FOXBORO, Mass. — Three weeks ago, Patriots safety Duron Harmon was helpless.
On a rare day spent as a football spectator, Harmon watched his young son learn a lesson Bill Belichick taught him six years earlier. It’s provided Harmon with countless victories since his rookie season of 2013. But on this October day, it brought young Christopher only pain.
Christopher’s youth flag football team had seized a two-score lead late in a playoff game. There was a minute and change to play. Quickly, they surrendered two long touchdown runs around a safety.
Soon, the game clock hits zeroes. Shock set in. His season was over, just like that.
The lesson was this: “You can’t win until you keep from losing.”
Belichick reminded Harmon and the Pats of the basic truth immediately after they suffered their own loss Sunday at Baltimore. He imparts the wisdom on his team at the start of every season and hammers it home at the end. Harmon first heard the idea as a third-round rookie out of Rutgers, taken aback by its simplicity and profundity.
“It resonated in a way with me, and then I realized why the Patriots organization is so successful,” he said.
The axiom isn’t a Belichick original. It’s a principle common to most championship programs across sports and history. Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight, a friend of Belichick’s, once famously said, “Dumb loses games more than smart wins.” Belichick was simply smart enough to adopt the point and adapt it.
Even during the Pats’ bye week, Harmon expects his coach’s words to stay with him.
“Watch the games this weekend,” he said. “There’s going to be a couple NFL, college, high school games where somebody is losing the game rather than winning it.”
In hearing Belichick away from the team’s facility, Harmon is hardly alone.
Minutes before slipping out of the locker room Wednesday and into their four-day break, several Patriots, from rookies to 12-year veterans, shared the No. 1 lesson they’ve taken from Belichick; the pearls of wisdom they clutch closest after all their meetings, practices, seasons, trials and triumphs shared with the greatest coach of all time.
On mental toughness
Sitting in three and a half seasons of meetings in New England, Ted Karras has filled 27 notebooks.
The fourth-year offensive lineman said he’s documented every address and point made by Belichick and Patriots assistants behind the scenes. Whether serving as a backup or newly made starter, Karras is always putting pen to paper. But he doesn’t need to search through all 27 notebooks to find his top pearl.
“My favorite one of Bill’s is, ‘Mental toughness is doing what’s right for the team when everything’s not going great for you,'” Karras said. “It’s so true.”
Having been released, yanked in and out of the starting lineup and across three positions during his career, Karras embodies the saying more than most. It helps explain his staying power.
Said Karras: “Adopting that early has helped me keep a role around here and survive in this league and such a great organization.”
Karras plans to coach one day, a time when he’ll spout the same points. Plus all of the other lessons in his notebooks.
“I’m stealing it all,” he said.
You could excuse Matthew Slater for allowing Belichick’s words to wash over him.
Aside from Tom Brady, no player on the active roster has heard the coach speak more than him. Football seasons are built on routines. Belichick’s talking points, like his practice drills and daily demands, can get repetitive.
But the 34-year-old is just as attentive and dedicated as he was as a rookie. Because as he’s come to realize, thanks to Belichick, practice execution routinely becomes the Patriots’ game reality.
“I thought I understood the value of practice and good practice habits, but there have been countless times over the course of my career where coach has preached that message and it’s shown itself to be true. An exact play in practice will come up in the game, and someone has done a great job of executing it in practice, and it looks almost the exact same in the game,” Slater said.
“And I’m like, ‘How did he know that was going to come up?'”
Slater believes it’s preparation that’s driven the Patriots’ success since he was drafted in 2008. The detailed nature of their notes and reports and the difficulty of their practices; everything that transpires Monday through Saturday leads to kickoff on Sunday. If Slater ever transitions into coaching, he promises his players will practice hard because of the rewards the Pats have reaped from their self-made adversity.
But there are aspects of Belichick’s program and approach he can’t replicate because those are the things that make him one of a kind.
“No one in this building is more prepared than Bill,” Slater said. “Nobody.”
Known for his intricate game plans and love of detail, Belichick also has a knack for boiling his demands of players down to a few tasks.
Take it from Matt LaCosse. The fifth-year tight end signed this offseason as a free agent after previous stops in New York and Denver. He’d heard the Patriots’ famous, “Do your job,” slogan before. Only recently has it hit home.
“It’s about accountability here,” LaCosse said. “It’s about as long as you just do your job, be attentive and work hard.”
“Do your job” has taken on a life of its own outside of the walls of Gillette Stadium. Inside, it’s power is unchanged. So why does it have such an effect, particularly on new players?
“I think all the players have truly bought in and believe in it. So when you come in originally as an outsider and you see the buy-in and how close the team is, it’s something you want to be a part of,” LaCosse said.
A few veterans couldn’t pinpoint a single lesson. For Stephon Gilmore, there’s a new one every week.
A tip about the upcoming opponent that inevitably leads him to a tackle, pass breakup or, if he’s lucky, an interception.
“He says something every week that I take. Whether it’s a formation that you see or something that comes up in a game, it clicks and sticks with you going into a game,” Gilmore said. “There’s always one thing.”
Belichick’s talent for prophecy all but spooked Gilmore in his first season. The All-Pro says it’s almost like Belichick “has the sight.” He’s never experienced it anywhere else.
Third-round rookie Chase Winovich pondered for a while before agreeing with Harmon. It’s about not losing before winning, he said. The idea brought him back to his days as a kid learning ping-pong.
“You let your opponents make your mistake,” Winovich said. “You take care of what you need to take care of, keep everything in play and not give it away.”
Age-old advice from a coach for the ages.