Learning the Belichick Way

Friday February 13th, 2015

One overlooked storyline during the run-up to the Super Bowl was that of Patriots offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo and his unit.

DeGuglielmo (pronounced day-ghoul-YELL-mo, but everyone calls him “Googe”) not only had to replace the legendary Dante Scarnecchia, but he was baptized in the Belichick Way when All-Pro guard Logan Mankins was traded to the Buccaneers shortly before the season started.

You might think that the offensive line coach might have had a clue that Mankins, the most experienced and accomplished player in the unit, was about to be traded. You’d be wrong.

“I found out on the field when Coach announced it to the team,” said DeGuglielmo, who had never met Belichick before the Patriots hired him.

So there was the first-year coach, days before the season opener, trying to replace a legend, having to deal with the huge monkey wrench or a trade that Belichick hadn’t even clued him in on. The Patriots were rotating players at the tackle spots and center/right guard during training camp, but left guard had been untouched. Mankins owned that spot. Basically, Belichick threw DeGuglielmo overboard without a life preserver with only these parting words: “Good luck.”

Dave DeGuglielmo. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) Dave DeGuglielmo. (Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“Coach has a master plan and a vision that I could never, especially early on being here one year, understand,” said DeGuglielmo, who previously worked with the Jets (2012), Dolphins (’09-11) and Giants (assistant line coach, ’04-08). “You just have to trust that he knows what he's doing.”

With Mankins traded and rookie center Bryan Stork injured to start the season, the Patriots’ offensive line naturally got off to a terrible start in the first four games. They couldn’t run the ball, and quarterback Tom Brady was taking a beating as the team started 2-2.

By the end of the season, and with a big assist from a Josh McDaniels game plan that used more quick passes, the o-line was a solid unit that helped capture a Super Bowl title. Quite a turnaround.

“We were just business as usual,” DeGuglielmo said about what changed after 2-2. “Find the right guys, find the right combination, keep working on the basic principles, whether it be pass protection or run blocking. We were kind of developing an identity as an offensive line. Every year it's different because every year the people are different. I don't know if we really did anything different. Tom never expressed any concern to me, ever. As a matter of fact, it was just the opposite. He knew the process that we were going through.

“I had never really gone through that kind of system where today this guy's playing, tomorrow that guy's playing. And I think what it did was, it built a stronger group overall because they learned to play with different people next to them, so when a guy goes down it's another guy in and it's no problem. But there's some growing pains through that.”

Rookie center Stork started the season injured, but by XLIX he and Brady were in sync. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Rookie center Stork started the season injured, but by XLIX he and Brady were in sync. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

DeGuglielmo, a Lexington, Mass. native, and Belichick took a lot of heat for the line’s performance in the first quarter of the season. One team source told me in the early part of the season that the players, including Mankins, weren’t the biggest fans of DeGuglielmo, which is understandable considering all of them had been comfortable with the precise instructions from the regimented Scarnecchia.

“My personality’s different than his,” said DeGuglielmo, who was out of football and worked as a radio talk show host in 2013. “It took time to get used to, I’m sure.”

But as with everything else in football, there can be growth, and there was improvement as the players got used to DeGuglielmo.

“It’s been a growing process for us, but as we mature as players it’s just one of those things that you have to adapt to and get used to,” left tackle Nate Solder said. “He’s done a great job of coming in and establishing himself and building relationships with us that are necessary to improve and get better as a group.”

Brady had such confidence in his line that he didn’t even have to look sometimes. (Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Brady had such confidence in his line that he didn’t even have to look sometimes. (Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Having DeGuglielmo, who’s never afraid to say what’s on his mind, available to the media during Super Bowl week was a breath a fresh air. And as someone who was new to the Patriot Way, he offered a bit of an outsider’s perspective on the team’s way to doing business. Some of the highlights:

Belichick is almost like a higher power at One Patriot Place. Everything happens for a reason—Belichick’s reasoning. “He's not afraid to try [new things] and reap the benefits somewhere down the road,” DeGuglielmo said. “That's where he's different than others. Everyone else is worried about how this is going to affect us today. He's more worried about how this is going to affect us later on. It ruffles some feathers, ruffles some feathers of guys in the room, it is what it is. We all fall into the same category that there's a greater plan that we have to understand. I have to learn it and they have to learn it. Coach has a plan, and if we trust Coach, we go with Coach.”

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Brady’s pocket awareness. “It's a great pleasure to work with a quarterback that understands pocket awareness, where to put the ball, when to get rid of the ball, how to set the protections, who's supposed to pick up that guy,” DeGuglielmo said. “[Brady] is a line coach's dream come true in a lot of ways. I've been around some others… not so much of a dream come true. This guy is fabulous, he really is.” (Wonder if DeGuglielmo could be referring to Mark Sanchez, among others.)

Stork, a fourth-round pick from FSU, was the plan at center all along. “He was hurt coming out of camp and that kind of slowed his ascension to that position,” DeGuglielmo said. “I think coach had a vision when he drafted the guys he drafted.” Belichick personally worked out Stork before the draft. And before selecting Stork, the Patriots called Seminoles offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who is something like college football’s version of Scarnecchia. “He said, ‘I put my reputation on this guy, ’” DeGuglielmo recalled. “That was enough for me and for Coach.”

Nobody in the Patriots’ building thought Ryan Wendell, whose insertion at right guard settled the unit in Week 5, could play guard. “When I got here, it was, ‘Wendell can't play guard.’ ” DeGuglielmo said. “Well, I'm telling you he's done as good a job as you could. He has been a tremendous guard and a tremendous leader. He probably had the toughest transition from Dante to me because it was a different deal, different system, different way of communicating, and seeing all these young players given opportunities [ahead of him in camp]. He wasn't necessarily given that early on and he did the right thing. He’s a great pro, worked hard, got himself into a position where he proved he’s a legitimate right guard. Once that happened, all of a sudden, Coach had Stork in the middle and you had Wendy on one side, and moving Dan [Connolly], which seems like an odd move to take a right guard and make him a left guard, but to replace a longtime legend Mankins, you take a 10-year veteran and put him in that spot, it calms the left tackle down. All of a sudden, there's a soothing effect and it just happened to work. It’s Coach. He has a vision of where he wants to go.”

Left tackle Nate Solder, who struggled in the first half of the season, as an elite player. “A lot of times we turn the protection right, we don't turn it left,” DeGuglielmo said. “He’s out there and he's done a great job holding up. There are times where, listen, you have to tell him he’s one of the elite. And I believe he is. I believe he’s one of the best left tackles in the NFL. And I see enough tape in film study to know what I’m talking about in that regard. I wouldn’t trade him for another left tackle in the league, I really wouldn’t. I mean the only guy, and I’ve told him this, that is in his league in my opinion with the combination of skills and movement and power is Tyron Smith in Dallas. I don’t want to hear about [Denver’s Ryan] Clady, [Cleveland’s] Joe Thomas, I don't want to hear about any of them. [Eagles’ Jason] Peters is sloppy. I’d take Nate Solder over all those guys, and I’ve told him that.” The Patriots picked up Solder’s fifth-year option as a first-round pick. The $7.4 million for 2015 becomes guaranteed on March 10.

On grading quarterback pressure. “I look at it as how many times did they go near him? And I'm very strict,” DeGuglielmo said. “If they graze him, it's a QB hit in my opinion because it affects him mentally because he feels a guy on him. They know he has to be clean clean, you have to fight your tail off to keep him clean. [Brady has] been hit. He's a tough, tough son of a gun.”

NICKEL PACKAGE

1. Good job by David Steele of the Sporting News, pointing out the latest misstep by the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell. On the heels of botching their attempt to help victims of domestic violence, the NFL has made its first chief health and medical advisor someone who isn’t a brain injury specialist. Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, the president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, is a cardiologist and biomedical researcher. As Steele points out, it reeks of Paul Tagliabue naming Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist who was the Jets’ team doctor, as chairman of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee in 1995.

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2. I’m less troubled with the ties to Patriots owner Robert Kraft (Brigham and Women’s has an outpost at Patriot Place). The Kraft family is a major player in Boston’s philanthropic scene and has ties to many of the area’s medical centers, including Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Faber Cancer Institute. Boston is one of the top medical areas in the country, and Kraft personally knows many of the top doctors—if not all of them. I think it’s a stretch to equate this to a conflict of interest.

3. Interesting that Packers coach Mike McCarthy followed in the footsteps of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett (who was forced to do it) in giving up his play-calling duties. McCarthy, who will pass the job on to Tom Clements, wants to be more involved in game management as well as the defense and special teams. I’ve long thought coaches who call their own plays miss too much in game management, but McCarthy proved he could do both jobs when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. I figured McCarthy would never give it up after that. Maybe Aaron Rodgers’ vast experience in the offense made the decision easier.

4. The fate of Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis (who will have a $25 million cap charge if he isn’t released or hasn’t reached an extension by next month) will be one of the offseason’s most interesting storylines. I expect the Patriots to pay Revis near the top of the cornerback market ($14-15 million per season) and for Revis to pass up more money elsewhere to remain in New England. But Jonathan Kraft’s recent comments to WEEI should give fans pause. “Hopefully both sides want to make a deal and we'll be able to get one done," Kraft said. The Krafts have used that kind of “both sides” wording before, specifically with Wes Welker, and it hasn’t always worked out. It’s usually code for “you need to take less than what you think you’re worth.” I doubt that will be the case with Revis. The Patriots know he’s a different, and worthy, commodity.

5. Expect a bunch of teams to be interested in quarterback Josh McCown, who was released this week by the Buccaneers. And not just for his play. “Lovie [Smith] talked about it since day one when I was hired, about Josh and how Josh was the type of person we needed in this locker room and on this team for the very reasons you’re talking about,” Bucs GM Jason Licht told me last year. “Of course I believe what Lovie said and trust him, but to see it firsthand within the first days that we actually signed him… the guy is just special. He lives, breathes and eats football. Somehow, he just has a way to capture the entire team. They all love this guy. He’s really one of the most special leaders I think I’ve ever been around.”


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