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BOB RYAN

Warmup act is a novelty

Belichick shows his sunnier side

FOXBOROUGH -- Leave 'em laughing. Is that Our Mentor's new daily game plan?

 

And he couldn't have been set up better.

The query was, "So, coach, what's your New Year's resolution?" Keep in mind, we all knew this was going to be, for better or worse, his exit line. Director of media relations Stacey James already had given the "one last question" admonition.

"Probably the same as last year," deadpanned Bill Belichick. "To be as helpful as I possibly can to the media."

Oh, and ba-da-BING to you, too, coach.

It was, at once, both self-deprecating and defiantly dripping in one-upmanship. For Belichick had just spent the better part of a half-hour teasing a roomful of writers, television folk, and radio sorts with dry answers to football questions without betraying even the slightest willingness to personalize matters. He will continue to coach the Patriots in his dogged, methodical manner, leaving the extracurricular dramatics to Dick Vermeil, Brian Billick, and one or two others. He neither will be crying with nor swearing at his players in public -- today, tomorrow, or ever.

But it really was a good line, and it left a lot of us wondering just how, shall we say, "normal" a person he really is if you could get him away from football for five minutes. I guess what I'm saying is, what does Jon Bon Jovi know that we don't?

Or even the players, the ones ESPN's Tom Jackson breathlessly told us just plain "hated" him three months and about 13 victories ago? Is that witty Bill Belichick someone they recognize?

"We hear it almost every day," maintained Damien Woody. "When we have our team meetings, and we're going over different things, he'll make these sly remarks. He's not as stoic as people think he is."

That would be Mt. Rushmore stoic. From the time Belichick was first revealed to the public as the head coach in Cleveland, he has crafted an image of the consummate efficiency-expert coach, seeing only problems and solutions and no time for tomfoolery such as personal relationships with the athletes and serving as any kind of an aide to the media.

There are coaches in all sports of whom we often say that if you placed an empty notebook in front of them, and then walked away for 10 minutes, you would return to find the notebook filled. And then there are the coaching types who, when confronted with eager, perhaps even desperate, scribes seeking just the slightest help to develop a story line, deliberately hit into the equivalent of an interview-killing 6-4-3 double play.

Care to guess in which category Coach Belichick usually has landed?

But he has changed. He never left 'em laughing in Cleveland, that's for sure. He may not be the guy you'd want emceeing your next testimonial dinner, but he is conspicuously more sociable than he was during his first head coaching experience.

"He enjoys a joke, just like everyone else," declared Mike Vrabel, who, alone among his teammates, spent part of his adolescence observing the public Belichick through the eyes of a Browns fan. Vrabel was a football- and Browns-loving 16-year-old kid from Akron when Art Modell hired a Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick as head coach for the 1991 season. Vrabel read his papers and watched his TV and listened to his radio, and he read, saw, and heard what everyone else did.

"My perception of him is very different now," explained the versatile linebacker, whose package of skills has been so wonderfully exploited by Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. "He gets his point across, but he does enjoy a joke. And right now he's obviously enjoying 14 wins this season. He's had a couple of days off, and he's had a chance to reflect on it a little bit. But now he's back to work, and we will feed off his approach."

It was pretty obvious that the old Belichick was almost completely unmindful of the fact that his Cleveland players were flesh-and-blood human beings, and not just walking X's and O's. There is "my-way-or-the-highway," and there is "I'm-looking-right-through-you," and Belichick was a lot more the latter than the former. When he left, no tears were shed by either side.

So what has happened? We really don't know. But something did happen. Either Belichick sought and received some very good advice, or someone looking out for his best interests sat him down and said he had to change up, or he simply figured it out for himself.

"I think he's got genuine feeling for a lot of people here," Vrabel said. "He brought so many of the players in, and they're all good guys."

It is, of course, far more important that Belichick learned to show some human qualities inside the locker room than it is for him to be Mr. Nice with the media. But he is a lot more comfortable with the daily give-and-take here than he ever was in Cleveland, where the media almost universally loathed him. He's much better here, although he does have his recidivist moments, as one borderline testy exchange with the Herald's Michael Felger yesterday reminded us.

All Felger wanted to know was whether the Miami Dolphins had called to ask for permission to talk directly with vice president/player personnel Scott Pioli for their vacant general manager's job, as has been reported elsewhere. You would have thought Felger had asked him for a sperm count.

"You hear a lot of things," Belichick bristled. "I am not really interested in commenting on a lot of unfounded rumors or just parachutes coming down from the sky where there is no foundation for it. So if that is where you are heading, I don't think that is really where we want to go."

But Felger never received an answer to his simple, direct question.

That was yesterday's only discordant note. Belichick was actually pretty enthusiastic as he answered inquiries about the likes of Bobby Hamilton and Tedy Bruschi, whom he said "has come about as far as a player could come really," from the day he reported here as a 240-pound pass-rushing defensive end to his current status as an outside linebacker supreme who, says Belichick, "has as many responsibilities as anybody."

Belichick lavished praise on his secondary and lauded his "pretty young group of receivers," and, of course, he acknowledged the progress made by his quarterback. But any attempt to extract personal feelings were pretty much swatted back in the inquisitor's face.

Is he remotely fazed, for example, by the thought that he coaches a No. 1 seed, as opposed to a just-happy-to-be-there squad? We'll never know, but here's what he is thinking: "It's the playoffs. We're zero-zero, just like everyone else."

No touchy. No feely. Still steely. But now he's capable of exiting with a one-liner. That's progress.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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