Inside the hoodie: What makes Bill Belichick tick?

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Belichick Has Two Mountains To Climb

Mount Halas and Mount Shula, namely. After reaching his 300th win (regular season and playoffs), two men are in his way on the all-time victories list: George Halas with 324 and Don Shula with 347. It’s easy to calculate the numbers and figure he could pass Halas in 2021 and Shula in 2023 or ‘24, but a few notes about that.

One: Belichick is 67; if he’s still coaching in 2023, he’ll be a 71-year-old man. Though he could pass for 55 today, age is age, so we’ll see.

Two: Soon, maybe starting in 2020, Belichick will have to win without Tom Brady, who will be 43 in the 2020 season. The Patriots did win 11 games in the only season Brady missed due to injury, but Belichick has basically had the best quarterback of all time—arguably—for 18 of his 20 New England seasons, and 244 of his 300 wins. Can he win without him? As competitive as Belichick is, he has to feel what many around the league wonder in whispers.

Three: Maybe the guy just wants to do something else. We just don’t know that.

Four: Lots of times people retire because of stress in the job, but those who know Belichick best say he’s done this for so long in part because nothing football-related provides his stress; he’s had such great role models (starting with his flatliner brilliant dad, the late Steve Belichick) and realizes all he can do is prepare the best he knows how and whatever happens happens.

After Sunday’s game, owner Robert Kraft presented Belichick with a game ball for reaching 300, and he mentioned his first win. The details:

• Belichick win 1: Browns at Patriots, Foxboro, Mass., Sept. 8, 1991. Belichick’s Browns 20, Patriots 0.

• Belichick win 300: Browns at Patriots, Foxboro, Mass., Oct. 27, 2019. Belichick’s Patriots 27, Browns 13.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the games:

• New England quarterback in the first Belichick win: Tom Hodson (lifetime wins: 1).

• New England quarterback in the 300th Belichick win: Tom Brady (lifetime wins: 245).

I asked some of the people who have known Belichick over the years about a trait or story they have illustrating his football mind:

Cris Collinsworth
NBC “Sunday Night Football” game analyst

“This week, we met with Aaron Rodgers and talked to him about how well the Green Bay offense is playing, and how his relationship with the new coach is developing. You know, good news stuff. But, in the beginning, when I did this job, I was at the bottom of the NBC NFL TV teams. I’d do a lot of games with teams under .500. Invariably, I’d be asking, ‘Why do you stink?’ With Bill in Cleveland, asking him that question in some form, you’re not going to have a lot of fun. And believe me, when Bill is mad at you, it is bad. But he is also my favorite interview when he is engaged.

“People have never appreciated what a brilliant teacher he is. One time I asked him about how well one of his defensive tackles was playing—the way he got his hands inside, the way he controlled his man—and then Bill went on a 30-minute deal about defensive tackles. Everything about the position. I was stunned about the level of minute detail he went into about defensive tackles. I said, ‘You should write a book about defensive tackles.’

“He said, ‘Cris, I could write a book about every position.’

“Bill’s ability to develop talent is what separates him. He knows he can develop and train younger players, or improve players on the back-end of their careers, which allows him to let high-priced players walk. That ability to control his salary cap allows him to build depth on his roster. When injuries are destroying other teams late in the year, he still has quality players coming off the bench for the playoffs and Super Bowl.“

Louis Riddick
Safety, Cleveland, 1993-95

“January first, 1995. Single-most memorable day of my football career—high school, college, pro.

“Stevon Moore, the regular safety, was hurt. I was ready to go. Nick Saban’s my defensive coordinator and my DB coach. Bill Belichick’s my head coach. Playing Drew Bledsoe in a playoff game. Going to the stadium, I wasn’t nervous. Nick is one of the great coaches of all time, and he had me totally prepared. We were playing a lot of single-high safety. On this one play, [safety] Eric Turner rotated down, and I was playing the deep part of the field. I remember getting good depth and seeing Drew throw it. He overthrew it. I thought, ‘This ball is coming right to me! Don’t drop it!’ I caught it. And that day I had like 10 tackles. Great day. Next day, we go into the team meeting, and I figure I’m getting a game ball. I sat down. I figure, had an interception, all these big hits. I am at the edge of my seat. Bill says, ‘This guy had so-and-so tackles, had an interception.’ Bill says, ‘The defensive player of the game is …’ I literally start getting up out of my seat, and he says, ‘Eric Turner.’ I was like [exhaling air]. I sat back in my seat. And Eric, God bless his heart, says, ‘Uh-uhn. No.’ He tosses the ball to me, and everybody is clapping.

“So we’re walking out of the team meeting room. Bill’s there. He looks at me. Just like this he says: ‘What are you gonna do next week?’ I’m thinking, ‘Man! That’s rough!’

“But this league’s about what you’re gonna do, not what you just did. Great lesson. And that is exactly how Bill Belichick is.”

Chris Simms
Coaching assistant, New England, 2012-13

“One of the dirty secrets of the NFL is how the Patriots’ attention to detail and creativity goes way beyond other coaches I’ve seen. Their building is as on edge and in the same full grind mode on May 25th as it is on Nov. 25th. Preparing in the offseason is like preparing for a playoff game. After a while—I was there about 16 months—I started to realize that bulletin-board material doesn’t exist for the Patriots. They don’t care about anyone else. They care about internal motivation, not external.

“It was Mother’s Day weekend one time, and we’re in there on a Saturday, and we’re thinking, ‘Sunday off! Great!’ So we’re working hard on a Saturday and in a staff meeting, Bill says, ‘I’ll let you guys sleep in tomorrow. Let’s come in at 11.’ Someone says, ‘Bill, tomorrow’s Mother’s Day.’ Like, if you’re married with kids, you need to do some family things Mother’s Day. He’s like, ‘Oh that’s right.’ He gave everyone the day off, and he was fine about it. But he was oblivious to it.

“I remember watching the Super Bowl against Seattle when I was with Bleacher Report. Seattle’s down near the goal line, ready to score and win the game, and Bill’s not calling a timeout. I was sitting there, like, ‘What is he doing! Call a timeout!’ And of course it worked out, and Bill knew that by not calling the timeout he was putting pressure on the Seahawks to make a quick decision about their play-call at the goal line. In New England, nothing happens without it being thought out.”

Mike Vrabel
Linebacker/tight end, New England, 2001-08

With the Patriots in cap trouble entering Belichick’s second year, 2001, New England signed 17 mostly backup or bit players in the 2001 offseason, including Pittsburgh special-teamer/backup linebacker Vrabel.

“I had kind of stalled in Pittsburgh, and you always wonder what you’d do if you ended up getting cut one year. I would probably have gone back to school. I’m not sure I’d have been as eager to get into coaching when I was that young. When the Patriots gave me the offer, I was going to have more of a chance to get on the field. I brought it back to Pittsburgh and told coach [Bill] Cowher. He said, ‘We can match the money, but not the opportunity.’ So I went to New England.

“One day that first year Bill walked up to me and said, ‘Remember in that Miami preseason game last year—how you played the power block? That’s how we want to do it here.’ There wasn’t all that much tape on me in Pittsburgh, but he found something he saw in me.”

“I used to warm up with Drew Bledsoe before games, and he’d throw me quite a few passes. Drew told [offensive coordinator] Charlie Weis, ‘This guy can play tight end if we need it.’ So eventually they started asking me to come over on Fridays and get the tight end plays, and maybe they’d use me. [Vrabel caught 12 passes for 12 touchdowns in the last nine years of his career.] What that taught me is Bill uses the whole roster. He puts more stuff on guys who can handle it.

“I’ve taken a lot from a lot of coaches in my life—Urban Meyer, Bill Cowher, Bill [Belichick], Bill O’Brien—but what sticks with from New England is that Bill held the best players the most accountable. He wants everyone on the roster to know he’s going to demand the most from the best players.”

Matthew Slater
Special-teams player, New England, 2009-present

“In our first playoff game in the 2016 season, we did not play well at all. We beat Houston, but we knew after the game it wasn’t a good game for us. Honestly, it was like we lost. I don’t know any other place in the league where you win a playoff game and it feels like that.

“Bill wasn’t emotional, he wasn’t loud. He was just matter-of-fact, straight to the point. He said, ‘If we play like that again next week, we’re gonna get beat.’ Nothing dramatic. Just the truth. Regardless of the outcome, he was going to tell us the truth.

“As people in life experience great success, and things come a little easier for them, they tend to change. It’s human nature to become a little complacent. It can be exhausting to maintain the all-in mentality in anything in life year after year, decade after decade. But he has. Bill’s most unique ability, I think, is to avoid complacency. His standard, his love of football, his preparation every week, every year, it’s never changed.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here

NFL Week 13 awards: Nick Bosa, defenses steal show

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Offensive Players of the Week

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.

A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.

 

Defensive Players of the Week

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.

Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.

Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.

Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.

 

Special teams players of the week

Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.

 

Coach of the Week

Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.

 

Goat of the week

Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Joe Burrow giving Cincinnati Bengals edge in AFC

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I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.

Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.

But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:

Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.

Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.

In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.

The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:

Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.

The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.

Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.

“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”

A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:

The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.

They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.

The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.

Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column