New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick generally isn’t known for his warm side. However, that rarely revealed portion of his character – at least in NFL circles – helped ignite one of the great runs in NFL history.
Belichick’s approach with former linebacker Roman Phifer in 2001 was a form of management that some of his former assistants might be wise to review as they deal with seemingly uniform insurrection and upheaval. The latest example of that came last week when talented Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) made a mockery of practice, leading to a suspension for the remainder of the preseason for conduct detrimental to the team.
Marshall, upset with the terms of his current contract, has reportedly been butting heads with Josh McDaniels since the latter was named head coach this offseason. Likewise, fellow former Belichick assistant Eric Mangini has ruffled the feathers of players with the New York Jets and now the Cleveland Browns.
While there is something to be said for making it clear who runs the show, sometimes the key to dealing with players is to show trust in them. Sometimes when you give a little with the right player, you get repaid in outrageous proportion.
In the summer of ’01, Phifer was experiencing turbulent times with his first wife, Alexis. Phifer, unsigned through the offseason, eventually got a divorce and told teams that he didn’t think he’d be able to attend training camp.
Belichick, who was then going into his second season in New England, told Phifer not to worry. The two agreed that Phifer, going into the 11th season of his 15-year career, could miss the first three or so weeks of training camp. All Phifer had to do was be in shape and there would be a role for him.
“The role ended up that he played 98 percent of the downs,” Belichick said recently, smiling at the memory. “We still joke about that when we see each other. But we didn’t have anybody else who could do the skills Roman provided and we needed those skills on the field almost all the time.”
While Belichick’s on-field management of personnel during New England’s ride to the Super Bowl title in the 2001 season is the stuff of legend, the subtly important story is how he got a team of little-known players to buy into his system. Perhaps none of those players was more important than Phifer, who Belichick had coached for one year with the New York Jets and had grown to trust implicitly.
“When you have a coach who’s willing to give you that type of freedom, that trust, you want to do everything you can to make them know you deserve it,” said Phifer, who coincidentally is now an assistant to McDaniels in Denver. “I made sure I was in shape, ready to go when I got there.”
By the end of that season, when the Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams to win the Lombardi Trophy, New England cornerback Terrell Buckley called Phifer the team’s Most Valuable Player for his veteran presence and leadership.
“People think this game is all about talent, but there’s so much more to how a locker room works,” Phifer said. “You have to have certain veterans who know how to work with young guys, bring them along without alienating them. … Bill is the best out there at understanding not just the game, but the dynamics of how the locker room works.”
Belichick said Phifer was one of a handful of players he could extend that type of trust. “You’ve probably got four or five veterans in any given year that could handle that, be responsible,” Belichick said.