Contrary to popular belief, Bill Belichick is not an omniscient seer. To err is human, and he does err. That wasn’t a gust of wind you just felt. It was the collective gasp of Patriots fans.
But as he enters his 20th season in New England with a dynasty still in full bloom and pursuing a seventh Super Bowl title, what makes Belichick the greatest coach in NFL history is that he’s the greatest course corrector the game has ever seen.
Belichick’s true genius is hiding in plain sight of some of his more ardent worshippers who insist every football team he has ever designed was flawless from the start. That’s an attitude that unintentionally shortchanges the brilliance of Belichick. It would be easy to win if every move you ever made was the right one. His uncommon genius is not in being right every time on every player or every move, although he’s right an astonishing amount. It’s that when he has to address a miscalculation or a misjudgment, there is no one better at finding and implementing a solution.
Belichick is football’s foremost problem solver. He can beat you with his Plan A through Plan Z. He’s that good. Belichick’s genius lies not in being infallible, but in the fact that everything is fixable for him. His virtuosity is born of his adaptability. It’s the greatest non-Tom Brady weapon in the Patriots’ arsenal. To fully appreciate Belichick’s sui generis brilliance, you must be able to acknowledge when he has erred in the first place. Otherwise, you’re missing the real masterpiece.
In Bill We Trust rings true because even if Belichick is wrong about parts of the 2019 roster, he’ll make it right.
As the Patriots’ remarkable run of success stretches to nearly two decades, you have to marvel at the maintenance of such sustained excellence. Winning in the NFL year after year requires a constant series of adjustments. It’s like driving a car. If you just keep your hands locked straight on the wheel, eventually the vehicle is going to veer off into a ditch. Other NFL teams lack Belichick’s mental dexterity and talent for adjusting. They have one blueprint, one path, and they’re incapable of deviation.
Predictions in any business are perilous. But I’m comfortable predicting that some of the assumptions we’re making about the 2019 Patriots won’t hold up or hold true by December. I’m also comfortable in predicting that Belichick will recognize those issues and shortcomings and address them enough to put his team in a ninth straight AFC Championship game.
At some point this year, there might be a problem at wide receiver, or the interior of the offensive line without center David Andrews might need to be reconfigured. Or Belichick might realize the tight end position has to be phased out of the passing game. Who knows what the issues will be? They’re unforeseen, even by the icy blue eyes of the all-knowing Hoodie. But he’ll diagnose them and treat them.
Last year’s Super Bowl-winning team is a good example. It wasn’t part of the master plan to have Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews, and Eric Decker all flame out at wide receiver. It wasn’t part of the master plan to have Chris Hogan’s play fall off. Both circumstances were exacerbated by Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. So, Belichick traded for Josh Gordon to patch a problem spot.
When Gordon was rendered unavailable after violating the terms of his reinstatement with two games left in the season, the Patriots reinvented themselves as a run-to-pass offense with Belichick exhorting offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to lock in on what the team did well and abandon the original conceptual design.
On defense, the Patriots were gashed by crossing routes earlier in the year and picked apart by pedestrian quarterbacks like Blake Bortles. By the end of the season, the Patriots held the league’s highest-scoring team over the last two seasons, the Los Angeles Rams, to just 3 points.
It all worked, and the Patriots won their most unlikely Super Bowl title since the first one in 2001.
It’s a gross oversimplification to say that every decision in a Super Bowl-winning season was the right one because the team won the Super Bowl. That’s actually doing a disservice to Belichick and not giving him full credit for his genius.
A great example of this happened five years ago in 2014. Belichick traded left guard Logan Mankins before the season.
The team started the season confident in Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey as the guards. It was a disaster. They even tried rookie Cameron Fleming at right guard in the Monday Night Massacre against the Kansas City Chiefs.
By the end of the season, the Patriots settled on Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell at the guard spots, with rookie Bryan Stork at center. Belichick solved the post-Mankins offensive line problem and his team lifted the Lombardi Trophy.
The guy who almost led the Patriots to a perfect season in 2007 isn’t perfect. He’ll tell you that. Ask him about his decision to experiment with Matt Light at right tackle as a rookie. Belichick’s brilliance has never been in being flawless. It’s in being flexible enough to fix any football problem, because the only thing worse than being wrong is being too stubborn to admit it.
That protean nature is reflected in his teams and his record. Barring calamity this season, Belichick will become the third coach in NFL history with 300 wins, joining Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324). The 67-year-old sideline satrap enters the year with a career 292-134 record. He can pass Halas and Curly Lambeau to become the only NFL coach to ever win seven championships.
The ability to adapt is the bedrock of an end-zone-to-end-zone empire that has produced nine consecutive seasons with 11 or more wins, 10 straight AFC East titles, 16 straight seasons of double-digit wins, and 18 straight winning seasons, the most since the 1970 NFL merger and the second-most in NFL history to Dallas’s run of 20 straight (1966-85).
Building a dynasty is not about never making a mistake. It’s about dealing with those mistakes in a manner that doesn’t precipitate your long-term demise.
Belichick is football’s resident genius. It’s just not because he’s never wrong.