MONDAY NIGHT HAS just become Tuesday morning in a small room in the underbelly of MetLife Stadium. Bill Belichick is standing at a lectern (“Occupancy by more than 49 people is dangerous and unlawful,” reads a sign on the wall) trying to get through the worst part of his job as quickly and unhelpfully as possible. His team has just completed a soul-crushing defeat of a trifling division rival, a game so bad that adjectives to describe its awfulness have yet to be invented.
Something happened late, though, some stupid sequence involving the Jets, down by four touchdowns, repeatedly declining penalties the Patriots were trying to commit to burn time off the clock. (I warned you.) For whatever reason, Belichick’s reaction to this three-minute monument to insignificance and small-minded chest-puffing smuggled its way into this grim cinder block room.
He was asked, in a question that took a circuitous route to its intended target, whether there was any “gamesmanship” involved in the sequence. Belichick followed along with his usual disinterest until the moment the reporter suggested there was a detectable smile on the coach’s face — right there, on the sideline, on camera in front of whatever fraction of the world was still watching — as the issue of the aborted punts and the declined penalties reached its culmination.
At that point, Belichick, roughly halfway through his 68th year on the planet, this man who has engineered his professional life to eradicate surprises, looked surprised. He looked confused. His forehead clenched even more than usual. His chin retracted a bit into his neck. An unfamiliar word had tripped him up. Smile? On the sideline? During a game? Me? His physical reaction, by a grumbling answer that addressed some sort of clock-related “loophole” that only he might understand — indicated he took it as an accusation he was not willing to address. As such, the case remains unsolved.
I followed the Patriots for nearly three weeks — three games, including their first loss, and two weeks of practice. The idea was to burrow inside, to see the Patriot Way up close and attempt to discover what the world looks like when everything within it is condensed to Belichick’s Sunday-to-Sunday philosophy.
At no point during that time did I see Belichick smile. Grin-like facial movements appeared at times, but they might have been variations of the wince. It’s really hard to tell. There were fleeting moments of levity, but they were gone quickly, like a merging car being swallowed by freeway traffic.
If there’s anything transparent about the Patriots, it’s this: The search for the heart of the culture — this mythic, nebulous Patriot Way — starts with Belichick. His voice is like a truck grinding through gravel, completely devoid of inflection, emitting the same answers today as it has since he began coaching the Patriots two decades ago. His dullness is nearly ceremonial. His disdain for everything extraneous to winning a football game — always looking only toward the Jets/Browns/Ravens/Eagles — is exactly as complete as you’d expect. The man has created an empire out of living his life from Sunday to Sunday, and he has done it well enough and long enough to turn it into history.
He has won more games in the NFL than all but two men, and he has won a record six Super Bowls as a head coach. His teams have won at least 10 games for a record 17 seasons despite picking in the top 15 in the draft just twice during that stretch. It’s a fool’s errand to rank his best seasons, but this one — 10-2 with the NFL’s best defense but a sclerotic offense that looks more worrisome by the week — deserves consideration. With each passing season, his status as a singular figure in the culture grows. His secrecy and dismissiveness — and his dynastic success — propagate the belief that understanding the intricacies of football is simply beyond the capacity of those outside the walls.
His commitment to the bit — and it is a bit, slathered in all kinds of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli — is unrivaled. On Nov. 1, he answered a question about his Halloween activity by saying, “I missed it last night,” as if he could just get around to it some other day. After he released wide receiver Josh Gordon, he brushed aside a question about his impression of Gordon’s 18-month stay in Foxborough before grumbling, “A lot of guys have been here the last year and a half.” Asked to elucidate the similarities between himself and Eagles coach Doug Pederson, he wearily paused for a split second and said, “That’s a good question for somebody else.”
After Ravens coach John Harbaugh practically genuflected through the phone while talking about Belichick on a conference call with New England reporters, Belichick tossed out a couple of bland adjectives and described his relationship with Harbaugh by saying, “You meet a lot of coaches.”
He spent Oct. 29, the day of the trade deadline, hunkered down and working on a game plan for the Ravens. And because Belichick handles all aspects of player acquisition and disposition, the next day he was asked whether the trade deadline was a busy day even though the team didn’t make any deals and Belichick said, “Not for me.” He was then asked — almost pleadingly; the angle must be honored — whether it was a busy day for personnel man Nick Caserio. Belichick said, “I’m sure if there was anything to do, he was doing it.”
IN THE MONTH spent following the Patriots, my weekday ritual includes walking from the hotel in the Gillette Stadium parking lot through Patriot Place, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex — SHOP. DINE. ENJOY! the flags command the empty sidewalks — that includes a TB12 store, your home for Tom Brady-branded potions, training gear and performance apparel.
The 15-minute open practice session, featuring stretching and jogging and general revelry, is not accessible to non-local reporters, so there will be no detailed accounts of Tom Brady’s weekday demeanor or Dont’a Hightower’s flexibility. I can report, though, that the Patriots’ locker room leans toward the austere. No music, televisions dark. There are no games, no pingpong or cornhole, no tables in the middle of the room to facilitate cards or dominoes. It’s predictably efficient and organized and more than a little boring, which is undoubtedly the goal. The ratio of media members to available players is roughly 25:1, and whenever a player of significance arrives at his locker, he is met with a controlled rush of cameras and microphones.
This is the most widely disliked team in America’s most popular sport. “I know people hate us,” says safety Terrence Brooks. “But why, though? I wish I could ask them why.” There are reasons: Spygate, Deflategate, Belichick’s demeanor, Tom Brady’s perfectionism, undiluted envy. Hating the Patriots has become a sport within the sport. But no matter how much you despise the Patriots, I consider it my solemn duty to report that you’re hating a concept more than the guys in this room.
There are, of course, personalities amid this cult of anti-personality. Offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, who played with seven NFL teams before joining the Patriots this season, has been dogged his entire career by a line in the TCU media guide that lists one of his interests as horticulture. When I ask him about this, I expect to hear a thoughtful treatise on the serenity of succulents, undoubtedly a welcome retreat from the violence and pressure of the NFL, but instead he rolls his eyes and tells the story for the millionth time: On Club Day at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, he wrote his name down on as many lists as possible; horticulture happened to be one of them. “My mom always told that the more clubs I joined, the better chance I’d have of getting into a good college,” he says. “Now I can’t shake it.”
One afternoon after practice, center Ted Karras, the great-nephew of legendary NFL character Alex Karras, peacocked his way through the locker room wearing a throwback Patriots Starter jacket featuring the Minuteman in the tricorn hat — Pat Patriot — ready to snap the ball. The jackets were distributed by a sales rep, and, the 300-pound Karras said, “I was pumped they had a double-XL left. I wasn’t sure it would fit.” That assessment was debatable — the jacket remained unsnapped around the midsection — but his happiness was unassailable. It was hard to imagine a man who makes $720,000 a year being any more enthusiastic about a free jacket.
To look at Devin and Jason McCourty day after day is to think a lot about math. Identical twins occur at a rate of approximately 3 per 1,000 births. A high school football player has a roughly 9-in-10,000 chance of playing a single down in the NFL. And yet Jason and Devin, with the same shaved head, the same expressive eyes, the same easy smile, sit one locker apart, teammates and starters and Super Bowl champions. How could anyone — biologist, sociologist, statistician — explain this?
“I don’t think we talk about the journey or appreciate it as much as we probably should,” Jason says. “I think there will come a point in our lives when we will. When I first got here, we realized how unique it was. When the trade went down, my wife and I talked about whether it was going to be just training camp or OTAs, whether I make it through the whole season, whether I play a lot or not, to just really focus on enjoying this because it really is special.”
Defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., a Doric column of a man at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, greets reporters who request an interview with a hug. Given his hospitality, it seems unfair to ask him about the animosity directed at him and his teammates, but he takes it well. “People see Bill’s personality in the media, and that leads them to believe he’s some ‘Dark Knight’ villain,” he says. “But you can see for yourself: Nobody in here is an evil villain.” Wise sweeps his arm around the room and lets loose a crackling laugh. “Believe it or not, we’re humans with families.”
BRADY RUNS ONTO the field ahead of his teammates, tall and proud and helmetless. He reaches the sideline, where he is handed his helmet first and then a football. The transaction is so precise and practiced it looks sacramental. It’s tempting to assign these moments great import; so much of what happens once the game starts is uncontrollable, creating a greater need to control everything on the margins.
The vagaries of Brady’s contract stipulate he will be a free agent at the end of this season for the first time in his career, making it possible — maybe even likely — that we’re watching his final season with the Patriots. It seems unfathomable that owner Robert Kraft would allow him to leave, but for the first time the decision is Brady’s — and, presumably, Belichick’s — to make. The Patriot Way was engineered for this; the focus on right now has never been more important, because the future has never been more uncertain.
There’s a perceived fragility to Brady, a collective holding of breath based as much on our instinctive and time-honored belief that 42 is too old to hold up against strong and fast defensive linemen nearly half his age as on any apparent on-field decline. Brady views aging as a state of mind rather than an inevitability, but it’s not just age he’s battling, it’s physics. He always seems to be a hit away from coming undone.
Brady’s trainer, Alex Guerrero, went on a Boston radio show on the Thursday of Eagles week to say Brady wants to play until he’s 47. This upped the stakes; Brady previously suggested his goal was to play until he’s 45, which seemed reckless enough. The quest to conquer football mortality is lonely and dangerous. Getting out intact at the last conceivable moment appears to be the endgame, but it seems impossible — almost by definition — to reach that point without sticking around too long.
Even while starting every game, Brady has made cameo appearances on the injury list this season. Once it was on a Thursday for a sore shoulder he claimed healed by Friday — “I’m fine; I’m a fast healer,” he said — and twice for a sore throwing elbow. A flu outbreak over Thanksgiving affected nearly half the team and caused Belichick to make the extraordinary decision to take two planes to Houston — one for the healthy, one for the infirm. Brady was on the healthy plane, a fact he attributed not to luck, of course, but to lifestyle. “I’m a pretty healthy guy,” he said. “Can’t avoid it all the time, but I try for the most part. Keep my immune system nice and strong if possible.”
Brady is slow but still surprisingly evasive in the pocket, moving in and around the pass rush as if he’s seen so many he knows their patterns and can predict their paths. He has a preternatural ability to sense and avoid big hits. But in 2019, too often he has extended plays just long enough to kill them. He has thrown the ball away more this season than in all but one other in his career, and self-preservation seems to be a dog-eared page in the playbook. There is an unease, and an urgency, to Brady’s play this season, and the uncertainty over his future could be one of the root causes. Another could be more endemic to the human condition: At 42, with his sights set on 45 and even 47, he’s starting to show signs of playing a certain way just to keep playing.
Belichick, always miserly with his compliments, was asked to assess Brady’s play the week before the loss to the Ravens. “Tom’s done some good things,” he said, “but there’s always room for improvement.”
Since Week 5, the Pats’ offense hasn’t even been league average. New England’s red zone offense ranks 24th in the NFL, and its red zone touchdown percentage of 49% is nearly 15 percentage points worse than in 2018. Brady’s yards per attempt average is down to 6.7, nearly a yard less than a year ago; his completion percentage (61%) is the second worst of his career. He is ranked 17th in Total QBR — a tick below Ryan Tannehill, a tick above Jameis Winston. He is what he has always feared: average.
Late in the third quarter against the Jets in October, with New England leading 26-0, Brady was called for a meaningless grounding penalty. The play meant nothing; it was fourth down regardless, and the Jets couldn’t have scored 26 points in the time remaining if the Patriots had taken their defense off the field. But there he was, pointing at running back James White and screaming in the referee’s face his plea — “He’s right there!” — booming through the stadium through the ref’s hot mike.
He was yelling at time, at mortality, at the years slipping away like a tide. The play meant nothing. The play meant everything.
OF COURSE, THE Patriots’ offensive problems are not all within Brady’s control. Uncertainty and injuries to his receivers, the least production in the league from his tight ends, a musical-chairs offensive line — this season has been a struggle to establish trust and familiarity.
Antonio Brown was in and out after one game (to great fanfare on both ends). First-round pick N’Keal Harry was injured. Mohamed Sanu arrived from Atlanta. Gordon was released. Julian Edelman is the only constant, and he’s been playing through various injuries.
Traditionally, it’s been a theme of the Patriots’ dynasty that someone unexpected, usually an undrafted wide receiver, ends up becoming someone Brady nurtures and cajoles into being a star. With that in mind, I approach undrafted rookie wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who is sitting unbothered at his locker. We talk about nothing for a few moments before I open a notebook and ask a question. A stricken look hits Meyers’ face. His hands wave in front of his chest like he’s refusing a penalty, and his eyes bounce across the room behind me.
“Oh, no, I can’t,” he says. “They shut me down today. I can’t talk.”
He shrugs. He’d love to talk today. He’d love to talk every day, but it turns out some days the team decides that rookies such as Meyers are not allowed to give interviews. “This happens, like, every other day.” He lowers his voice to apologize and says, “One thing you learn early: When it comes from the top, you don’t question it.”
Two weeks later, I find Meyers at his locker on a day when he is free to talk. He tells the story of finding himself in a huddle for the first time with Brady, during an early OTA, and how hard he worked to remind himself that this is his job, and Brady is just another coworker, and if he got it all mixed up now, if his 22-year-old brain went all haywire and started thinking Tom Freakin’ Brady Tom Freakin’ Brady, he might forget the play and never get another chance.
“When he was giving the playcall, I was trying to slow it down in my head,” Meyers says. “All I could think was, That’s Tom Brady, but I’ve got to get this right. I had to work hard to separate the words he was saying from the man who was saying them. OK, he said what to me now?“
Brady’s standards are notoriously high, which makes Meyers’ anxiety well-founded. In a radio interview in early October, Brady said young players, especially receivers, “are hard to count on,” and offensive tackle Newhouse says, “Tom’s super demanding of himself — and everyone around him.”
The sideline rants have been as much a fixture in the Tom Brady pantheon as the dreamy smiles after Super Bowl wins. In the second quarter of Sunday night’s game against the Texans, cameras caught a visibly agitated Brady telling his receivers they needed to be faster, quicker and more explosive. Meanwhile, from somewhere out in the ether, Brown was tweeting out a video of himself catching passes from Brady in Week 2, imploring his followers to “Rt to put ab in this game.”
A SOLUTION TO many if not all of the Patriots’ offensive problems looms over the open end of Gillette Stadium like a taunt. Rob Gronkowski — an enormous, smiling, sleeveless-tee-wearing Rob Gronkowski — stares down from a billboard advertising a CBD pain reliever. He’s mere yards from the north end zone.
Weary of the game’s punishment, Gronkowski retired after the Patriots beat the Rams to win Super Bowl LIII in February. Nobody fully believed Gronk could be finished at 30, content to live a football-free life, so the idea of a return to the Patriots this season has been low-decibel static throughout the first 13 weeks. But on Saturday, the day before the Patriots played the Texans, the clock expired on a 2019 Gronkowski return.
So Brady continues to break in new and rookie receivers who are hardworking and eager but can’t communicate with the same telepathy he has always demanded of his top guys. He’s searching for answers, especially in the red zone, refusing to be comforted by his team’s record. And there’s Gronk on the television, palling around with Howie and Terry on the pregame and postgame shows, looking thin in a dark turtleneck, those huge red zone hands hovering over the table as his eyes search in desperate panic for the right camera.
NOV. 14 WAS unofficially N’Keal Harry Day. The rookie, a first-round pick from Arizona State and the highest pick (32nd overall) Belichick has ever used on a receiver, was deemed healthy enough to make his NFL debut against the Eagles after more than half a season with an ankle injury.
And so it was decreed that Harry would talk, for the first time since training camp in July. There was much buildup. As soon as the doors opened, the crowd rushed Harry’s locker and waited. Sanu, whose locker is next to Harry’s, called for the rookie to come out and deal with the situation. Harry took two steps into the room from a door at the back, surveyed the scene and went back the way he came. The crowd shrugged and breathed. Heavy cameras were shifted and lowered. Considering there were probably 50 people jammed into about 25 square feet, the mood stayed remarkably good-natured.
It would have made far more sense for Harry to stand at the lectern in the interview room, but that’s not how things work. Only Belichick, captains and select assistant coaches are granted the lectern. Rookie receivers who have yet to play a down do not rate.
A reporter from a local station figured she’d use her time productively. She asked Sanu if he wouldn’t mind being interviewed while they waited on Harry. He consented, and half the crowd peeled off and aimed their devices at Sanu, whose routine charm has quickly made him a favorite since he arrived in a trade from Atlanta on Oct. 22.
“One of the best things since being here is dealing with you guys,” Sanu said. He paused, sensing his comment had been received as sarcasm by a group not conditioned to flattery. “No, I’m completely serious,” he said. “You guys have been great.”
The buildup was finally ending. Harry was making his way toward his locker, walking as if he was heading for the principal’s office. “Here he comes,” Sanu announced.
A space opened, and Harry slid into position. He was asked about the excitement of playing his first game and the challenge of meeting Brady’s expectations. He was allowed to answer two more questions before the interview was terminated by a Patriots media relations employee.
THE DEMISE OF the Belichick-Brady empire has been predicted many times before. In 2013, Brady was faltering and fading and 36 years old. He was frustrated on the sideline and slow in the pocket and short on his passes. He has won three Super Bowls since. A year ago, the Patriots were clearly coming apart when they lost to the Dolphins — the sad-sack, Adam Gase-led Dolphins — early in December. And, of course, Belichick took it Sunday to Sunday and ended up winning another Super Bowl. It’s why hating the Patriots is such an unfulfilling avocation.
But the dynasty will expire someday, and maybe the beginning will look like this: After the Eagles game, a 17-10 New England win, Brady stood at the front of an interview room wearing a full-length camel hair coat and gave a 100-second news conference. The offense was bad — Brady threw for 216 yards on 46 attempts, and the only touchdown pass was thrown by Edelman — and Brady was not only frustrated but damn near despondent. It would be difficult to pack more disappointment into 100 seconds. The coat, on the other hand, was exquisite.
In the locker room down the hall, I find Newhouse at a corner locker, wincing as he slides a protective sleeve over the middle finger of his right hand. He slowly pulls on his shirt, careful not to engage that finger, and says, “It’s not like we’re 3-7, you know?” Around him, every offensive player is being asked about the offensive deficiencies. Belichick has already announced that he’s on to the Cowboys. “I’ve been 3-7, and it doesn’t look like this,” Newhouse says. “You know what? I really think we’re going to be all right.”
I WAS SITTING through my sixth Belichick news conference when he was asked a question about the blitzing tendencies of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. As I listened to the answer, I began to think of him as the world’s most reluctant and least reflective poet competing in the saddest poetry slam: Jimmy will mix it up.
It’s hard to say
He’ll do it
And then he won’t do it
Depends on the game plan
How things are going within the game
Certainly have to prepare for it
He’s not afraid to use it
If he wants to come after you
He’ll come after you
If he wants to do something else
He’ll do something else
THROUGH THE SHEER grind, year after year, water dripping on rock, this has been accepted as normal. Belichick has constructed an anti-personality that extracts charisma and repels introspection. Questions are crafted with high hopes — the questions from those who cover the Patriots are far better than most — of unleashing Belichick’s heretofore unearthed self-reflective side, as if over all these years the only thing standing between him and thoughtful revelation is someone who can assemble the right combination of words. But no matter how high the questions soar, they all land with the same uninflected thud.
If it’s information you’re seeking, if you’re wondering what Belichick really thinks about Brady’s future or rookie receivers or grounding penalties, it’s maddening. If — like me — you’re there for the theater, it’s mesmerizing to crawl inside this approximation of human interaction and be comforted by its droning consistency. His determination to employ the least descriptive adjectives is particularly impressive. Every player is good and fast and strong and can do a lot of things. Every coach is smart and good and has been at this game a long time. Every team is physical and tough and good in all three phases of the game. It is mind-numbing and yet somehow pure.
I run a few of the Belichick particulars — the Gordon line, the Halloween bit — past Jason McCourty. He starts laughing almost immediately and, by the third or fourth example, puts one hand on the wall of his locker to steady himself.
“I love it,” McCourty says. “I just love it. It’s funny, but there’s a purpose. Our objective is to win football games, and when you’re talking to the media — and no disrespect to the media — that doesn’t help us win football games. The biggest thing with Bill is consistency. Every player longs for that consistency. It helps you to continue to be the same every day too.”
Belichick is the easy receptacle for the hatred aimed at the Patriots empire. He is ruthless, unsympathetic, unapologetic. The teams he coaches, including the one he’s coaching right now, take the field with those same attributes. They’re moving on, always moving on, looking only at what’s ahead until there’s nothing left to see. All of this could make him a villain — maybe so much of a villain that he’s now a caricature of a villain — or it could make him something else entirely: the most honest embodiment of a ruthless, unsympathetic and unapologetic game.