Master and commander
Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2005 at 1:10 a.m.
As the genius confidently answered questions at the podium, the stage for the next step in his dynastic run was being painted behind him. Bill Belichick's hair waved in the chilly breeze at Alltel Stadium and on occasion he cracked a smile.
It used to be more of a mumbled grumble and a smirk, but that was back when he was a failure of a head coach. You remember the Cleveland Browns of the early 1990s - five years under Belichick (a.k.a. Doctor Doom), one playoff season, four losing seasons.
Where was his genius then?
Nobody was confusing him with Einstein back when he didn't have players or a front office capable of pulling off the unthinkable in this era of free agents - three Super Bowl wins in four seasons.
Just nine years ago, he was a failed experiment and a grouchy one at that, one of those brilliant NFL assistants who couldn't take the next step.
Today, he is mentioned in the same breath with Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh. But he is also viewed with an insatiable curiosity.
What's his secret?
Why doesn't anyone else know it?
NFL coaches are paid millions of dollars to try to do what Belichick is doing even though most of them see it as close to impossible. Three Super Bowls in four years?
"I don't know how to explain it," said Philadelphia defensive end Jevon Kearse. "I don't know what it is. They just win."
And win and win some more. They have won 33 of their last 36 games. The coaches who beat him were Bill Cowher, Jim Bates and Steve Spurrier.
"It's amazing, really," said Spurrier. "They always seem to make one or two more plays than the other team. I just think they're a little bit smarter than most people. They don't want players making so much more than the others. They don't get too full of themselves."
We have seen dynasties before - the Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the '70s, the 49ers of the '80s and the Cowboys of the '90s. But it wasn't supposed to happen after the turn of the century.
Not with players jumping from team to team. Not with salary caps. Not with today's me-first players.
"If they do it," said Troy Aikman, the quarterback of the Cowboy teams that won three in four years, "it's more significant than when we did it."
Belichick and the Patriots have done it with such a simple formula it is almost baffling to try to comprehend why it isn't an easy-to-follow blueprint. Certainly, part of the formula is that Belichick has made some changes in the way he interacts with players and the delegation of responsibility.
And there isn't a coach alive who hasn't stressed the team aspect of the sport. It doesn't take a genius to understand the most basic of cliches - that there is no 'I' in team - but maybe it is genius to find 53 players who are willing to believe it.
But it is more than one man for the Patriots.
They have an owner (Bob Kraft) who understands what it takes to win. They have a general manager (Scott Pioli) who is on the same page as the head coach. They don't put up with malcontents. Talented or not, they are shipped out. And they have accomplished the most amazing thing of all - convincing free agents that the bone-chilling weather of Massachusetts is perfect for them even though they won't make as much money as they could elsewhere.
Because they're gonna win.
"You don't have to come here if you don't want to," said Pats receiver Deion Branch, "unless you want to go to the Super Bowl."
New England is back for a shot at another one against Philadelphia on Sunday despite only having two Pro Bowlers among the 22 offensive and defensive starters. But don't buy into the theory that Belichick is doing it without talented players.
New England has plenty of talent, just not a lot of flash. It's more efficiency than anything else.
Especially on defense. That's not to take anything away from an offense that put a 41-point knot on the Steelers' heads in the AFC title game. But the defense is the glue.
"When you look at their defense, they don't make mistakes," said Cris Collinsworth, who will be in the Super Bowl TV booth for Fox. "You don't see one guy trying to be a hero. They play their positions. They don't play anyone else's positions and they try to win their one-on-one battles.
"There is no magic formula to any of it. They know they don't have to be Superman. They just have to carry out their one small assignment."
So why doesn't it work for everybody?
Because coaches, general managers and owners get blinded by talent. They act emotionally when it comes to signing free agents. And they don't have the ability to recognize talent that Belichick and Pioli possess. Pioli understands what Belichick needs to make his system work.
Of the 62 players on the Patriots' active roster and injured reserve list, 55 have been acquired since Belichick arrived.
They have drafted well, to say the least, especially after the draft's first day. Two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick. Cornerback Asante Samuel went in the fourth round. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi was a third-round pick.
"We knew we had a terrific football player," Belichick said of Bruschi. "We just didn't know what to do with him."
And the free agents - especially Corey Dillon - have panned out. A supposed trouble-maker in Cincinnati, Dillon has been the model citizen with New England.
"(Belichick) puts his foot down," said defensive linemen Jarvis Green. "In the NFL, everyone thinks they can do what they want. But he controls us."
And while there is more to coaching than Xs and Os, they are still a fundamental part of the Patriots' success. Belichick came to New England with a reputation as a defensive whiz, and he has frustrated opposing offenses with defenses that break form.
Since every game is different, every game plan he comes up with is different. Opposing offensive coaches say there is no point in looking at a lot of game film because there's no telling what the defense will do this week.
"He's the master when it comes to dissecting a team," said Pats linebacker Ted Johnson. "He breaks it down to its simplest form and says, 'If you do these two or three things, you can win.' And he's right more times than he is wrong."
In a league full of egos, Belichick has found a way for them to be checked at the door. He has made the right moves on and off the field. His attention to detail is legendary, yet nobody feels like they have been micro-managed.
"He doesn't let us get away with anything," Brady said.
And they listen. Because they keep winning. Or is it the other way around?
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear The Pat Dooley Hour each weekday from 11 a.m. to noon on The Star 99.5-FM.
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