Back in September 2007, the Patriots were caught taping the Jets' defensive signals on the sideline. This was week one, after the Patriots beat the Jets, 38-14. The next 15 games—all of which the Patriots won—were blowouts a lot like that, but with a venomous edge. In his new book, War Room, which hits stores tomorrow, former Boston Globe writer Michael Holley traces Bill Belichick's career along with those of Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli, two of his pupils. This is a trip inside the 2007 Patriots, when all of football turned on Bill Belichick and his team.
Belichick was aware of all that was being said, and he had a thought: "We've got to be ready to play on Sunday." He knew he could spend every minute of his time at the office talking about staying focused, but those players were going to be confronted with Spygate, everywhere, as soon as they left the building. On the afternoon of September 15, the day before the Patriots' second game of the season, Belichick had an idea.
A few years earlier, he had been on a cross-country flight to Los Angeles and was seated next to a man wearing a Patriots golf shirt. "Are you the new coach?" Belichick joked, and the man, a comedian named Lenny Clarke, replied, "Yes, I am." Clarke had been born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and once worked as a janitor in Cambridge's city hall. He and some colleagues went out to a bar one night and saw a few comedians, and one of Clarke's janitor friends said, "You're funnier than he is. You should be up there." Thus, a comedy and film career was born. As he sat next to Clarke on the flight, Belichick worked on studying draft prospects and Clarke worked on a movie script. When they landed, they exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch.
By September 2007, they had talked and been to dinner many times. So Clarke wasn't surprised on the fifteenth when he was sitting in the owners' box at Fenway Park and a call came in from Belichick. Clarke was enjoying himself, not just because it was a Red Sox–Yankees game, but because he was hanging out with another comedian, Steve Martin.
"Lenny, I need a favor," Belichick said. "You name it, Bill. Whatever you need." "Lenny, I need you to come speak to the team tonight. It's been a rough week. Just come in and tell some jokes. You can rip me, whatever you need to do."
"But I'm at Fenway right now," Clarke said, realizing that the Patriots were meeting at least a half hour away in suburban Norwood.
"I know," Belichick said. "There's a car waiting for you behind home plate."
Clarke left the park, went over some ideas as he was driven to the hotel where the Patriots were meeting, and eventually walked into a room full of players and coaches. He delivered twenty-five minutes of risqué material. He got ahold of a mini-recorder and made fun of Belichick. He made fun of players who even thought of being listed on the injury report. "This poor bastard has a hole in his heart and comes back from a stroke," he said, pointing to Tedy Bruschi, "and some of you still haven't recovered from sprained ankles." He went down the line: Belichick, Bruschi, Brady, Moss. No one was safe. The players were in tears from laughing, and dozens of them came up to him afterward to tell him how great he had been.
The message was clear. There was no need to tiptoe around what happened and have an internal pall over it. It was still football. That was their internal philosophy; they were far less carefree when challenged and questioned by fans, former and current players and coaches, and the media.
In New York, Mangini told his close friends that he never wanted Spygate to go as far as it did. He said he thought the matter could be worked out between the Patriots and Jets, and if it were up to him, he wouldn't have advised Jets security and upper management to be so aggressive in their handling of the situation. His feeling was that as he was coaching, his own organization was taking things further than he would have been willing to go; for example, he never wanted the league involved. His front office did, though. It was Patriots-Jets. It was always bitter, and the feeling was that the Patriots would have done the same thing if they had caught the Jets red-handed. That was an organizational view, but because of Mangini's history with Belichick, this became his story and his dime-dropping. By the time he walked off the field on September 9, wearing his charcoal Jets shirt, he really was the villain in black as far as the Patriots were concerned.
It no longer mattered to them how Mangini felt. They didn't care that he actually saw things the way they did and that he believed the taping in no way undermined what they had accomplished as champions. They didn't care that it bothered Mangini to see their dynasty, his dynasty, too, questioned and mocked. It didn't matter. Some Patriots coaches with whom he had remained close stopped taking his calls. Others, for obvious political reasons, were sure to keep him at a public distance. Some players in New England would soon refer to him as Fredo, the resentful Corleone who betrayed his brother Michael in The Godfather. Unlike Mario Puzo's characters, there was no acting involved between the coaches. The relationship was over.
The Harrison suspension, the Spygate penalties, the wild rumors of what they'd done, and the critics all simplified things for the team. They could have been stars of a new documentary, America Hates the Patriots, and as a result they became protective of their championships and defensive when anyone questioned their achievements. They played with an attitude and a sneer, and if they didn't roll teams, especially those who had publicly doubted them, they were disappointed.
"Yeah, man. I was angry as hell," Bruschi says. "It was a lot of things. First, it had become open season, kind of an onslaught, on Bill Belichick. Then I felt anger that the media or our fans would think that any type of videotaping we did would help us win a football game.
"But the whole situation made me want to beat everyone by more than we did. I wanted to indirectly respond to the Spygate criticism. I wanted to say, ‘All right, look at the players that we have and what we're able to do. We'll beat your team by fifty, forty, thirty, or whatever it takes. We'll still win. That's how good we are.' I used it as motivation. I had been using things that people had said about me ever since I was in high school. And now you're trying to stomp on the essence of why I play the game, which is to win world championships? You want us to prove that we're great? Well, all right. Here you go, Jets fans. There's Moss for fifty yards."
The mission could be seen in the season's first five games. The Patriots scored at least 34 points in each game, had at least four hundred total yards of offense in each, and barely allowed Brady to be touched as he was sacked a total of three times. They appeared to be a team constructed in one of John Madden's video games, a team in real life imitating electronic art. The only difference was that in the video games, there was no button you could push on the controller to give your team a grudge.
Every week, there was a new Spygate quote or column to add to the smoldering logs. If it wasn't the words of a former coach, it was the words of a current one. Colts coach Tony Dungy, one of the most respected voices in sports and a Patriots adversary, checked in to say that Spygate was sad for the league. He then wondered how Belichick would be perceived historically and made a reference to Barry Bonds. The insinuation was that Belichick and the use of a camera was comparable to Bonds's alleged performance-enhancing drug use on his way to seven MVPs and the all-time home-run record. Every week there was something the Patriots did on the field that would incite bloggers and talk-show callers.
In weeks six through eight, they were accused of running up the score. They started with a 48–27 win in Dallas, followed by a 49–28 victory in Miami. After what everyone else thought was a cruise over the Dolphins, Belichick tore into his defense and told them they were playing like the worst defense in the league. The whole team responded with a shutdown of Washington, 52–7. The Patriots had scoring drives in that game of sixty-seven, seventy-three, eighty-five, eighty-eight, and ninety yards. They were 8-0 and Brady had already set his career high in touchdown passes with thirty. Eleven of those TD passes had gone to Moss. On the flip side, Mangini's Jets were 1-7.
The atmosphere created by Spygate, combined with the allaround force of what was happening on the field, brought out the strongest emotions from the unlikeliest Patriots.
Rosevelt Colvin had suffered a career-threatening hip injury in 2003, was back on the field in 2004, and had fully recovered by 2005. In 2007, he was part of a strong starting linebacker group that included Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Adalius Thomas. Colvin was one of the most devout Christians on the team. He didn't drink alcohol or curse, and as part of his faith, he gave 10 percent of his $4.6 million annual salary to his church. He was a big believer in humility because, as they say in Baptist churches like Colvin's, he had a testimony.
When he was a senior in high school, he wasn't just thinking about wearing a big-time school's hat on national signing day. He also had to think of his parents, who were being evicted from their home. They were forced to live in a place owned by friends of theirs until they regained their financial footing. Several years later, Colvin says he was headed down a bleak financial path himself. He was a young NFL player who wasn't saving his money and instead wasting it on cars and clothes that he didn't really want. The turnaround came when he renewed his faith and actually started saving more money than he ever had, even with the tithing to his church.
Colvin wasn't the type to take things for granted. Yet in 2007 he also thirsted for the Patriots' big plays and high scores, driven to prove that, unlike in Bonds's case, records could be broken without artificial help.
"Honestly, I loved it when we scored as much as we did," he says. "I think it was an ‘F-you' to the league. What's funny is that some teams that were commenting about stealing signals, like the Colts, were some of the teams that were stealing signals. I know for a fact that the Colts were stealing; we'd talk about it before we played them. But it never offended me because it's football. People have to understand that it's not like a class where you get the answers to the test and do well. You can steal all you want in football, but you still have to play and figure out how to get around that three-hundred-pounder.
"I knew I wasn't giving my rings back. We played the way we did because we were good. Not because of film."
Excerpted from the book War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building a Perfect Team. Copyright © 2011 by Michael Holley. Excerpted with permission by It Books, a division of HarperCollins.