Can’t touch this

6-1 Patriots are immune to distractions

The Patriots are supposed to be the vanilla team of the NFL.

It is what it is in Foxborough. Sometimes that gets a definition. Most of the time it doesn’t. Injuries are day to day or ever-present, such as Tom Brady’s right shoulder. Players aren’t discussed unless they are under contract. Other teams aren’t mentioned unless they are an upcoming opponent.

Yet this season, the team that tries to avoid the spotlight can’t get out of it. Contract disputes, a car accident, receiver rants, and unexpected trades are story lines that have been connected to the Patriots in the last four months.

Nine weeks into the season, the Patriots have had their share of incidents that could be viewed as distractions, yet they enter today’s game against the Cleveland Browns with the best record in the NFL at 6-1.

“I think any time you get something newsworthy from New England, we make a big deal out of it,’’ said Herm Edwards, an ESPN analyst and former NFL coach. “It’s kind of like they’re in a country far, far away and no one knows what they’re doing. So when you get something on them, you want to talk about it.

“It’s amazing because what happens to that football team, it happens to football teams all through the league. Some things get out and some things don’t get out. I think the key to it all is, how do you handle it when it makes the media?’’

No matter how many people may be talking about the Patriots, the Patriots will talk only about football. That approach is what former NFL coaches see as part of the reason the Patriots have not been eaten up by the drama of the season.

“I used to tell my teams, ‘The National Football League is a continuous distraction, and you have to learn how to perform and you have to learn how to focus with many distractions around you,’ ’’ said former NFL coach Jerry Glanville.

News and views
In 2007, the lingering questions behind “Spygate’’ accompanied the quest for an undefeated season. This year, the story lines have changed from week to week and carried impact and emotion. But whatever seemed explosive was watered down by minimal comments and diluted statements.

Before the halfway point of the season, an assortment of stories were associated with the Patriots. Offensive lineman Logan Mankins refused to sign his tender offer and skipped training camp but returned to the team this week. Quarterback Tom Brady was involved in a car accident days before the season opener and then signed a four-year contract extension.

Wide receiver Randy Moss rambled about his contract, among other issues, in a 16-minute Q&A with the media following a season-opening victory against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Patriots traded 2006 first-round draft pick Laurence Maroney to Denver. Veteran running back Kevin Faulk suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Moss was traded to the Vikings. Safety Brandon Meriweather became a national example for the NFL after he was fined $25,000 for an illegal hit. Wide receiver Deion Branch returned to New England in a trade with Seattle.

The issues could have been worse, but they all were hot topics. However, what may be topical outside the locker room doesn’t hold the same interest inside, Glanville said.

“I don’t think the distractions are as big of a deal as the media likes to think,’’ Glanville said. “It’s bigger news maybe in your paper or on TV than it would be in the locker room. That hasn’t changed.

“What’s changed is there’s no secrecy as to what goes on in your locker room. If we had a big brouhaha in the locker room today, it would be world-class news 20 minutes after it happened, every one in the world would know it happened.’’

During some of the most high-profile events, the Patriots continued to win. They may have the best record in the NFL, but linebacker Tracy White said what makes the Patriots different is that the record doesn’t feel as special inside the locker room.

White is in his ninth NFL season and has played for five teams. This is his first season with the Patriots, and he said along with learning his responsibilities each week he is absorbing how coach Bill Belichick manages the quirks within a season.

“He makes it look like you’re not doing nothing,’’ White said. “I’m trying to learn how he coaches because I want to coach one day and he’s got me thinking that, ‘Man, we haven’t done nothing yet.’ So I’m not even looking at the record and that makes me work harder and the position coaches reiterate that.

“If I was somewhere else, it would be like, ‘Man, we’re 6-1. We killing these teams,’ but here, it’s like, ‘Man, we got to do better.’ ’’

Mix of philosophies
Belichick is in his 36th season as an NFL coach and his 11th as head coach of the Patriots. As the organization developed a reputation for winning, it also developed a culture for how it would operate. The seeds of that foundation were planted as Belichick grew up watching his father, Steve, coach at the Naval Academy.

Belichick watched his father and other college coaches operate at football camps and picked up his earliest lessons about coaching.

“I not only knew a lot of the Navy coaches or got to observe them or watch them in practices and meetings and so forth in my dad’s football camp, [but it] was a great opportunity to see a lot of coaches coach,’’ Belichick said.

“Everybody had their own different style, and you look at some coaches and you see strengths or weaknesses or different methods of doing the same thing — sometimes equally as effective, but totally different — as opposed to just being locked into one coach.’’

Belichick’s coaching style continues to evolve, he said, but he has taken tips from coaches and players he has met over the years. In 1976 and 1977, Belichick was an assistant special teams coach with the Detroit Lions. One of his colleagues was Glanville, who would go on to coach the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons.

Glanville said he hasn’t talked to Belichick “in about 100 years’’ but he knows not much has changed about his coaching style.

“I don’t think he’s really changed,’’ Glanville said. “He’s always been a go-to-work guy. If I had to change one thing, I don’t think I got him to laugh enough, but the way he does things, I don’t think anyone can find fault with.’’

Control and focus
Glanville said the philosophies that Belichick practices work because he knows how to get players to focus no matter the situation and there is never a doubt who is in charge.

“There’s never been a day where there’s not a distraction,’’ said Glanville. “Good football teams say, “There’s the distraction, but here’s our focus.’ I think as long as coach Bill Belichick is there, they will come back and focus.’’

When a coach first takes over a team, that is his chance to establish himself. Players may respect the title of coach but if they do not respect the man, a coach will struggle to control his team, Edwards said. The best way to convince players to listen is to win.

“Bill was in Cleveland last time I checked before he went to New England, and it didn’t turn out too good,’’ Edwards said.

“Then he got to New England, at first he struggled a little bit and then they caught fire and it’s been history ever since. I think we lose sight of that sometimes. It’s not like he didn’t have some struggles in his coaching career because he did and all coaches do.

“But I think when the ownership understands you have a good coach, you’re going to go through some trials, you stick with the guy, you believe in his plan and the direction he’s heading your football team. Then you sit there and you go through it because eventually you come out of the back end better for it.’’

Patriots veteran tight end Alge Crumpler has been through his share of coaching changes. His 10-year career has included stops with the Falcons and Titans. While all teams will endure their share of distractions in a season, Crumpler said there is one sure way for a coach to keep everyone following the routine.

“It’s always a funny formula,’’ Crumpler said. “You always bring guys in and tell them what to expect. There’s always somebody that bucks the system and they get cut and the point gets made.

“You try to do things right and hold things together but the biggest glue of anything is always winning. It’s always winning.’’ 

© Copyright The New York Times Company