In the first quarter of the Patriots undressing of the Cleveland Browns, lead official Tony Corrente announced the Browns sideline had been given a warning.
Their players weren’t staying within the “players box.”
“The hell is that?” you ask.
Well, there’s a yellow line in the bench area that’s about six feet away from the sideline. Players are supposed to stay behind that line unless they are coming on or off the field. Coaches can be in the space between the yellow line and the sideline. Nobody’s supposed to stray inside the 30-yard lines or stand on the white sideline paint.
It’s a housekeeping thing. A detail. The chain gang shouldn’t have to step around players and coaches while they do their jobs. Coaches shouldn’t have to wade through players to eyeball what’s happening on the field. A team that’s on its stuff doesn’t want its sideline to look like a bus stop so that — when a coach needs a player — he can easily turn and find him.
Here’s what the Browns sideline looked like in the second quarter during a Patriots offensive drive.
That’s after they got the sideline warning.
Here’s what the Patriots sideline looked like when the Browns were driving on them in the third quarter.
That’s what it always looks like.
Bill Belichick won his 300th career game on Sunday. I’m sure that 24 years ago when he was coaching in Cleveland, he had an orderly sideline then, too, and it still didn’t stop him from eventually being fired.
But, in a way, those sideline shots help illustrate something bigger about the small details the Patriots care about compared to the rest of the league.
They help illustrate why one coach — even though he got fired there, and was taking on water here in early 2001 — is now recognized as the greatest coach in NFL history, and the other, first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens, is probably just going to be a placeholder until the next Browns coach takes over.
🏈 PATRIOTS 27, BROWNS 13
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As the game in the rain unfolded, the Browns turned the ball over on its first three possessions. There were two fumbles. One came when Nick Chubb had the ball kicked out of his hands by a teammate going ass over teakettle. The other came at the end of an outstanding Chubb run when Patriot Jonathan Jones chased him down and punched the ball out.
There was an intercepted shovel pass when a Browns player didn’t execute a block and second-year maverick quarterback Baker Mayfield volleyed the ball into the chest of Patriot Lawrence Guy.
The Browns — coming off a bye week — were down 17-0 before the crowd had filed into Gillette. They assassinated their chances in the first 15 minutes, and over the next few quarters kept intermittently firing bullets into their own feet just to make sure they had no chance to win.
🏈 PATRIOTS 27, BROWNS 13
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The Browns took 12 penalties. There was a false start near the end of the first after the Browns had first-and-10 at the Pats 40. That was followed by a hold on first-and-15. Next thing you know, it’s third-and-24.
After Cleveland got it to 17-7, the Patriots had a drive in which Cleveland was called for a defensive holding then an illegal use of hands. Kitchens challenged a fourth down spot on a completion to Mohamed Sanu. He lost that one.
On the final play of the third quarter, the Browns took a false start on first-and-10. After the teams switched ends, they took another false start and had first-and-20. On a third-and-3, they ran an illegal pick on a play that got Odell Beckham open for a 27-yard gain. Kitchens challenged that and lost again.
Later in the fourth, with the Browns still kinda hanging around at 27-10, they got whistled for offensive pass interference on a third-and-1. On a fourth-and-1 with 2:37 left and hope fading, they jammed in one more false start to force them to settle for a field goal.
Despite it all, the Browns left Foxboro on Sunday feeling pretty good about themselves. To them, it was just a few mistakes, a few minor details. Clean those up and they’re right there. The Patriots aren’t that much better than them.
“We had a lot of confidence going into this game and we got a lot of confidence coming out of this game because we understand why we lost the game,” said Kitchens. “We lost the game because we turned the ball over and penalties. We need to stop committing penalties. Alright? We need to focus and concentrate on enough on staying onsides, so we don’t end up in first-and-20. Alright? That’s how you win games. And then, take care of the football.
“You know going in that, we can’t continue to jump offsides, we can’t continue to do the things that get you beat,” Kitchens also added. “It’s very evident, that that’s what is getting us beat. It’s turnovers and penalties. That’s it, turnovers and penalties.
“We were supposed to block the end, we didn’t block the end,” Kitchens explained. “So, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean, I know, we were supposed to block the end and we didn’t block the end. So it ends up being an interception.”
“It’s very out of character,” Kitchens defended. “I think it means more to him than anything. You know, Nick had a good night. He holds onto the ball, he knows that. I’m not killing Nick Chubb about it, because Nick Chubb is going to be there in the end.
The Browns sure know how to talk it. Here’s Mayfield on the presnap penalties.
“It's just non-disciplined; guys not being focused on doing their job,” he explained. “It starts first-and-foremost with me, to be a leader every single down. Get our guys lined up, make sure that we're set, we're paying attention because if we can't use cadence we're hurting ourselves. Any time we try to use a double-count, it seems like we're false starting a little bit, but we'll get the discipline part fixed, the accountability.”
Belichick has said in the past that, in order for a team to learn how to win it first has to figure out how not to lose. There’s a level of organization and attention to detail that players have to understand isn’t Harry High School crap, because it creates a level of accountability and stability that then carries on to preparation and playing.
Plenty of coaches come in as hard-asses, hammer the little things and don’t get the buy-in because players push back on being treated like kindergartners (to borrow a lament from Adalius Thomas lodged back in 2009). Greg Schiano probably had a very neat sideline too. He didn’t last because he couldn’t get buy-in and a revolt ended his time.
Belichick’s gotten the buy-in on the little things so that they are now elementary. And that leaves him to not worry about the order of the sidelines or other housekeeping items and frees him up to worry about other weirdness like when the roof will be closed during the Super Bowl or being able to get his eyes on the opposing head coach or cleat length, officials’ tendencies or a million other things that a coach who can’t get his team to stop jumping before the snap never get to.
Bill Belichick has 300 wins because he was on the details a long time ago.
Mohamed Sanu has been here about 15 minutes. He’s over the moon about being in an organized setting.
“Even in a short time here and watching over his career being on the outside looking in I see why he’s successful,” said Sanu. “Because he’s so detailed in work. No stone’s unturned. Make sure all the guys are so prepared.
“Our sideline? It’s got two lines to be back,” he said. “I’ve never seen it before. Usually guys are hugging the line, hugging the line, hugging the line, in the way. He literally has it so detailed that no one would ever go over the line. ‘This is what you should do. So do it.’ ”
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing at what time or where,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a preseason game or a regular season game or the Super Bowl, he cares about winning. He’ll do whatever it takes and it shows.
“Prime example was last week against the Jets when he pulls us in and hones us in on the details of what to not let happen (when the Patriots were ahead 24-0),” he pointed out. “Same thing happened tonight. Drilling it in to us to keep doing your job up 17-0. He sets the standard, everybody knows that.”
Belichick’s created a culture that — despite its relentless demands and isolated bouts of pushback — players embrace because of the payoff.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Tom Brady beamed after the game. “Pretty amazing. Three hundred wins is pretty spectacular. He’s the best coach of all time and it’s a privilege to play for him for as many years as I have. He’s taught me so much on and off the field, just been a great mentor for me. Being here 20 years ago — it was his first year, it was my first year. It’s been a great journey. Just proud of him, everything he’s accomplished. Amazing to think that he coached for another place and they didn’t think he was good enough, and then he comes here and does a great job. It’s a great celebration for him and certainly hard-earned, well-deserved. And the only thing better than 300 is 301. So, we’ll be back at it this week.”
“He’s had a big influence on me,” said Brady. “He’s taught me about pro football. He’s taught me about leadership and consistency, dependability. All the things I think he really preaches to us as a player is what we get out of him as a coach. His consistency, dependability, trust, confidence – all those things over a long period of time really add up. So, he’s just a very stable figure when he gets up and speaks to us. It’s about trying to win games, and I think we all appreciate that.”
Shining a light on sideline decorum as a symptom of why the Patriots are a good team is bound to cause eyerolls. But anyone thinking that’s the point is either dumb or obtuse.
Being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there is a matter of consistency. Can you meet a simple expectation? Yes? Then how about a more important one like remembering the snap count or blocking the end you’re supposed to block or not getting a ball punched out on one carry and kicked out on another?
If you can do those things, he can give you more. Which is what Devin McCourty described
“(One of his strengths is) his ability to give ownership to the players,” McCourty explained. “There’s a lot of times for us as defenders, we go out there and he’ll tell us like, ‘Hey, you’ve got five different options right here. Whatever you see best, by formation, by personnel, make the call.’
And he’s told, whether it’s myself, Duron [Harmon], Pat [Chung], who really makes a lot of calls, [Dont’a] Hightower, Jamie [Collins] Bent [Ja’Whaun Bentley], E-Rob [Elandon Roberts] – he tells us all as signal callers, ‘Nine of out 10 times, I trust you’re going to make the right decision. So I don’t want to tell you what to do and ruin the game.’
“As he always says, ‘Coaches mess up games more than anything.’ And I think him allowing us to do that, for one, it makes us want to study and understand the game, to take accountability to our coaches, to our teammates. And then I think two, it allows us to just play free – go out there, study the game and do what you think is necessary. I think once you’re able to do that, good or bad, it falls on us and we take that responsibility. I think that’s why you see us playing so fast as a defense right now because if something goes wrong on the field, we don’t have to look to the sideline.”
And when the Patriots do look to their sideline, they’ll know where to find the greatest coach in NFL history. Right out front, his team behind him.
Not in some jumbled mess of humanity.
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