Forget ‘Ignore the Noise’ or ‘Do Your Job.’ As long as Bill Belichick is the coach of the Patriots, the signage at Gillette Stadium should read, ‘Genius at Work.’
At age 67, the maestro is still composing masterpieces, still at the top of his game, and still climbing ever closer to the summit of Mount Shula. He shows no signs of letting up.
Against the team that gave him his first head coaching job and then ran him off, Belichick became the fastest NFL coach to 300 victories, joining an exclusive coaching club that counts Don Shula (347 wins) and George Halas (324) as its only other members. Belichick’s Patriots brutalized the Cleveland Browns, 27-13, on a sodden Sunday at Gillette Stadium. His team this season is 8-0. His career mark stands at 300-134, including the postseason.
In both cases, he has made winning shockingly routine in a league where it is anything but, which is an accomplishment that resonates louder than any iconic integer or ingenious bit of in-game strategy.
History is Belichick’s traveling companion at this point in his brilliant career. Like Red Auerbach, John Wooden, or Vince Lombardi, Belichick is a gold standard of leadership that transcends sports. His surname has evolved into a verb for brilliant planning and execution.
History was not without a sense of symmetry when it came to this landmark victory. Belichick earned his first career head coaching win in Foxborough on Sept. 8, 1991. Underdog Cleveland prevailed over the Patriots, 20-0, at the old Foxboro Stadium.
Belichick downplayed that win that day: “I’ve been in bigger games, and, hopefully, we’ll be in bigger games in the future.”
Per usual, he was prescient. It’s just the “we” would be the Patriots, not the Browns, who abandoned Cleveland and Belichick after the 1995 season, becoming the Baltimore Ravens.
What Belichick said 299 wins and six Super Bowl titles later was also based on deflecting the personal significance of a victory in Foxborough, and remaining focused on the singular challenge of the season. He sheepishly accepted a game ball from Patriots owner Robert Kraft in the locker room.
At his post-game press conference, his trademark gray hoodie still soggy, he said it was a privilege to coach the guys he has throughout his career. He credited all the great players that he has coached. He self-effacingly said it’s a good thing he didn’t play in any of those games. He offered his thank-yous and did what he does best — moved on.
“Yeah, I mean, look, it’s always good to win. It’s good to beat Cleveland. It’s good to beat anybody. It’s a tough league to win in,” said Belichick. “So, I’m proud of what the guys did, proud of what this team accomplished today, but we’ve got bigger goals ahead. We know the Ravens are going to be tough next week. They don’t care about this game or what I did or what anybody else did, so we’re going to have to turn the page quickly and move on to Baltimore.”
But his Hoodieness has mellowed ever so slightly, both with the media and his charges. Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, who played for Belichick from 2004–2009 and is back for a second stint at Camp Bill, spoke volumes about how Belichick has defied the NFL’s parity machine.
“I see him smile a little bit more, just a little bit, just a little bit,” said Watson with a grin of his own. “But his drive, his commitment to excellence, his expectations for the team are the same. I think that’s why the team has been successful. It’s hard to be successful and to stay successful. That’s what he does better than anybody.”
Satisfaction is not a look the Dour Don wears well. If he’s capable of it though, he had to feel a tingle of it reaching this milestone against the Browns.
In Cleveland, Belichick’s genius wasn’t appreciated or recognized. He had one winning season in five. He had a single playoff win, defeating Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, and the Patriots, 20-13, on New Year’s Day 1995. The current Browns were reborn in 1999, the season before Belichick began his reign at Fort Foxborough.
“He’s the best coach of all-time, and it’s a privilege to play for him for as many years as I have,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. “He’s taught me so much on and off the field, just been a great mentor for me. . . . It has been a great journey. Just proud of him, everything that he has accomplished. [It’s] amazing to think he coached for another place, and they didn’t think he was good enough. Then he comes here and does a great job.”
You could say this season is one of Belichick’s best coaching jobs ever, but you could say that about [insert year between 2001 and 2019 here].
So much for that coaching brain drain that was supposed to hamper the Patriots this season. Belichick had to break in new position coaches on both sides of the ball, and compensate for the loss of linebackers coach and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who accepted the Miami Dolphins head coaching job. No problem.
As long as the Patriots have the NFL’s biggest brain, the minds around him are interchangeable. In his 25th season as an NFL head coach and 45th season coaching in the NFL, Belichick has returned to his roots, masterminding a dominant defense that has a league-leading 19 interceptions and 25 turnovers. He has drawn up a defense that has scored as many touchdowns this season (four) as it has allowed.
A Belichick-coached team doesn’t need any help beating you, but the Browns were willing accomplices. Cleveland lived up to its advance billing as a poorly-coached train wreck, turning the ball over on three consecutive offensive snaps in the first quarter to help the Patriots build a 17-0 first-quarter lead.
The Browns bumbled their way to the Patriots’ first touchdown as guard Joel Bitonio inadvertently kicked the ball out of the hand of running back Nick Chubb. It was scooped up by Dont’a Hightower for a score that made it 10-0. Facepalm football, as it so often is against Belichick.
Both the 17-7 halftime margin and the final one would have been larger if the Patriots hadn’t finished 5 of 16 on third down and 2 of 6 in the red zone, including getting a 29-yard field goal blocked.
Even with a perfect record, no one is perfect. There are always teaching points for Belichick. The pigskin professor wouldn’t have it any other way.
We can stop to smell the rhetorical roses from two decades of success a bit, but that’s not how Belichick is built.
“The only thing better than 300 is 301, so we’ll be back at it this week,” said Brady.
Belichick wouldn’t want it any other way. The notable victory for him will always be the next one.