It still catches us by surprise every time one of Bill Belichick’s disciples falls on his face. It shouldn’t. It’s just one more reminder that simply acting like the smartest guy in the stadium doesn’t make it so.
The latest to take a tumble was Josh McDaniels, a former assistant who wore hoodies on the sideline and behaved like a dictator during his brief tenure in Denver. But the resemblance ended there. As fate would have it, his firing came just hours before Belichick unveiled a flawless game plan against the Jets and demonstrated one more time how much distance still remains between the master in New England and every other coach in the NFL.
Like Belichick, McDaniels put his faith in a system and worried little about the individual parts. He drove quarterback Jay Cutler out of town soon after arriving and turned over half of the roster after six months on the job. He was imitating Belichick, all right — the one who went 36-44 in five seasons at his first head-coaching job in Cleveland, in no small part because his quarterbacks there were an aging Bernie Kosar followed by already aged Vinny Testaverde.
None of the other Belichick disciples have fared much better, though in fairness, none of them had Tom Brady at quarterback. But that hardly explains all his success, or their lack of it, forgetting for the moment that Belichick was as central to Brady’s development as the quarterback has been in the Patriots’ ascension to the first real dynasty in the free-agent era.
Six of Belichick’s assistants have gone on to head coaching stints in the pros and five in major college. Exactly one, Nick Saban, has won big — national championships at LSU and Alabama — and even he bombed out in his one NFL stint in between. Contrast that with the list of failures — Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Charlie Weis and now McDaniels — and you get a better picture of what a tough act Belichick is to follow.
Even today, players who have been with him for years paint a picture of a controlling coach who smiles grudgingly when they win and remains so consumed he barely talks to them after a loss.
Brady, in fact, parroted that very line on the field right after the Patriots humbled the Jets 45-3 Monday night, saying, “Coach tells us, ‘When you win, say little; when you lose, say less.”
But a story he told about Belichick in the interview room a half-hour later spoke volumes.
As a kid, Belichick was more interested in poring over his father’s game plans — Steve Belichick was a coach, assistant or scout with the U.S. Naval Academy football program for over 50 years — than playing with the other 5-year-olds in the neighborhood. He’s grown into a man still more comfortable with a playbook than people.
His problem was never devising a scheme that worked; instead, it was finding a team that believed in him enough to carry it out. At previous stops, as an assistant in New York and New England to his mentor, Bill Parcells, and then on his own in Cleveland, Belichick thought leadership was a one-way street. It meant making players practice more than they wanted, always in pads, and always with an intensity few cared to match.
That changed two-thirds of the way into the 2001-02 season, even as Belichick was struggling to climb out of the shadow of Parcells’ shadow. Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots’ $103 million quarterback at the time, suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest after a vicious hit and Brady took over.
The ensuing squabble could have torn the team apart. Instead of dictating his terms, Belichick enlisted a handful of veterans to take a stake in the decision, and for all the personnel shifts since, still relies on that core group to police the locker room and bring his Xs and Os to life.
As much of an autocrat as Belichick remains, Brady told the story late Monday night about a film session earlier in the week. He and Belichick watched the Jets’ defense for three solid hours, figuring out exactly how they’d bottled him up so effectively in the first meeting.
“With everything else going on, we don’t get to do that much anymore,” Brady said. By the end of it, he was looking at the Jets’ schemes through the eyes of one of the best defensive strategists the game has produced. Small wonder Brady posted a perfect quarterback rating in the second half.
Telling a team what it’s supposed to do, as McDaniels and all the other Belichick disciples have learned, is easy. But it turns out to be worth little until, like Belichick, you’ve invested enough time and effort to prove it matters just as much or more to you as it does to them.