Bill Belichick has been the head coach of the Patriots for so long it’s easy to forget how things were different before he arrived here.
Consider that when Belichick - who welcomes players for his 15th training camp in New England on Wednesday - arrived in New England:
• Bill Clinton was president.
• Rick Pitino, Jimy Williams and the late Pat Burns were the leaders of the other Boston teams.
• Gas cost a mere $1.31 per gallon in the US.
• Oh, and Boston was becoming a professional sports wasteland, with all four pro teams about to miss the playoffs and the city in a 14-year championship drought.
That certainly changed in the next 14 years, and Belichick’s arrival had a lot to do with that.
As the Patriots coach girds for his 20th season as an NFL head coach - and 40th as a member of an NFL coaching staff - it’s fair to wonder if Belichick has his legacy on his mind.
Accolades are probably not what motivates Belichick, but they are notable and piling up. This season, for example, with 218 career wins - regular season and playoffs combined - Belichick can pass Paul Brown (222) and Curly Lambeau (229) and move into fourth place on the NFL’s all-time victories list. He would trail just Tom Landry (270), George Halas (324) and Don Shula (347).
Locally, Belichick is entering similarly rare air. His 15 consecutive seasons leading the Patriots trail only Red Auerbach’s 16 years helming the Celtics in Boston longevity.
One could think that Belichick, 62, is inching toward the end of his career. The Patriots coach himself said, back in 2009 when NFL Films portrayed him in a documentary, that he wouldn’t follow in the footsteps of ex-Bills coach Marv Levy leading a team at 70 years old.
Yet Belichick, now just eight years removed from that milestone, is not showing signs of a coach slowing down.
“It beats working,” Belichick said with a wry smile last year.
But Belichick was working hard this offseason, not only in bolstering his 2014 club (Darrelle Revis), but also in adding assets (Jimmy Garoppolo) that could pay off years down the road.
Belichick’s remarks when Garoppolo was drafted indicated that the post-Tom Brady era is something he thinks about and that he has the long-term interest of the Patriots in mind.
Said Belichick: “We know what Tom’s age and contract situation is.”
On the quarterback position that night: “We needed to address that to some degree in the future, so we’ll see how all that works out but I think you’re better off being early than late at that position.”
In the NFL, teams that are in (or want to be in) win-now mode often look to add players who can provide immediate impact. Take the Buffalo Bills. They traded a first-rounder and a fourth-rounder in 2015 for the right to move up in this year’s draft and select receiver Sammy Watkins. That was an understandable gamble for Bills general manager Doug Whaley, though.
The Bills are up for sale after the passing of longtime owner Ralph Wilson. Ownership changes in the NFL are generally bad news for incumbent team leadership. (Ask ex-Browns president Mike Holmgren, who was dumped by Jimmy Haslam, or ex-Jaguars GM Gene Smith, fired by Shad Khan.) So if Whaley’s move leads to the team’s first playoff spot in 15 years, it bolsters his chances of sticking around with a new owner. If it doesn’t, the traded-away draft picks are someone else’s problem.
Belichick could reasonably have gone a similar route to the Bills and drafted a receiver or pass rusher who might yield more immediate impact than Garoppolo.
The fans would have loved it.
But Belichick has maintained the steady approach to long-term team-building that he’s used for most of his time in New England. Maybe Garoppolo replaces Brady. Or maybe he never plays in New England. Or maybe he becomes the starter for Belichick’s replacement. Whatever happens, drafting him shows that Belichick is focused on what happens down the road for the Patriots.
It also plays in to what Belichick said last year about enjoying his job.
“Assembling a team, working with new players, working with veteran players that are experienced and extremely talented at the highest level, game planning, scouting, preparation, practice, games – I enjoy all of it,” Belichick said.
Those don’t sound like the words of a man who’s slowing down. And while the Garoppolo addition shows Belichick’s eye on the future, the Revis addition shows he wants that Lombardi Trophy again soon.
Another Super Bowl title would tie Belichick with Chuck Noll for most by one coach. A few more years of 10-plus wins per season (an accomplishment he’s hit in 12 of the last 13 years) would put him close to 300 victories, something only two men have done.
And Belichick, long seemingly at odds with NFL officials, this year began to lobby hard for rule changes he believes in, such as changing the extra-point attempt, making better use of the replay system and extending the goal posts. Only the goal posts rule was adopted, but Belichick’s influence may still yield changes, as the NFL will test out longer extra point attempts this preseason.
For as much as Belichick’s career will be marked by him being the first coach to win three Super Bowls in four seasons, it’s been a long time since that was achieved. Belichick’s legacy will be enhanced if he adds another title that obscures the Patriots’ lack of championship success over the past decade. In NFL history, no team has ever had such a run of success (nine straight seasons with 10 or more wins) with zero championships to show for it.
Winning another title would help Belichick stand out among his Hall of Fame-caliber peers. And it would add another notch to his belt, as no coach has ever had a decade gap between Super Bowl titles. Yet that’s what Belichick would accomplish if he were to win another this season.
Plus, it beats working.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter @leahysean