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Belichick still loves playbook

Posted: Monday, February 04, 2002

Other men win a Super Bowl, and it changes them forever.

Nothing of the sort will happen to Bill Belichick. He already has everything he ever wanted.

The coach's son who was more interested in poring over his father's game plans than playing with the rest of the 5-year-olds in the neighborhood has grown into a man who still is more comfortable with a playbook than people. All week long, Belichick's players painted a picture of a controlling coach who smiled only grudgingly when they won, and often was so consumed he wouldn't talk to them after a loss.

Not surprisingly, even after this victory, Belichick remained a man of few words.

''These players, a lot of other people didn't believe in them, but they believe in themselves.''

''And that,'' he said after the New England Patriots stunned St. Louis 20-17 Sunday to win the Super Bowl, ''is all that matters.''

The strange thing might be that these New England Patriots allowed Belichick into their inner circle.

Or maybe that he changed enough to be let in.

At previous stops, as Bill Parcells' assistant in New York and New England, and then on his own in Cleveland, Belichick lost touch with his teams. He made them practice more than they wanted, always in pads, and always with an intensity few cared to match.

They had the sense they were chess pieces for a man who never stopped scheming. Behind his back, they called Belichick things like ''Butthead'' and ''Little Bill,'' even if they never doubted his ability to draw up a game plan that always gave them a chance to win.

''Coach Belichick,'' said linebacker Ted Johnson, ''is a mastermind.''

It wasn't the final statistics that confirmed it, so much as the way a Rams' offense that was billed as ''The Greatest Show on Turf'' never got its footing. St. Louis coach Mike Martz's innovative attack got most of the attention and Las Vegas' endorsement by a 14-point margin, but it was Belichick and the Patriots who did most of the gambling.

The Rams who averaged 19 points in the first half this season, had only three at halftime, and it wasn't hard to figure out why. Belichick was defending their fire-drill passing attack with five, six and even seven defensive backs nearly twice as often as playing with the standard four. And even after Martz opened the second half with Marshall Faulk running the ball more, trying to force Belichick to bring more defenders to the line of scrimmage, he refused to bite.

Afterward, Martz admitted a certain grudging admiration.

''We had a handful of mistakes that you can't have against a good team like this and expect to win,'' Martz said. ''I'd say they were very basic from what they were the first time we played them. I think if we don't turn the ball over, we're probably in pretty good shape. But to say that insults this Patriots team. They created those turnovers. They did a good job of doing that.''

Martz shouldn't have been surprised. The Rams led the league in scoring for the third consecutive season, but they also had the highest number of turnovers. And people in the business will tell you that nobody is better than Belichick at finding an opponent's weakness, or better at exploiting it. His problem was never devising a scheme that worked; rather, it was finding a team that believed in him enough to carry it out.

In that sense, Belichick rarely helped his own cause. The first time he tried to climb out of Parcells' shadow in Cleveland, he benched local hero Bernie Kosar, then cut the quarterback when the team was 5-3 and wound up going 7-9. Then, as part of a contractual agreement that guaranteed he would succeed Parcells in the New York Jets' job, he resigned after one day at a news conference called to announce his hiring.

After some wrangling, Patriots owner Robert Kraft gave the Jets a first-round pick for Belichick the week of Super Bowl XXXIV, making his new coach something of a villain even before he set foot in the place.

''The best deal I ever made was getting this guy,'' Kraft said on the victory stand Sunday, his hands wrapped around the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

But convincing the players was another story. Two games into this season, Drew Bledsoe, New England's $103 million quarterback, suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest after a vicious hit by the Jets' Mo Lewis, and Tom Brady took over.

Bledsoe was healthy in time for the Rams game in November, but the day after the Patriots' loss dropped them to 5-5, Belichick announced Brady would be the starter the rest of the way.

New England hasn't lost since. But even though Bledsoe's classy demeanor kept the rift from affecting the team, even today he says of Belichick, ''We have a player-coach relationship, nothing more.''

Instead of tearing the team apart, it actually brought them together. In October, the Patriots elected to skip the tradition of having one unit introduced at the start of each game and insisted on coming out on the field together.

''That's what's so sweet about all this,'' safety Lawyer Milloy said. ''We all came together, we grew, we evolved as a team.''

It wasn't that Belichick changed all that much, only that he became a little better at letting his players know where they stood. It may be because he was forced to, or because, with Parcells out of the game, he no longer feels he has a tough-guy image to live up to. The players may still be Xs and Os on a page to him, but Belichick has learned it takes more than a pencil to make his schemes come to life.

''They're the ones that put in all the work and the long hours and the practices and meetings and lifting weights. They're the ones,'' he said, finally, ''that made the plays.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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