INDIANAPOLIS – Deep inside the New England Patriots' offices, in the room beside coach Bill Belichick's, there sits a man who nobody seems to know exactly what he does. Ernie Adams' official title with the Patriots is "Director of Football Research." What does that mean? Is he a scout? A cruncher of numbers? A cracker of codes?
No one much knows because he rarely speaks publicly.
The Patriots are in their fifth Super Bowl in 10 years and Belichick's closest adviser has yet to appear at a single Super Bowl event. He has never attended Media Day or any of the league's other media sessions. He appears to have agreed to two interviews during the Patriots' run: one with the alumni magazine at Northwestern University, where he was a student-coach on the football team, the other with author David Halberstam when he wrote a book on Belichick a few years back. Otherwise he has remained silent.
Any profile of Adams contains words like "secret" and "mysterious," which only add to the intrigue of a Belichick regime that doesn't seem to do anything like any other team. And yet even in the cryptic climate of the Gillette Stadium offices, Adams casts a strange shadow over the organization.
"He's a mystery to us, too," special teams coach Scott O'Brien says with a smile. It isn't clear if this is a joke.
When trying to describe Adams and what he does, team employees shrug. Some profiles indicate he should be 57, but he has no official biography with the team and therefore no way to check. He is in the coaches' box during games, but no coaches or players will say whether he is the one talking to Belichick on his headset. What they do say is he dissects tape better than anyone they've seen; that he can see things on the field that nobody else would ever find; that he is brilliant; and that he attacks football problems for Belichick, whom he leaves his office to see two or three times a day.
"I think he has a photographic memory," O'Brien says.
Others who have worked with him say the same thing.
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"Essentially, he is one of the people who meet with Belichick at Belichick's level," explains Jay Robertson, who was an assistant coach at Northwestern in the early 1970s and has remained friends with Adams since.
Adams has always been a genius in that way you might read about in a book or see in a move but never believe such a person could be real. He was raised in the elite prep schools of Massachusetts: Dexter School in Brookline and Phillips Academy in Andover, and there was no limit to what fed his curiosity. But his passion was football.
Years ago, Adams told Halberstam that in junior high school he read and loved an obscure guide to scouting written by Belichick's father, Steve, an assistant at Navy. When Bill Belichick showed up at football practice at Phillips, his last name scrawled on a piece of tape across the front of the helmet, Adams was thrilled. Was this Belichick related to the great Steve?
Even before Adams arrived at Northwestern he was looking to coach. He wrote to then head coach Alex Agase asking if there were any student assistant coaching positions open. Agase actually wrote back and suggested Adams become a student manager, which he did for a semester.
After the season, Adams delivered Agase a long, detailed research report about the drop-back pass. Agase was overwhelmed that a freshman could produce such a thing and asked Robertson to see if they could use Adams as a scout. Robertson and another assistant took Adams to the spring game at Notre Dame, sent him to a different part of the press box and asked him to diagram every play. As a test, the coaches decided to play a trick by saying one of the plays had been a run and not a screen pass as Adams had indicated.
"Oh no, it was a screen," Robertson remembers Adams replying. "That's where the official fell down."
The two coaches looked at each other. Neither had noticed an official tumbling. If Adams could notice that kind of detail and then remember it, he could handle scouting. Adams became a Northwestern assistant coach before his sophomore year.
"When they gave him the keys to the film room, you'd have thought they gave him the keys to a Mercedes," Robertson says.
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Even then Adams was something of a mystery to the men around him. He showed up every day after his classes carrying a black briefcase, eager to get inside the film room. He never talked about his classes, never mentioned his grades, never carried a textbook or appeared to study. The Northwestern assistants never knew his major or even if he graduated. He'd just head to the film room and stay there until well into the night preparing his analysis on the rest of the Big Ten.
A few times, overwhelmed by curiosity, the Northwestern coaches peeked inside Adams' briefcase. The contents were always the same: a sandwich, a collapsible umbrella and a copy of that day's New York Times. They assumed he ate the sandwich and read the paper but they weren't even sure of that because they never saw him do any of these things.
Late in Adams' senior year, Robertson took him on a recruiting trip to several high schools around the Chicago area. They popped in the coaches' offices and made some small talk and essentially did little more than show their interest in continuing a relationship for when good players came along. On the drive home, Robertson noticed Adams was silent, his face white and his head buried in his hands. He realized right then there was no way Adams could coach college football. Recruiting and all the fake social niceties that went with it were not for him.
Robertson set out to find Adams a job in the NFL. Through contacts a connection was made with the Patriots where he could spend entire days pouring through game films. While there, Adams told the Northwestern alumni magazine he invented a new way of film study – physically cutting pieces of film and taping them together to analyze, for instance, all of a team's goal-line plays.
In 1979, Adams went to the New York Giants where he scouted, helped coach the quarterbacks and implored Giants coach Ray Perkins to hire his old friend Belichick.
Randy Dean, the quarterback at Northwestern when Adams was there and later with the Giants, remembers Adams stepping into the quarterbacks meetings to talk about things on tape that none of them would have noticed.
"He had all these great insights," Dean says. "It was like he had a whole library in his mind. He was more strategic than technical and it was more cerebral than anything."
Adams worked a few years when Bill Parcells came to the Giants, but eventually became bored after being moved to the pro personnel department. Looking for a new challenge, he went to work on Wall Street. Those interviewed for this story know little of his time in the investment world where he worked as a municipal bond trader. They aren't sure where he worked, what exactly he did or what kind of money he made. They assume he was successful but that's based more on Adams' savvy and intelligence than any actual information they've been given.
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"I had a real interest in investments," Adams told the Northwestern magazine, "so I took the job with the bond firm. I liked it – every day was competitive, and it was a different part of the world. But it became a combination of enjoying it and missing football at the same time."
When Belichick was hired to coach the Cleveland Browns in 1991, he brought Adams with him. Five years later, when Belichick was fired, Adams opened his own investment office, coming back to football only when the Patriots hired Belichick in 2000.
O'Brien laughs at the Northwestern description of Adams, especially the briefcase.
"He still carries one!" O'Brien exclaims. "Maybe it's the same one. He's very old school."
In the early part of the last decade, former quarterback Damon Huard used to drive a Toyota Camry to the stadium, leaving at home a nicer minivan for his wife and kids. When he pulled into the team parking lot, he was always relieved to see there was one car worse than his: Ernie Adams'.
"I hope now that the Patriots have won some Super Bowls they are paying him more and he can finally afford a new car," Huard says, apparently unaware that Adams could afford several nicer cars but sees no need.
"I think he's had that car for 20 years," Robertson says.
But this is Adams, uninterested in any of the celebrity that comes with professional football; a rare coach untouched by ego. When told a request for an interview with Adams was made through the Patriots, Dean chuckles. Those who know Adams say he is uninterested in attention. Nothing personal. "He doesn't see it as interesting," Dean says. "To him it's, 'Who cares?' "
And yet those who have gotten to Adams say it's a fascinating experience. He knows something about everything. His friends say you can talk to him for hours about anything from football to politics to culture. He has symphony tickets. He reads. A lot. But they also say that conversations with him lack the usual flow of an informal chat. Rather, Adams waits for someone to ask a question, then gives a detailed answer before stopping and waiting for the next question.
"There's nothing you can ask Ernie about that he can't give a succinct answer to," Robertson says. "I haven't found an area of knowledge where he isn't top level."
Just as long as the conversation does not turn to the Patriots, for when it does, Adams stops. He will reveal nothing about the way the team operates, not even to good friends. Questions about the way the team scouts or runs practices or finds players are met with silence. Robertson has often wondered what systems the team uses for keeping track of scouting reports. Adams tells him nothing. Nor will he reveal his real duties with the team or whether he talks to Belichick during games. Like everything else on Belichick's Patriots, Adams falls behind a wall of secrecy.
Around the Patriots, Adams has gained a reputation as the man to go to with any historical football question, usually the earlier the era the better. On a weekly quarterbacks test, backup QB Brian Hoyer was baffled by a question about the 1950s Philadelphia Eagles defense. He went to Adams, who immediately answered it. Players go to Adams with rules questions knowing he will respond without pulling the book down from the shelf.
Yet, when it comes to what he actually does they don't really know. They shrug, helpless to give an answer. They call him "Coach Adams," but is he really a coach? A scout? An executive? Belichick's secret advisor?
"No clue what he does," safety Patrick Chung says. "No clue at all. Maybe he's an undercover genius."
They don't know. Perhaps because they are winning they don't care.
Maybe it's better this way.
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- Ernie Adams
- Bill Belichick