FOXBOROUGH, Ma. -- The voice is answering-machine perfect. There is no modulation, no emphasis on any particular syllable. The words sound as though they have been sand-blasted to the same size, passed through a filter at the end of some long plastic tunnel, delivered now on a conveyor belt of bland conversation. All emotion has been removed. If there were a color attached to these words the color would be gray. No doubt about that.
“We’re rolling into the week here,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick says at an obligatory media appearance in preparation for his team’s coming AFC playoff confrontation with the Houston Texans. “Obviously the Texans are a real good football team... Excellent game for them last week against Cincinnati. I thought they really played well in all three phases of the game. We know it’s going to be a big challenge for us on Sunday. I think the Texans just do pretty much everything well: they run the ball, they can stop the run, they can throw it, they can play pass defense, rush the passer, good in the kicking game, well coached, sound, lot of good football players, very talented team. We’re going to have to play our best game and hopefully that’s where we’ll be able to be by Sunday.”
Stop the presses.
The Houston Texans do everything well! Very talented team! Going to need to play our best game! If you added the exclamation points there might be some hint of excitement. There are no exclamation points. Not in this presentation. This could be a lecture about photosynthesis or molecular theory or the manufacture of vacuum cleaners.
“What are some of the unique challenges you have preparing for a team that you have played so recently?” a man asks, first question, because the Patriots throttled the Texans, 42-14, in a Monday night game only a month ago.
“It comes up quite a bit,” Belichick says. “We play teams twice in the division twice a year, so it’s not really that big of a deal.”
Not a big deal.
Get me re-write.
The 60-year-old coach walked off the elevator at the red press box level of Gillette Stadium, accompanied by the team’s public relations man, continued to a podium in front of a screen that advertised Dunkin Donuts, maybe took a small breath, maybe not, and started talking. There was no preface, no ‘hey, how’re you doing,’ no first-name repartee about the warmish January weather with any of the assembled writers and broadcasters in front of him.
Some of these people have sat in these same metal chairs for every press conference in every week of the 16-game regular season. Some have sat there for every press conference in every one of the 13 seasons Belichick has been in charge of the team. Not one hello, not one first name. There was not a wink in eye contact. There definitely was not a smile.
“How would you describe [Houston running back] Arian Foster’s running style?” someone asks.
“Good,” Belichick says.
That is all? Good? The possible headline might be ‘Belichick Describes Foster’s Running Style As ‘Good.’’ What would be the text underneath? One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. That’s it? One thousand four. No one asks a follow-up question. More silence. One thousand five.
“He’s fast, he’s got good vision,” Belichick adds reluctantly in his breakdown of Foster’s abilities. “He breaks tackles, he makes people miss, he outruns them. He’s good in the passing game. He’s pretty much good in everything.”
The proceedings continue at this painful pace for an allotted 15 minutes. (Follow-up Q. about Foster’s style: “What about his patience?” Follow-up A. by the coach: “Good.”) Belichick doesn’t want to be here. Nobody else wants to be here. The listeners fidget, remember when they used to count the number of holes in the ceiling tiles in the classroom as that high school English teacher discussed the beauty of somebody or other’s sonnets.
A large bearded man in a serape and skull cap stands maybe six feet away from Belichick on the left and snaps an unending stream of pictures with a 35 millimeter camera with a large lens. Where do the pictures go? Who uses them? A young guy, six feet away on the right, holds a large boom microphone on a pole, pointed in Belichick’s direction. The young guy does not look at the coach, not once, stares off into the horizon as if he were working some distasteful job in a factory.
“In taking stock of your team’s health, how important was the bye week?” someone asks, trying to work an angle about the fact that the Patriots did not play last week, while the Texans did. “Who does that really benefit the most in your estimation?”
“I don’t know,” the coach replies. “It’s a hypothetical question, I have no idea. I know that if we had to play last week, we would have gotten ready to play and we would have played last week. We didn’t and so we’re playing this week. We’ll get ready to go out and try to play the best we can this week. That’s all we can do. We can’t control the schedule or how anybody is feeling or what days we play or what days we don’t play. When they schedule them, we show up and do the best that we can. That’s what we’re going to do this week.”
The listeners have to be here in case Belichick has been slipped some truth serum in pill form with his breakfast, or maybe has digested a six-pack of beer before lunch and decided to say what he really thinks about something, anything. This has never happened in the past, not once, but bases have to be covered. Belichick is here because this is part of the fine print of his job. He hates the fine print of his job. If he could answer every question with a Fifth Amendment refusal to incriminate himself that would be just fine with him. If he could stay downstairs, doing whatever he does, that would be better.
His appearance, of course, matches his tone of voice. He is wearing his blue Patriots hooded sweatshirt under his blue Patriots ski parka. Blue sweatpants and running shoes fill out the fashion picture. He could be anyone moving around the stadium, working a time-card job, checking electrical connections, supplies of beer, anything. His hair is mussed as if he just woke up. His eyes are tired, as if he hadn’t slept enough.
“When you moved to such a tight-end-heavy offense, was that a function of having drafted two great ones and trying to get them on the field together?” someone asks. “Or what way did that happen?”
“I think you always try to get the players on the field you feel are the group that will best attack the opponent that you’re playing,” Belichick says. “So it’s a combination of things.”
In the next few weeks, a bunch of terrific things could happen for this man. If the Patriots can run the table, three games in a row, culminated by a win in Super Bowl XIVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3, he would tie Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh for the most Super Bowl wins in history, four. He also would tie Tom Landry of Dallas for most playoff wins in history, 20. His playoff winning percentage (20-7, .740) would trail only Vince Lombardi of Green Bay (9-1, .900.) It would not be hard to argue that he is the greatest coach in NFL history.
His teams have had winning records for the past 12 seasons. They have won at least 10 games in the past 10 seasons. He is the only coach whose teams have won 13 games or more five times or 14 games four times. Along with the three Super Bowl wins have come two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants, the last one a year ago, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLVI. Only Don Shula of Miami has been to more Super Bowls (six) than he has.
“When you consider the finality of playoff games where one mistake can send you home, is it important to amplify that for the players so they know that things can end quickly if they make a mistake but making sure they’re still aggressive?” someone asks.
“That’s exactly where we are,” the dull voice replies. “We all understand that -- every player, every coach, everybody that participates in the game. We all understand that is exactly what it is.”
“Is there a way to emphasize that they still have to go out there and not play conservatively?”
“Of course. You don’t win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it. You have to go out there and attack. You have to go out there and make the plays you have to make. It’s a one-game season.”
It’s a one-game season.
No exclamation point.
There are a few more questions. There are a few more flat-line answers that no one will use. The public relations man says ‘thank you,’ to end the grim exercise. No nuggets have been left for anyone’s bulletin board. No insights, not even small ones, have been dropped upon the ground. There are no good-byes. There are no smiles. The coach walks back toward the elevator toward another run at the prize.
The game face is well in place.