New England Patriots

Oct 24, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches a play against the New York Jets during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

When word of Tom Matte’s passing was announced last week by the Baltimore Ravens’ John Harbaugh, a coaching counterpart of his immediately came to mind.

As a kid growing up in Annapolis, just south of Charm City on the Chesapeake, Bill Belichick learned football through the lens of his father’s scouting eye, the books and cards he collected and the games he studied closely.

Navy on Saturdays. The Colts on Sundays.

So on Friday morning, a time reserved for Belichick’s final weekly pre-game media session, which he often turns into a football history lesson, I asked to hear some of his memories of the late Colt, Matte, a legendary figure in Baltimore.

The main stuff of that legend was made in 1965, when Matte, a former quarterback at Ohio State was asked by coach Don Shula to return under center after injuries to Johnny Unitas and backup Gary Cuozzo imperiled the Colts’ championship aspirations.

In running the Buckeyes’ ‘three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust’ offense under Woody Hayes, Matte was mostly a rusher and rarely a passer. With a squatty build and hands, as he described them, too small to easily grip the football, Matte was drafted in 1961 by Baltimore to be a running back.

But four years later, a December knee injury to Unitas and shoulder injury to Cuozzo led Shula to propose the temporary position switch.

  • Former Baltimore Colts running back Tom Matte. (Credit: Joe Haupt on Flickr)

    Former Baltimore Colts running back Tom Matte. (Credit: Joe Haupt on Flickr)

    Donning a specially-designed wristband listing the plays, Matte split duties with Ed Brown, ran for 99 yards and helped the Colts beat the Rams to reach the NFL’s Western Conference championship vs. Green Bay.

    They wound up falling, 13-10, in overtime, but only after the Packers tied the game late in regulation with a disputed field goal still believed to be wide in Baltimore. The defeated Colts were left to play a consolation game, derisively known in the day as the “Toilet Bowl,” against the Cowboys. Granted license by Shula to throw more with less — well, nothing really — at stake, Matte completed two touchdown passes and was named MVP of a 35-3 triumph.

    Expectedly, Belichick remembered all of it. Also not surprisingly, he attributed Matte’s legacy to the way he led all of his 82 years more than the way he played on a few days in Dec. 1965.

    “Well, Tom Matte was a great community hero. His modesty and the situation he came into in Baltimore as the quarterback was a very unique one, but he had a career in his own right,” Belichick said. “I think it was 12 years or something like that. Pro Bowl player multiple times.”

    Twelve years, exactly. Indeed, Pro Bowls in 1968 and ’69.

    Then Belichick touched on a big reason why Matte remained beloved in Baltimore, including among Ravens fans after he become one of their radio voices.

    “Tom could laugh and make fun of himself,” said Belichick, as he momentarily morphed into a young fan himself. “It’s obviously sad for me to see players that I had their football cards, I watched them every week, I followed them like any kid follows his home team and, then, to see players like that pass on.

    “It’s like watching a lifetime of football memories.”

  • Still Pounding

    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 12: Haason Reddick #43 of the Carolina Panthers reacts against the New York Jets during the second half at Bank of America Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 12: Haason Reddick #43 of the Carolina Panthers reacts against the New York Jets during the second half at Bank of America Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

    Back when the Carolina Panthers were a playoff regular under former head coach Ron Rivera, the team made the phrase “Keep Pounding” its mantra. With Cam Newton at quarterback and Luke Kuechly leading a physical defense, the Panthers reached the playoffs four times in a five-year span from 2013-17.

    Today all three are elsewhere, either coaching in another city, waiting for another opportunity or living another of life’s chapters in retirement. Carolina is in the second season of a re-build under head coach Matt Rhule, following a third straight sub-.500 finish and fourth in five years.

    Meanwhile, the roster has changed dramatically since the Panthers last played the Patriots in 2017. Still, they pound, relying on defense and their running game primarily on offense.

    During the past two drafts, the Panthers have selected 11 defensive players, including five in the top two rounds. In 2020, they became the first team in the common draft era, dating to 1965, to invest all of its picks on defense. In all, 11 rookies played and six started at least one game on defense in 2020.

    Since March, Carolina has added veterans like Haason Reddick, Morgan Fox, DaQuan Jones, A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore via free agency and trades.

  • Sep 19, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs for a touchdown as New Orleans Saints strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) defends in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 19, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs for a touchdown as New Orleans Saints strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) defends in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Offensively, the Panthers are pounding the rock, even without ultra-talented Christian McCaffrey the last month.

    A week ago, they rushed 47 times for 203 yards in Atlanta. The effort represented their most rushing attempts since 2009 and their first 200-yard rushing outing since 2019.

    “We’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that we’re a defensive football team,” Rhule said afterward. “And when we play good defense and win the takeaway battle, we are going to win games. Part of that on offense is running the football.”

    It’s a philosophy consistent with the way Rhule molded the teams he coached on the college level at Temple and Baylor.

    As a former linebacker at Penn State, Rhule was an assistant offensive line coach for Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants staff for one season. In the years since, from Philadelphia to Waco to now Charlotte, he’s shown the hard-nosed sensibilities ingrained in one who’s played or coached in the trenches.

    “I have a ton of respect for what he did at those programs,” says Belichick. “[There] was a level of consistency as (a former) offensive line coach. I think you see that from a number of offensive line coaches.

    “Unselfishness, a lot of focus on the team, not a lot of individual stats and stuff like that, being able to manage the game, control the game, help the defense from the offensive standpoint with field position and ball control and that type of thing.”

    Underscoring Belichick’s point about ball control, the Panthers average roughly 32 1/2 minutes time of possession, which is third-most in the league.

  • On the road again

    Last week’s win at Los Angeles gives the Patriots a 3-0 road record, following a 2-6 showing away from Gillette in 2020. Overall, NFL road teams went 7-6 in Week 8 and are a 63-60 (.512) entering Sunday.