There isn’t a scintilla of doubt that Bill Belichick will go down as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — coaches in NFL history. Given his resume, which includes four Super Bowl championships and a record seven Super Bowl appearances as the Patriots’ head coach and two more championships as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, there may never have been a more accomplished innovator, leader and sheer winner.
But of all his many achievements, there might not be a better coaching job than the one he’s done this season.
He’s one win away from becoming the first coach to win five Super Bowl titles, and he’s gotten here by overcoming a series of events with resourceful decision-making and patient handling of a team that spent the first month of the season without its best offensive player, most of the year without its second-best offensive player and the latter half of the season after trading away one of its best defensive players.
Belichick, of course, cares little about adulation or rankings or his place in history. More often than not, when asked about where he stands among his peers or what kind of job he has done, his default reaction is to shrug.
With Belichick, it’s always about the here-and-now.
“I’m just really trying to zero in here on Atlanta,” he said. “We’ve got so much work to do on the Falcons that it is pretty consuming.”
Belichick coaching in yet another Super Bowl has been the most recurring story line in the NFL since he won his first championship with the Patriots after the 2001 season, when Tom Brady began what would turn into a Hall of Fame career and arguably the best run by any quarterback of any era.
But Belichick faced some unusual challenges this year, all of which he has overcome by holding true to his beliefs and by coaxing the very best out of his players through the difficulties.
n Brady sat out the first four games after losing an appeal of his four-game suspension stemming from the 2014 AFC Championship Game, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell punished the quarterback for his alleged role in the Deflategate scandal.
n All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, one of Brady’s most important receiving targets, played in only eight games before season-ending back surgery.
n Belichick traded talented linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns in the middle of the season, drawing criticism from some who thought the coach was making a huge mistake by dealing one of his most reliable defenders. The trade came seven months after what was considered another questionable deal, when Belichick sent defensive end Chandler Jones to the Cardinals.
n The Patriots came into the season off a loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Denver, a game in which Brady was under relentless pressure because of a combination of Denver’s elite defense and New England’s shoddy offensive line play.
But here they are, one win away from a fifth Super Bowl title thanks to more Belichick brilliance.
The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady, as Belichick went with backup Jimmy Garoppolo and then had to use rookie Jacoby Brissett after Garoppolo injured a shoulder.
They overcame Gronkowski’s absence by going to Martellus Bennett and using heavier doses of Julian Edelman and even Chris Hogan, who electrified Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship Game with 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. They also placed a greater reliance on the running game and running backs catching the ball out of the backfield.
The offensive line problems were addressed almost immediately after last year’s AFC title game loss. Belichick fired assistant coach Dave DeGuglielmo and brought trusted line coach Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement.
And a defense without Collins and Jones actually improved during the course of the season and finished first in fewest points allowed per game (15.6).
“I know for Patriots fans, having Coach Belichick come to this team was the best thing for this franchise,” said Brady, who was drafted in Belichick’s first season in New England in 2000. “He has been a great coach, a great leader for our team. We came in at the same time. It was a magical day in my life [being drafted].”
But Brady didn’t wax nostalgic for long, lest he violate the Belichick credo of making sure he is prepared for the next game. Which in this case is the biggest game of the season.
“It’s our opportunity to be at our best and not let anything get in the way of what our goal is,” Brady said. “I’ve been a part of a few of these that we’ve lost, and it’s been pretty crappy to think about those memories, so hopefully we can make it a great outcome.”
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, now the unquestioned leader of his unit with Collins gone, said Belichick’s greatest asset might be bringing out the best in each player.
“A lot of people talk about the ‘Patriot Way,’ ” Hightower said. “There’s no straight definition of it, but here you know that we’re going to work every day. Around here, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. That’s kind of the mantra around here. I feel like Bill does a great job of getting the right stuff out of guys and saying the right things to get them to work hard.”
The Belichick-Brady continuity has been a remarkable advantage and is at the heart of the team’s success. Think about it. When was the last team that enjoyed 16 years of stability at coach and quarterback that yielded seven Super Bowl runs? The answer: never.
“They couldn’t do all these great things they have if they had continuous changes,” said former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, now an NFL analyst for CBS. He got to know Belichick during their time together with the Giants, when the team won its first two Super Bowl championships after the 1986 and 1990 seasons.
“The league has changed and Bill Belichick has changed. Not only has he changed, but he’s usually one step ahead. They lost Gronkowski, so now it’s more about the running backs catching the ball, and Julian Edelman comes to the forefront.”
Great minds think alike, and the great minds of Belichick and Brady are constantly evolving.
“Just think of all the meetings they’ve had, all the plays, all the situations they go through,” Simms said. “They’ve run four or five different offenses over the years, but they keep parts of it as time goes along. The library of plays they have at their disposal is second to none of anyone in the NFL.”
But if the past is prologue, the only thing that matters to Belichick is the present. One more run at a title and one more pelt on the wall for the man who someday might be considered the best coach ever.
If he isn’t already.
WHAT HE’S DONE
AT NEW ENGLAND
Super Bowl titles
Super Bowl appearances