Ex-Patriots give unique insight into Bill Belichick's relationship with players

Ex-Patriots give unique insight into Bill Belichick's relationship with players

Bill Belichick isn't afraid to make the tough decisions he feels are in the best interest of the New England Patriots.

One of the reasons why the Patriots have been able to extend their NFL dynasty over two decades is Belichick often moves on from players before it's too late and their performance suffers. We've seen so many examples in sports where a team wins a championship, falls in love with those players and overpays to keep them, and then those contracts prevent the franchise from building a championship-caliber roster long term.

Teams have to be responsible to extend their championship window in a salary cap world, and the Patriots, for the most part, have accomplished that goal in Belichick's 20 years running the show.

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On the latest episode of NBC Sports' "Sports Uncovered" podcast, some of Belichick's former players explain what allows him to make these difficult decisions that other coaches and teams might not.

"There’s a clear distinct line that Bill draws between player and coach," former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel said. "The respect you have for him as a coach is because he doesn’t blur those lines. There’s not that off-the-field relationship that some coaches have. That also allows him to make those tough decisions when he feels that guys like Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Larry Izzo, and the list goes on and on down the line... When he feels it’s time to move on from a player, he’s able to do that because he doesn’t have personal relationships.

"Where some of these other organizations, you see that because some guy is so tenured with the team, they keep him around although his play is not what it used to be. And they could upgrade that position, but they don’t out of respect for that player. With Bill, due to the way he's able to divide church and state, he’s able to make those tough decisions and move forward when he needs to from an individual player. It allows the team to continue to progress in the right direction."

One of the most obvious examples of Belichick not shying away from unpopular roster decisions — and Cassel alluded to it above — was releasing veteran safety Lawyer Milloy before the 2003 season after he refused to take a paycut. Milloy was a very good player in New England for a long time and played a key role in the Patriots winning Super Bowl XXXVI during the 2001 season.

The move drew further scrutiny after Milloy signed with the Bills and Buffalo crushed the Patriots 31-0 in the season opener. New England got the last laugh, though, and went 14-2 en route to winning the first of back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

Sports Uncovered Podcast: The Bill Belichick You Don't Know | Listen and subscribe | Watch on YouTube


It's important to show a human element, too, and even though fans and the media don't see much of the humorous side of Belichick, his players are adamant it exists. So, while Belichick isn't afraid to laugh and be friendly with his team, when it's time to make business decisions, he seamlessly transtions to that mode.

"Bill is probably the master of understanding balance," former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "You can’t be too friendly with your players; it just doesn’t work that way as far as the respect thing. I think that he just makes it very clear that, yeah, he can laugh and have a good time, but at the end of the day he’s going to do what he feels is best for the team. And if that’s cutting somebody that has been with him a long time or not bringing them back, that’s his business side that he can easily flip the switch and go into the ‘winning at all costs’ Bill Belichick."

Some of Belichick's decisions haven't worked out, and that's to be expected when you coach one team for two decades. But it's hard to argue with Belichick's methods given the unprecedented success the Patriots have enjoyed since he came to New England. Winning six Super Bowl titles speaks for itself.

To hear more about the "other" side of Belichick, check out "Sports Uncovered: The Belichick You Don't Know" and subscribe to "Sports Uncovered" for free wherever you listen to podcasts.

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

Remember when Cam Newton jokingly compared the Patriots' playbook to "calculus" after signing with New England last month?

Turns out that wasn't his own assessment. (Not yet, anyway.)

Rather, it was Julian Edelman who made Newton aware of what he was dealing when the quarterback called his new Patriots wide receiver for the first time.

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"We were both excited just to be on the phone with each other," Newton told reporters Friday in a video conference. "Then all of a sudden he just said, 'Hey bro, this (explicit) is calculus.'

"He said it and it was just funny. From that whole 15-minute conversation, that's the only thing that I just remembered: Calculus."

The Patriots playbook that Tom Brady spent 20 years mastering is notoriously complex and has stumped talented veterans like Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne. Edelman has dealt with that playbook for a whole decade, so it's no wonder his comparison stuck with Newton.

Not that the 31-year-old QB is intimidated by learning a challenging offense after nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

"At the end of the day, football is still football and you just can’t make too much on it than what it already is,” Newton said of the playbook. "(Offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) has been there every step of the way as well as (quarterbacks) coach Jedd (Fisch). Just been hammering away. All the quarterbacks have been trying to learn this whole system from what it is."

Newton admittedly faces a tall task picking up the Patriots' offense in short order without the benefit of the on-field workouts of a traditional training camp.

The three-time Pro Bowler has his means of getting up to speed, though: Newton is a "visual learner" who famously relied on a large three-ring binder in Carolina stuffed with notes on the Panthers' offense.

"We all have our different methods of how we (learn) and go about different ways to retain as much information as possible,” Newton said. "I don’t think the binder is actually here, but some type of retention methods have adapted towards New England."

Newton has a few more weeks to study, but his first test -- the Patriots' 2020 season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13 -- is rapidly approaching.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

Josh McDaniels wouldn’t trade his time with Tom Brady for anything.

But the Patriots offensive coordinator did point out Friday that those times Brady wasn’t at his disposal are very valuable right now as the Patriots offense does its post-Brady pivot.

“I’m thankful for the experiences that I’ve had when I didn’t have Tom,” McDaniels said on a video conference call. “Believe me, no one was happier to have him out there when he was out there for all the years I was fortunate to coach him.

"But I would say I did have some experience with the Matt Cassel year (in 2008), which I learned a lot about how to tailor something to somebody else’s strengths, we had to play that four-game stretch (in 2016) with Jacoby (Brissett) and Jimmy (Garoppolo), I thought that was helpful. And I was away for three years. So trying to really adapt … it’s not changing your system, it’s adapting your system to the talents and strengths of your players.”

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How will the Patriots offense change now that Brady’s gone has been a dominant topic of discussion this offseason. The six-time Super Bowl winners' strengths are well-documented and hard to replicate – absurd accuracy, poise, pocket-presence and the ability to decipher and manipulate defenses at will. Part of the reason they’re hard to replicate is that it took him a dozen years of monkish devotion to get where he was. Nobody’s got time for that.

So, after a couple of decades building a tower out of wooden blocks, the blocks are knocked down and scattered. And McDaniels starts building again. Same blocks. Different-looking structure.  

“(We need to) adapt (the offense) to the players that we have,” said McDaniels. “So, again, you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘Do I really want us to be good at this? Or are we good at this?’ There’s a fine line between really pushing hard to keep working at something that you’re just not showing much progress in vs. ‘Hey, you know what, we’re a lot better at A, B and C then we are D, E and F, why don’t we just do more A, B and C?” I think as a staff we’ve really had a lot of conversations about those kinds of things.”

McDaniels has discussed in past seasons how developing an offense is a trial-and-error process. The difference this year is there is no chance for the “trial” portion. No joint practices. No preseason games. Obviously, no OTAs or minicamps.

“We can’t make any declarations about what we’re good at yet because we haven’t practiced,” McDaniels acknowledged. “I think everybody’s chomping at the bit, eager to get out there and start to make a few decisions about some things that we want to try to get good at, and if we’re just not making a lot of progress then we just have to shift gears and go in a different direction.

“But I’m going to lean on my experience and then I’m going to lean on the staff, coach Belichick, just to, (say), ‘Let’s be real with ourselves. Yeah, we used to be good at that. We’re not doing so hot at it so let’s just scrap it for now and move in a different direction.”

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Obviously, a direction they’ll move in will most likely be powered by the mobility of whoever the starting quarterback is, Jarrett Stidham or Cam Newton.

McDaniels pointed out that a player with the size, power and mobility of Newton does change things.

“It’s certainly not something I’m accustomed to using a great deal but you use whatever the strengths of your players that are on the field allow you to use, to try to move the ball and score points,” he said. “So whatever that means relative to mobility at the QB position, size and power, quickness, length, height with receivers … you go through the same thing many different times.”

Newton, said McDaniels, is the same as any other player who brings a unique talent.  

“I remember when you get a new receiver group … our receivers have changed quite a bit in terms of some of them were bigger … Randy Moss was a bigger guy and then we’ve had some smaller guys like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, and then you have tight ends that are more fast straight-line players and then you have guys like Gronk and those kinds of players,” he pointed out.

“Regardless of what the position is, I think you try to use their strengths to allow them to make good plays and if that’s something we can figure out how to do well and get comfortable doing and feel like we can move the ball and be productive then we’re going to work as a staff to figure out how that works best, and try to utilize it if we can.”

In other words, when you have a player with a superpower - Moss' speed, Welker's quickness, Gronk's size, Brady's brain, Newton's power - , you tap into said superpower. ASAFP.