Thursday, July 28, 2016

Give Him a Problem, He's a Happy Man

Within the parameters of his press conference deadpan, which run the gamut from Buster Keaton to "traffic cop who's just pulled you over for going 90," Bill Belichick seemed almost jolly yesterday during his opening of training camp remarks. Even odder, the Patriots coach was downright candid on how he planned to handle his most obvious and serious challenge of the preseason.

You can go years between Belichick statements of policy and strategy (I know, believe me). But the coach did not hesitate to say how he planned to cope with Tom Brady's four-game suspension at the start of the 2016 NFL season. Maybe that's because Belichick thought his solution was so obvious even sports media should have figured it out for themselves.

During the preseason, Jimmy Garoppolo will be treated as if he's the starting QB. Once the suspension is over, Brady's back. Simple, eh?

But what does that MEAN. How many reps will Garoppolo take from Brady? How much of the exhibition games will he play? How will Brady prepare for a season he won't start? Belichick didn't say, and I thought the questions were a little mean. NFL coaching is a terrible job. Let the man get some enjoyment out of it. Let him tussle with issues that'll help keep him awake during what is by my count the 42nd training camp of his life. Besides, if Belichick HAD answered them, the questioners would have nothing new to report during camp themselves.

I am not so far gone as to think Belichick is anything but unhappy that Brady won't open the season in Arizona in September. Yet I do believe that a small part of his football-obsessed soul is at least piqued by the arrival of an unprecedented coaching challenge. Unprecedented but also in an odd way easier for any coach, let alone one of his ability, to address.

In the final analysis, a four-game suspension is a lost time injury for which a team can prepare. It is the equivalent of Brady suffering something like a sprained MCL during one of his brief exhibition game appearances. Pro football's SOP in that instance is "Next man up and let's go." Here, Belichick has the chance to shape that next man to his heart's content, KNOWING exactly when Garoppolo will take the step up for real.

The six weeks of tinkering this gives Belichick has to give him no little consolation for losing a Hall of Fame QB for 25 percent of the Pats' season. Judging by his demeanor yesterday, I think he's looking forward to it. And that bodes well for all 100 percent of said season.

Training camp is significant, no, essential for any NFL team. It is also very boring for all concerned. It is re-registering your car and doing your taxes for three weeks straight while sweating profusely and suffering muscle pain. Nobody loves anything more than Belichick loves football, and he once told me (and others) training camp gets real dull. The boredom is magnified in the case of a team that's been on top of the league for over a decade as the Pats have. The most diligent perfectionist (the only personality type Belichick tolerates in a player) can think they're being diligent and perfect in a tedious practice while their soul is only going through the motions.

Now consider the coach. Like I said, he's been to over 40 of these things. How can he maintain his inhuman focus day after inhuman summer day? Making practices interesting is one of the primo challenges for any coach in any sport. Less noticed but just as difficult is making those practices interesting to the coach himself.

Those challenges are no problem for the Pats this summer. The coach has a camp with a ticklish problem requiring lots of fret, infinite attention to detail, and most of all, a constant need to adapt to changing circumstances (nobody knows how Garoppolo will do. Belichick must wait to find out like the rest of us). He won't be bored. Neither will the veteran Pats. They all know damn well they have to as close to their best as possible in September. In a way, they start the season with playoff games. News flash: Professional athletes are insanely competitive people who adore being presented with just such a situation. They may fail, but not from lack of attention.

The Pats aren't better off because Brady will serve his suspension. Far from it. But they have to be a lot less bored in the next month because of it. That's not nothing. How can something be nothing if it cheers up Belichick?


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