I started to understand Bill Belichick's motivational methods the day no Patriots receivers would talk to me after a blowout victory in Buffalo.
You probably remember the game. It was one of the most shocking of the 2007 season. Randy Moss caught four touchdowns in the first half of a 56-10 victory that ran New England's record to 10-0. The game put the 1972 Dolphins on speed dial. The juggernaut could not be stopped.
The obvious postgame questions centered around Moss, who caught 10 passes for 128 yards and barely played in the second half. I asked the loquacious Donte' Stallworth for comment. He looked at me like I had just demanded his playbook.
"Yo, Chad Jackson! Tomase wants us to talk about Randy Moss!" Stallworth yelled across the locker room.
"No way," his fellow receiver growled. "I'm not talking to you."
Bewildered, I insisted they couldn't be serious. They were. There would be no questions about Randy Moss. When the star receiver eventually reached his locker, I threw up my hands. "Help me out," I asked. "What did I do?"
"You got my boys in so much trouble," he replied with his unmistakable West Virginia twang.
My offense? Two days earlier, I had written a long feature in the Boston Herald about Moss's out-of-this-world season. Through nine weeks, he had recorded 56 catches, nearly 1,000 yards, and 12 touchdowns for an offense averaging 40 points a game. I had asked his fellow receivers to pick their favorite Moss catch. Stallworth loved one he had made in front of LeBron James. Wes Welker chose a one-hander over the middle. Jabar Gaffney, Kelley Washington and Jackson participated, too.
Everyone selected a different grab and loved talking about it. The story included a graphic with a Moss-o-Meter ranking his TD catches from spectacular to insane. It was the definition of light, fluffy, and harmless in the midst of an historic season.
Belichick saw something else entirely. He recognized an opportunity to motivate a group running out of challenges. As Moss explained, Belichick had made each receiver apologize to the entire team for singling out a player for praise. No one stands above the team -- not even a receiver on his way to breaking Jerry Rice's single-season touchdown record.
It was a while before I got a decent quote out of any of them, the collectively chastened.
In that moment, I learned something about Belichick, though. Even while coaching a juggernaut -- or maybe because of it -- he feared complacency. A team that believes in its own greatness risks atrophy. That's why there are no sacred cows in Belichick's locker rooms. Tedy Bruschi is one of his all-time favorites, but on ESPN he recently recalled Belichick ripping him and Junior Seau for a blown assignment after a galvanizing victory in Baltimore. Another player once told me that Belichick suggested an aging star consider retirement during film work. Both examples happened in front of the entire team. He doesn't play favorites.
I've been thinking about all of this for the last few weeks, with numerous reports suggesting Patriots superstars Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are unhappy with their work environment. Brady shocked us at the end of the Tom vs. Time docuseries by hinting at his struggle to justify the pain, offseason workouts, and time away from his family. Gronkowski still hasn't committed to return next season and reports continue to leak suggesting he's unhappy with Belichick's iron fist.
Personalities, circumstances and culture all change. Brady is older. Gronkowski has absorbed staggering amounts of punishment. As a society, we're re-examining our blithe acceptance of abusive workplaces.
And yet, the more I think about it, the more incredulous I become at the idea of Belichick softening his approach. His remorseless style has produced three Super Bowl appearances in four years. Belichick sells it by treating Brady as brutally as everyone else. How many other Hall of Fame quarterbacks are routinely compared to a local high schooler during team meetings?
Brady and Gronk seem disinclined to take it anymore, and I can sympathize to an extent. Brady preaches a New Age-y positivity that's at odds with the militaristic precision of Foxboro. Meanwhile, Gronk just wants to be able to land a dropkick in five years.
But when it comes to Belichick's concept of team as defined over nearly two decades, no individual can supersede it, not even Hall of Famers. Are the Patriots the Patriots without their grim Do Your Job relentlessness? Can Belichick be Belichick if he's warm and cuddly instead of dour and demanding?
I'm not sure why anyone would want to find out. Better to accept that while the harsh conditions might not be for everyone, there's no greater high than hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
If it means you can't publicly say nice things about your teammates along the way, that's a small price to pay. It's not like you need to abandon all perspective, anyway. As I walked away that night in Buffalo after being lectured, Moss gave me a half smile.
"It was a good story," he said.