TONY DUNGY WON A SUPER BOWL as a player for the 1978 Steelers and as head coach of the 2006 Colts. He is an accomplished football man and, as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2016, owns the sartorially dubious mustard-colored jacket to prove it. But when his Colts were facing Bill Belichick’s Patriots during the height of their rivalry a decade ago, Dungy’s last words of advice before his team took the field were not typically delivered via fire-and-brimstone speech, or accompanied by a final nugget of statistical wisdom. Instead, he often sounded like the police sergeant on Hill Street Blues warning his cops: “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”
“I would tell them, ‘We’ve got to survive the first quarter, because no matter what we prepare for we’re going to see something we don’t expect,’ ” recalls Dungy, who since retiring after the 2008 season has been an analyst on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. “What I meant was, if we don’t dig ourselves too big of a hole in the first quarter, we’ll be able to adjust and get our rhythm of what’s going to be good down the stretch. Now, we don’t want to get down by eighteen [points], but if we’re down six, if we weather that first salvo we’ll be OK.”
Dungy’s anecdote isn’t meant to suggest that Belichick is playing chess while all of the other NFL coaches are playing Don’t Spill the Beans, although that’s often exactly what is happening. Dungy’s Colts actually had relative success against Belichick’s Patriots, prevailing in four of nine matchups over Dungy’s tenure. And the Colts’ one playoff win in the teams’ three postseason meetings stands as an affirmation of Dungy’s approach: In the 2006 AFC Championship game, the Colts indeed survived the early salvos and overcame a 21-3 deficit to rally for a 38-34 victory. It remains one of the most disappointing outcomes of Belichick’s extraordinary head coaching career with the Patriots, now approaching the end of its 17th season.
Dungy’s locker room speech, however, is further confirmation of the depth and breadth of Belichick’s talent. Dungy, one of the most successful coaches of his time, was never sure what to expect from Belichick, in part because they were not true peers. They were just contemporaries. Belichick’s true peers are not the coaches of his time — they are the iconic coaches, the legendary innovators, the chronic winners and recurring champions, the coaches who don’t just win multiple Super Bowls but get Super Bowl trophies named after them.
The question is not whether Belichick is the greatest coach of his time; that was all but determined a dozen years ago, when the Patriots won three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span. “[He] won three times in an era dramatically less congenial to creating a dynasty than before,’’ argues NFL analyst Ron Jaworski in The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam’s 2005 biography of Belichick. The question now is whether he’s the greatest coach of all time. Should the Patriots win a fifth Super Bowl come February 5, it would be difficult to come to any other conclusion.
Belichick’s place in history is already set in bronze. He is one of two coaches to win four Super Bowls; only Chuck Noll, the architect of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty, has as many. Bill Walsh — the mastermind of the ingenious “West Coast offense” with the 1980s San Francisco 49ers — won three, as did the Washington Redskins’ Joe Gibbs in the same era (and with three different quarterbacks, a remarkable feat). It should be noted that Vince Lombardi presided over the Green Bay Packers’ victories in Super Bowl I and II — and his team also won three NFL championships before the advent of the annual Super Bowl.
Belichick has been to six Super Bowls as the head coach of the Patriots. Only Don Shula (Colts, Dolphins) has coached in as many, but he won just two. Belichick went to three more as an assistant to Bill Parcells (with the 1986 and ’90 Giants and ’96 Patriots, winning the first two). Parcells, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013, never went to a Super Bowl without Belichick on his staff. This season, Belichick also joined Shula (Dolphins), George Halas (Bears), Tom Landry (Cowboys), and Curly Lambeau (Packers) as the only coaches in pro football history to win 200 regular-season games with one franchise.
Should the Patriots secure the fifth Super Bowl of Belichick’s tenure, he will truly be peerless. Ask Phil Simms, who faced Belichick’s defenses in practice every day when he was the quarterback for those ’80s Giants, and the question is already answered. “Is he going to go down as the greatest?” he says. “I don’t know how you can even argue it.”
AS ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH Belichick’s monotone press conference voice knows, he’s not especially interested in arguing on his own behalf. If he did make a case for any of the great coaches, the educated suspicion is that it would be a compelling one for Paul Brown, who changed the sport in numerous ways big and small after World War II, from racial integration to using players to relay messages to the huddle. Belichick, who is 64, is a football historian — his family’s library of books on the sport, believed to be one of the largest of its kind in the world, is housed at the US Naval Academy, where his father, Steve, was a legendary assistant coach — but he turned down requests to discuss his own place in history for this story. Still, it is not difficult to find disciples, analysts, and even rivals who will make the case for him.
What awes Belichick observers most is that he’s doing all of this now, in an era of unparalleled competition. “The roster turnover is much higher than it has ever been before. The attrition rate is higher. [Players] get injured more frequently. The media focus is greater. There’s wider access to game tape and a broader knowledge among coaches,’’ says Bill Barnwell, an analytically minded football writer at ESPN. Further, the worst teams get the higher draft picks, while a salary cap and free agency, which began in its current transaction-encouraging form in the mid ’90s, make it significantly more difficult to keep a core intact than it was for the ’60s Packers, ’70s Steelers, or ’80s Niners dynasties.
In Halberstam’s book, Niners coach Bill Walsh acknowledges as much: “He’s done it in an age when dynasties are gone, unless you count the Patriots as a dynasty, which I think they are,’’ he said. Walsh, who died in 2007, offered those words after the Pats won Super Bowl XXXIX over the Eagles, their third in four years. Since then, they have been to seven conference championship games, reached three more Super Bowls, and won another. Such sustained success isn’t just supposed to be unlikely; it’s supposed to be impossible.
“It’s not supposed to happen like this,’’ says ESPN’s Field Yates, who spent four summers as a scouting intern for the Patriots and also worked for the Kansas City Chiefs. “They’re not supposed to be this good for that long. The league is designed to prevent this.” Yet here’s Belichick, the only coach in history to win at least 10 games for 14 straight seasons, doing it year after year after year. Tell us, disciples. How does he do it?
It begins, many say, with his uncommon strategic malleability. Belichick deploys the Patriots’ personnel in two fundamental ways: on offense, to expose and exploit an opponent’s defensive flaws, and on defense, to take away what the opposing offense believes it does well. The defensive approach is one that was preached by Belichick’s father, who in the 1950s authored a revered nuts-and-bolts how-to titled Football Scouting Methods. “[Steve] Belichick’s general defensive philosophy was simple,” Halberstam wrote. “Find out what the other guys do best — which is what they want to do, especially under pressure in a big game — take it away from them, and make them do things they are uncomfortable with.” There is no greater example of the son following such an approach than during Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, when as 14-point underdogs they pulled off a stirring 20-17 victory, in part due to an extraordinarily effective tactic: Beat the stuffing out of do-it-all Rams running back Marshall Faulk at every opportunity, even when he didn’t have the ball.
The Patriots feature an elaborate and often unstoppable passing game courtesy of Tom Brady, but they’ll happily beat you another way if the weakness is identified elsewhere. In the Patriots’ 2013 AFC divisional-round playoff game, a 43-22 rout of the Colts, Brady threw just 25 passes. Two running backs — LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley — combined for 38 carries, 218 yards, and six touchdowns. There are coaches who will make small adjustments — target a weak link, add a wrinkle — ESPN’s Barnwell says, “but no one makes the wholesale changes.” No one except Belichick.
That approach is contrary to what most teams do, which is to emphasize their own strengths no matter what the opponent is doing to counter them. That is what Dungy did when he had Peyton Manning as his quarterback with the Colts. Manning was an all-time great quarterback and grew into a brilliant football thinker, but earlier in his career he was often bewildered by the Patriots defense (which in part spawned Dungy’s “be careful out there’’ warnings). And that is also what Dungy says Chuck Noll did with his dynastic Steelers, sometimes to a fault. Noll’s mind-set, he says, was “we’re going to do what we do, and we’re going to hone that so much that we’re going to be able to adjust to anything that anybody does.’ ’’
“The Patriots are exactly the opposite, and I don’t understand how they do it,” Dungy says. They’ll play a 3-4 defense one week and 4-3 the next; one week they’ll be a blitzing team and the next it’s a completely different game plan. “That’s what’s amazing to me, to be able to execute and be on your fundamentals and still change approaches week in and week out,” he adds. “I have no idea how they do it, but that to me is the genius.”
EVEN IF OTHERS HAVE NO QUALMS about applying it, it’s almost certain that “genius” is not a word Belichick would use to describe himself. “You are talking about someone who walks up and down a football field,” his father, Steve, once said, in reference to the deification of coaches in general. And maybe “genius” is not the perfect word, because it suggests a wholly natural gift, and Belichick has been working for decades. As a kid, he would hang around Navy practices, sometimes playing catch with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach. When he turned 9, his father began taking him on an annual scouting trip, and he learned to break down game film while he was still in grade school.
Says former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison: “This is how I describe Coach Belichick — he’s the smartest kid in the classroom, and he outworks everybody.”
The result of Belichick’s lifelong education in all facets of football is a kind of coaching versatility experts say is rare, if not unprecedented, in a sport that is increasingly specialized. In today’s game, the offense and defense are like two different languages, and most head coaches come to their jobs speaking one or the other. But Belichick, ESPN’s Field Yates says, “is fluent in the entire operation.’’
Belichick, who entered the league as a $25-per-week special assistant with the 1975 Baltimore Colts, considers the perceived minutiae of the game more than relevant. He considers it essential, and his players had better, too. “He was like that in all three phases: offense, defense, special teams,’’ says Louis Riddick, who played safety for Belichick for three seasons with the Cleveland Browns, where Belichick was head coach from 1991 to ’95. “On special teams, it would be something as minute as the depth of the kicker when he was kicking off and the angle the kicker was approaching the ball as far as to how far he was going to kick it. He may have changed his alignment or changed the number of steps he was taking to approach the ball or something like that. And if you didn’t recognize that as it was happening, you’d put yourself at a disadvantage.”
Belichick, Riddick continues, “would call you out and ask you about it before the game started in the special teams meeting or when you were on the practice field. He would say, ‘OK, if the kicker winds up here and he takes this step, where do you think he’s going with the football?’ If you didn’t know the answer, he’d give you sort of a death stare, like How can I win with you?”
The best evidence that detailed preparation pays off came the last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl. With 26 seconds remaining, the Seattle Seahawks in possession of the ball on the Patriots’ 1-yard line, and the Patriots clinging to a 28-24 lead, obscure, undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler jumped a pass route at the goal line for an interception. It is arguably the most pivotal single play in Super Bowl history, a play that secured a fourth title for Belichick and Brady.
To some, it looked like blind luck. But, in fact, Belichick had hammered the play into Butler. It was revealed in a postseason documentary, Do Your Job, that Butler had messed it up in practice and was required to do it again until he got it right. “That was their last walk-through play on the Saturday before the Super Bowl,’’ Harrison says. “These plays that we make, they just don’t happen. You go over this stuff, and over it, and when it happens, you see it in slow motion on the field, because you are ready.”
Butler, an out-of-nowhere hero who has since proved the real thing, might qualify as a prototypical Belichick player. So, too, might Harrison, the proud, tough veteran who broke his arm in Super Bowl XXXVIII and stayed on the field to make the tackle on the next play. But the truth is that there is no such thing as a prototypical Belichick player. He has succeeded with mercurial superstars (Randy Moss) and perceived NFL misfits (Matthew Slater, who rarely plays a conventional position but has made six Pro Bowls as a special teamer) and hundreds of other players of various skill and stature. But there are common characteristics. The Patriots have long favored players who captained their college programs, an indication of intelligence and a surefire sign that the player is respected on their team. A genuine love of football is a must. ESPN’s Yates remembers the Patriots signing undrafted linebacker Pierre Woods out of Michigan in 2006, in part because a scout noticed he was always first in line during even the most grueling practice drills.
The Patriots who do their jobs consistently well get rewarded with a coach’s greatest currency: playing time. Belichick runs an egalitarian operation on game day — the best players play, no matter their pedigree, salary, reputation, or draft position. This sounds fundamental, but it is practically unique. “You have to earn your playing time, and you can earn it,’’ Phil Simms says. “So many teams will say, ‘We are going to play this guy even though he stinks because we took him in the second round and we don’t want people to think we made a mistake.’ You’d be surprised how many coaches are undermined by that.”
Belichick’s success, and his utter unwillingness to participate in any backslapping jocularity as he goes about it, has brought consternation from his contemporaries. His detractors cite two high-profile scandals — 2007’s Spygate and 2015’s Deflategate, which in sum cost the franchise more than a million dollars in a fine and multiple draft picks — as evidence that his achievements have been aided by a loose and unsportsmanlike interpretation of certain rules. It also does not go unnoticed — or without envy thinly wrapped in a petty complaint — that his success has come with Brady, whose claim as the greatest quarterback of all time is as strong as Belichick’s as a coach.
That conveniently ignores that Belichick is the one who drafted Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, his first as Patriots head coach, even though his roster already had three quarterbacks and the team was $10.5 million over the salary cap. “People will always say he got lucky. I don’t think it’s luck,’’ Simms says. “I think Bill Belichick saw something in Tom Brady. What he wanted in a quarterback, a leader, whatever you want to call it, he saw that in Tom.” And it ignores the fact that Belichick cut other players to keep Brady on the active roster, turned to him when Drew Bledsoe was injured in 2001, and then retained him as the starter though Bledsoe was a popular figure who had signed a $103 million contract in the offseason.
Belichick has also succeeded in the times Brady has been absent. While Brady was suspended for the start of this season, the Patriots went 3-1 with their second- and third-string quarterbacks. And after Brady’s knee injury in the 2008 opener put him out for the season, the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel, another Belichick find who hadn’t even started in college. Belichick coached Cassel to one of the quarterback’s best seasons in the league
Years after their careers are complete, players still marvel at Belichick’s eye for detail and his ability to get the most out of his teams. “I left $4 million on the table to sign with Belichick, OK?’’ says Rodney Harrison, who came to the Patriots before the 2003 season after he was released by the San Diego Chargers. “When we sat down and I was a free agent, he said, ‘I remember when we played you guys and you hit a guy and his helmet came off, one of the defensive backs, in warm-ups.’ I said, ‘Who the hell knows that?’ ”
“He remembered that,” Harrison says. “What other coach remembers that? I left that money on the table because if he had that kind of memory about something so minute and forgettable, I couldn’t imagine what he could teach me. I looked at my agent and said, ‘Go work out a contract. This is where I want to be.’ ”Chad Finn is a Boston Globe sports media columnist. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.