ATLANTA — There’s a singular question you can ask most of Bill Belichick’s assistant coaches with the New England Patriots that will, surprisingly, make them respond in a similar way.
Ask them if they’ve ever “padded games” for Belichick — the process of watching the coaches’ all-22 game film that shows all the players on the field, and taking uber-detailed notes — and their eyes will widen. Then, they’ll nod as their sleep-deprived memories come flooding back. And finally they’ll chuckle, with an amused-but-knowing look, and remark.
“Oh my God,” safeties coach [and Bill’s son] Steve Belichick said.
“Padding? Oh wow,” said linebackers coach Brian Flores, who calls the Patriots’ defensive plays. “Well, I tell you what … it’s not a lot of fun, [if I’m] being honest.”
Fun or not, padding games is a task that Belichick has historically given his young assistants as a means of not only helping them learn the game better, but also helping them learn how he views the game.
Belichick’s top two assistants — Flores and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — both told Yahoo Sports this week that they have padded games for the coach, and more current and former members of Belichick’s often-raided staff have, as well, with many gratefully pointing to their “padding years” as an invaluable, but demanding, moment that significantly expanded their football knowledge.
“That’s my dad’s Football 101,” Steve Belichick says.
What is padding, and what makes it arduous?
When padding games, assistants are required to watch tape of a given game and — on every single play — draw the offense and defense on a sheet of paper, and map out the movement and assignment of each player on the field. They’re also asked to note everything from receiver and offensive-line splits to tendencies and protections, along with deeper observations about what players on each side are trying to accomplish on the play.
And when you consider that young assistants can be tasked with padding four or five games of an upcoming opponent — and NFL games average well over 100 total plays — it’s a task that is as intensive and difficult as it sounds, especially when Belichick’s famous predilection toward attention to detail is factored in.
For instance, all five Patriots assistants polled by Yahoo Sports this week said the task of padding a single game — especially in the early learning process — can easily last anywhere from seven hours to even a couple days.
“[You better] get a lot of sharpened pencils, with some caffeine and patience,” joked special teams coach Joe Judge, who joined the Patriots as a special teams assistant in 2012. “When you’re young in it and you’re getting used to the hours, it pushes you to the brink.”
To a man, all the assistants were adamant that they were extremely grateful for the task because it helped them become far better coaches. Not only did they learn the hows of each play because of padding, but the whys as well.
“I believe young coaches coming into the league should do it — I really do,” said cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, who padded his share of games when he first joined the Patriots as a defensive assistant in 2006. “I would say, it was very beneficial for me to do it.”
McDaniels, who joined the Patriots’ coaching staff as a defensive assistant in 2002, even cites the padding he did over a three-year period as the No. 1 thing he attributes that improved his ability to pay attention to details.
“I think the most important thing young people have got to understand is, it’s not a punishment,” McDaniels said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn how important everything is at this level.”
Why padding is good
Assistants benefit from padding games by simply putting in the work. By drawing up each play and identifying assignments to the best of their ability, they already gain an understanding of which offensive concepts work vs. certain defensive concepts.
That’s exactly why Steve Belichick — who estimates he has padded “hundreds” of games in his life — was so excited to start doing ones “that mattered” for his dad when he joined the staff as a defensive assistant in 2012.
“You can’t look at it as a burden — it’s a learning experience,” Steve Belichick explained, echoing McDaniels. “You get to learn about football, different schemes, different styles of play. You understand how different and creative you can be to win … I used to get excited to pad the good teams and I learned what not to do from the bad teams.”
To get the full benefits of padding, the younger coach’s work is often reviewed by a senior coach (like Belichick), who notes errors (like an incorrect jersey number or o-line split, for instance) with impunity.
“If you’re like me, a perfectionist, you do want to do it perfectly,” said Flores, who started padding games after he joined the coaching staff as a special teams assistant in 2008. “But it’s never perfect.”
And when the assistant gets the stack of padded plays back, he’ll likely find them littered with corrections and maybe even a directive to — gulp — do it again, something Belichick will ask to be done in a heartbeat, especially for the coaches just starting out.
“If you get it wrong, you’ve got to do a lot of correcting and the game could take 20 hours to do, and you’ve got to do four to six games per opponent, so you’re talking about an inordinate amount of hours spent doing that,” McDaniels said with a chuckle.
“But what it taught me was details are everything, every mistake, matters. Bill would hand it back to me and there would be 75 yellow sticky notes all over them.”
Judge, for his part, believes in padding so much that he still does it when prepping the Patriots’ special teams. Even though he has a special teams assistant, he prefers to do it himself.
“When you’ve got to draw up every aspect of every play, it sticks in your mind,” Judge said. “You can watch it and think you’ve got it, but if you’ve got to draw everything down, it normally tattoos itself in your memory.”
A padding evolution
When reminiscing about his prime padding days this week, McDaniels made this admission:
“We’ve gotten away from a padding to a degree. There’s a lot of different things we do now, analytical things that pull you away from some of those things, but I don’t think there’s anything better for a young coach than to go through that.”
And while Belichick has apparently modernized his padding methods (somewhat, at least) as he’s gotten more adept with technology, one of the younger coaches on staff, tight ends and fullbacks coach Nick Caley (a coaching assistant with the Patriots in 2015 and 2016) was adamant that his head coach’s teaching methods for young coaches remain invaluable.
“I would just say that when you’re learning how to break down film a specific way, there’s no detail that’s too small,” Caley said. “You really train your mind to increase your attention to detail and thoroughness in whatever you’re looking at.
“You might see something on tape where you may not have a name for the terminology or identification, and you ask questions. And through those questions, there’s growth. And through the growth, you improve.”
But while Caley hasn’t padded games in the same way that some of the veterans on the staff have, Flores’ response — when asked who on the staff is currently tasked with padding games — is proof that the padding experience remains a fundamental part of The Bill Belichick Assistant Coach Experience.
“We’ve got a crew of young guys — let’s just put it like that,” Flores said with a laugh. “They’re all padding a little bit now.”
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