John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated

Quickly

  • Just how has Bill Belichick sustained his success over nearly two decades running the Patriots? We hear from five men who worked under him in New England and then became head coaches themselves, giving them some unique perspective on the enormity of Belichick’s achievement.
  • Plus, the four key players in Super Bowl LIII, and your questions about Sunday’s matchup, the McVay Effect, Giants QBs and more.
By Albert Breer
January 31, 2019

ATLANTA — Bill O’Brien went into this meeting, with the game plan for the next day’s 2011 season finale in, expecting for Bill Belichick to give him a few bullet points on what to expect, with Penn State set to interview him for its head coaching job the following week.

O’Brien, Belichick’s offensive coordinator that year, came out with an education on what he didn’t know. And more knowledge than he figured he would ever have on what makes the Patriots coach who he is.

This wasn’t just about standing in front of a room and being able to compel a bunch of 20-somethings, nor was it really all that much about setting up a practice week, or calling a game as a head coach. That stuff was there, of course, but this was more than that. Belichick explained everything—encapsulating the enormity of the job, while illustrating, maybe unintentionally, why he’s so good at it.

“At the time I was like ‘Man I can't believe how much he knows about his team doctor, his trainer,’” O’Brien said from his office in Houston late on Tuesday. “I mean, he was talking to me about it—‘You have to have a hand specialist, you've got to have a foot specialist, gotta have an eye doctor, you gotta have a team dentist.’ I'm just sitting there. And he’d just got done talking to me about the salary cap.

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“And he just kept on talking, about how to evaluate your talent, how to divide that up in the draft, and all of that. It was just amazing. An amazing thing to look back on.”

It was amazing enough at the time to send O’Brien scrambling back to his desk.

“I remember I went back to my office, got on my laptop and I typed it all up,” he continued. “And I still have all those notes, and many times over the years I’ve reflected back to those notes.”

Seven men who spent extended periods under Belichick in New England have become head coaches. All knew how good he was when he was their boss, of course. They all have trips to this stage to show for that.

But for a lot of these coaches, true perspective on why he’s as good as he is came later, once they walked in his shoes, and had the benefit of two things: 1) his advice on how to handle the job, and 2) an appreciation for just how difficult it is.

“Sometimes a question may lead to a long conversation,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel says. “I asked one question, and it led to a very detailed, thought-provoking conversation that we had that really took a while. It was just about what to expect. If any of these interviews came, what the process is and how these guys would target coaches. It was just different things he hit on.”

And, for guys like Vrabel, Belichick’s mastery of those sorts of things led to a deeper appreciation for the greatest coach ever.


In this week’s Game Plan we we’ll focus on four key players for Super Bowl LIII in our Weekend Watch list, then we’ll get to all your questions on the trend to hire young offensive coaches, the Giants’ future at quarterback, officiating and much, much more.

But to lead off this week’s column, I had the idea to try to contextualize exactly what Belichick is in the midst of accomplishing. And no, it’s not that hard to dig through the numbers. His 30 postseason wins are now 10 clear of Dallas legend Tom Landry, who’s second on the all-time list. Only four coaches (Landry, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, Chuck Noll) have even half as many postseason wins as Belichick does.

You could keep going, of course, through the what? part of this.

I wanted to delve into the why. So I figured we’d hit up the seven aforementioned guys with a simple question: Having now been a head coach, what impresses you most now about what Bill has accomplished? Five of the seven agreed to jump in with their two cents. Here’s where I step out of the way and let them explain, in their words, what they think makes Bill Belichick great.

ROMEO CRENNEL
Years with Belichick: 2000-04
Head coach: Browns 2005-08, Chiefs 2012.

“It’s the fact that he’s been able to have the longevity that he’s had and the success within that longevity. This is a tough business we’re in, and games are very hard to win on a consistent basis. And he’s done it consistently since 2000. That’s really impressive. He is able to get his guys to perform at a high level. And it’s not like he has all the same guys all the time. He trades them out, he moves on from guys, brings new guys in, but everybody who comes in, he can get them to understand the culture, the Patriot Way. They understand that culture. And if they want to stay there and be a part of it, he’s glad to have them. But if they’re not into the Patriot Way, you can move on and go somewhere else. It’s pretty impressive overall.

“When you become a head coach, there are a lot of things you don’t anticipate when you’re an assistant. You’re in charge of the program, you’re in charge of the organization. Being able to get everyone on the same page, and get them pulling in the same direction, is somewhat incredible, because everyone has their own agenda to a degree. As a head coach, you have to get everyone to see your vision, understand how you want things done, how you need things done so you can be successful. And Bill’s been able to pull that off. It’s pretty impressive.

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“He’s very competitive. He likes to win, wants to win and will work to win. And then, he’s exceptional in football. I think he’s coached every position in football, basically. That gives him great insight into the game, what’s needed at every position, and that allows him to be able to relay that to his coaches and to the guys who play for him, and get them to understand what they need to do to win a game. Every game is an important game. He’s able to get his guys to understand that—how we need to play. And sometimes, how you need to play is not what players want to hear. But he’s got that culture in place, and they buy into it.”

JOSH McDANIELS
Years with Belichick: 2001-08, 2012-present.
Head coach: Broncos 2009-10.

“Three things come to mind for me. One is his consistency in terms of sticking to the process he believes in. He knows he has a philosophy that works, he knows he has a system in place in every area of the building that gives us a chance to be successful. We all know that in our world, we’re never going to go through a year, maybe not even a month, sometimes not even a week, without adversity in some area, some part of the building. Whether it’s injuries or whatever, there’s always something that’s not necessarily the way we would want it to be. And his consistency and ability to stay true to the process through those adversities and never really waver is a remarkable trait. There are a lot of things that happen that would bother a lot of people. And as the leader, he does a tremendous job of never allowing it to bother him. He might be disappointed in something, but he stays with the process, tries to evaluate each situation on its own and make it better. He knows he’s the lead dog in any problem-solving we have to do. And he does it with hard work, with a good attitude with grace in many ways. Lots of these things are not fun. And you’d never know it’s something that’s upsetting him, because he does a good job of making sure he’s setting the right tone for the rest of the group. So his consistency and ability to stick to his process is one of those things.

“I’d say the volume of things organizationally that he can manage and handle. Having gone to Denver and come back, and now having a chance to look at it through a different lens, I can see what he has to deal with. I’m not in every meeting he’s in, I’m not in his office all day long, but I just know that there are so many things he’s in the middle of, and his ability to delegate when he needs to, step in when he needs to, make decisions when he needs to, and generally speaking just do the right thing all the way, that’s also what we believe in. There’s a lot of information, obviously, that comes across your desk as a head coach, a lot of decisions you need to be responsible for, and the volume of those things he’s able to hand on a daily basis is just remarkable.

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“And then the last thing is, through all of those things, and all the years of success he’s had, I’m continually impressed with his ability to adapt. The game changes, players change, scouting the college game has changed, the draft has changed, free agency has changed, defense, offense, special teams, rules, there’s a lot of things that have changed in our game since I started with Bill back in 2001. And nobody is more at the forefront in trying to stay current in all of those areas, in my opinion. We’ve all heard it about older coaches—he won’t do that. Bill’s willing to do whatever. We’ve been willing to do certain defenses, or do this in the kicking game or be heavy at receiver or run the ball more, or do training camp a certain way, and that’s so impressive to me. There are a lot of people that say, I believe in this, this is what I’m going to do,’ West Coast offense or we’re going to blitz. That’s not Bill. Bill’s ‘whatever it we need to do this year’—based on our personnel or what happened in the draft or who we play. It doesn’t matter what it is, he’s willing to adapt on a daily basis, which to me just stands out. Because if there’s anyone who can say, ‘Look, fellas, we’ve done this like this for a long time, it works, let’s just do it that way,’ it would be Bill. He’s the opposite. He never settles. He’s never going to rely on what we’ve done. He’s always going to say, ‘Is there any way we could do this better?’ And we’re always pushed to try to do the same thing as members of his staff.’ ”

BILL O’BRIEN
Years with Belichick: 2007-11.
Head coach: Penn State 2012-13, Texans 2014-present.

“There's two things, when I think about this. Number one is the consistency, so the ability, year-in and year-out, to field a team that not only is competitive but that competes for championships every year. I mean, just to win your division that many times an excellent achievement, let alone the Super Bowl trips and what they've done in the playoffs. It’s such a difficult league to win.

“The other thing that stands out to me in, the years that I was there and since I've left, is his ability to adapt to the different style of players or different rule changes, whether it's salary cap rules or free agency rules or the draft, to be able to adapt his program to the ways the league has changed and still field a competitive team. I mean, his team is different every year. He has core players, obviously. But he adds different players every year. He does different things every year. A couple of years, I don’t think he had a fullback. Now he’s got a fullback.

“There are just so many so many things that are impressive, but it's the consistency and the ability to adapt his program to the ways that the league has changed.”

MIKE VRABEL
Years with Belichick: 2001-08.
Head coach: Titans 2018-present.

“It’s the consistency. Being able to do it year-in and year-out, that consistent success in an ever-changing market and in a game that's designed for parity. Bill's been able to evolve through coaching changes and player movement. It’s a lot of the things I learned while I was there for eight years in a player-coach relationship.

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“The things he's able to handle, and the amount of time he put in, and the instruction he was able to give, and the coaching he was able to give on a multitude of levels throughout the team at different positions. But also having a large part to do with player acquisition in free agency and the draft, and a lot of the things you’re also charged to do as a head coach.

“I think that it’s just his knowledge of the game on all levels. Special teams and offense and defense, then being able to handle the things that you deal with outside of just coaching.”

CHARLIE WEIS
Years with Belichick: 2000-04.
Head coach: Notre Dame 2005-09, Kansas 2012-14.

“The two words I always use to describe Bill that really apply to the Patriots’ success are insight and foresight. On a daily basis it seems like the Patriots always have greater insight than the people they’re going against. They’re one step ahead. The difference between winning and losing in the NFL usually comes down to a field goal, so every little thing matters. Every little thing matters. So the meticulous way they go about their business—they always seem to just be one step ahead. Where so many games are close games, unlike college where you get so many blowouts, that meticulous way in how they do their business gives them a real edge.

“The other thing is, the Patriots are forward-thinking. You talk about evolving. Evolving isn’t as important as always making decisions that’ll affect you down the line. Down the line could be a day, it could be a week, it could be a month, it could be a year, or it could be a couple years from now. Personnel decisions, when they trade away a guy who’s still at the top of his game but they know what they’ll get in return for him, and how soon afterwards a lot of these people who are on the top of their game start to fall off the ledge. So I think insight and foresight, combined with the meticulous way in which they do business, always keeps them one step ahead.

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“He’s not afraid to get rid of anybody, no matter how important a person is, no matter how valuable people on the street might think he is—he’s never afraid to go ahead and make a change or a move that might be perceived as unpopular, but in reality it’s usually to keep you that one step ahead. Let’s use Richard Seymour as an example. Richard Seymour might get into the Hall of Fame this week. When he was let go, it was pandemonium—how could you let Richard Seymour go? But at the end of the day, how much did it end up hurting the Patriots down the line? Was there an effect immediately? Yes. But it was so short-term that the pro outweighed the con. He always had the guts to make those decisions.”

And now, we’re on the weekend.


WEEKEND WATCH LIST

Four key players in Super Bowl LIII.

Patriots WR Phillip Dorsett: Dorsett has reemerged as a role player for the post-Josh Gordon Patriots, and this might be the week when he does more than just that. “They’ll have to take a shot deep at some point, to keep the Rams defense honest,” one NFC personnel chief told me. “Dorsett’s their only vertical threat outside of Cordarelle Patterson.” I’d throw Chris Hogan in as another name to watch going up against a Wade Phillips defense that will have a plan for the New England run game, Julian Edelman and James White.

Rams RB Todd Gurley: Gurley gets the extra week off and comes in with something to prove. And the Rams need him to bring it. “Their offensive success is predicated on their ability to run the ball,” said an AFC personnel director. “It sets up the play-action, which they rely on heavily. And more importantly, it would keep Tom Brady off the field.” Jared Goff is different when the Rams have the run game going. The whole offense is. And with all due respect to C.J. Anderson (who’ll get the ball plenty), Gurley’s still the guy who’s keeping the defensive coaches up on Saturday nights.

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Rams DT Ndamukong Suh: He’s been a monster in the playoffs, and he figures to see favorable matchups playing next to Aaron Donald—and last year’s Super Bowl has a nice example of how that can show up. Remember Brandon Graham’s fourth-quarter strip sack? It came with Graham rushing inside, and All-Pro Fletcher Cox drawing a double team next to him. It’s not hard to envision that scenario playing out with Suh and Donald, and it’s key because inside pressure is what bothers Tom Brady. (Bonus key player on Rams defense: Cory Littleton, who’s likely to see a lot of White.)

Patriots LG Joe Thuney: The third-year man figures to see more of Donald than any other Patriots offensive lineman, and the amount that the offensive coaches have to help him (and you can bet it’ll be at least some) will affect the math on how New England takes care of guys like Suh and Dante Fowler elsewhere on that Ram front.


MAIL TIME!

From Dan Heiserman (@HeisermanDan): Will Steve Spagnuolo make the Chiefs D great?

Dan, I think there are so many moving parts right now, it’s hard to tell where the Chiefs will be. Will there be contract strife with star defensive tackle Chris Jones? Does Dee Ford get tagged or signed? If so, is Justin Houston ($21.1 million cap number for 2019) gone? And how about Eric Berry, and his cap number of $16.5 million? And do young guys like Derrick Nnadi make a big jump from ’18 to ’19?

I really do like the hire. Spagnuolo is aggressive, and should be able to add edge to a pass rush that ranked first in the NFL in sacks. The questions really are everywhere else, so the unit’s improvement really does hinge on how the team settles all the above-noted family business, and just who is manning the back seven.

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From Stephen Tzianabos (@stephentz): Are there lessons to be learned from the Patriots’ matchups versus the Kubiak-Phillips Texans teams? Shanahan coaching tree and of course still Wade Phillips?

Well, first of all, the reasons why Mike Shanahan once had success against Belichick are absolutely in play with Sean McVay—their ability to marry the run game to the pass game, and run so many different things (from runs to screens to shots) out of certain looks works to negate Belichick’s renowned ability to take singular strengths away. Add McVay’s flexibility and play-calling, and I think the Rams score plenty.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots offense has given Phillips fits in the past, but something changed after the coach returned to Denver in 2015. In the three games in which the Patriots have faced Phillips since (all against the Broncos), New England scored 24, 18 and 16 points and went 1-2.


From José Gonzalez (@josus2188): Who will be the Cowboys OC?

Well, if you watched the Pro Bowl (your loss if you didn’t), you saw how the Cowboys operated—with QBs coach Kellen Moore carrying the play sheet and talking into his headset as the NFC offense huddled. And while that hardly settles it, Jason Garrett could easily have avoided that being a story by calling the plays himself in a meaningless game. He chose not to.

So the likely conclusion still has Moore calling plays, with Jon Kitna taking his old spot as quarterbacks coach. And Moore will be interesting to watch, given what the Cowboys like about him (intelligence, creativity, open-mindedness). An interesting sidenote here? The last young offensive coach the Joneses rolled the dice on was actually Garrett himself, in 2007.

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From Jason (@Flubbedtundra03): With teams desperate to copy the Rams’ success, how many years will it set those teams back that fail in copying the Rams? And how much of a negative impact (would an) Arizona failure have on Rosen?

I don’t know the answer to that, but there’s obviously some risk that these teams are taking. And it’s not always just about an offense failing. It can be about player development. It can be about the climate in the team facility. It can have the next coach coming in playing from a deficit. So yeah, there’s some risk.

I also believe that’s the true McVay Effect. Teams wanting to roll the dice now have cover—We were swinging for the fences! Maybe the hires work. Maybe they don’t. I think what’ll largely determine success isn’t whether the offense gets going. I think it’s more about how these guys handle their teams, and lead their organizations, when the you-know-what hits the fan.

Specifically on Rosen, I really do like his chances with Kliff Kingsbury. But there’s no question these years, Years 2 and 3 into 4, are critical ones for Rosen, as is the case with any young quarterback. So team failure around him the next few years would certainly be devastating.


From Charlie (@SaintCharlie): Why won’t the NFL ever consider a central office that can immediately buzz down and fix incorrect/missed calls?

Thank you, Charlie. I want to empower New York and the booth official to tell the head referee to throw or pick up a flag if need be. And I understand the issue—coaches want accountability with, and a direct line to, the guys making these calls, which requires them to be on the field.

But … screw that. How in the world is it that this technology we have is used to give any of us on our couches crystal clear views of most close calls from a number of angles, yet it isn’t used to make sure that situations like New Orleans on Jan. 20 don’t happen? It makes no sense. Use the technology you have to get it right as often as possible. It’s that simple.

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From Charles Norris (@miketowle34): Can the Giants ride the wave with Eli one more year, or is it time to cut the cord and move on?

I think you keep Eli so long as he’s comfortable with being the bridge quarterback. If he is, then that adds to the flexibility you have this April if you’re not wild about Dwayne Haskins, Daniel Jones, Drew Lock or Kyler Murray (or would rather wait for Jake Fromm, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert in 2020). If he’s not, then I think you cut the cord and go find someone who is.

The Giants have finally come to a comfort level with the fact that they’re rebuilding, and so patience is a key. They’re not winning a championship next year. Embrace that. And in doing so, find a suitable solution for now at quarterback, one who’ll be comfortable starting now, and would be comfortable even with his replacement on the roster, to the point where he’ll help the replacement along (a la Josh McCown).

If that guy’s Eli, then great.


From SPG (@PudgeFisk27): Does Portnoy get into game on Sunday?

I hope so.

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From PureNRK (@PureNRK): How come Albert Breer forgets OSU exists during basketball season?

I don’t blame Michigan people for comments like this from the bleachers. It’s all they have left. And I have 62 reasons to end the Game Plan right there. See you Sunday for the Rundown.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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