Even before the media recently began touting the fact that the Patriots have lost their last three playoff games—dating back to the Giants upset in Super Bowl XLII—some football analysts began questioning whether Bill Belichick was really the football genius he is purported to be.
The Patriots haven’t won it all since 2004, right? Is he really such a brilliant tactician? Or is he the beneficiary of some great good luck?
No, he really is that good. Really, really good.
Belichick has a .714 playoff winning percentage, ninth all-time, ahead of guys like George Halas, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Walsh. His regular season winning percentage of .633 is ahead of Walsh, Curly Lambeau, Joe Gibbs and Tom Landry. Not too shabby, huh?
On the other hand, while yes, he is a master tactician and motivator, luck can play a part in his success, can’t it?
Consider this: Up until the day Tom Brady started as Bill Belichick’s quarterback, Belichick’s coaching record was 41-57. He’d had one winning season out of six that he coached and had been to the playoffs exactly once.
Since Brady has been his starting quarterback, Belichick’s teams have won three Super Bowls, missed the playoffs twice—one of those seasons was when Brady was out for the season with an injury—and have not had a losing season.
During Belichick’s stay as Cleveland’s head coach, his quarterbacks were Bernie Kosar, Mike Tomczak, Todd Philcox and Vinny Testaverde—who put together don’t equal Tom Brady’s left pinkie. Belichick came into Cleveland and found an aging team past its prime.
Belichick tried to dismantle the team—including a very public and controversial dumping of beloved Bernie Kosar—and build the team the way he wanted it to be. But Belichick had one major problem: He didn’t have the unconditional backing of Browns management, nor did he have someone to work closely with to get the players he wanted.
Belichick knew that Kosar was done as a quarterback but didn’t have a GM like Scott Pioli to help him find his Tom Brady and convince management to select him. The Browns organization had a number of football czars who each wanted different directions for the team. The result: chaos.
In New England, Belichick did have Scott Pioli—who worked with Belichick from the exact same script—to build a team from the ground up. From the time he took the Patriots out onto the field Opening Day 2000 to the time they won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2001 season, player turnover was the name of the game in New England.
Drew Bledsoe was replaced by Tom Brady. Richard Seymour, Matt Light and Greg Randle were drafted and starting. Belichick favorites Anthony Pleasant and Bobby Hamilton were brought in to start, as were Otis Smith, Roman Phifer, Mike Compton, Antoine Smith, Marc Edwards and Mike Vrabel. Quite a turnover...and it worked. The Patriots shocked the football world by winning the Super Bowl that year.
In a way he wasn’t able to in Cleveland, Belichick was able to turn over the roster and mold it into his image. To me, Belichick is twice a genius. Not only as a coach, which he unquestionably is (and anyone doubting that is ridiculous to the extreme), but equal to his coaching acumen is Belichick’s acute vision for spotting players who could fit the system he likes to run.
Selecting Tom Brady, who nobody thought would amount to a decent starting quarterback; signing the incredibly versatile Mike Vrabel, who the Steelers let go; using a seventh-round pick to get Wes Welker, who went on to lead the league in receptions twice; picking Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather—both Pro Bowlers—deep in the first round; plucking BenJarvus Green-Ellis off the scrap heap and finding a starting running back; drafting Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen (Koppen in the fifth round), both Pro Bowlers; selecting Asante Samuel in the fourth round; plucking Danny Woodhead from the Jets for nothing; and so on...
Some coaches—Mike Holmgren leaps to mind (Marcus Tubbs, Lamar King, Koren Robinson, Chris McIntosh, Ike Charlton)—are, yes, extremely innovative and successful at the coaching aspect of the game. But they can’t scout a player who would mesh well into their systems with any accuracy. Belichick can.
As to why Belichick hasn’t won it all since 2004: Well, expecting to win it all every season, especially in a league with Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, is kind of ridiculous. All Belichick has done since 2004 is compile a 73-23 record, including a season where Tom Brady was out with an injury. He was also two minutes—and a God-produced miracle pass—away from another Super Bowl and the first perfect season in modern football.
So yes, any coach with three Super Bowl rings is a genius. But what helps Belichick’s genius is what prevented Belichick from succeeding in Cleveland: being able to select the players to run his system. It is what will keep New England competitive for a long while into the future.