Belichick Has Two Mountains To Climb
Mount Halas and Mount Shula, namely. After reaching his 300th win (regular season and playoffs), two men are in his way on the all-time victories list: George Halas with 324 and Don Shula with 347. It’s easy to calculate the numbers and figure he could pass Halas in 2021 and Shula in 2023 or ‘24, but a few notes about that.
One: Belichick is 67; if he’s still coaching in 2023, he’ll be a 71-year-old man. Though he could pass for 55 today, age is age, so we’ll see.
Two: Soon, maybe starting in 2020, Belichick will have to win without Tom Brady, who will be 43 in the 2020 season. The Patriots did win 11 games in the only season Brady missed due to injury, but Belichick has basically had the best quarterback of all time—arguably—for 18 of his 20 New England seasons, and 244 of his 300 wins. Can he win without him? As competitive as Belichick is, he has to feel what many around the league wonder in whispers.
Three: Maybe the guy just wants to do something else. We just don’t know that.
Four: Lots of times people retire because of stress in the job, but those who know Belichick best say he’s done this for so long in part because nothing football-related provides his stress; he’s had such great role models (starting with his flatliner brilliant dad, the late Steve Belichick) and realizes all he can do is prepare the best he knows how and whatever happens happens.
After Sunday’s game, owner Robert Kraft presented Belichick with a game ball for reaching 300, and he mentioned his first win. The details:
• Belichick win 1: Browns at Patriots, Foxboro, Mass., Sept. 8, 1991. Belichick’s Browns 20, Patriots 0.
• Belichick win 300: Browns at Patriots, Foxboro, Mass., Oct. 27, 2019. Belichick’s Patriots 27, Browns 13.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the games:
• New England quarterback in the first Belichick win: Tom Hodson (lifetime wins: 1).
• New England quarterback in the 300th Belichick win: Tom Brady (lifetime wins: 245).
I asked some of the people who have known Belichick over the years about a trait or story they have illustrating his football mind:
NBC “Sunday Night Football” game analyst
“This week, we met with Aaron Rodgers and talked to him about how well the Green Bay offense is playing, and how his relationship with the new coach is developing. You know, good news stuff. But, in the beginning, when I did this job, I was at the bottom of the NBC NFL TV teams. I’d do a lot of games with teams under .500. Invariably, I’d be asking, ‘Why do you stink?’ With Bill in Cleveland, asking him that question in some form, you’re not going to have a lot of fun. And believe me, when Bill is mad at you, it is bad. But he is also my favorite interview when he is engaged.
“People have never appreciated what a brilliant teacher he is. One time I asked him about how well one of his defensive tackles was playing—the way he got his hands inside, the way he controlled his man—and then Bill went on a 30-minute deal about defensive tackles. Everything about the position. I was stunned about the level of minute detail he went into about defensive tackles. I said, ‘You should write a book about defensive tackles.’
“He said, ‘Cris, I could write a book about every position.’
“Bill’s ability to develop talent is what separates him. He knows he can develop and train younger players, or improve players on the back-end of their careers, which allows him to let high-priced players walk. That ability to control his salary cap allows him to build depth on his roster. When injuries are destroying other teams late in the year, he still has quality players coming off the bench for the playoffs and Super Bowl.“
Safety, Cleveland, 1993-95
“January first, 1995. Single-most memorable day of my football career—high school, college, pro.
“Stevon Moore, the regular safety, was hurt. I was ready to go. Nick Saban’s my defensive coordinator and my DB coach. Bill Belichick’s my head coach. Playing Drew Bledsoe in a playoff game. Going to the stadium, I wasn’t nervous. Nick is one of the great coaches of all time, and he had me totally prepared. We were playing a lot of single-high safety. On this one play, [safety] Eric Turner rotated down, and I was playing the deep part of the field. I remember getting good depth and seeing Drew throw it. He overthrew it. I thought, ‘This ball is coming right to me! Don’t drop it!’ I caught it. And that day I had like 10 tackles. Great day. Next day, we go into the team meeting, and I figure I’m getting a game ball. I sat down. I figure, had an interception, all these big hits. I am at the edge of my seat. Bill says, ‘This guy had so-and-so tackles, had an interception.’ Bill says, ‘The defensive player of the game is …’ I literally start getting up out of my seat, and he says, ‘Eric Turner.’ I was like [exhaling air]. I sat back in my seat. And Eric, God bless his heart, says, ‘Uh-uhn. No.’ He tosses the ball to me, and everybody is clapping.
“So we’re walking out of the team meeting room. Bill’s there. He looks at me. Just like this he says: ‘What are you gonna do next week?’ I’m thinking, ‘Man! That’s rough!’
“But this league’s about what you’re gonna do, not what you just did. Great lesson. And that is exactly how Bill Belichick is.”
Coaching assistant, New England, 2012-13
“One of the dirty secrets of the NFL is how the Patriots’ attention to detail and creativity goes way beyond other coaches I’ve seen. Their building is as on edge and in the same full grind mode on May 25th as it is on Nov. 25th. Preparing in the offseason is like preparing for a playoff game. After a while—I was there about 16 months—I started to realize that bulletin-board material doesn’t exist for the Patriots. They don’t care about anyone else. They care about internal motivation, not external.
“It was Mother’s Day weekend one time, and we’re in there on a Saturday, and we’re thinking, ‘Sunday off! Great!’ So we’re working hard on a Saturday and in a staff meeting, Bill says, ‘I’ll let you guys sleep in tomorrow. Let’s come in at 11.’ Someone says, ‘Bill, tomorrow’s Mother’s Day.’ Like, if you’re married with kids, you need to do some family things Mother’s Day. He’s like, ‘Oh that’s right.’ He gave everyone the day off, and he was fine about it. But he was oblivious to it.
“I remember watching the Super Bowl against Seattle when I was with Bleacher Report. Seattle’s down near the goal line, ready to score and win the game, and Bill’s not calling a timeout. I was sitting there, like, ‘What is he doing! Call a timeout!’ And of course it worked out, and Bill knew that by not calling the timeout he was putting pressure on the Seahawks to make a quick decision about their play-call at the goal line. In New England, nothing happens without it being thought out.”
Linebacker/tight end, New England, 2001-08
With the Patriots in cap trouble entering Belichick’s second year, 2001, New England signed 17 mostly backup or bit players in the 2001 offseason, including Pittsburgh special-teamer/backup linebacker Vrabel.
“I had kind of stalled in Pittsburgh, and you always wonder what you’d do if you ended up getting cut one year. I would probably have gone back to school. I’m not sure I’d have been as eager to get into coaching when I was that young. When the Patriots gave me the offer, I was going to have more of a chance to get on the field. I brought it back to Pittsburgh and told coach [Bill] Cowher. He said, ‘We can match the money, but not the opportunity.’ So I went to New England.
“One day that first year Bill walked up to me and said, ‘Remember in that Miami preseason game last year—how you played the power block? That’s how we want to do it here.’ There wasn’t all that much tape on me in Pittsburgh, but he found something he saw in me.”
“I used to warm up with Drew Bledsoe before games, and he’d throw me quite a few passes. Drew told [offensive coordinator] Charlie Weis, ‘This guy can play tight end if we need it.’ So eventually they started asking me to come over on Fridays and get the tight end plays, and maybe they’d use me. [Vrabel caught 12 passes for 12 touchdowns in the last nine years of his career.] What that taught me is Bill uses the whole roster. He puts more stuff on guys who can handle it.
“I’ve taken a lot from a lot of coaches in my life—Urban Meyer, Bill Cowher, Bill [Belichick], Bill O’Brien—but what sticks with from New England is that Bill held the best players the most accountable. He wants everyone on the roster to know he’s going to demand the most from the best players.”
Special-teams player, New England, 2009-present
“In our first playoff game in the 2016 season, we did not play well at all. We beat Houston, but we knew after the game it wasn’t a good game for us. Honestly, it was like we lost. I don’t know any other place in the league where you win a playoff game and it feels like that.
“Bill wasn’t emotional, he wasn’t loud. He was just matter-of-fact, straight to the point. He said, ‘If we play like that again next week, we’re gonna get beat.’ Nothing dramatic. Just the truth. Regardless of the outcome, he was going to tell us the truth.
“As people in life experience great success, and things come a little easier for them, they tend to change. It’s human nature to become a little complacent. It can be exhausting to maintain the all-in mentality in anything in life year after year, decade after decade. But he has. Bill’s most unique ability, I think, is to avoid complacency. His standard, his love of football, his preparation every week, every year, it’s never changed.