INDIANAPOLIS — Heath Evans could be bitter about Bill Belichick. He allowed Evans to walk in free agency after four of his most productive seasons with the Patriots.
But Evans, now a budding star on NFL Network, says if he ever was in charge of building a team, he would do it the way Belichick has with the Patriots. Evans was a member of the Patriots' last Super Bowl team in 2008, facing the Giants. Now, only seven players who played in that game will play this Sunday.
Four years, 46 new players. That team was considered to be on the verge of being called the greatest NFL team ever, an eyelash away from 19-0. This year's Patriots team went 13-3 in the regular season and is 2-0 in the playoffs.
The Patriots might not be the most likeable team, and Belichick is Enemy No. 1 in a lot of circles, but Evans thinks the coach does things the way they have to be done.
"You can't argue with Bill's success," Evans said. "You see these cyclical teams: They get hot and they die off. Well, the Patriots have been hot since 2001. Even in their bad years, they go 11-5 and miss the playoffs in 2008. The Giants would have died to be 11-5 this year."
The way Evans would not run a team is the way Mike Holmgren did in Seattle. Holmgren was Evans' coach for his first four seasons in the NFL, from 2001 to 2004, before he signed with New England. Evans said he was "ready to retire" because of the clubhouse cancers he encountered in Seattle, and he blames Holmgren for fostering that kind of environment.
"Bunch of selfish guys," Evans said. "Everything from racism to 'I want the ball' to 'It's all about me.' Bad locker room."
Evans said what separates Belichick from Holmgren — and from almost any other head coach he has been around — was accountability.
"Mike Holmgren didn't coach his star players," Evans said. "It's really kind of true. The most talented football teams I was ever on were those Seahawks teams. But they were complete failures. A lack of consistency, a lack of discipline. Mike was mad at Shaun Alexander for skipping a non-mandatory minicamp, but instead of calling Shaun or reaming him out, he finds me buck naked in the shower and reams me out in front of everybody else. Because I was the 'yes, sir, no, sir' Marine Corps daddy guy.
"I wish I would have done it my first year, but I finally said, 'For four years you have mistaken my respect as weakness. Don't ever talk to me that way again.' It really changed my relationship with him for the last three weeks of my career in Seattle. I couldn't get out of there fast enough."
And leave he did, signing with the Patriots (after being cut by the Dolphins after only six games in 2005) and playing three years in New England, racking up some of his best career rushing numbers in four seasons there. But the way Evans tells it, individual achievements have nothing to do with the reason he respects Belichick so much. It was the way that he put pressure on every player never to make mental mistakes. Physical ones happen, and Belichick can live with those. But not knowing what you are doing on a given play? Simply not tolerated.
"I don't remember ever getting reamed out for making a physical mistake," Evans said. "But I remember getting railroaded for not doing what I was supposed to. But it was (that way) for everybody. Tom Brady, all the way down.
"As a young player, you see, 'Hey, I am not the only one.' There's a consistency level that frees your team to be a team and a family. When Brady is getting reamed out just like the 53rd man on the roster, you feel a tightness and a oneness with the group. But when your star players are untouchables and you see them make mistake after mistake after mistake and there is no calling them out or accountability, the young players look back and say, 'I don't respect that man.'"
That approach has changed the way Evans approaches his new job. He spent last week in Mobile, Ala. for the Senior Bowl, doing analysis for the network. While he was there, he found himself scouting the prospects with a distinctly Belichickian eye, thinking about all the characteristics he'd want if Evans was putting together a roster.
"I'd look at character, I'd look at intangibles and I would look at work ethic," Evans said. "Prime example: Quinton Coples, this big, awesome (defensive) end from UNC. I doubt Bill would touch him with a 10-foot pole. All the talent in the world but had this nonchalant attitude all week during the Senior Bowl.
"I was watching and I thought, 'You know ... he has all the ability in the world, but I would be highly surprised if he is in the league in four years.' Truth of the matter is, he'll probably get picked in the first 10 picks (of the draft) and someone will let him hang around for 10 years, but if he doesn't change his work ethic and learn how to attack the game, he will not be successful on the NFL level."
The influence of Bill Belichick is far-reaching, and Evans thinks he knows why.
"It all comes down to discipline, structure and humility. People say, 'What do you mean humility with Bill Belichick?' Humility to me is a guy laying it all on the line so that others can get the praise. That's what Bill does. It works."