American Football: Big fines and video nasty fail to stop the spy who loved NE

Great survivor Belichick should lead Patriots to one-sided win at Wembley today
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The Independent Online

Fines of $750,000, exposure as a cheat and losing your team a precious first-round draft choice would be more than enough to earn most coaches a P45. But then Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley today, as the NFL visits London to play a regular-season game for the third successive year, is not most coaches.

He is the architect of the "Patriot Way" – a philosophy of teamwork and exhaustive preparation; a commitment to excellence which has made the Patriots the most successful franchise of the past decade with three Super Bowl wins and playoff appearances in six of the last eight seasons. And all this in an era which was supposed to herald the death of the dynasty. Not bad for a guy run out of Cleveland 13 years ago after his first attempt at being a head coach.

Small wonder Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner who counts Sir Elton John among his closest friends, could not say goodbye to his coach's yellow brick road when the team was caught videotaping an opponent's playcalling signals in 2007. Ironically, it was one of Belichick's protégés, then New York Jets coach Eric Mangini – now in charge of revitalising the Cleveland Browns – who pulled the plug on the "spying" operation.

But perhaps this "betrayal" was not so surprising in the cut-throat business of the NFL. Not least when Belichick's tentacles reach far and wide, and with no shortage of impact. Thomas Dimitroff left the friendly confines of Foxborough to take the general manager's job in Atlanta last year and promptly helped turn a demoralised outfit into a playoff team. This season, Belichick's former offensive co-ordinator, Josh McDaniels, has the Denver Broncos, forecast to be treading water in 2009, unbeaten after six weeks including a win for the apprentice over the master.

The 33-year-old became the NFL's youngest head coach when hired in January, and is not shy to credit his teacher. "Most of the things we do with our team, in some way, shape or form, I get from Bill," McDaniels admits. "His preparation, the way he feels you have got to approach each game a little bit differently."

It is a trait the 57-year-old is renowned for. Known as a great innovator, particularly on the defensive side, his constant overhaul of the team's tactics gives opponents a headache because they know they will face something they have not seen on film. "He's always thinking about where we're going to go, how their receivers are going to attack the things we've done," says Mangini. "Some guys may be thinking one step ahead. He's trying to think of all the contingencies."

Another disciple, Charlie Weis, the head coach of top college Notre Dame, credits Belichick's ability to get players to put aside their egos and buy into the team concept: "It's tough to do today," says Weis. "How he's done it is beyond me. But [it helps that] he's almost always right." Belichick also firmly believes that if a player can "get five per cent better" in any week's preparation then, "by the end of the week that equates to something big".

Unlike many of his contemporaries, the Nashville native's expertise at stopping opponents has not limited his ability to develop a thriving offense. With the help of Patriot missiles from top quarterback Tom Brady, Belichick has a knack for picking up under-appreciated players cheaply and turning them into world-beaters. Randy Moss had a career-low 42 receptions with Oakland in 2006. Hey presto, a year later under Belichick, the once bad boy catches 98 balls and is feared throughout the NFL.

All of which gives the winless Buccaneers an almighty challenge today. If anything they are the antithesis of the Patriots, forced into a major rebuilding operation while New England, season after season, quietly turn over their roster and intelligently use the multiple draft picks acquired along the way.

Tampa's best chance comes in the shape of a rain dance allied to Wembley's sub-standard drainage. Even that is unlikely to be enough to save them. Either way it will not be a surprise if the quality of the contest does not please the NFL suits who continue to talk up an expansion to two games in London, perhaps next season, and a franchise in the capital by 2015. With a players' lockout on the horizon, the latter, like a Tampa Bay win today, looks highly optimistic.