No. 4: No One Navigates a Minefield Better Than Bill Belichick
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
If the NFL is playing, and Bill Belichick is on the sidelines for the Patriots, he’s going to have a profound impact on the league.
Do we really need proof? Fine.
After winning Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick is tied with Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll for most titles as a head coach (four). Belichick, whose 12 division tiles are the most all time, is also tied with Don Shula with six conference championships. (Keep in mind, Noll and Shula—and other greats like Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs—didn’t have to deal with the salary cap.)
Belichick’s greatness resides in the remarkable consistency of his teams in an era of constant turnover—on the roster, the coaching staff and in the front office. In the past 14 years, the Patriots have been to the playoffs 12 times. In those two seasons when they missed out on the postseason (2002, and 2008 without Tom Brady), New England tied for the division title but lost a tiebreaker.
And of the 11 teams to post at least 10 consecutive winning seasons since 1920, the Patriots are the only team to do it in the salary cap era. They have 14 straight winning seasons dating back to 2001, Belichick’s second season in New England. The closest to that mark is Indianapolis with nine (2002-10).
You can pencil in a 15th consecutive winning season for the defending champions. Normally you’d have to add a qualifier, like if Tom Brady remains healthy. But Belichick has already gone 11-5 without his future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback.
To say all eyes will be on the Patriots from the first game this season (they’ll host the league opener on Sept. 10 against the Steelers and are seeking to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises to win back-to-back titles twice) is an understatement. This season goes beyond defending a title. The Patriots were slammed this offseason because of allegations they tampered with footballs during the AFC Championship. The team was fined $1 million and docked first- and fourth-round draft picks. Brady is suspended the first four games of the season pending his appeal because investigator Ted Wells found that it was “more probable than not” that he “was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities.”
With Brady’s status for the opener—and perhaps beyond if he takes the league to court to clear his name— undetermined, Belichick has a lot on his plate. Managing the defending champion is difficult enough; you must get players to at least match their effort from the previous season while every opponent hunts the champ. It’s that much more difficult with a distraction making the Patriots national news for months.
I’ve written it before, and it’s been proven time and time again: No one navigates a minefield better than Belichick.
He overcame a quarterback controversy to win not just one Super Bowl, but three in four years. He has cut a defensive captain (Lawyer Milloy), traded stalwart defensive lineman (Richard Seymour), jettisoned a Super Bowl MVP (Deion Branch) and had an All-Pro guard (Logan Mankins) sit out eight games during a contract squabble; and he kept winning. Belichick has been fined by the league for taping the signals of opposing coaches, and he kept winning. He has lost a franchise quarterback in the season opener and turned to a guy who didn’t start for his college team, and he kept winning. Belichick has even had a star player arrested and later convicted of first-degree murder (Aaron Hernandez), and the Patriots just kept winning.
How? Consistency. The players won’t notice any difference between this season and last. They’ll be instructed to not talk about the past, and they won’t. It’s easier when the head coach is doing the same thing. And it’s not a strategy that’s just trotted out during moments of controversy. Even during the most mundane seasons, Belichick will refuse any interview that has to do with the past because he’s solely focused on the next game. Want a few history lessons from arguably the greatest NFL coach ever? That will have to wait for a bye week, or the offseason.
Expect the Patriots to have an intense focus similar to the reaction after Spygate in 2007. That season, they took out their frustration on the rest of the league with blowouts and a focus on perfection (16-0 regular season).
The extent of the 2015 team’s success could be a bit different, however. The ’07 Patriots were one of the greatest NFL teams ever. The defending champs should still be considered the favorites in the AFC, but there could be another rough patch similar to last season (they were 2-2 after a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football), especially if Brady is suspended for multiple games and second-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t quite ready for prime time. The Patriots still have question marks at both guard spots (just like they did in ’14), they no longer have Vince Wilfork in the middle of the defensive line, and a standout secondary has seen an exodus of talent (their top three corners from the Super Bowl—Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington—as well as former starter Alfonzo Dennard are elsewhere).
Rebuilding a secondary in a pass-happy league, potentially playing the first portion of the season without Brady, and doing it all while wearing the crown. 2015 might be the biggest challenge Belichick will ever face.