Last week, it was reported that the New England Patriots have reinstated quarterback Tom Brady as one of their team captains. Brady was forced to sit out the first four games of the season but has been spectacular since he returned. Therefore, seeing him join Rob Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater as one of the captains did not come as a surprise.
Being selected a team captain does not only reflect the status a player enjoys within the organization, it also comes with responsibilities. The most commonly known is representing the Patriots at the coin toss before games and – if necessary – overtime periods.
But that is not all. Head coach Bill Belichick gave an insight into the role of captains within the team during Wednesday’s press conference. Belichick was asked about how first-year captain Dont’a Hightower has handled the added responsibilities. The coach replied that he has "done a good job" when it comes to representing the defense alongside Devin McCourty.
Belichick then went on to talk about that he meets with the captains every week, something he has done ever since becoming a head coach. After all, meeting with 53 players on the active roster and 10 on the practice squad is, in the coach’s own words, simply "not practical".
I rely on those meetings to get feedback from the players or sometimes I explain things to the players that I feel like the team needs to know and let them convey the message in their way or at least understand what the thought process is from my standpoint or the staff's standpoint. But I talk to them and they give me a lot of feedback every week.
Apart from team and position group meetings, Belichick and the coaching staff maintain steady communication with the players via their brethren. By doing that they get unfiltered access to the locker room they would otherwise probably not get – at least to the same degree.
[The captains] do a great job of I'd say not telling you what you think the coach wants to hear but telling you what they think is important, what we need to do, where there's an issue, what we need to address, and then that helps me address it. Most important thing for us is on Sunday is everybody being ready to go, being on the same page, going in there collectively ready to perform our best. Between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon there's still plenty of time to sometimes make some changes, or adjustments, or go back over something, or whatever the situation happens to be and address it. That's very valuable. [...]
The coach even went into a little detail about what the attendees would discuss during those weekly meetings, summing it up in one sentence: "It’s just about communication and feedback." Belichick and the captains would talk about specific plays or concepts, points the players feel need to be re-emphasized in practice or meetings, or simple questions of locker room chemistry and player morale:
[I]f a player tells me in that meeting 'Look coach, we've worked on this. We're not really comfortable with it. I think there's too much confusion here,' [then] throw it out; no problem. Get rid of it. I don't want that to happen.
Or sometimes it's 'Look, we're having a little of trouble with this. I think if we just get a couple of more times I think we've got it. We like it, it's a good idea, it's going to work, we just don't quite have it down yet.' Well, maybe we add a couple of plays in practice that we hadn't planned on having to cover that situation.
Or it could be on the punt team like 'Hey coach, we just need one more look at this rush that they're running. We've got it but can we just see it one more time?' Yeah, sure; things like that.
Or they might tell me that 'Hey, this guy is down a little bit. I think he needs a little confidence. I think if you said something to him that would really help him.' OK, good. I wasn't aware of that. I'll definitely do it. I mean, it could be a million different things. There's no set formula but it's just about communication and feedback.
The Patriots as the most seclusive franchise in the NFL give little insight into their inner workings. Rarely do the curtains get pulled back a little and we – fans and media alike – get a glimpse of how New England conducts its internal business. Hearing Belichick talk in detail about his meetings with the team captains is therefore an exception – and a highly interesting one.