Patriots

Bill Belichick says Patriots' mental toughness can improve, but how quickly?

Bill Belichick says Patriots' mental toughness can improve, but how quickly?

You've seen the clip by now.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were standing on the sidelines in New Orleans back in 2009. It was the end of a 38-17 Week 12 blowout. Belichick's headset was off. There was nothing more he could do so he went to his best player to talk. To vent. 

"We got a long way to go," Belichick said, captured by NFL Films for their "A Football Life" special on the Patriots coach.

"We got a long way to go. I'm telling you. We just have no mental toughness. We go on the road, we have no mental toughness. We can't play the game the way we need to play it. 

"And it's not them, either. It's totally us. Just totally us. Gonna have to find a way here to be a tougher team when we get on the road . . . I just can't get this team to play the way we need to play. I just can't do it. So [expletive] frustrating."

Brady shook his head.

"We do it in spurts," he said. "We just don't do it for four quarters."

"No," Belichick replied, "and the tougher it gets, the less likely we are to do it."

With that, Belichick sighed.

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The 2018 Patriots don't have the same DNA that the 2009 iteration of the team did. That was a team that had just lost Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. It was a team with a second-year captain in Jerod Mayo. It was a team in transition, separating the first half of the Patriots dynasty with the second. 

But this year's team has some of the same issues that one did. It's the first team to lose five regular-season games since that 2009 squad. It's the first team to lose five road games since 2009, when the Patriots lost six away from Gillette Stadium. 

Belichick's primary gripe that night nine years ago in New Orleans was with his team's mental toughness. It would be hard to believe he was thrilled with what this year's team has shown in that regard, particularly after a loss in Pittsburgh where they racked up a season-high 14 penalties, went 3-for-10 on third down and 0-for-3 in the red zone. 

On a conference call Monday I asked Belichick how he'd gauge the mental toughness this year's team has shown. 

"I think it’s a tough group of players," Belichick said. "Like anything, like every year, there’s always room for improvement and that’s the way it is every year. We always try to perform at our best in every area, whether that’s mental toughness, situation football, running game, passing game, kicking game, you name it.

"I mean, we always try to perform at our best, and being physically and mentally tough is a big part of this game, so we always try to do our best at that and there’s always room for improvement."

It's the amount of room there is to improve in those critical areas that's the surprise. Unlike 2009, this is a team that has much of its core from back-to-back Super Bowl seasons intact.

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Brady is at the center. Rob Gronkowski is healthy enough to play. Julian Edelman and Patrick Chung, toughness personified in the Patriots locker room for years, are both still available. Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Matthew Slater, James White, Trey Flowers, four-fifths of the starting offensive line -- all either captains, former captains or key pieces to at least one Super Bowl title (and in several cases two) -- remain.

Mental toughness doesn't seem like something that should be bothering this group. But when I asked Belichick if that is an innate quality, something a player might bring with him from high school through college and something that would get scouted and drafted, he said no.

"No, I think we all need to work on it all the time," he said.

The question is this: Can the Patriots make up enough ground between now and when they'll be tested next -- maybe as soon as Wild Card weekend?

"You can't get it in a week," Rob Ninkovich, a member of that 2009 team, said on The Ex-Pats Podcast this week. "It's like an attitude. It's a demeanor. It's when you are kind of backed up into that corner -- are you going to accept the fact that you're there? Or are you going to jump out and try and claw someone's face?

"Are you just going to sit there and let it happen to you? Or are you going to do something about it?"

There are players on this Patriots team who've done their share of fighting out of tight spots in the past. Super Bowl LI is the easy example for many of players to point to and say, "See!"

But they're through almost a full season and the faces clawed in critical situations have been few and far between when away from Foxboro.

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Boston Sports Breakfast Podcast: More AFC title game aftermath; Did writers get Baseball Hall vote right?

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Boston Sports Breakfast Podcast: More AFC title game aftermath; Did writers get Baseball Hall vote right?

Tom E. Curran and Jerod Mayo discuss the key call that changed the AFC Championship Game, and Baseball Hall of Fame voting is revealed. Did the writers get it right?

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE:

1:20 - Tom E. Curran and Jerod Mayo break down the key factors in the Patriots AFC Championship victory over the Kansas City Chiefs and how a single penalty changed the entire narrative of the game.

7:15 - Trenni Kusnierek, Chris Forsberg and Rich Keefe debate whether Kyrie Irving can keep up the consistent level of play he has shown recently.

12:30 - Michael Felger, Lou Merloni and Rich Keefe discuss if the Baseball Writers got this year's Hall of Fame class right or wrong, and what it means for David Ortiz.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.