When I got Pepper Johnson on the phone, I had no idea what to expect. I sure as hell didn’t think we’d talk for four hours. But we did, and I still can’t believe it. I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone else for four consecutive hours in my life. But Pepper’s got stories.
Johnson, 54, spent most of the last 30-plus years in the NFL as a player and coach, and for nearly all that time, he worked for Bill Belichick—as a linebacker for the Giants, Browns, and Jets, followed by 14 seasons as an assistant coach with the Patriots. And Belichick, of course, isn’t known for sharing much with reporters.
Johnson wasn’t exactly chatty with the press, either—at least publicly. He left the Patriots in 2014 to be the defensive line coach for the Bills under Doug Marrone, and after he got passed over for the Giants’ defensive coordinator gig in 2015, he joined Todd Bowles’s staff as the Jets’ defensive line coach. He lasted two seasons before getting fired. And during that time he once flat-out refused to do his media obligation, only to get dragged back out for a do-over. Needless to say, we talked about all that, too.
Johnson, who’s now back in his native Michigan, hopes to return to coaching. He passes the time working out players like the Bills’ Shaq Lawson and Dolphins rookie Jerome Baker. He also promotes awareness for vitamin B1 (thiamine) patches, which I promised his publicist I’d mention in exchange for the interview. And he’s on Twitter. It’s impossible to do justice to the breadth of the conversation Johnson and I had, so I’m dumping much of it here as a Q&A. I did my best to edit and condense it for clarity.
Do you miss coaching?
Yes, I do, tremendously. I think it’s more of being dismissed anything else. I felt like I was, the tables just went the other way. Right when I’ve felt like there was another step for me to move up and to be a coordinator or maybe somebody’s head coach, and have all that just swiped from up under my feet for—there was no reason. There’s no way that I was a problem in that situation. No, I wasn’t a problem. I felt like I just was a scapegoat.
A scapegoat? What happened that last year with the Jets?
I wish I could answer that question. I was in such shock to be called into Todd [Bowles]’s office, that Todd wanted to see me the day of reckoning, when he was letting some coaches go—word was out. And for me to be one of the guys that he called into his office, I just never fathomed that. And so when I went into his office he told me he was going in another direction, you know, I didn’t say anything. I was just like we are already going down, and it’s just going to go further down. And I didn’t feel like I was that problem.
I know they cleaned house, at least roster-wise. But I think they only let go of a couple of coaches that year.
I’ve had a lot of experience with winning. One of the things that I enjoyed so much when I first started coaching in New England was we had the roundtable, so to speak. It was more of a rectangle but we had the knights at the table. And everybody’s opinion was worthy. We knew at the end of the day whatever coach Belichick said was what we were going to do. But your voice was heard. Your voice was heard. Your opinions were taken [seriously], and it made you feel so good when either the next day or that week, or when you saw something that was your view was being used.
Was it not like that with Todd?
When I first left New England and went to Buffalo, I was told to stay in my lane. Never heard that philosophy or statement or whatever before.
Was that Marrone who told you that in Buffalo?
As a matter of fact, it was other coaches, because they were already told that, when they got there. They were helping me out. ‘You have to stay in your lane.’ And I’m like ‘What does stay in your lane mean?’ ‘Ah, well, you’re going to learn it.’ Some things happen, and I learned it fast. One of the reasons why I bring up that is that this is something else that I felt like I was learning outside of that New England Patriot experience of how I started coaching. Okay. So stay in your lane. But it’s tough every time when I would ask someone about that statement, I couldn’t really get a clear answer. I’m asking Marrone, I’m asking some of the other coaches, because I believe that Pepper Johnson can help. If Pepper Johnson stays in this lane which you have given him, how can he help? How do I voice my opinion? I see something that I don’t really know if this if this approach is going to help because I’d like to, I like to talk to my players. I like to learn [about] every everybody individually because, as a player, this is what separated the good coaches, the average coaches, and the coaches I just frankly didn’t give a care about to me. Coach [Bill] Parcells still today asks me about my mother, asks me about my son, and stuff like that.
Belichick too? Is he like that?
Our relationship was strictly football. There wasn’t anything outside that—because I mainly just saw him in the building, I guess. Whether I was playing for him or working with him, it was always football. So, no, the relationship wasn’t the same. But the characters kind of are different, too. And I would say our relationship, how it came about, it was different. One of my attractions to him was he was the first coach that, granted, it was my first experience in the NFL, that didn’t try to tell me how to do something. He told me what he wanted done, and then he allowed me the freedom to get it done however I had to get it done, and if I if I couldn’t find a way, then I would ask him—I was big enough I would ask him, and he would tell me.
As a player, in 1989, you held out until Week 3. Did you see yourself as part of a broader fight for players, with getting what you felt you deserved, then? Or was it more just strictly personal for you at the time?
It was a combination. A lot of my teammates feel the same way. Even after the strike—when we went on strike for, the New York Giants, what we went on strike for was collusion amongst the owners. It wasn’t just the free agency. The free agency was minor to us. The collusion of the owners was was the big ticket. And this still goes down today.
How do you mean?
But what we noticed—we would have someone with a contract problem on our team. And I don’t know about the other team. All of a sudden this guy gets released, and he goes to San Diego. Or if he didn’t have a contract problem; let’s just say he was kind of a problem. And he would get released, and then all of a sudden someone from San Diego ends up on our team. Now if that’s not a trade without being a trade, I don’t know what is. It’s not that coincidental. And it all depends on the guy’s market. Then you would see two guys come over from San Diego—and I’m just throwing up teams. But then you’ll see two guys. And we were like, ‘This was kind of odd.’ Now, so-and-so, he doesn’t still see his contract and he has to go over there to San Diego and get paid less money or whatever. And now we’ve get those two guys, and who knows what happened with them.
How do you see that sort of collusion playing out today?
Same thing. You’ll still see a player—you really get away with murder now, because the contracts are so much bigger. So you mess around and you cut a guy now, and he was scheduled to make $8 million in his contract, but he goes over to another team and can pick up a little above minimum wage [depending on] whatever year he’s in, that’s a big difference. But that was all swept up under the rug. No one talks about it
Do you remember a specific example of something like that happening, that you’re familiar with?
Yes and no. Remember, I’m still trying to get back into the league. I don’t want to totally ... You know, you get on on the blacklist. I’m trying to—it seems like I’m on the blacklist; I’m trying to get off the blacklist.
The NFL has evolved into a passing league, and Belichick was a guy who was at the forefront of this phenomenon—bringing in Welker, using a lot of crossing routes to attack horizontal space. It preserved Brady by having him get rid of the ball faster rather than have him throw the ball 30 yards every time. And the rules keep making it easier for offenses. As an ex-linebacker and ex-defensive line coach, what’s your take on how the game has changed?
What Belichick does—that guy can’t do anything to shock me anymore. Like, I’ve known him forever. But Belichick always worried about the passes. And so his philosophy—and he’s, I’m quite quite sure he—well, he won’t get mad at me because he knows his philosophy. Like, these guys are not going to change. They probably won’t even listen to me, you know, to this interview. What Belichick does, Belichick, what bothers him the most is what he does to other people. So, yeah. Quick passes, and Brady getting the ball out fast and all that stuff.
And the Eagles pulled a lot of that on him in the Super Bowl.
You see, and that’s why neither team could stop each other.
A lot of motion, the pre-snap motion, throwing to the running backs, using several running backs, play-action. It’s [about] just sort of pressuring the defense horizontally as well as vertically.
The Patriots had a linebacker problem, which was said at this time last year. And then you don’t have [Dont’a] Hightower so it’s going to be a bigger problem. So if you put two running backs out there at the same time, how much of a nightmare is that going to be for Belichick? Bill never likes two running backs. He never liked playing against two skillful running backs. It’s a problem because he can’t really cover them with his different combination of coverages with the secondary. The linebackers have to get them. And you need good linebackers.
Something that fascinates me about the NFL is the way they set up a media apparatus that’s basically designed to keep us in the dark about a lot of this stuff.
Yeah. Well, again, a lot of the coaches are kind of in the dark now. Some coaches just pretty much tell you their game plans talking to the media, and whether the media guys picked up on that information or not, or was picking enough and making them give up information, they give up information. And then you want to say, ‘Somebody videotaped and somebody was cheating.’ Well, like, I don’t get it. Look at how much stuff a lot of the reporters or a lot of the analysts pick up on the night before a game, and then go out and say it during the game. ‘Oh, such-and-such told me last night they were going to throw the ball to the running backs a lot.’ Don’t you think the other team is not listening to that?
They weren’t taping the other team’s signals, though. Wasn’t that the issue with Spygate?
But just so that you know, what’s more important? A signal, or what someone is saying? The last I checked, I’ve never seen an offensive coordinator or a defensive coordinator—even the guys up in the booth—cover their mouth when they’re talking. So once upon a time you had lip readers that were sitting up there reading lips.
Who did that?
It was just teams that were doing that. That’s why I’m kind of presenting that as a question to you. If no one was doing anything—if we’re using the word ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal’—then why do those guys cover their mouth? You cannot watch a video on the sideline, right? So if someone videotaped anybody, that’s for a later date, or a later time. They even make sure that you’ve got people in the locker room from the other team. Like, the equipment guy. I guess those guys sit around just to make sure no one is watching the video, or you have no video hookups like that. So you’re talking about the next game.
So Spygate wasn’t a big deal because everyone was doing it?
Let me put it this way: Whomever wasn’t doing anything similar or something like that, they weren’t trying. They didn’t know football.
Why did Eric Mangini turn you guys in, then?
Uh. That’s a whole other story. There’s some people. Like we say with the Giants—Giant for life, true blue. And I still—I’m mad at myself, but I would never get over it, and I would never forgive Jim Burt for diving at [Jeff] Hostetler’s legs, when he went over to San Francisco. There’s nothing that he could possibly say, or anybody could say to me, [that would] make me feel any different. Because he was with us—and I know how bad he wanted to win—but I’m never taking a cheap shot at anybody. I respect the game more than anything, and I’m not taking a cheap shot. And that guy dove on Hostetler’s leg, hurt him, tried to dive on Hostetler’s leg again and didn’t get to him. I’ve seen him again this summer; I’ve seen him at [O.J. Anderson’s] golf tournament. I shake his hand, and that’s about as far as it goes.
Same with Mangini?
It would be the same with Mangini.
All right. Let’s get back to what happened with the Jets firing you.
I’m a strong believer of where the pass rush matches the coverage. This was one of the things that I could not get done with the Jets; I could not get the pass rush and the coverage together.
Because that wasn’t part of the philosophy of the secondary coach. And a lot of people didn’t understand that.
Joe Danna [Jets defensive backs coach from 2015-16]?
Yeah. And Todd. He pretty much ran everything. What probably has me sitting at home now is me sharing this information with Todd, and no one else heard of it. Kacy [Rodgers, the Jets’ defensive coordinator] didn’t know that either, so he talked over it, and he went around it. We didn’t take time out to put emphasis on the coverage.
But how was the pass rush not matching the coverage?
If we are pushing the pocket and the secondary guys are [playing] off, then it’s just pitch and catch [for the offense]. If we’re pushing the pocket and your guys are close, now the pass rush is matching the coverage. If your guys are off and we’re shooting moves, or we’re running pass-rush games, now the pass rush matches the coverage. Because now the coverage is playing for down-the-field passes and we’re rushing the quarterback for down the field passes.
This seems like pretty straightforward stuff. It seems odd to me that an NFL team wouldn’t have that kind of basic synergy on its defense.
You have a problem with—I’m trying my best to put this mildly—of authority. Like, some people, if it’s not their ideals, then they don’t want to use them. Because they’re not getting credit for that.
Are you referring to Todd here? Kacy?
I’m going to tell you this. Todd really could care less. In my experience of dealing with him for two years, he really could care less. So I’m telling on myself.
I have your answer, then.
Kacy, our problem was, Kacy was a defensive line coach in the AFC East, where I was a defensive line coach in the AFC East. I don’t want to say it’s animosity, but there’s several times where he tried to tell me how to coach my guys. You’ve got to do one or two things: You demand this, and this is the only way that it’s happening; I’ve got to run this this way. But if you’re making a suggestion or you’re telling me this is what you did in freaking Miami? I could care less about that because I didn’t think highly of the Miami Dolphins’ defensive line [when Kacy was coaching them]. I thought they got a lot of pass rush from the defensive ends but they didn’t get a lot of pass rush from the inside guys, so that’s why those guys were having a hard time against certain teams and [against] some other teams they just padded their stats.
Why do you think you’ve been blackballed?
That’s the easy excuse; that’s the easy thing to say. But to my understanding once you’re out of the league it’s hard to get back into the league. I’ve heard that from several people. I also look at my résumé, and my résumé intimidates more than it boasts or looks good to a lot of people. I look around the league and I see a lot of guys as assistant coaches that have never done anything.
Is that why you think you never became a coordinator?
Yeah. The only thing I ever heard from the Jets about why I was fired—and this was maybe three or four months later—was that I was over-opinionated. I told myself when I got to the Jets I’m staying in my lane. As best as Pepper can do because I can’t be a fraud; I’m not good at that. So I tried to stay in my lane, I tried to just do my deal and I was only answering questions when asked.
There seemed to be a lot of drama on the Jets’ D-line when you were there. Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson missing meetings, being late, Sheldon’s arrest and his two suspensions, Wilkerson kind of mailing it in after getting his contract.
I was asked that question: Which one of those guys would I keep, and I chose Snacks [Damon Harrison] because of my experience and what I thought about Mo. I don’t think we’re losing or winning with either one. But with my experience, with what I went through with Mo, that first year, that 2015 year, now supposedly him and Todd had a sit-down, and he was going to get his grits together and all that stuff like that. I didn’t see it, I didn’t think it was going to happen, but they said that afterwards, so I said okay. And they said physically they don’t know how much longer Snacks was going to be able to stand up, cause there were some things physically that they didn’t think he was going to be able to last.
What were the biggest issues with Wilkerson?
When a guy born and raised in a town [Linden, N.J.] and he goes off to college [Temple], but the college is still nearby. Let’s say he’s fortunate enough to have a professional team in that town or still in that state, a lot of those guys aren’t great, historically. You really have to find out that guy’s mentality and how he is with people. The majority of guys that I met—and I can’t say it’s all of them, I can’t say it bats 1.000—they are, they are spoiled, and they have to have things laid out their way. And that’s going to eventually come back to haunt you at a later date because you can’t hand-feed all 53 of your players.
So you’re saying Wilkerson was spoiled?
It’s no fault of his, besides being he wanted to be closer to home when he went to college. And then he gets drafted by the Jets, and the world is his now. Everything is handed to him, so he don’t have to reach. That manhood—and I’m not saying he’s not a man; he’s far from not being a man—but that manhood of going out and having to adjust and having to create in situations, you don’t have that. So now you’re going to get family tugging at him, old friends—all that stuff that once upon a time was great, and it all created the man that he is today. But, at the same token, some people aren’t looking at that the same way, or they want theirs.
So he was too distracted?
Yeah. With the fame comes a lot of distractions. To me, what makes the difference from the athletes that get judged as busts and the athletes that go out and meet qualifications is some guys don’t know how to handle those adjustments and handle those distractions, and some guys do. Some guys know how to handle coaching, and some guys don’t.
I’m just trying to get a handle on exactly what you’re saying here...
Everybody knows those guys missed, or were late, for so many meetings. And somebody wanted to stick a mic in my face or turn a camera on and ask me, but they never were late for my meetings. They were late for the team meetings, they were late for the head coach’s meetings. So that’s on the head coach—and I can’t discipline them anyway, and the players know that. See, that was another thing. In New England, the respect I had with Belichick, if I wanted to discipline a guy, I could discipline a guy. I couldn’t fine him. But if I wanted to take away his practice reps, if I wanted to not start him in a game—once again, that roundtable I said we had—I could bring that up at the roundtable. But at the same token, we took preventive measures for that. We didn’t draft a guy that we didn’t think was could fit in the room. I wasn’t going to agree to a free agent that I didn’t think could fit in the room. I didn’t have any say-so with anybody that was in my room. I inherited some guys, fine and dandy, but I didn’t get to pick anyone, except for [Deon] Simon.
What about Steve McLendon? He was a free agent who replaced Snacks in 2016.
No. I was told to look at him, and the next thing you know, I read about his signing.
What happened when you tried to bring this up with Todd?
It was different philosophies. We never sat down and discussed—like, it wasn’t a care. ‘Pepper, what would you like to have? Or who would you like to have?’ It wasn’t. As a matter of fact, in my mind, it got worse the second year, ‘16, than it did in ‘15. Because now it seemed like everything came from upstairs.
Upstairs? You mean [GM Mike] Maccagnan?
Yeah. Maccagnan. When we drafted Leonard [Williams]. Now this is definitely a story to [laughs]—you can do with it whatever you want.
[laughs] Okay. But Leonard fell to you guys. The whole world thought he’d get taken in the top three, but you guys got him at six.
The whole world except Pepper. Leonard wasn’t the No. 1 guy on my to-do list. I had him as a first-round pick and all that, and I was more than happy to get him. But the style of defense that we did, or that we were doing, he did not fall into that category for me to be that No. 1.
How did he not fit?
When I was hired there I was told that we were going to be a stunting defensive line. So in my mind I needed to find guys that stunt well, and to my evaluations of guys that stunted well was [Grady Jarrett] from Clemson, that the Falcons took [in the fifth round]. There’s a reason why I’m saying his name specifically. We get into a pre-draft discussion, and we’re talking about defensive ends’ arm length. And I’m semi-mad because a scout is telling me ... this guy’s trying to tell me that the defensive linemen need long arms like the offensive linemen, or they’ll never be able to beat them—the offensive lineman’s just going to hold them off. And I said, ‘Well, with all due respect, I don’t know what defensive line coaches that you’ve worked with have told you beforehand, but I teach from the ground to the man’s chest. And the guy can bring their hands from the ground to the chest the fastest are going to win the battle.’ That’s how I teach: We’re going to attack him, and offensive linemen are allowing us to do this now, because of where the game is going—they don’t get down in a stance no more, so they automatically are up, especially the offensive tackles. And he laughed at me, like, ‘He don’t know about arm length?’ And I lit off into them and everybody was, like, ‘Pep, why you do him like that?’ And, like, hey, the guy wants to smirk at me and act like he knows more about football than I do!
No. I’d know him if I see him.
So what happened with Leonard?
So we’re doing the evaluations [after 2015]. Do you know they came into the meeting trying to clown me like Leonard had a better year than any other rookie defensive lineman in his class? I said, ‘Well, instead of you guys trying to clown me about that you should be patting me on the back.’ Cause if I coached one of those guys, they would have had a better year than Leonard. Jarrett ended up tying Reggie White—a Hall of Famer—for the sack record in the Super Bowl.
Wait. Who was clowning you?
It was a collaboration. I think their point was, I didn’t want to draft Leonard in the first round; I just thought Grady Jarrett was a better fit for what we were trying to do. Think about it, we took Leonard out of position; remember, he played some nose [tackle] when Snacks was gone and Sheldon was under suspension. When Sheldon came back, we had a three-man line with four starters.
Your last season with the Jets, you didn’t want to deal with the media at all. Why?
With the Jets, we had a situation where the players were disciplined—both players, Mo and Sheldon, were late for a meeting. And it was Saturday morning, which probably would have been conduct detrimental with Bill Belichick, but it was Saturday morning, and Todd already addressed it. And no one would have known; you hear through word of mouth that these guys were late for meetings during the week, but they were getting fined. For the longest time, I kept trying to say the fines were not making a difference. We got to do something to both of these guys—they were missing a lot of meetings—and in order to hurt a football person, you have to not let them play football. But until that day, Todd would not bench them. But that one really pissed him off, so he benched them. So now everybody in the media gets wind of it, and they spoke to Todd, and Todd addressed it. So what more can I say? It wasn’t me. I just coach them when they get out there on the field. That’s what I was told to do, that’s my lane, and I’m following. But if I would have said that, at that press conference, I’d get into a conversation like we’re having right now, for an hour. Because it’s going to be one question after the next one after the next one. And on top of it, I’m sorry, with the New York media, you guys are not just getting brushed off that easy. You guys want to get in-depth. I’m out into the situation when the week I had my press obligation was the week [after] these guys decide to come late and Todd benches them. So now I’m between a rock and a hard place. If I say everything good about Leonard or Steve McLendon, then I’m pretty much saying that these [other] guys are screwing up, and I’m trying to avoid that. And then somebody calls me out and tries to get the league to suspend me or fine me because I’m not talking to the press, and that guy ended up getting his wish and so the Jets bring me back out. So I’ve got to come back the next week and I have to say things that I really think should stay in-house or the head coach should address because I have no control over it. I didn’t not start them. I was a scapegoat. I do believe that was part of the reason why they fired me, too. I know the owner, he’s big into the media.
He reads everything, and he tries to keep a clean bill. So I’m quite sure when one of his assistant coaches is not cooperating and this, that, and the other, he might have put some pressure on Maccagnan or Todd. I don’t know.
Woody’s too sensitive about what’s in the papers?
I don’t know. That wouldn’t shock me, to my understanding. The difference between him and Hess, when I got injured in ‘97, when I woke up from my surgery, [then-Jets owner] Leon Hess was in my room. … That man cared enough to be in my room when I woke up. I saw him before my mother, I saw him before at that time my fiancee. I felt big. I even told Parcells, I’m coming back for the ’98 season because Mr. Hess was in my room before I woke up. I [played for] Wellington Mara, Art Modell, William Clay Ford. Wellington Mara and Hess are the only [owners] that would have been in my room. I don’t think Art Modell—and Art Modell was a great guy, don’t get me wrong—but I don’t think Art Modell would have been in my room. I know Ford wouldn’t have been in my room. He barely came to a game.
What about Woody?
I don’t think Woody would have been in my room. Now, if we get to the owners from when I started coaching, [Patriots owner Robert] Kraft would have been in my room, simply because of our relationship. But the whole reason I’m telling you this story is because Woody, my whole two years there, didn’t know my name. He did not know my name. When he shook my hand, he said, ‘Hey.’ One time, we were on the field, and he said, ‘Hey, coach.’ I’m quite sure he didn’t know me from one of the players.
Whereas Kraft knows everyone’s name?
Yeah. Kraft would know everyone.
How does this kind of thing trickle down to the rest of the organization?
To me, it’s huge. Wellington Mara used to walk around the practice field—like, the whole time, that was his exercise. Until Parcells blew the whistle, that’s when he stopped. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t try to get up in the forefront, nothing. Only time you didn’t see him was if it was raining or it was brutal cold out. You wanted to win for him. I don’t want to take nothing away from Parcells, but you didn’t just want to win for Parcells. That championship trophy, I was so glad to see Mara holding that trophy.
How does a good owner set a tone?
Take Kraft. Brandon Spikes had stories to tell me about him. Jerod Mayo had stories to tell me about him. Vince Wilfork. Like, ‘We won the AFC championship, and Kraft’s down there with a bottle.’ All that is excitement for the players; it’s an extra boost. Going to Ohio State, when Woody Hayes came out and spoke, that was a whole different beast. We went to Ohio State because of that history.
So Woody Johnson doesn’t have that kind of relationship with the players and coaches?
No. He comes around like he’s just the face, and that’s what he does. He doesn’t know anybody, and he can’t tell anybody’s name or anything like that. And that trickles down. The same thing in Detroit, when I played for the Lions. I hurt my knee, and it was like, ‘How can the Detroit Lions’ experience in ’96 be worse?’ It was worse because I never saw the owner, the president—no one of authority [who signs] checks came by and showed any concern.
What was it like leaving the Patriots after all those years?
I was so worried when I left the Patriots that people were just going to bring me in to pick my brain. When I walked into the Giants’ interview for defensive coordinator, I didn’t know if they were just going to pick my brain on what we do on defense, or if they really wanted me as a defensive coordinator. In Buffalo, we played the Patriots twice. The Jets were also in the division, so we played the Patriots twice. No one asked me anything, offensively or defensively, about the Patriots. And I’ve been with Bill Belichick more than 20 years.
But when you were in New England and you brought in a guy from the outside... ?
Oh, we’re going to pick his brain. Player, coach. Oh, yes. Bill hired Dom Capers just to get his philosophy on zone pressures. Capers got fired in Carolina, but he was still getting his head coaching money [from whatever was left on his contract]. Belichick goes and hires him for a couple hundred thousand, and meanwhile Carolina’s footing the rest of the bill, so he gets him in the door and tries to pick Capers’s brain—but Capers don’t relinquish any information. But Capers didn’t have to. Bill got it from [ex-Patriots defensive end, current Titans head coach Mike] Vrabel, cause Vrabel was [with Capers] in Pittsburgh.
Why do you think Belichick benched Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl?
That’s one of those—like, I don’t know—but he had to have done something major that’s a no-no of Bill’s. He either missed a meeting, or, like, breaking curfew or something like that, or he had a girl in his room. I’m here to tell you, because a lot of people are like, ‘Aw, man, to lose the Super Bowl?’ Bill Belichick is not going to lose everything he stands for for that guy. If he can tell Randy Moss, Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Corey Dillon, and none of those guys break the rules, then why should [he] say, ‘This guy broke it, but it’s the Super Bowl’? You’re getting ready to open up a dam. The same way when you asked me about the press conference with the Jets, where I was between a rock and a hard place, I’m quite sure he felt the same way. Like, ‘We’re just going to have to figure out a way to win this without this dude, but the last thing I’m going to do is break everything that I’ve been doing for so long.’ I don’t know how many other veteran guys he has over there now, but when I was there, those guys wouldn’t have stood for it, either. They would have all been okay with it too—like, once again, Bruschi, and Vince, and Willie McGinest, those guys would have been chastising Butler themselves. Like, ‘How are you going to pick this week to mess it up?’ There’s a lot of other stories, and I’m not going to get into them—
—Yeah, yeah. It’s similar situations where people acted out during the course of the week, and the players took it upon themselves.
When you played, your Giants teammates were close, right?
We would have a linebacker dinner, like, once a year. Harry [Carson] would talk Parcells into giving him some of the fine money. Parcells would give him some of the fine money and we’d go to Fuddruckers and everybody’d make a hamburger, and this, that, and the other. Even Belichick. Belichick came out, too. Belichick—he wouldn’t have more than three beers, and then he would go back to the office and go to work [laughs]. That’s that guy. He ended up switching over, when he started coaching the defensive backs, so Mark Collins and them would try to get him to go out and drink a beer. And that dude was drinking O’Doul’s. So we started clowning the defensive backs, like, ‘Man, ya’ll can’t even get Belichick to drink a beer? He’s going to drink O’Doul’s with ya’ll!’
How was he in New England with going out?
Uh. [long pause] Belichick would take us out. He would thank us. Most likely it was like a Ruth’s Chris or something like that. Now, have I ever seen Bill with two or three drinks? Yes. But I can’t say I’ve ever seen him—like, he’s not a lush. He came to [Lawrence Taylor]’s 56th birthday in New York; this was when I was coaching with the Jets. The first thing he says to me is something football-related, something LT did or he said—it was something football-related. This guy’s head, it never gets off of football. Like, here we are at LT’s birthday party and he’s still talking about football.
Did he ever loosen up?
That’s what I’m saying. He’s loose. But his loose is probably not as loose as yours and mine. I can’t ever imagine Bill Belichick drinking a shot. But Bill Belichick would toast.
You’ve never seen him drunk?
Uh, no. Well, you know what? If he was drunk, he didn’t let me know it. But I’m bad, too. I never wanted Bill Belichick to see me drunk, you know what I mean? As a player, I’m the puppy, I’m the young guy on the squad. Carl [Banks], and of course LT, and Harry, they could get away with murder. But some kind of way, he would have clowned me. We’d be watching film. ‘Yeah, you can turn up that Jack Daniel’s or you can drink that, but you can’t sit over here and make this tackle.’ I didn’t want to give him any ammunition. Now, as a coach, I think we all kind of watched our Ps and Qs. When I first started coaching I would never drink close to what I used to drink as a player. He didn’t get drunk around me, I didn’t get drunk around him.
You didn’t want to let your guard down.
Exactly. As a player, if a player gets drunk, I don’t care what age he really is, he’s kind of got a get-out-of-jail free card. It might last a week or so, but they’re going to take it with a grain of salt. Somebody’s going to drink and just try to release. And back then, we didn’t have Ubers. We spent a lot of money getting home in limos and cabs. But as a coach, there’s no way in the world I ever want to put myself out there like that in that situation. Because I’d be embarrassing Bill Belichick, I’d be embarrassing Doug Marrone, I’d be embarrassing Todd Bowles. I’m not going to put them into a situation where they’re going to have to answer questions for me. And then the players—the freaking kids, the comedians—they wouldn’t let you live it down.