FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If you want to understand Bill Belichick, talk to his linebackers.
There's Mike Vrabel, who snarls at questions and is mockingly irascible. To get to know Vrabel is to joust with him. He acts as if he'd rather play every Sunday with no one around.
There's Adalius Thomas, naturally inquisitive with a touch of caution, a guy who answers questions with questions. "What's the angle of this story?" or "What are you trying to get at?" are typical responses to queries.
There's Tedy Bruschi, an overachiever who has crafted a great career mostly on heart (even a damaged one) and brains.
And finally, there's Junior Seau, in his 18th season and practicing like he's 23, who was probably the game's greatest linebacker over a 12-year period.
Check out the sideline on most games and you're practically guaranteed to see Belichick, whose Patriots play host to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC title game Sunday, talking to the group about adjustments and strategy.
"He has the same passion for the game as all of us, and I think he has a really special appreciation for the position," Bruschi said. "Whenever he starts talking about the old days and guys like L.T. (Lawrence Taylor) and Pepper (Johnson) and Harry (Carson), you see a gleam in his eye. He gets excited talking about the position because that's where he started off coaching so many great players."
Said Thomas: "He talks to us all the time because we're like him. We've seen a lot of football, and when he talks to our group, we get it right away. We're going back-and-forth with ideas."
While Belichick said the time he spends with the linebackers is "circumstantial," it's no secret that the coach and his linebackers have a special relationship. He chides that group more than others, and they give it back.
Belichick often pops in videotapes of the great New York Giants group he had as defensive coordinator in the 1980s.
"More than they would like," Belichick said, hiding a grin.
The linebackers roll their eyes at the video sessions.
"With all those Hall of Famers, what coaching did anybody have to do?" Seau said with a wry smile.
There's a little more to the bond than simply kindred spirits, guys who share Belichick's no-frills approach to football. Much of what the Patriots do on defense revolves around the thinking and execution of the linebackers.
While the Patriots have spent significant resources on defensive linemen (Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren are all former first-round picks), their job is more about brawn. Wilfork has become the best nose tackle in the league because he can hold up traffic and let others around him create havoc. Seymour and Warren are both physically imposing.
That's less the case with the linebackers, although Thomas has a stunning combination of size and speed. The linebackers have the ability to change style at a moment's notice, be it in the week-to-week game plans or in the midst of a contest.
"It's amazing how quickly we can adjust to something on the field, just look at each other and know, maybe say just a few words and be able to do something that's pretty complex," Seau said. "I've never been around a group of guys who know the game like these guys do."
Of course, when that group is disrupted in some significant way, the impact on the team is substantial.
Last season, the Patriots set a franchise record for the fewest points allowed. But by the playoffs, the linebacking corps was a mess. Seau was out with a broken arm, Bruschi and Rosevelt Colvin were playing hurt and Thomas wasn't on the team yet. Undrafted rookie Eric Alexander was playing extensively. Add an injury to safety Rodney Harrison and the result was the Indianapolis Colts being able to throw to its tight ends at will during a 38-34 come-from-behind victory in the AFC title game.
Dallas Clark finished with six catches for 137 yards. Bryan Fletcher had a critical 32-yard reception in the second half against Alexander. Throw in Ben Utecht and the group combined for eight catches for 174 yards, almost exactly half of Peyton Manning's 349 yards passing.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots gave Thomas a reported five-year, $35 million contract, including $20 million in guarantees, last offseason. It's the richest contract the Patriots had given to a player who came from another team, a move similar to what they did in 2003 when they signed Colvin.
The bottom line for Belichick is simple: You have to have linebackers, especially good ones.