Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches in football history.
On the NFL level, you can make a convincing argument, because of the salary cap era, that his accomplishments exceed those of Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, and Joe Gibbs.
It’s an argument I’d be willing to make.
So it’s no surprise that NFL Films has recently put out some very interesting pieces on Belichick.
The NFL Network last week aired “Cleveland ’95,” which depicts the final days for the original Browns franchise in Cleveland and Belichick’s first stint as a head coach.
So now we have two pieces of NFL Films history centering on Belichick. Hopefully there will be a third to complete the trilogy.
Basically, “Cleveland ‘95” is “Star Wars.” The two-part “A Football Life: Bill Belichick” was “The Empire Strikes Back.” We can only guess what form “Return of the Jedi” will take (Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, and Ross Ventrone as Ewoks?)
“Cleveland ’95” was very well done, especially the behind-the-scenes stuff with Belichick and his neophyte coaching staff. And for the few people who didn’t know about the staff Belichick assembled and groomed there, I’m sure it was enlightening.
For me, the effect the decision to move the Browns to Baltimore had on the players, coaches, and fans was the most noteworthy. I didn’t live that. I wasn’t there. So that made it more real for me. I’m sure it made Browns fans sick to their stomachs. It’s like watching the ball go between Bill Buckner’s legs with Vin Scully playing in the background. No matter how many years have passed, it feels like a punch to the gut.
But just as with “A Football Life,” the latest installment glossed over some essential story lines: about Belichick’s staff, how things went in Cleveland, and whether one of the key questions raised in the documentary — would the Browns have won a Super Bowl if everything had continued on in Cleveland? — could have happened.
For the sake of balance and history, here are a few points:
As with the Richard Seymour trade in “A Football Life,” NFL Films ignored two of the biggest personnel moves made by Belichick in Cleveland: the release of hometown hero Bernie Kosar, and the free agent signing of receiver Andre Rison.
The Browns started 5-2 in 1993, Belichick’s third season with the team. After a loss to the Broncos dropped the Browns to 5-3, Belichick released Kosar, and the fans hated Belichick for it.
It didn’t exactly work out like Tom Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe.
The immortal Todd Philcox started and lost the next three games, before 30-year-old Vinny Testaverde came off the bench to beat the Saints to get the Browns to 6-6. Testaverde started the rest of the season and won one start as the Browns finished 7-9 after that terrific start.
Nobody’s saying Belichick was wrong to move on from Kosar, but even Belichick has admitted in subsequent years that he didn’t handle the transition correctly. That’s kind of a key piece of history left out of the documentary.
As for Rison, Browns owner Art Modell was so broke that he had to go around to area banks to borrow the $5 million signing bonus that was paid to Rison in 1995 on a five-year, $17 million contract that made him the highest-paid receiver in NFL history.
What did the Browns and Belichick get for that? A bunch of drops, 47 catches, and 701 yards. Rison was released before the 1996 season after the Browns relocated. Coincidentally, the Rison debacle is featured on NFL Network programming as the No. 4 worst free agent signing of all time.
About the Browns, who were 11-5 and won a playoff game in 1994, possibly winning a Super Bowl in Cleveland in 1995 and beyond?
That’s entirely possible, even with questions looming about whether Rison and Testaverde (or backup quarterback Eric Zeier, who went 1-3 that season and 4-8 in his career as a starter) could have been essential parts of a Super Bowl winner.
The Browns did start 3-1 (season-opening loss to the Patriots, coached by Bill Parcells), and the move to Baltimore obviously left the players and coaches in an unfair position as they went 2-10 down the stretch. And you could hear the disdain Belichick had for Modell for that.
“The owner was nowhere to be found,” Belichick said. “He was in Baltimore.”
So Belichick and the Browns were left stranded in a no-win situation. And who knows what they could have done the rest of the season? A Super Bowl was possible.
Beyond that? It’s a stretch. First of all, if the Browns stayed in Cleveland, Modell might not have had money left to properly fund the team. It’s no coincidence that the Ravens only won a Super Bowl after Steve Bisciotti purchased 49 percent of the team in March 2000. He brought desperately needed cash.
And you also need to point out that the Ravens — put together by Belichick — went 4-12, 6-9-1, 6-10, and 8-8 before winning the Super Bowl in 2000. Belichick’s drafts were shaky (hello “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell), and the Ravens had such problems with the salary cap that they had to slash payroll just to fit first-round picks Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis under the cap in ’96.
As for those two players, it’s true that the Ravens never would have been in a position to draft Lewis if it wasn’t for Belichick. He traded the 10th pick in 1995 — ESPN reported Belichick was so incensed the Jets took tight end Kyle Brady ninth that he threw a phone against the wall — for three picks in ’95, and a first-round selection in ’96. Linebacker Craig Powell and defensive end Mike Frederick were the first two ’95 picks, and they washed out of the league quickly. The other pick was traded. The ’96 first-round selection became the legendary Lewis.
As for Ogden, the only reason the Ravens could take him fourth overall was because the Browns were so bad in ’95. If the Browns had stayed in Cleveland and even been mediocre in ’95, Ogden never would have been taken by that franchise. And you can argue the Ravens would not have won a Super Bowl without the future Hall of Fame left tackle.
The other thing that must be pointed out is Belichick’s staff. There’s no doubt he put together a tremendous staff and taught a good many of them everything they know. They have affected the NFL forever.
But NFL Films trumpeted the powerful positions each of Belichick’s underlings attained. They didn’t talk about whether they were successful or not. Isn’t that what matters?
Here’s a scorecard:
Won titles: Belichick, OzzieNewsome, Nick Saban (LSU, Alabama).
Won conference championships: Kirk Ferentz (University of Iowa).
Reached conference championship: Mike Tannenbaum (Jets general manager).
Didn’t/hasn’t won a playoff game: Saban (Dolphins coach), Thomas Dimitroff (Falcons GM), Eric Mangini (Jets, Browns coach), Scott Pioli (Chiefs GM), Phil Savage (Browns GM), George Kokinis (Browns general manager).
That’s not even counting Belichick’s tree from New England, which hasn’t exactly been fruitful.
Belichick’s record speaks for itself. It stacks up or exceeds the greatest minds the NFL has ever produced.
Two Super Bowl rings as defensive coordinator for the Giants. Three Super Bowl rings as a head coach in the salary-cap era. Five Super Bowl appearances in the last 12 years.
Those are awesome accomplishments that can’t be debated, even without glossing over some important details.
WORKED IT OUT
Happy with career path
One of Bill Belichick’s original disciples from Cleveland, Phil Savage, has taken a different career path.
After working his way up under Belichick, Savage went with the Browns to Baltimore in 1996 as director of college scouting, and rose to director of player personnel from 2003-04. Savage returned to Cleveland in 2005 to become GM. He hired Romeo Crennel as head coach, and both were fired after the 2008 season.
Savage spent 2010-11 in personnel with the Eagles, before agreeing to become the executive director of the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile, Ala.
“It’s going real well, it’s actually going better than I thought,” Savage said. “It’s a great combination of football, community service, and my wife and I have a 1-year-old. To get off the road to the extent that I’ve been on it for the last 18 years or so, it’s been nice.”
Savage has taken a different tact with the predraft showcase event by hitting the road to scout players when he’s not serving as the radio color analyst for University of Alabama games. Savage put out a “watch list” for prospects, and has released player profiles each week.
“If anything, I think this puts me in position to be in connection with more people,” Savage said about jumping back to the NFL. “I have much more contact with scouts, agents and the media. This is the first time in my career other than when I was a GM that I’m able to talk to people in the media with really no restrictions, so to speak. So if anything, I think it’s a good chair to operate from. From a personal standpoint, and professionally, it’s been a good fit.”
Final grade on ‘Mary’ is fail
Hopefully, this is the last word we ever speak about the replacement officials.
Two were on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” last week, and what they said about how they were instructed on the controversial Fail Mary that gave the Seahawks a victory over the Packers raised eyebrows.
“[For] the deep officials, it was brought up that you don’t really call interference on a Hail Mary . . . ,” said referee Wayne Elliott. “The deep officials were trained that during a Hail Mary, there’s a lot of bodies in there and you just let it go.”
“Which is a philosophy in college, too,” said Jim Core, another replacement official. “Those Hail Marys, you don’t want to say all bets are off, but for the most part you let the players decide.”
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello issued a statement on Friday.
“Officials have long been instructed not to call pass interference on Hail Mary, jump-ball plays [at end of halves or end of game] unless it is blatant, as it was in the Seattle-Green Bay game,” Aiello said. “Offensive pass interference should have been called on that play. It was more than incidental bumping and jostling.”
Elliott said he received a phone call from Packers coach Mike McCarthy at home in the aftermath of the game.
“He had heard I was having a rough week with all the calls . . . He wanted me to know he thought that what I did, controversial and maybe he didn’t agree with it, that I handled it with class,” Elliott said.
The replacement officials said they took the job with the NFL knowing they wouldn’t be able to officiate again on the college level.
“The college commissioners, the college football officiating, is controlled by the NFL referees,” said Core. “So we knew crossing the line was going to end the college career.”
Drop in his reliability
When the Bengals signed Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to replace Cedric Benson, they knew at least they were getting somebody who would take care of the ball. Green-Ellis didn’t lose one fumble in 510 carries in four seasons with the Patriots. In 82 carries for the Bengals, Green-Ellis has fumbled three times, and lost two of them in the last two games. ‘‘It has been terrible the last couple weeks,’’ Green-Ellis said. ‘‘Just making bad decisions and doing too much. You have to make better decisions with the ball.’’ Green-Ellis’s job could be on the line if he doesn’t get it cleaned up. ‘‘I don’t know what to say,’’ offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. ‘‘It’s very uncharacteristic of him. It’s not in his history. It’s not in his DNA. But sometimes they happen. It can’t continue because obviously he’s a featured back. It can’t continue or he won’t be a featured back.’’
1. ProFootballTalk.com reported on the internal appeals panel’s opinion on how commissioner Roger Goodell can hand out discipline in the bounty scandal. The panel laid a very thin line Goodell has to walk, where he has to show intent to injure for lengthy suspensions or else the case should be kicked to the system arbitrator as a salary cap violation. Each separately is tough to prove. Goodell might have to let the players walk, which would be embarrassing.
2. Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Broncos comes down to which team can generate the most pressure on the other quarterback. Both secondaries are shaky and will be picked apart if Tom Brady and Peyton Manning aren’t rushed.
3. Wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots play more 3-4 on defense, which they’ve done at times this season, against Denver. The Patriots know center Dan Koppen’s limitations better than the Broncos. Koppen now struggles in one-on-one situations, so the more the Broncos have to help him, the more things could open up for other pass rushers.
4. Tough break for Rams receiver Danny Amendola, who is out at least six weeks with a shoulder injury. But it makes it more likely in my mind that he signs as a free agent with New England after the season to be Wes Welker’s replacement. Amendola has the same Texas Tech bloodlines and skill set as Welker, and Josh McDaniels coached him. Add in that Amendola’s injury history will scare off many teams – like Brandon Lloyd’s past character issues – and signing Amendola makes too much sense.
5. Best wishes for Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with leukemia last week. Pagano is one of those upbeat and positive guys everyone loves to be around, so he’s got a lot of NFL people pulling for him.
The Dan Allen Foundation, named after the late Boston University head coach and Holy Cross assistant, is holding a raffle for an all-expenses-paid trip to the Patriots’ game in Miami Dec. 2. Several members of the Dolphins’ staff have strong ties to Allen — coach Joe Philbin, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, assistant special teams coach David Fipp, and assistant strength coach Dave Puloka — and have spearheaded the raffle. While at Holy Cross, Allen suffered a fatal illness as a result of environmental toxins. The foundation raises awareness of the hazards associated with these toxins. To purchase tickets and for more information, go to danallenfoundation.com . . . Patriot Zoltan Mesko is raffling off an all-expenses-paid trip to London for the Oct. 28 game against the Rams to benefit his foundation. Tickets are available until 2 p.m. Oct. 19 through celebritiesforcharity.org.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report..