Bill Belichick coached just one team with a winning record over his first six seasons as a coach. He had a 41-55 record after five years with the Browns and one with the Patriots. Nothing in that top-of-the-resume .427 winning percentage suggested Belichick was going to be a good coach, let alone the greatest NFL coach of all time.
Yet two decades later, Belichick has 400 regular season wins and six Super Bowls to his name.
The latest episode of the Sports Uncovered Podcast gets into Belichick’s behind-the-scenes personality, and does a fascinating job exploring who he really is as a person and coach. Listen to it below or wherever you get your podcasts:
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But in listening to this week’s episode, it got me thinking: What could Matt Nagy learn from Belichick’s career?
Nagy made his way through the coaching ranks with a great mentor in Andy Reid – and members of Reid’s coaching tree, by the way, have had much more success than those who learned under Belichick. Maybe that’s because it’s impossible to replicate Belichick’s coaching style, and the things that’ve made him arguably the best football coach in history. Reid is a great coach, but his ideology might be easier to apply.
But what Nagy could learn from Belichick are two larger ideas: Adaptability and persistence.
It always feels Belichick’s Patriots have been one step ahead of the NFL’s curve over the last 20 years. His team in 2007 has been credited for building the modern NFL, even if that near-perfect team didn’t win the Super Bowl. The Patriots’ offense adapted as Tom Brady aged, winning three Super Bowls with a great, yet late 30’s/early 40’s, quarterback.
Belichick’s defense nearly was beat back by football’s passing explosion in 2017, then held the Los Angeles Rams to three points in Super Bowl LIII a year later. The Patriots have toggled between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses quite a bit during the last two decades, with Belichick’s schematic malleability allowing New England to thrive as the game changed around them.
But let’s go back to Belichick’s days with the Browns. Longtime Browns beat writer Mary Kay Cabot told ESPN in 2008 the Browns “were his training camp, his boot camp for success."
"There were mistakes he made here on players, personnel, staff, public relations," Cabot said. "But he's the master of adjustments. He learned how to do it right by everything he did wrong here.''
Belichick was given a decent amount of leeway to make those mistakes in Cleveland, even as he alienated fans (and his own players) by releasing popular quarterback Bernie Kosar in the middle of the 1993 season. Belichick went 6-10, 7-9 and 7-9 in his first three years with the Browns before breaking through into the playoffs in Year 4.
Coaches in 2020 have much less time to make and learn from mistakes than they did back in the early ‘90s. Nagy isn’t on the hot seat in 2020, but another disappointing year on offense could land him on it a year from now – even though, to date, he hasn’t coached a losing season yet.
(Nagy, also, is much, much better at the public relations game than Belichick ever was – or is.)
So if Nagy can pick up anything from looking into Belichick’s career, it’s to learn from your mistakes and don’t make them again. Here in Chicago, that probably means not having another game where your No. 1 running back gets seven or so carries again.