Count on Bill Belichick monitoring player buy-in as Patriots offense scuffles

FOXBORO — Bill Belichick’s offensive experiment has not yet paid dividends at Patriots training camp. The offensive line looks leaky. The running game is stagnant. Mac Jones doesn’t have anywhere to go with the football at times.

It hasn’t been pretty. Jones told us earlier this week that the view is about the same from where he sits. And Thursday’s workout looked like more of the same.

At one point, during an 11-on-11 period, Jones was pressured up the gut and decided to scramble. Then he did something unusual. He launched himself forward, diving head-first, apparently just to pick up a few extra yards. In a practice.

It wouldn’t have been hard for an onlooker to determine that it’s been so difficult to find positive offensive plays that the second-year quarterback willingly threw his body to the turf just to help create one.

It’s been so frequently disjointed on that side of the ball, that the energy permeating Day 1 of camp practice — when the offense had what amounted to a practice-long party because they experienced so much success — has mostly evaporated.

Even after a clean rep on Thursday, a quick-hitter to Tre Nixon in the red zone for a touchdown, there was nary a celebration. No flying side-bumps. No pumping up of the crowd in attendance. Just a low-five between Nixon and Kendrick Bourne. Then back to the grind.

The Patriots are eight practices into camp. The “dog days” as players call them. And they had some fun early Thursday with the annual slip-and-slide warmup for the rookies. So it’s not all doom and gloom on the sidelines.

But buy-in will be monitored as the Patriots continue to try to find their way offensively under this new system. If there’s frustration, or a lack of “juice,” Belichick will pay attention.

He’s a believer in the importance of buy-in. It impacts who he drafts and his choices in free agency. Years ago, according to ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, he picked the brain of a Green Beret who was an expert on the subject and explained that the hardest trait to predict in players was, you guessed it, buy-in.

Belichick keeps an eye on how his own decisions impact buy-in, too.

I know because he told me, years ago, in an interview that resulted in this story on Belichick the risk-taker, detailing the impact that Navy coach Wayne Hardin had on Belichick’s coaching style.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Does Bill Belichick concern himself with ‘buy-in?’ Yes, he doesn’t Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

The impetus for that story were plays like the ones when the Patriots used a four-man line against the Ravens in the 2014 postseason, confusing and infuriating Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. Just before the story was published, Belichick asked Nate Ebner to attempt a drop-kick kickoff in a regular-season game against the Eagles — a risk that didn’t go the way of the now six-time Super Bowl winning head coach.

But some of the thoughts Belichick shared — about how outside-the-box ideas might be received by the team if said ideas don’t work — seem relevant at this moment.

He’s made significant changes to an offense that produced a top-10 scoring unit with a rookie quarterback last year. He’s asked two coaches with relatively little NFL experience on the offensive side of the ball to take prominent roles offensively.

This isn’t a 4th-and-2-in-Indy kind of risk. It’s not an in-game, snap decision. But from the outside looking in — and perhaps for some players on the inside, too — it’s a risk nonetheless.

Here’s what Belichick told me when our conversation shifted to what can happen when gambles go wrong:

“I think it’s all about production,” he said at the time. “It can be exciting if you feel like it’s gonna work. ‘Here’s a new idea, we haven’t done this before, and I could see how this is really going to help us.’

“But if you start throwing a bunch of new ideas at a team, let’s say — the coaches, players, whatever it is — and they don’t work, you get to about the fourth one and it’s like, ‘All right . OK, here’s another great new idea. Why don’t we get better at the things we’re doing as opposed to coming up with a different way of doing it?’

“I think there’s a fine line there. I don’t think you want to just do it to do it because if it doesn’t work, then, you know, you really — you lose credibility. How many [expletive] ideas do you want to come up with? How long are they going to follow you with one bad idea after another?

“If you come up with something and it works, and you come up with something else and it works, then the next thing you come up with probably nobody’s even going to think twice about it. They’re just gonna say, ‘OK, well I don’t really know why we’re doing this,’ or maybe tell them why you’re doing it, and they’re like, ‘All right great. Full speed ahead.’

“But you start having a few of those that backfire and then the next thing you know it’s, ‘What about this?’ And, ‘What about that? Last time we did this, we said this was gonna happen, but it didn’t happen.’ You lose confidence. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

“You gotta make the right decision, find the right time. A lot of those ideas are good ideas at the right time and the right… ‘This has gotta be right because if it isn’t, it can look terrible.’ “

Curran: Why the heck did Patriots have to change their offense anyway?

That answer struck me. This is, after all, arguably the best head coach to ever roam a sideline. Even if he was cognizant of how his decisions played in the locker room, he must’ve felt as though he had more leeway at that time than he did decades prior. Right? Didn’t he almost always have player buy-in because he had a handful of Super Bowl rings (at the time, he had four with the Patriots)?

“You might get one or two more screw-ups, but I mean… I don’t think that really… It doesn’t last too long,” he said. “When I became a special teams coach with the Giants, I worked in special teams for four years in the National Football League, and one thing that stood out to me was how poor and what little respect the punt return teams had for fakes. They just didn’t cover them.

“So we ran, I don’t know how many we ran my first year, ’79, with the Giants. Must’ve been six or seven of them. It was a bunch of them. After a while, we started being played a little bit differently. But you just didn’t see many of them. It was rare. Ray Perkins was the head coach. One day I went to him and said, ‘Look, I don’t think they have this covered.’ The next week, ‘I don’t think they had that covered.’ Some teams didn’t even have special teams coaches. They were kind of like, ‘Let’s run the same [expletive] every week.’

“But Perkins, he was aggressive. He was like, ‘Yeah, OK, that’s a good idea.’ That was early in my career. I probably ran more of that in ’79 and ’80 than I have since then. I don’t know, but it might be. Might easily be. Because it was a lot. I think that’s an example of, it’s not how long you’ve done it or how short you’ve done it. To me, it’s about the right time, the right situation. Why would you do something new? Because you think it’s good.”


Mac Jones on Patriots offensive struggles early in training camp

Belichick may have had more buy-in than he gave himself credit for back in 2015. Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and Danny Amendola all went on the record then to say that his reputation and resume speak for themselves. There wasn’t much questioning of Belichick happening inside the walls at One Patriot Place.

And maybe there isn’t much now. He’s helped bring home two more Lombardi Trophies since then, after all. But that doesn’t mean Belichick won’t gauge how his team is acting in camp and react accordingly.

It’s early yet. Not enough time has elapsed for Belichick to veer from something that he clearly believes is best for his football team on the offensive side of the ball. But his decision on how long to stick with these offensive changes won’t be made in a vacuum.

Performance will matter. Buy-in will, too.

And if the offense continues to experience growing pains as it preps for the 2022 season, Belichick may have to bump up managing player attitudes to the long list of challenges he’s shouldering this summer.

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