Commentary

Bill Belichick: Everybody's critic

Patriots coach teaches through humiliation during Monday film sessions

Updated: January 30, 2012, 6:20 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

Dec. 12, 2011

New England Patriots safety James Ihedigbo crouched in his seat, attempting to make himself as tiny and as indistinguishable as possible.

He knew what was coming.

Coach Bill Belichick clicked off the lights and rolled the film.

[+] EnlargeIhedigbo
AP Photo/Rich LipskiJames Ihedigbo looked bad in his matchup against Santana Moss in December ... and he's still hearing about it.

"So now we're going to watch a double reverse," said Belichick, launching into his weekly film analysis, which former linebacker Mike Vrabel gleefully revealed earned the coach the nickname "The Belistrator."

The play on the screen was painfully familiar. Just one day earlier, the Patriots slipped past the Washington Redskins 34-27, but not before Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan suckered the Patriots by calling for a double reverse. Quarterback Rex Grossman handed off to running back Roy Helu, who pitched it to receiver Brandon Banks, who tossed a 49-yard touchdown pass to an untouched Santana Moss.

"As you can see clearly here," said Belichick, slowing the game action to an excruciating crawl, "this is where Ihedigbo gets beat."

Ihedigbo, slinking farther down in his chair, squirmed uncomfortably as his coach skewered his performance.

("They ran the double reverse in Cover 2. I bit on it, and got caught. I blew the coverage," Ihedigbo later lamented.)

"So this is how you DON'T defend the double reverse," Belichick said as he showed it again.

And again. And again and again.

"Well, at least that's over with," said Ihedigbo, in his first year with the Patriots, when Belichick finally moved on.

His friends in the secondary erupted with laughter.

"James," one of his teammates informed him, "it's just beginning."

"They were right," Ihedigbo later confirmed. "Bill ran that play for weeks. He kept bringing it up: 'Now see, this is where Ihedigbo got caught deep.'

"After a while, it became more generic. It was, 'Hey, we might see a double reverse this week like we did against Washington.' And there I am, up on the screen, in the wrong place all over again."

No one is safe

The Belistrator is an equal-opportunity humiliator. He doesn't care if you are a young safety or a first-ballot Hall of Famer; if you mess up, he's going to hold you accountable.

And then he's going to degrade you.

Former linebacker Don Davis was a popular and revered figure in New England's locker room. He was a pastor who coordinated Bible study groups for the players and proved to be a tireless worker on the field and in the weight room. He even earned the offseason conditioning award.

"So there's this one play that made Don look really bad," Vrabel recalled. "Bill showed it a few times then said, 'Offseason award winner, my ass. You look like a cow on ice.' Tedy [Bruschi] and I were in the back laughing our butts off.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Bill Belichick
Elsa/Getty ImagesEven superstars like Tom Brady can be frequent targets of Bill Belichick's film-room barbs.

"Of course, it's only funny until it happens to you."

Belichick's current and former players and coaches say his vicious film critiques have been part of his motivational arsenal for as long as they can remember. The roots of the tactic are murky -- Belichick declined a request to be interviewed for this story -- but the desired impact has been well documented.

"It was very, very effective," said Brad Seely, the former Patriots and current San Francisco 49ers special teams coach. "Just look at the former players who have been gone a few years and can still describe it in vivid detail."

Seely said he rarely knew in advance what Belichick had prepared for the dreaded Monday meeting.

"We all were as anxious as the players to see what Bill came up with," Seely said. "Those sessions were always quite enlightening."

Past Patriots veterans fondly remember the time Tom Brady uncharacteristically threw a weak, fluttering pass. As they left the stadium, Brady announced, "Bring the popcorn. I'll be the star of tomorrow's show." Sure enough, when the lights were dimmed and the film began rolling, there was Brady in technicolor, tossing a wounded duck up for grabs -- over and over again.

In that instance, the coach let the picture tell the story. Then he clicked on the lights and announced, "I've seen better passes thrown at Foxborough High School."

The Brady lowlights have been frequent and biting through the years. Belichick stresses the need to never leave points on the board and whenever his quarterback does, he's treated to his own personal film festival. The clips include bad reads, interceptions and poorly timed bombs, such as one in 2009, when Brady overthrew Randy Moss as he streaked toward the end zone.

"As you can see," the Belistrator pointed out, "Randy is wide open. The defense let him go. Not that we can hit him, though. Right, Tom?"

Picking on Ihedigbo is one thing; embarrassing the face of the franchise would seem to be another matter entirely.

It isn't.

"The message was always clear," Bruschi said. "No one was off limits. That's why you had to respect it."

"None of us are immune from his coaching," Stephen Gostkowski added.

Not even the kicker. In Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants, the Patriots had just scored on a Laurence Maroney 1-yard run when Gostkowski kicked off -- and the ball sailed out of bounds.

That critical error gave the Giants optimal field position at their own 40-yard line. Gostkowski had to sit through weeks and weeks of replays of his stray kick, as well as Eli Manning's ensuing 38-yard pass to Amani Toomer that placed the Giants inside New England's 20-yard line. New York did not score on that drive because Ellis Hobbs picked off a Manning pass, but footage of that play is never shown. The Belistrator always ends the clip with the Giants seemingly ready to cash in on Gostkowski's miscue.

For a split second, Gostkowski actually thought he might escape the humiliating film sessions, since his mistake occurred during the season finale.

Ah, no.

"Bill teed it up the first week the following season," Gostkowski said. "He reminded me of that kick almost every day. He has a way of putting pressure on you so you accept any challenge he puts out there.

"He never forgets anything. He still brings up plays from when he was a coach with the Giants and the Browns. Those meetings are like an NFL history lesson."

Oct. 7, 2001

In the waning seconds of the first half, the Miami Dolphins were in the red zone, threatening to score. The job of the Patriots' defense on third down was clear: prevent the touchdown, force the field goal.

"The tight end [Jed Weaver] split out wide," Bruschi said. "I wasn't even sure if he was supposed to be my man, but I jumped out to cover him.

"It was red zone situational football. With 20 seconds left, all I had to do is keep him out of the end zone. Conceptually, you want to stay off that player. For some reason, I played him tight at the line of scrimmage."

The ball was snapped. Weaver juked past Bruschi, then burned him for a 14-yard touchdown thrown by Jay Fiedler seven seconds before halftime. The Patriots went on to lose 30-10.

"I knew I was going to hear about it," Bruschi said, "but Bill was still showing that play five years later. By then it was no longer, 'Look at what Bruschi did.' It was, 'Here's an example of bad situational football.' By 2007 I was saying to him, 'Hey Bill, do you think we can find another example?"'

Bruschi admitted the repeated humiliation was, at times, infuriating.

"But I've got to tell you, it works," he said. "I made a mistake, and it was pointed out so many times I never made it again. It's like what Bill Parcells always used to say: 'Don't be that guy who ruins a season.'"

Point taken

After Patriots rookies are handed their playbooks, if they are fortunate, a veteran will pull them aside and prep them for the devastating beatdown that each of them invariably will experience.

Most learn to take it; some never can. Those players do not last in the Patriots' organization.

"The idea is to take it personally," Bruschi said. "Bill wants you to do that. You get angry, and you get embarrassed. But then you get to the point where you want to fix it, and fix it badly."

A number of former Patriots pointed to Adalius Thomas as one who struggled with those film sessions. In 2007, Thomas designed T-shirts and passed them out in the locker room. On the front, the shirt read "Eat it," and on the back it said "Humble pie." At the time, Thomas good-naturedly explained he was accenting the need to be able to react positively to criticism.

"But I think that stuff got to him," Vrabel said.

Two years later, Thomas was a healthy scratch for a game against the Tennessee Titans. When asked if he would use his inactive status as motivation, Thomas replied, "I don't need something like this to fire me up. This isn't kindergarten. I don't play those games."

The following April, Thomas was released.

Deion Branch said if you are looking for positive feedback to soothe your ego, New England is the wrong place to play. The idea, he said, is to push you to the brink, then reel you back in so "you can prove Bill wrong."

"He never compliments you," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "He'll throw you a little something once in a while, but it's never, 'Good job.' It's more like, 'Well, you did a little better with this.'"

Ninkovich experienced his own demeaning Belistrator moment following a Nov. 7, 2010, loss in Cleveland. Josh Cribbs lined up in the Wildcat formation, but instead of running it himself, he handed off to Chansi Stuckey on a "fumblerooski" play. Stuckey scampered past Ninkovich for an 11-yard touchdown.

"[Stuckey] was hiding behind the guard," Ninkovich said. "I saw everything. I knew exactly what they were going to do. But sometimes things are going so fast that you don't react the way you want.

"Instead of running behind the line of scrimmage and running across the ball and tackling the guy for a loss, I ran underneath. Cribbs was running the opposite way, and I was running the wrong way.

"When I watched it afterward -- about 100 times -- I said to myself, 'What the hell was I doing?'

"I can promise you this -- it won't ever happen again."

Oct. 10, 2007

The Patriots were ahead 3-0 against the Cincinnati Bengals and had advanced the ball to the Bengals' 1-yard line. They were trying to pound it in for the score, so Vrabel checked in as an eligible receiver, then turned and hauled in the touchdown pass from Brady.

Upon further review, the coach was peeved by the result. Belichick pieced together a montage of Vrabel's offensive forays, then highlighted the lowlights of his attempts to block in his role as a tight end.

"No wonder we throw to you," the Belistrator cackled when the lights came up. "Nobody in their right mind would run behind a block like that."

Even a successful touchdown is not immune from criticism.

There were days, both former and current players confess, when the humiliation was disheartening, even overwhelming. Often, players left the complex feeling angry and unappreciated.

That, said Vrabel, is part of the mental challenge.

"I think if football is really important to you and you are mentally and physically tough, then it's not that hard," Vrabel said. "If you like putting yourself before the team, then it might be difficult. If you have a different agenda, it's going to be brutal.

"I liked knowing where I stood. I like that there wasn't a whole lot of gray area."

He critiques because he cares

New England's current two-way contributor, Julian Edelman, said he can't narrow his humiliations down to one specific film moment.

"There are so many of them," he said. "Mostly when I fumble the ball."

Edelman said he has learned to appreciate Belichick's film assaults, even if they are directed at him. He likes the idea of accountability and the reinforcement of fundamentals.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
David Butler II/US PresswireSome players learn to deal with and thrive under Bill Belichick's sharp criticism; others not so much.

"It's kind of like Bill's signature thing," he said. "And besides, sometimes it's pretty funny. He has a good sense of humor."

The Belistrator loves to run a particular play when center Dan Koppen is supposed to be cleaning up the pocket, but is unable to make contact.

"We're waiting, Dan," Belichick delights in saying as the film runs. "Still waiting … still waiting …"

"Coach," Koppen finally responded after two years of seeing the clip, "no matter how many times you show this, I'm still not going to get there."

"Anybody, Dan? Anybody? Can you just hit somebody?" chortled Vrabel, in his best Belistrator voice. "That's one of my favorites.

"And don't forget the time he went to Willie McGinest and said, 'Hey Willie, if you were on the offensive line and I yelled, 'Screen left!' which way would you block?' Willie said, 'I'd go left.'

"Bill said, 'Well damn, that's right. See, Light [addressing tackle Matt Light]? Even a defensive guy knows which way to block.'"

Bruschi surmises the 2011 Patriots have been through hell as they approach their Super Bowl matchup with the Giants. The stronger the team, he said, the more intensely Belichick drives you.

"I look back on that '07 season, and that was the hardest he ever coached us," Bruschi said. "We were undefeated and he treated us like we hadn't won a game.

"I'm sure he was the same with this team after they beat Denver in their first playoff game. They killed the Broncos, but I guarantee you the entire meeting was about all the things they did wrong.

"In that way, Bill hasn't changed at all. He wants you on edge. He wants you uncomfortable.

"If I thought for a minute he had softened, I'd call him up and say, 'What's wrong, Coach?"'

Vrabel had one year left on his contract when he went to Belichick in 2009 and told him he'd like to redo his deal. Within weeks, he was dealt to Kansas City.

It was a shocking and hurtful development for the proud linebacker, who had enjoyed a tremendous relationship with Belichick. Vrabel didn't speak to his former coach for almost two years after the trade.

Time has softened Vrabel's stance. He's retired now and working as a defensive line coach at Ohio State, and hopes to pop in on a Patriots practice in Indianapolis.

"Bill and I are more than fine now," Vrabel said. "To be honest, I had this revelation. Let's say, for example, I stayed in New England and got old, and it got messy. Maybe I got cut. If that happened, we probably wouldn't have a relationship.

"Looking back, what Bill did made sense. I went to K.C., met a ton of people. Now Bill and I talk all the time. I get advice on my players. I check on his daughter, who is at Ohio State.

"We never talked about the trade. We probably never will. But I know this: Bill cares. He doesn't show it, but if you bust your ass for him, he's got your back.

"Now, that may not come across in August in training camp. But one day, these guys will be 36 years old and they'll understand what he was all about."

In the meantime, the Belistrator terrorizes them with their human foibles, cutting a franchise quarterback down to a high school wannabe, making his linebacker and his safety feel as though they still haven't made a single significant play in their Patriots careers.

Their coach wants perfection. He knows he'll never get it, because the film preserves each and every mistake. So he'll lower the lights, run the film and grimace through another flawed Sunday.

Even when it's Super Bowl XLVI.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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