PHOENIX — Stand around the Super Bowl media center for a few hours, and speak on the phone to a few former NFL players, coaches and executives, and you’ll hear plenty of adjectives to describe Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Student of the game.
Future Hall of Famer.
And, yes, there’s one more.
Few doubt the coaching greatness of Belichick as he prepares his team for its sixth Super Bowl appearance in 15 years under his watch against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX. He has the most postseason wins in NFL history, the fourth-most regular-season wins and, with a win Sunday, Belichick will tie Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll as the only coaches with four Super Bowl rings.
But his legacy, and the way he is perceived inside and outside the NFL, has suddenly become more complicated since the DeflateGate scandal broke two weeks ago.
Tie it into his role in the SpyGate scandal of 2007, and Belichick’s many detractors now have plenty of ammunition to downplay his many accomplishments.
Don Shula, the legendary Hall of Fame coach with the Dolphins and Colts, last month called him “Belicheat.” A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found the Patriots to be the NFL’s second-most hated team, behind the Cowboys. Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said after last week’s Pro Bowl, “If they ain’t winning with controversy, they ain’t winning.” Marty Hurney, the former general manager of the Panthers said, “There isn’t a day that goes by” that he wonders if the Patriots cheated when they won by 3 points over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The two scandals — nothing about “DeflateGate” has been proven and the Patriots believe they will be exonerated — will be debated when Belichick eventually comes up for Hall of Fame discussion.
“As many said, it just puts a little question in your mind of, ‘Were there other things?’ I don’t know,” said St. Louis radio personality Howard Balzer, one of 46 Hall of Fame voters. “It will make for interesting debate, because obviously there’s going to be a lot of people that bring that up, and did it help win a game here or there?”
Circle of trust
Belichick keeps a tight circle of trust, and those closest to him don’t question his accomplishments. SpyGate, in which the Patriots were caught filming the Jets’ sideline? That was an accepted practice. Same with the most recent controversy, in which the Patriots are being examined for potentially underinflating footballs below acceptable NFL standards.
“The things that are floated about him that are negative, they’re just jealous about what the guy’s done,” said Gil Brandt, the longtime personnel executive for Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys, who has been a Belichick family friend since the Patriots coach was 8 years old.
What Belichick deserves to be remembered for, his confidants say, is his devotion to the game, his attention to detail, his creativity, his appreciation of those who came before him, and of course, his success. Shula is the only other coach in NFL history who can say he took six teams to the Super Bowl. Belichick also went three other times as a defensive coordinator.
“He’s going to be a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame, and he’s going to go down as the greatest coach in my era,” said Brian Billick, who won Super Bowl XXXV as coach of the Ravens.
For many, he’ll be remembered as the architect of the first — and perhaps only — dynasty of the salary cap era.
“In 1992 when we built the first salary cap, the first statement made was, ‘We’ll never have a dynasty again,’ ” said Pat Kirwan, a former coach, scout and front office executive who worked with Belichick with the Jets. “And he proved that wrong.”
Former linebacker Chad Brown, who played 15 NFL seasons with the Steelers, Seahawks and Patriots, said Belichick should be remembered as one of the greatest teachers in NFL history.
“I played the NFL for 12 years before I got to the Patriots, and I learned more in that one year being a part of that organization than I did in my previous 12 years combined,” Brown said. “He’s just able to make some fairly complex football thoughts into simple, easy to understand ways.”
The trick plays the Patriots pulled off against the Ravens three weeks ago, in which they used an ineligible receiver to confuse their opponent and crawl back into the game?
Who else would have the knowledge, foresight and gumption to execute such deception other than Belichick?
“Being a student of the game and understanding the rules and regulations and all that, taking advantage of something unique, is the essence of Bill Belichick and why he’s on top of the game,” said Ron Wolf, the longtime NFL general manager and Belichick confidant who built Super Bowl winners in Oakland and Green Bay. “He’s exceptional at what he does. I don’t know how to phrase it any better.”
Even if the Patriots are found to have purposely deflated their footballs, many believe it still won’t affect Belichick’s legacy once the hubbub of the Super Bowl dies down.
“I’ve been with him for the better side of eight years, and I know how great of a coach he is,” said Colts kicker and Patriots folk hero Adam Vinatieri. “It doesn’t change anything for me. He’s an X’s and O’s mastermind.”
“As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘This too shall pass,’ ” Wolf added. “I don’t think it will do anything to affect his legacy.”
Fiddling and diddling
But one of Belichick’s greatest qualities is also the source of what has gotten him into trouble several times in his career.
“They just care about all the little things,” said former fullback Jon Ritchie, who played against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX as a member of the Eagles. “They’ve got this game to such a science that they do more and they worry about more and they fiddle with more parts of the game than anyone else out there.”
In other words, in the eyes of many fans — they’re cheaters.
“We’ll never have the assurance of the truth,” Ritchie said.
SpyGate? Cheaters. DeflateGate? Cheaters. Ineligible receivers? Cheaters. Signing LeGarrette Blount after he was released by Pittsburgh midseason? Cheaters.
“I challenge them on my radio show — what line is the jealousy line and what line is the history line where you understand how great [Belichick] is?” said Kirwan, who hosts on Sirius XM. “Usually when I get them to calm down, they start to think about his achievements and they recognize that he’s one of the great ones.”
Then again, Belichick has brought much of this doubt on himself because of SpyGate, in which he was fined $500,000, the Patriots fined an additional $250,000, and the team lost a first-round draft pick. Hurney gave voice to the legion of doubters who wonder if the Patriots had much of an edge in their three Super Bowl victories, all by 3 points.
As Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said last week, “perception is reality.”
“There are people who swear to me that the Patriots taped our practice down in Houston during Super Bowl week,” Hurney said on his radio show in Charlotte. “I can’t prove it. I don’t know. And I hate talking like this because I feel like a bad loser, but it just gnaws at you, and this latest incident brings it back up.”
Former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, has his doubts as well.
“By putting himself and his team outside the lines, you’re always going to bring in that little bit of doubt on how much did that help him?” he said.
But one theme seemed to ring true last week no matter how you feel about Belichick and his legacy — much of this latest incident has to do with the hatred and jealousy of Belichick and the Patriots.
“My first thought was, how much success does it take to be so hated, and instantly so guilty?” said Brown, who played on the 2007 Patriots during the SpyGate incident. “This story is really about the Patriots’ success. If we’re talking about the Oakland Raiders, this is no story. Could they have overstepped the line? Sure. I’m not ready to proclaim innocence or guilt. But we’re talking about an accepted practice, just as SpyGate was an accepted practice.”
He really cares
Belichick projects an image of indifference and nonconformity, but some of those who know Belichick best believe that he cares about his legacy — or certainly will care when it’s all said and done — and doesn’t want the cheating angle attached to his epitaph. No one cares more about NFL history than Belichick, after all.
“Yeah, I think it does bother him if the perception of him is a negative one,” Kirwan said.
“He’s a lot more human being than everybody sees him,” Brandt added.
Belichick’s detractors also point out that he hasn’t won a Super Bowl since SpyGate. A win over the Seahawks certainly could erase some of the doubters, but Kirwan doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think his legacy is affected if he loses this game,” he said. “I think he’s going to the Hall of Fame, and if he’s not a first ballot, then shame on the voters.”