ATLANTA — In 1978, as he began his second NFL season as the Denver Broncos’ punter, Bucky Dilts struck up an ongoing conversation with a curious coaching intern, a kid only one year older than him. The intern peppered Dilts with questions. He always wanted to understand why, and he showed keen interest in the impact of Dilts kicking left-footed, something to which Dilts had given little thought. “Want to punt some?” the intern would ask Dilts.
And then Bill Belichick, Denver’s 24-year-old special teams assistant, would run 50 yards down the field to catch Dilts’ punts.
“I think he was trying to understand the reverse spin and if it was harder to catch the punt,” Dilts said.
Four decades have passed since Belichick’s first days in the NFL, and in them he has stuffed 12 trips to the Super Bowl as either an assistant or head coach, the latest coming this week against the Los Angeles Rams. He has transformed from eager kid to scowling genius, from the son of a renowned scout to the architect of the New England Patriots’ reign, arguably the greatest football coach ever to stalk a sideline.
What has not changed is Belichick’s abiding enthusiasm for special teams. For his first full-time NFL coaching job, Belichick served as the New York Giants’ special teams coach. He credits those years with shaping his coaching outlook. He has multiple players whose only role is playing on coverage and return units. He treats special teams not as something that happens between offense and defense, but as a full third of the game.
Most everything about Belichick’s operation can be gleaned through how he approaches special teams. He uses them to promote solidarity. He demands correct execution down to excruciating detail. He mines opponents for weaknesses and exploits them ruthlessly. He devotes roster space to smart, tough players who understand their roles.
“Because of the way he came up in this game, he understands hidden yardage and field position and the value of the third phase of the game,” said Matthew Slater, a Patriots captain who for 11 years has served as New England’s special teams ace. “A lot of coaches say it’s important, but they don’t really show it by how they build their roster. He reflects that every year in how he builds his roster.”
Every week, Belichick gathers the Patriots in a meeting room for a full-team film study session. He reviews all three phases in front of everybody. The entire team, without exceptions, watches clips of special teams plays.
“Even Tom (Brady) has to listen to how we have to cover on kickoff,” Slater said. “I think that sends a message to the entire organization that, hey, this is something that’s important to us, and this is something that’s going to help us win football games. It kind of gets that buy-in.”
To football lifers, Brady’s presence in those meetings is illuminating. “On most NFL teams, the high-paid quarterback will whine. ‘Oh, why do I have to sit in there? I could be spending this time getting in the run game installation,’ “ said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck. “And the coach is like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good point.’ “
In New England, Brady receives a firsthand lesson in Slater’s importance or the difficulty Kyle Van Noy faces playing both linebacker and special teams. It builds appreciation, and it creates bonds.
“There is so much value in camaraderie and respect,” Hasselbeck said. “That’s the little stuff I would say they are uncommon at. It’s not normal. Other teams don’t do that. That kind of stuff is so valuable.”
In those sessions, Belichick vacillates between adulatory and unsparing. If a unit tackles well, displays coordination and uses sound technique, Belichick will rewind the tape four or five times to hand out attaboys. When a punt coverage team bunches together, players in a straight line, Belichick pauses the film and says, with peeved sarcasm, “Yeah, there we are, in the I formation.” He then rolls tape of a big return and chastises, “What did you think was going to happen?” To Belichick, there is no excuse for improper execution.
“Stuff like that where we or someone else demonstrates poor fundamentals or poor awareness, it drives him nuts,” Slater said.
In 2012, when Steve Spagnuolo was the Saints’ defensive coordinator, New England and New Orleans held joint training camp practices for several days. Given an opportunity to talk with Belichick, Spagnuolo asked Belichick what in his coaching career had been most beneficial to him.
“Without hesitating, he said, ‘I coached special team for three years,’ “ Spagnuolo said.
Monday night, dressed in a suit for opening night of Super Bowl week, Belichick was asked about the influence his tenure as a special teams coach had on his career. Typically tight-lipped, Belichick spoke for a minute and 47 seconds.
“Being a special teams coach is the best training I ever had to being a head coach,” Belichick said. “Certainly, being a coordinator is a great experience. Being a special teams coach, you work with every player on the team, with the exception of the quarterbacks.
“Those relationships, and understanding how to deal with different positions, different types of players, all the players at different levels — young players, developmental players, core players, players whose primary role was the kicking game, players whose secondary role was the kicking game. You put all that together, that was a tremendous experience.”
As an intern with the Colts, Giants and Broncos, Belichick was assigned to special teams. He approached the job with extreme seriousness.
“He wasn’t just running around like a lost puppy,” Dilts said. “He was trying to understand why people were trying to do stuff a certain way. That’s a big difference.”
Coaching Dilts, Belichick came to believe a left-footed punter imparted spin that made it trickier for a returner to handle punts. To this day, Belichick maintains the fixation. The five primary punters he’s employed with the Patriots have been lefties.
“I’d like to say I was the first one,” Dilts said.
After Belichick’s season in Denver, Giants coach Ray Perkins needed a special teams coach. Ernie Adams, a quality control assistant for Perkins and Belichick’s best friend from their days at Phillips Academy prep school in Massachusetts, told Perkins he should interview Belichick. To accommodate Perkins’ travel schedule, Belichick met him at a San Diego airport hotel. “I just liked the way he answered the questions I had, his philosophy on special teams,” Perkins recalled.
Before their season debut in 1979, Belichick spotted a flaw in the Philadelphia Eagles’ kick return formation. As a 25-year-old assistant in his first real job, Belichick convinced Perkins the Giants should begin the year with an onside kick. The Giants recovered it, then scored a field goal.
“You got assignment coaching, and then you’ve got coaching,” Perkins said. “Assignment coaching, anybody can do. Anybody can learn assignments. The guy that goes a step, or maybe two or three steps further, and beyond the assignment — how can that player from a mental standpoint and physical standpoint perform his duty on that particular play? That was him.”
Rams special teams coach John Fassel said he can tell Belichick used to coach the unit based on the sublime technique of Patriots special teamers and personnel choices. With the Giants, Belichick used stars such as Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks as wings on their field goal block unit. He doesn’t view starters as too important for special teams; he views special teams as too important not to use his best players.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski once broke his arm blocking on an extra point. Wide receiver Julian Edelman returns punts. Van Noy, a starting linebacker, scored a touchdown this season after Dont’a Hightower, another starting linebacker, blocked a punt.
“He treats the special teams like offense and defense,” Van Noy said. “It’s a third of the game, and he makes it a priority.”
Belichick also finds players specifically tailored for special teams. Slater is listed as a wide receiver, but he has caught one pass his entire career. He has an heir apparent in Nate Ebner, a nominal safety who appeared on one defensive snap this season but a team-high 329 on special teams. Brandon King, listed as a linebacker, played 281 special teams plays and zero anywhere else.
“There’s no one specific body type we’re looking for,” Patriots special teams coach Joe Judge said. “But with that relentless attitude of playing every play, that’s what we’re looking for. On their college tape, they’ve got to jump across the screen at you.”
When Van Noy and Hightower combined for the touchdown, it resulted from a wrinkle inserted into New England’s game plan specifically for the Chicago Bears. The Patriots had noticed a lack of communication between Bears blockers, and when the time came, Hightower burst through the line.
When Judge was asked how detailed Belichick can be as a head coach studying opposing special teams units, Judge laughed.
“As detailed as you can imagine.
“He recognizes mistakes the other team is making on a consistent basis,” said former safety Beasley Reece, who returned kicks for Belichick in New York. “He will notice that there’s a weak spot in their philosophy, the way they’re set up to block or set up to return, and he will tell you exactly what you need to do to exploit.”
In that regard, Belichick’s task will be difficult Sunday. Rams punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein, who booted the Rams into the Super Bowl with a 57-yard field goal in overtime of the NFC championship game, are as dazzling as punters and kickers get. Belichick has repeatedly referred to Hekker as a “weapon.” He blasts punts with an array of spins and angles, and he’s an accomplished passer, witnessed during his crucial fake punt conversion in the NFC title game.
When it comes to special teams, Belichick will be ready for anything. Slater loves to ask Belichick questions such as how he should release off the line as a gunner against a certain blocker or how he should approach tackling a specific return man. He can tell how excited Belichick gets to answer, and he is certain other coaches would not be able to have the same conversation.
“They don’t have the background,” Slater said. “But he can speak to all facets of our team. He’s been doing it longer than all of us have been alive.”