In his 18 years at NFL Films, Ken Rodgers has built an uncommon rapport with Bill Belichick. He was the director and coordinating producer of the two-part “A Football Life’’ documentary on the Patriots coach during the 2009 season as well as the “Do Your Job’’ film that celebrates the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX victory.
His next project with Belichick is one of his best. ESPN, in conjunction with NFL Films, premieres “The Two Bills,’’ in which Belichick and Bill Parcells sit down at MetLife Stadium to discuss their remarkable and complicated history.
I recently talked to Rodgers about how he earned Belichick’s trust, his takeaways from the Belichick/Parcells conversation, and more. Here is some of that conversation.
How did you get to know Belichick and build your relationship to the point that he would sign off on a project like ‘The Two Bills’?
Rodgers: It’s kind of funny. I was a new employee here at NFL Films in 2001 and as new employees we’re all assigned highlight films, that year’s highlights for a particular team. As a newcomer, low on the totem pole, I was given a team expected to do pretty poorly that year – the Patriots.
So I thought at least I have a good quarterback here to watch in Drew Bledsoe. And then he gets knocked out by [Jets linebacker] Mo Lewis [in the second game of the season]. So I thought, ‘I have this team that’s terrible, a coach that has failed as a head coach elsewhere, and a new quarterback named Tom Brady.’ Little did I know it would change my life as well as many others.
Belichick’s appreciation for NFL Films and how it documents the history of professional football is well-known.
Rodgers: Steve Sabol [who founded NFL Films with his father, Ed] and coach Belichick had a wonderful relationship. I think it had a lot to do with both of them having a kinship in the purity of their respective art forms. Both of them just cared about doing their job without the external politics of it. Sabol was well-known for not caring about meetings or budgetary concerns or league politics. He just wanted to make great films. And that’s why NFL Films is what it is, because our efforts are concentrated on the product that goes up on screen.
In the ‘70s, when Belichick was a young coach and he and Steve started meeting and hanging out with each other and speaking together, coach Belichick was singularly focused on his product, which is what was happening on the field. They used to sit together at the owners meeting every year and they grew close in their viewpoints on what was best for football.
Belichick doesn’t take time out to celebrate it, or even acknowledge it, but he does recognize his place in history. He understands that he has a great place in history. And I get the impression he’s at the point where he wants to help those who helped him get to the place that he is not at, to give them the recognition.
One of the things that struck me making the film was the reverence he shows to coach Parcells . I hadn’t seen this in any other interview with him with or without coach Parcells there.
There was a very nostalgic feel to the film, especially when Parcells is the focus
Rodgers: It definitely was sentimental. I think part of it was the location, We had a couple of near-misses trying to get them together. There was this time in May when Belichick was passing through New Jersey and Parcells agreed to come down and we thought the Meadowlands makes sense even though they didn’t coach in the new stadium. We went and scouted it in and saw this suite that looked nice and the field looks nice. Then we saw the locker room, and it was empty, and we thought, oh, this is the spot. Even though it wasn’t their locker room, there was this sense of ghosts and nostalgia. It felt like history was residing there.
So after setting this up, and talking to them on camera and off, and seeing how they interact, how would you quantify their relationship?
What I came away with is that the relationship is much more understandable to me when I saw it in person, when I see it in this film.
I have co-workers, you do too. And you spend so much time working with them, especially on Hard Knocks or different documentaries. I spend more time with them than I do with my real friends in the real world. They probably know more about me on a daily basis than my friends.
Yet I’m in competition with them. I don’t necessarily call them my friends. I don’t tell them that I love them. But I do love them. We drive ourselves to make better films, in a very healthy and fulfilling way, and we know that about each other. I think when our careers were over and we were sitting and talking about our films, there would be that sort of nostalgia too.
So to me the Belichick-Parcells relationship is a lot more understandable if you look at it through the lens of a very close co-worker. Of course there are rough patches. But that doesn’t mean the love isn’t there.
Did any particular interaction or revelation surprise you?
Rodgers: Belichick’s resignation from the Jets [after one day as coach in January 2000] is totally misremembered. It’s seen as sort of this flighty, quick decision on Belichick’s part, when in reality it was a very understandable reaction to a tough, uncertain situation. I liked the way Scott Pioli described it in the film: Both had reason to be upset with the other.
That’s how arguments usually are. Belichick had sound reasoning for resigning. It wasn’t out of pettiness or spite. There was legitimate concern about the Jets ownership, after what he went through with Cleveland ownership in 1995. And you can also understand why Parcells would want him to be the head coach of the Jets. Both men were trying to do what was best for themselves.
Some of the most enjoyable footage in the film comes from Parcells and Belichick’s early years working together with the ‘80s Giants. Belichick’s confidence as a young coach is remarkable to see.
Rodgers: It’s fascinating to watch the sideline footage of him talking to the Giants defense and using the white board when he was a young coach. You can see the current Belichick in him. He’s in total command. You say, ‘Wow, he had it back then.’ It’s not something he grew in to. He had it.
The only thing that he was missing was the CEO mentality that you need to succeed in today’s NFL that he learned from Parcells. That’s the big picture viewpoint that has nothing to do with football or Xs and Os. Parcells was the master of that. He can make anyone do anything he wants. He was a master manipulator.
Belichick was a detail guy who could outthink you but maybe hadn’t figured yet how to get the entire organization moving in one direction. He learned that from Parcells. And no one does that better than him today.
It’s funny, the question is asked, could Parcells have won without Belichick. And Parcells says kind of wisely, ‘No, neither of us could have won without each other. That’s kind of the point of having a staff.’
Remember, Parcells was the one who saw it in Belichick. He’s the one that plucked him from special teams and gave him defensive responsibilities, then made him the defensive coordinator, and brought him to the Patriots and to the Jets. He deserves a lot of credit for that alone. I don’t know if the Patriots’ super-dynasty would exist if Belichick hadn’t learned what he did under Parcells.