FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Super Bowl MVPs were leaving the team cafeteria when Bill Belichick stopped them for an impromptu coaching moment that neither could have anticipated. This was during training camp in August 2005, six months after New England had won its third championship in four years.
Deion Branch, the MVP in Super Bowl 39, and Tom Brady, twice a Super Bowl MVP before him, had been connecting like never before. “For three days of practice, I think we got up to like 50-some completions,” Branch recalls.
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Belichick took notice … and he didn’t like it.
The coaching staff had been counting Brady’s pass distribution, and the numbers were skewed toward Branch while Troy Brown, David Givens, and the others were seeing the ball less and less.
“A couple hours before we had our afternoon practice, coach came up to Tom and me,” Branch recalls. “He said, ‘Look here, you two motherf——- will not get another completion. Throw the ball to somebody else. Do not throw the ball to Deion anymore the next two practices.’ ”
Brady tried explaining that they were simply running their plays and trying to make their rapport even better. He’d hit Branch on the same route four or five times in one session, wanting it to be perfect.
“Bill didn’t want to hear that,” Branch says. “He was like, ‘Nah. Find somebody else to throw the ball to.’ ”
Brady was taken aback at first, but he let the lesson sink in. “Tom didn’t throw the ball to me the next two days,” Branch says. “He understood what coach was trying to do.” That season, Branch remained Brady’s favorite target. But while he caught 78 of Brady’s 530 passes, Givens also caught 59, Brown caught 37, and 13 others had at least one catch from him.
On Sunday, Brady and Belichick will play in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game, an NFL record. “Those two guys together,” former Patriots receiver Donte Stallworth says, “it’s like they found the potion for everlasting life.” If not that, they have at least found the most important ingredient for long-term success in the NFL: The Patriots’ best player likes to be coached the hardest.
And he is.
“He has the composition to take it,” says Charlie Weis, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator for Brady’s first five seasons in the NFL. “From the beginning, Brady was one of those rare quarterbacks where you could jump on him like everyone else, and you know what that does? It really helps with the camaraderie of the team.”
Imagine being a new player in the Patriots’ organization and going to your first meeting. Much to your surprise, the head coach has scoured the film and found the worst pass that his four-time Super Bowl champion threw last season—and he’s showing it to the team, letting it be known to all that he needs better play from the quarterback position. The coach suggests he could find a replacement down the road at Foxborough High, but Brady doesn’t blink.
If you think that’s the norm in the NFL, it’s not, except for within the walls of Gillette Stadium. Tight end Martellus Bennett, a veteran of three other NFL clubs, chuckles and shakes his head side to side when asked if he’s ever seen a dynamic like this one.
“Nooo,” adds former Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, who has coached in five NFL organizations, including two as the head coach. “There is almost this stigma to being coached.” The head coach of another AFC club tried a similar tactic with his team this season, showing the entire team clips of mistakes by a handful of his best players. One recently paid veteran responded by standing up in front of the room and screaming at the coach.
In Foxborough, the measure of a great quarterback is not Brady’s 12 Pro Bowls, four Super Bowl rings, two league MVP awards or owning, at age 39 this season, the best TD: INT ratio in NFL history (28:2). Rather, it is a catalog of moments when the best player on his team—perhaps the best player ever at his position—approaches his job as if he’s the worst.
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A Friday practice
CHARLIE WEIS, Patriots offensive coordinator, 2000-04: “This was his first year as a starter. We are practicing on a Friday afternoon, throwing passes down at about the 30-yard line. We had a pass from empty that he threw for a completion, but based off the coverage, he threw it the wrong way. So I said to him, ‘Why did you throw it there?’ Tom is really good at having a reason for why he goes to a certain spot, but in that case, his answer was, ‘Because he was open.’ Trying to be a little bit of a smart guy. I go, ‘Oh, so now you are doing your own thing? You are deciding who to throw it to based off what your parameters are, rather than our parameters?’ He started getting a little argumentative, so I took my whistle off, I took my call sheet, and I threw my whistle and call sheet at him and said, ‘Go ahead, you call the plays. You’ve got all the answers.’ He picked it up and handed it to me and says, ‘No, no, you call the plays. You’re right. I should have thrown it over there.’ Even though he had a completion on the play. The players all love when the quarterback is yelled at. The offensive players love that. The defensive players love that. It’s like the favorite thing for everybody.”
“I remember thinking to myself, I am never going to make the team. If this is the way he’s talking to Tom Brady, I don’t stand a chance.” —Brian Hoyer
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Sept. 29, 2002
Week 4: San Diego 21, New England 14
DEION BRANCH, Patriots receiver, 2002-05 and 2010-12: “It was my rookie season. We were playing San Diego, and it was a decent game. We lost, but the problem is we threw the ball so much, and it was outside of what we set out to do. That following week, coach Belichick set the tone by looking us directly in the face and saying, ‘We are not throwing the f——- football 50 times a game. That’s not going to happen. That’s not our pedigree.’ And he was mainly looking at Tom. Tom wanted to throw the ball; he wanted to put up points. We all do. But we got outside of our norm. We want to average about 30 passes, and the rest of them runs, and play good defense. Coach came back that following week, saying, ‘We are going to run the f——- football.’ Well, you could see my guy Tom was a little pissed. He was young. He had that look on his face like, This is crazy. But you know what? That next week Tom threw about 30 passes [he was 17-of-31 for 240 yards]. We got back to our pedigree. And that’s what took us back. Even though we didn’t make the Super Bowl that year, our following two years we did.”
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JIM MILLER, Brady’s backup quarterback, 2004: “It had to be later in the year, Week 14 or whatever, he felt his footwork was getting sloppy. He said, ‘Jim, get on me all week about my footwork. Watch my feet today, Jim. Let’s really work on our footwork today, Jim, and get it right, because it’s gotta be perfect.’ And I did. I kept on him every day in practice, and even when we did the individual drills, we really dedicated a little bit more effort and a little bit more concentration and a little bit more care into correcting anything we wanted to correct. He’s extremely demanding and hard on himself to begin with, so all the hard coaching doesn’t bother Tom. It’s all for the good, the way he looks at it. It makes him better.”
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Dec. 20, 2004
Week 15: Miami 29, New England 28
JE’ROD CHERRY, Patriots safety, 2001-04: “We had a Monday Night Football game against the Dolphins at the end of the year. We lost, and we hadn’t solidified home-field advantage for the playoffs, and then we played the Jets, another division opponent, on a short week. I got hurt, so I had to stick around for treatment, and we get in probably about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. Everybody is leaving the building other than the guys that are hurt, and I see Tom with this gigantic stack of film. That was before they had it on iPads. It was supposed to be his day off, and he’s going in there to study film at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
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ROSS TUCKER, Patriots offensive lineman, 2005-06: “We are having a lot of issues with the snaps from center. Guys are dropping snaps. The quarterback-center exchange is not going well. Belichick comes up to all of us, Brady included, before a practice and says, ‘Hey guys, I played center, and I sucked. But I could at least snap the ball to the quarterback, and we could at least have a smooth exchange. So from now on, every time the exchange is bad, we are running.’ Bill Belichick doesn’t yell at you. He just says it like a jerk. There’s no other way to describe it.
“Brady took it, I felt like, as if Belichick was just talking to him. At the time, there were four centers. Dan Koppen was hurt, so it was Russ Hochstein, Gene Mruczkiwski, myself and Dan Stevenson. I will never forget: every time I was at center, Brady would look at me in the huddle and he’d say, ‘All right, Ross. You and me first. It starts with a great snap.’ Even though they asked Brady to do literally everything in an offense, in terms of re-declaring protections, re-declaring the Mike [linebacker], all that stuff. This was before he would call the play. I would look at him, and I didn’t say this, but in my head, I was like, ‘OK Tom! This is going to be a great snap!’ Like a little boy. At this point, I am 26 years old; this was my sixth year in the NFL; I had started 24 games, all that stuff.
“Everywhere else I had been, the snap is sort of like the most mundane thing you do. We’ve been doing this since we were 8; no big deal. But I guess it was the way he looked at me. Brady did not want a good snap. He did not want a great snap. He wanted a perfect snap. There’s a sound it makes when you have a perfect snap. It’s like a perfect clap. You know if you sit there and you clap a couple times? All right that’s an OK clap; that’s a really good clap; and then there is bam, a perfect clap. Brady wanted that sound.”
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DAN KOPPEN, Patriots center, 2003-11: “If you had a bad snap in practice, then you were running after practice. Unfortunately, me and (Brady) on a number of occasions had to run extra by ourselves after practice for a fumbled snap. It initially started with just the quarterback and the center that had the bad snap. Bill would walk alongside us and just tell us to keep going. Even if you did conditioning after practice, it was much, much worse than that. Sprints or up-downs, the length of the field or across the field. It was 15, 20 minutes, maybe a half-hour. Bill wasn’t out there yelling at us, but it’s more like a punishment that he probably enjoyed giving out. It lasted as long as he felt that you may have learned your lesson.”
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First team meeting of the season
DONTE STALLWORTH, Patriots receiver 2007 and 2012: “I was sitting next to Randy Moss. Bill talked about the prior AFC Championship Game, where they had a 21-6 lead at halftime, and how they blew it. Then, he started to go by players and position groups. The first person he had up was Brady. He didn’t introduce what he was doing. He just started showing plays [from the previous season]. He showed this pass that was probably the worst pass I’ve ever seen Brady throw. It was one of those passes where the quarterback takes a step back, and it’s usually a run play, but you’ll throw it out to the receiver real quick while he’s standing on the line of scrimmage. The ball just completely missed the wide receiver and ended up skipping to the ground and falling out of bounds. Bill was saying, ‘What kind of throw is this? I can get Johnny Foxborough from down the street to make a better throw than this.’ He had some expletives in there. Randy and I looked at each other and sat up in our seats. There was nothing said between us, but it was understood: If Brady is getting it, no one is safe. There were a lot of new guys, big-time free agents brought in that year also. Bill is this way anyway, but he was definitely trying to set the tone. I just immediately fell in line. That was all it took. But Brady loves to be challenged. I don’t think that bothers him. I think he enjoys that, actually, knowing him.”
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RANDY MOSS, Patriots receiver, 2007-10: “We were doing two-minute and I was the single receiver. Tom Brady gave me the signal to run a 5-yard quick out. Make a long story short, me and Tom didn’t connect. For whatever reason, the ball was not caught. The ball was thrown, but it was not caught. Was it his fault or my fault? I don’t care; the ball was not completed. So we come in the next day, Bill Belichick puts up the film and basically says, ‘Are you kidding me? I have my such and such All-Pro wide receiver, and I have my All-Pro quarterback, and y’all cannot complete a 5-yard out?’ He said, ‘Tom, I can go down here and get the local high school quarterback to come and complete me a 5-yard out.’ And everybody was like, Oooh. So basically, when he humiliated Tom, in front of the boys, man, we went out there and put everybody up. I don’t care who it was; whoever was on that defense that day, they got it. And that was practice.
“I had never seen that, but I had heard that, and that’s what I was actually looking for in a head coach. When I went to the New England Patriots, all I wanted to do was get around a team that wanted to get out there and win. I didn’t want to get a team that wanted to win in the streets, win at the clubs, win in the bars, because I had been on teams like that. There were a lot of things I was lacking toward the end of my career that I always wanted to feel, and with my short time in New England, I had a chance to feel that.”
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Nov. 18, 2007
Week 11: New England 56, Buffalo 10
Brady’s passer rating: 146.1
Patriots’ record: 10-0
KOPPEN: “We scored more than 50 points against Buffalo, and you come into Monday thinking you are going to have a pretty good day. But [Belichick] is going to go over and scrutinize and pull up every mistake. However long it took. Whether you are Tom Brady or the 53rd man on the roster, you leave that team meeting feeling like you lost the game. That was a hard season to play on that team, because I think Bill felt he had a group where he could coach guys hard, and we weren’t going to take it personally. We used to call it getting a slice of humble pie. That was one of the themes that year.”
“Randy and I looked at each other and sat up in our seats. There was nothing said between us, but it was understood: If Brady is getting it, no one is safe … I just immediately fell in line.” —Donte Stallworth
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First team meeting of the season
MATTHEW SLATER, Patriots special teams ace, 2008-present: “First squad meeting with the full team. Coach is showing a clip, and he’s coaching Tom up, telling him, ‘We’ve gotta get better play from the quarterback on this.’ And I’m like, Wow, if Coach Belichick is coaching a Hall of Fame player this hard, then we are all going to be held accountable and held to a certain standard. It was eye-opening for me being my first meeting in the NFL. I kind of relate it to Gregg Popovich and how he coached Tim Duncan. These guys, they don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. They want things done a certain way and that sets the tone for the rest of the team. You understand, if he holds the biggest star, the most successful player on the team, to a certain standard then you know, well, I certainly better be on my job. That’s been consistent throughout my nine years here.”
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Second team meeting
BRIAN HOYER, Brady’s back-up quarterback, 2009-11: “It was my second day there. The first team meeting after the first practice I was at. Bill is known for showing what we call the ‘lowlights’ of practice from the day before. I am not even sure what is going on. I come sit in the team meeting room and the lights go off and the film goes on. The first play is from the previous day’s practice, and it is Tom, and I remember this clear as day. He’s trying to throw a seam to [Wes] Welker 20 to 30 yards down the field. And the hitch route was open at five yards. Belichick was like, ‘Brady, how long have you been playing? And you’re trying to force the ball to this midget down the field, and the running back is wide open on a 5-yard hitch? It’s first down. Take the gain and move on.’ I remember thinking to myself, I am never going to make the team. If this is the way he’s talking to Tom Brady, I don’t stand a chance.”
Tom Brady is intercepted in the end zone in the fourth quarter. On the sideline, he tells intended receiver Tiquan Underwood he should have made a better effort to catch the ball. A shouting match then explodes between Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
HOYER: “I had to break it up. I had one of those big coats on, and I held my arms out of the cape and made like a barrier. They disagreed on what had happened. Two guys who were really passionate about what we were doing, and it got intense. And I’ll never forget, two minutes later they are sitting there going over the four-minute offense like nothing had happened. Things get caught on camera and the outside world doesn’t totally understand, but you see the intensity come out and really, you appreciate it. They were never afraid to coach him up, and that’s part of what makes him such a great player. I don’t think people are afraid to get in there and tell him, ‘Hey…’ Obviously that was an intense moment, but he’s always very receptive to that.”
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MATT LIGHT, Patriots left tackle, 2001-11: “Bill Belichick had Jimmy Johnson come in and talk to our team one time. He was talking about how you’ve gotta make sure you are doing everything right, but he made a point to say, ‘I coached a lot of characters, but I tell you what, they could get away with a lot as long as they came in there on Sundays and they went out and they performed…’ I remember thinking to myself, Well, no, you actually can’t do that. Afterward I was talking to some guys, mainly offensive linemen, and we joked about showing up late next week to every meeting and see how that goes. I think there’s a certain running back in recent memory that figured out what happens in New England when you don’t show up, no matter how good you are, Mr. [Jonas] Gray. That was a very interesting story to be told to a Belichick-coached team, because we are kind of the opposite of that. I promise you, a Michael Irvin wouldn’t have lasted long on a Belichick-coached team.”
* * *
Patriots’ bye week
Scot Loeffler has known Brady for two decades, ever since Brady was a lightly regarded freshman quarterback at Michigan who was willing to be used as a something of a tackling dummy for spring practice—because he would do anything for live reps.
Loeffler now coaches not far from where Brady plays, as the offensive coordinator at Boston College. Before hitting the recruiting trail after the Eagles’ December bowl game, he sat down to immerse himself in film of Brady’s 12 starts this season. At age 39, he seemed as mobile in the pocket as Loeffler could ever remember.
Listen, this is the best I’ve ever seen you play, Loeffler wrote in a text message to Brady.
LOEFFLER: “His response was, ‘I can play MUCH BETTER.’ He’s a nut, you know? He’s a perfectionist. The quarterback position is impossible to be perfect, but he’s chasing after this goal. He is the most relentless person I’ve ever been around, and that stems back to his days at Michigan. Nothing was ever given to him there. He earned everything. The pressure coach [Lloyd] Carr and everybody put on him during practice was relentless. He got his ass ripped quite a bit. He was able to become mentally tough. Knowing him the way I do, I think he thrives off that and wouldn’t want it any other way.”
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Jan. 14, 2017
Divisional round: New England 34, Houston 16
For the better part of the 1980s, Belichick was an assistant on the Giants coaching staff and saw Bill Parcells legendarily challenge Phil Simms on a daily basis. Walking out of the CBS broadcast booth at Gillette Stadium last Sunday, Simms grinned when asked if his relationship with Parcells was like the one Belichick now has with Brady.
“The similarities,” he says knowingly, “are definitely there.”
Parcells and Simms won a Super Bowl together at the end of the 1986 season, and the Giants won again at the end of the 1990 season, a month after Simms suffered a season-ending broken foot. Despite their shared success, Parcells never backed off. Teammate Phil McConkey recalls sitting in the film room with Simms after a big win when Parcells walked past. “Hey, we had a pretty good one yesterday,” Simms told his coach. Parcells’ shoulders slumped. “Son,” he said, “when my expectations of you are much greater than your own, we’re in trouble.”
As Simms made his way out of the stadium, Brady was downstairs in the Patriots’ locker room, which lacked the typical exuberance showed by a team that had just advanced to the conference championship. It was a flawed win, and the players knew it. They were already preparing for a long week ahead—and the long reel of lowlights to come. Brady threw as many interceptions in this game as he had all season, and he told reporters in his postgame press conference, “We’re never going to turn the ball over as many times as we did and think that we had a good game.”
Ever the perfectionist, ever the coachable star, Brady was later asked about his relationship with Belichick as he sat in front of his locker.
“He has high expectations for us, and if we are not meeting those expectations, then he is going to let you know,” Brady says. “He doesn’t let things slide by because you have been here for 10 years, or because you have been to two Pro Bowls. He doesn’t care about that … that will never change with him.”
Nor will Brady, who is always competing for his job with Johnny Foxborough.