It was a day after the Patriots had been gobsmacked by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 playoffs. In 10 years under Bill Belichick, the team had never had a season end like that. And they haven’t had one end like that in the eight seasons since. Belichick’s season-ending press conference was well-attended after the 33-14 loss, which punctuated a 10-6 regular season. He was open and reflective. At the very end, I asked him -- gingerly -- about whether his coaches and executives felt empowered enough to question him. “This is kind of a hard one, but a lot of the guys that are on your staff now -- as talented as they may be -- weren’t on your staff before you were Bill Belichick, three-time Super Bowl Champion. I wonder if there isn’t a level of awe that they may feel to be on your staff, whereas Josh McDaniels, Tom Dimitroff, Scott Pioli, Charlie Weis, you all came up together. What I’m driving at is, are you getting enough pushback from the guys on your staff? Do you know what I mean?” Belichick knew what I meant. “Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve talked to other coaches about that -- coaches that are pretty well established -- and I get the nature of your question. There’s definitely Romeo [Crennel] or Charlie or somebody; they wouldn’t really be afraid to at times say, ‘What are you doing? Are you serious? Are you seriously considering that?’ “And then there is certainly another level of coach that at that time or at this time, they just wouldn’t say that to me. And I mean, I understand that and that’s . . . and I was like that. There was a point in time where I was like that, where I would never say to, whether it was Coach [Ted] Marchibroda (during Belichick's time as a Colts assistant in Baltimore) or Red Miller (in Denver) or whoever, I wouldn’t. And then there was a point in time where I would, whether it was Bill [Parcells] or . . . mostly Bill. “There’s a point in time where you reach a point or you have a relationship and you feel more comfortable saying things that you just wouldn’t have said -- even with that guy -- a few years earlier. I definitely get where you’re at on that and I mean, I understand that. “We try to have an open communication, an open forum on some things. And some things aren’t open. Some things are: ‘This is the way they’re going to be.’ But I understand what you’re getting at and I think that’s something, as a head coach, you have to be conscious of. And I am. I’m not saying a do a great job of it. I don’t know whether I do or not. But I’m definitely conscious of that and I get what you’re saying there.” Pushback, Belichick seemed to agree, was important. Having someone to check you -- even if it meant stepping on your toes -- was a good thing. What made the 2009 season unique was the lack of pushback personalities. Tom Brady returned after missing 2008 with his torn ACL and was easing back in. Pioli and McDaniels left for Kansas City and Denver, respectively, and four of the strongest locker-room voices of the entire Patriots’ run to that point -- Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison -- were traded or retired. At one point in late November of that year, I said to Tom Brady in the locker room, “This place seems different . . . " “It’s changed a lot,” he answered. “We’re very young.” The void left by players and coaches who’d built the Patriots with a certain selfless style was filled by players who really didn’t give a damn about the so-called Patriot Way. Minor dustups ensued. That was the season when Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess, Gary Guyton and Randy Moss were all sent home for being late. The next day Thomas spoke at his locker about being treated like a kindergartener.