Touching All the Bases

Lessons From Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh: Why Bill Belichick Won't Allow the Game to Pass Him By


There's no denying it, so I won't even try: Time is passing fast on Bill Belichick's career. It blows my mind that he's been coaching in the NFL since 1975 -- he may be rumpled, but he does not look old enough to have endured this for four decades. He certainly does not look 62 years old.

This is his 15th season in New England as the head coach. Sunday will mark his 230th regular-season game in that role. That's more than twice as many games as the second-longest-tenured coach in Patriots history, Mike Holovak (107 from 1961-68). It's more games than Bill Parcells (64), Pete Carroll (48) and Raymond Berry (87) coached combined, and 214 more than Rod Rust.

It's funny, I recently went back through some old clips to jog my memory about what I thought of the Belichick hiring in January 2000. Abbreviated version: I dug it, for the discipline and defensive prowess, but I was bummed about giving up the first-round draft pick as compensation to the Jets.

Seems I had my heart set on the Patriots getting a certain running back out of Alabama in the draft that year. Shaun Alexander did have an impressive run in the NFL -- a lot of them, actually, many coming in his ridiculous 1,880-yard, 27-touchdown season in 2005. He's also been out of the league for six seasons now.

Yeah, I think the deal worked out OK for the folks in Foxborough. Belichick has been here awhile, and thank goodness for that. Imagine how history might be different had he decided to remain the HC of the NYJ for more than one day.

I bring this up not to marvel at Belichick's accomplishments, which, in case you are interested, include five Super Bowl trips, three Super Bowl victories (all five games could have gone either way), eight AFC title game appearances (including the last three), 11 playoff appearances, 11 straight 10-win seasons and 13 straight winning seasons.

I bring this up because, during the Patriots' relative struggles this season -- they're 3-2 and tied for first place in the division with Sunday's opponent, the Buffalo Bills -- I have occasionally heard the downright stupidest suggestion anyone who follows this coach and this franchise with any continuity and clarity could possibly make.

Maybe the game is passing Belichick by.

I know, I probably shouldn't even waste bandwidth addressing this pea-brained suggestion, which I've heard in various places (particularly in advance of the shellacking of the Bengals), including in my Friday chat a few weeks ago. But it is such a silly notion, especially five games into a new season, that debunking it is as irresistible as it is easy.

You'd think anyone who follows this team and this man, anyone who has awareness of Belichick's ingrained lifelong passion for football, one his own father still carried with him right up until his death at age 86, would recognize that the complexities of the game will never elude him.

You'd think it would be easy to recognize how steep and prolonged the fall would have to be just for Belichick to land on mediocrity.

You'd think.

Belichick's deep reservoir of knowledge regarding the sport's past and present leads to him seeking further information and intelligence, leads to him still trying to innovate and learn from the innovators. The intellectual curiosity never wanes.

It's why he spent significant time with Chip Kelly at Oregon a couple of years ago. It's why, soon thereafter, you saw the Patriots accelerate the pace and tempo of their offense in a similar way.

It's why he solved and dismantled The Pistol offense after getting burned once by Ronnie Brown and the Dolphins.

It's why he gives genuine consideration to square-wheeled players with an unusual array of skills -- Matthew Slater, Stephen Neal, Tim Tebow, Nate Ebner, and on and on.

It's why the offense has changed and changed again during his time here, from the efficient, conservative approach in Tom Brady's early seasons to the give-it-to-Corey Dillon period to the explosive Randy Moss years to the Gronk/Aaron Hernandez two-tight-end approach to ... well, maybe back around again to the approach of a dozen years ago.

The root of the suggestion comes from two places. Let's start with the less dubious of the duo: history, or perceived history. We've all heard the stats detailing how even the most accomplished coaches struggle as they become men of a certain age. So-and-so and so-and-so had a .421 winning percentage after the age of 62 or whatnot.

That was certainly true of Tom Landry and Don Shula, two stubborn and inflexible men who did not adept their ways as the game shifted around them. They also failed in another crucial area -- surrounding and supplanting the talent on their roster with even more talent. Getting Dan Marino a legit workhorse running back at some point in his career also might have helped Shula win another Super Bowl beyond 1973.

And remember: in their day, pre-free-agency, it was so much easier to maintain success. Good players remained with the team that drafted them until the team that drafted them no longer wanted them.

What Belichick has achieved in the free-agency and salary-cap era, the sustained genuine annual contention, does not get enough recognition. This was supposed to be impossible. The Patriots of this era are the only team, in fact, for which it has been possible.

* * *

The name that was cited to me in terms of the game passing by a brilliant coach is Chuck Noll. It's actually a fascinating comparison, but not for the reason you think. This comes from "The Ones Who Hit Hardest,'' Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne's insightful book on the '70s Steelers and what the team meant to the city.

[Noll] always had a plan, an if-then strategy tucked in his back pocket for easy reference. His ideas were never fanciful, never full of dreamy prose; no one would ever make one great and glorious leap to the moon listening to him talk. But they'd know the first step they'd need to take, and the next and the next, until suddenly they were floating among the stars. He could make the most complicated journey seem as simple as a walk to the store, if you followed his rules. And the first lesson was always the same: work hard, work right.

Joe Greene, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman and anchor of the Steeler dynasty, elaborates further in another chapter:

"What made him special was that he was so consistent in terms of his focus and in terms of what was viable and real as far as achieving our ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl. He was not deterred by anything not . going in our direction. And he didn't jump around from one idea to the next, jumping all over us one day and then the next day telling us everything was great."

Sound like anyone you know? Noll's even-keel -- though he could rage when the moment demanded it, sure -- is something he learned from Paul Brown, who also happens to be a coaching idol of Belichick's.

And by the way, it's a matter of debate whether the game ever actually passed Noll by. The Steelers did regress to mediocrity in his later years, with the departure of Greene and Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann and ... well, all of their many great stars leaving enormous unfilled voids on the depth chart. Even the best coaches have got to have the right players, though I'd argue that Belichick had done more with less -- a brilliant co-pilot at quarterback and a revolving cast otherwise -- than any coach in history.

The Steelers' talent-level shriveled in the '80s, which is why Noll won just 10 games once in his final dozen seasons. Still, his greatest coaching job may have come not during one of their four Super Bowl-winning seasons, but in 1989, when he took a team that lost its first two games by a 92-10 score to the second round of the playoffs. It was the first time since 1972 that he won a Coach of the Year award. He retired two seasons later, the progress of the game never having surpassed his wisdom.

* * *

The other reason to suggest that the game is passing Belichick by is more suspect -- it's because so many in the media among us want it to be the case that there's a practical race to declare that Belichick has lost his touch. You know the story -- he's often uncooperative and dismissive regarding even the most fundamental of queries, and that leads to resentment that is both understandable and woefully unprofessional.

It's human nature to prefer someone more accommodating and accessible, and thus when there's even a hint at a downturn, there is a barely contained hope that he's finally getting some comeuppance. It's transparent and petty, but it's real.

There's also an odd side-effect to this: Because Belichick doesn't explain himself and help the media and fans grasp the details and nuances of his tactics, it leaves everyone to make semi-educated assumptions that eventually become self-misconstrued as indisputable truths. We all have our theories on why Logan Mankins was traded, for example. None of us really know.

His closed circle allows the cockamamie theories to flourish outside of it, and that's why we savor every morsel of insight we can find. Hell, we're still frequently citing the behind-the-scenes goodies in the "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" documentary as if it all were fresh and new. And that was filmed five seasons ago.

I have never read a better description of how Bill Belichick views the media than this:

Every year you’re going to have a calculated approach taken by a couple writers, especially when you’re doing well, to take the team apart. And they delight in it. They like to see you squirm, they like to see all of us squirm. If they could feel they affected us and we didn’t do well, they have won the war. It’s that simple. I guess we’re fortunate we don’t have more of them. If were in New York City or some place it would be eight or 10 of them doing this. But every year, the same guy locally, there’s a couple of them, will do anything they can to disrupt us. They can make it black and white, defense versus offense, coaches versus players, owners versus coach. They’ll do it every conceivable way, and they’ll get a formula and a plan and methodically work on it. And they work on it. They really calculate it. These guys are not simple-minded people. They’re very bright guys. Just find a way to deal with this stuff, because it will happen. We’ll have two or three things come up, we don’t even know what they are yet, but he’ll come up with something to try to break us. And nobody’s going to break us. Nobody’s going to take us apart.

Of course there's a catch here, and I'm not referring to the one famously made by Dwight Clark. I'm talking about Dwight Clark's coach. These are not Bill Belichick's words. They are Bill Walsh's, as detailed in a tremendous piece on the legendary Niners coach written by Greg Bedard on last year.

It should be noted that Walsh retired from coaching the 49ers at age 57, after winning his third Super Bowl in 1988. An innovator until the end -- his writings on coaching are practical scripture in the profession -- he regretted walking away almost immediately after he made the decision, feeling as though he left at least one Super Bowl on the table.

The game never passed by Bill Walsh. He passed by the game.

Forget the noise, and recognize the reality: Bill Belichick, connoisseur and creator of NFL history, isn't about to let either to happen to him.

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