FOXBORO — Bill Belichick was completely engrossed in the conversation. He stood there on the Gillette Stadium sidelines with safeties coach Steve Belichick and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, discussing their plan of attack for the Dolphins in the regular-season finale. It was a playoff game, the Patriots were calling it, since they'd win a bye through the first round of the postseason with a victory.
Whatever the trio was discussing late in the third quarter — matchups, coverage assignments, pass-rush plans, whatever — there would be nothing that could pull the head coach away from that moment and that discussion. Not even 66,000 people screaming in unison, their collective decibel level rising with each step Elandon Roberts took toward the end zone. The linebacker-turned-fullback had just caught his first NFL pass, recorded his first broken tackle, and was cruising in for his first touchdown to tie a pivotal game.
Belichick never looked up. He had a defensive plan to iron out.
While most of his sideline had gone berserk over the unlikely touchdown catch-and-run, Belichick finished things up with his two lieutenants. He then quickly made his way over to the Patriots safety group — the nerve center of the secondary — to share a message. Then it was over to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for a brief conversation, followed by a visit with special teams coordinator Joe Judge before the subsequent kickoff.
Belichick didn't miss many offensive plays live that afternoon, but that he was zeroed-in on a defensive discussion during a game-changing moment painted a picture of just how much attention he focused on that side of the ball in 2019 while continuing to handle his all-encompassing head-coaching responsibilities.
The Patriots had no defensive coordinator in title for the season. Brian Flores appeared to be their best option for that gig after spending a year as defensive play-caller with the title of linebackers coach, but he made his way to Miami last offseason to become its head coach.
Steve Belichick called the defensive plays this season so that wasn't on his father's plate, but during that December afternoon in Foxboro it was Bill Belichick who looked like the defensive maestro, regularly coordinating meetings with his assistants on that side of the ball, furiously writing notes and checking the still-frame photos he received after Dolphins drives. All the while, McDaniels ran the offensive show.
The divvying up of those game-day duties should come as little surprise. Belichick trusts McDaniels implicitly, and with the coaching drain the Patriots experienced on the defensive side of the ball — they lost not only Flores but defensive line coach Brendan Daly and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer last offseason — having someone of McDaniels' experience level to steer the ship offensively had to provide Belichick with a measure of comfort in a season of sideline transition.
“I give him a little bit of input, but 90 to 95 percent is his plan, his vision,” Belichick said of McDaniels in the "Do Your Job III" special put together by NFL Films after Super Bowl LIII.
“Rarely do we see things that differently. But sometimes there will be things that I suggest. Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I think that would be great,’ and sometimes he’ll say, ‘I don’t really think this is the right time for us to do that. Here’s the reason why.’ And he’s usually right.”
As McDaniels interviewed with the Browns on Friday, it's worth wondering what comes next for the Patriots should he leave, and how much his departure would impact the in-game dynamics for the Patriots in 2020. Who would call the plays? Who would sit next to the quarterback — whether it's Tom Brady or someone else — and dive deep into the upcoming offensive sequence, or scroll though Microsoft Surface images in order to discover clues as to what a defense might do next?
What if it's Belichick? His reputation for years has been as a defensive guru, but he is a head coach in the truest sense. He told reporters late in the season that he continued to meet with his quarterbacks regularly this year, and a day spent at Patriots organized team activities or training camp would provide proof of the fact that he coaches every position on the roster.
Belichick coached tight ends back in the 1970s on Detroit's staff, and he ran the offense as head coach in Cleveland for a time as the Browns went without an offensive coordinator. He shared quarterback coaching duties with Charlie Weis in New England in 2001 after Dick Rehbein passed away suddenly before the start of the season.
If Belichick were to do with the offense what he did with the 2019 defense — taking a larger role without an obvious coordinator on staff, while working closely with young coaches easing into bigger roles — then he could end up shaping the offense next season.
Until McDaniels takes another job, that will remain a hypothetical situation. But I watched Belichick closely throughout the regular-season finale against the Dolphins to get a better idea of how responsibilities were broken up between them that day.
Here's what I saw...
FIRST QUARTER, 15:00 LEFT
Before the opening kickoff, Belichick used his time to check in with some of the most critical people to the game-day operation. He had a lengthy chat with his son Steve, the defensive play-caller, and then spoke with Tom Brady on the sideline. Brady would start the game on the bench — the Patriots were kicking off — but he was up and about, smiling and having what looked like a relaxed discussion with his head coach. McDaniels, meanwhile, was settled into his spot on the bench nestled next to the Gatorade coolers that split the sideline — offensive benches to the left and defensive benches to the right — forced to wait for his unit's first series.
When Jake Bailey's kickoff went for a touchback, Belichick immediately jotted something down on a small card. It was the first of many notes Belichick took during the day — he had both a pencil and a black Sharpie on him — and kicked off an almost non-stop streak of writing after each and every first-half defensive play. First down, second down, third down . . . didn't matter. He had something to note after each.
After forcing the Dolphins to punt, Belichick huddled with Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick and Bret Bielema. He missed the opening offensive play by the Patriots during their powwow, but he was back in place on the sidelines to witness everything else as it happened.
Having received still-frame images from Patriots IT specialist Dan Famosi — you may see him on game days in a yellow hat, helping Belichick put on or remove his headset and accompanying communication gear — Belichick appeared to get into a rhythm of watching a Patriots offensive play, then taking a look at the defensive pictures he had in hand.
Younger coaches like Mayo and Steve Belichick appear to favor the Microsoft Surface tablet to look at the same images, but Bill Belichick is out on those and has been for years. I didn't spot him holding a tablet at any point during the game.
"As you probably noticed, I'm done with the tablets," Belichick said back in 2016. "They're just too undependable for me. I'm going to stick with pictures."
After the Patriots punted, McDaniels huddled with Brady, receivers coach and special teams coordinator Joe Judge as well as backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The rookie, Stidham, took a seat on a small Gatorade cooler. The seating order from right to left then went McDaniels, Brady, Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu. At one point during the afternoon, Harry sat close to Brady's typical spot, and Edelman bumped him down a seat. The veteran wanted to be in his usual place as Brady's right-hand man.
FIRST QUARTER: 1:45 LEFT
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw incomplete to the front corner of the end zone from the Patriots 9-yard line, leading to a Miami field goal. Rookie corner Joejuan Williams was the closest player in coverage, and though he didn't get his hand on the pass, he popped up off the ground to give an incomplete signal.
Belichick typically encourages his players to celebrate good plays, but he waved his arms — seemingly unhappy — in reaction to Williams' quick sideline-judge impersonation. It was the first of only a handful of outward signs of emotion by the typically-stoic head coach. Belichick said something to Williams as the rookie made his way to the bench. Williams said after the game it was nothing but advice on how to play a certain coverage. He played 15 snaps total in the game.
After the 12-play, 80-yard series, Belichick huddled up with Mayo and Bielema while Steve Belichick met with defensive captain Devin McCourty.
FIRST QUARTER: 0:00 LEFT
When Josh McDaniels saw that a penalty flag was on the field following a third-and-10 conversion to Mohamed Sanu on the last play of the first quarter, he looked at Belichick, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in frustration. When the flag was picked up, McDaniels grabbed Belichick's arm as if to say, "We've got something here..."
The Dolphins challenged the non-call between quarters, and the replay of Watson's contact with a defender replayed on the stadium's massive video board. Belichick peeked up at the replay once, maybe twice. By then he'd made his way over to a white table behind the bench area to more efficiently take notes. (It looked easier than writing while standing on the sidelines, occasionally pressing the paperwork up against his thigh for some extra support.) He appeared to be scribbling furiously, but he made his way back to oversee the field just in time for what was a third-and-20 snap after the non-call on Watson was reversed.
As the punt team took its place on the field following the failed conversion attempt, Belichick stopped Watson on the sidelines to coach up the 38-year-old. It looked like Watson was pleading his case as to why he shouldn't have been flagged, but Belichick acted out the play and never argued with the officials. Belichick was back to the sideline in time for the punt.
SECOND QUARTER: 14:11 LEFT
Hydration break. Belichick made his way over to the Gatorade coolers, grabbed a quick drink, and was back in place to watch the Dolphins offense go to work.
In a good spot defensively — the Dolphins had a first-and-10 from their own four-yard line to start — any good feelings Belichick might've had were quickly erased. Fitzpatrick completed an 11-yard pass to Albert Wilson on the first snap of the drive. Belichick flipped his notecard down hard in his hand. Not happy. Then, of course, he wrote.
The Patriots eventually forced a punt, but that first completion still stuck with Belichick. He stopped safety Patrick Chung, the closest defender to Wilson on the play, to talk. Belichick's hands were out, his shoulders bouncing up and down periodically. He seemed to be imploring with one of his most experienced defensive backs. Once he had his still-frame pictures in hand, he brought them over to Chung on the bench, and the coaching continued.
SECOND QUARTER: 10:31 LEFT
Brady threw an inexplicable pick-six to Eric Rowe. Belichick's hands remained by his side. No writing. As Dont'a Hightower took the field as a member of the field-goal block team, the defensive captain screamed at his offensive teammates. Belichick watched the big screen for a replay.
After the extra point, which made the score 10-0, Belichick didn't seek out Brady or McDaniels. He sought Mayo and outside linebackers coach DeMarcus Covington. They had defensive still-frame shots to go over.
During the subsequent Patriots offensive drive, Belichick was able to take a bit of a break from all the writing he'd been doing. He had no new defensive plays to go over since his offense had turned it over and been given the football right back. Belichick watched most of the next offensive drive — which went 12 plays and resulted in a field goal — with his arms folded.
SECOND QUARTER: 3:41 LEFT
Brady hit Phillip Dorsett for a 50-yard completion — a completion that made Dorsett the team's leading receiver that day despite not having another catch — and Belichick immediately found McDaniels. He made a short pushing motion as if to tell his offensive coordinator to take his foot off the gas. If they scored quickly there, there would've been plenty of time for the Dolphins to run a two-minute drill at the end of the half.
McDaniels obliged, appearing to already be on the same page as his boss, calling for a Sony Michel run. When the play was stopped for a two-yard gain, the Patriots were able to run almost a full minute off the clock. After Belichick took a glimpse at the newest set of defensive still-frames in his hand, Michel scored on the next play.
Belichick didn't react to the game-tying score. McDaniels, meanwhile, pumped his fist. As he hugged Dorsett, Belichick didn't celebrate. The head coach found Chung to talk once again before the start of the next Dolphins drive.
SECOND QUARTER: 2:00 LEFT
Belichick wasn't writing as much at this point as the Dolphins ran off plays to try to drive the field. Perhaps he felt as though he had time at the halftime break to go over anything that happened during that sequence. Perhaps he simply wanted to focus on the clock and how to manage the end of the half.
At one point, with a pencil in his ear, he did pull his Sharpie out of his pocket to scribble on his card. (Later in the game, a Sharpie — hard to tell if it was the same one — was pulled out of his sock. Not just for storing challenge flags, apparently.)
Behind him, McDaniels was on a knee on the Patriots bench, using the bench as a note-taking table, scribbling on offensive still-frames the way Belichick did with the defensive ones. Brady and Stidham played catch, knowing there was a chance the Patriots would have one more crack at points to end the half.
When the Patriots got the ball back, Belichick situated himself by the sideline judge — likely in case he wanted to call a quick timeout. The Patriots ran it once for a loss of two, and Belichick made no move to stop the clock despite having all three timeouts. After one more Michel run, the half was over.
Famosi helped Belichick shed his communication equipment. Belichick took his visor off. He ran his hand through his hair twice. He squeezed between Stephon Gilmore and team physician Dr. Mark Price and filed into the locker room through a door behind the bench with the rest of the club.
THIRD QUARTER: 7:42 LEFT
Belichick met with Mayo before the half began, but the start of the second half looked very different from the majority of the first. There was not as much note-taking. Belichick wasn't jotting things down after every defensive play the way he had for much of the game to that point.
When Fitzpatrick scrambled into the end zone midway through the third quarter to give the Dolphins a 17-10 lead, Belichick swiped his right arm at the air. After walking back toward the middle of the sideline, he received pictures from Famosi and slipped through them quickly. The Sharpie was out.
Belichick then made his way over to the defensive side of the team's bench and huddled the entire unit together. Players, coaches, everyone involved on that side of the ball. His headset was off, and he was on a knee. He missed an incomplete pass from Brady to Harry on first down, but the message he was trying to get across to the defense clearly was the priority at that point.
It was the only time in the game Belichick got the entirety of the defensive group together in that fashion.
"I just try to, during the game, do what I can, do what I feel like is best to try to help our team," Belichick said a few days later when asked about his sideline get-together. "That’s all I want to do is try to help our team win, so whatever that is, I’ll try to do it."
"It's a serious, focused moment," Deatrich Wise said of those meetings, which happen periodically throughout the course of the season. "It's a regrouping. He'll hit focal points. One, two, three. You gotta do these things."
"It's big," Stephon Gilmore said. "It helps out a lot. We prepare all week and then go into the game and finally see what they're doing against us. Going over plays, trying to learn, trying to see what we can do better. It helps out a lot to try to keep us focused, keep our minds thinking about what they're trying to do to win the football game."
THIRD QUARTER: 4:26 LEFT
Leading up to the Roberts touchdown, Belichick was locked onto defensive still-frame sheets. He looked up to see Michel run for eight. Then Michel ran for three more as Belichick walked over to chat with Steve Belichick by the Gatorade coolers. Mayo came over. The crowd erupted. Touchdown, Elandon Roberts. Their meeting went uninterrupted.
THIRD QUARTER: 1:11 LEFT
It looked as though Belichick believed this could be a turning point in the game based on his reactions. With the score tied, 17-17, Jamie Collins sacked Fitzpatrick on a third-and-seven snap at the Patriots 32-yard line. The play essentially knocked the Dolphins out of field-goal range, and Belichick was thrilled. He clapped his hands. He pumped his fist.
When the play was followed by a delay of game penalty, he was outwardly fired up. He made his way over to the benches on the defensive side and said something quickly, apparently encouraging, to the linebackers and defensive backs.
FOURTH QUARTER: 8:29 LEFT
After a third-and-five incompletion by the Dolphins, Belichick shot a thumbs-up toward the field in the direction of Collins. That was followed by what looked like Belichick's first real attempt to adjust — or at least communicate an idea to — a player in real time on the field. He shouted something to McCourty during a field-goal try. McCourty appeared to relay the message. The kick was good and elicited no reaction from the coach. Dolphins led, 20-17.
As Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" blared over the Gillette Stadium public address system, Belichick met with Mayo, Steve Belichick, Bielema and Covington. Then he hashed things out on more of a one-to-one basis with his son — the newer-generation coach opting for the Microsoft Surface while the veteran of more than four decades in the league went with the print-outs.
FOURTH QUARTER: 3:53 LEFT
One of Belichick's handful of interactions on the sidelines with McDaniels came immediately before James White's go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. After a false-start penalty on Watson, Belichick grabbed the microphone on his headset and said something to McDaniels. He watched things calmly, arms folded, as White trotted into the end zone on a screen pass.
Belichick walked up the sideline back toward the middle of the field, stopping Bailey as the rookie got set to take the field for the next kickoff.
"He knows a lot about kicking," Bailey said later, not wanting to get into the specifics of that Week 17 moment. "Any time you have an authority figure tell you what to do you try to do your best and do your job. Any time he comes up to me, it's, 'Let's accomplish what he's set out for me.' "
FOURTH QUARTER: 0:00 LEFT
There had been no panic in Belichick during what would turn into Miami's game-winning drive. Arms folded, he watched. And he watched. No writing. No impromptu gatherings with his assistants.
After a brief conversation with Steve Belichick during a Miami timeout, he watched as the Dolphins took a first-and-goal snap five yards away from taking the lead. Belichick watched from the 16-yard line as Fitzpatrick found Mike Gesicki for a touchdown and a 27-24 lead.
Belichick had a lengthy conversation with Judge ahead of Miami's kickoff, which was drilled into the end zone for a touchback. His team had 20 seconds to get into field-goal range to tie it.
Placing himself by the sideline judge, Belichick tapped the official to let him know he was there and ready to call a timeout. As it turned out, he'd use two. One following a completion to Julian Edelman. One with the clock already stopped, ahead of his team's desperation lateral play that gained one yard before the Dolphins pounced on a White fumble.
New England's chances at a bye evaporated, and Belichick jogged toward the middle of the field to shake hands quickly with Flores. Belichick turned back around and walked slowly back toward the locker room entrance behind the bench.
He'd coached special teamers. He'd coached offensive players. But he'd spent the majority of his time thinking about the defensive side — note-taking, holding sideline meetings, more note-taking — and his defense was suddenly thrust into a situation where it would have to cook up a plan for Derrick Henry and the Titans. Their matchup would occur less than a week later.
* * * *
After the Patriots fell to Tennessee the following Saturday, Belichick discussed a number of topics with reporters the next day, including what he thought about the manageability of his workload in a season when he'd taken on so much defensively.
"Well, look, when you’re the head coach of the football team, you can do whatever you want in terms of how you distribute the workload on your staff," he said. "That’s one of the advantages of being the head coach. When I was a tight ends coach, you coach the tight ends. You didn’t have anything to say about anybody else, really, which is the way it should be.
"So, I try to manage my team and do the most effective job I can to help our football team. That’s what I try to. Could it be better? Yeah, I’m sure it could be, like everything else, but I feel that way every year. Each situation is different, each year is different and I can assure you that I’ll do my best to help our football team in any capacity that I can as long as I’m here, whatever that might be. Just like everything else. Whatever it was, it was. Whatever it’s going to be is hopefully what’ll be best for the team."
What it's going to be in 2020 still appears to be in flux. McDaniels' departure to the Browns, if it happens, could mean Belichick — without an obvious choice for offensive coordinator currently on the staff — ends up taking on more offensive responsibility. How does that look? Who's the quarterback? What is the scheme? And what is the trickle-down effect for the defense?
For yet another year, the Patriots are facing the potential of significant sideline turnover, and it'll be up to Belichick to distribute the workload however he deems fit.