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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Only elements out of his control

FOXBOROUGH -- The coach is all about control. The reason he came to the Patriots is because owner Bob Kraft agreed to give him complete control of the football operation. And so Bill Belichick controls everything.

The coach controls what his players eat and when they sleep. He controls what they say when they are out in public. He controls what time the bus leaves and where the team will stay when it lands in Pittsburgh for Sunday night's AFC Championship game. He controls what they wear and what they watch. He controls the remote controls.

Stand behind a Patriot player at the grocery checkout line and watch him react when the bagger asks, "Paper or plastic?" Rookies have been known to call Foxborough to make sure they give the correct answer.

All of which explains why this untidy weather issue is so frustrating for Belichick. It's the only thing he can't control.

"We can all watch those forecasters," he said. "You put 'em on now and then turn 'em on an hour from now and they got a whole different story. Some other front has whipped in from somewhere or other, and some tree blocked this front . . . but that's the way it is. Believe me, I've stood up in front of the team on Thursday before the game and said, `Hey, fellas, it looks like we're going to get 20 feet of show and you've got to be ready for this and that,' and then you go out and play the game and it's 50 degrees and nice and they look at you like you're a moron."

Don't think he hasn't tried to control the weather. Belichick has seeded clouds with crop dusters and hired witch doctors to perform rain dances. He's put Ed Carroll, Harvey Leonard, Chikage Windler, and Don Kent on the payroll. But thus far Mother Nature bows to no one -- not even genius NFL coaches. And even though it's frustrating to cede control in any area, Belichick is too much of an old-timey football guy to lobby for a 19-game indoor season. A Dome Field Advantage would kind of take all the suspense and fun out ot it and let's face it -- through the years the Patriots have used the elements to their advantage. Just ask the Dolphins, Raiders, Titans, or Colts.

But when you are all about preparation, and Bill Belichick is the ultimate Boy Scout (I imagine him with a daily docket with a line that reads, "6:20 a.m.-6:22 a.m. -- floss teeth"), the uncertainty of game-day conditions is a mind-bender.

The Patriots are playing outdoors this weekend. In western Pennsylvania. On Jan. 23. This means Belichick can leave the lightweight jerseys and sideline air conditioners home, but it's still impossible to predict whether the field will be dry, wet, snowy, or muddy. It could be 10 degrees and it could be 30. It will be the same for both teams, and both play well in messy stuff, but the uncertainty makes it impossible to prepare as thoroughly as Belichick would like. He has grudgingly learned to accept this one unpredictable element of game preparation.

"Sure, you've got to be aware of it," he acknowledged. "We're not expecting 70 degrees and balmy skies out there. But I don't know what it's going to be. It's going to be windy. It probably is going to be cold. The precipitation could come in different forms. I think you've got to keep your eyes open. You've got to say, `OK, if it's a terrible day out there, what are we gonna do?' We don't want to start putting plays in on Sunday afternoon. So you kind of have to have an eye on that. And we've practiced outside here in the latter part of the season. We've gotten practice days that have been less than ideal.

"Some things we're more comfortable doing in certain weather conditions than other things. It varies depending on exactly what the conditions are."

Footwear can vary. Kicker Adam Vinatieri wears the same shoe for every game, but screws longer or shorter spikes into the soles (like a set of drill bits), depending on the footing. Most players travel with several pairs of game shoes.

Said Belichick, "Don Brocher, our equipment manager, has a lot of familiarity with all the fields in the league and based on what we know going into the opponent's stadium, we go with what we think is the best footwear. But we know the conditions could vary, if it rains, if it snows, if the field is frozen, etc. We carry footwear for those alternatives. But we have a pretty good idea, and he has a pretty good idea based on experience how the field is going to play and what's the best shoe to wear and that may vary from a lineman to a skill player, depending on what that guy's doing."

Long snapper Lonie Paxton, famous for snow angels after big playoff wins, said, "I don't need to know the weather. You deal with it, you're a football player. We've dealt with 2 feet of freakin' mud in the Baltimore game. Arizona heat. You have to be a chameleon. You adjust. There's 100 different kinds of shoes. I'm more of a Cadillac guy. I like the molded cleat. They may not have as much traction, but I'm not making Deion Branch cuts."

Tight end Christian Fauria said, "When I used to play in a dome I worried about the weather all the time. Here, I couldn't care less because we've played in everything and our game plan never really changes because of the weather. Since I've been here, we've never put in anything special. We practice in the stuff all the time and most of us are used to it."

Belichick sighed and said, "We usually wait as a staff to really get into that until the night before the game or even the day of the game, when we actually know what it's gonna be, because so many times those forecasts just change and that's the way it is in January in the Northeast. In the Oakland game a couple of years ago, it started to snow about four hours before the game so we started to prepare . . . But if you try to be a weatherman with the team you lose their respect pretty quickly because you really don't know what you're talking about."

Vinatieri winked and agreed. Even a genius coach is limited in this area.

"It seems like he can do everything else," said the clutch kicker. "But if he could change the weather I'd really be impressed." Indeed, it would be the ultimate defensive scheme. Be patient, people. Bill's working on it. Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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