There once was a coach who had an incredible run, all of it with one team. Paired with one of the sport’s all-time transcendent stars, the men combined to win six championships, turning their city into Titletown. With egos (mostly) in check and teammates (mostly) on board, they built a dynasty.
But then, it ended. Coach and player went their separate ways, to varying degrees of success, one tasting ultimate victory again, the other left to remember past glory.
History might always remember them together, but Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan didn’t go the distance.
Neither did Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
But unlike Brady’s post-Patriots path, which went south to Tampa Bay and won another Super Bowl, it was Jordan who remained title-less in a post-Jackson world. From Chicago, Jackson continued to thrive, landing in Los Angeles and winning five more NBA titles. It was one of the greatest second coaching acts in sports history, a combination of good timing and smart choosing. Having won already with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, et al, Jackson was finally lured back to the bench by the championship-caliber Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal tandem.
But here in New England, it’s the coach who stayed behind who continues to struggle on his own, and the heat on Belichick is growing hotter by the week. At 1-3, coming off the most lopsided loss of his storied career, Belichick is facing as crucial a set of games as he has in 24 seasons in charge. Before he can even eye the all-time NFL coaching record by Don Shula that remains 18 wins away, Belichick needs to right this season’s ship. Patriots owner Robert Kraft made it clear at the offseason owners’ meetings he expected a playoff team this year, stating flatly that he prioritizes franchise achievements over personal statistical ones, even for an all-time coach.
“Look, I’d like him to break Don Shula’s record, but I’m not looking for any of our players to get great stats,” Kraft said in March. “We’re about winning and doing whatever we can to win. That’s what our focus is.”
Like Jackson, Belichick is considered among the best to ever do it in his sport. But like everyone who makes sports their professional life, they eventually will be reminded it is a business, too. Kraft made sure to make that point as well, saying back then, “In the end, this is a business. You either execute and win, or you don’t. That’s where we’re at.”
In other words, nothing lasts forever. If the end is truly near for Belichick — and without a turnaround from here, that sure seems possible, if once unthinkable — would he find a second act, a la Jackson? The path isn’t nearly as clear.
First, there’s Belichick’s age. He’s 71. Jackson was only 53 when his stint with the Bulls ended in 1998. Not to say there’s not a team out there that wouldn’t take a chance on Belichick despite his age — Pete Carroll is still going strong at 72, Andy Reid is 65 — but reality is trending the other way. Ten current NFL coaches are 40 or younger. No one else out there can match Belichick’s résumé, of course, but if he built part of that legacy on making the difficult calls, often releasing or trading popular players just before their shelf life expired, it’s only fair he faces the same stringent standard.
For Jackson, moving on from Chicago proved successful, at least on the bench. Where Belichick made his NFL bones as a defensive genius, winning his first championships as the defensive coordinator for the Giants, Jackson wrote his legacy behind the triangle offense, which revolutionized the NBA. That he was able to transfer his philosophy from Chicago to LA was no doubt aided by the talent on both rosters, but his later career foray into roster building wasn’t so successful.
Done with coaching in 2011, Jackson returned to the NBA in 2014, finally convinced to cash James Dolan’s check to tune of a five-year, $60 million contract to become the general manager of the Knicks. But Jackson’s heart was never in it, and the results were ugly. They made a “mutual parting” three years later, no playoff appearances but plenty of rancor between Jackson and stars Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.
Belichick, also the Patriots’ GM, hasn’t helped himself with recent personnel decisions. From high draft picks spent on the likes of N’Keal Harry or massive free agent deals given to the likes of Jonnu Smith, both inarguable busts, Belichick’s annual winning percentage as a coach has slowed to a drip.
And it’s not getting any better soon. His two best defensive players sustained serious injuries in Dallas, with rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez out for the year after surgery to repair a torn labrum and veteran linebacker Matthew Judon possibly out that long, too, though he’s promising to try to return from biceps surgery. Belichick’s first-round draft expenditure on Mac Jones also looks more suspect by the week, with the third-year quarterback coming off his worst game as a Patriot.
Belichick was asked Friday morning about Jones’s ability to bounce back, and his answer might just as well have been talking about himself.
“Anybody who plays or coaches in this league has not so good performances somewhere along the line,” Belichick said. “So, part of the job, part of the situation, every week’s a new week. Mac’s pretty mentally tough. So is everybody else around here. I mean, you have to be in this league. If it just goes from bad to worse, then you’re not going to be around very long. We all get knocked down, got to get up and go back in the ring.”