Bill Belichick held a couple of media conferences this week in advance of the New England Patriots' upcoming game against Indianapolis.
Traditionally, the Colts rivalry would bring out his best gruff act. Nothing like a big game to draw in the kind of questions he bats away with parsed lips, one-sentence answers and assorted monotone drones. His goal on these occasions is to say little and reveal less.
Last year, when both teams were undefeated and the game was dubbed Super Bowl 41½, Indy television reporter Rich Nye, in an attempt at levity, asked if Belichick was going trick or treating for Halloween.
Belichick deadpanned it "would be a game-time decision," then without hesitation moved on to the next question. He never even contemplated smiling at his own joke.
So here he was this week, in the middle of the most challenging season in years: not undefeated, not starting the league MVP at quarterback, not with a historically powerful offense, not with a deep and healthy running back corps and not reasonably eyeing a Super Bowl.
And he smiled. He laughed (well, at least once). He not only gave lengthy answers but also elaborated on points not specifically asked. A couple of times he just went off on explanatory tangents.
Belichick often is a tremendous interview, especially when dealing with questions about football or football history. But not so much for injuries, controversies, weather, league issues, comparisons and the emotional state of himself or his players.
Still, this was different. While Pats-Colts isn't even the game of the week this year, this wasn't about one good answer. Especially on Monday, he looked, dare we write, like he was enjoying himself (relatively speaking, of course).
A lot of things were lost when Tom Brady was injured in the first quarter of the first game of the season, most notably the Patriots' fearsome aura of domination and their championship dreams (at least for outsiders).
Here's what wasn't: New England's success on Sunday.
Belichick with a smile on his face? Say it ain't so?
(Getty Image/Jim Rogash)
The Pats are 5-2. No, they aren't the 18-1 team of a year ago, the one that rewrote record books while putting together the first perfect regular season in 35 years. No, they aren't a favorite even to reach the Super Bowl, let alone win a fourth. Yes, there have been some ugly losses and some victories that weren't much prettier.
Still, 5-2 is 5-2. Only four teams in the entire league have a better record. New England is doing it without Brady, without Rodney Harrison and without Laurence Maroney, to name a few of the injured.
If you don't think there is something satisfying about winning anyway, consider one other thing that may have changed – Belichick's mood.
If nothing else, this start to the season, perhaps even more than last year, has reminded fans and foes alike that Belichick is the league's premier coach.
He isn't winning with stolen signals. He isn't winning due to Brady's on-field genius and locker room leadership. He doesn't have unlimited weapons.
He has a quarterback, Matt Cassel, who didn't start in college. His leading rusher, Sammy Morris, is on his third team in the AFC East alone. Last week's game-winning touchdown was caught by veteran utility man Kevin Faulk.
New England still has plenty of talent, but so do the 3-4 Colts, the 3-5 Chargers, the 3-4 Jaguars and so on.
"It is challenging, but I definitely enjoy it," Belichick said. "I enjoy all the aspects of it – the preparation, the on-the-field coaching, the working with the players, the watching film with them, the game strategy – that's what I do."
What he does is find a way to maximize the hand he's dealt. Consider his work with Cassel. The way Brady once was carefully brought along in 2001 for an injured Drew Bledsoe, Cassel has made progress by keeping things simple.
While he may not be Brady and wind up winning the Super Bowl, Cassel is in fine position to lead New England to the playoffs.
"The [Patriots] are doing a great job playing to people's strengths," Colts coach Tony Dungy said this week. "I think they have found what [Cassel] does well. He is making less and less mistakes every week. They are keeping the ball and controlling it with a short passing game. He is getting them into the right plays.
"It has been impressive."
Belichick isn't going to stand there and emote in front of the media. He isn't going to pat himself on the back or talk about the satisfaction of winning with less after winning with more. He doesn't even want to talk about what the team has lost, just how it is going to win.
"Really, we don't even think about it," he said. "We've had guys get hurt before; that is part of football. … I know this is hard for you to believe, but we don't ever sit there and say, 'If we had Jim Brown, then we could run this play; if we had Tom Brady, we could run that play, and if we had Willie McGinest, we could run another play.'
"You take your options and try to pick out the best ones."
If last year was Belichick's blitzkrieg of revenge, undone by the slimmest of margins at the end, then this is a return to the old days, back when the Patriots were hailed for their resolve, consistency, intelligence and deep commitment to team play.
No doubt he'd wish the injuries away. No question he'd trade 5-2 for 7-0. One year later though, while every challenge facing him seems tougher, Belichick seems better.