Bill Belichick taught Patrick Graham well.
Listen for just a few minutes to the Giants’ new assistant head coach/defensive coordinator describe his philosophy of football, and you hear the Belichick influence throughout. Graham talks about mental toughness, paying particular attention to stopping the run, playing with the right pad level, about basic football foundation.
These are the messages that Belichick has drummed into his players — and assistant coaches — for decades. Messages that resonate throughout the league because of the Patriots coach’s standing as arguably the greatest coach of all time. It doesn’t mean that those who have been around him will turn into champions, especially his assistants, many of whom have gone on to undistinguished head coaching careers. But it does mean that coaches like Graham, who worked on Belichick’s Patriots’ staff from 2009-15, can at least impart the knowledge that has helped so many football people over time.
Graham now occupies the same position Belichick once held and used a springboard to his head coaching career. Belichick’s Giants years were crucial to the team’s first two Super Bowl championships under Bill Parcells — a transformative time for the team and for the erstwhile lieutenant under Parcells. But Graham doesn’t have the luxury of coaching Hall of Fame players like Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson the way Belichick once did, so the first-year coordinator will need some time. Even so, he believes there is enough to work with to give the Giants a representative defense this year.
He knows what he wants from his players. And if it reads like a Belichick manifesto on the requirements needed to take the field, then so be it.
“What we’re looking for are guys who put the team first, they value the process and they play with good football position,” said Graham, who worked as Brian Flores’ defensive coordinator with the Dolphins last year. “We’ve got to get over ourselves in order to accomplish a goal. We can’t let our personal feelings or personal agendas get in the way.”
Graham also wants his players to “value the process. It’s important that we come here and understand there’s a limited amount of time each day and we have to put in the necessary work in to improve. We have to embrace that. And lastly, the football position — that’s playing with your eyes, hands and feet.”
And then there’s the mention of the one word that Graham wants his defenses to be known for.
“There’s got to be an element of toughness,” said the 41-year-old Graham, who was raised in Waterbury, Connecticut and played defensive line at Yale. “It’s mental toughness, physical toughness. We want to be a reflection of the region, and this is a tough region in terms of tough people making up this region. I grew up in Connecticut and I’m familiar with the area, but I want our toughness to jump off the film.”
Joe Judge, another former Patriots’ assistant, came calling soon after he got the Giants’ head coaching job in January.
“Obviously, I have familiarity with Joe, and it presented an opportunity to work with the Giants,” Graham said. “I have familiarity with the organization, it’s close to home, so it’s been positive. I’m excited to be here.”
Graham has his work cut out with a defensive roster that is simply not deep and can use help at most positions. But he believes there is enough there to grow this unit into something better.
And if he can successfully impart the lessons shared with him by another Giants’ defensive coordinator who went on to greatness, then maybe this Belichick disciple will carve out his own legacy in the years ahead.