NEVER FAILS. The
Patriots' linebackers will shuffle into their meeting room at Gillette Stadium
during a game week, fold their bodies into chairs for an hour or more of
whiteboard and videotape education, and soon enough coach Bill Belichick is
among them. He doesn't have to be there. He can be anywhere he wants, including
in the executive suite polishing Lombardi Trophies. Belichick's ID card works
on every lock in the building, and he has Matt Patricia to coach his
linebackers. Yet more often than not he is in this room.
It is a place where Belichick feels at home, with his kind of guys. Over there
is Tedy Bruschi. They call him Bru. He had a stroke less than three years ago,
and here he is—as vital to the defense as he was during New England's three
Super Bowl seasons. Look at Mike Vrabel. Call him Vrabes. The guy can tell you
what every defensive teammate is doing on every snap. Rosevelt Colvin. Rosy. In
2003, two games into his Patriots career, he suffered nearly the same horrible
hip injury that famously ended Bo Jackson's career. Colvin's just now getting
back to where he was then. Adalius Thomas. AD or Superman. He weighs 270
pounds, yet his old team, the Ravens, sometimes played him at cornerback.
Junior Seau. Eighteen years in the league and still looking for a ring.
Belichick pulled him out of retirement two seasons ago.
Those five have a
combined 58 years' experience in the NFL (add in special teams demon Larry
Izzo, and the total rises to 70; reserves Eric Alexander and Pierre Woods are
also in the room), and none is younger than 30. They have been there and done
that. Their room is a place where the gap between player and coach shrinks, and
the common ground is broad. "I think Bill is at a point in his life and his
career where he feels the highest comfort level around the veterans, the older
guys," says Carl Banks, who played linebacker for the Giants when Belichick
was their defensive coordinator in the late 1980s.
There is an energy
in the room. Seau calling everyone Buddy. Colvin raving about his latest
stellar play. ("He needs to get a tattoo of his own hand on his back,"
Thomas jokes.) Vrabel uttering subtle put-downs under his breath. When you play
this position for the Pats, you are a member of what they call the 'backerhood.
Maybe it was Willie McGinest who came up with the name, when he played in New
England from 1994 through 2005. Or Roman Phifer, from '01 through '04. Maybe
even Bruschi. Nobody seems to recall, except that it goes back a good while.
They all know this: You can't have a thin skin in this room. "And no one is
exempt," says Seau, "including Bill."
So the coach is
inviting derision when he teaches through nostalgia, showing his linebackers
videotape of his Giants' unit from the mid-'80s, a crew for the ages that
included Hall of Famers Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor, plus Banks, Gary
Reasons and current Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson. "He wants us
to be like them," says Vrabel. "He tells us, 'Just so you understand
how it's done.' We joke back at him that, yeah, but they were doing it against
guys who would be working construction these days."
The point is not
in the substance of the argument, but in the passion. Belichick is a member of
the 'backerhood, too. Last spring he took Colvin into the bubble behind
Gillette and held a tackling dummy while the linebacker worked on pass rush
moves. Colvin got better; Belichick got a nasty set of bruised ribs, which he
could neither hide nor live down. "He's always making fun of us if we have
a little nick," says Colvin. "So we've been on him ever since then.
'How are those ribs, Coach?'" Then they have a laugh at the man in the
famous gray hoodie.
THE PATRIOTS are
in pursuit of history, chasing a fourth Super Bowl in seven years and the
second perfect season in NFL history, after a 24--20 victory over the Colts on
Sunday that ran their record to 9--0. They are a synchronous, steamrollering
force, from the front office through the coaching staff to the players. No unit
better personifies the soul of the franchise than the linebackers, a collection
of veterans for whom greatness is both a moment to be cherished and just
another day at the office.
had chemistry in that room," says Bruschi. "But in the other
championship years [2001, '03, '04] we were younger guys. Now we have so many
more years under our belt. We appreciate everything that's going on. The wins,
the jokes, the people, everything."
They play in a
system that Belichick has coached for a quarter century. In simplest terms it's
a basic 3--4, with Colvin and Vrabel on the outside and Thomas, Bruschi and
Seau in a three-man platoon on the inside. They are part of a defensive
philosophy that relies on preparation and versatility to limit an offense's
options. "On first and second down New England is a pretty basic 3--4 with
good technical football," says Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
"On third down, that's when it gets more interesting, as you're trying to
figure out who's rushing, who's not rushing, what they're trying to take away.
And the linebackers are all really good football players."
they all fit a Belichick prototype. "A lot of teams draft linebackers to
fill specific needs: one guy to be a vertical dynamo, just get up the field and
rush the passer another guy to just stuff the run in the middle of the
field," says one NFL team staffer. "Bill is looking for a little
different guy, somebody who is multidimensional, who can drop or rush, stop the
run or pursue. And he's got to be football smart, because there is a lot more
responsibility than in a lot of other systems."
"It's a system of interchangeable parts, so the offense can't pick out
who's rushing and who's dropping off. And accountability is big. The defense is
set up for everybody to execute, and if one guy doesn't execute, everybody
knows it. There's tremendous peer pressure. You come off the field, and Bill
says, 'Who got blocked?' You get confessions."