Commentary

Bill Belichick, master team builder

Missing numbers on Patriots players' practice gear was no accident

Updated: June 15, 2012, 8:46 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Of the many things learned about Bill Belichick during his 13-year tenure as New England Patriots coach, at the top of the list is his strong belief in team-building.

A well-documented story from past years is when he'd have an offensive or defensive lineman attempt to catch a punt in training camp, and if the lineman was successful, the entire squad would earn a night off after a string of hard workdays. This brought together players from all ends of the roster, the smaller, quicker returners working with the big, burly behemoths on the line -- and everyone in between gathering around to provide support.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Jonathan Wiggs/Getty ImagesThere were no jersey numbers for Bill Belichick's players at minicamp, and communication has never been better.

It's one of the great challenges for an NFL coach, to get 53 to 90 players -- some at the end of their career, some at the beginning, many with little in common, some with large egos, others not so much -- all pulling in the same direction.

With the Patriots concluding a four-week stretch of organized team activities and mandatory minicamp Thursday, it's a good time to highlight the new page Belichick pulled out of his team-building playbook.

No jersey numbers.

Perhaps you noticed in some of the pictures snapped at Gillette Stadium in recent weeks, offensive players wore plain blue shirts with a Patriots logo in the middle, while defenders were in gray. The only numbers to be found were the small ones on the backs of helmets or possibly on a pair of shorts.

There was a humorous moment Wednesday when Belichick was asked why the players have been numberless, a questioner wondering whether perhaps it had something to do with Nike's new contract with the NFL and practice jerseys possibly not being ready.

"You'd have to talk to somebody in the marketing department about that," Belichick said. "That's not really my thing."

No, the coach who made the no-frills, cut-sleeve hoodie famous isn't into practice jerseys or how players look on the field. But anything to help build a more cohesive, unified team is right in his wheelhouse, and that's where the idea to go without numbers was hatched.

"They want us to learn each other's names and communicate better," one player said.

Added another player: "With 90 guys on the roster, that's a lot. The idea is to get away from saying, 'Hey, number 95' or 'number 99,' and call each person by their name."

Said another player: "Our goal the whole camp was to communicate, and just know who you're speaking to and what to say. We feel communication is a big thing in football, and that's what we're working on."

For most, the idea of practicing without numbers was something new to them. But when it comes to outside-the-box thinking and trying new things, this is just the latest in Belichick's bag of team-building and motivational tricks.

In 2010, Belichick had many of the pictures inside Gillette Stadium taken down. Yes, it was time for a fresh coat of paint on the walls, but removing hundreds of pictures from victories from the 2000-09 seasons -- and not putting them back up -- also sent a powerful message to players that it was time to write their own history and put their own photos on the walls.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
David Butler II/US PresswirePlayers buy in to Belichick's system, and the results, as Tom Brady can attest, speak for themselves.

Toward the end of last preseason, Belichick took players to the movies to see "The Fighter," which helped disrupt the monotony of the daily grind and provide a mental break of sorts. As an added twist, Belichick had "The Fighter" himself -- Micky Ward -- address the team.

Belichick has previously shown players old horse races with inspiring finishes and once took the team to an IMAX theater to watch a film about Ernest Shackleton's expedition. Just this week, on Thursday, Belichick surprised players by canceling the final practice of minicamp, which veteran receiver Deion Branch felt was Belichick's way of saying the players had put in good work over the entire offseason.

Much farther back in time, after his first season as coach (during which the Patriots went 5-11), Belichick had an anchor placed in the team's locker room. The anchor now resides in the Patriots Hall of Fame, and tour guides explain to visitors that Belichick placed it in the locker room to symbolize the dead weight players were carrying from the previous season.

That year, in 2001, the Patriots went on to post an unexpected run to the Super Bowl, where they shocked the St. Louis Rams. For that game, Belichick insisted to the NFL, against its desires, that his players would be introduced as a team instead of individually.

That, more than anything, was the shining moment of Belichick's team-building ways.

A numberless offseason doesn't compare. Not even close.

But it does serve as a reminder that Belichick's mind is always churning for new ideas to bring his players together.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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