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Friday, January 11, 2013
Belichick's fire still burns bright

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- No reminder was truly needed because when you coach 38 consecutive years in the National Football League, that pretty much says it all. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has great passion for his work and how it challenges him. We knew that already.

But for those wondering how much that fire still burns in the 60-year-old Belichick, the past few days provided a decisive answer.

On Wednesday, Belichick was asked about balancing aggressiveness and a conservative approach in the thin-margin-for-error playoffs and said, "You don't win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it. You've got to go out there and attack."

Patriots
One of Bill Belichick's best moves this season was picking up Aqib Talib from Tampa to shore up the Pats' secondary.

Then on Friday, Belichick referenced the Navy SEALs, making the connection to how they often adjust when they go on a mission because what they prepared for was different from the reality.

"That's the way it is in the NFL," said Belichick, who grew up around the Naval Academy, where his late father, Steve, was a longtime football coach. "You get in an NFL game and think you're going to get this and then you get that. Or you think they're going to play this guy and they play some other guy. You face new challenges.

"That's part of the gamesmanship and part of the competition. You figure out which team can do it better than the other one. There's always that unknown in the game. Everybody has to figure it out and make the best of it.

"That's what makes this a great game."

Different things make different people tick, and football -- its strategic elements, the preparation that comes with it -- is what does it for Belichick. Still does, after all these years, especially at this time of year when the competition level rises along with the championship stakes.

In his first season in the NFL, as a coaching assistant with the Baltimore Colts in 1975, Belichick experienced his first-ever playoff game. On Sunday against the Houston Texans, he will coach in his 45th. He has a 29-15 career record as an assistant and head coach.

No, this never gets old for him.

"I enjoy all of it," Belichick said. "This is what we work all year for. We worked all year since the end of last season to get back to this point -- all the team planning, the [organized team activities], the minicamps, the meetings, the walk-throughs, the preseason games, the practices, the regular season. It's all for this," he said.

"[We'll] put everything we have into this game and try to have the result that we want. I think that's where our team is. That's where I am personally. That's where we should be."

He was just getting started.

"This is our whole team coming together," Belichick continued. "I think our team has been through a lot this year, as every team has. The whole offseason program, the spring, bringing new people onto the team, thinning the roster at the 53-man cut-down, going through all the things you go through during the season -- guys coming on and off the roster, the ups and downs of your season, the big wins, the disappointing losses, all the things you deal with. It all comes down to this.

"We fought all those battles. We've gone down a long road and we're one of the final eight teams in the National Football League this year. For us to continue, we're going to have to play our best game. But that's what we've worked for, to be in this spot. We embrace it."

Belichick will seldom be confused with warm and fuzzy and he doesn't often open up in the public setting, but the past few days he provided a glimpse into why he's so fully invested and shows no signs of slowing down.

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He thrives on the high level of competition. He relishes the chance to lead and build a team. And there is not much else that challenges him mentally as much as all the moving parts in football, which comes back to preparation and having his players as ready as possible; hence the reference Friday to the Navy SEALs.

Safe to say he didn't agree with the Boston Globe column that declared Sunday's game was a "bye" week for his team because the Texans are overmatched. That disrespects the process.

"I think that's the way he looks at it -- it's strategic. I don't want to call it warfare, but it's a strategic game. Out of any sport, it's probably the most strategic you have to plan for a game because there are more players on the field at one time to deal with," veteran receiver Donte' Stallworth said.

"Just from the way he prepares, from the way he wants guys to focus on the task at hand -- I've had an opportunity to speak to a few Navy SEALs over the past five or six years, and the things they've relayed to me is exactly the way Bill guides himself and guides this team through a season. For them, it's the next mission. Attention to detail. It's pretty much the same exact way how Bill runs this organization here."

Stallworth said the other thing about Belichick from his experience playing for him (in 2007 and 2012) is that he's the same coach every day.

"No matter the game, preseason or Super Bowl -- and I've been in both with him -- his intensity, his preparation and his mindset is the same for all of that," he said. "That's just something that's in him. You can learn a lot from him."

As for what we learned about Belichick over the past few days, when he talked about foxholes and Navy SEALs, it's that the fire still burns and football challenges still captivate him.

That is especially the case at this time of year, when the quest for a Super Bowl championship intensifies.