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Star billing

New NFL Films production plays off Belichick’s intensity, but also shows softer side of a football lifer

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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It would be neither fair nor accurate to suggest that NFL Films is the propaganda arm of the NFL. Sure, the league and its personalities are traditionally portrayed in a glorious, sepia-toned light, and there’s a better chance of Bill Belichick showing up on the sideline Monday night in Miami wearing a Jets hoodie than there is of NFL Films producing programs titled “Helmet to Helmet: The Long History of Concussions’’ or “Roger Goodell’s Most Arbitrary Suspensions.’’

But as Belichick has been known to say, it is what it is, and for 50 years NFL Films has been exactly this: An iconic, beloved, and extremely effective promotional tool for what is good and fun and entertaining about the NFL. It’s not journalism, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s entertainment, and it’s often extraordinary.

So it came as little surprise last week when the surprise announcement of NFL Films’s latest project was greeted with great anticipation, particularly among Patriots loyalists. “Bill Belichick: A Football Life,’’ a two-part, two-hour behind-the-scenes look at the Patriots’ 2009 season, debuts Sept. 15 at 9 p.m. on the NFL Network, with the second airing Sept. 22 at 10 p.m. The network made the premiere episode available in advance, and it can be confirmed: The anticipation is rewarded. In its usual way, NFL Films has gotten Belichick right. The first episode begins with these words: “If you think you know Bill Belichick, think again.’’ What immediately follows is a prolonged scene of the Belichick we certainly don’t know, relaxed and barefoot and fishing on his boat off the Nantucket coast. For someone often perceived as dour, he offers more than a few upbeat platitudes. “Perfect, huh? . . . “Yeah, there’s some serenity. Don’t worry about third-and-long out here,’’ he said.

But soon enough - the next day, in fact - he’s back in his familiar territory for the first day of training camp, and that’s when “A Football Life’’ shifts to more football than life. It’s the beginning of the Patriots’ 50th season, Belichick’s 35th as an NFL coach. It also marks quarterback Tom Brady’s return from a knee injury that ended his 2008 season in Week 1. Compelling story lines were not lacking.

A skeptic may wonder about Belichick’s motives for allowing such access. One reason is obvious: his well-documented affinity for the sport and its history. Producer Ken Rodgers told USA Today the Patriots couldn’t have been more accommodating and requested just two phrases to be cut, both play-calling terminology. There is enough insight and candor to believe in the genuineness of Belichick’s intentions. NFL Films not only documents legacies, but in some instances has created them. Perhaps there’s an element of shrewdness in Belichick allowing himself to become the first person miked by NFL Films for an NFL season. But the motives are pure enough, and his is a legacy worth documenting.

The film does emphasize what seems to be an uncanny knack for prescience. He foreshadows one reason for this team’s eventual downfall during a coaches’ meeting before an early-season game. “If you take [Randy] Moss away on deep part of the field and get down low on [Wes] Welker, we’re done. We’re done. We can’t run the ball. We can’t throw it to anybody else. We’re done.’’ He notes during a casual conversation that he thinks the Jets will play hard for their blustery new coach, Rex Ryan. And it cannot be coincidence that he’s shown chatting amicably with then-Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco before a preseason game. “We’re double-covering you,’’ Belichick says, “so you can take the rest of the night off.’’

For football junkies, the biggest thrills and chills come when his coaching acumen is on full display, whether it’s with his son Brian, who has the same duties one imagines Belichick’s father Steve, a widely respected coach in his day, gave his son when he was tagging along on the sidelines, or when he’s rapid-fire quizzing his team on specific game situations. There’s also repeated confirmation of his oft-rumored dry sense of humor, whether he’s good-naturedly talking trash to his offensive line (“I’d love to play against you guys. Just one play’’) or using far more vulgar and specific terms to tell then-Ravens receiver Derrick Mason he probably shouldn’t be talking so much when his team is losing.

It’s downright fascinating to watch and listen in as Belichick praises an opponent while simultaneously plotting to turn the player’s strength into weakness. Belichick’s longstanding appreciation for Ravens safety Ed Reed is confirmed during a meeting in which he’s going over Ravens personnel with Brady.

“Ed Reed’s Ed Reed,’’ Belichick says with more than a hint of admiration. “He covers up for a lot of stuff. Everything that he does, he does at an exceptional level.’’

Those moments when he’s engulfed in football minutiae with Brady stand out. When Belichick and Brady converse during a meeting, there’s a casualness to it, as if it’s peer to peer rather than coach to player. In fact, it’s Brady who devises the way to exploit Reed’s aggressiveness, a complex-to-the-armchair-quarterback scheme that Belichick acknowledges with, “Good idea. Good idea.’’

A couple of action scenes later, there’s Randy Moss scoring in single coverage after Brady reads Reed’s blitz perfectly.

But the most honest reasons for Belichick’s willingness to give NFL Films access are evident not in New England but New York. During a Week 2 visit to Giants Stadium to play the Jets, Belichick gives the three-person crew that followed him a tour of the stadium where he made his coaching name as the Giants’ defensive coordinator in the ’80s. It was his last visit to Giants Stadium as a coach - it was demolished after the season - and the revisiting of his roots puts him in an anecdotal mood. He looks at linebacker Lawrence Taylor’s locker and chuckles as he recalls when a fellow coach’s daughter found $75,000 in uncashed checks in the reckless superstar’s box of mail. He points out where each coach used to sit. He talks about beating Bill Parcells at racquetball “probably more than he beat me. And of course, as soon as it was over, he’d light into like four cigarettes.’’ You could swear you heard him chortle.

The realization of what football and his place in the game means to Belichick is most evident in one of those candid moments in the bowels of Giants Stadium.

“It’s a small room,’’ he says, his voice cracking. “As I stand here . . . it’s surprising how small it is.

“Damn, I spent a lot of hours in that room. I loved it here. I loved it here.’’

At that moment, he is sentimental and nostalgic and borderline maudlin, and to see the stoic coach that way is both jarringly unfamiliar and endearing. But the first episode also reminds us of what we already knew about Bill Belichick: He’s an extraordinarily prepared coach with a knack for making smart football decisions.

Allowing NFL Films to document his legacy absolutely ranks as one of them.

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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