Patriots

What is it like to ask Ernie Adams questions about the Patriots and Bill Belichick?

Adams stepped down from his longtime role with the Patriots earlier this week.

Jim Davis
Ernie Adams (right) and Bill Belichick walk the field before a 2014 game. Adams is retiring after 21 seasons with the team. Jim Davis

One of the best parts of my job is being a part of the Patriots’ Hall of Fame nominating committee. (The closest I’m ever going to get to a sitting in on a meeting of the College of Cardinals.) Held every spring, we get a great lunch, and talk some Patriots’ history with a sizable group of luminaries that includes current and former media who cover (or covered) the team. There are also former players, and plenty of folks who work (or have worked) for the franchise.

That group includes Ernie Adams.

When he showed up, it was odd to see him. Those of us who had covered the team had gotten used to seeing him observe at practice, but no one was completely sure what he did. We knew of his background with Bill Belichick mostly from David Halberstam’s “The Education of a Coach,” but other than that, he was a blank slate for just about everyone, including players. You would ask players about him, and they would offer quizzical looks.

The only thing everyone knew for sure? Belichick trusted him wholly and completely. One story from 2001: punter Lee Johnson fumbled a snap after getting turned around and flinging the ball away in a key moment in the fourth quarter against the Chargers, leading to a touchdown. It was an ugly turnover, and Johnson recounted to reporters afterward — an overtime win — was that his one memory about what happened was getting a disappointed shake of the head from Adams after the game.

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Johnson was cut the next day.

So when we saw him sitting there at a banquet table, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would he be quiet? Would he spill secrets? Did he have a strange accent? Turns out, while the meetings are held almost entirely off-the-record, in that atmosphere, when he opened his mouth, Adams was as forthcoming as we all hoped he would be. You’d immediately start from a place of deference. (I think just about every time I proposed a candidate, I included the phrase, “I’d like to get Ernie’s take on this…” either before or after the statement.) But over the years, he could give us a thin slice of insight into the team’s thinking when it came to game-planning, personnel, and draft picks. He could tell us what made a player special. And he could reveal a new way to look at a situation, a scenario, or a decision made by the franchise that helped inform the nomination process, as well as our own coverage of the team.

In that setting, Adams was pleasant, accommodating, and conversational. Honestly, deference was the default mechanism around him; a nearly 50-year relationship with Belichick is enough of a pass, at least in that context. There were times where talking to Adams about the Patriots and Belichick was like talking aviation with one of the Wright Brothers. “Hey Orville, what was Wilbur thinking when you guys were on the beach there at Kitty Hawk?”

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So when the team announced this week that he was stepping down from his position, it was clear this would signal a unique changing of the guard in Foxborough. The possibility remains he could serve as an unofficial advisor to Belichick in some fashion — remember, Dante Scarnecchia still attended Pro Days and worked guys out during his first retirement. No one ever really leaves the Patriots.

Is he replaceable? There was talk Matt Patricia could fill that role in some form or fashion. The former defensive coordinator checks two of the boxes: one, he’s a bit of a football savant, and two, he was given a purposefully vague title when he was hired: assistant to the head coach. (For the record, Adams was classified as the director of football research.)

But you can’t just make a one-for-one swap when it comes to Adams. From his background with the franchise to his relationship with Belichick to his knowledge of the game and its history, he was singularly unique. Patricia has an impressive résumé (he was a rocket scientist, if you recall), but it’ll take some time to match Adams. Belichick had unofficial members of his kitchen cabinet with him in New England before — Mike LombardiFloyd Reese, to name two — but Adams was a different sort.

One more note: it’s tough to lose two franchise veterans like Adams and Scarnecchia in relatively short order. Two guys who did two different things, but both were also foundational elements of the organization. Pillars.

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Adams was a unique asset to the franchise, one that can’t be replaced simply by someone being promoted through the organization. While Adams will undoubtedly be around to offer advice and wisdom, it’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots go about trying to replace him. And it’ll also be interesting to see what awaits him when it comes to his next chapter. My guess? It won’t be long before we at the Patriots’ Hall of Fame nominating committee have to start to consider the candidacy of one of our own.

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