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THE LION IN WINTER

(Farewell, Coach Belichick.)



On the morning of January 11, 2024, the New England Patriots made it official--

William Stephen "Bill" Belichick, 71, will not return to coach the Patriots for a 25th season.



At the risk of alienating a lot of pigskin partisans, I choose to err on the side of objective honesty in assessing the career of this sure-fire Hall-of-Fame NFL coach.


For the record, I've never, EVER bought into the "Belichick is a genius" truism. When all-time G.O.A.T. ("Greatest Of All Time") Quarterback Tom Brady left New England four years ago, the indelible ledger of the ensuing seasons suggests that he took the Patriots' winning magic with him. During this 4-13 2023 campaign, I've listened to the Boston sporting press retroactively (and oh-so-grudgingly) shift proportional credit for the Patriots' preceding two-decades of dominance from Belichick to Brady.


Does this make Belichick a "former genius?" Let's look at the facts:


As the head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95, Belichick amassed a 36-44 record. For the rest of the 1990's he toiled as an assistant coach for the Patriots and the Jets under Bill Parcells.


In January of 2000, Belichick bizarrely ended his 1-day tenure as the New York Jets head coach with a resignation note scrawled on a bar napkin. Shortly thereafter he became the head coach of the New England Patriots.


Three months later, the Patriots used their 6th round 2000 draft pick to scoop up a the lightly-regarded University of Michigan QB Tom Brady, who had performed well in the Wolverines' Orange Bowl victory over Alabama but was famously unimpressive in that year's NFL collective talent assessment, a.k.a. the Combine. A half dozen quarterbacks were chosen ahead of Brady in that year's NFL draft.


Tom Brady at the 2000 NFL Combine. Upon meeting Patriots owner Robert Kraft, this skinny draftee reportedly looked him in the eye and said, "I'm the best decision this organization has ever made."


In March of 2001, the Patriots signed their 9-year veteran QB Drew Bledsoe to a then-record 10-year, $103 million contract extension, thereby cementing his long-term status as the team's franchise quarterback... or so it seemed.


But then Bledsoe sustained a near-fatal injury in the second game of the 2001 season. In came backup QB Tom Brady, who, in Bledsoe's long medical absence, quarterbacked the Patriots to an 11-5 regular season record and their first Super Bowl title.


Now let us fast-forward to 2016-17. 39-year-old Tom Brady had already earned the title of G.O.A.T. for his four Super Bowl wins, and Coach Belichick was widely heralded as a football genius. After falling behind 28-3 in Super Bowl LI, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a spectacular overtime victory for their fifth Super Bowl title.


Coach Belichick, meanwhile, had been growing suspicious of Brady's longevity and continued effectiveness and was quietly trying to replace him with promising young backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Brady got wind of Belichick's machinations and appealed directly to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who ordered Belichick to immediately trade Garoppolo. (Jimmy Garoppolo started well with his new team, the San Francisco 49ers, but he seemingly wilted under the pressure in Super Bowl LIV. He eventually proved to be too injury-prone to complete but one full NFL season.)


In the the very next Super Bowl (SB LII vs. the Philadelphia Eagles) Coach Belichick mysteriously and inexplicably benched the stalwart defensive back Malcolm Butler mere minutes before kickoff. (It was Butler's heroic interception vs. the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX three years before that snatched victory from seemingly certain defeat.) Despite Brady's Super Bowl record 505 passing yards, the Patriots lost to the Eagles, 41-33.


The Patriots won one more Super Bowl with Brady, but then Belichick prevailed in his insistence that the team let Brady's contract expire. Brady went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and promptly led them to a Super Bowl victory followed by two playoff appearances before finally retiring. The Patriots, meanwhile, plummeted from annual playoff contender to cellar dweller, amassing a 29-38 regular season record. During that dismal 4-year stretch, Coach Belichick made a series of highly questionable moves... the kind of moves that no one dared question back when he was still a "genius." To name just two, he installed two assistant coaches with zero experience on offense (Matt Patricia and Joe Judge) to run the teams' offense; and he got rid of one of the NFL's premier placekickers (Nick Folk) and used a 4th round 2023 draft pick to select kicker Chad Ryland, who finished with a dismal 64% success rate.


After a shockingly horrible 4-13 2023 season and with a year left on his contract, Coach Belichick was let go by the Patriots and is free to seek employment with another NFL team.


My conclusions?


Coach Bill Belichick, whose career regular-season W-L record WITHOUT quarterback Tom Brady is below .500, was exceptionally lucky to have Tom Brady land in his lap with the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL draft. Without the arrival of Brady in Foxboro, I have no reason to believe that Belichick would have been anything more than a mediocre NFL head coach. Furthermore, I believe that Belichick's ego has led him to make the aforementioned bad decisions... as if he had come to believe all the talk of his genius and that he could distinguish himself by overcoming the odds and avoiding the consequences for, say, benching Malcolm Butler, replacing Brady as if he were an interchangeable part, utilizing offensive coaches with no experience, and blowing a valuable draft pick on an untested kicker.


Tom Brady, meanwhile, was in reality a modestly talented athlete who was also a pathologically competitive workaholic... the latter a gift undetectable in the NFL Combine. In retrospect, he was a once-in-a-century quarterback whose competitive fire, off-the-charts work ethic, and willingness to play for less money in order to increase his team's chances to win permeated the fabric and culture of the New England Patriots. More than anything ever done by Coach Bill Belichick or owner Robert Kraft, it was Tom Brady who primarily created what became known as "The Patriots Way." Based on Brady's immediate impact on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, I strongly suspect that ANY team that might have drafted Brady in the 2000 NFL draft would have substantially improved its fortunes.


And finally, despite my foregoing rant I wish Coach Bill Belichick the very best wherever he winds up next season. I will honestly be delighted for him if he proves me 100% wrong in my assessment.



NOTES:


"Genius" is a nebulous term. Geniuses are relatively easy to spot in the fields of music, mathematics, and chess, where child prodigies stand far above even their adult peers; "genius" in, say, literature and painting is more often than not quite subjective. If you wish to see how you personally stack up on the "genius" spectrum, feel free to try this free test, courtesy of MENSA.


As a former NCAA punter, kicker, and punting/kicking coach, I've been around enough football to recognize two main strains of coaches-- one type is a fire-breathing natural leader of men, capable of inspiring his imperfect charges to push beyond their supposed physical limits and sacrifice self for team; the other type in an X's-and O's blackboard technician who is capable of devising brilliant plays and schemes... if he could only get his imperfect players to execute them properly. The greatest and most successful coaches are combinations of the two.







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