- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

The question was innocuous enough. At a press conference this week, a reporter asked New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick whether he had much familiarity with Mike Heimerdinger, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator who recently defected to the New York Jets.

Belichick, neck-deep in preparations for tomorrow’s AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, wanted nothing to do with the subject.

“He’s not with the Steelers, is he?” Belichick replied.

“No,” the reporter said.

“Yeah, OK. All right.”

“This is a forum, so …”

“Right. Yeah, well, I will just try and concentrate on the Steelers,” Belichick said, and that was that.

Nothing gets in the way of the matchless focus of Belichick, who has risen to the pinnacle of NFL coaching by winning two of the past three Super Bowls and pushing the Patriots to the brink of another title and perhaps even dynasty status.

Yes, Belichick is a control freak. And he’s at least a bit paranoid. But no one can debate his command of the Patriots’ operation. From constructing a mature, cohesive club that deftly overcomes injuries to outfoxing potent offenses with his masterful game-planning, Belichick has staked a claim as one of history’s greatest coaches.

Not that he ever would open up his tunnel vision enough to realize it.

“It’s a nice compliment,” Belichick said. “I don’t think it really means much this week. I don’t think anybody cares about that. I am sure Pittsburgh doesn’t care. What we have to do is … get as mentally and physically prepared as we possibly can to play the best team in the AFC in their place. If we don’t, I’m sure none of those things will be said next week.”

It is largely because of Belichick that New England is favored this weekend. Pittsburgh might have won 15 straight games, clobbered the Patriots 34-20 on Oct.31 and earned home-field advantage for this title bout, but the Steelers are still three-point underdogs. Conventional wisdom says that, somewhere in the Patriots’ headquarters this week, Belichick quietly figured out the perfect way to upend Pittsburgh.

Jets running back Curtis Martin compared Belichick to legendary chess whiz Bobby Fischer. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning simply might call Belichick the grim reaper. In the last two postseasons, Belichick has dismantled a Colts attack considered virtually unstoppable.

Belichick is 7-0 in the playoffs as Patriots coach and 8-1 for his career, a higher winning percentage than anyone in NFL history save Vince Lombardi (9-1). And there’s no sign of New England slowing down.

“I have great respect for New England, just for how they’ve done it,” Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. “How Bill has approached the game, how their football players, and him particularly throughout their success, have stayed very grounded and very focused. … To me, they are a model football team.”

If coaching traits could be divided into two areas, team-building and game-planning, Belichick would get A’s in both subjects. Unlike Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who returned this year with incredible skills as a leader and communicator but little touch as a play-caller, Belichick seems to have control over all aspects of his job.

From the CEO perspective, Belichick has meshed with personnel chief Scott Pioli to build a team that embraces modest stars, hidden gems and role players perfectly suited for the offensive and defensive schemes. The result is a roster that skates through the salary-cap era, compensating for big-name defections and potentially crippling injuries.

A lot of that also has to do with how Belichick runs his meticulous operation. Reporters get frustrated when he makes assistant coaches off limits or dictates what can’t be written from practices. But for the coach, every decision is geared to what puts the team in position to win.

For Belichick, the idea is to have everyone intimately aware of how the team will function. Perhaps the best illustration of his philosophy this week came when he discussed Cowher.

“The things that I admire and respect about Bill [is] we all know what [his] program is,” Belichick said. “I think that if you are a scout for the Steelers, you know what type of player to bring in there. If you play for the Steelers, you know what is expected and what is going to be tolerated and what isn’t. If you are a coach there, I’m sure you know how he wants things done.

“I hear people say, ‘Well, they know what we’re going to do.’ Well, everybody knows what Pittsburgh is going to do, and they keep doing it, and that is good. That is not a negative. That is good.”

From an X’s and O’s standpoint, Belichick is potentially even more respected. The way he stifled the Colts in last year’s AFC title game and again in last week’s divisional round showed he might be able to shut down any offense.

Now his creative sights are focused on Pittsburgh. In the first meeting, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes with no interceptions, posting a 126.4 rating. But the second time is often a doozy against a coach who can shift smoothly between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, blitz from all angles and bewilder a passer with disguised coverages.

“You have to have a plan, work the plan and plan for the unexpected, especially with him,” Roethlisberger said. “He’ll throw so many different things at you. You have just got to be ready for something new. We will have to be ready to possibly make adjustments during the game like we always do.”

And Belichick, who emerged from game preparations this week just long enough to grumble at the media, likely will have another answer.

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