The New England Patriots are by far the most successful team of pro football’s salary cap era, but along the way the myth of them not having any fun started to pop up. Whether it was through rumors circulating around Gillette Stadium or loudmouth opponents such as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lane Johnson, the perception of the Patriots’ image expanded beyond business-first to become the embodiment of the so-called No Fun League.
Fun can take many forms, however, and for Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears the most satisfying one comes through winning — precisely what the team has been doing at a consistent basis ever since the start of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era in 2001.
“To each his own. I guess I wouldn’t be here for 20-plus years if I wasn’t enjoying it, if I wasn’t having fun,” the veteran assistant coach recently said during a media conference call when speaking on the topic of fun. “I think everybody has what they consider their own gauge for what they want to do. I want to find a way to win. That’s not going to be easy. The people we’re up against, they’re pretty damn good. Everybody is.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go a little bit harder in practice. Sometimes you’ve got to go a little bit harder in meetings. Sometimes you’ve got to work just a little harder to find that edge that’s going to give you the difference. Now, if you don’t think that’s fun, where’s the competitor? I mean, what are we doing? I have a lot of fun with it. I enjoy being around the guys. I enjoy going after. I enjoy competing. That’s what it’s all about me,” continued Fears.
The 65-year-old has seen a lot of competition over the course of a career that started in the late 1970s, and brought him to the NFL in 1991 as the Patriots’ wide receivers coach. His initial tenure with the team lasted only two seasons during which New England went a combined 8-24, but after a stint with the Chicago Bears he returned to Massachusetts in 1999 to continue in his previous role.
Even through the head coaching change from Pete Carroll to Belichick, Fears remained on the staff — first coaching the wideouts, since 2002 being responsible for the running backs. Along the way, New England’s longest-tenured assistant coach has been a part of all six of the team’s Super Bowl wins.
At the end of the day, having that kind of success is what it all boils down to for him.
“There’s no fun, there’s no joy in anybody’s village if you’re not finding a way to freaking win,” said the outspoken coach who is entering his 24th season as a member of the Patriots. “Let’s be honest, who’s having fun then? When your name’s in the newspapers and they’re talking about replacing your butt, who’s having fun then? No, no, no. I think I like my way.
“I’ve enjoyed this role and I’m going to enjoy it until Bill says ‘Hey, your ass is out of here’ — excuse my language,” Fears continued. “But that’s the way it goes. I’m having fun. I’m sorry for the guys that don’t, the guys who think we work too hard. I’m sorry about that for those guys, but I don’t feel bad one damn bit.”
Heading into 2020, Fears will be coaching an offensive backfield that is among the deepest in the NFL. Despite the opt-out of veteran Brandon Bolden, the position group still features an intriguing mix of experience and youth: Sony Michel, Damien Harris and J.J. Taylor are the young guard at running back, with James White, Rex Burkhead and recently signed Lamar Miller as the elder statesmen.