Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Belichick’s Football Life a Half-Told Story

By Bob Ekstrom

Most call Bill Belichick a genius, the best football mind since Vince Lombardi. Others say his success owes entirely to Bill Parcells' mentoring or Tom Brady's right arm. New Englanders acclaim him as the rock upon which the Patriots built the NFL's winningest, most celebrated team of the first decade of the 21st Century. New Yorkers and the Arlen Specters of the world whose assessment of integrity is blurred by the many layers of envy in which they're wrapped call him a cheater, as if seven minutes of tape can denigrate a 37-year career any more than a hangnail can malform Gisele Bundchen's physique.

Like him or hate him, Bill Belichick could give a damn. He is the most polarizing coach in all of sports, and his electrolytes are the seemingly impenetrable veil with which he cloaks both his professional and personal life. So it came as a stunner to most of the football world when the NFL Network announced its two-part special, Bill Belichick: A Football Life, this summer. The first part aired last Thursday night; the second, this Thursday.

The premise is not new: mike up a coach and follow him everywhere for a while. Even in New England, it's not a first. The Boston Globe's Michael Holley had a backstage pass during 2002 and 2003 for his best-seller, Patriot Reign (Harper-Collins, 2004), but little else has come out of Foxborough since. Often, it's a chess match in the Patriots' media center, and information and its suppression are the queen pieces. Even as A Football Life was queued up for airing, Albert Breer was being verbally Heismanned by an elusive Belichick in the bowels of Gillette. So why did he even agree to do this segment in the first place?

It could be the product of a woman's influence. Girlfriend Linda Holliday is fond of the spotlight and would love to pull Belichick into it, not to mention leveraging her beau's project into more national exposure for herself in the process. Or it could be that Belichick has come to terms with his own mortality and now looks to preserve his legacy. Few others have as deep a reverence for their own roots and those of the game they love. This reverence came to life in a touching scene last Thursday when an emotional Belichick took a final walk through Giants Stadium and reminisced about the organization and coaching staff with whom he won his first two rings. Allowing NFL Network to follow him through the 2009 season is his way of giving back to the game, of keeping his story in the family.

If you don't follow the Patriots, 2009 provided compelling drama. It featured the controversial Richard Seymour trade, the infamous 4th-and-2 call in Indianapolis, Drew Brees' perfect game against Belichick's torched secondary, players coming late for practice, and — oh, yeah — Ray Rice scampering 83 yards down the left sideline on the first play from scrimmage in their only postseason game. I was in the crowd for that one, and on the cold winter nights that followed, whenever I closed my eyes Rice's legs were still taking long unabated strides deep into the Patriots' secondary. Even a pillow across my face couldn't make him stop.

The first installment began with Belichick on his boat just before the opening of training camp and ran through New England's bye week, but it didn't offer much insight into the Seymour trade. The draft pick the Patriots got in return ended up being 6'8”, 319-pound offensive lineman Nate Solder who has fared well enough so far, but in a season where Belichick has already cut four early-round draft picks in Ty Warren, Brandon Meriwether, James Sanders, and Darius Butler, few are ready to declare victory on this move and still want to know why it went down.

There's a growing belief in New England that the luster has faded. Whether it's all those high draft picks that bust and get cut, the perennially porous defenses dating back to the 2006 AFC Championship Game, a plethora of receivers that can't understand the playbook, or the one-and-done exoduses, Belichick's best appears to be well behind him, but many New Englanders tuned in hoping to hear NFL Network tell us it isn't so.

And they let us see what we want. In a pre-game meeting before Week 2, Belichick prepares his coaches for what the Jets will throw at them the next day, while some clever interlacing of footage from that game make the HC look prophetic. He hasn't lost his insight and meticulous game planning skills after all! Yet, why was he not able to stop a single thing he knew was coming?

Belichick's disgust for this 2009 roster and coaching staff was apparent throughout Thursday's debut. At one point, he confides in Brady that he can't get his team to do anything he wants. Patriots fans aren't getting answers as to why that should be, but they can take comfort in seeing their coach hasn't lost his objectivity. He saw the limit of his offensive weapons, just as fans pulled their hair out watching Brady repeatedly forcing the ball into Randy Moss Sunday after Sunday. As he said, they couldn't throw to anyone else and they couldn't run the ball. Of course, those were self-imposed limitations, as Belichick depleted his rosters of talent through years of poor drafts and free agent busts.

This Thursday will offer us one last chance for answers, with some of the most puzzling events of the 2009 season still ahead. After that, it will be a long time before we get this unprecedented access behind Belichick's closed doors. If his first 36-plus years are any indication we won't get our answers out of him, even with NFL Network's help. Sports' most polarizing coach figures to be even more so come Friday morning.

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