PHOENIX - You think you know this guy: A former Phillips Andover football player who went on to coach for the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns before he helped guide the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl championships and establish himself as one of the NFL's great football minds.
Tom Brady once said the man "knows more about professional football than anyone I ever met."
His teammates agree. The guy is such a walking football encyclopedia, Mike Vrabel said, that "he's like Google."
You might say the man is Bill Belichick.
But you would be wrong. And you would not be alone.
His name is Adams. Ernie Adams.
"Nobody knows who he is," said former Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks, who gave Adams his first NFL job in 1975. "But Bill Belichick has a righthand man, and it's Ernie Adams."
One of the most influential and unrecognizable difference-makers in New England sports, Adams is Belichick's best friend and most trusted adviser in football, the genius behind the gridiron genius, a mystery man whose fingerprints are all over the Patriots' mini-dynasty yet is all but unknown beyond Gillette Stadium.
Adams, who played football at Andover with Belichick, reports directly to the Patriots coach - he speaks into his headset during games - and has his hands on so many facets of the organization that even the team's top assistants struggle to define his role. His official title is football research director.
Asked to describe how Adams contributes to the Patriots, assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia said, "Who?"
"Ernie Adams," he was told.
"Oh . . . well, yeah, OK," he said. "I don't know. Ask Bill."
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said, "You really would have to ask Bill."
Surely, Scott Pioli, the vice president of player personnel, would know. Pioli also worked with Belichick and Adams for the Cleveland Browns, whose owner, Art Modell, once famously declared, "I'll pay anyone here $10,000 if they can tell me what Ernie Adams does."
So, Mr. Pioli, what does Adams do?
"Some of that information is top secret," he said, smiling.
Former Patriots receiver Christian Fauria described Adams's role as "very mysterious."
"He's a guy who looks like he should be working for NASA," Fauria said. "I never really knew what he did, but sometimes I felt like he was pulling all the strings."
Belichick, asked to describe his relationship with Adams, cited their friendship at Andover, where Belichick played center and Adams left guard. The two were renowned for analyzing football strategy in their dorm rooms, drawing up plays on scrap paper.
Football scholars, they have charted a similar course since prep school, working together to master the game, pursuing perfection like few other partners in NFL history. They are the Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson of football.
"Ernie's a guy that I have the confidence to bounce pretty much anything off of," Belichick said. "I think he's got a great football mind and he's been a very valuable resource for our organization and for me personally."
Adams had nothing to say, declining through the Patriots to be interviewed. Several of his friends also declined interview requests out of respect for him, saying he is intensely private.
"He'll probably be at mad at me for talking about him," Fairbanks said.
When Fairbanks first met him, Adams and Belichick were NFL wannabes, college kids - Adams a student manager of the Northwestern football team, Belichick a marginal football player for Division 3 Wesleyan - who believed they could make a difference as professional coaches.
They breathed and bled football. Belichick's father, Steve, served as a highly respected assistant at Navy and wrote an obscure gridiron primer, "Football Scouting Methods," that few people read. One of those people was Adams, who consumed it before Belichick arrived at Andover.
Adams was so passionate about football at an early age, David Halberstam observed in his book, "The Education of a Coach," that a teacher assigned him to coach the intramural team at Dexter School in Brookline before he finished the eighth grade.
At Andover, the team went undefeated with Adams and Belichick blocking next to each other. It was 1970, a time of social and political upheaval when breaking rules seemed the cultural norm. Yet Adams and Belichick impressed classmates not only with their football pedigrees but their integrity.
Adams, 54, who owns a house near Coolidge Corner in Brookline that he shared with his mother until she died in 2004, is the son of a Naval officer.
"It wasn't surprising that Bill's father coached at the Naval Academy and Ernie's father was a Naval officer because of the way they presented themselves," said Dana Seero, the right tackle on Andover's 1970 team. "Their word was their bond. They wouldn't be friends if they weren't rock solid."
Fairbanks recalled Adams bugging him so often for an unpaid job with the Patriots that Fairbanks finally asked an assistant, Hank Bullough, to evaluate him.
"I said, 'Take this kid, give him last year's playbook, and see if there's anything he can learn,' " Fairbanks said. "Two days later, Hank calls me and says, 'Coach, this damn kid knows the whole book already.' "
Fairbanks then told Bullough to give Adams the defensive playbook. Two days later, Bullough said Adams had memorized that one as well.
"So I told Ernie to stick around and we would find something for him to do," Fairbanks said. "I came to find out later he has a photographic memory."
Fairbanks soon started his staff meetings by asking anyone if they needed advice about the stock market. Adams, it turned out, absorbed the stock pages every morning.
"I've got Ernie right here," Fairbanks would tell his staff. "He can tell you the price of any stock on the market."
Before long, Fairbanks assigned Adams to prepare scouting reports on the Patriots' next opponents.
"Every Monday morning, I got the most thorough report that I have ever gotten from anybody in my whole career in football," Fairbanks said.
Side by side
When the Giants hired a former Patriots assistant, Ray Perkins, as their head coach in 1979, Perkins promptly hired Adams. And Adams persuaded Perkins to hire Belichick, which began their march into NFL history.
Soon, Adams was New York's quarterbacks coach, heady stuff for a 26-year-old who had never played the position, and Belichick, 27, was coaching special teams.
They stayed together until 1985, with Adams moving up to become director of pro personnel before he resigned to take a lucrative job as a Wall Street bond trader. He left, he said later, because he became frustrated with the Giants job.
But Adams saw Belichick grow enough before he left the Meadowlands to realize his friend had a special gift. He told Halberstam Belichick had "the rarest kind of ability - the ability to see the game as if it were over, even as it was being played."
It was a gift others have seen in Adams. His ability to analyze video, statistics, and scouting reports, and apply his findings to game situations is considered all but unrivaled.
"He's one of those guys who sits back and evaluates something and when he talks everybody listens because he's right on the money," said Gary Tranquill, one of the first two assistants Belichick hired when he was named Cleveland's head coach in 1991.
The other assistant? Adams.
A reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer asked Adams why he would forsake making millions on Wall Street to carry a whistle and clipboard for the Browns.
"I'm not money-motivated," he said in a rare public moment. "I don't look at life in terms of how many chips I can pile up. The important thing in life is to challenge yourself and enjoy what you're doing."
No sooner did Belichick take over the Patriots in 2000 than Adams became his research director. Though the title lacks cachet and the Patriots media guide devotes only a few more lines to Adams's profile than video assistant Matt Estrella's, Adams explained his role with the team this way to Andover's alumni magazine: "Think of things that help us win."
In 2002, Adams collaborated with Belichick on his best-known contribution, a plan to help the Patriots upset the high-scoring, heavily favored Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI for the first championship in the franchise's 42-year history. The strategy, based on research that showed the Rams' offense revolved excessively around running back Marshall Faulk, called for the Patriots to attack Faulk on virtually every play.
Final score: Patriots 20, Rams 17.
"For all I know, the guy might have [Superman's] 'S' under his shirt," Fauria said of Adams. "That's the kind of impact he has on the team."
The impact stems in part from Adams's robust appetite for knowledge, long one of his trademarks. Seero, his former Andover classmate, thought he was doing Adams a favor a couple of years ago when he sent him a book, "Chaos: The Making of a New Science," a challenging work that explores the intricacies of chaos theory.
Adams had already read it.
Part of the wonder of Adams, Seero suggested, is how he applies his intellect to sport.
"He and Bill have a war-college approach to football," Seero said. "They leave no stone unturned."
After Harold Sackrowitz, a statistics professor at Rutgers, produced a strategy chart several years ago that could help coaches decide whether to kick an extra point or go for 2 after a touchdown, many NFL teams contacted him but none expressed as much interest as Adams.
"I was impressed by Ernie because he was the only person who actually wanted to find out how the table worked and how he could use it," Sackrowitz said. "He got to what was really important. He wanted to know where the gray areas were and where it was black and white."
Adams later asked Sackrowitz to evaluate a strategy table Adams had developed for the Patriots, and Sackrowitz disagreed with elements of it.
"I'm not sure I was able to change Ernie's mind," Sackrowitz said, "but he was willing to listen."
The way Fauria sees it, he would have scored in the 2004 Super Bowl had Adams differently evaluated one situation.
"I think he was directly responsible for me not getting a touchdown," Fauria said.
With the Patriots leading Carolina, 14-10, they had second and goal at the Carolina 4 in the fourth quarter when Tom Brady threw to Fauria in the end zone. Fauria was ruled out of bounds, but he believed he was inbounds and was certain replays would prove him right if the Patriots challenged the ruling.
However, Carolina was flagged for defensive holding on the play. As a result, Fauria said, Adams considered whether it was wiser for the Patriots to challenge the ruling - and risk losing a down if the challenge failed - or accept a sure thing with the penalty: a first and goal at the Carolina 2.
Belichick, with Adams in his ear, accepted the penalty. The Patriots scored on the next play, a 2-yard run by Antowain Smith, and went on to win the Super Bowl, 32-29.
But Fauria has no hard feelings.
"I think every team should have a guy like Ernie," he said. "I see games won and lost every week because of little things, situational stuff."
The stuff Adams does best.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.