FOXBORO – With all due respect to the recently departed Michael Bennett, there’s not a better player’s coach in the NFL right now than Bill Belichick.
We all know that Belichick will go down as the most accomplished coach in NFL history. Six Super Bowl rings and a legacy in New England in this era of free agency will do that. On Sunday, he joined Don Shula and George Halas as the only coaches in NFL history to hit the 300 milestone. He needed just 434 games to hit 300, 11 faster than Shula and 21 quicker than Halas.
But what he’s really accomplished can’t be defined just by the 300 wins he’s piled up in his NFL career as a head coach. It’s how he has empowered the players who have come to love playing for him.
“It’s a great privilege to coach this team and to coach the guys that I’ve coached throughout my career,” Belichick said Sunday at the podium wearing his rain-soaked gray hoodie. “Fortunately, I didn’t play in any of those games. That’s a good thing for us, but I’ve had a lot of good players, a lot of great players and they’re the ones that win the games. I’ve had a lot of great assistant coaches on my staff through the wins at Cleveland and certainly here. I was a part of those but, honestly, players win games in this league and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve coached a lot of great ones.”
What was his emotion on an appropriately windy, rainy day that was the backdrop for such a milestone?
“I mean, look, it’s always good to win,” Belichick deadpanned. “It’s good to beat Cleveland. It’s good to beat anybody. It’s a tough league to win in, 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.”
There are many players over the years who have had run-ins with Belichick, publicly and privately. But the players who really last in Foxboro know that you may not love Belichick when he is ripping you a new one for trying to do too much or making a careless mistake, but you’ll do anything to make him proud of you.
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Pretty amazing,” Tom Brady said after Sunday’s 27-13 win over the Browns. “Three hundred wins is pretty spectacular. He’s the best coach of all time and it’s a privilege to play for him for as many years as I have. He’s taught me so much on and off the field, just been a great mentor for me. Being here 20 years ago – it was his first year, it was my first year. It’s been a great journey. Just proud of him, everything he’s accomplished.”
Brady didn’t miss the chance to note the irony that win No. 300 came against the team that first hired him to be a head coach in 1991.
“Amazing to think that he coached for another place and they didn’t think he was good enough, and then he comes here and does a great job,” Brady noted. “It’s a great celebration for him and certainly hard-earned, well-deserved. And the only thing better than 300 is 301. So, we’ll be back at it this week.”
Of course, they will. One of the thousands of traits that makes Belichick the greatest in the sport’s history is how he has trained his players, coaches, trainers and staff to move on like machines to get ready for that next challenge, which are the 5-2 Baltimore Ravens coming off a bye next Sunday night on the road.
“He’s had a big influence on me. He’s taught me about pro football. He’s taught me about leadership and consistency, dependability,” Brady said. “All the things I think he really preaches to us as a player is what we get out of him as a coach. His consistency, dependability, trust, confidence – all those things over a long period of time really add up. So, he’s just a very stable figure when he gets up and speaks to us. It’s about trying to win games, and I think we all appreciate that.”
Belichick began tirelessly to build a system in 2000, a system built on believing in a process, trusting it so completely that the veteran players are his lieutenants. While he’s had great, great leaders like Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork over the years, he’s never had a more trustworthy and reliable on-field lieutenant than Devin McCourty.
How has Belichick inspired McCourty since he joined the Patriots in 2010?
“It’s two things,” McCourty told me. “It’s consistency. You know, he comes to work every day the same way. His expectations don’t change. It doesn’t matter who the player is, it doesn’t matter what situation, he’s going to always remain consistent. And then I think his ability to give ownership to the players. There’s a lot of times for us as defenders, we go out there and he’ll tell us like, ‘Hey, you’ve got five different options right here. Whatever you see best, by formation, by personnel, make the call.’”
“And he’s told, whether it’s myself, Duron [Harmon], Pat [Chung], who really makes a lot of calls, [Dont’a] Hightower, Jamie [Collins] Bent [Ja’Whaun Bentley], E-Rob [Elandon Roberts] – he tells us all as signal callers, ‘Nine of out 10 times, I trust you’re going to make the right decision. So, I don’t want to tell you what to do and ruin the game.’ As he always says, ‘coaches mess up games more than anything.’ And I think him allowing us to do that, for one, it makes us want to study and understand the game, to take accountability to our coaches, to our teammates.”
A special game ball presentation in honor of 300. pic.twitter.com/gmEqlk3JXn
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) October 28, 2019
There’s something else. The great players under Belichick who have earned his trust are the ones so confident in their work and practice habits that they play the game freely and with the right instinct.
“(He) allows us to just play free – go out there, study the game and do what you think is necessary,” McCourty added. “I think once you’re able to do that, good or bad, it falls on us and we take that responsibility. I think that’s why you see us playing so fast as a defense right now because if something goes wrong on the field, we don’t have to look to the sideline. We’re sitting there talking to each other like, “I’ve got to do this next time. I’ll do that.” And I think that enables us, no matter if we give up a play or not, to continue to just try to play good football.”
Belichick built a system in Foxboro where players ask their agents to send them because they know not only will they have a chance to win a ring, he will empower them to make the right decisions on the field if they show Belichick they are worthy.
Nearly every player that has ever stepped on the field has already proven to Belichick that he is worthy of playing time.
“Playing time is earned,” Belichick has said countless times when asked about snap totals and playing time for a particular player.
“Practice execution equals game reality” is another Belichick credo, uttered interestingly enough by Dont’a Hightower Sunday after he scooped up a Nick Chubb fumble and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown to give the Patriots a 10-0 lead Sunday, en route to a 27-13 win that improved the Patriots to 8-0 for the third time in their history.
“I just think it’s crazy,” Hightower said. “Chase [Winovich], and Shilique [Calhoun], a lot of us were just talking while [Robert] Kraft was giving his speech about it. I couldn’t name one thing I’ve done 300 times. For him to get 300 wins at this level, I think he says it a lot about how hard it is to win in this league and for him to do it 300 times in the way that he’s done it is speechless.”
That’s fine by Belichick. Words are cheap. Wins are priceless.