New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick generally isn't known for his warm side. However, that rarely revealed portion of his character – at least in NFL circles – helped ignite one of the great runs in NFL history.
Belichick's approach with former linebacker Roman Phifer in 2001 was a form of management that some of his former assistants might be wise to review as they deal with seemingly uniform insurrection and upheaval. The latest example of that came last week when talented Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) made a mockery of practice, leading to a suspension for the remainder of the preseason for conduct detrimental to the team.
Marshall, upset with the terms of his current contract, has reportedly been butting heads with Josh McDaniels since the latter was named head coach this offseason. Likewise, fellow former Belichick assistant Eric Mangini has ruffled the feathers of players with the New York Jets and now the Cleveland Browns.
While there is something to be said for making it clear who runs the show, sometimes the key to dealing with players is to show trust in them. Sometimes when you give a little with the right player, you get repaid in outrageous proportion.
In the summer of '01, Phifer was experiencing turbulent times with his first wife, Alexis. Phifer, unsigned through the offseason, eventually got a divorce and told teams that he didn't think he'd be able to attend training camp.
Belichick, who was then going into his second season in New England, told Phifer not to worry. The two agreed that Phifer, going into the 11th season of his 15-year career, could miss the first three or so weeks of training camp. All Phifer had to do was be in shape and there would be a role for him.
"The role ended up that he played 98 percent of the downs," Belichick said recently, smiling at the memory. "We still joke about that when we see each other. But we didn't have anybody else who could do the skills Roman provided and we needed those skills on the field almost all the time."
While Belichick's on-field management of personnel during New England's ride to the Super Bowl title in the 2001 season is the stuff of legend, the subtly important story is how he got a team of little-known players to buy into his system. Perhaps none of those players was more important than Phifer, who Belichick had coached for one year with the New York Jets and had grown to trust implicitly.
"When you have a coach who's willing to give you that type of freedom, that trust, you want to do everything you can to make them know you deserve it," said Phifer, who coincidentally is now an assistant to McDaniels in Denver. "I made sure I was in shape, ready to go when I got there."
By the end of that season, when the Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams to win the Lombardi Trophy, New England cornerback Terrell Buckley called Phifer the team's Most Valuable Player for his veteran presence and leadership.
"People think this game is all about talent, but there's so much more to how a locker room works," Phifer said. "You have to have certain veterans who know how to work with young guys, bring them along without alienating them. … Bill is the best out there at understanding not just the game, but the dynamics of how the locker room works."
Belichick said Phifer was one of a handful of players he could extend that type of trust. "You've probably got four or five veterans in any given year that could handle that, be responsible," Belichick said.
On the other side …: While that's a warm and fuzzy story about Belichick, not all of his players are so fortunate.
In 2007, safety Brandon Meriweather(notes) was a first-round NFL draft pick of the Patriots out of the University of Miami. During training camp, part of Meriweather's work was to cover ultra-quick New England wide receiver Wes Welker(notes). At one point, before New England had played an exhibition game, Meriweather was asked what it was like to face Welker regularly.
Meriweather made a seemingly innocuous remark about how Welker was one of the best slot receivers in the league, a fact Welker has proved over the past two years. At the time, however, Welker was still relatively unknown.
During a team meeting the next day, Belichick was going over a series of quotes from players both on his team and around the league. He brought up Meriweather's remark about Welker and then said aloud: "Brandon, what the [bleep] do you know about the NFL?"
Injury history helped Chargers: One of the popular sentiments around the NFL these days is that the San Diego Chargers got a steal last week when quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) agreed to a six-year contract worth a total of $92 million. That's less than the six-year, $97 million extension for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning(notes), even though Rivers has been a statistically better player and is considered a better passer.
There are some parts of the deal that are better for Rivers when compared to Manning. Rivers gets $38.15 million in guaranteed compared to $36 million for Manning. Rivers also gets $51 million over the first three years of the deal compared to $49 million for Manning.
The feeling of some NFL folks was that Rivers could have gotten significantly more if he had waited out the Chargers, who would have had to franchise him after this season if a deal wasn't done. That would have given Rivers significantly more leverage. However, what critics of the Rivers deal fail to remember is two things:
First, Rivers has suffered two significant injuries in his career. In 2007, Rivers tore the anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage in his right knee, although he played through both injuries. Even more, Rivers saw former teammate and starting quarterback Drew Brees(notes) injure his shoulder in 2005, subsequently exploring free agency as a major health risk.
Second, Rivers is the son of a coach. His father coached him in high school and is a strong believer in putting the team first.
Or as one friend of Rivers said: "The Chargers had a perfect situation going for them. Philip doesn't care about every last dime and he knows what it's like to be hurt. Once it got to a certain point, he was happy to get it over with."
Brady could hit $20 million: While New England quarterback Tom Brady(notes) said last week in the aftermath of the Rivers deal that he wasn't concerned about his contract, which has two years remaining, don't expect Brady to think that way in the 2011 offseason. After taking a very team-favorable deal the last time, look for Brady to be the first NFL player to hit the $20 million average salary, assuming there are no significant problems between now and then. Although Brady will be 34 going into the 2011 season, he could easily have three premium seasons left in his career.
Will Parcells tire of the circus?: Plenty of people who know Miami Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells question whether "Tuna" will stay with the franchise following the upcoming season. Parcells is in the second year of a four-year deal, but can walk away anytime and collect all the money left on his contract under an agreement he reached with former Miami owner Wayne Huizenga.
The problem that most people see is that new owner Stephen Ross is doing things that will irritate Parcells, such as bringing in one celebrity partner after another. To date, Ross has brought in singer Jimmy Buffett, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Marc Anthony and wife Jennifer Lopez and, most recently, tennis players Venus and Serena Williams.
There's now talk that Ross will allow those celebrities and other high-paying season-ticket holders to have access to the field before games, something that is sure to set off Parcells and his football sensibilities. When Parcells was the head coach in Dallas, he became increasingly annoyed with owner Jerry Jones' sideshow efforts during training camp and the regular season.
Does the preseason mean anything?: The mantra among fans and even many NFL players, coaches and executives is that winning in the exhibition season rarely translates to anything in the regular season. Certainly, last year provided plenty of proof as Detroit went 4-0 in the exhibition season and 0-16 in the regular season.
Moreover, while four teams that won three or four games in the exhibition season made the playoffs, that wasn't markedly different than those that won two (five playoffs teams) and those that won one or zero (three playoff teams).
However, there does appear to be a relationship between total wins in the exhibition season and total wins in the regular season when examined over time. From 1997 to 2008, teams that won three or more games in the exhibition season average nine wins in the regular season. Those that won two averaged eight wins. Those that won one or zero averaged seven wins.
Don't expect that difference to change the thinking of many coaches.
"I would probably say it means absolutely nothing," Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We play to win. Anybody who is a competitor, that's how they're going to think. They turn on the scoreboard, you play to win.
"Now, you do it with a process in mind when it comes to building your team. You gotta evaluate people. You have to find out who your 53 guys are and what the roles are within the 53. So there are certain things you do within the process, but the guys who are on the field representing us, the standard is the standard and the standard is winning."
This and that: Congratulations to New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi(notes) on his retirement Monday. Bruschi's career, which included five Super Bowl appearances and three titles, is deserving of strong Hall of Fame consideration. He may not be a first-ballot lock, but he'll be part of a spirited discussion. He's also one of three linebackers from the 1996 draft who will get consideration for the Hall. Ray Lewis(notes) is a lock and Zach Thomas(notes) is worthy of discussion, at least. … New Orleans ranked second in the league in converting on third down last year at 48 percent, but the Saints still weren't as good in short yardage in part because of injuries to Deuce McAllister(notes). "It's an area of ours, a weakness from a year ago that we have to improve on. We have to find who are short-yardage runner is," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "Is it Pierre Thomas(notes)? Is it Mike Bell(notes)? Is it Reggie Bush(notes)? His numbers were pretty good statistically on short-yardage situations. But we have to find out what we are on short-yardage and improve on that area." … Speaking of the Saints, just about everyone in the organization is calling for guard Jahri Evans(notes) to get serious Pro Bowl consideration. Payton thinks Evans might be the best guard in the league, even with Steve Hutchinson(notes) still going strong in Minnesota. Payton went so far as to say that he thinks Evans could be in "multiple" Pro Bowls before he's done. … San Diego solidified its only glaring weakness by trading for Houston Texans defensive lineman Travis Johnson(notes). The backup situation to nose tackle Jamal Williams(notes) was suspect, at best. Now, Johnson, a former first-round draft pick who is more of a rotation player, gives them at least an able body. … Former NFL left tackle and now Giants radio analyst Roman Oben(notes) said New York's depth on the defensive line may be good enough to allow the receiving corps time to develop. "They're two deep with starters on the defensive line. If they can get through the first part of the season at 3-2, that will give the young receivers time to figure it out."
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- Bill Belichick
- Roman Phifer
- New England