Bill Belichick is a great poker player, the type that can beat you with his hand or your hand; the type of gambler that prefers the high risks and lofty rewards that only come with the longest of odds.
He’s the type of player that could show you his hand and still win.
During his tenure in New England the team has captured six division titles, four AFC titles, three Super Bowl championships, and an undefeated regular season. He may be the first coach to have a dynasty with only one future Hall of Famer.
He’s managed to win year-in and year-out despite his knack for cutting, trading, and releasing even the most vital cog in his offense or defense.
During a time when NFL teams advance to the playoffs one year and are decimated by injuries, contract disputes, and other off-field issues the next season, Belichick’s success should be respected by the most passionate of his detractors.
But his image is distorted.
Is he a talented, hard-working coach who’s spent 20 years as an NFL assistant?
Or is he a mastermind whose greatest success came when he tired of losing and resorted to prohibited surveillance of the competition?
He’s involved in every personnel decision for the New England Patriots and some of his choices have left fans of the NFL wondering if he’s a villain or hero, cutthroat or endlessly loyal, a student of the game or a cheat.
The NFL is not a Game, It’s a Business
All NFL players are expendable, but none more than New England Patriots.
Deion Branch was the best underdog story in the NFL when he was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.
Undersized receiver shines at wide receiver for Louisville, is drafted in the second round by the New England Patriots, and has an incredible game on the biggest stage making 11 catches for 133 yards.
Jerry Maguire’s Rod Tidwell couldn’t have been brought to life in a more realistic way.
But Wild Bill was calling the shots and the 5’9” possession receiver was deemed dispensable regardless of his stellar play on pro football’s the biggest stage.
The NFL can’t be a game because Belichick wasn’t playing when he named Tom Brady his starting quarterback after Drew Bledsoe recovered from a vicious Mo Lewis hit in the second game of the 2001 season.
The Pats’ No. 1 overall pick in 1993, Bledsoe was a Pro Bowler who led the team to the Super Bowl after the 1996 season. Although he signed a ten-year contract in March 2001, he was Wally Pipped by Tom Brady, and one of the Pats greatest players at the time never got his job back from a sixth-rounder.
Lawyer Milloy, Asante Samuel, and Adam Vinateri are other star players who left the team after failing to receive the bonanza offered to postseason conquerors.
Belichick had hit pay dirt and his philosophy of discarding pricey players would become the Pats standard in years to come. He realized that he didn’t have to pay superstars if he could find a way to win with younger and/or less expensive players.
Unlikely Allegiance to Underdogs
But Belichick’s loyalty is as sincere as his business acumen is fierce.
Tedy Bruschi, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel, and several assistant coaches are testaments to Belichick’s faithfulness to those who buy into his program.
The best embodiment of the Belichick’s loyalty is his dedication to Tedy Bruschi and Tom Brady, a No. 86 and a No. 199 overall pick.
For many Bruschi is a cornerstone of the franchise and after being drafted by the Pats when Belichick was assistant head coach for the team, is entering his 14th NFL season, all with the Patriots. Bruschi was scheduled to miss the entire 2005 season due to heart complications, but was welcomed back with Belichick’s open arms.
In the face of interrogations about the dangerousness of his return, Bruschi has been a starter for three seasons after his heart problems, proving Belichick is a master prognosticator.
Belichick’s trust in Brady, is unquestioned after Brady hurt his knee early in the first game of the 2008 season. The team finished 11-5 with Matt Cassel at the helm and there were suggestions that New England could insert any quarterback and win in Belichick’s system.
Well, the team traded his replacement, Matt Cassel along with linebacker Mike Vrabel, to the Kansas City Chiefs, for the No. 34 overall selection in this year’s draft.
And Although Cassel’s rapid success was followed by an equally swift trade, Belichick had been devoted to the former USC backup, keeping Cassel on the roster for four years after the signal-caller failed to start a single college football game for the Trojans. Belichick is largely responsible for Cassel’s ability to hang on to an NFL roster long enough to become a starter. Cassel’s draft position: 230th.
Further, the NFL’s coaching ranks are proof of Belichick’s loyalty and his Patriots tenure has produced several head coaches as former assistants Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Romeo Crennel, and Charlie Weis graduated to top jobs after helping Belichick win three Super Bowls.
Spygate’s Irreparable Damage
Ironically, it would be a Belichick disciple who would humiliate and ultimately discredit Belichick’s legacy.
After suffering an early-season defeat to the Patriots in 2007, Mangini, who had become New York Jets head coach, and his team would levy severe accusations that a Patriots staff member violated NFL rules by secretly taping and distributing the Jets’ defensive signals. The scandal would expand to include many of the Pats’ biggest games during their championship reign.
Of course the public and opposing teams would revel in what they felt had to be evidence that Belichick couldn’t—no shouldn’t—win with the lack of talent the he puts on the field.
All of the team’s wins were suddenly under scrutiny and the coach was scorned at every turn. Not to mention the record $500,000 fine that was administered by the NFL.
For his part, Belichick remained focused on the game. His grungy game-day garb and his studious habits were unaltered as the team went on to finish complete a record-setting, undefeated, 16-0 season before falling to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Belichick's legacy could be set in stone or tarnished on videotape, but whether he's Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, he’s a consistent winner in a league full of parity.
He’s not asking for your appreciation, though. Just deal him another hand and he’ll relish the chance to prove himself once more.