On this past Patriots Monday, Boomer Esiason boldly traveled where no local media pundit had gone before, citing Bill Belichick as not only the greatest coach of all-time (layup) but as the greatest General Manager of all-time as well. Debate and tired arguments ensued and once again the few hairs remaining on my head stood at attention, that’s my personal war helmet. That’s when I know it’s time to go.
So here we go.
Last week the exhausting microanalysis of every utterance from Tom Brady boiled my blood. Today, my inspiration comes from just one word and that word is ... myths. I’m here to dispel one. Belichick the GM does not hurt Belichick the coach in any way, shape or form. That narrative is straight-up gibberish and anyone who thinks that’s the case frankly has no idea what they are talking about.
The best way to dispel myths is with facts and there are plenty of those to use. I’ll get to more than enough of them to win this case but I’d rather start metaphorically first if I may. If you are one of the lucky ones like me, to have witnessed the greatest underdog story in the history of sports, that of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team, then I am sure you will appreciate this. If your only understanding of that truly miraculous journey is from the movie ‘Miracle’, then I will borrow a quote from the late, great Herb Brooks to lay the foundation for my point. During the first day of tryouts for Team USA, Brooks hands his assistant coach a piece of paper with 26 names on it. When confronted by his assistant coach questioning his choices, Brooks confidently says: "I’m not looking for the best players Craig, I’m looking for the right ones."
And Bingo was his name-O.
Talking heads love to pop off about the biggest names that often fall off the board both before and sometimes after the Patriots draft every spring. The same thing happens during free agency and often in the days leading up to the trade deadline which just passed. Forgotten along the way, however, strategically placed in between all of the noise are the bricks, mortar and studs, both literal and figurative, that have helped to cement the foundation for twenty straight years of unmitigated success from Belichick’s New England Patriots. How anyone can continue to question the personnel decision making for a team that has amassed a record of 263-89 (good for a winning percentage of .747) and six Super Bowl championships in tow is absolutely mindboggling to me.
When you add in factors like the era from which these accomplishments have happened and from the perennially low draft position their annual team building has come from, mindboggling quickly devolves into abject absurdity.
The examples of star-gazing from so called pundits looking at roster building like that of their fantasy football teams are too plentiful to choose from. My favorite, however, comes from the early days leading into the 2001 NFL Draft. The entire off-season was lead with a narrative that has followed Belichick during many of his 20 years here in New England, including this season. That being the need for a wide receiver. Heading into 2001, people were crying for a wide receiver from Michigan names David Terrell. He was taken with the 8th pick in the first round and fizzled out four years later. I was at a Patriots season ticket holder draft party in Foxboro that day and when Belichick came into the room to announce the Patriots first pick (pick number six in that draft) he was damn near booed off the podium. That pick? Future Hall of Famer Richard Seymour.
I still chuckle to this day.
Have there been misses during the draft and over the years in free agency? Of course, but to consistently build teams every year that win 75% of their games, compete in the championship in 50% of those seasons and win more than 50 percent of those championship games proves the good far outweighs the bad. It’s not even close.
In 2000, Belichick’s first year, starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe spent as much time on his back as he did on his feet. Their offensive line was literally… offensive. They couldn’t pass protect or run block and thus, their defense was on the field far too long. The offensive line lacked the required talent and the defense lacked depth. The team also lacked cap space due to Bledsoe’s burdensome contract, here’s what Belichick did.
Drafted Matt Light. Signed Joe Andruzzi and Stephen Neal. All became cornerstones for the Patriots Offensive line for three Super Bowl Championship teams. He also signed Mike Compton who added invaluable toughness and stability to that 2001 championship line.
Drafted sure-fire Hall of Famer Richard Seymour. Added key multi-year and multi-championship players Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer and Larry Izzo. Additionally, Belichick added key contributors to that 2001 defense like Bryan Cox and Anthony Pleasant.
Needing a running back, a devalued and left for dead Antowain Smith enjoyed a career resurgence under Belichick and helped the Pats win their first two Super Bowls. At wide receiver, he picked up David Patton from the New York Giants. Patton quickly became a starter for the Pats and major contributor who was sitting 5th on the Giants depth chart before being scooped up on clearance by Belichick.
That’s just 2001 and that’s the year that set the template for success for each year to come. A template that Belichick has consistently followed in terms of finding and curating the greatest value at its perceived lowest across the NFL market. Additionally, Belichick does this consistently within the context of finding “the right guys” to coach as the also great Herb Brooks famously said and did. However, it also must be noted that like any great executive, Belichick has been unafraid to change his direction as needed when the roster demanded it. See 2007 with the bold trade acquisitions for Randy Moss and Wes Welker as examples A and B.
I could go on for days.
Whether it’s with higher round picks or lower round values in the draft, or bringing in once highly drafted then value depressed yet talented young veterans or by taking chances on talented but sometimes troubled players; in each instance Belichick proves a consistent pattern of well thought out process to his decisions. This can never be questioned.
He’s unafraid to take risks; see Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown. He never gives up on a strong evaluation when the competition frequently has, see Antowain Smith, Rodney Harrison, Danny Shelton or Cordarrelle Patterson. He’ll cash his chips in when he really likes the player; see high draft picks like Jerod Mayo, Donta Hightower and Chandler Jones and free agent splashes like Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola. He’ll make a mistake and quickly move on from it; see Jonathan Cooper, Albert Haynesworth and most recently, Mike Nugent. He values every phase of the game including special teams and thus perennially gives his team an advantage in field positon each and every year. He’s got the guts to move on from a player early, no matter how popular and his timing is impeccable with those decisions, saving money and often freeing up cap space to adjust on the fly. See Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour and the immensely popular Vince Wilfork who was like a leadership extension of his coach.
His focus on roster building never sleeps as he’s constantly tweaking those 51st, 52nd and 53rd roster spots to improve his teams’ position even subtly each and every week of the year. He’s smart with money, smart with the cap, frugal but creative consistently finding ways to add talent in-season when a less informed and less innovative mind perhaps couldn’t find a way. The trade deadline Aqib Talib acquisition comes to mind as does last week’s trade for Mohammed Sanu.
Lastly, lest we forget, this is the man who drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round, Rob Gronkowski in the second, Julian Edelman in the seventh, Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Ty Warren, Ben Watson, Dan Koppen, Deion Branch, David Givens, Laurence Maroney, Stephen Gostkowski, Jerod Mayo, Matt Slater, Patrick Chung, Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen, Marcus Cannon, Donta Hightower, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Jimmy Garoppollo, Bryan Stork, James White, Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason, Joe Cardona, Joe Thuney, Jacoby Brissett, Malcolm Mitchell, Elandon Roberts, Ted Karras, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Ja’Whaun Bentley and this years’ highly regarded 2019 class.
Some of those names are the best at their positions like Brady and Gronk. Others, like many of the acquisitions ‘GM’ Belichick has made have been for the “right guys.” The result? You have the right guy, choosing the right guys to be coached by the right guy and the record speaks for itself.
I rest my case.