New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick leaves no stone unturned. In the latest story from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, we get a look at U.S. Special Forces Lt. Col. Brian Decker and how Belichick was interested in applying knowledge from the Green Berets to the Patriots.
And how the Green Beret claims that he “f—-ed up” his interview with the Patriots because of the pressure.
Decker spent time with the Cleveland Browns in 2014 after building a relationship with then-general manager Mike Lombardi. Lombardi was fired before the season began and subsequently joined the Patriots, so when the Browns experienced their annual purge day, Lombardi connected Decker with the Patriots.
Belichick sat with Decker at this year’s draft combine and picked his brain. Decker was effectively the Bill Belichick of the Special Forces and was responsible for finding recruits that would be successful in his organization. Over his three years in command, he utilized data models and leadership styles to reduce drop-out rates by 30%. That’s what Belichick wanted.
“Before they parted in Indy, Decker asked Belichick what player trait he struggled most to predict,” Wickersham shares. “Belichick's answer was as blunt as it was revealing about realities in the NFL. Here was a head coach with four Super Bowl rings, with a quarterback who plays for less than market value, who has created an entire methodology based on common sacrifice and submission of ego -- a coach with more leverage than any other in the NFL -- telling Decker he had trouble finding players willing to buy in.”
Decker gave his answer. Belichick invited him to visit Gillette for a couple days.
While every team in the NFL wants to find players that “buy in,” the Patriots are apparently one of two teams (along with the Seahawks) with an employee specifically hired to measure a prospect’s character. The Patriots converted a former chaplain named Jack Easterby into a “character coach” to evaluate a player’s off-the-field mentality.
In a 2015 profile of Easterby, Wickersham notes that Easterby “hosts Bible study, works coaches' hours in his office counseling players and their wives, throws passes in practice to Darrelle Revis and sometimes even jumps in on scout-team drills. When he's not listening, he's texting. When he's not texting, he's writing players and coaches individual notes, recapping their personal goals and reminding them of how thankful he is to know them. He prefers to be called a character coach, not a chaplain, because he doesn't push religion on anyone.”
And so the Patriots were hoping that Decker could add a similar value to the front office. If Decker was able to improve the rate of those that were able to join the Green Berets, certainly he should be able to find football players that are willing to “buy in.”
But if you ask Decker, the interview didn’t go well. At all.
“The way the Patriots often interview is to rapidly and coldly fire darts that test a candidate's logic and resolve,” Wickersham writes. “Decker was nervous, so he did what he always does: He overprepared. He reread his most influential books, [MacArthur Fellowship winner and Seahawks psychologist Angela Duckworth's] ‘Grit’ and Hendrie Weisinger's ‘Performing Under Pressure.’ ‘It was a classic pressure situation,’ he says. ‘It was important to me, it was on my shoulders, and the outcome was largely based on my actions. And I f---ed up.’”
The Patriots asked him about his data set with “two years’ worth of prospects that he analyzed for the Browns, few of whom even ended up being picked and even fewer of whom ended up contributing” (ouch).
Decker went through his quarterback evaluation process that looks at a player’s floor and ceiling based on their prior experiences and practice habits. For example, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota had a low floor and a high ceiling, while Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had a high floor and a low ceiling. Rare talents like Andrew Lucks grade out with a high floor and a high ceiling.
The Patriots asked him about Jimmy Garoppolo, and “Decker reiterated that Garoppolo was the smartest quarterback he'd ever interviewed but that he was concerned the system he ran at Eastern Illinois was too simple and that to reach his potential he would need a lot of NFL reps.” He was in the Mariota category.
The Patriots asked why the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel if his model works (oof). And they “felt Decker was confirming what they already knew” about Garoppolo.
The problem, according to Wickersham, is that the Patriots already had Easterby on the roster to perform character assessments and that even though they liked Decker, they didn’t feel he brought much new to the table. There’s a difference in buying in and sacrificing yourself for your team with the NFL and with the Green Berets. There has to be a difference because the stakes are completely different.
I think that more teams should be interested in hiring people like Decker and Easterby and Duckworth because a player’s mental health is just as important for their long term success as their physical health. It’s not Decker’s fault the Browns were incompetent and their owner forced the front office to draft Manziel at the request of a random person on the street.
Easterby has helped the likes of Tom Brady, Matthew Slater, and Devin McCourty during his time with the Patriots. I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s telling the coaches how best to manage players with insecurities (Aaron Dobson) or with big personalities (Martellus Bennett).
I think that Easterby is a perfect counterweight to the coaching staff because he promotes love and compassion and big picture thinking to contextualize the football experiences. He was the one that helped reframe the Patriots mindset as they approached Super Bowl XLIX, to move away from DeflateGate and towards actually enjoying the championship opportunity. Easterby looks away from football in order to increase its enjoyment.
There’s a distinct possibility that Decker and his military mindset would not offer that same expansive view. Decker believes there’s an “intrinsic link between the military and football,” which is absolutely true. Dating back to the Civil War, football has been a vehicle to reinforce “an ethos of sacrifice, of dedication to the heroic cause.” Perhaps the most effective character evaluator needs to look outside of this militaristic mindset.
Teams are adjusting practice periods to include phone breaks and even the Patriots have to make exceptions for big personalities like Rob Gronkowski with his injury updates. Players can be and should be and are more than football itself.