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‘A student of everything’: What a 26-year-old Bill Belichick learned as a Broncos assistant

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In 1978, a 26-year-old aspiring football coach walked into a rather nondescript tan building on the city’s north side to start a job with the Denver Broncos.

Bill Belichick has called his one season in Denver a “tremendous experience” filled with lessons he still uses today, with eight Super Bowl wins on his résumé, six as the New England Patriots coach.

“I loved working for the Broncos in ’78,” Belichick said.

The Broncos will be in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) to face the now 68-year-old Belichick in a rescheduled game. Belichick’s six titles in the era of free agency and the salary cap, his .685 winning percentage, the 30-11 postseason record in New England, is unparalleled. And that solitary year in Denver had significant impact on his extensive body of work.

Back in 1978, then-Broncos coach Red Miller put Belichick in defensive coordinator Joe Collier’s care. Collier gave Belichick a variety of entry-level jobs, including arduous film breakdown long before digital video made sorting things like third downs and red zone plays just a couple of clicks away.

Belichick made it clear from his first day he was going to soak it all in: every piece of information, every moment, every conversation, with an ever-present notepad in hand and an unwavering eye on the future.

“He wasn’t about chatting people up. Some guys want to interact with the players, be a part of the players’ conversations and all of that,” said Broncos Ring of Fame cornerback Louis Wright, one of five Pro Bowl players the Broncos had on defense that season. “He was all ‘Just do your job’ about his job. And I loved that. He wasn’t just looking around at practice, talking to whoever was closest to him. Every time I saw Bill Belichick that year he was writing something down in a notebook I always saw in his hands. And I mean every time. He was always taking notes, writing, always writing. That man wasted no time.”

John Beake, who was the Broncos’ general manager from 1984 to 1998, shared a cramped office with Belichick, desks facing each other, with a window that faced not outside but the door of the locker room instead.

“We spent our days looking at each other, but I’ll tell you what, that office wasn’t big enough for his six Super Bowl trophies, let’s put it that way,” Beake said.

Belichick, told of Beake’s description of his former office space, laughed and said, “It’s actually eight, got a couple from the Giants too, but it was tight, it was tight. I learned an awful lot there.”

“He was a serious worker,” Beake said. “He did coaching things, he did film breakdown, he worked with the defense, special teams. And I’m not sure I ever went in at any hour when he wasn’t there. The building would be empty and he would be there. A serious young man who was a student of everything he was doing and I think everything centered around learning whatever he could from Joe Collier and those defensive coaches. I’d guess it paid off.”

“There’s no question,” Wright said. “I’m not sure anyone was ever really told specifically what he was doing, what his specific duties were, but he was always there, a serious man with a serious plan. And I’m going to say something, and people will say I’m biased, but Joe Collier is one of the greatest defensive minds football has ever known, and Bill knew that then and knows it now. I can watch the Patriots do some things on defense right now, especially in the red zone, on the goal line, and hear Joe Collier’s voice making that call in a meeting.”

Through the years, Belichick has often credited Collier with showing him coveted nuances in the 3-4 defense Belichick has used throughout his career. The Broncos’ Orange Crush defense, with Collier making the calls and players like Wright, Tom Jackson, Randy Gradishar, Barney Chavous, Rubin Carter and Billy Thompson on the field over four decades ago, bring back vivid memories for Belichick, who spoke of the 1978 season this month.

Belichick quickly rolled through the names of all 11 starters, as well as all of the defensive assistants, like Stan Jones, Richie McCabe and Bob Zeman. Collier said he entrusted Belichick with much of the defensive film breakdowns and that Belichick spent the most time on the field and in meetings with McCabe, who was the Broncos’ secondary coach.

“He was well-versed — he was really sharp when he got to us,” said Collier, who still resides in the Denver area. “Way ahead of another 20-something-year-old coach working to get into the business. And at the time, the thing I liked best was I could beat him at racquetball. I’m kidding, but you knew then he was going to win, be successful. You did. He just had that way, the way he approached things, dissected them, even then.”

Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ longtime vice president of public relations for almost four decades, was Belichick’s roommate on some road trips. And Saccomano also remembers a quiet young coach who always appeared to have a plan.

“[Now] that building is a computer, cyber security company, and they’ve been kind enough to let me come in and look, but that office is still there,” Saccomano said. “But I would say all of our minds are going all the time. We’re all thinking about stuff, and sometimes when people look at us they can tell we’re thinking about stuff. I never had a moment when I didn’t think he was thinking about stuff. And now all these years later we can see, we all know, what he was thinking about.”

The Broncos finished 10-6 that season, with the league’s No. 2 scoring defense — just two-tenths of a point per game behind the Steelers’ fabled Steel Curtain defense — and they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs that year to a Pittsburgh team that went on to win Super Bowl XIII over the Dallas Cowboys.

Belichick moved on to the New York Giants in 1979, the start of his 11 years with that team, a run that included two Super Bowl wins as the Giants’ defensive coordinator.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back on it, having an appreciation for how Joe [Collier], and Richie [McCabe] and the rest of the coaches who put that [defensive] group together,” Belichick said, “how consistently they played, it wasn’t just game to game, honestly. It was play to play, and even in practice. They didn’t make a lot of mistakes. They were very disciplined, good fundamentals. … They took a lot of pride in their responsibility in their role.”

Asked if there are any specific coaching items he put in those notebooks he carried around that year that he still uses 42 years later, Belichick said:

“I learned so much about coaching the secondary from coach McCabe. I learned to see the game through the eyes of Joe Collier, and Joe, how he had me break it down for him, I could see how he looked at it as a defensive coach, it was valuable. … Joe was very skilled at analyzing offenses and what they did and how they did it. He could anticipate very well. He did an excellent job of setting that up.

“Another thing I thought Joe was ahead of the game on was red area defense, and he had some, at that time, I thought very unique and ahead-of-the-curve coaching points and adjustments in the red area that you didn’t see much — that really helped me understand that part of the game and how innovative and creative it was. … That was a great learning experience.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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