Michael Lombardi is a 22-year veteran of NFL personnel departments, spending eight years with the Raiders and nine years with the Browns, in addition to brief stints with the Broncos, Eagles and 49ers. This is his third column for SI.com. You can read his first two hereandhere.
The year was 1989 and Ernie Accorsi, then the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, was searching for a head coach.
"That guy has been preparing for a head-coaching job since he was 7 years old. Wow, was he impressive," Accorsi said to me minutes after spending time with Bill Belichick in a Mobile, Ala., coffee shop.
Belichick was a 37-year-old defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, trying to get his first head-coaching job. Belichick showed Accorsi that day his ability to be prepared, his brilliant knowledge and his unique leadership qualities. Two years later, Belichick would be named head coach of the Browns, and Accorsi and I would get an intimate view of the always prepared Belichick.
In 1993, the NFL was going to institute a salary cap and Belichick wanted to be prepared for the change. He felt if we talked to NBA executives, who had been using one since 1984, about the nuisances of working with a cap, it might help us manage our own. We made an appointment to meet with Jerry West, then the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. West explained his philosophies, or West Points, if you will:
1. The importance of always having cap flexibility
2. Never becoming trapped by a player's salary
3. Know your own team strengths and weaknesses
4. Know what players are replaceable parts and what players are the key to success
West was absolutely Kreskin-like in his ability to tell us the pitfalls and the perils of working in a cap system. We learned something that day from West but the greatest lesson of all came from Belichick: Never stop trying to learn.
This season, the unique challenge for Belichick will be maintaining order in his salary cap, something most head coaches never care much about. The Patriots have the No. 7 pick, and because of the amount of guaranteed money required to sign that particular player, this could greatly affect his team's salary structure. He will care about Tom Brady and the impact the signing would have on Brady's mind. And as we see from reading the comments of many unhappy veterans this year, how teams allocate cap dollars directly affects the locker room.
Belichick will prepare for this draft with a clear vision. He has the unique ability to see players and plays. By being able to see both, he can evaluate his own team correctly. He is quick to understand when the system highlights the player and when the player highlights the system.
Case in point, in 2000, when Brady was a rookie behind Drew Bledsoe, Belichick was gushing on the phone with me about the talents of Brady -- and he rarely gushes about a player. He could tell Brady was a unique player from watching him in practice. He also knew what he had in Bledsoe, so when he finally traded Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills, an AFC East opponent, Belichick never worried about potential repercussions. Conversely, when I worked for Al Davis in Oakland, Davis had a rule to never trade a player to a team in our division.
Belichick's preparation in all aspects of football is remarkable. His attention to detail is very impressive, yet his unique approach off the field sets him apart from other coaches. Recently I was having a conversation with a friend who works in the front office of a MLB team. As we were chatting about many sports-related subjects, the conversation turned to leadership and qualities the successful coaches/managers possessed. He said, "Do you know why [Atlanta Braves manager] Bobby Cox has been great for so long? Because Cox manages the game like a general manager. He is not playing the game out to out; he sees the whole landscape and can make decisions for today and for tomorrow. Cox has a vision." That stimulated my thought process and I immediately knew the person in the NFL who shares the same qualities of Bobby Cox -- it's Belichick.
The old adage learning from your mistakes holds true in the NFL. In 1995, while with the Browns, we held the 10th pick in the first round after trading Eric Metcalf to the Atlanta Falcons. We were in perfect position to acquire a quality player and loved Kyle Brady, the tight end from Penn State. Unfortunately, the New York Jets picked Brady one spot before us. The next best player available was Warren Sapp, a defensive tackle from Miami.
However on draft day, rumors were running rampant about Sapp. Even though Belichick had personally worked out Sapp and loved his talents, we decided to take Sapp off our board because of inaccurate personal background information. So, without a real conviction for a player, we traded out of the spot and watched with great regret as Sapp went on to a standout career. The mistake we made was trusting outside sources. From that day on, trusting outside sources would never happen again in a Belichick draft room.
The Golden Rule in scouting is: Never begin with the end in mind. Belichick goes into every evaluation with an open mind. If you go into an evaluation with a predetermined prejudice of a player -- good or bad -- then you will collect data to support your already determined theory. This does not happen in New England.
Belichick's evaluation technique falls along the same lines of another Boston icon, Red Auerbach. The legendary Celtics coach once said of scouting: "I get my information from my eyes, not my ears." Belichick is all eyes. Because of this approach, the Patriots' final evaluations will look completely different then many teams. When the Patriots selected the second round-graded Logan Mankins in the first round in the 2005 draft, many in the league snickered. But after the 2007 season, Mankins was selected to play in the Pro Bowl.
Great leaders are always great listeners. Belichick is the best listener of any leader I have ever had the privilege of working with. If a scout or coach can voice an opinion with a conviction, then you will have his attention. If the evaluator cannot handle the "Belichick cross examination" and melts under pressure, chances are he will be tuned out. Like all great lawyers, Belichick knows the answers to many of the questions he is asking.
In Belichick's draft day room, there is never any panic or desperation. He knows the board, he knows what he needs and he can anticipate the moves of other teams. He will trust his instincts, he will listen to director of football operations Scott Pioli, but in the end, this will come down to what Belichick feels is the right decision for his team to win this year and next. He will think short and long term. He will think about the impact of this pick on his salary structure. He will think with a vision. The player he selects will have his stamp of approval from his own research. There will be no group votes because, as a wise man once said, they don't build statues for committees.