A subtle shift seems to have taken place around Bill Belichick in the past few years. It’s nothing he’s done.
Rather, it’s the perception of him you sense among people in the NFL.
As he begins his 45th NFL season – his 24th as a head coach – his record has become so staggering, his place in history so secure that the slings and arrows he’s taken for decades have been replaced by, I don’t know, reverence?
I spoke this week to Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff about Belichick at 67. Dimitroff went from the Patriots to the Falcons 12 years ago. Even now, he’s careful about not being presumptuous in describing his former boss. But he was willing to articulate the importance of Bill Belichick to the rest of the league and to the game itself.
“I saw him recently at the owners meetings and he is ON TOP of it,” said Dimitroff. “He is the lead dog, no question about it. He has strong opinions, he delivers them succinctly and articulately when he’s discussing what’s important to him and it’s fun watching him navigate through all of that.
“There are a lot of coaches and general managers that are several years younger and a lot that have a lot of experience as well but they take their hat off, so to speak, and listen. He delivers with such assurance and such knowledge that, again, it continues to impress on so many levels.”
The NFL’s Annual Meeting is when the course is set for the league in the upcoming season. There’s a lot of “state of the game” conversation and that encompasses both the game of football and the business of football.
Belichick, Dimitroff said, is showing no diminished passion.
“There are a lot of very intelligent people in that room,” Dimitroff said of the sessions that include all the coaches and GMs. “We are in that room for hours upon hours and there is no one more engaged. I think people might expect him to be less engaged as he acquires more and more rings and more and more accolades, my feeling is that it’s part of giving back to the game that he loves so much. A lot of people would kick their feet up and relax a little but bit I really do believe that he’s continuing to help us out.
“He does want to pass it along,” Dimitroff said. “He values that. He believes in the sanctity of the NFL at so many levels, knows there’s progressivity to the league and we’re heading in so many new directions but, man, he has such a presence on making sure that things don’t get out of hand as the elder statesman. There’s such passion and that’s how it’s perceived not just by me but by everyone. There are GMs who just let him sit back and listen not just on the football but the rule element of it, the way the league is. He has such strong opinions and they’re backed with validity.”
There may be no greater source of institutional NFL knowledge in the history of the league than Bill Belichick. His frame of reference – from Paul Brown and before to right now – spans the nearly the 100-year history of the league.
Belichick is a touchstone, a reference point, a barometer and a bridge from the past to the future.
“My impression in being in meetings and observing is (he is) about making sure things don’t get away from us and being sure we’re looking at it with an appropriately critical eye,” said Dimitroff. “He doesn’t seem as one – and I say this humbly because I don’t want to speak for him – who is going to go along with something just because it’s league-directed.
“You have a number of general managers who are in their mid 40s now,” Dimitroff continued. “When people have a chance to be around a first ballot Hall of Fame coach and one of the best ever who is still really active and incredibly smart and intuitive and insightful, that’s an opportunity to get better. Whether they’ll admit it or not, you know that that’s what they’re thinking. Any opportunity to glean information from Bill Belichick, they’re filing it away.”
Dimitroff related an instance from the meetings when Belichick joined after it began.
“We were in the middle of a discussion with a bunch of GMs and Bill came in to sit in on the meeting,” he explained. “It’s an interesting group. We have a lot of very talented and very intelligent people in that room but you can just feel his energy. Guys who aren’t really that moved by a lot of people in the industry either because they’ve been around it a long time or were quickly indoctrinated into the job, it was interesting to watch. When he did get up to leave and then we packed up after, there was a little (conversation) about, ‘I wonder what he thought about that. I wonder what he thought about us as a group of general managers.’
“I don’t see him slowing down at all,” Dimitroff concluded. “The strut’s still the same strut as it was when I was in New England.”
A moderate torches-and-pitchforks moment ensued Friday when it was reported that the Raiders had given their scouting staff the weekend off. And all of next week through the draft. The concern for newly-installed GM Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden was that these scouts – who are lame ducks – would get to gum-flapping with other franchises prior to the draft. While this move made news because of the pre-draft timing and a fair amount of “THAT’S NOT FAIIIIRRRRR!!!!” tirades followed, a GM hired in January or February of a given year usually fumigates scouting department after the draft. Why not can everyone on arrival? Because the scouting staff inherited just watched and evaluated the previous college football season. You don’t fire them then when they have all that intel your employer paid to collect.
Back in 2000, Belichick fired GM Bobby Grier (father of current Dolphins GM Chris Grier) and head scout Dave Uyrus after the draft. Belichick, on the job less than four months, said in a statement, “This is an unpleasant thing for me to do. I recognize that Bobby Grier has made significant contributions to the New England Patriots over many years, in various capacities, as has Dave Uyrus. I enjoyed a good working relationship with Bobby in preparation for the recent draft, as I did in 1996. This decision is unrelated to any specific event, performance or personal relationship. It is more a reflection of my general feeling to proceed in a new direction with regard to the structure and operation of our personnel department."
Stephon Gilmore met with media Thursday after one of the Patriots OTA practices and was asked about the coaching transition the team is going with defensively.
There’s just one defensive coach – Steve Belichick – currently listed on their website. Obviously, there are others already working (unless Jerod Mayo is running an elaborate ruse to get out of having to do TV), but we still don’t know who’s doing what.
But Gilmore saying, “We’ve got a lot of good players in the secondary, so we all coach each other up, and we all make each other better …” shouldn’t be read as the Patriots just freewheeling it out there. It’s still Phase One of offseason workouts and coaches are not present during this period which is really just strength and conditioning.
NO HARD FEELINGS
There are few moments which perfectly encapsulate the transformation of the Patriots franchise over the past 19 years than the fact virtually everyone got a kick out of Gronk/Bart Simpson drag-bunting with the Lombardi Trophy and denting the precious artifact.
Imagine a Patriots fan Rip Van Winkling in 1999 and waking up 20 years later to see that moment? The initial horror and then learning that it isn’t a big deal, the franchise now has five more just like it.
NO SWEAT AT DRAFT
Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat has been removed from some team’s draft boards because of a heart condition, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Media. . Even though the condition isn’t a late-in-the-game revelation, the news that some teams were backing off Sweat was followed within 24 hours by Sweat’s announcement he won’t be on hand for the draft. He stated he wants to be with his family and there’s no doubt that’s true, but if he wasn’t down with being the center of attention if he started to slide down the draft board, he can’t be blamed for that either.
Personally, I think 11th hour news-breaking and speculation on medical conditions is one of the most distasteful parts of the draft process. Is it news? One-hundred percent (even though there’s got to be some HIPAA laws being smashed somewhere).
But it hurts a young kid interviewing for his first job when the entire country is weighing in on whether or not he’s damaged goods at 21. Some teams will shrug and do their own thing anyway and deal with media fallout about taking a possibly broken toy. Others won’t have the belly for it. The Patriots last year took Sony Michel at 31 despite both Mike Mayock and Mike Lombardi mentioning in the days leading up to the draft the disrepair in Michel’s knee. It’s true, Michel does have bad knees and probably isn’t destined for a very long career but one wonders if his draft fortunes might have been different if the late buzz wasn’t negative. In the end, Michel wound up in what may have been the best spot possible for him in terms of maximizing his career given the Patriots penchant for sharing carries at the position (though they did ride Michel like he never was while at Georgia).
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