When people around here first heard about my paleontological past, few could resist a chance to make jokes about me studying New England's "most famous dinosaur": Bill Belichick.
(By the way, did you know Massachusetts actually does have an official dinosaur? It's called Podokesaurus holyokensis. Small meat-eater that lived in the late Jurassic Period…wait…my bad. Getting off-track.)
The league and world around him may change, but Belichick remains: a relic of a bygone world like crocodiles and their relatives, which have outlasted the dinosaurs themselves.
Then again, today’s crocodiles are nothing compared to what they used to be.
They used to be able to hunt you in any way you could think of: laying in wait under the water for unsuspecting fish, mercilessly chasing you down on land at speeds faster than a human or wrestling a 20-foot-long dinosaur down into a lake with brute size and strength.
Nowadays, they can still bag an unsuspecting Sam Ehlin — I mean, young wildebeest behind the surface and hit them with the familiar death roll we hear so much about. But they also get clowned by hippos when they get out of line or hunted by jaguars for fun.
Age of Mammals, baby. Brave new world.
That’s where Belichick finds himself now: trying to carve out his space as an old alpha predator in a landscape that’s changed around him. Trying to keep his head on swivel for dangerous, dynamic new threats with no respect for his reputation. Trying to crush his prey the same old way without his sharpest tooth: Tom Brady, who just led his 71st career (regular- and postseason combined) game-winning drive Monday night against the Saints.
So far, that replacement tooth — did you know crocodiles replace their teeth throughout their lifetime? — growing in Brady’s place (Mac Jones) hasn’t been getting the job done, being still a little new and underdeveloped.
Belichick is still capable without Ol’ Reliable, of course. But everything is just a bit tougher than it used to be, and success is harder to come by. That loss is also, in the process, revealing how much the rest of the jaw and body are crumbling, unable to stand up to the younger, stronger, more dynamic creatures it contends with on a daily basis.
Then, when you get desperate to keep surviving, sometimes you take risks you shouldn’t that compromise you even further (*stares in Matt Patricia*). In nature and in the NFL, that’s the kind of stuff that gets you killed — literally or proverbially.
Of course, it feels more likely than not that this cantankerous old croc will get his chance to leave on his own terms. Reputation helps a little, and it means a bit more in the human world than it does in the animal kingdom.
But one wonders how much Belichick, 70, feels the time slip through the hourglass toward the end of his career and his mystique starting to fade. The media finds his ultra-secretive, terse manner more tiresome than ever. His own players are seemingly breaking rank and criticizing schemes and play-calling openly. The rest of the league, especially his division rivals, no longer fear him or his team. The “Patriot Way,” cultivated for more than 20 years of winning titles, seems to be extinct without Brady to help hold it all together.
When Belichick finally leaves the game, he’ll do so as a revered figure: a titan among all who have ever donned a headset in any sport and a shrewd team-builder without whom six New England championships would’ve have been possible. Very little he could do in his final years could irreparably tarnish his legacy, no matter how much people might want to speculate about it.
He’ll end up in Canton, immortalized in the museum of the very greatest football has to offer — and rightly so.
But at the moment, the legendary coach is fighting the tide of evolution, holding onto the last vestiges of what was while trying to live in the football world that currently is. No organism in history has won that battle yet. You adapt, or you’re done.
At this point, Belichick seems set in doing things his way until he can’t do them anymore. It’s a valiant stand — and one that will probably leave him empty-handed when his time in the old NFL pond is done with.