HOUSTON – There was Dont’a Hightower’s fourth-quarter strip sack. There was Julian Edelman’s acrobatic catch that kept alive the 91-yard, game-tying touchdown drive. And there were dozens of other plays – many by running back James White – that proved similarly crucial to the New England Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory in Super Bowl LI after trailing the Atlanta Falcons by 25 points with less than 18 minutes remaining. There was also, of course, Tom Brady’s Super Bowl record 466-yard passing performance.
But the morning after, a statistic of a different sort lurked in the mind of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick: five weeks. That, in his view, is how far behind the Patriots are in preparing for the 2017 season, having dedicated their energy and focus this past month to winning a fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
So after acknowledging the contributions of his coaching staff, his players and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Belichick said Monday that it was time to get to work, as his rivals were, preparing for the upcoming combine, free agency and the NFL draft while hashing out the contract status of current players.
“As great as today feel and as great as today is, in all honestly, we’re five weeks behind [in preparing for] the 2017 season to most teams in the league,” Belichick said. “If you don’t do a good job with your football team in February, March and April, you’re probably gonna see that in November, December and January.”
More than half the Patriots on the current team weren’t on the field for two years ago, when rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler’s interception secured victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. The percentage surprised even Belichick, a master of roster churn, with a knack for finding over-achievers among prospects passed over by other teams and for knowing whom to keep and whom to cull.
The Patriots’ stunning comeback in Sunday’s Super Bowl, in which they scored 31 answered points in the final 21 minutes, has cemented Brady as greatest to play the position in the eyes of all but quibblers and contrarians. There is no doubt that New England wouldn’t have five Super Bowl championships without Brady’s sustained excellence, at 39.
But Belichick’s hand, above all others, put those five Super Bowl squads together. Sixteen years ago, Belichick saw in the lanky Brady, a sixth-round pick in the 2000 NFL draft, a toughness that would take his team further than incumbent Drew Bledsoe. Belichick found a way to win three of the 2016 season’s first four games without Brady, tapping Jimmy Garappolo and Jacoby Brissett to fill in during the NFL’s suspension.
The way Belichick’s Patriots prepare, work and grind in the face of adversity has produced seven AFC championships in the past 16 years.
Two years ago in Phoenix, Butler, a rookie cornerback, made the Super Bowl-winning play. Sunday in Houston, White – the player Brady felt most deserved Super Bowl MVP honors – caught a Super Bowl-record 14 passes and scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner. White wasn’t on the active roster for the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory two years ago.
Defensive lineman Trey Flowers wasn’t even on the squad. But Sunday against Atlanta, Flowers’ fourth-quarter sack for a 12-yard loss, combined with a Falcons’ holding penalty, pushed Atlanta out of field goal range at a crucial juncture.
So many Patriots made must-have plays amid Sunday’s comeback that the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, a go-to Brady target, proved a mere footnote.
Belichick gave no hint Monday of how many more years he plans to do this. And he refused to indulge questions of where this Super Bowl victory ranked in terms of personal satisfaction, dismissing in unequivocal terms the suggestion that either he or Brady worked any harder, or with any greater zeal or purpose, in chasing this Lombardi Trophy than any other.
“To insinuate that this year was somehow different, that this year he competed harder or competed to a higher degree than he has in the past, is insulting to the tremendous effort and leadership and competitiveness that he has shown for the 17 years that I’ve coached him,” Belichick said of Brady.
Such is their shared reverence for football, a sport both men view as the ultimate test of intellect, commitment and resolve – and not a forum for settling old scores.
There will be time for Belichick’s motorboat, which he’ll no doubt re-name VII Rings to account for his two Super Bowl rings as a Giants assistant and five as head coach of the Patriots. There will be time to spend with his two sons and daughter, who joined him on the NRG Stadium field Sunday night as confetti rained from the rafters. But that time won’t come until mid-June, the NFL’s mandated break in player-coach interaction.
Starting Tuesday, Belichick has work to do. The Patriots are behind the rest of the league. And if they intend to contend for a sixth Super Bowl title, their coach needs to turn his attention to the roster, whose composition is sure to change.
At 39, Brady shows no drop-off, but a clock is ticking somewhere. So it falls to Belichick, the Patriots’ true north star, to chart the course.