Pepper Johnson served as the linebackers or defensive line coach for the New England Patriots from 2000-13, ultimately leaving when it became clear that he wouldn’t serve as defensive coordinator under head coach Bill Belichick. Johnson spent 2014 with the Buffalo Bills under Doug Marrone and 2015-16 with the New York Jets under Todd Bowles.
Johnson sat down with Deadspin for an extended Q&A session and he didn’t hold back any punches when comparing the success of the Patriots with the terrible coaching in the AFC East. Johnson also opined on why he thought Belichick benched cornerback Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII and the value the Patriots gained from SpyGate.
On Malcolm Butler’s Benching
“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, Teddy 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.
“I’m quite sure he felt [like he was between a rock and a hard place]. 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?’”
“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?
“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.”
On Bill Belichick’s coaching style
“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.”
On the Bills
“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. [It wasn’t Marrone], 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.”
On the Jets
“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... That wasn’t part of the philosophy of the secondary coach [Joe Danna]. And a lot of people didn’t understand that. [Including Todd Bowles]. He pretty much ran everything.”
On the Dolphins
“Kacy [Rodgers] 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.”
On the weakness of the Patriots defense
“What bothers [Belichick] the most is what he does to other people. So, yeah. Quick passes, and Brady getting the ball out fast and all that stuff.
“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.”
On why the Patriots are better than the other teams in the division
“I was so worried when I left the Patriots that people were just going to bring me in to pick my brain... 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.
“[In New England], we’re going to pick [a new person’s] 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.”
On the value of Robert Kraft
“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.
The whole interview is fascinating and I recommend reading all of it because there’s other Patriots nuggets and some seriously fascinating insight about league operations in the interview worth seeing for yourself.