If there’s one thing Phil Simms has learned through his lifelong association with football, it is this: There is simply no underestimating the role of coaching.
“Coaching is everything,” the former Giants great said.
It is especially true in the NFL. Coaching so often is the difference between winning and losing, between making the playoffs on a consistent basis and spinning the wheels of mediocrity, between being a contender and being a champion.
“[Great] coaches take good players and make them stars,” said Simms, who led the Giants to their first Super Bowl title after the 1986 season and is a longtime NFL analyst for CBS. “Stars cannot overcome bad coaching.”
There may be no better example than the coaching matchup we are about to see in Super Bowl LIII.
Bill Belichick has shown over the last two decades why he is the most successful coach in NFL history, leading the Patriots to nine Super Bowl appearances and five championships.
Sean McVay is in only his second season as the Rams' coach but has quickly transformed a perennial also-ran into a team that is one victory away from the second Super Bowl title in franchise history.
It is what lies in the minds of both coaches that likely will determine whether the Patriots or Rams win.
“When I go watch the Patriots and spend time with them, I always walk away and say, well, I know why they win,” Simms said. “When I go to another team, I go, that’s why they are where they are. They’ve got another coach every third year and never win a lot of games because from the top down, it’s just not run well. The Patriots don’t care if you’re a first-round draft pick, a second-round pick or whatever. [Belichick] is gonna play the person that deserves it.”
At 66, Belichick has the experience and the championships to own what could be perceived as a decisive edge over McVay, who is exactly half his age. But McVay, who like Belichick grew up around football, already has shown that there is some genius in his head. It won't be a surprise if he can match wits with the more accomplished Belichick and turn this into a stirring matchup.
“You're going to see real-time adjustment in this football game going on by both sides, and I think that's one of the more enjoyable aspects of this game going in," said former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who will handle the color commentary on the CBS broadcast. “I think you’ll find that this game will start off a certain way, and someone will have an advantage like the Patriots did [in the AFC Championship Game] against the Chiefs, and then there will be an adjustment that will be made. If you don’t, you probably won't beat one of these staffs because their ability to change it up and basically get into the best possible stuff as the game goes on is really a credit to them how good they are.”
It's a credit to Belichick and McVay in what has the makings of a coaching matchup for the ages.
While Belichick has become such a familiar face in this setting, getting to more Super Bowls than any other coach in NFL history and dominating the sport like no other coach for the last 18 years, fans around the country are still getting to know the fresh-faced McVay.
A grandson of former Giants coach and 49ers executive John McVay, Sean spent time around the great teams of the Bill Walsh-George Seifert era and was a high school star at Marist School in Atlanta, where he won a state championship and was voted the high school player of the year.
He cut his teeth as a coach under Walsh disciple Jon Gruden, and later Mike Shanahan and Jay Gruden, and has quickly emerged as a coaching sensation.
McVay's offensive concepts are brilliant. Before he took over, quarterback Jared Goff, a former No. 1 overall pick, was being viewed as a potential bust. Now he is one step away from a title.
Goff wears the No. 16 as a tribute to former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, and he can win his first Super Bowl almost 30 years to the day after Montana led a dramatic last-minute comeback against the Bengals in Walsh’s final game as an NFL coach.
“You appreciate the magnitude of this game. It's a blessing to be here,” McVay said. “Our players and coaches have earned the right to be here. To play against the Patriots is a great challenge. You look at the amount of appearances they’ve had, the consistency [with] which they’ve performed, it’s not a surprise.
“They're a great challenge to prepare for because they do such an excellent job specific to each week,” he said. “But one of the things that you consistently hear is good teams don't beat themselves. And they're a great team because they never beat themselves. You never see the Patriots beat themselves. They handle situations, their big-time players make plays at the most opportune moments and they handle adversity extremely well. I think that consistent belief and expectation that ‘we're going to find a way' is a really powerful thing.”
Belichick inevitably finds a way more than anyone who has come before him. He has faced every situation imaginable, usually coming out on the right side. But he certainly is not unbeatable. With five rings, he has more than any other coach. But there also are three Super Bowl losses, including last year’s against the Eagles, who won a Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. And, of course, the two losses to Tom Coughlin’s Giants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.
Despite the losses, it has been a remarkable run. And with 41-year-old Tom Brady ready to play at least a few more seasons, there is no reason to think they can’t be back here again.
“This is the greatest sports dynasty we’ve ever seen, given all the aspects of what you have to do,” former Bengals and Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason said of the Patriots. “The salary cap, social media, to deal with the outside nonsense, it never seems to penetrate. It’s a testament to Coach Belichick.”
Belichick’s first mentor was his father, Steve, a former Navy scout and assistant coach. Being around the great Midshipmen teams of the 1960s allowed Belichick to learn his first lessons about coaching mastery.
“Growing up around the game of football, I was able to observe a lot of different coaches and coaching styles, philosophies, how they managed their players, their situations,” Belichick said. “I thought it was that way everywhere, the way it was supposed to be. But as I look back, I found it was truly unique.”
What he learned was this: Football is a game that is won when each player surrenders to the notion of team.
“Hard-working, unselfish, dedicated,” he said. “Leadership the players brought, the [offensive lineman] Tom Lynches, the [quarterback] Roger Staubachs and the coaching staffs. It’s always about being unselfish and doing what’s best for the team. That’s why you play football. You like individual sports, go play golf, tennis, swim. You sign up for the team, you put the team first. You do what the team needs to do to win and whatever your role is as a player or coach.”
Belichick and McVay have played their roles brilliantly, Belichick for what feels like an eternity and McVay for a far briefer time. But you see a lot of the things in McVay that you do in Belichick — the vision, the imagination, the command of their players.
They are like-minded in so many ways, which probably helps explain why they have such respect for one another.
By the time Super Bowl LIII is over, only one of them will hold the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft. In all likelihood, it will happen because one outwitted the other in what promises to be a fascinating duel between two great football minds.