When Bill Belichick's New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts last week, the 61-year-old coach quietly reached an impressive milestone. It was his 19th playoff win, tying him with the great Don Shula. Surely Shula was impressed, right?
When asked his thoughts about Belichick, Shula told Bleacher Report, "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about him."
Shula is not a Belichick fan. Never has been, never will be. So, there's that.
Still, what Belichick did is monumental. He now needs just one more win to tie the all-time playoff leader, Tom Landry. There's little question that Belichick will end up as the all-time postseason leader by the time his career is over.
Yes, accomplished, but here's the thing: What Shula and Landry did was even more impressive. Far more so.
This isn't my Shula bias speaking, either. I've written a book on the undefeated Miami Dolphins and consider that achievement the greatest in team sports history. Yet I would feel this way regardless. Shula's 19 postseason wins are better than Belichick's because of the numbers, pure and simple.
"Only two or four teams made the playoffs from each conference when I was coaching," said Shula.
Fewer teams meant fewer chances to get in. It also meant the competition was more fierce.
"Then the teams that made it really deserved it," Shula said. "There were no patsies."
The Seattle Seahawks three years ago, for example, made the playoffs with a 7-9 record, the first time in a non-strike season that happened. No 7-9 team made the postseason in Shula's era.
Fewer teams. More competition when you got in. That equaled a far more rigorous playoff experience. In 1967, four teams total made the playoffs, or two per conference. After the 1970 merger, eight teams total made it. Now, 12 teams do. The playoffs will also likely expand, maybe as soon as next season. Soon, if a team has a pulse, it will make the postseason.
There are elements that make football more difficult now like a salary cap and players less inclined to respect authority, but Shula's days were still tougher.
Belichick's achievement, and Shula's reaction to it, is interesting. While rules that make it dramatically easier on offenses cheapen some statistical records, so to do the ever-expanding playoffs devalue coaching wins in the postseason.
More than ever before, it's easier to make the postseason, and advance early on in it, because it has become watered down.
There was also this: For a good chunk of Shula's career, home-field advantage didn't go to the team with the best record. It was, instead, a total crapshoot. The site of the game rotated annually. This led to the Dolphins, during their undefeated season in 1972, playing the AFC title game at Pittsburgh despite the Steelers being 11-3. Miami was 14-0 in the regular season.
One last thing—and this is controversial and has been almost never discussed publicly. It's possible Shula is owed two more postseason wins. Yes. Two.
When Shula coached the Colts, his teams twice played in the Playoff Bowl (winning both) which went from 1960-1969. It was a postseason game for third place in the NFL.
By all accounts, coaches and players in the time period considered it a playoff game. A real playoff game. But the league, some decades later, classified the games as exhibition contests. Yet as Shula and other coaches from that time have told me, they were then considered real games by all involved. Players practiced and prepared for them as if they were real. And they were.
In the end, what Belichick has done in the postseason is remarkable.
It's just that what Shula did was even more incredible. Which says a lot.
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