During the extended half-time of Super Bowl 51, Bill Belichick was concerned about the lopsided score but he didn’t think it was indicative of the play on the field. He noted that his team had actually held the ball for more than 18 minutes of the first half, to Atlanta’s 11.
“I felt like we had control of the game. We didn’t have control of the score,” Belichick said later.i
He even told his offensive coordinator as much. “We’ll be okay. Our guys believe. They will fight their ass off,” Belichick said to McDaniels.
He then turned to his players.
“Let’s just play one play at a time,” Belichick told his men. “We can’t worry about things we can’t control. Let’s worry about what we can control.”
At that moment an unlikely leader emerged with a rallying cry.
“This is going to be the best comeback of all-time,” free safety Duron Harmon shouted across the locker room.
Harmon was another classic Belichick guy. Drafted in the third round in 2013, he was one of two Rutgers University defensive backs selected by the Patriots that year, joining Logan Ryan. The pair had up-and-down moments throughout their first few seasons and Belichick’s affinity for Rutgers players became a kind of running joke on sports talk radio in Boston.
Harmon was having the last laugh, however, as he emerged as a solid role player and more importantly, a quiet leader on the defense in 2016. In the divisional round against the Texans, he picked off Brock Osweiler and took it back 31 yards. His versatility at safety and cornerback also allowed more freedom for safety Devin McCourty to roam.
His declaration in the locker room raised some eyebrows and got guys thinking, “what if?”
“Why not us?”
It was a similar feeling that permeated Red Sox fans and the Sox dugout during the historic 2004 comeback against the New York Yankees in which the Sox ended the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” in dramatic fashion becoming the first baseball playoff team in history to win a seven game series after being down three games to none.
Why not us?
No one laughed. No one blinked an eye, especially Brady. His mother was sick, his career was on the line. Critics called him a cheater. Journalists across the country placed asterisks on his many accomplishments.
Those closest to him knew just how much it hurt him to be portrayed as a cheater and a liar. It flew in the face of everything he was and strived to be. But the quarterback had to block it all out now.
“It was all out of my mind. I wasn’t thinking like way down the road or all these different things. I was just thinking about how can we get back in the game?” Brady recalled. “It’s one play at a time. It sounds so cliche but that’s the way you are. That’s the reality. You can’t score 25 points in one drive. We did a great job in all three phases coming together as a team and that’s what Super Bowls are all about. You’re playing the best teams on the biggest stage and you know you gotta get the job done.”
In that locker room, most teams would have been desperate. They would have sought some sort of magic spell to snap them out of their funk. While they all were aware a comeback of this magnitude would have been nothing short of a sports miracle, in Belichick’s world, there was only one path to victory: do your job.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing, play like we know how to play and don’t think about what happened,” he reinforced firmly. “They have to score a lot more points to keep us down.”ii
Edelman understood Belichick’s words.
“A lot of the things happening in the first half was just us beating ourselves,” he recalled. “We were in the red area twice and we had a fumble and we threw an interception, but it wasn’t like we weren’t moving the ball. We just had to really soak in what we said we had to do and we couldn’t make any more mistakes. Our coaches did a really good job of keeping us in the moment and keeping us focused on each play instead of thinking about the big picture. Instead we focused on doing our job on each play.”
With Harmon’s words in their heads Brady and the Patriots made the walk back to the tunnel to head back out onto the field.
“Halftime on the sideline; us being together as a team knowing, we’re not quitting. We just gotta play better. It’s not really the plays it’s more the feeling and how proud I am that our team never gave in to any adversity,” Brady remembered vividly.
“The vets did a great job of leading by example. No one panicked,” first year receiver Malcolm Mitchell told the authors of this book. “They didn’t have to say anything to me. You could see from how they handled themselves, their posture, how confident they were in the team’s ability to respond.”iii
“Guys, at some point we all gotta just start making the plays,” Tom shouted to his struggling teammates as he walked back to the sidelines. He gathered with his receiving corps on the bench.
“We just needed to execute one drive, and after that drive we’ll come to the sidelines and we’ll talk about the next drive,” he said.
Players are human. Subconscious thoughts like, ‘This just ain’t our day” are going to be there if you let them in. You need a special roster full of men mentally strong enough to ignore those thoughts and keep chipping away.
While the Patriots continued to chip away, their fans saw their Super Bowl dreams slip away. The game was all but over. And it was about to get even worse.
Matt Ryan and his squad got the ball back and promptly marched 8 plays for 85 yards and a touchdown that chewed up nearly 4 ½ minutes of the third quarter.
The score was 28-3. The rout was on. It was a New England nightmare.
The biggest deficit Brady had ever erased in his career was a 24-point hole in a 2013 home game against the Broncos. No Patriot team in history had ever come back from 25.
High above the field in the owners’ luxury suite, Robert and Jonathan Kraft felt sickened. They were trying to figure out what the hell was going on with their team. How could a Belichick-coached squad fail this badly in the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl?
“Think he’s giving up at 28-3?” Jonathan asked his dad about their quarterback. The elder Kraft was stoic and contemplated the possibilities. Before he could answer, Jonathan said what they were both thinking; “No fucking way.”
i Do Your Job Part 2: Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, NFL Network, 2017
ii Do Your Job Part 2: Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, NFL Network, 2017
iii Author Interview with Malcolm Mitchell, 2017
Copyright © 2018 by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.