It's 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is sitting behind his desk in his rather drab office, featuring a computer in front of him and a steno pad full of notes on the desk. On the windowsill behind him is a package of blank CDs. Compared to most coaches such as the Miami Dolphins' Tony Sparano, the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith or even the Kansas City Chiefs' Todd Haley, Belichick's office is little more than a closet.
But dressed in his Patriots sweats and sporting bare feet, Belichick is very content. Even after three Super Bowl titles, a fourth championship appearance and two titles as a defensive coordinator in 34 years in the NFL, Belichick, 57, doesn't think about other challenges outside of football. Rather, he grinds away till the wee hours. However, he recently gave up more than an hour of his time to talk about a variety of subjects regarding the Patriots and the NFL, in general:
Jason Cole: Earlier this season when your offense was struggling – Wes Welker(notes) and Randy Moss(notes) were hurt and quarterback Tom Brady(notes) was still working his way back in after a year off – you resisted the temptation to completely go back to the type of running game that fueled your title teams earlier this decade. Why?
Belichick: I think it's a question of how you want to use your personnel and where you think your players are … good offensive teams in this league are teams that are more balanced, can throw the ball and have playmakers out on the field. To get in there and run the power 20 times … yeah, it's OK. It shortens the game and it controls things if that's what you want to be and if you have a good defense and that's the way you want to play. But I think we're capable of doing more than that and it takes our quarterback out of the game. It takes a slot receiver like Wes Welker out of the game and that's not what we want to do. If you're trying to not put as much on our quarterback like we were in '01 and a little bit in '02, at that point, that was the way to go. And some of that is a function of who your running back is. Some guys are better running behind a fullback, some are better in a 1-back system, just like your passing game is a little bit of a function of who your quarterback is.
Cole: A lot of coaches would have resisted the temptation to trade a player like Richard Seymour(notes) because they are all about winning now, this season. You made a very pragmatic move to trade him on the eve of the season. Can you explain how you were able to fight that tendency as a coach?
Belichick: We gave up a significant player and we gained a significant asset … you know all the situations surrounding the decision.
Cole: Right, but most coaches who sit in your chair think overwhelmingly about today, this week; how am I going to get through this season.
Belichick: I think about that, too (laughs).
Cole: Yes, but you're taking a larger-scope view when you make that deal.
Belichick: I can't speak for everybody else. I mean, we're worried about this year's team, we're worried about today, but we're going to have a schedule next year, too, and we're going to play football then, too. There's a balance of this year and years in the future. Do we consider that? Yes, but in the end you look at the level of compensation and you do it. Had it been for another level of compensation, would we do it? Maybe not. I don't know. There's a point where you say yes and a point where you say no and there's a real fine line in the middle where it really depends on how bad you want to make the trade. It's like anything else, if you really want to do it, you might take less. If you don't, it probably would take more.
Cole: How long did those discussions take?
Belichick: We had been talking to them for a number of weeks. Not necessarily about Richard, but about other things like the (Derrick) Burgess trade. That trade was going around since last spring. There were a number of players thrown around. I would say it was probably 24 to 48 hours with Seymour. They brought it up. … Again, who's available on your team? Really, probably everybody is available at the right price.
Cole: So if I gave you six first-round NFL draft picks, Brady might be available?
Belichick: Each guy's price is different. If a team asks, you see what the price is. Now, is Jerod Mayo(notes) available? No, not really. But there are certain players who are young that have a certain number of years left on their contract that you want on your team, so you're really not going to trade them. Those guys are realistically not available, no. But is everybody else available for a certain price on every team? I would say, for the most part, they probably are. Who's willing to give that? What you want and what someone else is willing to give, that's usually very different. In this case (the Seymour trade – in return, the Patriots get Oakland's first-round pick in the 2011 draft), it worked.
Cole: How much longer do you see yourself doing this?
Belichick: Right now, I'm just getting ready for (the next game).
Cole: So you're not sure you're even going to get past Sunday.
Belichick: That's long-term for me (smiles) … four more days.
Cole: OK, do you have some idea of what else …
Belichick: No, I like what I do and I'm doing it.
Cole: You love the mental challenge of it?
Belichick: I really do. I like every part of it. The offseason, the in-season, the preparation for games, the young players, the old players … there's a lot of different aspects to the job and that's one of the great things about it. You're not locked into one part, one thing. I can be a part of anything I want to be a part of, so I like that, it's fun. … Every season presents a multitude of challenges.
Cole: Do you do any other things that fill your time? Jimmy Johnson used to love to trade stocks.
Belichick: That's not my thing, but he still does. Competitively, I get it here, so I don't need to go compete in something else to fulfill that. I have plenty of competition in football. I love competition, but I'm not looking to compete in something else.
Cole: So you don't have to do play racquetball or something else?
Belichick: I do that for recreation. I see my kids play and that stuff, but that's a whole different involvement. It's more emotional than my involvement with this team, as screwed up as that sounds. But it's only temporary because it's not like (my kids) are going to play for that team for all time. But for that particular time, I'm emotionally invested in that, definitely. Absolutely.
Cole: Do you scream on the sidelines at your kids' games?
Belichick: I keep it in, but sometimes I'd like to.
Cole: My son just started crew and I don't know anything about it. It's his deal, so I just keep my mouth shut and cheer him on.
Belichick: Yep, look dumb and say "all right." That's perfect.
Cole: When you're looking at quarterbacks, what do you examine most?
Belichick: One of the things we saw last year with (Matt) Cassel when we put him out there: … You put a guy in there who hasn't played, the first couple of weeks you wonder if you made the right decision. And then, as they grow in the offense and they control it and it's their offense and their team, sometimes those players go from here (holds his hand low) to here (holds his hand high) and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they just muddle along and they never grow. Cassel grew from the San Diego game last year to the Miami game to the San Francisco game. There were a few plays at first and then it was, "Hey, this guy is a legitimate starting NFL quarterback." The funny thing is that happened after Cassel wasn't really that great in preseason. He was OK, but nothing like what we saw in the season.
It changed when he took all the walkthroughs. He was the guy in the meetings, he took all the reps in practice, he was the guy with the game plan, he was the guy saying, "Hey, I don't like this route, I like this." He had the input and it was catered to him, just like how Brady says, "I don't like that play." OK, we've got plenty of other plays. But that might be a play that Cassel likes running, but he doesn't say anything because he's not the quarterback at the time. When he became the quarterback, he started talking about it and saying what he liked. I think all quarterbacks go through that. So where they are now and where they are going to be, as they grow into it and the coaches figure out who they are, sometimes the only way you find out is to actually let them do it.
Cole: Yeah, but you actively are looking for that answer in advance of just doing it.
Belichick: Yeah, but you never really know until you get them in there. Yeah, this guy can read this and he can do that, he can handle this type of situation and play. Then you get them out there and you find out that he may not do that, but he's pretty good at this other stuff and you do more of that. If he's got a good release on the deep ball, throw more deep balls. If he's not good on the deep ball, but he's good on the run, do that. As long as the guy is a good decision-maker and he's accurate and he's consistent, you can give him something you can count on and you have a pretty good chance. The hard part is when they're inconsistent or they're not very accurate or they don't make good decisions because ultimately you're going to need a throw, they're going to miss it; you're going to need a decision, they're not going to make it and that's when it comes apart.
Cole: So accuracy and decision-making are the most important things?
Belichick: For me, yeah.
Cole: Can you even distinguish between the two?
Cassel getting guidance from Belichick and then-assistant Josh McDaniels in '08.
(Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)
Belichick: What's one without the other? If you make the wrong decision, you've got problems, and if you can't throw the ball, even if you make the right decision, you've got problems. So if you've got those two, you've got Joe Montana. If you can't do one of those two, then what's the future? … If you have those two things, you have a quarterback. If you don't have those two things, you're going to have to dumb it down. You're either going to have to limit the decisions he makes or take the accuracy element out of it by either not throwing over 10 yards or not throwing outside the numbers. You're going to have to do something that changes the way you play offense.
Cole: Why are there so many bad teams around the league this year?
Belichick: Here's the only thing I'll say: I think to have a really good team in this league, you have to make a lot, a lot of good decisions. You have to have a lot of good people, players, coaches, whatever. You need a lot of those. Conversely, to not be competitive, you would have to have a lot of bad decisions. One bad decision is not going to do it, one bad player is not going to do it, one bad coach is not going to do it. You're going to have to collectively, over a cumulative period of time, make a long series of bad decisions and accumulate a lot of players who are substandard for their position. There have to be a multitude of things that go wrong.
Cole: Because you can keep yourself average for a long time?
Belichick: That's the system. If you don't have good players, you have money to spend on players. If you have a bunch of good players, you eventually run out of money and you can't keep them all and somebody else gets them. That's the system, it keeps everybody average. We've seen teams be really good just on coaching. We've seen teams be competitive with just a few good players.
Cole: Jimmy Johnson once said, if you don't take too many risks, you can win nine or 10 games a year.
Belichick: Jimmy probably said the same thing to you that he once said to me: "You're really only competing with about 10 teams a year. If you just say out of the way, the other 20 teams will screw it up themselves. Whether it's ownership or personnel or coaching or some combination of factors." Ego, internal struggle, something will happen to two-thirds of the teams, that was Jimmy's theory. That leaves you with about 10 teams that you're going to have to really battle with. Those teams have it together. They're going to make good decisions and if you play bad football, they're going to take advantage of it. They're going to find some undrafted guy or some middle-round pick or some veteran free agent who is going to spark their team. Pittsburgh is always going to be there. Indianapolis is always going to be there. They may not win it, but they'll be there. You're going to have to beat them. Philadelphia is going to be there. Yeah, [quarterback Donovan] McNabb might get hurt one year and they might go 7-9, but they're going to be there. You're still battling them on every front.