Next week, Bill Belichick will celebrate his 68th birthday.
The last 46 of those years, incredibly, have been devoted to professional coaching. Belichick has dozens of historic achievements in his career, but that one — 46 in a row — is unheard of. No days off, indeed.
That’s not an exaggeration. No one in league history has taught for so long, so consecutively, and so successfully. George Halas, who could have done whatever he wanted as league co-founder and Bears owner, didn’t do it. Neither did Vince Lombardi, Don Shula or Tom Landry, even when you include their time as assistants.
When the 2020 season begins, Belichick will have coached longer than 14 of his current head coaching peers have lived. (And of those 14, three have been assistants for him, another one played for and was traded by him, and yet another, Kliff Kingsbury, was drafted by him to essentially chart plays.)
That leads to the question: What do you get the man who has won everything and apparently coached everybody? How about a package that includes The TB12 Method and Tom vs. Time?
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This is one of the many ironies of the Belichick-Brady separation. They both were, and are, trying to achieve the same thing. Neither believes there is any reason they shouldn’t be excellent at their jobs at this age, even though none of their NFL heroes — from Joe Montana to Paul Brown — were able to do at 68 and 43 what Belichick and Brady are doing right now.
More than that, with the NFL draft two weeks away, Belichick should be feeling how Brady did when Jimmy Garoppolo was picked in the second round.
Challenged. Indignant. Pushed. Inspired.
The year before Garoppolo arrived, 2013, Brady’s performance was ... just okay. He had been the league’s first unanimous MVP in 2010, but in ’13 he appeared to be slipping. He was 36, his completion percentage was the lowest of his career, and he threw fewer touchdown passes than he had in seven years. Belichick also knew that in Ryan Mallett, Brady had a backup who was wholly incapable of threatening his position.
Then the jolt happened. Belichick selected Garoppolo higher than he had ever picked a quarterback in New England. He went on to explain it by mentioning Brady’s age and contract status. Once Brady saw that Garoppolo could quickly absorb and execute the offense — his offense — he knew this was more than just a throwing buddy.
Maybe Brady’s argument is that what followed was purely coincidental. But the timing and numbers suggest that Garoppolo’s presence energized him and helped him produce, for my money, the best five-season stretch of his career: 158 touchdown passes, 37 interceptions, three Super Bowl titles, two Super Bowl MVPs, and a league MVP at age 40, making him the oldest winner of the award in NFL history.
As Brady said in his recent Players’ Tribune piece, sometimes you need a new rhythm; in 2014 and beyond, Jimmy G turned Brady’s slowing waltz into pulsating salsa. The same thing needs to happen for Belichick now as he approaches his roster puzzle, for the first time in a generation, without Brady.
So who can possibly play the Garoppolo role and give Belichick that boost, a boost that will restore him to his vintage, draft-day self? Whose presence — or in this case, absence — is substantial enough to make Belichick refocus on the shrewd trades that he used to make and the discarded players whose careers he used to resuscitate?
Brady. Of course.
Tom Brady, in his absence, is Bill Belichick’s Jimmy Garoppolo.
Whereas Brady in 2014 was responding to potentially losing the job to Garoppolo, Belichick’s 2020 pressure stems from losing his independence when the credits roll.
He’s believed, for a while now, that he can win titles without Brady. This is the time, team-building time, when belief goes from theory to actual flesh-and-blood players that you draft. If Belichick can’t win without Brady, he’ll be historically married to the quarterback — and the quarterback only — forever, divorce be damned.
At this point, you might be wondering why the greatest coach to ever rock a hoodie and a whistle needs an April reset. If you’re that person, you haven’t been paying attention to history, distant and recent alike. We’ll begin with some of Belichick’s latest draft picks and trades. Simply, he’s had his own version of Brady’s 2013 season for a few years now.
The coach used to give you parlays at the top of his drafts. It wasn’t just Richard Seymour, it was Matt Light coming with him. It was Daniel Graham and Deion Branch. Vince Wilfork and Ben Watson. Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski. Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.
But since 2014, the first-round picks have been nondescript, injured, or unproven. Sometimes it’s the first one (Malcom Brown), the latter two (N’Keal Harry) and once it was all three (Dominique Easley).
Vintage Belichick was so masterful in the second round that teams gave him things that made him, and many of his admirers in the scouting community, shake their heads in amazement. More than once, teams offered him future second-round picks for his present-day thirds. No strings attached. Here, take it. Your third for my second. All you gotta do is wait a year for it.
At least Tony Soprano used force to get freebies like that. Belichick did a similar dance once with the Panthers, moving his pick at 89 in 2010 for their pick at 33 in 2011. Although his chosen player there, Ras-I Dowling, fizzled, the maneuver was typical of what he did with a war room and a phone. He was brilliant with that second-round choice of Garoppolo. And he hasn’t hit on another one since, trying to find oil in a desert of defensive backs: Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, and we’ll see with Joejuan Williams.
Just as concerning, there are other positional groups that the Patriots just miss. I was excited when colleague Phil Perry described the 2020 wide receiver class as one of the best ever. Then I remembered that the last talented receiver drafted and developed by the Patriots was Julian Edelman 11 years ago.
The disclaimer to all of this is that the draft is hard. For everybody. Imagine stepping into one of those giant wind tunnel cash machines and trying to grab, specifically, 100s and 50s. Over the years, two men have done it better than anyone: Belichick and yet another executive who used to work for him, Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore.
But there’s been some New England fraying, in the draft and elsewhere.
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As Brady knows by looking at some of his best friends, the Patriots’ dynasty wasn’t built solely on smart drafts. Mike Vrabel was signed away from the Steelers even though their coach was a former linebacker who knew good ones when he saw them. The Chargers thought Rodney Harrison was done; Belichick signed him and Harrison is a two-time champion in the Patriots Hall of Fame. Aqib Talib was acquired for a fourth-rounder; Kyle Van Noy for a sixth; Malcolm Butler off the street for nothing.
Lately? A 2017 second given away for Kony Ealy who never played a regular-season game. A 2020 second given away for Mohamed Sanu, who truly played in one regular season game but was listed as part of eight. New money and a fifth for Michael Bennett. Antonio Brown secretly recorded a conversation with his head coach in Oakland, turned it into a multimedia production, trashed anyone who told him to chill ... and was signed by the Patriots. Their mantra wasn’t supposed to be Bring The Noise.
Coaching greatness, in and of itself, is no guarantee for success. Even the legends need to be motivated by ghosts, real or imagined, to keep their edge. Or they fall off. It happened to Shula. The winningest coach in history had a late-career drought in which he couldn’t draft or win. There was an eight-year period where he missed the playoffs six times. He was forced out at 65.
It happened to Landry. His last first-round pick, Michael Irvin, became a Hall of Famer. But it was too late because he missed the playoffs in four of his final five seasons. He was fired at 64.
Chuck Noll, who won four titles in six years with the Steelers, got out early at 59 before anyone thought of asking, politely, for him to leave. He missed the playoffs in six of his final seven seasons. Entitled Steelers fans had begun coming up with poetry for their, and his, expected fifth ring. One for the thumb in ’81. The thumb is due in ’82. It never happened. After ’91, Noll was done.
It doesn’t have to happen for Belichick, who often reminds his players and coaches of a simple statement: If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. This time, with a dozen draft picks awaiting, is for getting better.
Brady did it with an assist from Garoppolo. Belichick can do it with an assist from Brady.