CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
The branches of the Bill Belichick coaching tree haven’t sprouted anything remotely as fruitful as the five-ring success that Belichick has enjoyed with the Patriots. Belichick is the coaching master. But his apprentices haven’t been able to take the coaching knowledge and know-how he inculcated in them here in the seat of professional football power and grow their own perennial NFL contenders.
House Hoodie should be among the great coaching houses in the game, along with the houses of Paul Brown, Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, and Belichick’s own mentor, Bill Parcells. But outside of Belichick’s guidance his assistants have more often proven commoners as head coaches than lords, despite their own coaching brilliance and acumen.
This probably has less to do with a flaw in Patriots’ pedagogy and more to do with the absence of the most important ingredient to building a sustainable NFL program — a franchise quarterback. None of the coaches who has departed Gillette Stadium to strike out on their own as an NFL head coach — Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, or Bill O’Brien — has been able to find their Tom Brady. The NFL remains a quarterback league. It’s a league where most coaches are at the mercy of what they have to work with under center. All coaches look smarter with a Pro Bowl quarterback and less qualified without one. Just ask Pumped and Jacked Pete Carroll in Seattle.
It could be the reason that it appears you’ll have to pry Brady’s heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo, from Belichick’s hands with a hydraulic spreader. Belichick did a masterful job under difficult circumstances in his first go-round as a head coach in Cleveland yet still only had one playoff appearance to show for it with Vinny Testaverde.
It’s relevant because O’Brien, the most successful of the Belichick pupils as an NFL head coach, returns to Patriot Place on Sunday with his Houston Texans to face his mentor. (Belichick’s friend and former defensive coordinator in Cleveland, Nick Saban, is the Belichick of college football at Alabama.) O’Brien is the only one of Belichick’s former assistants that toiled in Fort Foxborough who has managed to win a playoff game or make the playoffs more than once as a head coach. Despite a carousel of quarterbacks in his four seasons in Houston, the former Patriots offensive coordinator has guided the Texans to back-to-back AFC South titles.
O’Brien has taken the Texans as far as he can without a legitimate quarterback. Houston started the season with Tom Savage as its signal-caller. That lasted a half, before Savage was pulled for rookie first-rounder Deshaun Watson, who guided the Texans to victory last Thursday against Cincinnati and will start against the Patriots. It’s in Belichick’s vested interest that ultimately Watson turns into a winner because O’Brien’s success only further burnishes Belichick’s legacy.
“I think Bill does a great job,” said Belichick on Wednesday. “He’s an excellent play-caller and game planner, game-plan coach. I mean, look, I would say he took over a 2-14 team, a team that wasn’t very good, that had a lot of problems. He’s had three straight winning seasons, won the division twice, won a playoff game last year. I think he’s done a pretty good job in that organization with what he’s had to work with, and I think he’s one of the best coaches in the league. So, that’s my opinion.”
It’s not like Belichick needs to enhance his legacy. He’s the only coach to win five Super Bowls, and he can join George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the only coaches to win six NFL championships. His imprint on pro football is undeniable.
When you examine his coaching impact the only element missing is a Belichick U graduate branching out and making his own mark in the NFL, despite what the documentary/infomercial “Cleveland ’95: A Football Life” said.
Brown, the father of modern football coaching, boasted a coaching tree that included Super Bowl winners Weeb Ewbank and Bill Walsh, whom Brown hired as an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals. Halas, the legendary doyen of the Chicago Bears, produced George Wilson, who won an NFL title with the Detroit Lions in 1957, and Washington Redskins coach George Allen, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Don Shula, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach, had Pittsburgh Steelers four-time Super Bowl-winning coach Chuck Noll as his defensive coordinator with the Colts. Dallas Cowboys legend Landry counts Mike Ditka and Dan Reeves, who went to four Super Bowls, among those who can trace their coaching genealogy back to him.
Walsh is regarded as one of the best coaching incubators. He nurtured Mike Holmgren, Sam Wyche, and George Seifert. All three took teams to the Super Bowl. Holmgren beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. Seifert inherited the 49ers from Walsh and won two more Super Bowls for San Francisco.
Parcells not only counts Belichick among his coaching progeny, but two-time Super Bowl-winner Tom Coughlin (no need to go into details about those games) and Sean Payton, who won a title with the New Orleans Saints.
Perhaps Belichick shouldn’t feel too bad. The coaching tree of Green Bay Packers icon Vince Lombardi was barren, too. One could surmise that speaks to the inimitable brilliance of Belichick and Lombardi.
Patriots personnel proteges have fared better striking out on their own. Former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff and former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli built the Atlanta Falcons team that had the Patriots down, 28-3, in Super Bowl LI. Ex-Pats front office members Jason Licht (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Jonathan Robinson (Tennessee Titans), and Bob Quinn (Detroit Lions) have all shown promise as general managers.
If any of Belichick’s coaching disciples managed to take Brady with them it would be different. It turns out that Brady is the greatest lottery ticket in NFL history, a fortuitous franchise quarterback.
Pioli stated as much in David Halberstam’s seminal book on Belichick — “The Education of a Coach” — when asked about the Patriots discovering TB12 in the sixth round. “If anyone from this office tells you that, that he spotted back then what Tom was going to be, he is simply lying,” Pioli said.
The Belichick coaching tree won’t blossom until one of his assistants can duplicate the most integral part of the Patriot Way — stellar quarterback play.
If O’Brien or another Belichick-groomed coach does that, it will be another win for Belichick.
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