HOUSTON -- The first rule of Patriots legacy talk: Patriots do not talk about legacy. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady traveled this far, to a seventh Super Bowl together, because of an inexhaustible love for football in the present tense.
"Every day is an important day in his mind," Brady said this week of his coach. "He walks into the team meeting room every day and goes, 'All right guys -- this is a big day!' And he means it. He doesn't just say it the Wednesday of Super Bowl week. He says it Wednesday in April."
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Staying in the moment has helped Belichick and Brady defy traditional expiration dates like no duo in NFL history. It was seven seasons ago, after an ugly home playoff loss to Baltimore, when the first articles appeared asking: Is this the end of the Patriots dynasty? It was five seasons ago when the team lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants again, a defeat that left Brady catatonic in the locker room, seemingly his last, best chance at another championship gone.
The Patriots have reached the AFC Championship Game every season since. They are back in the Super Bowl with Brady playing at a higher level at age 39 than 34, with Belichick delivering a top-ranked scoring defense despite having far less talent than on previous teams.
Slowing down this extraordinary Falcons offense ranks among Belichick's greatest challenges, the potential final act of a game plan trilogy that included schemes to stop the 1990 no-huddle Bills and the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams of 2001. A New England win would make debates about the greatest coach and quarterback of the Super Bowl era less contentious, forcing anti-Patriots fans to resort to spurious tactics. But that fifth title as a head coach is only possible because Belichick loves those Wednesdays in April like few before others.
'The best listener I've ever known'
Fourth-year safety Duron Harmon remembers the first time Belichick showed he's a teacher first.
"It was my rookie year, spring minicamp, and it was the idea of reading a quarterback. He told me, in Cover 2, sometimes you gotta read the release of the outside receiver just to tempo your backpedal. That right there allowed me to be a lot closer to a lot more balls, where the receiver releasing inside can't really go vertical," Harmon said, soaring over the head of football novices. "Things like that have allowed me to be a better football player. He teaches me something every day."
Head coaches acting as teachers on such a micro level is not the norm in the NFL.
"He always talks about it: Fundamentals win games," Harmon said.
That approach is apparent in the Patriots' secondary, a group that allowed the fewest yards after catch in football. (That trait will be particularly vital Sunday against Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.)
A coach who prizes versatility brings his own ability to teach minute details on the field and execute an evolving roster construction on draft day and beyond. Ryan said Belichick told him New England primarily drafted him for his tackling. That's a strange admission to hear from a cornerback, but it fits with Belichick's philosophy. He knows what he wants and doesn't veer from his principles.
"Bill was very, very detailed about the type of players he was going to play with," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said of his six years working under Belichick. "I admire that a great deal. From a man who, again, is arguably one of the best ever to coach in this league, he takes the talent and puts them in the right spot and he utilizes them to the best of their ability. He doesn't try to force-feed a talent into an area on his field that doesn't suit that player. That's a massive thing in acquisitions."
Dimitroff's assistant GM, Scott Pioli, worked under Belichick even longer. It's probably not a coincidence that Belichick's "general manager tree" -- which also includes Titans GM Jon Robinson, Lions GM Bob Quinn and Buccaneers GM Jason Licht -- has succeeded more than his coaching tree. New England's philosophy on how to run an organization could be easier to replicate than Belichick's game plans and ability to adjust during games. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels learned that the hard way as a head coach in Denver, and his return to New England gave him a greater appreciation of Belichick as a teacher.
"He's the best listener I've ever known," McDaniels said.
Often mocked for his mumblecore press conferences, it's surprising to hear Belichick lauded throughout the organization as a communicator above all else. Former Patriots player Bryan Cox, now the Falcons' defensive line coach, said he learned to be a blunt communicator from Belichick. McDaniels lauded Belichick's ability to get input from all areas of the organization.
"He doesn't discriminate when it comes to speaking to people and having conversations. Asking for input, learning from someone else or trying to teach you. It doesn't matter where you are on the totem pole," McDaniels said. "I think the best thing is you would never know whether he's talking to me or someone else. ... He tries to influence everybody -- and he does."
Like McDaniels, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia came up through the coaching ranks after starting at the very bottom rung on the ladder. Trademark Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil in his ear, Patricia told NFL.com that very little has changed in his relationship with Belichick since 2004, when Patricia arrived to the team after transitioning into coaching from a background in aeronautical engineering.
"For me, it's all stressful, it's all the same," Patricia said. "I still try to go to work and make sure my key card works. That's why I don't leave the building -- they have to throw me out if they're going to get rid of me."
Belichick is part mentor, part pacesetter for the coaching staff. All the while, his better-looking avatar, Tom Brady, is essentially coaching up a new crop of young teammates.
'A great role model for all of us. Any player and any coach. All of us.'
No Patriots players other than Brady remain from the franchise's first three title teams and only four active players preceded 2010 -- a year which kicked off the Gronk-era Patriots, who have earned seven straight playoff byes. With teammates 15 years his junior, Brady acts less like a bro to hit the clubs with and more like Mr. Miyagi.
"It may not be like we're going out together on Friday nights, but it might mean more than that," Brady explained about growing into middle age while playing a game. "I might be able to share things that might be able to help them in their career or help them with their family just because the experiences that I've had, taking care of themselves. I'm so on them about maximizing their potential and actualizing the things that they want to achieve because I've had people that really mentored me -- and if I can do that for other players, I love that."
Being teammates with Brady can be daunting at first. James Develin was in high school when Brady broke his heart by defeating the fullback's hometown Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Now Develin is one of the many younger teammates to say it "is an honor" to play with Brady.
"For eight years, I've seen the same Tom every day," safety Patrick Chung said. "That doesn't change -- he's just even-keeled, calm, competitive, passionate about what he does. He's just chill. He's been the same for eight years."
Chill is not the word that immediately comes to mind. A player doesn't get better pocket movement or set the NFL record in TD-to-INT ratio at age 39 by being chill.
Brady, however, believes he has taken strides in the "regulation" of his emotions, knowing when to get amped up and when to relax for games. In this particular Super Bowl buildup, Brady has been uncharacteristically unemotional when speaking about a difficult year for his family. (It was reported that Brady's mother, Galynn, has been battling an illness for the last 18 months.)
Any crack of Brady's facade -- whether through tears or video game humor -- can be jarring because he's known for his systematic approach to his profession.
"It's not an up-and-down thing," Belichick explained about Brady's preparation. "It's consistent every week in terms of learning the defense, learning their schemes and their players. He's able to put it all together better than any player that I've ever coached. Putting all that together at once in just a couple of seconds of time, he has to process it once he gets the calls and gets to the line of scrimmage. I think his preparation allows him to in part do that. He has the football instincts, as well. He's a great role model for all of us. Any player and any coach. All of us."
Belichick and Brady have rewritten the record book in large part with their leadership and preparation, coaching up a rotating cast of receivers, offensive linemen and assistant coaches. That's the strange thing about this Patriots dynasty. It is different in shape and scope than any that came before, spanning multiple eras. The dynasty amounts to just two men.
'There's no time to look back or look ahead'
Troy Aikman and Jim Harbaugh were two notable voices this week who said Brady is the greatest NFL quarterback in history, regardless of what happens Sunday. It's hard to construct any argument against Belichick as the greatest coach of the Super Bowl era, although it gets more complicated if you include Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown in the discussion. Belichick has long called Brown the "father of professional football" and there's no matching Brown's innovations that changed the sport. Brown (seven titles) and Lombardi (five titles) won plenty, albeit in a smaller, nearly unrecognizable sport.
The difference between Belichick and Brady, when compared to other all-time greats, is the longevity. Lombardi was only a head coach professionally for 10 seasons. Brown's last playoff victory as a coach came in his 10th season. Belichick, meanwhile, has been coaching in the NFL for 42 consecutive years, the second longest streak in NFL history behind Tennessee's Dick LeBeau. He said that coaching "actually beats working" and his actions support that.
"Yeah, I wonder sometimes," McDaniels said about Belichick's bottomless pit of motivation. "I've done it for 16 years and 16 years sounds like a long time, you know? When you're doing it at the level he's doing it at, competing hard every day into 40-something years of doing it, that's a lot of competition. That's a lot of preparation. That's a lot of hard work. ... I think that inspires all of us to try to do the same thing."
Brady has similarly outlasted the competition. In fact, he is a far superior player now than the one who snagged three championships between 2001 and 2004. There just hasn't ever been a career arc like his, including 11 conference championship games and only one healthy season from Brady where he missed the playoffs, way back in 2002. Brady, not Peyton Manning, was chosen by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee as the starting quarterback for their NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Yet he's been demonstrably better since then, a more productive quarterback in his 30s than he was in his 20s. He is making a strong case to be the All-Decade Team quarterback for two straight decades during this golden age at the position. A second title in the last three seasons would put an exclamation point on his dominance after age 30, the first quarterback of all time with two distinct periods of play each worthy of Canton induction on their own.
One more title makes the GOAT arguments cleaner for both of these Patriots icons. A fifth Lombardi Trophy would elevate Brady and Belichick above Chuck Noll, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana in championships. Standing in the way of this hierarchical separation? The high-powered Atlanta Falcons.
The offense on Sunday will challenge Belichick as a defensive coach like few others before. He made his reputation on a national stage in Super Bowl XXV as the Giants defensive coordinator, slowing down the up-tempo Bills attack led by Jim Kelly. That game plan is now in Canton and his declaration to his players that they would give up 100 yards to Thurman Thomas and win is the stuff of legend. A decade later, the Patriots stopped the "Greatest Show on Turf" by putting a bull's-eye on Rams running back Marshall Faulk every snap.
"That's a great question. That's one I haven't thought a lot about -- I'm just trying to focus on the Falcons and not comparing them to someone else," Belichick said. (The first rule of Patriots legacy talk ...)
"I think preparing every week like it's the most important game in the world makes things a little easier once you get in situations where a lot more people are watching and it might be a lot more important for people outside of the building," Long said. "Every week, we're grinding it out like it is our last game and then when it is our last game it makes things easier."
Every day, after all, is a big day in the land where legacy talk is not only forbidden, but premature.
"I never could have dreamed, after 17 years, I'd still be doing this," Brady said. "So it feels very much like it's still ongoing, you know? There's no time to look back or look ahead. I've enjoyed every minute of it and I want to keep playing. After this game, I'll probably take a week or two off, and then get back to work."
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.