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Bill Belichick Is the Master of the Sick Burn

Good coaching requires discipline, intelligence, and a little luck. It also requires, in the case of the Patriots head coach, a knack for insult comedy.

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On a hot Massachusetts practice field in the summer of 2014, an NFL rookie quarterback couldn’t stop fumbling the snap. Across the field, the head coach shared some constructive criticism.

“Coach Belichick hit me with ‘Foxborough High School has been getting snaps right all year,’” Jimmy Garoppolo said. “You feel terrible. Because you realize, Wow, it’s true.”

There’s an age-old debate in stand-up comedy about whether comedians should replace all of their jokes regularly or lean on the material that got them there in the first place. Are audiences coming to see new jokes or to see the comedian themselves? Bill Belichick seems to come down squarely on one side of this debate.

“I was fumbling snaps,” said Zac Robinson, who was drafted by the Patriots in 2010. “And Belichick says, ‘I’m going to go down the street to Foxborough High School and find someone to take the snap.’”

Jim Miller, who played quarterback for the Patriots in 2004, heard the same high school line: “But I also heard, ‘We’ll get someone down at the local gas station to take the snaps.’” Recycled gags aside, each QB said that Belichick’s comments stuck — and helped them get over their issue on the field.

Belichick is perhaps the greatest coach in the history of football. He has won 234 regular-season games and four Super Bowls. He wins due to constant innovation, a future Hall of Fame quarterback, and supernaturally smart game plans that slow opponents. He also wins, players say, due to a ruthlessly effective communication style that is short, funny, and, more than anything, sarcastic. There is no coach who uses succinct, biting jokes to convey a coaching point with as much efficiency (and comic timing) as the Patriots head coach. Bill Belichick is the master of the sick burn.

“You don’t think it’s funny if it’s happening to you, but everyone else does,” said safety Devin McCourty. “Stuff like, ‘I could get my mom to come up and do that.’”

McCourty, who is in his seventh year with the team, has witnessed a similar experience every time a new free agent enters the Patriots’ building. The veterans, familiar with Belichick’s work as a public grump and media stonewaller, nervously approach McCourty “and they say, ‘I don’t know what to do — should I laugh?’”

Heath Evans, a former Patriots fullback, quickly learned about Belichick’s comedy-routine-as-coaching gambit when he joined the team in 2005. Evans, who played at 250 pounds, was a bruiser. Early in his Patriots tenure, he carried the ball more than most fullbacks. But Belichick was unhappy with Evans’s attempts at finesse moves. So during a mid-week meeting, he started sarcastically referring to Evans as Gale Sayers. “He’s saying ‘So Gale Sayers …’ during the entire meeting,” Evans, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said. Sayers, if you’re unfamiliar, is perhaps the most graceful running back of all time and starred for the Bears from 1965–1971. He was 198 pounds.

“I’ve got all the running backs around me — Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, and they are dying, because if he’s not coaching you, it’s hilarious.” Evans realized what Belichick was getting at, and after showing more film of the finesse cuts and spins the fullback made during the game, Belichick said, “Run someone over, will ya?”

Evans returned to his typical, physical style shortly after the session.

“I tell people he’s the funniest guy I’ve ever been around,” Evans said. “And when I say that to people, they tell me I need to get out more.”

Time management may be more important for Belichick than any coach in the league — he is a micromanager of historic proportions, coaching nearly every position on the field and having a hand in essentially every phase of the game. Most coaches usually have a single area of expertise. Belichick does not. That means he has less time for everything. So it makes sense that Belichick uses the flippant quip to game-plan like Bill Walsh used the short pass.

“He’s direct, he doesn’t mince words,” said Patriots pass rusher Chris Long, “and with all the moving parts and all the things we’re trying to get done, to be able to communicate directly is a gift for a player.”

In the NFL, most coaches’ communication styles are predictable. There are the yellers — the fire-and-brimstone disciplinarians who make as much noise as possible to get their point across. One notable example is Bill O’Brien, a former Belichick assistant (check out who separated O’Brien from Tom Brady during a 2011 shouting match). There are other examples of yellers, operating with varying degrees of success.

Then there are quiet coaches who show little emotion and are better known as teachers — Jim Caldwell and Chip Kelly are good examples. Players say that other coaches will spend 20 minutes going over a granular detail or trying to drill a simple point into his charges. Belichick is confident enough to boil it down into a few seconds. “He has a way of getting his point across, and it works,” said Evans. “Because if it’s not working for you, he’s not going anywhere — so you will be.”

Most of the players consider the direct, sarcastic lines effective teaching tools. But not everyone. “Other coaches are a little more sincere and treat you respectfully. This was all entirely negative reinforcement and very biting,” said former Patriot Ross Tucker, who described the mood at Patriots HQ as “generally less happy” than the other teams for which he played. “I guess guys get used to it.”

Tucker, a Patriots lineman in 2005, said Belichick mastered the art of saying one line, under his breath, that only you could hear and then quickly moving on before you could respond. “My first week there, I fell down during a practice play,” said Tucker, who now hosts the Ross Tucker Football Podcast. It was a routine slip, nothing terrible, Tucker thought. “And a few minutes later he just walks by and says, ‘You gonna stay off the fucking ground, Tucker?’ and you turn around and he’s like 8 yards away already because he never breaks stride and you’re almost like, ‘Who said that?’”

Belichick’s players say the vast majority of his sarcasm comes when he’s showing lowlights of practice and games. He cuts together the worst plays, gets out a laser pointer, and uses it to indicate the origin of the problem.

The more obvious the mistake, the more biting the feedback. “When you miss on a fourth-and-1 and just needed a couple of inches,” Miller said, “he’ll take his laser pointer and just deadpan, ‘That’s … not what we’re looking for.’” His point is made. “That deadpan, it would stick in everyone’s mind,” Miller said. “And it certainly stuck in mine.”

Everyone has a story about the time Belichick was kind of mean to them. And almost everyone considers it an effective teaching moment. “The funniest thing for Coach Belichick is when he starts cursing, but his tone doesn’t change,” said McCourty. “So he gets really mad but he’s still just so dry and he’s so calm when he [says], ‘What the … you can’t be doing that.’ But he says it so simply.”

McCourty was introduced to Belichick’s deadpan delivery when the safety was at Rutgers and Belichick visited with the team. It was 2008, McCourty said, and Belichick was discussing a Patriots loss to the Miami Dolphins. “He said, ‘We’re not lighting candles in the locker room and we haven’t sung ‘Kumbaya,’” McCourty remembers.

McCourty was amazed at not just Belichick’s delivery, but at how effectively he got his point across. He’s been progressively less amazed as time has gone on. “I’ve been here seven years, so I hear some of the same lines over and over,” McCourty said. “He clearly stores some of them away when he thinks players like them.”

Matter-of-fact statements are a Belichick staple — he’s more Lewis Black than Eric André. Tucker remembers Belichick simply shining the laser on right tackle Brandon Gorin, mid-mistake. “And he’ll just say, ‘Right tackle … we got this guy starting for us.’”

Miller, now an analyst at SiriusXM NFL Radio, recalls a meeting the night before a divisional-round playoff game against the Colts in 2005 that was made up almost entirely of video clips of the Colts mouthing off about their chances of toppling the Patriots, followed by a few words of encouragement about how hard it is to win the Super Bowl. “And then it was ‘Gentlemen, have a great night’ — nothing about winning the turnover battle or anything like that, like most coaches,’’ Miller said. “It was the shortest meeting I’ve ever been in.”

Louis Riddick, a former NFL safety and now an ESPN analyst, said he saw a big contrast in coaching styles on his mid-’90s Browns teams, when Belichick was near Nick Saban, then the defensive coordinator. The picture Riddick paints is that of a barely believable buddy-cop movie, Saban screaming at everything and Belichick softly twisting the knife.

Riddick remembers Saban and Belichick teaching quarters coverage, which they called “box.” When Riddick was lined up incorrectly, he remembers Saban screaming, asking if Riddick had ever seen a “box” in his life. “Belichick didn’t have to yell,” Riddick said.

In fact, he remembers Belichick discussing a game against the New York Jets in which he thought the team wasn’t winning enough jump balls despite the receivers’ height and long arms. He was angry. “But he wanted to communicate directly, quickly, and sarcastically,” Riddick said. So Belichick started discussing the passes in detail, with no criticism or editorializing until, Riddick said, Belichick finished it off succinctly: “If you can’t win those balls, I … don’t know what to tell you.” That’s all it took to make his point.

“You kind of laugh that he talks like that,” Riddick said. “But at the same time you’re saying [to yourself], ‘Crap, I better get this right.’”