The psychoanalysis of Bill Belichick should have ended long ago. As every football-watcher knows, he looks slovenly in those hoodies and parkas, purposely mumbles 5.5-second sound bites in a monotone to dis media people, flashes a public smile as often as a palm tree sprouts in New England, then confounds you by dressing as a one-eyed pirate on Halloween and posing for an inevitably viral picture by holding a sword to his girlfriend’s throat.
None of that matters today. What does is that Belichick, when he and the Patriots have had every reason to chuck in a season several times the last six months, has produced the finest coaching job of his Hall of Fame coaching life. You know all the elemental challenges by now. An offense centered around a revolutionary double-tight-end structure was foiled by a murder charge against Aaron Hernandez and, later, a knee injury to the sadly brittle Rob Gronkowski, which made functioning even more difficult for Tom Brady after losing Wes Welker to free agency in a bitter contract dispute. A defense that has struggled in recent years lost three integral pieces in Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly. If almost any other man was coaching this battered mess, the playoffs would have been a pipedream. Belichick is not another coach. Turning his “Next Man Up” mantra into a revelation, he has led the Patriots to the AFC title game with possibly the most unlikely NFL hodgepodge ever to compete in January, a 43-22 crushing of Indianapolis serving to shake the earth.
This is what Belichick does best: unearth talent from obscure places. He swindled his friend, the since-fired Greg Schiano, in sending a seventh-round draft pick to Tampa Bay for LeGarrette Blount. Result? He has been a late-season miracle, wielding his 250-pound hardbody with power and speed to become the first player to rush for at least 150 yards and four touchdowns in a postseason game. A few years ago, Belichick drafted a 5-9 Kent State quarterback named Julian Edelman and turned him into a slot receiver. Result? Desperate for production without Welker and injured replacement Danny Amendola, Edelman caught 105 balls from Brady in the regular season and lit up the Colts on Saturday night. The cut-and-paste defense? It picked off Andrew Luck four times, the same Andrew Luck who threw only nine interceptions in 16 regular-season games. This after Belichick dumped linebacker Brandon Spikes a few days earlier because he was late for a recent practice, even though Spikes seemed to have a good excuse when he tweeted his car was stuck — “Help,” read the tweet — during a massive snowstorm. Belichick is cold that way.
“Next man up,” he said.
Spikes’ replacement, rookie Jamie Collins, had an interception, a sack, two other tackles for a loss and three quarterback hits. “We’re down, so, you know, next man up. That’s how I look at it,” said Collins, brainwashed by Belichick as are all Patriots players who want to remain employed.
The Next Men Ups now head to Denver for the right to play in the Super Bowl, having reinvented themselves as a smashmouth offense. What if I told you — I’m mocking that voice on ESPN’s “30 For 30” promos — that the Patriots steamrolled the Colts for 234 yards and six touchdowns on 46 carries while Brady didn’t throw a scoring pass and basically served as a cardboard cutout? “If you told me that before the game, I would not have believed that,” Blount said.
The strategy makes sense. While Brady proved all season that he can take the receiving equivalent of Spam and maximize it into efficiency — remember the comeback victory over Denver? — having a weapon like Blount makes the Patriots balanced and, somehow, very dangerous next weekend. Blount is the classic “Patriot Way” project, the latest problem child to be reformed by Belichick, joining Randy Moss, Corey Dillon and current star cornerback Aqib Talib — another stud handed to Belichick by Schiano — as productive players in New England. At Oregon, Blount made national headlines when he sucker-punched a Boise State player on the field after a game and was suspended eight games by coach Chip Kelly. How do you like him now? And Saturday was no fluke — he rushed for 189 yards and two TDs in a victory over Buffalo to end the regular season while also looking like Devin Hester as a kick returner.
“I always thought it could happen,” Blount said. “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind I was going to get a chance. It all worked out.”
And that 73-yard TD burst? “Once I get into the open field, they’re going to have to chase me,” Blount said. “And if they catch me, they do. And if they don’t, they don’t. They usually don’t.”
Not that Belichick needs to burnish his body of work, long established among the all-time coaching greats. But those three Super Bowl titles came quickly in the early 2000s, and nine years have passed since the last championship. Fresher in memory banks are two devastating Super Bowl losses to the Giants, including the crusher six years ago that ended New England’s run at a perfect season.
“I wish we’d win it every year, we’ve had our chances,” Brady told reporters. “We put a lot of effort in every year, but you also realize it’s pretty hard to do. So when you have an opportunity, you’ve got to try and take advantage of it because you don’t know what’s going to come around next year.”
Belichick isn’t thinking beyond the next practice. But he is pleased with this group. “I’m really proud of our football team and looking forward to moving on to a bigger game next week,” he said.
Wow. He’s happy. Progress.
Someone asked him about Charles Barkley, who attended the game as a guest of Patriots owner Bob Kraft. “I go way back with Charles. Love Charles — great guy, great competitor,” Belichick said. “It’s unbelievable to me that at 6-4, he led the NBA in rebounding. It’s just unbelievable. But that’s the kind of competitor and kind of player he is. He’s a great guy. It’s good to have him here. I’m a big fan of his.”
Positively effusive. And when Bill Belichick is pleased and talking up a storm, don’t you sense the man is feeling what could happen next?