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BEN VOLIN

Bill Belichick and a legacy of Super Bowl greatness

Bill Belichick has plenty of reasons to smile: He has a chance to win his seventh Super Bowl ring.
Bill Belichick has plenty of reasons to smile: He has a chance to win his seventh Super Bowl ring.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016/Globe Staff

HOUSTON — Sunday’s game between the Patriots and the Falcons will be the 51st edition of the NFL’s Super Bowl.

For Bill Belichick, this will be his 10th appearance — seven as head coach of the Patriots, two as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants in the 1980s, and one as the Patriots’ assistant head coach in 1996.

Look at that again — 10 out of 51.

“That’s almost 20 percent,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said.

Most coaches and players go their whole career dreaming of reaching the Super Bowl just once. The great Dan Marino, considered by some to be the best pure passer of all time, reached the Super Bowl in his second season, then never again over the final 15 seasons of his career. Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, Earl Campbell and Tony Gonzalez, all current or future Hall of Famers, never made it even once.

But in one out of every five seasons, Belichick is standing on the sidelines in the Super Bowl, battling for the most sought-after trophy in all of American sports, the Lombardi Trophy.

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“Sounds to me like they ought to rename that trophy,” said Fox analyst Troy Aikman, who is calling Sunday’s Super Bowl and has three Super Bowl rings as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

Belichick is 4-2 as a head coach in the Super Bowl, and 2-1 as an assistant. And it’s not like Belichick was just along for the ride on any of those teams.

His 2001 Patriots pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history by defeating the Rams, “the greatest show on turf,” as 14-point underdogs. Belichick also was an essential part of one of the other biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, the 1990 Giants’ 20-19 win over the Bills in which the Giants were 7-point underdogs.

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Tonia Cowan/Globe Staff illustration

Belichick’s defensive game plan from that day currently rests in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He debuted the concept of the “big nickel” package, which helped the Giants slow down the Bills’ high-flying passing attack while also providing big enough bodies to help slow down the run. The “big nickel” is now one of the Patriots’ most common personnel packages, when they bring in three safeties and use Patrick Chung as more of an in-the-box run-stuffer.

Belichick introduced formations that day that no one in the NFL had seen – a 2-4-5, and a 2-3-6. Belichick’s players thought he was crazy when he told them to let electric Bills running back Thurman Thomas rush for 100 yards. Better to let Thomas run the ball and eat up the clock than let Jim Kelly throw the ball all over the field.

“I thought it was a collective brain fart, like what the hell are you talking about?” former Giants linebacker Carl Banks once said. “But he said it, we are all in an uproar, and we’re thinking Bill is just conceding that Thurman is just this good of a football player that we won’t be able to stop him. And then he reeled us back in and kind of gave us a method to the madness.”

Only two of Belichick’s previous nine appearances have been blowouts – a 39-20 win over the Broncos in 1987, and a 35-21 loss to the Packers in 1997. And the NFL has Belichick to thank for producing many of the league’s most memorable championship games.

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All six of his appearances as the Patriots’ head coach have been epic – 3-point wins at the buzzer over the Rams and the Panthers and a 3-point win over the Eagles, soul-crushing losses to the Giants in 2008 (by 3 points) and 2012 (by 4 points), and the heart-pounding 4-point win over the Seahawks two years ago, cemented by Malcolm Butler’s interception on the goal line in the final minute.

If Belichick were an NFL division . . .
He would have double the Super Bowl appearances as the AFC South and NFC South combined.
NFC East
20
AFC East
19
AFC West
16
NFC West
13
AFC North
12
NFC North
11
Bill Belichick
10
AFC South
5
NFC South
5
Source: NFL

“Bill has been so consistent. He’s done it for such a long time. He’s done it with all kinds of different players, he’s done it with all styles of offense, all styles of defense,” said Fox analyst Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with the 1990s Cowboys. “It’s hard for me to come up with more accolades. He’s the best.”

No one in NFL history has appeared in more Super Bowls than Belichick, and he can become the first head coach to win five championships. But Belichick, 64, isn’t ready to reflect on his career just yet.

“At some point I’ll take a look back,” Belichick said. “It’s certainly an honor to be in this game. It’s a privilege to represent the AFC in this championship game and to have done it that many times. It’s special this year because [my sons] Brian and Steven are on this staff as well. It’s special to be here, there’s no question about that. In terms of numbers and other games and all of that, we’ll get to that at some other point.”

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With 10 appearances in the Super Bowl, Belichick has his routine down pretty well. The key to Belichick’s greatness is his ability to keep to the routine as much as possible during the week.

“It’s funny, I said to someone close to me this week, ‘This is like a normal game week,’ ” Kraft said. “Does he pick it up? Is he a little more serious? Sure. But the thing about him, he’s pretty steady.”

The shadow of Belichick was cast on the backdrop during a news conference the week before Super Bowl LI.
The shadow of Belichick was cast on the backdrop during a news conference the week before Super Bowl LI.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“Bill is the same all the time, 100 percent focused,” Patriots president Jonathan Kraft added. “And I think that’s what he tries to preach to the players. It’s about being the same all the time, completely focused and completely professional.”

“And when you look at what he’s accomplished in terms of being in one out of every five of these games, and was a critical part of the Giants and with us before he was our head coach, it’s just – it’s unparalleled, and I don’t know how it ever gets matched.”

And each of Belichick’s Super Bowl teams have a different personality. The early 2000s Patriots won with stingy defense and an efficient, ball-control offense. The 2007 and 2011 Patriots aired it out with Tom Brady. The 2014 Patriots won with short, scrappy receivers and physical cornerbacks.

“Most of us who went to multiple Super Bowls, we’ve pretty much had our same core,” Aikman said. “He’s done it with 3-4 wide receiver sets, with two tight end packages, did it with defense and run the football. Now they’re doing it with these little receivers running all over the place.”

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Of course, not everyone is ready to give Belichick credit for 10 Super Bowl appearances.

“Yeah I don’t count those as an assistant. He has seven,” said Johnson, who is a fishing buddy and close friend of Belichick’s.

OK, so what do you think of Belichick reaching seven Super Bowls?

“Seven’s pretty good,” Johnson said with a smile. “More than anybody else.”

Belichick Bowl
A look at the 10 Super Bowl appearances Belichick has made as a coach and the results.
Team Position Result
Super Bowl XXI New York Giants Defensive coordinator 39–20, win
Super Bowl XXV New York Giants Defensive coordinator 20–19, win
Super Bowl XXXI New England Patriots Assistant head coach 35–21, loss
Super Bowl XXXVI New England Patriots Head coach 20–17, win
Super Bowl XXXVIII New England Patriots Head coach 32–29, win
Super Bowl XXXIX New England Patriots Head coach 24–21, win
Super Bowl XLII New England Patriots Head coach 17–14, loss
Super Bowl XLVI New England Patriots Head coach 21–17, loss
Super Bowl XLIX New England Patriots Head coach 28–24, win
Super Bowl LI New England Patriots Head coach ?

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.