By Jason Keidel
Today marks 17 years since Bill Belichick left his one-day gig as head coach of the New York Jets — or, more famously, HC of the NYJ — trading Gang Green for the red, white and blue of the New England Patriots.
The colors are quite emblematic, as Belichick has spent the intervening years building an empire, based on the wholly American notion of success — winning. To quote another American monolith Dale Earnhardt, second place is the first loser. No one has come close to matching Belichick’s record since 2000. To provide a little context, consider that the other three teams in the AFC East have hired a combined 24 head coaches during Belichick’s reign.
Pundits, the masses and the media have all thrown their sticks into the debate bonfire over what makes Belichick so good for so long. It’s entirely subjective, of course, as is the next question. Is Belichick the greatest coach in NFL history?
Since the career lengths are as varied as the coaches and the cities where they coached, including fewer regular-season games the deeper you dig into the archives, perhaps the postseason is the only place where we can separate the wheat from the coaching chaff.
So let’s look at the playoff records of the more iconic NFL coaches.
Noll has a 16-8 record in the playoffs, for a .667 winning percentage. Tom Landry is 20-16, for a .556 winning percentage. Don Shula was 19-17 (.528). Bill Walsh (10-4) won 71.4 percent of his playoff games. Shula may have the most regular-season wins (328) but, with all due respect to the Dolphins patriarch, that merely means he coached the longest (32 years).
Having already won four Super Bowls, Belichick is tied with Chuck Noll for the most by any head coach. A win next weekend would leave him at the top of the Super Bowl era’s totem pole. It would be fitting if he wins his fifth Lombardi Trophy — named after perhaps his only remaining peer.
We may forget that while Vince Lombardi won two Super Bowls, he won five NFL championships. Lombardi also won 90 percent of his playoff games. He lost his first NFL title game to the Eagles, then won nine straight.
Their records may not be an apples-to-apples comparison, however, as Belichick coached in 25 more playoff games, going 25-10 leading up to next week’s Super Bowl. He has the same winning percentage as Walsh while coaching more than double the number of playoff contests.
But if you consider this era of parity and free agency, it’s hard to imagine anyone, even Lombardi, doing a better job than Bill Belichick. When you consider the more robust rosters in NFL history, from Lombardi’s Packers to Noll’s Steelers to Walsh’s Niners, none of them had to worry about a free agent exodus after each world title.
Aside from quarterback, Belichick has to play musical chairs with his roster every year, with an absurd turnover that leads to a flood of fired coaches after every NFL season. Sure, the Pats backed into Tom Brady, but there has to be an element of chance to every empire. Timing counts. But it’s what you do with that athletic serendipity that separates you. And perhaps Belichick’s finest coaching performance came when he didn’t have Brady, going 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback. And, as we know, the Pats were also 3-1 while Brady served his dubious Deflategate suspension.
If titles are the only metric for quarterbacks and coaches, then it’s hard to argue against Belichick or his prized pupil, Brady. And unless your obsessed with historical rankings, the fact that Belichick is in an orbit shared by only a handful of humans in history should tell you enough.
Perhaps the greatest compliments come from Belichick’s peers in other sports. Joe Torre and Doc Rivers hemorrhage superlatives when pondering the glittering record of the man who spends his work days in his hobo-chic wardrobe, as though he were coaching from his living room. Torre, who knows something about dynasties, considers Belichick the best head coach in the history of sports, not just pro football.
Is Belichick really better than John Wooden? Phil Jackson? Vince Lombardi? It’s probably good enough for him that it’s even a debate. Even so, one more win puts him at the top of the football food chain.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.