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No head coach-quarterback pair has been more successful in NFL history than Bill Belichick and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. They have won four Super Bowls, six AFC championships, and thirteen division titles. And now Holley takes us inside their relationship, dissecting how these men and their team came to dominate football.
Belichick, a genius as a defensive coordinator, had been a five-year flop as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Upon his controversial arrival in Foxboro, though, he quickly began to remake the team at every level–scouts, coaches, and players. His bold, calculated approach had fans up in arms, sportswriters questioning his intelligence, and players wondering how long they would last on the team.
Meanwhile, buried down in the 2000 NFL draft, the 199th overall pick was a skinny kid from the University of Michigan named Tom Brady who many scouts thought would never succeed at a professional level. The lowest of the four quarterbacks on the team’s depth chart, he appeard to be just one of the guys. Like Belichick, though, he lived for football, and he knew the playbook as well as Drew Bledsoe, the franchise quarterback. And when Bledsoe was injured in 2001, Brady took the job and vowed to never give it back.
The handsome Brady became a star, wearing hand-tailored suits, appearing in movies and on magazine covers, and marrying a supermodel. Belichick, with his trademark cut-off hoodies, was the opposite of a fashion plate. Together, the odd couple somehow rose above controversies and tragedies. Draft picks were lost, suspensions given, lawsuits filed. As their legends have grown, so have their critics, with some of those critics operating from NFL headquarters. Despite that, with Belichick’s deft and brilliant strategy in the draft year in year out and Brady’s exacting decision-making on the field, the Patriots cultivated an atmosphere of success and won a stunning 75 percent of their games together. Respected and reviled, Belichick and Brady have set the bar high for excellence in a league designed for parity. They have rarely been understood. Until now. Based on dozens of interviews with former and current players, coaches, and executives, Belichick and Brady is an eye-opening look at the minds, motives, and wild ambitions of two men who have left an indelible mark on the game of football.
Table of Contents
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BEATING THE SYSTEM
The system is one of trapdoors and tricks, meticulously rigged at its core. The appeal for its thirty-two participants is that all of them have an equal chance of winning; the trick is that it is the same game for all of them until one of them actually wins. Then the system warps, resets, and becomes half mathematical formula and half social science. So the losers gain and the winner is squeezed and told to get lost. It is a system corporately sponsored by Give Someone Else a Chance. The worse you are, the easier the course. The better you are, the more mazes you have to master. It is intentional mediocrity: identify a shining star and then bring it back to the middle.
In a sense, the National Football League has a multi-billion-dollar system built on a participation trophy premise.
Each September, at the beginning of the sixteen-game NFL season, the previous year's champion feels the systematic drag. The reward for conquering the hill is to be stranded there. The first-place team is given the most difficult schedule in the league, assigned the college draft's worst slots (where, theoretically, the least-desired young players are), and forced to balance the most challenging budgets as a result of winning. The league is so awash in cash now, so Ivy League and MBA, so public-relations spin and appropriate business etiquette, that it can't plainly announce what it truly wants: No repeat winners. Please. Return to the end of the line.
There are success penalties at each step, some as obvious as daylight and some hiding in crevices. The league's computerized scheduling system doesn't like you when you win, but the league's human beings do. There is usually a lucrative landing spot for a good free agent player on a great team. His connection to greatness gives him a favorable profile in the market, and now he is too expensive for his old team to keep and too intriguing for someone else to pass up. The market is abuzz with conversations about winners, especially those who have escaped the system's engineering and discovered how to win consistently. There is always a knock at the door from an opponent, seeking permission to talk to, hire, and sometimes triple the annual salaries of top assistant coaches, administrators, and scouts. They want a piece of something, even if it's a piece of the vision, because the code-crackers don't come along very often, and they want to be sure they're not missing the next one.
This system was born twenty-two years ago. It's when the NFL introduced two things: true player free agency and team salary caps, which it never previously had. Since that moment, participants in the game have wrestled with the same questions:
How do you create separation from someone who, initially, was designed to be just like you? Same money. Same rules. Drawing from the same talent pool. How do you get away?
How do you become a standout in an atmosphere that gives no air to sustained excellence?
How do you outrun a twin?
The NFL's owners all take their portion, nearly 53 percent, from a stunning $13.3 billion revenue pool. Whether the owner is in New York City, Chicago, or Jacksonville, the national revenue portion is the same for all of them, $215 million apiece. That figure mostly comes from smart television deals and, based on America's passion for pro football, that number will be rising, sharply, each year. With a salary cap of $155 million per team, it is possible for every franchise to easily make payroll and the bulk of expenses before it sells a single game ticket, hot dog, parking space, or jersey in its gift shop.
To turn a profit in the NFL, all an owner needs to do is be still. The league is a jungle of muscle and money, where hundred-dollar bills descend from advertising trees and into choice accounts and funds. Just as the NFL began to relent to free agency and put on its cap, Robert Kraft, a lifelong Boston fan and businessman, bought the New England Patriots for $172 million. In 1994, it was a record amount paid for a football team; that record has been broken thirteen times since. Today, the Patriots are one of the richest sports franchises in the world, worth $3.2 billion. Going into his twenty-third season of ownership in 2016, Kraft has seen his team's value increase $144 million per year. The story is similar for all of Kraft's colleagues. There is no such thing as overpaying for a team. If you can't make a profit in this business, you can't make a profit anywhere.
Kraft was making money, but he wasn't happy in January 2000. He was fifty-eight years old then, older than the pro football team that he owned. He needed to figure out a way to rescue that team, which had begun an undeniable slide from very good in 1996, to good in 1997, to above average in 1998, to the muck of the middle in 1999.
Even if Kraft had been content with that production in early 2000, the people in his hometown would have rebelled against it. They had the same calloused sports outlook that he did. They were raised in a city that was long known for American history and had gained a reputation for sports heartbreak. They took the essence of the two, history and heartbreak, and made a necklace to be worn at all times, whether at the stadium, Symphony Hall, or the halls of Harvard. That was being a sports fan in Boston in a nutshell. They didn't follow the local teams as much as they possessed them. The teams and their moves and their histories were a part of life, part of their identity, and it could become personal very quickly if there was a sense that their team's owner or head coach or star player didn't feel the same way.
Kraft understood that it was time for one of those press conferences that New England sports fans had gotten too used to hearing and mocking over the years. How many hearts had been hardened by the Red Sox across the generations, with eighty-two years of teases and promises of a championship next year? The Bruins, in a twenty-eight-year Stanley Cup drought, always seemed to be a dollar short. The Celtics, eight years since Larry Bird retired and fourteen years since the last title, were earthbound, constantly looking up at a laundry line of Boston Garden stars and championship banners. And then there were the Patriots, who had never won anything and, for that reason and more, were in the worst shape of all.
They were millions of dollars over the projected salary cap. They finished last in their division, five games worse than the Indianapolis Colts and star quarterback Peyton Manning. They were awarded extra draft picks from the New York Jets, as compensation for former coach Bill Parcells going there, but even that felt like a wasted opportunity. They used the picks because they had them, but the selections were random and lacked vision. Most of the kids they drafted couldn't play, and a couple of young veterans that they liked, Tedy Bruschi, twenty-six, and Troy Brown, twenty-eight, were free agents. There wasn't a lot for a new head coach to look forward to.
Kraft would deal with that later. Three days into the twenty-first century, when the owner fired coach Pete Carroll, he gave a brief statement that looked and sounded like dozens of others delivered by some of his disillusioned colleagues.
"This is a business of accountability and two years ago we won the division," he said that day. "Last year we barely made the play-offs, and this year we were 8-8. We need a momentum change."
The change happened three weeks later when Kraft hired Bill Belichick, who had spent the previous four seasons as an assistant coach to Parcells. It was a momentum change for Belichick, too, who had worked for Parcells a total of twelve seasons. That was exactly half of his NFL existence. He had his own ideas and personality, but they were often muted by the policy and personality of Parcells. But Kraft's move, which required the Patriots to relinquish their first-round draft pick in 2000, wasn't just about momentum. It was the beginning of a partnership that forever changed the Patriots, New England, and all of football. It would lead to coverage, both fawning and withering, unlike anything in the history of professional sports. No, it wasn't a momentum change. It was a generational shift.
Four years before being hired by the Patriots, Bill Belichick was one of the undervalued gems on the shores of Lake Erie. The coach had been replaced by the Browns, on Valentine's Day no less, and even the breakup was a struggle. The worst season in Browns' history, a season that ended with no play-offs and a franchise move to Baltimore, concluded on Christmas Eve. Yet, for seven weeks, there was no announcement on the status of the head coach. When it was finally time for the Browns to speak, Belichick didn't appreciate the way they tried to do it. The coach and representatives of owner Art Modell spent hours arguing back and forth over the wording of the press release because, essentially, it seemed as if the organization wanted him to absorb the blame for everything. They still owed him $1.6 million, and they were going to get their money's worth. They timed his official firing with the formality of their address change, letting him share, one more time, the brunt of rage from their abandoned fan base.
It certainly wasn't his idea to relocate the team his own father had cheered for and admired. In 1991, when Belichick took the job, he approached it as if he would have it for a lifetime. He went heavy on infrastructure, light on cosmetics. He overhauled the scouting system, knowing that it would be years before there would be the perfect marriage of the older scouts accepting the new and the younger scouts understanding it. He was a football historian and he knew that the godfather of the Browns, Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown, had modernized the NFL with his teaching and classroom work. Belichick wanted to do the same thing. He emphasized note-taking and attention to detail for his players, sometimes to the point of micromanagement.
"As soon as I got there from Atlanta, I felt I had gone from kindergarten to graduate school in a day," recalls Louis Riddick, a former Browns safety. "Belichick and [assistant coach] Nick Saban were smart as shit. You never relaxed. Never. You'd get quizzes in the middle of team meetings. You had to take a written test every week. You were always on your toes."
Belichick was thirty-eight, the youngest coach in the league. His plan was to search for the brightest and hungriest football souls, many of them in their early twenties, and teach, train, and promote the hell out of them. He reasoned that they would weed themselves out by embracing his demanding tasks or backing down. At the menial level, the only motivator was football adoration because the money was better in several other places, including burger joints.
He loved students. Students of football, students of people, students of things. It often threw folks off. They couldn't read his expressions amid his silence, although all he was doing was listening and thinking about how something worked. Or how it could work better.
One thing the coach didn't do was dwell in the past. Even if the "past" was thirty-five minutes ago. Riddick was one of the defensive standouts in Belichick's lone play-off win with the Browns, a victory over the Patriots. The safety had an interception and several timely tackles. He was given a game ball. As he was walking out the door, all the head coach wanted to know was if he could do it again the next week. "He was all about sustaining it," Riddick says. "He couldn't stand the inconsistency, the players who were up and down."
In his first year with the Browns, Belichick interviewed Lionel Vital, a former running back who wanted to become an NFL scout. At one point the two men began watching college football game film, and Belichick asked a question about a player. Vital didn't know the answer and admitted as much in front of the head coach. He left the interview, convinced that he had blown it with that foolish I don't know. Three days later he got a call back and a job offer. He was ecstatic and confused. Why had they hired him?
"One of the most impressive things you said in that interview," Belichick told him, "was 'I don't know.'"
The coach brought a new wrinkle to the job each year. He knew what he didn't know, and he had begun to correct the deficiencies.
He was his father's son when it came to money, or any type of capital, and that meant he didn't believe in spending without regard for tomorrow. He'd officially earned an economics degree at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, but anyone who knew his parents realized that the unofficial degree was in Belichick Family Business. They were an efficient trio, free of excess. Dad didn't believe in buying what one couldn't afford, and therefore was against credit cards. Mom so loved language that she taught it in school and, as a devoted reader of the New Yorker magazine, preserved the best of it in her basement. Belichick had never subscribed to financial waste; a lot of people in the league, including Modell, were the opposite. It was the by-product of a lot of things: lack of financial discipline, impatience, and an overreliance on what was being said in the media. By the time Belichick reached his final season in Cleveland, he had evolved enough to view draft choices as one of the foundations of organizational wealth. You could trade that draft capital and invest for the future, or you could maximize that singular capital by trading it for more, albeit less glamorous, pieces.
By the time he had reached that level of understanding in 1996, it was too late. There was no desire or need to dig for the real Bill Belichick. Since he was part of the NFL's dominant Sunday afternoon and evening programming, he had become a TV character just like everyone else in the league. He didn't win enough, nor did he carry on and smile for the cameras, so he was easily typecast. Coach Hard-Ass. His dismissal was seen as another dysfunctional transaction between a franchise and head coach, neither worthy of serious analysis.
But the league didn't know Belichick or itself. He was a football and economics savant, and that's what the game was all about now. It had changed with the smack of a federal court judge's gavel, granting true free agency to the players. It changed when the TV networks kept demanding more of and paying more for the NFL. Modell, of all people, should have seen that one coming. He had made his money in advertising. He was on the league's TV committee, for goodness' sake. More available money, more available players, and more cameras to capture it all. You had to be quick and decisive in this game. The skill wasn't just in acquiring good players anymore. It was an athlete/asset puzzle now. You had to know the players, know their market value, and know precisely when to either commit big dollars or say good-bye for better, and cheaper, options.
The Browns didn't see it that way, and neither did anyone else. Clevelanders were convinced that their head coach didn't know a thing about offensive football, especially quarterbacks.
As Belichick packed his bags for a long drive east to once again assist Parcells, this time for one season in New England, a story that would eventually affect him was developing on the Michigan side of Lake Erie. There, a two-hour drive from Cleveland, an eighteen-year-old college quarterback named Tom Brady was the subject of a magic trick. He had been recruited by one of the best-known programs in the country, yet he was an unknown. And not just by the public. Those who saw him daily at the University of Michigan had no idea that he thought about the game as deeply as he did, and that in his mind, the matchup of Football versus Almost Anything would result in a victory for Football. He loved preparing for practices, being better than yesterday, and bonding with his teammates.
He was a California kid, six feet four inches tall, and handsome, and it was as if there was disbelief that he actually chose to be there rather than somewhere on the West Coast. Michigan football made you grow up fast. More was expected of college kids than the pros in Detroit. At least the Lions played inside, protected from the too-cold-to-think midwestern winters. Michigan football was big, straightforward, and all outdoors, with "down south" being Indiana, Illinois, and, of course, the hated Ohioans.
How was the California kid going to deal with that?
He was low on the quarterbacks' depth chart, way down in the nether regions of legacy athletes (yep, the coach's son was there) and walk-ons. In his freshman year, the starting quarterback, Scott Dreisbach, got hurt and had to miss a game. That meant Dreisbach's backup, Brian Griese, would start. And when Griese, the son of Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, got hurt, next in line was the coach's kid, Jason Carr. Had anything happened to Carr, then and only then would number 10, Brady, get a chance to play.
Sure, this was a teenager's typical introduction to life on a big-time football campus. Brady didn't think like that. Underneath the sunny disposition was the sun itself. The kid would be hot if someone picked off a pass in practice. It would stick with him for far too long, hours after his teammates and coaches had found another distraction, and he'd be back in the dorms in tears. Anyone who competed with him in video games or cards could see it. It was another magic trick. The movie-star smile was flashed, and then, in an instant, flash point. He didn't just expect to win. He had already planned for it, envisioned it, and collected it. Not winning, frankly, was a surprise.
At his core, there was an intersection of things that had been argued about for years. Nature versus nurture. The idea of the debate was that you had to pick a side. The problem with Tom Brady was that he was both, a real-life example of what happens when those disparate worlds collide. Yes, he was a natural athlete, considered to be one of the best football and baseball players in the country. His three older sisters were all exceptional athletes, too. He saw excellence in the house as well as when he left it. His family had San Francisco 49ers season tickets, and no sports fan his age could have asked for a better deal. From preschool to senior year, Brady watched his Niners go to five Super Bowls and win them all. The team had two quarterbacks in that span, Joe Montana and Steve Young, both worthy of the Hall of Fame. The architect of the teams, Bill Walsh, was nicknamed "The Genius." Many suggested that the top receiver, Jerry Rice, was the greatest player in NFL history. Even one of San Francisco's down years, at 10-6, was good for one of the best records in the league.
How could you have those talents and watch those talents and not be affected?
He briefly thought of leaving Michigan and transferring to Cal, the school most people expected him to attend after high school. But the challenge, or the need, of getting to the top of that depth chart was far greater than the urge to go back home and play. People were too caught up in appearances. They didn't understand that this place, the anti-California, was home now. He was going to play at Michigan. It was another competition, climbing that chart, and thus another opportunity for him to get a win. All he had to do was make everyone see it and get it.
Michigan coaches and others saw some of it when they recruited him, but not as much as they should have. On national signing day, when the country's championship contenders beam over their rising stars, the Wolverines got credit for securing four players among the nation's top 100. Brady was obviously good, just not mentioned with those four: Daydrion Taylor, Josh Williams, and two athletes who could seemingly play any sport in the world, Tai Streets and Charles Woodson. Streets once long-jumped twenty-three feet and seven inches in high school. Woodson was a record-setting running back, Mr. Ohio from nearby Fremont, who had it all. But he wanted to be something new in college, so he decided to be a defensive back. Just like that. And he was immediately an impact player. It's supposed to be a hard game, but those guys and their supreme adaptability made you wonder. Brady's athleticism seemed quiet next to those outsized two, and so it went for the rest of his time in Ann Arbor.
With all the things happening on campus, it would have been intolerable for Brady if he lacked a sense of humor. He enjoyed pranks as much as anyone, even though if you traced the anatomy of his jokes, there seemed to be a lesson for the good of the group. He and buddy Aaron Shea once got hours of entertainment at the expense of brash teammate David Terrell. They called the receiver, pretending to be reporters from a fictitious Michigan paper, the Brighton Bee. In the course of their mock interview, they managed to be put on hold several times by the player and they also got Terrell to quickly acknowledge that one of his big goals at school was to win the Heisman. The kicker: It was just his first week on campus. The message, if they had chosen to share it with the rest of the team, was to stay humble. But they laughed so hard at the outrageousness of the interview that they couldn't share its contents with anyone but themselves.
At quarterback, Michigan always seemed to be looking for something else. Even when Brady took over the job and won his teammates' trust by being named a captain, head coach Lloyd Carr and his staff had roving eyes. Brady was a winner and a good athlete. The coaches seemed to view "winner" all wrong, as if it were a pejorative linked to "limited" or "unathletic." There was a sense that good athletes weren't enough; they wanted athletes who wouldn't be out of place in the Olympics. That's how Brady, despite a 20-5 record as a starter, wound up sharing time with a highly recruited Michigan native named Drew Henson. Henson was viewed as a serious two-sport threat, football and baseball, while Brady, who had technically come to Michigan with the same credentials, was… well, all Brady had done was win.
If the presence of Henson didn't undermine Brady as a captain, it crushed his stature in the job market at the end of his Michigan career. He played his final college game two days before Pete Carroll was fired by the Patriots, and it was one of his best. He passed for 369 yards and four touchdowns, and he helped his team overcome two 14-point deficits on the way to an Orange Bowl win over Alabama.
There were some commonsense hints in that game and others that, at the very least, suggested that Brady wouldn't embarrass himself in the NFL. His teams won in college, and he was a respected leader on those winning teams. The scouts said he was skinny, which was true. He was twenty-two years old and college skinny, a condition that could be cured easily with consistent meals, training, and rest. He was smart and composed in any situation, whether it was taking a sack or an unspoken slight from the coaching staff. His hands were unusually large, and fitting for a former baseball catcher, he was adept at securing the ball when it was anywhere near him. This was not going to be a high-turnover quarterback in the pros. Finally, there was the weather. He had passed the weekly tests of playing in some bad-weather towns, from Hoosier country in Bloomington, Indiana, to Happy Valley in State College, Pennsylvania. He wasn't a polished pro yet, but all the elements were in place for exactly that, which made him a prospect in whom a team would be wise to invest.
Shortly before the 2000 NFL draft, he temporarily moved to Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, so he could work on his body and impress the experts. As it was, they were more impressed with some of his roommates and training partners. Corey Simon, Adrian Klemm, and Tee Martin were all there with him, with the pull of the French Quarter testing their collective self-restraint. Simon, from Florida State, was being discussed as a top 10 selection. Klemm, a Los Angeles native who ambitiously went to the University of Hawaii, was optimistic about being called late in the first round or early in the second. Martin, a Tennessee quarterback, had a higher ceiling than Brady, and therefore was targeted between rounds three and four.
The best news for Brady actually happened 1,500 miles away in Massachusetts, and it was described in a brief Boston Herald article. Belichick had hired a new quarterbacks coach for the Patriots and, as the story highlighted, the coach had picked "a veteran NFL assistant who's never before coached quarterbacks." The coach's name was Dick Rehbein. He had played some college ball himself, at center. While he didn't have the perspective of someone who had played quarterback, he was often the quarterback of the offensive line. Even better, he was an informed outsider. He had coached for fifteen years, but analyzing quarterbacks was new to him. He'd bring fresh eyes to the job. He was hired eight weeks before the draft, and there was plenty of work to do. One of his assignments from Belichick was to study college quarterbacks and find one who could potentially back up Patriots starter Drew Bledsoe.
On April 16, 2000, the second day of the draft (as well as Belichick's forty-eighth birthday), many selections had unfolded as planned. Simon went sixth overall to the Eagles. Klemm, the kid whose wardrobe had consisted of flip-flops and surfer shorts in Honolulu, was going to need some winter boots and a parka now. The Patriots called his name in the second round. Martin, who followed Peyton Manning at Tennessee and won a national championship, was expected to go shortly after Klemm. But the next quarterback taken, Gio Carmazzi, was the embodiment of the road less traveled. As in, the Long Island Expressway and Hofstra. That was a long way from Martin's prestigious Southeastern Conference, but the draft could be funny that way. He slid all the way to the fifth round and went to the Steelers.
Brady was watching it all in California with his parents. Once again, there was a sizable gap between the way Brady viewed himself and the way professional evaluators like Belichick viewed him. The same thing happened to Joe Montana. Well, almost. He was also a great college player who had to wait for someone to verbalize what he already knew: He could play. But Montana had gone in the third round. The Bradys had watched the third round pass hours ago. They got some joy in the fourth round when a couple of Michigan guys, Shea and Josh Williams, one of those top 100 recruits from freshman year, went off the board. In the fifth round, there was a smile for Martin. At the beginning of the sixth round now, two men who had never met, Belichick and Brady, were thousands of miles apart, going through various anxieties.
For Brady, it was a matter of being drafted before all the selections were exhausted. He hadn't made the top 100 players as he entered college; it was officially worse on the exit because the arrow was on pick 167 and his phone still hadn't rung. For Belichick, now three months into the job, the reality was sinking in. His new team stunk. It was the unfortunate kind, too, when the public thinks you're a couple of players away from being good and the truth is that most of the roster needs to be on a curbside.
Belichick had managed to re-sign those talented veterans, Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi, but the team needed much more than that. It needed everything except a quarterback. Bledsoe was twenty-eight and had already been to three Pro Bowls. The general sense in New England was that he needed help, not competition for his job.
Praise for Michael Holley's Books:
"Enlightening...the best thing I've read on football in recent years...Superb."
—Peter King, Sports Illustrated
"A deeply reported, thoroughly engaging look at what it takes to succeed in the NFL."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Holley has written the ultimate book for pro football geeks. From the front office to the draft room, the author provides an intimate look at three NFL teams...and the men who built them."
"In War Room, journalist Michael Holley provides a fascinating account of how Belichick, and his top associates, Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff, used the draft and shrewd trades to build the Pats into the envy of the NFL...Crisply written, the story moves along like a two-minute drill. It also sparkles with interesting anecdotes and tidbits....War Room is a lively, fast-paced insider's account that will please ardent and casual fans alike."
"Usually books like this, which put organizations on pedestals, do not stand the test of time. But Holley's book reads as well now as it did a dozen or so years ago."
—Hank Gilman, Forbes
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Hachette Books