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Overreaction to 'distraction'

By Ron Borges
Globe Staff / December 14, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- The guy to whom everything is a potential and dreaded "distraction," now must try to convince his team that the defection of its offensive coordinator is, well, not a distraction. So when is a distraction not a distraction? When Bill Belichick says so?

"Well, whatever it is, it is," Belichick said yesterday in a double-talking response to the simple question of whether or not Charlie Weis's decision to leave the Patriots to become Notre Dame's coach will be easier to deal with because of the veteran nature of his team and its staff.

Yes or no would have been sufficient, but that might be distracting. So instead Belichick said, "We'll just work our way through it. I think everybody has a job to do. We may have to do a little bit more, divide things up a little bit differently. We'll work through it."

How Weis will run Notre Dame's program and the Patriots' offense and give each the same amount of effort and attention is difficult to fathom, even though Weis said yesterday he will do just that and Belichick said, "We have a job to do and all our energies are going to be focused on that."

Well, to be honest, no they won't. Anyone who believes Weis can focus all his energies on the job he's doing for the Patriots as well as running the most critical part of a college athletic program -- the recruiting phase -- is either kidding themselves or implying that Weis was not focusing all his energies on designing the Patriots' offense the past five years, which is laughable.

No one in their right mind could think for a minute that Weis has given anything but his full energies to coordinating New England's offense since the day he arrived in Foxborough, with the exception of the time he was battling internal bleeding after gastric bypass surgery went awry two years ago. That being the case, it's ridiculous to claim Weis can give all his energies to the Patriots now because if he does, he will have no energy left to give to the people paying him $1.5 million a year more than the Patriots are paying him. The larger question then, is does it matter all that much? And the answer is, win or lose, no.

Designing an offense and running it is hard work. It is not brain surgery, however. It's football, not cancer research. It can be done successfully by people who also have other things going on in their lives.

There remain a goodly number of football fans in New England who believe former coach Bill Parcells blew Super Bowl XXXI following the 1996 season because he was too busy talking to his future employer, the New York Jets, in the days before that Super Bowl. He was, they say, "distracted."

Belichick appeared to be among them when he told author Michael Holley in the book "Patriot Reign": "I can tell you firsthand, there was a lot of stuff going on prior to the game. I mean him talking to other teams. He was trying to make up his mind about what he wanted to do. Which, honestly, I felt [was] totally inappropriate. How many chances do you get to play for the Super Bowl? Tell them to get back to you in a couple of days. I'm not saying it was disrespectful to me, but it was in terms of the overall commitment to the team."

OK. Fine. Belichick is entitled to his opinion. But if that's his position, how is it not a disrespectful distraction or a commitment question to have Weis talking to recruits, flying into and out of South Bend, or interviewing potential assistants in Foxborough, as he will have to do to try to make sure 2005 is not a lost season at Notre Dame? That's a consequence of taking a shot at your former boss when you think you can get away with it. Eventually a similar situation washes up on your doorstep, and what do you say then? A distraction in 1997 is not a distraction in 2004?

Or is all this talk of distraction this and distraction that just a distraction in itself? Is it just all poppycock in the first place?

Frankly, the answer is yes. Anyone really believe the Patriots won 21 games in a row because they never talked about what they were accomplishing? If so, why'd they lose the next week? Somebody mention the streak over breakfast?

Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, who coached the Green Bay Packers running backs into the playoffs last season after accepting the Mississippi State job and thereby becoming the first black head coach in the Southeastern Conference, told the New York Times, "It will really take a toll on Charlie. I literally had to work 24 hours a day and I was the running back coach. He's a coordinator."

Croom implied it will be more difficult for Weis to manage the jobs because of the magnitude of his duties in New England, which are considerably more time-consuming than those of a running backs coach. Can Weis handle those stresses and continue to give his full attention to preparing New England's offense each week?

Well, no, but the larger question is does he need to? Probably not.

This whole idea of "distractions" is one of the most overblown concepts of the Belichick Era. The Patriots have won the past few years for many reasons -- not the least of them being the sterling play of quarterback Tom Brady and the team's defensive players as well as the work of the coaching staff. They have not won because they are less distracted than anyone else in the NFL. They've won because they are well-prepared, well-coordinated and loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.

Can Weis, with the help of Jeff Davidson and the rest of the offensive assistants, break down opponents, continue to come up with innovative game plans, and call plays that work while he also talks to recruits and interviews possible assistants for Notre Dame? Why not? Can you talk on the phone, work on your computer, make decisions on the job, and run the rest of your life at the same time?

There are a ton of people in America who work two jobs these days to make ends meet. Some work three or four. They get tired doing it, but they don't necessarily get distracted. If Weis and the Patriots' offense continue to be successful through the rest of the regular season and deep into the playoffs it may set back for years the concept of "distractions" in the NFL. The sad part is if something happens along the way and things don't work out as they did a year ago, some nitwits will contend a distracted coach hurt the organization's efforts. After all, isn't that what was said in 1997 as an explanation for why a superior Packers team beat an inferior Patriot one?

The fact of the matter is Weis will work as hard as he can for the Patriots for as long as they are in the Super Bowl hunt. He also will work as hard as he can for Notre Dame, which is already facing fallout from firing Tyrone Willingham. Two of its 11 recruits with verbal commitments to the Irish, defensive end Lawrence Wilson of Akron, Ohio, and defensive back Brandon Harrison of Dayton, Ohio, already have taken back those commitments. Harrison is now considering Iowa and Michigan and Wilson is also shopping himself around. At least two others, David Nelson and David Bruton, told the South Bend Tribune they needed to learn more about Weis. Bruton said he "honestly never heard his name until a few days ago." Nelson went so far as to say, "I don't know anything about him as a coach. I don't know if he's genuine."

With national letter of intent day coming four days before this year's Super Bowl, Weis will have his hands full shoring up those recruits, pursuing others, and trying to hire a staff while also giving his best effort to coordinating New England's offense. Can a man do all those jobs as fully as he could only one of them?

Probably not.

Will he be "distracted?"

Perhaps.

Will it affect Weis's play-calling or the Patriots' success?

I doubt it, because the most overblown concept behind the great success of the Belichick Era is not "scheme" or even "genius." It's "distractions."

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