HOUSTON - Bill Belichick thought it was a really bad joke at a really bad time.
Jim Whalen, the New England Patriots’ second-year head trainer, approached Belichick in the coaches’ dressing room as players were getting taped 13 years ago for the first Super Bowl game played at the new stadium in Houston.
“Whalen comes over and says, ‘I think we have a problem,’” Belichick recounted during four hours of interviews for "The Ultimate Super Bowl Book." “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’
“He said, ‘Kinchen cut his hand at the pregame meal.’
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Jim, this is the Super Bowl. We don’t (expletive) around here.
“He said, ‘No, I’m serious. He’s got it wrapped,’ and he points over to him in the locker room. I think it was on his index finger. Left hand, I think.”
Kinchen, a veteran long snapper and tight end, was signed by the Patriots in mid-December when their snapper blew out his knee.
“Kinchen comes over to me and says, ‘Look, I’m not sure,’” Belichick remembered. “I said, ‘You better … (or) I’m going to (expletive) kill you.’
“It’s a finger. Stitch it up, put a tourniquet on it, whatever you want to do. But you know what? You’re playing. It’s a Super Bowl.”
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Kinchen, a Plan B signee of the Green Bay Packers in 1991, did play. In fact, he snapped for Adam Vinatieri’s 41-yard field goal in the final seconds that enabled the Patriots to beat the Carolina Panthers, 32-29.
“The one good snap he makes is on that winning field goal,” said Belichick, the old special-teams coach for the Lions, Broncos and Giants who probably still dwells on everything about the kicking game. “The rest were a little shaky … off-target.”
Belichick volunteered the story about Kinchen in his deadpan, monotone voice. On the other end of the phone I was dying inside with laughter.
People say Belichick has a delicious sense of humor. Trust me. The guy is absolutely hilarious.
He’s also a victory away Sunday night over the Atlanta Falcons from becoming the first coach with five Super Bowl championships.
Is Belichick the greatest coach of all time? Possibly, although in alphabetical order Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Don Shula and Bill Walsh were pretty good, too.
But Belichick, at least in my opinion, is the preeminent football man in the history of pro football. Nothing involving football for the last 17 years in New England has happened without him. It’s all Belichick, the 64-year-old son of a lifetime assistant coach/scout who spent 33 years at the Naval Academy.
“To go to a game and watch him scout the game was an unforgettable experience,” Belichick said Tuesday of his father, Steve, who died in 2005. “He taught me what he watched for. He was just so good at it.”
What also amazes me about Belichick was his perseverance in enduring nine seasons (2005-13) between championships. The next-longest gap between Super Bowl triumphs by a coach was five years (1972-76) by Tom Landry.
Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy will be working on a six-year interruption in 2017 as he attempts to claim his second Super Bowl.
Here are some other thoughts on Belichick, the most fascinating figure in the NFL.
One former executive in personnel for an NFL team recently put together a quantitative study of the drafts in 2014 and ’15. The results placed the Patriots near the bottom of the league.
There’s no question it would help if Belichick were more successful in the draft. He probably has been middle of the road over the years.
Obviously, the Patriots’ record suggests his drafting prowess isn’t all that important.
“They don’t do that well pick-by-pick,” said the executive who competed against Belichick for years. “What they do well is fill in. They have all these reclamation projects. No one says, ‘Hey, what about that draft pick?’”
The personnel man drew a comparison with Green Bay, which lives and dies with the draft because general manager Ted Thompson signs so few players who have been with other teams and almost never acquires a player by trade.
“Green Bay is a better drafting team than New England,” the executive said. “But, when they miss, there’s nobody else coming in.
“You better kick major (expletive) in the draft year after year. You put so much pressure on that (draft and develop), you have to be unreal at it. Belichick isn’t, but he covers for his mistakes.”
NEW LIFE IN FOXBORO
On Thursday afternoon, linebackers Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy appeared to be on top of the world as they sat at nearby tables during an interview session. Discarded by NFC North teams, they’re on the cusp of earning Super Bowl rings in their first seasons in New England.
McClellin was the first draft choice (No. 19 overall) during Phil Emery’s three-year tenure as GM in Chicago. When McClellin’s contract expired in March, he landed a three-year, $9.2 million contract ($3.5 million guaranteed) with the Patriots 10 days into unrestricted free agency.
The Bears played McClellin at defensive end in a 4-3 for two years, outside linebacker in a 3-4 in 2014 and inside linebacker in a 3-4 last year. He admitted to thoughts of retirement before the Patriots called and his career was reborn.
“Yeah, I’d definitely say that,” said McClellin, adding that this is the best he has ever played. “I feel great. Confidence is back. It’s hard to play when your confidence is down.”
Belichick always has collected medium-sized linebacker-defensive end players because his scheme is so versatile. He mixes and matches based on the weekly game plan.
“You play a 16-game season, you say this team is like this one we played or like that one,” said Wade Harman, the Falcons’ tight ends coach. “When you play (the Patriots), it’s like there’s nobody else like them.
“They’re just totally different than anybody we’ve played. Their front’s different. They play different. They’re different every week. We’ll have to do some adjusting.”
McClellin played in a rotation at end and outside linebacker in the Patriots’ various three- and four-man defenses. When Belichick traded athletic inside linebacker Jamie Collins after eight games, McClellin’s versatility enabled him to switch to linebacker both outside and inside.
“He’s a hybrid,” said one scout. “Not real physical. Good athlete. Smart.”
The Detroit Lions, a 4-3 team, selected Van Noy early in the second round of the 2014 draft even though most scouts viewed him as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He started on the strong side early this season but was downgraded by scouts who said he was too soft.
One week before trading Collins, Belichick dealt a sixth-round pick to Detroit for Van Noy and a seventh-round choice. Van Noy has played 250 snaps in half a season compared to McClellin’s 382 in the full year.
“Look how (Van Noy) has been used,” one scout said. “They don’t play him on run (first) downs. They use him as a blitzer and cover guy. He doesn’t jump out, but he can match up and bracket (receivers) because he’s a good athlete.”
Van Noy played 42 snaps (61 percent) against Pittsburgh two weeks ago but says he could play 10 this week.
“I have no idea,” Van Noy said. “I just know I’m ready and I’m confident. I’m playing a lot better and just enjoying football.”
TAKING THE PLUNGE
Defensive end Chris Long was guaranteed $36.75 million by the then-St. Louis Rams in September 2014 after registering 33 sacks from 2011-13. Injuries wiped out much of Long’s last two seasons and he was cut Feb. 19.
On March 15, Belichick traded sack artist Chandler Jones to Arizona for a second-round pick. Jones had off-field problems and was in line for a blockbuster contract.
On March 18, Belichick signed Long for one year at $2.375 million ($1 million guaranteed) to help replace Jones. Although Long had played outside in the Rams’ 4-3, he agreed to play inside (3-technique) for most of the season. He played 677 snaps.
“(Belichick) just knows how to put players in positions to be successful but, first and foremost, help the team win,” Long said Thursday. “It’s simple to say it but it’s not easy to do.”
Long, the son of Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long, scored 34 on the Wonderlic intelligence test. Let’s just say he can see through the fluff.
“Over eight years you think you’d know a lot about football,” Long said. “With him, you get to learn about all three phases of the game every day. He’s just got such a comprehensive knowledge of the game.”
Long said he was positive Belichick could coach any position effectively. Ivan Fears, the team’s running backs coach, and Brendan Daly, the defensive line coach, each said their boss could do their jobs equally well.
How does Belichick motivate?
“He just sets a really high standard for performance and commitment,” said Long, who had four head coaches in St. Louis. “You have to meet it. It’s not optional.”
Each offseason, when the Packers are filling their 90-man roster with “street” free agents and undrafted rookies, Belichick is signing a dozen or so veterans with three years of NFL experience or more.
Most don’t make the team. Belichick can be as unsentimental as an executioner. But he places a premium on legitimate roster battles and fresh ideas.
“Now is important,” he said Wednesday. “We want to have a great football team this year or whatever year. Part of my job is to balance the competitiveness of our team this year with being able to put a competitive team on the field next year.”
The Patriots have won 14 division titles under Belichick.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Several players couldn’t identify Ernie Adams. When told he was the intellectual, bespectacled man at Belichick’s side during practice, McClellin said, “Oh, yeah, Ernie. I’m not sure exactly what he does but I know he helps the team a lot.”
Adams, 63, worked as an offensive coaching assistant in Cleveland under Belichick from 1991-95 and as football research director in New England since 2000.
“What’s his title?” Long said. “He’s just brilliant. I talk to him about the history of the game. He seems to be secretive, but I don’t know.”
Adams has been off-limits to the press for years but that wasn’t always the case. As the Giants’ director of pro scouting from 1982-85 (Belichick was an assistant there at the time), Adams would return my calls and discuss personnel across the league.
“He’s like the Wizard of Oz,” said a former NFL general manager. “I know he has his ear.”
In the 2008 interviews, Belichick made it clear that Adams was one of his most trusted advisers.
Not long before the Patriots’ 20-17 victory over the Rams in the 36th Super Bowl in New Orleans, Belichick and Adams were watching tape of red-zone plays after the final practice of the week.
“We put in a quick out down there in the red area,” Belichick said. “They played a decent amount of off coverage.
“I said to Ernie, ’The way these corners play, they’re going to jump that route on the goal line and we’re never going to complete that.’
“Ernie said, ‘If we’re not careful, Aeneas Williams is going to intercept the sumbitch and run it back 100 yards.
“So we changed the play. I walked over to Charlie (Weis, offensive coordinator) and I said, ‘Charlie, run the out on the goal line and then turn it up and let’s throw it in the back corner.’”
Late in the first half, wide receiver David Patten turned cornerback Dexter McCleon and made a twisting, acrobatic catch of Tom Brady’s 8-yard pass in the corner.
It was the Patriots’ only touchdown on offense in their stunning upset of St. Louis, a team known for a few years as “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
Bill Belichick’s Patriots should have been called that for the last 16 years.