fb-pixel Skip to main content
Christopher L. Gasper

Exploring the withered branches of the Bill Belichick coaching tree: What will it take for them to succeed?

The brief tenure of Joe Judge (right) in New York further emphasizes how difficult it is for a coach on Bill Belichick's coaching tree to stick in the NFL.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The Bill Belichick coaching tree is full of dead limbs and dead ends. The latest branches to get sawed off from the sidelines were Dolphins coach Brian Flores and Giants coach Joe Judge, both fired this week under markedly different circumstances and job performances.

One of the baffling things about Belichick’s career is that his record of gestating successful NFL coaching offspring is the polar opposite of his tremendous record as a coach. Outside of winning a championship without Tom Brady, it’s the only element of Belichick’s nonpareil résumé that you can nitpick.

You would think that simply some residue of Belichick’s success would rub off on the assistant coaches he sends out into the cold, cruel NFL coaching world. Nope. It’s largely been deadwood walking.

Advertisement



It’s harder to figure than phrasing a question Belichick will engage on in a post-loss press conference.

Why can’t the coach who always gets the most out of his players and always has them prepared get his assistants prepared to go off and succeed on their own? It’s especially puzzling when current assistants in line for head coaching job interviews such as Jerod Mayo say Belichick has been “an open book” in terms of sharing his secret sauce with them.

The last three Belichick-groomed head coaches — Matt Patricia, Flores, and Judge — haven’t lasted more than three full seasons, although Flores was unfairly and foolishly canned by the Fins after leading them to their first back-to-back winning seasons since 2002 and 2003.

The simplest answer is that none of these coaches was able to take Brady with them. Belichick just made the playoffs for the first time in New England without Brady. That’s relevant, but an oversimplification since Belichick made the playoffs in Cleveland with Vinny Testaverde, posted 11 wins in 2008 with Matt Cassel, and won 10 games this year with rookie QB Mac Jones.

Advertisement



The problem for these Belichick disciples — even Flores, who is inexorably his own man — is they must construct from scratch and convince players to buy into a culture that echoes the Patriots’ without the benefit of experiencing the winning that goes along with that sacrifice and ego subjugation.

It’s a tough tightrope to walk, especially when you have a capricious owner breathing down your neck and more political infighting taking place in football ops than on Capitol Hill. Maybe, we and the Belichick pigskin progeny just need to accept that his working conditions are sui generis.

The biggest mistake any of these coaches can make is trying to channel Belichick’s autocracy and unquestioned authority. Josh McDaniels learned this the hard way in Denver. His name is still an expletive in the Rocky Mountain region.

It's an understatement to say things did not go well for Josh McDaniels in Denver.Getty

The list: Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, McDaniels, Bill O’Brien, Patricia, Flores, and Judge. Among them, they have five playoff berths in parts of 28 seasons. Four of those postseason appearances belong to O’Brien, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama. (Mangini made it in 2006.)

Contrast the broken branches of the Belichick tree with the nascent flora from the coaching family of Rams coach Sean McVay, which has already produced playoff coaches in Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur and Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor.

O’Brien, Patriots offensive play-caller from 2009-11, can stake a claim as the most successful branch from the Belichick tree. He’s the only one with a winning record (54-52, including playoffs) and the only one with a playoff victory. Perhaps, not too coincidentally, he’s the only one that found a franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson.

Advertisement



Still, O’Brien’s undoing was when he tried to go Full Belichick and take over player personnel.

It should also be noted that O’Brien didn’t go straight from Belichick’s bosom to the Texans. He gained head coaching experience at Penn State first.

There’s a little more light and growth if you expand the Belichick coaching tree beyond coaches with the Patriots.

Belichick acolytes have enjoyed greater success at the college level. Certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) Nick Saban is the Belichick of college football at perennial powerhouse at Alabama. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenured Division 1 coach.

Jim Schwartz, who worked for Belichick in Cleveland, earned a playoff berth with the Lions (2011) even though he finished his Motown stint with a 29-51 record.

Former Belichick players Mike Vrabel and Kliff Kingsbury are both in the playoffs this season with the Titans and the Cardinals, respectively.

Mike Vrabel has his Titans resting easy as the No. 1 seed — with a bye — in the AFC playoffs.Justin Rex/Associated Press

An intelligent and sardonic pillar of the Patriot Way, Vrabel was like a coach on the field during his eight seasons here. In Tennessee, Vrabel has made the playoffs three times in four seasons with Ryan Tannehill as his quarterback while posting a 41-24 regular-season mark. Where’s his Nobel Prize?

Kingsbury was the other quarterback that Belichick drafted in the sixth round, taken in 2003. He never played a game for the Patriots. But his exposure to Belichick left an impression.

Advertisement



“When you’re around Bill and Tom and the way they operate and the level of preparation, the competitiveness of practice, those are things that stay with you for life when you’ve been in that building,” said Kingsbury, who is 24-24-1 in three seasons with the Cardinals.

Perhaps, Belichick and his apprentices are victims of the coach’s success. Case in point, Judge.

The chest-puffing Judge, a former special teams and wide receiver coach with the Patriots, was exposed in two seasons with the Giants as being in completely over his head. His team lost seven of its last eight; he finished with a two-year mark of 10-23.

He embarrassed a once-proud franchise with a nonsensical rant about culture, fistfights by other franchises, clown show organizations, and fictional imminent firings in New England in the 2018 season, all in a naked attempt to save his job.

Someone with Judge’s parchment-thin résumé and no head coaching experience doesn’t even get the Giants job without the imprimatur of Belichick. That was his overwhelming qualification. Unsurprisingly, he looked overwhelmed.

Belichick and his coaching outgrowth can take solace in the fact that Belichick didn’t sprout the first time he became a head coach. It took replanting himself elsewhere to establish roots as the greatest coach ever.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.