Gil LeBreton

Seasons change, but not for the Patriots, because of Belichick

The constants during New England’s extended run of NFL excellence have been quarterback Tom Brady, left, and head coach Bill Belichick. Sunday will be their seventh Super Bowl together.
The constants during New England’s extended run of NFL excellence have been quarterback Tom Brady, left, and head coach Bill Belichick. Sunday will be their seventh Super Bowl together. AP

In New England the leaves change conspicuously with the seasons.

But not the Patriots. Not where it matters.

In Bill Belichick’s first season as head coach, 2000, the New England Patriots finished with a 5-11 record. They haven’t had a losing season since.

The Dallas Cowboys once had such a coach. It took Tom Landry six seasons to raise the expansion Cowboys to a break-even 7-7 mark.

The Landry Cowboys made the playoffs for the first time in 1966 and went to the NFL postseason for 17 of the next 18 years.

Owner Jones has employed seven head coaches since firing Landry in 1989. None of the seven has had more than three seasons with a record better than .500.

The first of those seven coaches was talking the other day about what Belichick has created in New England.

“I think Bill Belichick is the greatest coach to ever coach in the league,” Jimmy Johnson said. “And I think Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play in the league.

“Look at the individuals who played on those other teams. Vince Lombardi is recognized as the greatest coach of all time. He had 11 Hall of Famers.

“Belichick, how many Hall of Famers has he had? Brady and maybe a couple more?”

Jimmy’s argument is valid. The Hall of Fame in Canton is virtually overrun with Lombardi’s Packers, Chuck Noll’s Steelers, Hank Stram’s Chiefs and Don Shula’s Dolphins. Even the Bill Walsh 49ers teams had five Hall of Fame players.

What Belichick has accomplished is even more impressive, Johnson said, because the rules have changed.

“In the era of free agency and the salary cap, you change your team every year,” Johnson said. “Back in the old days, if you got a great team, you had that team for a long time.

“That’s why I say coaching is more important today than it’s ever been, because your roster changes not only on a yearly basis, but at times on a weekly basis. Coaching is more paramount now than it’s ever been.”

In New England, Belichick and Brady have remained the constants.

The reign has not gone uninterrupted, however, Belichick corrected an interviewer this week.

“Tom missed the 2008 season,” he said.

Brady, indeed, was injured in the opening game in 2008, and Matt Cassel filled in at quarterback for the rest of the season. The Patriots went 11-5, the only time since 2003 that New England hasn’t won its division.

Belichick’s first Super Bowl team in 2001 featured Antowain Smith and Troy Brown as the leading rusher and receiver, respectively. Neither, as Jimmy pointed out, are in Canton.

And not only is Johnson’s point valid about retaining a roster in the free agency era, but consider the other challenge that a championship team faces:

Belichick has seen five of his New England coordinators leave for head coaching positions – Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniel (since returned) and Bill O’Brien.

My point is, the Belichick-Brady partnership may be unique in sports – a singular dynasty that has risen above its constantly changing cast.

The core players of the Lombardi, Noll, Shula and Landry teams remained largely unchanged through their championship years. The Patriots’ core numbers two: Belichick and Brady.

Belichick’s one visible concession to his success may be the modest vessel that he owned, a boat he recently donated to a club in Newport, R.I. The boat is named “VI Rings.”

When Johnson, whose powerboat in the Florida Keys is popularly named “Three Rings,” was asked this week about Belichick’s 10 Super Bowl appearances, Jimmy playfully bristled.

“See, I don’t count those as an assistant,” Jimmy corrected. “He’s got a boat that he calls ‘Five or Six Rings’ or something. I told him not to throw those assistant things in with it. Only head coaching Super Bowls count.

“Yeah, he does have seven of those, though.

“Seven is pretty good.”

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