Greatest debate

The best might be yet to come for Bill Belichick, who is one victory away from his fourth Super Bowl title

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / February 3, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - Twenty games into his Patriots coaching career, Bill Belichick was 6-14, a below-average mark that had been the rule of his tenure as an NFL head coach, not the exception. Four losing seasons in a five-year run with the Browns, followed by a 5-11 debut with the Patriots, then a 1-3 start to the 2001 season.

Hardly the precursor to what Patriots fans have come to know. If Robert Kraft had listened to the suggestions of many during Belichick’s honeymoon period leading the Patriots, his hand-picked coach would have been history. But because the team owner stuck with his man through a shaky start, Belichick now has a chance to make history.

Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday between the Patriots and Giants offers scores of juicy subplots, from Eli Manning playing in the house big brother Peyton built to whether New England can avenge two straight losses to New York. The Giants handed the Patriots their lone loss in an 18-1 season at Super Bowl XLII four years ago, and won, 24-20, in Foxborough three months ago, the Patriots’ most recent defeat.

But a win on Sunday would give Belichick, the son of a football coach, an individual accomplishment only one other person can claim. Beating the Giants would bring Belichick his fourth Super Bowl title as a head coach, which would match Chuck Noll, who guided the Steelers to four championships in the 1970s.

“It would make me feel pretty good. It’s a great honor to be mentioned in the same conversation with Chuck,’’ Belichick said. “I got to know him my first few years in the league and have a tremendous amount of respect for Chuck and the job he did.’’

Belichick is working toward similar credentials. Ten years ago today - Feb. 3, 2002 - the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI, launching a stretch that would feature three championships in four years, spark discussions of a dynasty, and push Belichick into the pantheon of his profession.

A fourth title would also raise a question that even Kraft couldn’t have envisioned a decade ago: If Belichick joins Noll as the only coaches with four Super Bowl wins, what is his proper place in history? Would he be considered the greatest coach the NFL has ever seen?

“I already think he’s the best ever,’’ said Tom Brady, who would join Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) and Joe Montana (49ers) as the only starting quarterbacks with four Super Bowl victories if the Patriots win. “He’s a great coach, the only [head] coach I’ve ever known professionally. Obviously, he prepares his teams extremely well.’’

Since that initial slip in 2000 and early in the 2001 season, Belichick has overseen one of the most impressive and consistent displays of success the league has witnessed: 11 straight winning seasons, nine trips to the playoffs, and now five visits to the Super Bowl. Because of that, comparisons have inevitably ensued. Is he better than Noll, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs? As good as George Halas and Curly Lambeau, who coached before the Super Bowl era and each won six NFL championships?

Hard to say. Depends who you ask. But of the names he’s being mentioned with, only Belichick has won Super Bowls while operating under salary cap restraints, meant to level the playing field and give every team in the league a realistic chance of winning.

“He’s going to be considered one of the best coaches that’s ever coached a game in the National Football League,’’ said Herm Edwards, who coached the Jets and Chiefs from 2001-08 and went 54-74, plus 2-4 in the postseason. “I’m not big on saying . . . like Tom Brady, he wins another Super Bowl, he wins four rings, he’s like Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, and I’m not going to say he’s the best ever. He’s the best in his era.

“[Belichick is] already considered, in my opinion, one of the best coaches in the last decade. Some people say he’s the best ever; that’s other people.’’

The secret to his success?

“A lot of things, but I think the main thing is he’s been consistent,’’ Edwards said. “And he has a fantastic quarterback. That helps you a whole lot, last time I checked.’’

In the Super Bowl era - the first was played Jan. 15, 1967 - Belichick stacks up favorably in almost every coaching category. Only Shula has taken more teams to the Super Bowl, leading the Colts and Dolphins to six, one more than Belichick’s five in New England. Belichick’s 17 playoff victories are tied for third, behind Tom Landry’s 20 and Shula’s 19. His .739 postseason winning percentage (17-6) trails only Vince Lombardi, who went 5-0 in the era with the Packers.

Counting the three Super Bowls he participated in as an assistant coach (twice with the Giants, and with the Patriots in the 1995 season), Belichick will have had a coaching role in eight of the 46. Could the kid who earned his first NFL job as a 23-year-old with the Baltimore Colts in 1975 ever have imagined that?

“Never for a second. I’d say wherever I was, I was consumed,’’ Belichick said. “I really just try to live in the moment, whatever that is. Right now, it’s here, and I’m happy to be here, believe me. There’s no place I’d rather be.

“Other points in time, I was dealing with other challenges, other teams, and other situations. I tried to do the best I could with whatever responsibilities I had. I never really thought too much about where it was going to go. You do your job, take care of your business, and hopefully good things will happen.’’

It’s the same approach he takes with his teams and players, no matter what they’ve accomplished.

“He treats minicamp like it’s the week of the Super Bowl,’’ Brady said. “The pressure is always on. We joke, because every day he comes into the meeting and he goes, ‘Alright guys, this is a big day,’ and we always joke that he should walk in one day and say, ‘Guys, this day’s not super important. Whatever we mess up today, don’t worry, we can get to tomorrow.’ That’s how he approaches it, every day is meaningful, and I think as a player you come in and you really respect that, and you try to do your very best to accomplish the goals that he sets out every day.

“When we won those 16 games in a row in 2007, people would have thought we were 0-16 by the way that we were coached. He doesn’t care what you did last year, he doesn’t care if you made the Pro Bowl, as long as you can help us win this week.’’

Belichick paid his dues before becoming a head coach, and while his demeanor can turn a lot of people off, it’s hard to argue with the success his teams have compiled. His willingness to do anything, Scott Pioli said, has played a role in his teams winning everything.

“Everything that he did revolved around winning football games,’’ said Pioli, who first worked with Belichick in Cleveland, was with the Patriots from 2000-08, and is now the general manager of the Chiefs. “It wasn’t about agendas, it wasn’t about his relationships with players. He had a job, his job was to win football games, and everything he did every day was going to revolve around that.

“It caused him to work really, really hard. In working hard, any job that Bill ever asked anyone to do, whether it was the guys doing laundry, or the guys lining the field, every job he had either done or was still willing to do. I think that’s a rare type of leadership.’’

It’s exactly what Kraft saw, and embraced.

“You have to pick people you believe in,’’ Kraft said. “You have to support them, encourage them to be bold and take risks, and then be patient.’’

Kraft didn’t have to wait long, rewarded with a Super Bowl in Belichick’s second season as Patriots head coach. Then another in his fourth, yet another in his fifth.

Now, in Belichick’s 12th season as Patriots coach, a fourth Super Bowl title would be meaningful for a variety of reasons. It would tie Belichick with Noll, tie Brady with Bradshaw and Montana, and end a championship drought for the Patriots that has reached seven years. Drought being a relative term, of course. It took Belichick seven seasons to win his first championship.

Dante Scarnecchia has been with the Patriots for 28 years, and has served under six head coaches. He’s been Belichick’s assistant head coach, focusing on the offensive line, since 2000, and was with him when they went 6-14 over those first 20 games. While Scarnecchia declined to comment on Belichick’s legacy (“That’s for you guys to write; I don’t worry about that stuff.’’) he knows how valuable his boss has been.

“To have the kind of success that he’s had as a head football coach, people can make of it whatever they want,’’ Scarnecchia said. “He was a great defensive coordinator, he’s a great head coach. That pretty much speaks for itself.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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