Bill Belichick's legacy cracked apart last year like the lobster claws at a Gillette Stadium tailgate.
The trouble should have come as no surprise. After all, the flaws in his game have been simmering for the better part of the 21st century. They finally boiled over in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII, spoiling what should have been the greatest celebratory feast in New England since 1621.
These cracks in Belichick's legacy have nothing to do with Spygate" or the off-the-field issues perpetuated by the pigskin pundits or splashed across the gossip pages of the gridiron.
Instead, the cracks in Belichick's legacy have everything to do with what's transpired on NFL football fields over the last several years as he stalked the sidelines. Let's put it this way: When your defense surrenders a gruesome 54 fourth-quarter points in four Super Bowls, as Belichick's defenses have, it will tend to tarnish a rep here and there.
Still, Belichick has been considered the singular defensive genius of his generation. Some pundits even argued, right up until about 10 p.m. on Feb. 3, that he was the greatest coach of all time. Raise your hand if you heard that one in the run-up to the Super Bowl? Anyone? Anyone?
That's right. We see ya. We heard it, too.
Belichick is still a great coach. The greatest of his generation. If you have evidence to the contrary, by all means, send it our way so we can examine it and ridicule it.
But the savory flavor of the Belichick legacy has been soured by on-the-field issues too large to ignore. In fact, if he fails to win another Super Bowl, Belichick might not be remembered for the three Super Bowls in four years. Instead, he might only be remembered for what might have been. He might be remembered for ...
Despite Belichick's reputation as a defensive mastermind, his defenses have habitually reserved their worst performances for the biggest moments in the biggest games.
In fact, Belichick has overseen some of the greatest defensive catastrophes in modern NFL history, a series of gridiron Hindenburgs that explode live on national television year after year as all of New England cries out for humanity. Consider these fourth-quarter debacles:
• Super Bowl XXXVI (Patriots 20, Rams 17) -- Hardly a colossal breakdown, but the cracks began to show in the Belichick legacy -- ironically -- at the furious end of this, his greatest triumph. The Patriots held the Greatest Show on Turf to three points through three quarters. At one point, it even looked like a rout: a fumble return for a TD by New England defensive back Tebucky Jones would have given the Patriots a 24-3 lead late in the third quarter. But the play was overturned by a penalty against the defense.
The Rams stormed back, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns -- following their two longest drives of the game (55 yards and 77 yards) -- to force a tie with 90 seconds to play. If not for the what became typical Tom Brady heroics, leading the only walk-off scoring drive in Super Bowl history in just his 17th NFL start, this game might be remembered only for New England's defensive collapse.
• Super Bowl XXXVIII (Patriots 32, Panthers 29) -- The wheel's began to wobble on Belichick's defensive wagon here in Houston. The 2003 Patriots boasted the league's No. 1 team (14-2) and No. 1 defense (14.9 PPG). The 11-5 Panthers, meanwhile, had mustered just 10 points through three quarters against this, the league's best defense.
But, when it mattered most, Belichick's defense snapped more gruesomely than Joe Theismann's tibia. The spunky little Panthers ripped off three TDs, 19 points and 251 yards of offense -- in the fourth quarter alone. The Confederates played better defense during Sherman's March to the Sea.
To put those 19 points into perspective, consider it was the greatest single-quarter total the Patriots had allowed in a well over a year. To put those 251 yards into perspective, consider New England's No. 1 scoring defense had surrendered an average of just 292 yards per game all season.
Belichick's legacy survived the meltdown, as the New England offense responded with a remarkable 11 points in the final four minutes, including another last-second field goal, to stave off a humiliating upset to an inferior opponent.
• 2004 AFC Championship Game (Patriots 41, Steelers 27) -- A pigskin portent of things to come reared its head here in the 2004 AFC title tilt. It was the coldest game in Steelers franchise history. Yet the Patriots offense made a mockery of the weather and Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense and largely controlled the game.
In fact, this could have been a four-TD rout. But Belichick's defense simply could not get off the field in the second half, again when it mattered most. The Steelers, after scoring just three first-half points, ripped off three TDs and a field goal in just five second-half possessions.
You might have expected New England 's offense to struggle on a bitter night on the road against a hostile crowd, against the elements and oh, by the way, against the league's best defense. Instead, Brady played his single greatest game, and the offense carried the day, scoring 41 points against a team that had not allowed more than 30 all season.
• Super Bowl XXXIX (Patriots 24, Eagles 21) -- Everybody remembers Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb heaving on the field in the late moments of the game. What they forget is, on that very same drive in which he lost his lunch, McNabb marched the Eagles, almost effortlessly, 79 yards down the field against Belichick's defense to make it a three-point game with under four minutes to play. Belichick's defense did hold up its end of the bargain, though, picking off passes on two of Philly's other fourth-quarter drives. But the outcome was still in doubt when the physically ill QB shredded the Patriots defense for a late fourth-quarter TD.
• 2006 AFC Championship Game (Colts 38, Patriots 34) -- Indy's victory begets a simple question: Can you be a defensive genius when your defense suffers the greatest meltdown on American soil since Three Mile Island?
We don't think so.
To put New England's implosion into perspective, remember Belichick's Patriots held a 21-3 late in the first half. Indy quarterback Peyton Manning had just thrown an awful pick that was returned for a TD. Then, on the ensuing drive, he was sacked on consecutive plays and was whistled for a delay-of-game penalty. Amelia Earhart never looked so lost.
The game was effectively over. Belichick's Patriots were on their way to Super Bowl XLI. Only the greatest defensive meltdown in history could ruin their hopes.
And it did.
Manning and the Colts recovered from a situation so desperate we saw it pan-handling outside Starbucks. The Colts ripped off 341 yards, five scoring drives and 32 points in the second half alone -- against a team run by a coach widely considered the great defensive genius of our time.
In the fourth quarter, with another trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Patriots needed just a single stop. Instead, they prostrated themselves before the Indy offense, as if unworthy to play on the same field. On three fourth-quarter possessions, the Colts ripped off a 59-yard field goal drive and TD drives of 67 and 80 yards. They scored the winning touchdown with just one minute to play.
To put Indy's second-half outburst into perspective, it pays to remember the Colts offense had been a complete playoff no-show before that point. In their previous 115 plays against the Chiefs and the Titans in the wild-card and divisional rounds, the Colts netted just 406 yards and seven field goals.
In other words, the Colts could not move the ball against anybody in the 2006 playoffs. But then they were handed what seems to be a cure-all for impotent offenses: a chance to face a Belichick defense in the most critical moments of the biggest game of the year. At this point, the Colts were unstoppable.
We think even Ray Charles could see a pattern here, folks: despite the legend, Belichick's defenses routinely collapse in the late stages of the biggest games of the year.
We could have included Super Bowl XLII among the many other times a Belichick defense wilted like week-old lettuce when the game mattered most.
But Super Bowl XLII deserves to stand alone.
After all, New England's collapse in this game was so historic, so massive, so colossal, it joins the Great Wall of China as the only man-made objects that can be seen from space.
Before considering Super Bowl XLII's place in history, it pays to understand it was, by any objective, analytical measure, the greatest mismatch in NFL championship game history -- not just Super Bowl history, but championship game history dating to the very first title-tilt in 1933.
The Giants were merely mediocre in 2007, outscoring opponents by just 22 points over the season -- the smallest margin ever by a Super Bowl champion.
The Patriots were the single most dominant team in modern NFL history, outscoring opponents by a record 315 points.
The Giants were 10-6 in 2007 -- tying for the worst regular-season record ever by a Super Bowl champion.
The Patriots were the first 16-0 team in NFL history.
Yet somehow, someway, the Giants captured victory in a game they had no business winning.
As we mentioned recently, the Giants defense has garnered all the credit for shutting down the most prolific offense in NFL history. They deserve this credit.
But also remember that, with the Super Bowl on the line, with the first 19-0 season on the line, with football immortality on the line, and with the biggest audience in American sporting history as witness, Belichick's defense crumbled faster than the French Army in 1940.
The Giants had scored just three points against the Patriots in three quarters of play. But once again, a crunch-time Belichick defense proved the magic cure-all for ailing offenses: The Giants ripped off fourth-quarter TD drives of 80 and 83 yards and ripped a gaping wound in the Belichick legacy that might never heal.
The most serious indictment of the Belichick legacy is not Spygate or the chilly press conferences or the defensive meltdowns or the lost opportunity to go 19-0.
The most serious indictment of his legacy might be that, if not for Mo Lewis's hit on Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Belichick might not even have a job here in 2008.
It's impossible to minimize the impact Brady has had on the Belichick's career, the fate of the New England franchise, and even modern football history itself. To put it most simply, no single football player has ever inspired a greater turnaround in the fortunes of so many people, or has done so with such immediacy.
For proof, simply consider these two sets of numbers.
The first set of numbers is Belichick's career coaching record through Week 2 of the 2001 season, an even 100 games (including playoffs) that included his stint with the Browns and his first 18 games with the Patriots.
The second set of numbers is Belichick's record since Week 3 of the 2001 season, which includes an even 100 victories in 127 games (including playoffs).
What changed in Week 3 of 2001? Of course, it's the day Brady took over the New England offense. Football history changed in an instant -- and nobody had been a greater beneficiary than Belichick himself.
In fact, the tandem of Brady and Belichick might have become the first in history to garner five Super Bowl rings in a mere seven seasons. But Belichick's defenses have stood in the way of history.
Actually, that's not true. Belichick's defenses have not stood in the way of anything, especially in the most critical moments of the biggest games of the year.
But despite all the wounds over the past two seasons, there is still time for the Belichick legacy to heal itself. And it starts with a victory in Super Bowl XLIII.