Belichick has buy-in, trust of players -- and Patriots back on top

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick strode through the crowded locker room -- his head down, his arms swinging, his face set with the serious look of a man on a mission.

The New England Patriots coach ignored the players and reporters filling his domain. He had something to take care of before Wednesday's practice.

Rodney Harrison had seen that determination countless times.

"His motto is, 'Listen fellas, I'm going to do everything I can to make this team better, so whatever decision I make, it's not about you. It's not about me. It's about the team,'" the former star safety said. "You can do nothing but respect that."

It's the Belichick Way.

It's the Patriots Way.

And it has worked for a decade, from the Super Bowl championship in the 2001 season to the best record in the NFL this season. Players change. Assistant coaches leave. The Patriots Way endures.

The approach has many parts -- focus on team over individual success, prepare thoroughly, shut out distractions, build team depth and look no further than the next game.

It has one goal -- winning.

"When you embody the Patriots spirit, it's guys that aren't worried about who gets the recognition," said Harrison, now an analyst on NBC's "Football Night in America" show. "If you win football games, everybody looks good.

"The other thing about the Patriots Way is preparation. When you prepare everyone, it creates depth and it begins to build confidence in guys who accept their roles."

Belichick's players prepare exhaustively, even for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins that means nothing in the standings. The Patriots (13-2) already have home-field advantage as long as they're in the AFC playoffs.

Few situations arise in games that the players haven't seen in practice. No detail is too small. After all, it might save a game that can lead to a title, so Belichick springs questions on players during meetings.

"I can remember my first week being here," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who joined the Patriots as a free agent before last season. "I was sitting there before the Buffalo game and he's like, 'Rob, could you name all their tight ends and their strengths and weaknesses?'"

The nervous newcomer was speechless. So he opened his book to look it up.

"He was like, 'Close your book,'" Ninkovich recalled, "and then he came up to me and said, 'Hey, you've got to know their shoe size by the time you play them, so take this as a lesson.'"

Belichick doesn't back off from challenging conventional wisdom either. He traded star defensive end Richard Seymour before last season, then dealt wide receiver Randy Moss after the fourth game this season. Belichick has stocked up on new players, 24 in their first year with the Patriots, including eight veteran free agents and three rookie free agents.

"He's a great evaluator of talent and he's a great evaluator of people," Harrison said. "He talks to you. He understands after meeting you whether you're the type of guy that fits in his system, and he'll let you know."

Moss fit in very well in 2007, his first season with the Patriots. He caught an NFL-record 23 touchdown passes and finished with 98 catches for 1,493 yards. The next two years, he totaled 152 receptions and 24 touchdowns. But this year, his production fell off, and he complained about his contract situation -- diverting the spotlight from the Patriots' season-opening win by saying he didn't believe the team would bring him back next year.

Three weeks later, Moss was traded to the Minnesota Vikings and later claimed off waivers by the Tennessee Titans, but he still praises Belichick as the greatest football coach he has ever seen.

"He tries to eliminate a lot of nonsense, and the nonsense is the off-the-field distractions, straight tunnel vision," Moss said. "You can respect that a lot in a coach. I have the utmost respect for him, and I think he's the greatest coach."

In many ways, the players resemble their coach. They spend extra time studying film, focus on their next task and speak cautiously with reporters, careful not to reveal information on injuries or game plans.

That's critical to the Patriots Way -- platitudes avoid problems.

Asked if the team has taken on Belichick's personality, running back Danny Woodhead said Friday: "We trust our coach, and we're just taking it one day at a time, and that's what we've got to do. That's what we've tried to do the whole season, and that's what we're going to continue to do."

No bulletin-board material there. Another reason for Belichick to like the 5-foot-8 running back, besides his 528 rushing yards and 34 receptions.

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But Woodhead and his teammates still can improve, and one bad practice can set them back.

"We got better yesterday. We got better on Wednesday. We're going to have a better team this Sunday," quarterback Tom Brady said Friday. "(That) really has been a trademark of this team ... to always make improvements over the course of the season. So I don't think we take weeks off. I don't think we take days off. We're always trying to get better."

The Patriots have three Super Bowl titles in the last nine seasons. Harrison believes many people don't like dynasties and want them to fail.

"There are so many people out there that are against you and so many things that can bring distractions to your team," he said, "and (Belichick) just does a wonderful job of saying, 'Fellas, it's us in this locker room against everyone else. Don't worry about it.'"

Using real or imagined enemies for motivation is another part of the Patriots Way.

"Bill invented the Way," said Heath Evans, who spent 3½ seasons as a New England running back before joining the New Orleans Saints for the 2009 season. "Whatever the best thing is for the team, that's the Belichick Way and the Patriot Way."

That Way, of course, might not lead to another championship this season. But as long as the players don't stray from it, chances are the Patriots will be contending for many years.

"The beautiful part about this is they're young and they're buying into the system," Harrison said. "So that means they're going to be good for a very long time."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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