritative and effective manner.
When you meet Belichick, you quickly realize that there’s much more to him than the dull monotone that often comes across in press conferences or media sessions. But he doesn’t want outsiders to know that. His philosophy is similar to that of Bruce Willis’s Butch Coolidge character in Pulp Fiction. “That’s how you’re going to beat ’em, Butch,” Coolidge says to himself. “They keep underestimating you.”
There is plenty there. He keeps his players motivated knowing that job security is always an issue. No matter what happens on Super Bowl Sunday, nobody on the Patriots is promised a job next season. Everybody will have to prove himself in training camp next summer. That includes Tom Brady, who is almost certainly going to the Hall of Fame and will become one of its more exalted members. Brady has embraced Belichick’s philosophy and that carries over to the rest of the team.
Since Brady is buying in completely, how could anyone else on the team utter a complaint about Belichick’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately” philosophy?
Belichick’s prove it to me again doctrine is no different than any other NFL coach’s philosophy. The difference is that he follows through on it and his players understand that he means it.
That was never more true than after the Patriots defeated the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI to win their first and most surprising title. When they returned to training camp the following July, Belichick was unimpressed with his players and their accomplishment. That hocking upset was in the past. Safety Lawyer Milloy was one of the team’s leaders and had been one of the best defensive players. But when he refused to restructure his contract to meet the team’s needs, Milloy was cut from the team.
I have had several chances to interview Belichick, both in a group and 1-on-1. The first time I interviewed him as a head coach was probably the most memorable. He was a rookie head coach for the Cleveland Browns in 1991. I had left a message for him and was not sure whether he would call back.
It was his first training camp and he had to pare down the Browns roster, come up with a workable playbook and lead his team out of the doldrums. I knew he was busy and it was no better than a 50-50 proposition. A day or two later, Belichick did call back. It was 2 AM. My wife (at the time) was not happy.
The phone was right next to the bed so I heard it. When you get a call at that hour, you are expecting the worst – and not from Bill Belichick. You expect it to be the police or a family member with tragic news.
Instead, it was just good old Bill. My first reaction after clearing my head was one of surprise.
“Bill, I didn’t think you would call back at 2 in the morning,” I said.
“We can end this now if it’s not convenient,” he said in an expressionless manner.
I immediately asked him a question about the job of head coaching and off we went.
A 15-minute (or so) interview ensued. The most memorable part of the interview came when he explained what he was trying to get across to his new team.
“Everything I tell my players is designed to help them win their individual battles on every play,” Belichick said. “Obviously, we’re here to win. But you can’t do that unless you take care of the details. Each player has an assignment on every play. When you execute those assignments the proper way, you win a lot more than you lose.”
More than 20 years later, Belichick’s philosophy has not changed. Prepare for your opponent. Take care of the details and the winning takes care of itself. That philosophy may just be good enough to earn his team a fourth Super Bowl championship.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.