Amid COVID-19 uncertainty, Bill Belichick prepares Patriots with focus on control — or lack thereof

Bill Belichick didn’t know what the rest of the week held for the New England Patriots. He couldn’t say when Cam Newton or Stephon Gilmore would return to practice or play again. He didn’t have any – or at least wasn’t sharing any – information on any COVID-19 test results.

What he did know was the New England Patriots are “on track” to play Denver Sunday at Gillette at 1 p.m. so that’s what he would prepare for.

For a coach who puts preparation first in football, his mindset is similar when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. Belichick has prepared on how to prepare as his Patriots – and the rest of the NFL – deal with a fluid situation it seems the NFL is struggling to handle and something that’s been hanging over Foxboro since Newton tested positive 10 days ago.

This week, Belichick will prepare the Patriots for a team they were supposed to play two days ago. How they feel about the situation doesn’t matter much, because it’s not something they can control.

“We will make the most out of opportunities this week and we’ll be ready to go on Denver here on Sunday,” Belichick said. “Hopefully we can stay on track and continue our preparation from last week that obviously roll over into this week with some adjustments. Those will be relatively small compared to the overall scope of the preparation.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to playing here and coaching.”

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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches from the sideline as they take on the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. (Photo: David Butler II, USA TODAY Sports)

Coaching is the one thing Belichick can control, which makes it easier for him to talk about.

The other stuff? That’s out of his hands and if you can’t control it, why waste time on it.

Sunday was a unique situation the NFL has never seen.

The Patriots were supposed to play the Broncos, then the game was postponed to Monday when defensive lineman Byron Cowart tested positive for COVID-19. Multiple reports said the Patriots shut down Gillette Stadium completely after the result came back and that, in part, led to the league canceling the game for the week and setting it up for this Sunday.

Players were already angry about how the NFL handled the previous week’s situation surrounding Newton’s positive test and the Patriots being forced to fly in and out of Kansas City on gameday.

Sunday couldn’t have made things better and while there haven’t been reports on the matter, thinking players would possibly refuse to play for COVID concerns and to get a point across to the league doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Tuesday, Belichick was asked if the players had any input on the postponement and change to the schedule that was made by the league. It could have been simply answered by a yes or no, but Belichick expounded on the question, pressing that the decision was league-based an entirely out of the Patriots’ control.

“I think that the league I’m sure did the best that they could to try and work out the schedule where everybody could play their games and there would be as little disruption as possible and how that effected the teams involved, that’s a decision they would make based on multiple factors, many of which I’m not aware of,” Belichick said. “I think they’ve done a good job trying to, in our case, assess what the situation is here. But whatever the scheduling decisions are, that’s not something we have any control over, especially in a situation like this where you have multiple games involved in a schedule adjustment.”

When Belichick said “that’s not something we have any control over,” he was likely referring to him, his coaching staff and his players. It’s not totally absurd to think Bob Kraft made a call Sunday, explaining that a tough situation would be made worse by the Patriots staying on the schedule.

Now if that happened, that’s not something Belichick has any control over. He was prepared to play the Broncos Sunday, then Monday, and now, this Sunday.

What he can control is coaching and, because he’s always prepared, how the Patriots can be prepared for when situations like what’s happened over the last two weeks occur.

Belichick has had to prepare the Patriots to prepare, because coaching in 2020 is unlike any other year. It’s been a process for New England with constant tinkering and refining since COVID started.

The difficulty is in communication and how the finer points of football are taught to players.

Where everything was done in group settings previously, the Patriots are doing things more virtually with the majority of teaching being done in positional meetings.

This has allowed Patriots players to receive more one-on-one coaching, which has been a benefit, but it’s not a perfect system.

“The downside of that is there’s a little bit less overall communication and total understanding of everything that’s happening because you don’t hear other coaches tell the players beside you or in front of you or behind you what they’re doing and where it all kind of ties together,” Belichick said. “You rely on your position coach to do that and our coaches do a good job of that.”

Since COVID started, Belichick said the Patriots have worked on how to improve the system. It’s not all Belichick saying they’re going to do X, Y or Z. Players and assistant coaches have had input on what works best for them both in learning and in teaching.

“It’s a balance, something we’ve talked about,” Belichick said. “Maybe we have the right mix, maybe we don’t, but that’s something we’re aware of and we want to try and use our time as efficiently as we can to get everything covered.”

Belichick didn’t know what the week held for the Patriots because what happens two or three days from now has less to do with him and more to do with COVID-19 or the NFL.

Tuesday, Belichick could control Tuesday.

The rest will have to wait.

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