The past eight months should have been hellish for Bill Belichick.
His New England Patriots were physically beaten down in the playoffs by the Tennessee Titans, suffering a loss that marked the end of the Tom Brady era. A few months later, Brady awkwardly departed in free agency under a cloud of ambiguity, then convinced tight end in Rob Gronkowski to join him in Tampa Bay.
By training camp, three of Belichick’s starting linebackers had vanished, with Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins signing with the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions respectively, and Dont’a Hightower taking a COVID-19 opt-out. Seven other Patriots eventually opted out with Hightower, including two more starters in offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and safety Patrick Chung.
After all that, Belichick ended up releasing wideout Mohamed Sanu this week, capping one of the worst trades of his coaching career.
Oh, and there was also the entire offseason of hands-on work, which was devoured by a pandemic that left Belichick bunkered down in Nantucket for five months.
That’s not just a jagged stretch between seasons for a franchise. It was a buzzsaw.
Yet, here we are in September, with the regular season one week from kicking off Thursday, and Belichick is sounding almost inspired about Brady’s replacement, Cam Newton. The same Belichick who opened an early August media session with a smile that was about as genuinely happy as he gets. The same Belichick who found time to shoot a series of lighthearted Subway commercials this offseason. And the same Belichick who even delivered some flattering praise for rookie Kyle Dugger as camp drew to a close.
Maybe it was the few extra months without the all-encompassing grind of offseason activities, media questions or having to talk about what was going on (or not going on) with Brady. Maybe it’s having six Super Bowl rings as a head coach and waking up with a fresh set of challenges to reinvigorate the spirit and put an exclamation point on a legacy. Or maybe it’s precisely what it looks like: Belichick working with a new quarterback who is very different than Brady — and enjoying every bit of a honeymoon phase as the two get to know each other.
Whatever it is, Belichick looks like he is having some fun entering this season. Relaxed might be the wrong word. Mellowing? Doubtful. But I have little trouble believing that something is probably a little different for the Patriots icon, starting this season at 68 years old and trying to reinvent a successful model around Newton, rather than replicating one for the umpteenth time around Brady. That’s the only explanation I could think of earlier this week, when Belichick was downright effusive in his praise of Newton in an appearance on SiriusXM NFL radio.
He was also expansive in a way that seemed pointed. Perhaps a little needling of Brady, whose Instagram account practically painted his Tampa experience as the “Summer of Tom”. But as we often see in the NFL, the rejuvenation of change can swing both ways.
Belichick spoke in tones that might have kept Brady around longer if such praise had been lavished on him.
“I can see why he had the kind of success that he had at Auburn and at Carolina,” Belichick said on his SiriusXM appearance. “In talking to people that were with him there, the things that they said about him, at Auburn and at Carolina from a decade, or two, three years ago — or even last year — it was all the same and it showed up here. He’s an extremely hard worker. Nobody works harder than Cam does. He’s here early. He stays late, and he works very hard. … You know, some players like to work on things that they’re good at, like if you’re strong on a bench press, then you just keep throwing more weight on the bench. But, Cam is the type of player that works on things that he’s not as good at and really tries to improve on a daily basis and that is something that I really respect about him. That’s not easy for players — really any of us — to do. Look at something that we don’t feel like we’re very good at, or it is not one of our strengths, and put extra time into it. I would say that is a natural tendency to do things you’re good at. He’s worked extremely hard in all those areas.”
“He’s got a great personality,” Belichick continued. “He gets along with everybody. He’s very social and has a great presence, whether it is in a small room of a couple people or in a bigger group, and he’s highly competitive. He’s very, very competitive on the field. He always wants to do his best and do better than the guy he’s competing against. You see that from — everybody’s competitive — but I think there are different degrees of it and it looks like I would, based on what I’ve seen, I would put him in the top echelon of that. … His competition extends way beyond the field. It is off the field and in meetings and training and so forth. You know, it is important for him to be the first guy up the hill when we run sprints and it is important to him to be first in everything that he competes in and you can see the effort and the amount of energy that he puts into that. I’d say those are some of the things that have jumped out in the month or so that we have been here in person.”
That is a lot of praise coming from Belichick. Typically, it’s the kind of riff that he would reserve for an occasional opponent who he really admires. And while it mirrors some of the good things Belichick has said about Newton while facing him in the past, it comes off completely different now that the two are together under the same roof.
It’s rare to hear Belichick gush like that about a player. Or at least, you didn’t hear him speak like that about Brady the past few years, which might have been one of the problems between the two. That was evident as Jeff Benedict’s new book, “The Dynasty”, detailed Brady’s agitation over what he seemed to absorb as a lack of appreciation from his head coach.
If you’re conspiratorial, you might think that this is just Belichick being cunning and petty. If Brady really griped about appreciation, an ongoing debate for more than two years, then Belichick almost certainly knows that landing Newton and then loving him up would probably drive Brady nuts from afar. So maybe this is a little retribution in the face of Brady being so forward about his enjoyment post-New England.
But at least some of the past few weeks has to be taken at face value, too. It’s possible that Belichick has always liked a large part of the energy and skill that Newton has brought to the NFL. And it’s also possible that Belichick is enjoying the latest iteration of his coach/quarterback life. Particularly if Newton is buying into the Patriots program, which it sure seems he is. To the point that the last time Newton spoke to the media before being named the team’s starter, he sounded like a veteran player who was interested in sharing only the humility of what he was trying to learn.
Asked if he felt like the starting quarterback job was his, Newton replied: “Absolutely not.”
“Every day is work day for me,” Newton said. “That label is not important to me right now, because I know I have so much that I need to get better at — so much that I need to learn, so much that I need to be comfortable with. Throughout this process, that’s the last thing that I’m pretty much worried about, knowing that there are certain things when I come to the line of scrimmage — it’s just not firing mentally as I would want it to be, rather than other plays that may be called. I see a person like [Brian Hoyer] go to the line and he’s just as sharp as it could be — from me asking him questions and him answering them and [Jarrett Stidham] and things like that — there’s things that I know I need to become better at. Until I get those things done, everything else is irrelevant.”
If that’s not a Patriots answer from a guy who has clearly been the starting quarterback for weeks, then I don’t know what a Patriots answer looks like. And it probably explains how Newton has won the praise of Belichick, captured the starting job and been voted a captain by his teammates (some of whom still have a close relationship with Brady). So goes the honeymoon phase for Newton and Belichick, who have done little more than repeatedly express their mutual admiration and respect for each other.
Will it last? That’s tough to say. We won’t know what any of this will look like until we see Belichick and Newton roll out this relationship in a regular-season game. At some point, there’s bound to be some struggling and learning under severely adverse conditions. The kind of headwinds that earned Brady some of the admiration that he wanted from Belichick. Time will tell if Newton can earn it when it counts, too.
For now, we can only judge the time the two have had together. The preseason went about as well as could have been expected. At the very least, there are positive signs of life after the big breakup between Belichick and Brady — and they are no longer dominated by Tampa Tom, either.
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