For Pats coaches, it's their minds over what some think matters

  • By Ira Miller Special to
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Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images
Even though neither has played a down of professional football, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have a lot to submit as NFL coaches, even offering advice to one of the league's all-time greatest quarterbacks.

PHOENIX -- There's a phrase athletes often use when they complain about their critics, which is something athletes frequently do.

It goes like this: "You never played the game."

Their point is that no one can tell them what to do if the person doing the telling never did it themselves.

Guess it doesn't apply to the New England Patriots.

New England's coaching staff is one of the NFL's lowest on professional playing experience. Head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Dean Pees never played a minute of professional football. Pees did not even play college football.

Only two of Belichick's assistants had pro careers, and one of them, Don Davis, is the assistant strength and conditioning coach. The only position coach who played in the NFL is defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Giants.

Playing experience of Patriots coaches
Name Title Top playing level
Bill Belichick Head coach Three-year letterman as center and tight end at Wesleyan (Conn.)
Josh McDaniels Offensive coordinator Played WR at John Carroll; college teammate of Caserio
Dean Pees Defensive coordinator No college or pro playing experience
Dante Scarnecchia Offensive line Played guard and center at California Western
Ivan Fears Running backs Three-year letterman as RB at William & Mary
Nick Caserio Wide receivers Four-year starter at QB at John Carroll
Pete Mangurian Tight ends Played DT at Louisiana State
Pepper Johnson Defensive line Started 158 games at LB for four teams in 13-year NFL career
Matt Patricia Linebackers Played guard and center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Joel Collier Secondary Three-year starter at ILB for Northern Colorado
Brad Seely Special teams Played guard at South Dakota State
» Patriots coaching staff

Yet, it's hard to argue there has been a team better prepared than the Patriots. Not just this year, perhaps for years and years.

"For all the great things that Bill does, the assistants that he has, and the trust that he has in them, allows for those guys to go out and coach," said linebacker Mike Vrabel.

Opponents know the drill.

The usual routine when preparing for a game is to study primarily tapes of, say, three recent games. Asked if that was good enough to prepare to play New England, Giants quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer just shook his head.

"You might have to go back a couple of years to see what they've done and what they haven't done," Palmer said.

It's obvious that experience as an NFL player is not a prerequisite to coaching success. In some cases, maybe it can be a negative. Miami's Cam Cameron, who never played, had six assistant coaches on his staff last year with at least four years of NFL playing experience, including Brett Maxie and Mel Phillips, who were defensive backs in the league for 13 and 12 years, respectively.

But the Dolphins had a 1-15 record and Cameron was fired.

You hate to use the word when talking about football, but Belichick and his coaches almost make it an intellectual exercise. They might not have played the game at the elite level, but they know and understand it. Talking about McDaniels on Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day, Belichick pointed out McDaniel's background as the son of a long-time, big-time, Ohio high school coach, and said McDaniels "has a good, instinctive football background."

"He has been around football all his life . . . I'd say he has a good perspective on the game," Belichick said.

The most playing experience on a coaching staff last year belonged to Green Bay, which had six coaches who played at least eight NFL seasons and another who played a dozen years in Canada. The Packers reached the NFC Championship Game. But the team that beat them, the Giants, has only three coaches who played professional football, none of whom had lengthy careers.

Among head coaches, Belichick's lack of playing background is not all that unusual. Only nine of the league's coaches in 2007 ever played pro football. But most of the 23 teams with coaches who did not play had, like Miami, at least a couple of key assistants with extensive NFL playing experience.

Without that experience, it can be a daunting task -- especially for a young coach -- when facing a meeting room full of NFL veterans for the first time.

McDaniels, who is just 31, still remembers a conversation he had with veteran safety Lawyer Milloy, two years his senior, in 2002 when McDaniels was just starting out as a defensive coach, way down on the pecking order, charged with breaking down game tapes.

"We were just talking football," McDaniels said Tuesday.

Milloy looked at McDaniels and told him, "If you come into this room and give me information that helps me improve as a player, I'll listen to you. If we feel that you're talking just to hear yourself talk, we'll tune you out."

"I haven't forgotten it," McDaniels said.

McDaniels thought he was prepared when he got the job and had the confidence to face the players right from the start. But not everyone does.

In 1979, when the late Bill Walsh became head coach at San Francisco, he offered an assistant's job to George Seifert, who had been on his staff at Stanford. Seifert turned the job down and, years later, he admitted it was because he didn't have the confidence needed to handle a room full of professional players.

One year later, in 1980, Seifert changed his mind and accepted a second offer from Walsh to join the 49ers as defensive backfield coach. Three seasons after that, the 49ers became the first team to send all four starting defensive backs to the Pro Bowl and, eventually, Seifert succeeded Walsh and won two Super Bowls as the team's head coach.

One reason the Patriots have flourished with a staff light on playing experience -- besides the obvious fact they have very good players -- is that Belichick allows his assistants to do their jobs. He rarely allows them to talk to the media -- Tuesday's Media Day was an exception -- so they might not get much public notice, but they are good at what they do.

"The most important thing (in hiring assistants) is to identify what you are looking for," Belichick said. "I think if you know what you want, you have a better chance of finding it, rather than just taking a list of names and picking one out of there."

"He puts the onus on your shoulder to make sure you're prepared," said wide receivers coach Nick Caserio, who was a college teammate of McDaniels at John Carroll.

And for a young coach to sell himself to a meeting room full of professionals? Milloy's advice still holds.

"The most important thing is that as long as you go into the meeting and are prepared and have a plan and are honest with the players and are straightforward and just be yourself, whatever your personality might be," said Caserio. "And as long as you can give them the information they need to be successful on the field, I think in the end, that's what they're looking for.

"I think you just have to be confident in yourself and just make sure that you're prepared, because if you're (not) -- just up there speaking -- the players can see through that."

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to


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