FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If visual confirmation was needed that Bill Belichick still gets a rise out of what he does in his 44th NFL season, it came at 9:36 a.m. ET on the first Sunday of training camp.
Early in the New England Patriots’ fourth practice, Belichick had been watching his defensive ends and outside linebackers in a run-defense drill. Under the shadow of the goal posts, he let his position coaches lead the way as he kept his distance.
Then, as Deatrich Wise and Eric Lee teamed up in an attempt to ensure a running play didn’t get to the outside — which is referred to as “setting the edge,” in Patriot-speak — he saw something that caught his eye and jumped into the drill with urgency.
Soon enough, Belichick’s right hand was pressing into Lee’s shoulder, and he was fully extending his arm into him.
“He’s very hands-on with his players, as far as expectations. For him to step in is expected, and for me to correct it and improve and show that I’m taking the coaching is critical,” Lee explained afterward.
For those who have followed Belichick’s program closely, they might recognize the drill as the same one they watched back in 2000, or any year thereafter. It might have even happened on the same day and the same time, as it’s part of the standard progression of players acclimating to contact in full pads.
That is a big part of the start of training camp; it’s all about fundamentals, building a base, bland Football 101-type stuff.
Clearly, Belichick loves embracing that process. Still.
In this case, his one-on-one coaching came with a player who is on the roster bubble.
“Gaining leverage, fighting pressure, having the right stance — hips, hands, feet — that’s what we preach. Those elements are the progression of a run fit for me,” Lee explained. “I have to improve that and make sure it’s part of my toolbox, to make sure I default on those leverage reactions, those pressure keys, visual keys, understanding where I need to adjust my hand placement if I need to re-engage. All those things are very fundamental pieces.”
To Belichick, what he was explaining to Lee as he jammed his hand into his shoulder is part of his own fundamental pieces as it relates to refining his skills “to get them to the level that they need to be at for the football season.”
That was how the 66-year-old Belichick explained his own standing the day before training camp.
“I haven’t coached a game since six, seven months ago. I’m a long way off from doing the things that I need to do,” he said. “Every year is a new year, and you have to start all over again; you have to rebuild that. You can’t pick up where you left off. It’s been too much time since the last time, and it’s different.”
With a pencil behind his ear, a white visor resting on his head and a whistle in hand that he whips around regularly, Belichick shows a high level of engagement. He spends time with players on all levels of the roster, devoting more time to defensive drills.
Here is a timeline-based feel for it:
9:15 a.m. — The horn sounds to signal the official start of practice, which begins as special-teams coach Joe Judge leads a kickoff coverage walkthrough. Belichick spends that time in the distance speaking with strength coaches Moses Cabrera and Deron Mayo.
9:25 a.m. — Full-team stretching begins, and Belichick is now speaking with a staff member who specializes in the area of sports medicine and performance. After about five minutes, he walks through the field where players are stretching.
9:33 a.m. — Players break and go to individual stations (10 of them) for fundamentals/technique work. Belichick stays with the drill run by cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, who is working with players on the proper technique to bat down a pass with an outstretched hand. Belichick jumps into the drill at one point to demonstrate the way it should be done.
9:36 a.m. — The horn sounds to signal a rotation, and Belichick now roams between a running back blocking drill and an offensive lineman blocking drill before settling in with Lee and the linebackers on the run-defense work. Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema leads the drill, and as Belichick sees something he wants to address, he engages Lee and shows him a technique on how to disengage his hands from a blocker.
9:42 a.m. — Another horn and Belichick steps back to take a wider view of defensive line coach Brendan Daly’s station. It’s a big run-defense day, so Belichick is locked on technique of how his linemen control gaps.
9:47 a.m. — Belichick is back to the edge-setting drill. He speaks with offensive tackle Marcus Cannon multiple times, as this work is designed to see if the running back can get to the edge. At one point, he likes what he sees from fourth-year defensive end Geneo Grissom, giving him a high-five.
9:52 a.m. — As the horn sounds, Belichick moves to the middle of the two practice fields for a word with Ernie Adams, his trusted adviser whose official title is football research director. After a brief chat, Belichick makes his way to the other field, where quarterbacks and tight ends are working together. First watching from a distance, he engages with tight ends coach Nick Caley briefly.
9:57 a.m. — It’s time for a half-line running drill — two stations side by side — and Belichick can see both of them from behind the line of scrimmage. He salutes linebacker Nicholas Grigsby, a player known more for his special-teams contributions — for a job well done at one point. The drill begins and ends on his whistle.
10:02 a.m. — The scout team is now getting in some 7-on-7 work, and Belichick takes a defensive focus, watching from behind the safeties. He inserts himself at various points, first talking with rookie cornerback Duke Dawson (a second-round pick) as he emphatically instructs him on his technique. Then it’s undrafted cornerback JC Jackson, who appeared to vacate his responsibility on a Danny Etling-to-Devin Lucien pass. Then Dawson again. “It’s the little things, the smallest things he shows me to work on, and it shows on the field. I feel like I’m progressing,” Dawson said.
10:06 a.m. — A full-team running drill brings everyone together and Belichick runs it.
10:11 a.m. — Belichick blows his whistle three times and he leads a form-tackling drill in which the ball-carrier picks up the football and the defender has to square him up. Using his whistle, he keeps the pace of the drill fast.
10:14 a.m. — As special-teams work is taking place, and a small group of offensive skill-position players are on the other field, Belichick spends a few minutes chatting with his sons Steven and Brian, both of whom are assistants on staff. Then he engages with linebackers coach Brian Flores and Boyer, the cornerbacks coach, on the sideline for several minutes.
10:20 a.m. — Belichick calls for a one-minute water break and is brought a green Gatorade bottle. During the break, undrafted defensive tackle John Atkins of Georgia speaks with him, and Belichick’s use of his hands indicates it is about something with technique.
10:21 a.m. — It’s 11-on-11 work — first offense against scout-team defense, followed by the first defense against the scout-team offense. For the first-unit offense, Belichick watches from behind the quarterbacks. For the first-unit defense, he watches from behind the safeties.
10:30 a.m. — The horn sounds and the offensive and defensive linemen go to one-on-one work. Meanwhile, the quarterbacks, pass-catchers and defensive backs work a 3-on-3 drill, and Belichick stays with them. Later, Belichick visited the one-on-ones.
From there, about the final hour of practice was devoted to a mix of special teams and 11-on-11 work, culminating in four spirited goal-line snaps, and the defense won them all.
Whenever it is 11-on-11, Belichick’s authoritative presence is on full display. He often calls out situations and players react accordingly. He’s in complete command.
On this day, at 11:06, he gathered the team and they headed toward the conditioning hill. As Belichick has said in the past, the conditioning is something to “put in the bank” because the team might need it down the road, such as in a Super Bowl when they fall behind 28-3 in the second half.
As Belichick oversees the running, one thing is ever so clear: He is in his element.
“Sometimes it feels like he’s a machine,” said team captain Matthew Slater, now in his 11th season with the team. “The motivation hasn’t changed since I’ve gotten here, the hunger. The bar has been set high long ago and continues to remain high and I think that’s a testament to who he is, how he’s wired, his love for the game of football, the passion that he has for it.”