EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 24, 2008

Picking up the pieces: As camp opens, Belichick busy rebuilding Patriots' mystique, reputation

By Bill Burt

FOXBORO — It is the day before the new year — the football new year, that is — and Bill Belichick looks nothing like the mad scientist he is often made out to be.

Heck, the New England Patriots head coach doesn't even look mad considering what happened last February and the ensuing months.

First, there was the catastrophic Super Bowl loss to the Giants, which was later mixed in with the agony that was the Matt Walsh fiasco. The latter kept Belichick No. 1 on sports' Most Hated List for much of the late winter and early spring.

You would expect Belichick's Gillette Stadium office to be as lavish as that of a powerful oil company's CEO. It's not. In fact, it is as dull as his famed grey sweatshirt.

Elbow room is at a premium. The window behind his desk barely shows any light with the blind pulled down most of the way. And the nearby love seat has a few pictures, an article of clothing and a small box taking up most of sitting area.

The commotion on this day is understandable. Yesterday was a moving day of sorts. Most of the rookies and veterans who weren't here already for training camp were arriving in droves.

Belichick's office door was like a turnstile of super minds. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel walked out of his office after about 10 minutes and linebackers coach Matt Patricia replaced him, coming in to speak to the head coach for about five minutes.

Belichick put the exclusive interview with The Eagle-Tribune on hold, though, when Patriots general manager Scott Pioli entered, needing a few private words with the coach.

"Nine years? It's been nine years already," said Belichick when the questioning resumed, appearing to just then realize he is the third longest-tenured coach in the NFL (Denver's Mike Shanahan and Tennessee's Jeff Fisher enter their 13th seasons with their teams).

"It's a long time. It's been nine good years," he added, getting a little sentimental. "It took us a year to get going after that first year (in 2000). After (2002), we gotten to the playoffs every year."

Yes, despite popular belief, Bill Belichick is enjoying himself. And, yes, he says he and the franchise are ready, willing and able to put the Super Bowl disappointment behind them — as long as we do, too.

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The record, though, shows Belichick has some work to do. Historically, teams as well as individual athletes that lose the Big One when nobody expects it take an immediate hit soon after.

Mike Tyson comes to mind. He went from undefeated (38-0) and invincible one night in Japan against Buster Douglas to an immediate also-ran thereafter, posting a 12-5 record the rest of his career.

Greg Norman, another bigger-than-life star, never could muster up the energy or fight to win a big tournament after handing the Masters to Nick Faldo in the final round of the 1996 tourney.

The football equivalent to the 2007 Patriots might be the St. Louis Rams of 2001, thought to be a dynasty in the making. They were never the same again after the Patriots' improbable Super Bowl XXXVI upset.

Belichick, though, isn't buying the analogy.

"Each team is different," he said. "Each year is different. I don't see the correlation being that great one game to the next or one year to the next. It's its own entity. I'm not saying they're not related. But I don't think what happened last year or two years ago has a lot to do with it."

The Patriots under Belichick have overcome many obstacles of these sorts. Whether it was the 2001 Terry Glenn saga (he was suspended and then reinstated) or the 2003 Lawyer Milloy mess (he was released five days before the opener) or even the injury bug in 2004 that hit a few Hall of Fame-caliber starters (Ty Law and Richard Seymour), Belichick and the Patriots moved onward.

Kraft provides support

One thing Belichick has going for him is owner Robert Kraft.

Kraft has been there through the tough times in 2000 and even this past winter and spring.

"Our relationship has developed over a lot of experiences we have shared together — we communicate a lot," said Belichick. "Philosophically, we have the same goals and methods. He talks to me about what he's doing and how it affects us."

Kraft made a name for himself and the organization nationally when he rescinded a draft pick, Nebraska's Christian Peter, in 1996 when it was reported how bad his off-field transgressions, particularly against women, really were.

About a decade later, that same owner was allowing Belichick to bring in "bad boys" Corey Dillon and Randy Moss. Of course, they, too, conformed to the "Patriots' way" that's responsible for the NFL's latest dynasty.

"Basically, Robert has given me a great amount of freedom and latitude to do what I feel is in the best interests of the team," said Belichick. "I appreciate that. He definitely wants to know what's going on. But, basically, he let's me do what I think is best. Some of the players we've signed, the ones that I have wanted, he's been OK with."

Moss was the most recent and by far the most controversial. While he didn't have the rap sheet that Dillon had, he had earned the reputation, fairly or unfairly, as a chemistry killer.

"Robert simply said, 'Do you think this is the right thing to do for the team?'" said Belichick.

Moss is an interesting player on the new New England Patriots. Last season was supposedly a test run.

With Kraft's approval, the Patriots expended a measly fourth-round pick for Moss. This year, the "risk" is on the other foot as the Patriots agreed to spend $27 million on Moss over the next three years.

Belichick takes exception to the use of the word "risk" when it comes to Moss.

"I have a lot of trust in Randy," said Belichick. "He's really an honest and forthcoming guy. He has great insight in a lot of things, football and life in general. He's into team chemistry. He's a really smart guy and has a good perspective.

"I bounce things off Randy," said Belichick, "because I'm very interested in his point of view."

Questions need answers

While the 2008 season officially begins today, there are still some unanswered questions from 2007, more than the strange play-calling during Super Bowl XLII.

Despite the perfect regular season and eventual trip to Arizona, there was one thing last year's Patriots didn't do that the three other Super Bowl champions did: They weren't playing their best when it mattered most.

"There's some validity to it," admitted Belichick. "But I don't agree with it completely. The schedule might have had something to do with it (early in the season). At the end of the year, we beat the Giants, we beat Jacksonville, we beat San Diego. We had some tough conditions those finals weeks with wind and rain.It wasn't conducive to scoring a lot of points."

Add in the fact that one of the Patriots' key positions, tight end, was a mess almost the last six weeks of the season with Kyle Brady and Ben Watson both injured.

But that's not all. The Patriots defense was also shoddy at times in December and even January. The offenses of Jacksonville and San Diego — which was injured almost beyond recognition — made it look too easy too often against New England in the playoffs.

If you look at the two toughest losses the Patriots have had over the last two seasons, they were to Indianapolis in the AFC Championship in January 2007 and, of course, the Super Bowl loss to the Giants in Glendale. The common factor between those defeats — besides the fact that the Manning brothers were the quarterbacks of both teams — was that the Patriots held a four-point lead in each in the closing minutes.

"Those two games, if we didn't allow them to score it would have changed the outcomes in both games," said Belichick. "But those were two totally different games. If you give up 38 points, you feel a lot worse about (the defense) than when you give up 17 or 10 in 58 minutes. I wouldn't call that bad defense. Still, it's being able to stop them when you have to stop them."

Which brings us back to a statement Belichick made in New Orleans, 12 hours after the Patriots beat the Rams:

"Defense wins championships," he said.

Does he still believe in that six-plus years later?

"Sure," he said. "But the goal is to have all three phases playing at the highest level at the right time. And we didn't (against the Giants)."

Belichick even defended his offense, which appeared to be a shell of itself come December and January.

"A lot of teams looked at our first half the season and decided the way they were going to play us was a lot different than those teams played us," said Belichick. "A lot of those teams tried to get in a fastbreak game with us and we got 12 or 13 possessions and close to 50 points.

"At the end of the year, other teams were trying to limit possessions. We only got the ball seven or eight times in some cases. It changed the way the game was being played, and we had to play it a different way. And we still won, but when you have the ball seven times, it's hard to score 40 points."

No predictions now

Belichick isn't about to predict the future or even flirt with it, not with the conditioning test and two-a-days starting today.

Too many things could happen between now and the Patriots' Sept. 7 opener against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium.

If people expect more of the track meet the Patriots offense put on for a good chunk of 2007, they might be disappointed.

"The opponent, the conditions and personnel dictate those things," said Belichick. "Everything is based on matchups. I can't predict what's going to happen tomorrow never mind in September or October."

Changes are being made on the other side of the ball, though.

The drafting of rookie Jerod Mayo, a linebacker out of Tennessee, spoke volumes. Very rarely does Belichick draft for need, or at least immediate need. With the 10th overall pick, Mayo was brought in to bring energy and speed to an aging middle of the defense.

Belichick insinuated a few months ago that his predraft meeting with Mayo, especially during film review, was what convinced him.

"We needed to get some athleticism at that position, and I believe we did," said Belichick. "But I couldn't tell you how much anybody will play or what their role will be, especially with rookies. We have to see them practice and play."

Yes, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are back. While we won't know for a while if they're going to be better than ever, we do know this: The head coach has his work cut out for him.

Forgetting about 2007, though, might be tougher than winning in 2008.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.