Bill Belichick’s press conferences are the objects of endless fascination, and for good reason: On any given day — and with any given question — there’s no telling which version of Belichick might show up.
There are moments when the Hooded One would rather be anywhere else, most famously when he was “on to Cincinnati.” Yet sometimes Belichick is willing to give a treatise on a certain topic, like he did earlier this week when discussing his rage against the machines. In a way, Belichick pressers are a lot like the Replacements’ concerts circa 1985 — whether he wants to flash a middle finger to the audience or express a singular form of genius is all a matter of how he is feeling that morning.
Amid that uncertainty, though, there is one reliable Belichick trope. When he loves an opposing player, he isn’t shy about showing it. Earlier this week, Belichick cut off a reporter’s question about Le’Veon Bell with an “Oh my god” before the Patriots coach started gushing about the Steelers running back. “He’s a tremendous player, great hands, catches the ball, very quick, makes people miss, strong, breaks tackles, excellent balance, tough, doesn’t run out of bounds, fights for extra yardage, a great player,” Belichick said, barely able to contain himself.
That’s high praise coming from a man whose approval most players openly crave. But even all that can’t bring Bell anywhere close to the top spot on Belichick’s list of opposing player crushes. In High Fidelity terms, Bell is Jackie Alden. So here are the heavy hitters, the all-time, top-five opponents who have captured Belichick’s heart.
5. Jason Witten
“He does it all,” Belichick said. “They use him really to do everything. I don’t think there are any limitations. I don’t think they’re sitting there saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to run this play with Jason in there.’ He run blocks, he catches the ball over the middle, he catches the ball in the red area, third down, inside, outside, seams, man coverage, zone coverage, pass protects. I mean, whatever they need him to do, he does it and does a good job of it.” — October 2015
Level of love: The admiration you feel during Thanksgiving dinner for an older cousin who just came back from his first semester at college. He makes a twin bed and a mini-fridge sound like a far-off paradise that awaits in better days.
Nothing has ever been less surprising than Belichick loving an old-school tight end whom he could probably beat in a foot race. Judging by everything Belichick has said over the years, tight end is his favorite position. This fall, in heaping praise on Rob Gronkowski (Patriots or former Patriots were not eligible for this list; if they were, Troy Brown would make a convincing case for no. 1), Belichick said that the only position more difficult to play on offense is quarterback.
Based on New England’s approach this decade, Belichick would likely put five tight ends on the field at once if it were feasible. A 263-pound, lumbering player who will catch 60 passes a season long after he’s zombified would be an ideal fit for that.
4. Peyton Manning
Level of love:
No joke, that moment between Belichick and Manning — the quarterback he’s said is the best he’s ever coached against — after last season’s AFC championship game is among the cooler things that has ever happened during a postgame handshake.
It’s inaudible on the tape, but Belichick apparently told Manning to “take it all the way” before the Sheriff started talking about rodeos. That may not seem like much, but considering Belichick’s message to any other quarterback would have been, “I hope a meteor hits Earth in the next two weeks, because I’d rather watch the world burn than see anyone else lift my fucking trophy,” it’s pretty heartwarming.
3. Larry Fitzgerald
“[Fitzgerald] does everything well. He’s a great receiver. He’ll go down as one of the all-time greats. He might end up as the best one ever, I don’t know. You have no idea where he’s going to line up from play to play. He has a very big route tree. He runs all the routes … one route sets up another. It’s very hard to find him. It’s very hard to defend him.” — September 2012
Level of love: The kind you’ve secretly harbored for your asshole buddy’s girlfriend who is way, way too good for him.
My favorite trade rumor of the past few seasons was Larry Fitzgerald potentially heading to New England in 2013, in part because it seemed so plausible. Fitzgerald is the perfect football player, and it was easy to envision how he’d fit in with the perfect organization.
Belichick expressed his love for the receiver almost a year earlier, though, when Fitzgerald was coming off a season of catching passes from Kevin Kolb and John Skelton and was staring down another of playing alongside the quarterback quartet of death (Kolb, Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer). No one would have blamed Belichick for spending long nights, his face lit only by the dim glow of his film projector, imagining how much happier Fitzgerald would have been in New England.
2. Jason Taylor
“Jason Taylor was the player I coached against the most times and may also be the one who ruined the most games, so his retirement is met with some mixed reactions in New England. Jason was a relentless competitor, a game changer, and I congratulate him on a truly remarkable career.” — January 2012
Level of love: More than your dad loves you, but less than he loves your more successful brother.
During his career with the Dolphins (and single season with the Jets), Taylor played against Belichick’s New England teams 22 times, seven more than Belichick’s Pats faced off with Manning. Belichick has long coveted AFC East players who gave his Patriots a hard time (his grand theft of Wes Welker before the 2007 season being the prime example), but with Taylor — who sacked Tom Brady 11.5 times in his career — he took that longing to an entirely new level.
In Rex Ryan’s autobiography, Play Like You Mean It, Ryan said that Belichick called Taylor — then 36 years old — every day during the 2011 offseason in an effort to get him to sign with New England. (He eventually went to the Jets.) It raises the question: Where were Belichick’s friends? At least one of them should have stepped in to delete Taylor’s number. It would have been the right thing to do.
1. Ed Reed
“He’s the best weak safety I’ve seen since I’ve been in the National Football League in my career. He’s outstanding at pretty much everything. The list goes on and on with him. It’s just a question of pretty much anything he’s out there for, he’s good at.” — 2012
Level of love: The stuff that’s fueled our greatest art — an undying love that knows no bounds of rationality or possibility, a love you’ve read about, heard songs about, but have never known.
I can only hope that one day someone looks at me the way Belichick looked at Ed Reed. Belichick has coached in the NFL for more than 40 years. He’s won four Super Bowls in New England. He’s seen everything a man can see in professional football, yet meeting Reed instantly turns him into Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney.
No one makes Belichick fanboy quite like Ed Reed does, but it’s not as if Ed needs to be present for Belichick to lose his mind. The best part of Belichick’s episode of A Football Life was when he and Brady were sitting in the coach’s office, going back and forth about Reed’s greatness. The two of them watching Reed blanket Vincent Jackson looked like me and my buddies watching Metallica videos at 3 a.m., arguing about which live version of “Creeping Death” is best.
Belichick could walk the sideline for another 100 years — and he might — but I don’t think he’ll ever know a love like the one he had for Ed Reed.