HOUSTON — A gentler and especially more introspective Bill Belichick emerged in his latest Super Bowl news conference. Reporters were rubbing their ears and checking their notes twice.
It was so unprovoked and so authentic that it jolted people. He especially had them on the edge of their seats when he started chatting about the influence of his dad.
It has been a "Dad Week" for the New England Patriots. Tom Brady backed his after his dad nuked the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell over Deflategate. Brady called his dad his hero. Brady described Patriots owner Robert Kraft as being "like a second father." We are still waiting for what he calls Roger.
What struck me about Belichick’s masterful dad soliloquy was before he dove into it, Belichick admitted that he personally wasn’t a very good football player and he knew coaching would be for him. Just the matter-of-fact way that he honestly assessed his own football talent was about as revealing as anything else Belichick said. And he said plenty.
This type of clarity, bluntness, and direct honesty that Belichick provides has served him well as the Patriots leader. The grey lines are lifted for his players. The player instruction and assessments are brutally direct. The teaching is grinding and exacting. The game plans are explicit.
The Patriots are forcefully molded into one.
"You really don’t have a choice," Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan said. "I don’t want to say it’s something that you buy into; it’s something that you have to do. If not, they’ll find someone else to do it."
Brady took it a step further.
"He walks into a team meeting room every day and says, ‘Alright, this is a big day,’ and he means it," Brady said. "He just doesn’t say it the Wednesday of the Super Bowl week, he says it on a Wednesday in April. He commits his life to coaching football and to coaching this team."
This is a coaching axiom that Belichick long ago mastered — the essence of leadership is setting the example in your own work and in your own words that mirrors what you are asking for.
"He definitely asks for everyone’s best abilities every day," Patriots receiver Julian Edelman said. "It’s a tough place to play here, this type of pressure day in and day out. On the other side, you look at his service, how he does his job. It’s sickening. You have no choice once you see that. You want to match it, even exceed it."
Defensive end Chris Long was a Los Angeles Rams free agent before signing with New England last March.
"They set a standard here and stick to it, they expect a lot and guys go as a team to get what they want," Long said. "Everybody sees how hard (Belichick) works, his dedication, the determination he has. We are inspired to meet that. If a guy is not afraid to come in here and be a part of this, it can be special. But it’s not a place for everybody. There are other good places in this league. But you can hedge your bets on this place. It works."
Beyond all of Belichick’s intricate X’s and O’s, possibly his greatest achievement with his players and with his teams is the development of mental toughness.
His success helps him grow that — this Super Bowl marks his seventh as a head coach, the most in NFL history. With a victory, he will have won five Super Bowls as a head coach, also most in league history.
"Look at his record," Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon said. "Why would you not understand and follow how he wants to build mental toughness? Everybody goes through something difficult. It’s just a matter of when. Everybody needs mental toughness. But do you even see it coming? Do you even know it’s there when it’s there? When those moments come for us, we know what we’re looking at. We say, OK, that’s it, or this is it. I think you have to recognize things correctly before you can become a team that is really mentally tough."
Brady says Belichick talks about mental toughness so much that Brady believes “it is the best trait for any team or any athlete."
This is why the Patriots create so many blowouts. This is why they win so many close games. This is why, in championship play, they often deliver the plays that matter in the end.
Overcoming this mental toughness trait that Belichick has stoked is the Atlanta Falcons’ biggest hurdle in Super Bowl 51.
It is a Belichick staple.
"He sets an example we all follow," Patriots fullback James Develin said. "Even when you have personal setbacks here, he reminds you to fold those into the product of the team, work through things even as an individual with the team in mind. That becomes a team mindset that builds your team’s mental toughness. There is a respect that you give, that you get right back."