FOXBORO -- Sometimes it's not enough to sit there and listen.
There's plenty of that. Listening. Through all the meetings, the practices, the walkthroughs. Players listen. They learn. Coaches coach. They teach. That's a given.
But inside the walls of Gillette Stadium, the approach to improvement is Socratic. There's a back-and-forth that exists between coaches and players. Questions aren't just answered, they're encouraged.
The Patriots have a largely veteran group, in all three phases, and so their questions can at times lead to more questions, which can lead to lengthy meetings and loads of information disseminated.
They asked for it.
Last month, Bill Belichick was asked about running back James White -- who is on a record-setting pace for receptions at his position -- and one of the attributes that Belichick went out of his way to highlight was White's ability to ask questions.
"He's always been a very hard worker, a very diligent guy, knows his assignments very, very well. Asks questions like a coach would ask them," Belichick said. "Has an ability to think really far ahead of what problems could occur on certain fronts or looks or what have you. He does a great job of that. Always has.
"But as he's gained more experience he just knows more and is able to continue to push ahead, like Tom [Brady] has at his position, or Devin [McCourty] has at his position, or Patrick [Chung] at his position. [Dont'a] Hightower – guys like that. They start off good and they just kind of keep going. As they learn more and experience more, they’re able to process more and do more and James has done that."
At some point, players become concerned with more than just their role on a given snap. Their role is important, of course. Can't screw that up. But once they swallow the red pill, once they awaken to all that's going on around them, they may find there's more they can do to make their role more effective.
Do your job, yes. But if you understand the jobs of those around you, if you know how your opponent is going to act when he sees your job being done, then you can react.
It may make for a better play, a better game, and in the end a better team.
"If you were talking to another coach about a play," Belichick said, "the coach would think ahead to, 'What are the problems that could come up on this if they do this? If they do that? If they do something else? What if this guy lines up here instead of there? Those are the kinds of things that a player, like all of the ones I just mentioned, [Matthew] Slater in the kicking game, [Nate] Ebner in the kicking game – they ask those same kind of questions.
"It's not just, 'What's my assignment?' It's, 'OK, well, what if these other things happen? How do we handle it? Are we going to switch it? Are we going to stay with it? Can I make this call? Can I make that call?' "
Over the course of the last few weeks, we stopped several of the coach-like players Belichick mentioned to ask them why they feel the need to speak up when they do, how they know they've covered their bases, and if their ability to think like a coach has them considering that profession once their playing days are over?
'IT'S JUST NOT WANTING TO BE GRAY'
Why do players care about the "why" of their schemes and game plans? Why go above and beyond following orders?
For some, that thirst seems to be innate, gifted to them from a previous generation.
WHITE: "I'm not sure. I guess from my parents. They're pretty detailed people. My dad is a police officer and my mom is a probation officer, so they're very detail-oriented and I think that kind of got instilled in me, just trying to get all of the finer points. Maybe that's where it comes from."
CHUNG: "It's just knowing the information. That's what my dad always told me. You can't make a decision unless you have 100 percent of the information. I just like to be clear on things . . . I like to be sure with what the call is, what we can do on a motion or whatever. It's just about being on the right page. It's just not wanting to be gray. Black or white."
SLATER: "I think there were always conversations that I remember my dad and I having. I think in particular about him blocking Reggie White and him telling me stories. 'Hey, if Reggie lines up here I know to do this. If he lines up here, I'm going to do this.' He would cut him on a seven-step drop, which is something you should never do, but it was Reggie White. I think my dad kind of started that fire of curiosity. And we still talk about stuff like that to this day. And I think Bill has grown that in me."
For others, there's so much information they've acquired as members of the Patriots that when they're presented with a plan that might not incorporate something they'd learned long ago, they need to know why.
Those types of questions require recall. They require a knack for thinking like their boss.
SLATER: "I've had the really good fortune of being around, who is in my opinion, the best football coach that's ever coached. I think his coaching style, the way he prepares his team, makes you think about football totally differently as a player."
McCOURTY: "I feel like my questions come from being here. When we do things that for years since I've been here, they say, 'All right. This is what we're going to do here, here and here.' But if something gets left out, I'm like, 'Dang, usually we go over this part of it.' I'll ask, 'What do you want me to do here?'
"To me, that just came from being here for years, just being a sponge and understanding and learning. Then each year, understanding why we do things . . . 'We need to take this away.' If I'm thinking, 'I don't know if this does that.' I'll ask that question. 'Hey, who has this on this? That could hurt us.' I just think it comes from probably playing football too long."
EBNER: "There's only so many schemes you run. Defensively. Offensively. Special teams. At this point, you've seen a lot of what there is. It's not like your thought process is mainly focused on what your responsibility is because you've done it so many times before. You know. That's not the hard part.
"Younger guys are like, 'What do I have on this? What do I have on that?' But once you kind of have that stuff pretty locked in, it's more like, 'How is this going to work against certain things the other team might do? And if they give us this certain thing against this technique, how should we combat that?' . . . You just get to a point where you run a bunch of different scenarios through your head. What you've seen. What you expect. 'But what if they give us something funky here?' You try to do certain things to certain looks, but they don't always give you what you're expecting. You always have to be ready to adjust.
"I think just being an experienced player makes you do that . . . It makes you always -- I don't want to say paranoid -- but try to prepare yourself for any situation that could come up that the other team will give you."
'PRETTY COOL, ESPECIALLY WHEN . . . YOU'RE A NERD ABOUT IT'
The players who ask the PhD-level questions of their coaches are oftentimes the ones who've been around the longest. They've moved beyond the "where" and the "when" of their gigs and have started dipping into game theory.
When the success of every play is dependent upon what the opponent does to interrupt timing or stop personnel -- and when the options opponents have to do those things are variable -- that's when the queries can really fly.
HIGHTOWER: "For me, it's having a recognition or an understanding of certain coverages. Why you run a certain coverage. What teams do against that coverage. What are they looking for? What are the weaknesses? What are the strengths?
"To know that, it allows me to play faster. It brings my awareness up. So whenever we're in a certain call, it might not affect me, but I'll know it might affect someone else. If I know the defense, I know what can hurt us. And I think certain information on a certain alignment can tell you what play is coming or things like that."
While that information can be useful, information overload is real, meaning it's up to the coaches to parse and then address things when need be. But when intelligent players are part of the process, sometimes enough isn't enough until it's gotten late, linebackers coach Brian Flores explained.
FLORES: "You go all night. We could go all night with those conversations. But I think our guys do a good job of trusting that we're going to put them in the best position. We spend a lot of time going through it. For the most part, obviously, there's a back and forth between players and coaches. They trust us. We trust them. It doesn't always work out, but hopefully we can put our best foot forward, have productive meetings, put together productive practices and hopefully productive games."
McCOURTY: "I'm one of those guys where they'll say to me, 'I'm telling you, this team doesn't do that.' They'll have to tell me that because I'll be like, 'What if? What if?' It's endless. Flo will be like, 'I got you, but . . .' "
SLATER: "They can be endless. There's so many scenarios and possibilities in this game. So many variables. The possibilities are endless. I enjoy having those conversations with guys like Nate and I think it's made us better players, trying to think two steps ahead. Trying to get a little bit of an advantage if possible."
EBNER: "I'm at the point where I need as many stimulating conversations as I can get. Football, it's the same but it's different. It can be repetitive. Those philosophical questions are really what makes teams different. You could ask most people what's football and they'll say two teams go out there and try to move the ball. They run it or they pass it and they kick it on fourth down. But there's things that make teams extremely different in the way they play this game from other teams.
"Those little intricacies are what make it fun at this point to me. It's not 16 weeks of the same thing. For some people it might be. For some players it might be. But they're not seeing the big picture, you know?"
HIGHTOWER: "It goes long. But I think you learn so much from it . . . It's kind of a chess match. It helps. There's some things that'll come up in, like Week 2, but then something that's similar but a little different might come up in, like, Week 7. It's pretty cool. Especially when, I guess, you're a nerd about it."
FLORES: "You want that out of all the players. We want them to ask questions. The reasons why. Why we're doing this or that or however schematically what we're doing. I think it helps them understand and it helps them play better if they fully understand why we're doing X, Y or Z. I fully welcome all those questions. I welcome them from everyone in the room. I wish they'd ask more questions . . . I think that goes a long way as far as, from a big-picture standpoint, when we're trying to put a game plan together, it's not just, 'I go here, you go here.' It's, 'We're doing it because of this.' I think that ultimately is what you want out of all the players."
HIGHTOWER: "A lot of times with Flo and Bill, it is what it is. But other times it's like, 'You're the one playing. You might see it a little bit differently.'
"I think it's pretty cool. Ultimately we know at the end of the day [Belichick] is going to make the decisions. But I think it's cool. I think it shows how much respect he has for us as players. Obviously he's teaching us what he wants us to know. To be able to keep him -- well not keep him on his toes -- but to be able to go back and forth, I think he appreciates it."
'PEOPLE DON'T REALIZE HOW MUCH THEY WORK'
For players who have the ability to ask questions like coaches, might there be any interest on their end in actually joining the coaching ranks once they're finished?
The answer was a resounding maybe for some. Others had their minds made up: They'll be leaving NFL meeting rooms for good once they retire as players.
WHITE: "Possibly. Yeah, I feel like I could do it. I mean it just depends how I feel once my career is over with, but I feel like it would be cool to kind of pass down my knowledge to the younger generation."
McCOURTY: "I'm [ages] 10-to-17. No college or NFL. Youth. High school, max."
SLATER: "I don't know. The situation would have to be right for me. The time commitment that's required of coaches is a lot and I want to enjoy my family so I think it would have to be the right set of circumstances and the right situation for me to do it. Maybe I can coach my son's youth team."
EBNER: "I don't know. I don't know if I could do it. I'd think about it. I don't know, man. They do a lot of stuff outside of coaching that I don't know if I could do. The breakdowns, the actual coaching and the meetings, I could definitely do that. It's the other stuff. So we'll see."
CHUNG: "Me? High school. I'll coach high school. Get a couple championships to the town. Get my name framed somewhere on the school, maybe. That'll probably be the extent of my coaching career. Maybe a little plaque. Maybe get the field named after me or something like that . . . [Not the NFL]. People don't realize how much they work. That's why I respect them. They don't see their families. They're working to make our lives easier. Huge respect for them."
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