Patriots

Belichick learned his unique approach the Hardin way

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Belichick learned his unique approach the Hardin way

FOXBORO -- When Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels spoke on the Patriots sidelines in the third quarter of their Divisional Round game with the Ravens last year, they knew their season might be over if they didn't try something new. They were down, 28-14, and they had either punted or turned the ball over on three of their previous four possessions.

"Look, this is it," Belichick said, recalling his conversation with McDaniels for NFL Network's "Do Your Job" special. "We're down by 14. We're in the playoffs. We gotta try to get it going here. Let's go with 'Baltimore.' Let's spring it on them and see if we can get a play here and get it going."

The four-man line formations used by the Patriots, called "Baltimore" and "Raven," were used three times in the span of six plays and picked up 41 yards on completions to tight end Michael Hoomanwanui and receiver Julian Edelman. Confusing the Ravens and infuriating their coach John Harbaugh -- he was so certain a rule was being broken that he was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty -- the Patriots found something to spark their offense and keep their season alive.

It was an idea that had been crafted almost two weeks earlier. While the Patriots prepared during their bye week, Belichick called McDaniels, tight ends coach Brian Daboll and receivers coach Chad O'Shea into his office to come up with something different that might be able to help them if they needed it in the postseason.

After seeing the Titans use skill-position players at their guard and tackle spots during a desperation final play against the Jets in Week 15, and after seeing Alabama use a tackle lined up in the slot as an ineligible receiver against LSU, they had their templates. With a few adjustments, a pair of never-before-used plays had been born.

Without that meeting a little over a year ago, where creativity and an openness to new ideas were prerequisites, the Patriots franchise still may be waiting on its fourth championship ring. And without Belichick, whose old-school demeanor belies his outside-the-box approach, it would not have happened.

To understand where Belichick developed his willingness to try plays like "Baltimore," and the double-pass he deployed later in that win over the Ravens, one must understand his football upbringing in Annapolis, Maryland.

Belichick was first and foremost influenced by his father, Steve Belichick, the longtime scout and assistant for the Naval Academy's program. The younger Belichick learned the game by his father's side for years, tagging along at practices, watching film, breaking it down and diagramming schemes. He soaked up everything he could.

Yet it was one of his father's good friends, Wayne Hardin, who was Navy's head coach from 1959-64, who left a risk-taker's imprint on the young football prodigy.

"I was young so I didn't really know anything, but you could tell when something was different," said Belichick, who was 7 years old when Navy played its first game with Hardin at the helm. "You could tell when something was new. I'd say I learned from him that there's nothing wrong with being aggressive. He was very innovative in the kicking game, which he continued to be at Temple (where he was head coach from 1970-82). I mean, I still remember some of the things he did, that were -- they were brilliant. They were just brilliant."

Hardin, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013, was equally struck by the youngster who very clearly had a thirst for football and showed a greater interest in playing the game as he got older. It was Hardin who suggested Belichick mold himself after Navy captain Tom Lynch, a smart and respected leader who played center and linebacker.

Like Lynch, Belichick took to center and eventually played there for Wesleyan during his college football career.

"Bill would come to practice when he was 11 or 12 years old, something like that," Hardin said. "And my kids would come to practice. And my kids would be looking at the sky and seeing what the weather's like. If the weather was good, they were out of there and going to play golf.

"Bill's eyes were glued on practice and everything that was going on. He was constantly talking football, thinking football. His dad trained him better than anybody."

Belichick watched as Hardin coached talented players like Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, but he noticed when Hardin wasn't afraid to orchestrate something strange.

Hardin once ran a play where he kept 10 players on the field after a kickoff that was returned along the sideline. He made what looked like a two-for-two substitution, but one of the players headed toward the sidelines discreetly remained on the field. Uncovered, the forgotten man was hit with a pass and ran for a touchdown.

"Frankly, that was not my idea," Hardin said with a laugh. "It was [assistant coach] Rick Forzano's idea. I didn't think it would work."

But Hardin had the final say, and he was willing to try it.

Belichick called something very similar in 2004 when the Patriots lined up for a field-goal attempt and kicker Adam Vinatieri was snapped the ball. He hit receiver Troy Brown -- who had quietly headed to the sideline -- for a score in a regular-season win on the road in St. Louis.

Patriots quick kicks, unique punt and field-goal rushes, certain trick plays -- Belichick credits Hardin for many of them. 

"All that," Belichick said, "is Wayne's stuff."

Even after Hardin landed at Temple, Belichick continued to pay close attention to the coach's methods. In 1979, when the Owls took on heavily-favored Cal in the Garden State Bowl at Giants Stadium, Belichick was in attendance. The Giants special-teams coach at the time, Belichick sat with then Giants assistant Ernie Adams, who now works alongside Belichick as the football research director for the Patriots.

The pair of young and talented football minds were completely baffled as they watched Hardin toy with Cal's linebackers, who were taught to read the guards in front of them.

"Ernie and I were sitting up there watching the game, and on the first series of plays, one guard pulled deep, the other guard pulled short," Belichick said. "And they just folded around to get the linebacker, but they pulled. And the two inside linebackers ran into each other. I looked at Ernie, and he looked at me . . ."

Did Temple just screw that up, they wondered?

"Four or five plays later, same thing. The two linebackers," Belichick clapped his hands together loudly, imitating the collision, "because they're standing right next to each other. They went right into each other. [Temple ran] straight down to the safety for, like, 20 yards. They must've run that play six or seven times and it was 20 yards every time . . . At the time, I'd never seen that before."

Temple scored 21 points in the first quarter in that game, rushed for 300 of its 381 total offensive yards and won, 28-17. 

"I'd say Wayne influenced me more than anybody else," Belichick said recently while sitting in the driver's seat of a cart inside the tunnel at Gillette Stadium. "Honestly, I saw other coaches at Navy take a different approach, and looking back on it, even though I didn't know it at the time, but I would say looking back on it, I would rather be like him. I've seen these others, but I would rather do it the way he did it."

What many may consider the coaching genius of both Belichick and Hardin boils down to a rather simple philosophy: If something needs to be shaken up, then shake it up; if something is working the way it should, then don't.

"If it's going well, then you don't want to change it. If the fish are biting, you don't leave fish to go catch bigger fish," Belichick explained. "A lot of it is based on, 'Okay, we're having a problem with this. It's not going well. We're not handling what we got. What are we going to do about it?' Sometimes it's executing better. Sometimes it's, 'We don't really have it. We can try to play it, but we don't really have it . . .'

"If you see somebody else doing something that you think will work for you, that's one obvious way to tap into it. Or you come up with something yourself."

There is the flip side, though. There are moments when something new has been concocted but doesn't play out as planned.

"Anything that doesn't work is no good," Hardin said. "You try something different, something strange, and it doesn't work? You're a bum. If it works, everybody says, 'What was that?' "

Belichick was questioned extensively following a Week 13 loss to the Eagles because with a 14-0 lead in the second quarter he asked safety and special teamer Nate Ebner -- a former rugby star at Ohio State -- to loop a drop-kick up and over the front line of Philadelphia's kickoff return unit.

The ball was recovered by the Eagles at their own 41-yard line, setting them up with good field position, and they scored the first of five unanswered touchdowns on that drive, sparking a 35-28 win.

It was New England's second consecutive loss of the season, and the first time in more than three years that Belichick's team had lost back-to-back games.

Ebner's drop-kick was highlighted by many as the turning point.

"I mean, look, it’s easy to sit here when you know the outcome of the play and say, 'Well, yeah, we could have done something else,' " said Belichick during a conference call the day after the game. "Sure, yeah, no question."

As is the case with any run-of-the-mill play, there is no way to predict how something that hasn't been seen much -- or at all -- will work out. But Belichick admitted later that for any coach who is willing to try new things, there are only so many failures one can endure before the team starts to lose confidence in their boss.

Even Belichick, who has won as many Super Bowls any coach and could be argued as the most successful coach all-time, adheres to that principle.

"You might get one or two more screw-ups," Belichick said, "but I mean, it doesn't last too long . . . If you start throwing a bunch of new ideas at a team, let's say -- the coaches, players, whatever it is -- and they don't work, you get to about the fourth one and it's like, 'Okay, here's another great new idea. Why don't we get better at the things we're doing as opposed to coming up with a different way of doing it?'

"I think there's a fine line there. I don't think you want to just do it to do it because if it doesn't work, then, you know, you really -- you lose credibility. How many [bad] ideas do you want to come up with? How long are they going to follow you with one bad idea after another?

"If you come up with something and it works, and you come up with something else and it works, then the next thing you come up with probably nobody's even going to think twice about it. They're just gonna say, 'Okay, well, I don't really know why we're doing this.' Or maybe you tell them why you're doing it, and they're like, 'All right, great. Full speed ahead.'

"But you start having a few of those that backfire, and then the next thing you know it's, 'What about this and what about that? Last time we did this, we said this was gonna happen, but it didn't happen.' You lose confidence. I don't think that's a good idea. You gotta make the right decision, find the right time. A lot of those ideas are good ideas at the right time. It's gotta be right because if it isn't, it can look terrible."

Patriots players say Belichick has little to worry about in that regard. In their eyes, perhaps with last year's Divisional Round game still fresh, he has a long way to go before foreheads scrunch and lips purse skeptically in meeting rooms.

"I think his odds, his percentage speaks for itself," said safety Devin McCourty. "You do a lot of great things, and you keep doing them, you're consistent, if you try something that didn't work out, then it didn't work that time.

"His resume, I think, speaks for itself. I think that's the fine line of being a good coach or a good player is finding what works for you, and trying to find new ways and new things but still finding a way to be consistent."

"There's times where he'll mention a thing or two that none of us have ever heard or thought of," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "But with his track record and what he's been able to accomplish, you never question it. Most of the time, something that he suggests goes over well for us."

"For us, we don't really question any of it," said receiver Danny Amendola. "We trust that it's gonna work. When they call it, we just line up and go where they tell us. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, move onto the next play. But there's not really any question. We have a lot of confidence in what they're coming up with."

Whatever confidence Belichick has built up from winning four Super Bowls with the Patriots and two as a coordinator with the Giants, it was preceded by the confidence that he acquired from his many hours on the job.

In 1979 and 1980, from watching film of Giants opponents, Belichick knew coaches around the league had very little respect for potential fake punts. Time and again, he went to head coach Ray Perkins to suggest running them. Time and again they worked. Belichick hadn't yet reached his 30th birthday, but he had a high success rate when it came to catching other teams sleeping so his suggestions were heeded.

He thinks he ran more fake punts in those years than he's run in the years since then combined.

"I think that's an example of, it's not how long you've done it or how short you've done it," he said. "To me, it's about the right time, the right situation. Why would you do something new? Because you think it's good."

In many ways, the approach is Hardinesque.

Belichick remains very close to Hardin, who spends winters in Florida and will celebrate his 90th birthday in March. Belichick had Hardin visit Patriots training camp practices with the Eagles before the 2013 season, and he sends Hardin cookies at Christmas time. 

"Billy," Hardin said, "is like one of my sons."

The two continue to keep in touch by exchanging e-mails every week, Hardin explained. Their correspondences, of course, touch on football.

Recently Hardin lamented to Belichick that he's seen far too many teams -- college, pro -- beat themselves of late. And earlier this year Hardin wrote to Belichick that another Super Bowl would lock him in as the best to ever roam a sideline. "If we can get the Super Bowl this year," Hardin said, "he has to go down as the best coach in history."

But Hardin won't get into the nuts-and-bolts of scouting reports or play calls. He leaves those to Belichick.

After all, he already taught the kid who used to be glued to Navy practices one of the most important lessons he ever learned: Trust your gut.

"I'd say the bottom line on that is, don't be afraid to do it," Belichick said. "Just because somebody else hasn't done it doesn't mean you can't do it. You have to have a reason. You have to be able to execute it. But don't be afraid to do it. I would say he probably influenced me more than anything. Not so much any one play -- although I'd say I've stolen several plays from him -- but more just that mentality."

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.

Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip

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Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip

While being away from home isn’t uncommon for the Patriots - just think about all those Super Bowl trips - Tom Brady believes each excursion takes on its own feel, its own flavor and - eventually - its own meaning.

Back in 2014, the Pats went from playing in Green Bay and losing to the Packers straight to San Diego for a week on the West Coast prior to a rousing victory over the Chargers. That week, many players said in the aftermath, helped propel the team to great heights,.  You’ll recall, that season ended in grand fashion, a triumph in Super Bowl 49 over Seattle, at the time - and maybe still - the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

“I think all these experiences are pretty unique,” Brady said Friday from Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy. “That was a very unique experience. This is different.”

Brady spoke about the number of stops the Pats have and will have to make on this trip - from Denver to Colorado Springs then on to Mexico City Saturday before a Sunday night return to Foxboro and their own beds for the first time in 10 nights.

“When you’re on the road like this, there’s less to do,” he said. “You know my family is not here, my kids aren’t here. There’s nobody telling me what I did wrong in the house. It’s just being at home and now it’s being here and trying to figure out a way to win a game.”

Brady quickly smoothed over any possible ill-will at home - why make Gisele mad? - smiling and saying “I didn’t mean that so I’ll take it back.”

Kidding aside, the 40-year old signal caller seemed pleased with the work the Patriots have put in during this long trip. A week of team-bonding can’t be a bad thing, especially for a group that seems to be hitting it’s stride both on and off the field. There’s the five wins in a row and also a locker room that has a better understanding of one another than it did during the first month of the season. But Brady is not ready to make any grand proclamations. That just wouldn’t be his style.

“I think it’s still work in progress,” he said of team chemistry. “You look at still adding a player like Marty (Bennett) last week. Things are always changing and evolving. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re doing well and after 8 or 9 weeks, you start to figure those things out. Now we have to work hard at those things, try to really own them, and use them going forward to try and win the most important games. We have a lot of important games coming up, starting with this one. Hopefully we can play our best football going forward.”

Brady said he’s been fired up for this game with the Raiders south of the border ever since the schedule was released all those months ago.

“I’ve never been to Mexico City,” he said. “It’s been a game you kind of look forward to. We’re playing against a really good football team in a pretty cool environment. It will be very memorable. I think everyone is excited.”