His admiration is unflagging
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- You say you're starting to OD on Belichick lore? You think the media has been nipping at the Kool-Aid a wee bit too much? You think the Patriots really can't be run that differently than anyone else?
Sorry. You ain't heard nuthin' yet.
Meet Don Davis, No. 51 in your program, and probably nowhere in your heart. Unless you're a true football junkie, you were most likely unaware of his presence on the team until he started popping up in those nickel and dime packages in the St. Louis game. But Don Davis is worth listening to, because Don Davis has been to football hell and back, and now he thinks he's in football paradise because he is a member of the New England Patriots.
Before the 2001 season, Don Davis had a choice. His time was up in Tampa Bay. Would he like to be a St. Louis Ram or would he like to be a New England Patriot? It took him about 1.7 seconds to decide in favor of St. Louis.
"I said, `I ain't gonna play for the Patriots. It's New England. It's cold. And that coach had a reputation. Hard-nosed. Tough practices. Didn't treat the players well.' "
And now that he has been here for two full seasons?
"Every myth I had was totally blown out of the water," he declares. "Now I can't imagine playing anywhere else."
His mental turnaround began just prior to the 2002 Super Bowl. Davis was a starting outside linebacker for the Rams that evening, and he relished the feeling of being introduced at a Super Bowl. "I was standing there, feeling great, and then they introduced the Patriots," he recalls. "And they came out as a team, and I remember being struck by it. You just take a brief picture of it in your mind, but it stuck with me."
As we all know, the underdog Patriots won. "We had a certain amount of arrogance on our team and we just couldn't understand how that team had beaten us," he says.
Now, of course, he knows why they won, why they won last year and why they should probably win again this year. They win because they have some excellent players and because Bill Belichick and his staff can take some of the lesser talented players -- in other words, players such as special teamer Don Davis -- and reinvent them as the situation warrants.
To the question, "Do some coaches simply possess substantially more empirical knowledge than others?" the answer is most emphatically "Yes," and Don Davis is here to give you an example.
Go back to the time of the defensive backfield crisis following the Patriots' loss at Pittsburgh on Halloween. Davis, a 240-pound linebacker, was being asked to play safety, a position he hadn't played since he was tearing it up at Olathe (Kan.) South High School many years and pounds ago. This subject had first been broached during training camp, but now it was no longer an abstract and Davis admits to being intimidated.
"Bill Belichick called a DB meeting," Davis explains. "Just him and the defensive backs -- no assistant coaches. He got up there and he went over things. He said in this situation you watch for this and in this situation you watch for that. He broke it all down from point A to point Z. It was amazing. And I came out of that meeting feeling really confident. I cannot imagine there is anyone, anywhere who has more knowledge about the X's and O's than Bill Belichick."
Davis says he has never encountered anyone who just oozes football the way Belichick does. "Another guy from Kansas came through training camp and he says to me, `I see we have another Jayhawk.' And then [Belichick] starts talking about our 1995 team and he rattles off the names of the whole defense. I mean, we were good, but we weren't that good, and, yes, we had a few NFL players, but he even knew the ones who weren't. I knew I was dealing with someone who was truly impressive. That mind is a steel trap."
It takes a savvy veteran such as Davis, who is now playing for his fourth NFL team, to appreciate the difference between the contemporary experience and some other, shall we say, less desirable experiences the NFL has had to offer.
Consider, for example, Davis's first team, the 1996-98 New Orleans Saints. "The worst three years of my life," he asserts. "I think we won about six games, but that wasn't the whole story. It was all back-stabbing: player vs. player, coach vs. players. No one was on the same page. Ownership, the coaching staff, and the players had three different perspectives."
For the record, the coaches of that exotic mess were Jim Mora Sr. and Mike Ditka.
After getting waived in November of '98, he joined the Buccaneers, where he finally found some stability. "My career turned around at the end of my first year in Tampa when Tony Dungy came to me and said, `We like you. We have plans for you.' That made me feel great, and I really enjoyed playing there after that. In New Orleans, you always had to look out for yourself. Everything was always, `What can you do for me? I thought that was what the NFL is all about."
Now Davis plays for a team that fascinates opponents. "A guy like my friend [Rams safety] Aeneas Williams is fascinated with winners and winning. He said, `How can you guys keep taking the losses like you do and keep winning? You lose Ty Poole, Ty Law, you lose a Eugene Wilson for a time, you lose a Richard Seymour, and you're still in the Super Bowl? How can that be?' "
"It's because our players are dependable and smart," Davis says. "Our guys are not going to make stupid mistakes. Those who do aren't going to be here very long."
Intelligence is clearly a valued trait in the Patriots' scheme of things. Playing for the Scott Pioli/Bill Belichick Patriots is as much a mental as a physical ordeal, which is why Don Davis is certain of one thing: you will be hearing from many of these guys long into the future.
"Take a snapshot," he advises. "In 20 years there will be at least 10 or 12 head coaches of some kind out of this team. They talk about the `Holmgren Tree.' There will be a Belichick Tree, and it will include both many of the assistant coaches but also many of the players on this team."
And, yes, Davis hopes to be one of them.
Don Davis tells us that so much of what we hear about the Patriots really is true, but that we'll never know the half of how it all works. We won't see how Belichick can keep the team grounded, even after a great win, by showing them what they refer to as the "lowlight films." We won't hear him ease some tension by, yup, cracking a joke. And we'll never be inside a Belichick-run DB meeting listening to him expand upon the minutia of just how to play football.
Davis has seen how it works elsewhere, and how it works with the Patriots, which leads him to a simple declaration.
"I plan on being around Bill Belichick for a long time," he says. "In whatever capacity that is."
It will be a winning capacity; that much we know.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.