Bill Belichick’s win-at-all-costs reputation has taken a hit in the last week or so.
And that’s actually a good thing for the man who is unquestionably one of the greatest coaches of his or any generation in any sport.
An eight-time Super Bowl winner, Belichick has navigated a mini COVID-19 outbreak in New England seemingly as well as any leader possibly could. Fingers crossed, he and his team have come out the other side galvanized, Belichick with as strong a bond with his players as maybe at any time in his two decades in New England. All without winning a single game and barely taking to the practice field.
When the going gets tough, Belichick has always seemingly done the right thing over his years in Foxborough, on and off the field. He’s apparently done so yet again to earn maybe the most unified support inside his locker room that he’s ever had.
ESPN’s Tom Jackson once erroneously said of the Belichick-led 2003 Patriots, “they hate their coach.”
Today it’s probably more accurate to say of the 2020 Patriots that they love, respect and trust their coach.
It’s all thanks to the way Belichick has gone about the “day by day, hour by hour” process of dealing with COVID-19 juxtaposed to the perceived lack of leadership the players have gotten from outside the organization.
When Jason McCourty articulated Oct. 10 that he and his teammates couldn’t really put much faith or trust in the NFL or the NFLPA less than a week after the coronavirus-compromised Patriots had been crammed into planes for a round-trip Monday night meeting with the Chiefs, Belichick had already done enough to hold it all together in what could have been a team-fracturing moment.
While the league was seemingly flying by the seat of its coronavirus pants in the wake of Stephon Gilmore’s positive COVID-19 test, Belichick was shutting down his facility above and beyond what the NFL wanted, bringing in experts to address the situation and answer questions and utilizing the NFL’s ineptitude to embolden his own powerful leadership hold.
With apologies to both The Swami and the Buffalo Bills, nobody circles the proverbial wagons through a pandemic like Belichick.
“I think the main thing you want to see from your coach is that you're not just a player. You're a human being. You have family. You have feelings. Certain situations might make you react a certain way,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “Seeing that coach actually -- he actually notices that. He cares about the family and tries to make it as much family-oriented as he can and let's his players have a voice. It's encouraging to see. When you have a person who tests positive on the team, it doesn't matter who it is. He just says: 'OK we're fitting to shut the whole thing down.' That shows he cares about you as a person and not about just the wins and the losses."
“He's been great,” running back Rex Burkhead added. “He really has just put our safety, our family's safety first, and he's been in constant communication with us on doing whatever he can or whatever the team can to put in things in place to keep us safe. And, you know, that's great, just knowing he has our back in these situations and these times.”
It’s always been said that part of Belichick’s greatness is that he puts players into a position to succeed. Magnifies their strengths and covers up their weaknesses. Asks them to do their job in a simple fashion with clear expectations.
All of those had always been interpreted in terms of on-field circumstances inside the world of football.
But, this time, to get the best out of his players on the field the master manager of men Belichick knew that he had to deal with the real world, the facts, anxieties and protocols necessary to play football in a pandemic.
And he didn’t hesitate.
Belichick didn’t use COVID-19 as an excuse, but rather gave his players the information, guidance and structure to take on the unique challenges of the world in this 2020 season. Make no mistake, he wants to win in 2020 just as much as he did previously. Maybe more in the first year post-Tom Brady in Foxborough.
But not at all costs. Not at the risk of the health of his players and their families.
“I will say from the outside, it did look like it was win at all costs,” the first-year Patriot Phillips said of his past views of Belichick compared to the man he’s encountered during the most unique season in NFL history. “Even when you get here -- everyone wants to win, all 32 teams -- but it's just: what are you willing to do to get your team to that W. With the whole COVID situation, you can tell that coach isn't willing to sell out his whole team or put his whole team at risk just to get a win. We're people. We have families, so it's definitely the mindset that we're going to do what we have to do to win, but we're going to do it safe. We're not going to be out here reckless. We follow the guidelines. We're doing everything right. We don't want to be the team that breaks the rules. It is win at all costs, but it's do it the right way.”
The right way. AKA the Belichick way. Even -- or maybe especially -- during a pandemic.